Ask a range of people from Stewart Island to Cape Reinga to define what it means to be a New Zealander.
Chances are that their answers will be many and varied depending on their ethnicity, ancestry, and personal experience.
It is not uncommon to hear people assign themselves specific labels such as Pasifika, Maori, Pakeha, Asian or Irish New Zealander, Kiwi, or solely New Zealander, as acknowledgement of cultural and ethnic backgrounds become more pertinent to self-identification.
But given that we are living in an age of increased diversity, is it still possible to have a collective national identity for everyone living in New Zealand?
Clearly, national identity is something that most of us want or even need.
As sociologist Manuel Castells said in his 1997 book, ‘The Power of Identity,’ people seek identity as a source of meaning and experience, whether it is through history, geography, religion, personal fantasy, or collective memory.
At the same time, the construction of a positive and unique national identity is regarded as important for all nation states – not just for economic and social reasons, but also for loyalty during times of crisis, such as war.
Rise of Nations
A key concept in understanding national identity construction is that we actually ‘imagine’ who we are as a nation, an idea drawn from the theoretical writings of political scientist Benedict Anderson.
In his book ‘Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,’ first published in 1983, Mr Anderson seeks to explain the rise of modern European nations during the Age of Enlightenment as a result of historical forces of economic, social, and political change, particularly a decline in religious dominance, that occurred towards the end of the eighteenth century.
A fundamental change in the way of apprehending the world emerged at this time, according to Anderson. To know everyone was virtually impossible, and therefore, people came to imagine their nation as a community that had limited boundaries with a defined population and territory ruled by the state.
Rise of literacy
Advances in communication technologies had a particular impact on the recognition of national identity. Increasing literacy of populations enabled people to read and expand their knowledge and to have a better understanding of their connection with others. This was greatly enhanced thanks to the printing press, which enabled the efficient production of books and newspapers as the earliest forms of mass communication. These helped in the development of a sense of national consciousness.
Rise of languages
In addition, introduction of vernacular language in printed material (rather than the languages of Latin and Greek, used traditionally by elites) was also a powerful catalyst for identity formation as more people became aware that many others shared their nation and their language.
The resulting nationalist discourse played an integral role in imagining one’s nation as a cultural entity, a process Mr Anderson believes is continuing in contemporary societies and is still relevant today.
Philippa Smith is Research Manager at the Institute of Culture, Discourse and Communication and Senior Lecturer at the School of Language and Culture at AUT University. The above article appeared in ‘Flint & Steel’ magazine of Maxim Institute based in Auckland.