the identity of identity

a few month ago i wanted to start a scholar work on the question of identity within the european union. the idea went as following: within austria one tends to call the european union an “elite project”, which is to say that one can see a difference in the intensity of identification with “the european union”, as a “european”, or even as a “european citizen” depending on the degree of education. at least this is my personal experience, which, to be honest, is indeed a very unscientific, almost populistic, venture point – but who ever said that a great research cannot be based on an initial subjective impression? that said, being a political scientist by heart and nature, i decided to investigate this observation scientifically, before basing my opinion or any writing upon a mere personal impression. thinking about the case, i soon came to realize another parallel between degree of education and a habit of people – the newspaper habit. in austria there are quality populistic papers, der standard and die presse, and there are very low quality populistic papers, die krone just being the most known of them. and in austria it seems to be the case that the quality of the paper rises with the level of education.

now, while i have always felt more european than austrian my entire life, i had a very skeptical approach towards the european union until i started to actually learn about it. and the more i learned about the initial idea, the goals and the peaceful purpose of the european union and the more i realized that it is a unique experiment in history which makes mistakes and errors just part of the big picture of an ongoing process, the more i supported the european union. again, daring to take myself as an example, i thought that one might put the hypothesis that the rising amount of knowledge about the european union increases the awareness and ultimately the identification with the european union. and since the same parallel was true for the newspaper habits, i thought about approaching the question of identity towards the european union within the different levels of education in austria by analyzing a high-quality and a low-quality newspaper over a given time frame to see how the european union is presented – ranging between the poles of “we, the european union” and “they in brussels”.

while conducting this work i came across several factors that soon made me realize that even if this project seems easy to be carried out, it is indeed impossible to access without losing all scientific credibility. and it is all a problem of definition.

first of all, what is the european union? are we talking about the institutions? which one? what representations do people know about? who is the european union in austria? i came across this question when i sought to limit my inspection of newspapers to certain genres. i quickly realized that the “european” topic influenced all different kinds of areas – political, economic and cultural. then it was interesting to see whether european issues were placed in the “foreign policy” genre or in the “internal policy” one. and what about articles that are actually about germany – but then, their say within the european union is rather important.

second, once the question about the european union is clarified, the follow up question refers to the definition of “being european”. are you european if you know about the european union’s institutions? if you say, being european is a state of mind – how to you access it? and if you cannot define what it means to “be european”, is it enough to access the “identification” with just the european institutions?

and third of all, to begin with, what actually is identity? the problem with identity is manifold. people have many layers of identity within them. they change what they identify with over time. and some identifications might even be contradictory. eventually i realized that i was not able to conduct the study, for the simple reason that i was none to put people into convenient boxes of pre-formed identities, and i dropped it. it was just today that i read, that it was an idea that arose during the enlightenment in europe that people sought to categorize, level-ize, and define everything, including people. burke and prochaska ascribe it to orientalism and nationalism, which have both sought to fix identities and social boundaries and it was the modern nation-state that finally imposed coherent national identities (book: genealogies of orientalism: history, theory, politics). this history lesson in mind, i was finally able to understand the blur and confusion in my head when i was trying to access the question of identity in this research – identities are flexible, are undefinable, are multifold. abstracting something to a “national interest”, to an “identity”, to “one idea”, to “one nation”, to “one people” may be a convenient crutch to walk through the chaotic times of history and political developments, but in the end it is just an artificial, man-made piece we hold on to and not an actual foot we walk with.

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