The Meaning of Being German, American, Singaporean: An Inductive Approach to National Identity.


Theoretical background and objectives

The way in which citizens define their national identity can conflict with how it is defined by political elites at the macro-level. It can be difficult to infer one from the other. Citizens do not always agree with or follow elite discourse and policy making, while elites do not always listen to citizens. Thus, understanding the subjective meaning citizens assign to their national identity, their sense of belonging to an “imagined community” (Anderson, 1991) including everyday rituals and practices ought to be an independent exercise that extends and complements research at the macro-level.

In this project, I explore the national identity of ordinary citizens. I do this inductively, eliciting the content of citizens’ national identity. This approach is rare, in part because studies of identity traditionally focus on identity processes such as the strength of identification rather than identity content. Additionally, studying the content of national identity requires narrative analysis, or the study of personal stories about national identity. Narrative analysis uses a bottom-up approach starting with individuals’ thoughts about a given social reality, for example their thoughts about the country they inhabit, and thus is fully exploratory. To obtain a reliably large sample of stories requires painstaking coding that allows for new categories, while also standardizing the codes to allow for summary and comparison. This time consuming approach in part explains the rarity of knowledge on this subject.

Research design, data and methodology

Methodologically, in collaboration with Johannes Kopf-Beck, we coded nearly 1,000 free responses about what it means to be German, an original dataset of narratives that we collected from German citizens, including a special sample of right-wing extremist party (NPD) supporters. Using this data, we asked along what dimensions ordinary citizens define their national identity, including ethnic (e.g., sharing ancestry) or civic (e.g., support national institutions) dimensions identified in previous literature, and allowing for the discovery of dimensions not typically discussed in the literature on national identity at the micro-level, such as economic and historic considerations and personality characteristics. To achieve this we combine qualitative with quantitative analyses (categories emerge from selected essays, content coding using emerged categories, latent class analysis to discover identity profiles).

Our main goal is to discover aspects of citizens’ identity independent of macro-level politics, laws, or elite and media discourse.

In collaboration with Johannes Kopf-Beck (Max Planck Institute für Psychatrie München) and Valerie Purdie-Vaughns (Columbia University) we also collected narratives from nearly 500 American citizens. In collaboration with Shirlena Huang and Eric Thompson (NUS) we are in the process of collecting narratives from different ethnic groups in Singapore.

Main content

Selected Publications

Ditlmann, Ruth K./Kopf-Beck, Johannes (2015): "The Meaning of Being German: An Inductive Approach to National Identity" (under review).