Interview with Dr. Michael Skey

As part of SEN Journal Online Exclusives’ new theme of focus, ‘Banal Xenophobia in 21st Century Europe’,  we are excited to present this interview with Dr. Michael Skey, Senior Lecturer at the University of East London. We discuss Dr. Skey’s recently published book, National Belonging and Everyday Life: The Significance of Nationhood in an Uncertain Worldand ask him what the term banal xenophobia evokes in the UK and Europe today.

Karen Seegobin interviewed Dr. Skey on banal xenophobia and national identity in Britain.

1. Dr. Skey, thank you for doing this interview. Perhaps we can begin with you telling us a bit about your research interests and how you became interested in your field?

That’s a very long story! The short version is that I did a module on my undergraduate degree, which examined issues around nationalism and national identity. It was something that I’d never really considered before and it made me interested in the question of why so many people take for granted the idea that they live in and belong to a nation. Having left academia after doing a Masters, I stumbled upon a copy of Billig’s Banal Nationalism and this got me thinking about the topic again. I eventually applied to do a PhD, completed at the LSE in 2008, exploring three primary issues: how do national forms of identification and organization become objectified and ‘naturalised’, and why, and to whom, might they matter. As well as ‘everyday nationhood’, I’m also interested in the study of media events and rituals, everyday life, cosmopolitanism and sport.

2. Billig’s study of Banal Nationalism describes the routine and often mundane ways in which nationalist discourse seeps into the daily lives of people.  In a similar vein, one could argue that the ways that xenophobia seeps into the daily lives of people is a form of banal xenophobia.  Would you say that banal xenophobia is just a subset of banal nationalism or does it deserve to be looked at separately? What does this term evoke for you?

While national categories are built on notions of self and other, and are sometimes used to stigmatize particular groups, I’m not sure the broad concept of xenophobia helps us understand the varying significance of these categories to people’s everyday lives. Building on some of Billig’s insights, [my own research looks at] how growing up as part of a national group, which is continually articulated as bounded, objective and natural, may be one key element in the contemporary era, that enables us – as isolated and insignificant individuals – to categorise, make sense of and act in, what otherwise might be seen as, an overwhelming, uncertain and, sometimes, frightening world.

Obviously, such an argument applies with much more force to some groups, whose sense of self and place is far more bound up with the nation than others. Interestingly, the significance of national belonging can be best evidenced when it is subject to challenge, from ‘perceived’ others. Indeed, this is what we are increasingly seeing in places such as Britain, as previously dominant groups struggle to maintain their privileged status as the ‘managers’ of national culture and territory. Now, it might be easy to label these conflicts as examples of xenophobia, as they often focus on particular minorities, but I don’t think the issue is one of a generalised mistrust or hatred of foreigners. Rather, as Ghassan Hage has argued, it is more about the presence and agency of ‘perceived’ others within a bounded (national) space that a group previously considered their own. Put simply, x or y group only become a problem when they are seen to be ‘out of place’ and threatening ‘dominant’ norms or practices.

3. In your book, National Belonging and Everyday Life, you refer to the concept of ‘sedimentation’ to describe how a particular discourse can come to be seen as natural in a society. Can you describe how ideas around belonging and exclusion have become ‘sedimented’ in England?

I also note the crucial role of institutions in setting limits, establishing normative frameworks and generating hierarchies of knowledge and status. In relation to the nation, the work of the state has obviously been fundamental in creating and sustaining systems – military, civil service, education, political, legal – that articulate and organize a nation-centric view of ‘social reality’.  However, other powerful institutions, such as the media, corporations, religious and civil society groups, also have a crucial role to play, notably by addressing, and thereby constituting, national audiences. Of course, this isn’t only a top-down phenomenon. It is the choices, activities and routines of individuals, interacting with each other, that underpin the operation of these institutions, while people’s vernacular conversations and practices, in a range of settings, further sediment national discourse.

However, the question of who belongs lies at the heart of all of these processes, whether they focus on the management of borders, entitlements to social ‘benefits’ or the identity of the national football manager. All of these features, and many of them will be largely taken-for-granted by substantial numbers, (re)create the idea that the world is, and should be, divided into discrete socio-political and territorial units, which are the preserve of particular groups.

As part of this overall process, what we also see is a gradual change in the identity of both those who define the conditions of belonging within the nation, as well as those who are marked as ‘other’. For instance, in the post-war era, we have seen an increasing focus on ethnic minorities and, in the last decade, Muslims, in response to wider socio-economic and political shifts. Previous to that it was Catholics, the urban working-class and women who were seen to be less national, at least in the British context.

4. You speak of certain minorities, immigrants or ‘others’ as representing a source of ‘ontological insecurity’ for the white English population in their sense of identity. Can you give an example what you mean by this?

What I’ve suggested is that the notion of ontological security can help explain the value of a complex range of routine practices, objects, temporal and spatial regularities and social structures, that contribute to the realisation of an ongoing and relatively stabilised sense of (national) self, place and other.

What is also interesting about these discussions is that people, in talking about very local places and experiences, often end up drawing on a national framework to make sense of their anxieties and concerns. In other words, the agency of (perceived) ‘others’, in a given setting (a local café, for example), is articulated as a threat to the nation. In the literature, these sorts of discussions have tended to focus on the status of the marginalized or stigmatized ‘other’, which is obviously an important issue. However, what these studies have sometimes overlooked is what they tell us about the individuals making these kinds of statements, beyond labeling them as prejudiced (which doesn’t take us very far in our analysis!).  First, they consider themselves to belong without question. Second, this privileged status allows them to judge the activities of ‘others’ who aren’t seen to belong to the same degree. Third, many of these micro-features of everyday life (far from being unimportant) actually have a great deal of practical and psychological value.

5. Why do you think it seems so hard for some of the interviewees in your book to articulate exactly what or whom they are dissatisfied with in English society?

That’s an interesting question. While nostalgia for the past is nothing new, narratives of decline have become a particular feature of discussions about British society, focusing on both economic (jobs, housing, welfare, infrastructure) and social (community, sociability, crime) issues. The reasons for these processes are, of course, incredibly complex and this is often why people struggle to articulate their fears and concerns. At the same time, media and political debates have tended to paint a rather simplistic picture, which overlooks wider socio-economic shifts – the loss of manufacturing industries, the outsourcing of jobs, the dismantling of the welfare state, economic inequality – and has instead focused on the ‘problem’ of immigration/multiculturalism. As a result, what we get is the promotion of a general sense of resentment and anxiety, which has often emphasized the growing presence, and threat, of particular minority groups.

Two other issues further complicate this picture. First, these categorizations are difficult to sustain in the face of everyday realities. Most people are only too aware of members of these stigmatized groups who are just like them – they work hard, pay taxes, observe laws and participate in wider society – just as there are problematic members of the majority.  Second, and leading on from this, very few people wish to be labeled as prejudiced against ‘others’ and, as a result, there is an incentive for individuals to try and manage their views, so that they seem more reasonable. What we find in many of these instances is that people try to justify their arguments by couching it in a ‘common sense’ language of nationhood, which focuses on ‘natural’ divisions, cultural values and the right of certain groups to accrue the benefits of national membership. These types of contradictions were a feature of the interviews I carried out.

6. Sports come up a bit in your book, especially one man’s recount of a cricket match between Pakistan and England. He says that the Englishman of Pakistani descent will root for Pakistan even though he’s been born and bred in England.  How do sports make it easier for people to speak about one’s ‘true’ identity?

Paraphrasing Hobsbawm, the nation feels much more real when it is represented by the actions of eleven men on a football pitch, who are, in turn, being cheered on by millions more! It’s very easy to dismiss sporting encounters as inconsequential, notably if you don’t happen to be interested in sport! [But] these types of events are heightened or ‘liminal’ experiences that form a shared reference point for disparate groups, who, otherwise, may have little in common.

Following on from this, I have also argued that while individuals’ reasons for participating may be varied, the fact that so many do co-ordinate their activities, across time and space, means that the nation is (or, at least, seems to be) temporarily realized as a coherent entity that can be seen, heard and idealized.  Finally, because these events occur regularly and can be compared and reflected upon, both in local settings and through wider media debates, we also get the sense of a ‘unified’ community moving through time.

Of course, for those looking to build hierarchies of belonging, the value of international sport comes from the fact that it asks us to choose sides and in doing so we demonstrate our commitment to a given community. For those whose sense of identity or place has rarely been the subject of reflection or scrutiny, such ambiguity is often difficult to comprehend – you are (supposed to be) either one thing or the other!

7. With the enlargement of the EU, much xenophobia has been directed towards Eastern Europeans entering the UK to work. Do you find people to be more articulate and vocal about their insecurities regarding newer migrants as opposed to minorities in England who perhaps have been in the country for one or two generations?

On the subject of newer migrants, it’s difficult to make general statements about their reception, which is often linked to their visibility (ethnicity, accent, dress etc.), where they are located and the circumstances of the host population. In places where there is fierce competition for a dwindling supply of material resources (jobs, housing, school places), antipathy will often center on these groups.

What’s more, there is growing evidence that third and second generation minorities, born and brought up in Britain, are also beginning to make claims over access to key social and economic resources that are based on a deeper sense of belonging (and entitlement). Again, this generally ties in with the question of numbers, and agency, and the sense of propriety that more settled groups feel is being challenged by the presence of ‘others’ in areas they largely consider their own.

8. In your book, you spend some time writing about ‘banal cosmopolitanism’ in relation to the increasing amount of travel and tourism that English people undertake, which seems to make them less xenophobic in some ways. Has increased travel affected their sense of what ‘belongs’ in England and what does not?

I’m afraid I’m rather skeptical about the whole debate around cosmopolitanism, not least because it is so poorly defined and operationalised.  In the first case, ‘openness to others’ tends to raise more questions than it answers, e.g. what do we mean by openness? Which others? And, in what contexts, do these engagements occur? This might seem rather obvious but the literature on cosmopolitanism talks about everything from eating a ‘foreign’ meal to taking part in political protests that may lead to the risk of injury or even death. I’m not sure that subsuming these very different activities under the banner term of cosmopolitanism gets us very far in understanding them!

In relation to my own work, I found that most people tended to speak about the benefits of traveling the world and experiencing ‘other’ cultures in general terms, but didn’t seem to place much value on this when discussing their own practices. This isn’t to suggest that increasing overseas travel isn’t important. I just think that some of the more overblown claims about cosmopolitanism need to be carefully scrutinized, and evidenced.

9. Recently there have been articles and studies published, such as this one by the Institute for Public Policy Research( IPPR), that note the rise of an English identity over a British one, especially in the recent context of the Scottish push for independence. Do you find that Britishness has been ‘shrinking’?

Most people I spoke to were pretty ambivalent about devolution. English people have tended to conflate Britain and England and have therefore been somewhat puzzled as to why Scotland and Wales would want to change, what they consider to be a perfectly acceptable state of affairs. In this sense, some of my respondents likened nationalist aspirations, in Edinburgh and Cardiff, to the actions of a truculent child, who needed to be taught a lesson! In addition to this, a number of people were aggrieved at some of the disparities between Scotland and England, notably university and prescription fees and the ‘West Lothian’ question (Scottish MP’s can vote on English questions but not vice versa) and argued that England people were not allowed to ‘celebrate’ their identity in the same way. However, these general concerns didn’t seem to be tied to any concrete political aspirations, such as the formation of an English parliament.

Therefore, while we need to acknowledge the findings of studies (like the IPPR), which indicate a gradual shift from British to English categories, we should also be careful about the extent of the claims we make. For instance, people in England rarely identify devolution as a major concern, unless they are asked directly, or surveyed during a period of intense political/media debate around the topic.

10. As a final question, would you be able to share what you are currently working on or where new research interests are leading you?

I’m currently finishing off a small project examining the flagging of the nation through the visual environment (this was something I didn’t pay enough attention to in the book) and a study of press reporting of the last three England football managers, two of whom were foreign-born. I’m also about to start another pilot study examining how second and third generation ethnic minorities articulate their own sense of belonging and place, in relation to both the majority and more recent arrivals to the country. Finally, as a way of maintaining my sanity after eight years of research into national belonging, I’m also hoping to look at something completely different in the not too distant future, but that’s a story for another time and place!!

SEN Journal Online Exclusives would like to thank Dr. Skey for taking the time to be interviewed. For those interested in reading more of Dr. Skey’s work and on the topics discussed, please take a look at the following articles, which can be found in SEN’s print edition.  

“Carnivals of Surplus Emotion? Towards and Understanding of the Significance of Ecstatic Nationalism in a Globalising World” by Michael Skey, Volume 6, Issue 2, September 2006, Pages: 143-161.

“Banal Nationalism, Football, and Discourse Community in Africa” by Bea Vidacs, Volume 11, Issue 1, April 2011, Pages 25-41.

“Delicious Food in a Beautiful Country: Nationhood and Nationalism in Discourses on Food in Contemporary Japan” by Takeda Hiroko, Volume 8, Issue 1, April 2008, Pages 5-30.

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