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Commitment to the Nation: Collective National Identity and the Welfare State

Research project This project examines the relationship between collective national identities and welfare state attitudes.

This project examines the, almost taken for granted, relationship between collective national identities and welfare state attitudes in three different ways. Firstly, by analyzing cross-country variations in the strength and character (civic and ethnic) of collective national identities. Secondly, by investigating the variation among individuals, and thirdly, by relating collective identities to different territorial levels (e.g. regional and European). Data comes primarilly from the European Social Survey (ESS)

Head of project

Project overview

Project period:

2009-01-01 2011-12-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences

Research area


Project description

This project focuses primarily on how collective national identity relates to welfare state attitudes. We aim to study if cross country variation in strength and substance of collective national identity can explain variations in the individual support for the welfare state. We also consider the effect of other territorial identities, like regional and supra-level identities, as well as the consequences of different types of individual national identity upon welfare state attitudes.

We understand national identity as a collective national identity (CNI) binding people together within a distinct geographical territory. In this regard, national identity is less a property of individuals but of groups. Although originated form individual affiliations, national identity by aggregation becomes an independent force. As such, it develops the power to influence individual perceptions and attitudes and structural conditions in different ways than pure individual identifications. Understanding national identity as a group property ties in with previous research.

Firstly, we tie in with historical and political science where national identity typically is seen as a collective cultural identity (Hobsbawm, 1990; Smith, 1991), providing a focal point for the definition of the in- and out-group and a precondition of state-formation. As a group's property it indicates cohesion and inclusion and by this provides the emotional and intellectual context of individual's self-situation (Symmons-Symonolewicz, 1965; Wehler, 2001).

Secondly, we tie in with individual's everyday perceptions of national identity as an objective or social fact that lies outside their own reach. Individuals cannot change CNI just according to their will. However, CNI can develop its own power over the individual, influencing action and it provides a conceptualisation towards which individuals develop attitudes and bonds.

We assume that CNI serves as a context for individual attitudes towards the state, in particular, towards the welfare state and its institutions of tax collection (part of the income-side) and of redistribution (part of the expenditure-side).

This hypothesis is not empirically tested in spite of several indications of a close relationship between CNI and individual attitudes towards the welfare state:

(1) The political science perspective:
At the system level, the system-building tradition, as elaborated by e.g. Ferrera (2005), CNI is seen as essential for the development of the democratic society and its institutions, an idea that also can be found in democratic theory (Dahl, 1989; Held, 1991), and in Marshall’s (1950) three internal components of citizenship. Collective identity is assumed to be necessary to uphold liberal democracy and the welfare state (Lijphart, 1977; Moore, 2001; Scharpf, 1999). Miller (1993) sums up this position: "Unless the several groups that compose a society have the mutual sympathy and trust that stems from a common nationality, it will be virtually impossible to have free institutions" (p. 10). From this perspective, it is logical that shared values and belief systems generated by CNI is a necessary pre-requisite for modern welfare states and their systems of taxation and redistribution of re¬sources. However, this relationship is normally taken for granted and the empirical research of how national identities really relate to political intervention is at best meagre.

(2) The sociological perspective:
Research about attitudes towards the welfare state has been successful in showing that individual attributes affect attitudes as well as in showing how different welfare states regimes structure these attitudes (e.g. Svallfors, 1996). There have been very few attempts to relate collective national identity to welfare state attitude inspite that indirect evidence for its importance can be found: Social and social-psychological research argue that collective identities have manifold and profound impact on the willingness to contribute to the group’s benefits and to common goods – even among rational and egoistic actors (Kollock, 1998; Mummendey et al., 2001). Moreover, empirical evidence points into the direction that the "hard" incentives fail to completely explain contributions to common goods of even larger groups (Ostrom, 1998; Wenzel, 2007). "Soft” incentives, like group affiliation and group identities, are needed besides institutionalized restrictions to support commitment to the group and to enforce contributions to the group's wellbeing. In this context, CNI is very likely to serve as an intellectual and emotional context for solidarity and commitment but also for exclusion of "the other".

Combining the theoretical tradition, lacking empirical evidence, with a more empirical research tradition, lacking theoretical grounds for understanding collective identities, enables us to examine if the support for transfers, taxes and other welfare state institutions varies with the cross country differences in CNI. Given that the states are currently challenged by the forces of globalisation and welfare retrenchment (Pierson, 2001), as well as the territorial restructuring in Europe with stronger regions and the European integration (Keating, 2003), we also consider the importance of other territorial identities, like local, regional and European identities. Additionally, we will take individual perceptions of the CNI into account.

Research questions
The project is designed as a multi-level enterprise taking into account not only the effects of CNI but also of other territorial identities (like supra-national and regional identities) and the affiliation towards a nation on the individual level to understand how attitudes towards and acceptance of welfare state institutions are shaped by CNI. Supra-national, regional, and individual identities are understood as interwoven with CNI but also as having independent effects on welfare state attitudes. These are to be analysed in three, only analytically, differentiated parts.

Collective national identity and welfare state support
Are individuals more positive towards redistribution in countries with strong CNI? Does substance and distribution of CNI in different countries have different impact on individual attitudes towards redistribution and taxes? Can cross country differences in CNI explain individual attitudes towards the welfare state beyond commonly known factors like gender and class composition, political choices, attitudes towards effectiveness of the state, redistribution and infrastructure, and confidence in national parliaments on a national level?

Lord Acton stated over 150 years ago that, “[t]he great importance of nationality in the State consists in the fact that it is the basis for political capacity. The character of a nation determines in great measure the form and vitality of the State” (Acton, 1996 [1862], p 36). This statement is today as true as it was 150 ago. In times of shifts in decision-making processes, of the formation of new groups of solidarity across state borders, increasing migratory movements, etc., the solidarity binding the demos together is under pressure. Regardless of the possibility that the political capacity founded in the nation-state is withering away with diminishing solidarity among the members of the demos or not we need to examine the importance and implications of CNI as one form of solidarity. Therefore we aim to examine how its strength affects possibilities and legitimacy of the state via the support for the welfare state.

Besides the strength of collective national identity its kind might be important as well. Nations can be seen as a collective of people “united by shared cultural features (myths, values, etc.) and the belief in the right to territorial self-determination" (Barrington, 1997). Although these features are not constant in their composition and vary across countries they can be differentiated into different types. One of these distinctions is the one between a civic-voluntaristic type of national identity and an ethnic and native ascribed-objective identity (Jones and Smith, 2001; Smith, 1991). The former includes a well defined territory, a community of institutions, a single political will, equal rights for members of the nation and a minimum of common values, traditions or a sentiment that binds people together. The ethnic model is characterized by common descent or perceived common descent where the people consider themselves as one volk. Following the rich research tradition about national identity we know that different levels and different kinds of CNI vary within different countries (Hjerm, 2007; Lilli and Diehl, 1999), but the effects of different form of CNI is not obvious.
Following from research on social identity and collective goods (e.g. Kollock 1998, Ostrom 1998, Wenzel 2007) we expect that a commitment to public financing and redistribution go together with civic-voluntaristic aspects of national identity. Still, it is possible that the civic-voluntaristic type of national identity is related to the state and the principals of liberal democracy without including an encompassing welfare state, which implies that the relation to welfare state redistribution is not obvious.

The same is true for the ethnic or ascribed-objective national identity which may lead to higher commitment to the national welfare system as people are more willing to support the reallocation of resources to people they trust (Mill, 1975; Scharpf, 1999). However, if nations and states are not congruent, one may expect that the perceived degree of cultural and ethnic heterogeneity will affect this relationship (Hechter, 2000). If the society is perceived as too heterogeneous individuals might feel closer related to "their" nation but withdraw their contribution to the state because they are not willing to support too many out groupers within the boundaries of the state. This evokes the question how a particular kind of national identity influences attitudes towards the welfare state and in the long run if exclusion and separatist tendencies emerges from particular combinations of CNI and welfare state attitudes.

Multi-level territorial identities and welfare state support
How do collective identities at different territorial levels affect individuals’ welfare attitudes? How do collective identities at different levels interplay? At which territorial levels do people prefer welfare policies to be governed and what are the consequences?
During the last decades we have seen the formation of new or more influential political levels above and beneath the level of the nation state, e.g. the European Union and new sub-national regions (Hooghe and Marks, 2001). According to research within the field of multi-level governance, the power and the position of the states has been challenged by three main developmental trends (Pierre and Peters, 2000). Firstly, there is a notion about a power shift upwards. Due to the globalization of the economy, communications and politics, contacts across borders have become more important, contributing to increased interaction between the economical and political life of states (Anderson, 2003; Held, 1991).

As a consequence, the separation between domestic and international politics has become less meaningful (Aldecoa and Keating, 1999). Secondly, power has shifted downwards to regional and local political levels (Keating and Hughes, 2003). Devolution of several policy areas, particularly within the field of public service, has been a common feature in most European countries, as well as the creation of new and more independent sub-national regions (Loughlin et al., 1999). Thirdly, there is a shift of power outwards, from public to private interests. Privatization of former public tasks has been a pan-European phenomenon during the nineties. At local and regional levels the combination of privatization and devolution has led to new forms of sub-national governance, e.g. private-public-partnerships (Amin, 1999).

These challenges affect the role and the acceptance of the national welfare state, as well as the national identity. The range of welfare state institutions and the collective identity of the nation states are not necessarily bound to the geographical boundaries of the state (Ferrera, 2005), pointing to the necessity of analysing not only attitudes towards the welfare state and identities on the nation state level but to also consider other types of multi-level identities, and preferences of decision levels concerning welfare issues.

Individual national identity and welfare state support
Are individuals with a stronger national identity more apt to support redistribution of resources than those with a weaker national identity? Are individuals that emphasize an ethnic identity more inclined to disapprove reallocation of resources? Or are other factors like group interests (Korpi and Palme, 1998), preference structures (Alesina et al., 2004), level of trust and of social productivity (Zak and Knack, 2001) or different levels of demands (Osberg et al., 2004) more important in explaining attitudes towards welfare spending and redistribution?

National identity as a collective identity is an important part of the individual identity formation (e.g. Jenkins, 1996). It is a way for individuals to understand who they are, in relation to others, or infuses them with a sense of purpose that makes them feel at home. So, to fully appreciate the relation between national identities and welfare state support we need also to consider this relation on the individual level. The latter cannot be solved with full satisfaction within the first part due to available data that imposes restrictions when trying to measure individual identities and their possible outcomes on welfare state attitudes at the same time. Therefore we need to focus on this issue independently. We will test the hypothesis that national identity on an individual level influences attitudes towards the welfare state independently from other identities, attitudes and perceptions on an individual level. National identity is expected to heighten individuals’ willingness to accept welfare state spending and redistribution under some conditions and to contribute actively to welfare spending, e.g. in form of tax compliance. However, the relationship between national identity and welfare state commitment is not considered as a trivial, straight forward one. It is likely that it is shaped and mediated by other factors commonly know to affect welfare state attitudes.

Data and Method
To distinguish individual and context effects on individual attitudes we will apply a multilevel analysis technique. Multilevel analysis assumes that individuals interact with the social context to which they belong, and provides an empirical way of understanding this relationship. The population is seen as a multistage sample of different hierarchical levels, like individuals in countries. This makes it possible to simultaneously test the effects of structure and individual characteristics on an individual outcome - e.g. the effect of CNI on support for taxation or redistribution. Data needs to fulfil five criteria to be useful for us:

First, we need data for different types of identities. Second, we need high quality individual data that enable comparisons across countries and regions. Third, we need to be able to measure type of identities other than national. Fourth, we need high quality context data to be able to separate the effect of identity from other contexts. Fifth, we need one dataset that covers both welfare state attitudes and identity issues for the third part of the project. These demands make it necessary to use different data sets and to merge them.

Data from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) from 1995 and 2003 will be used to measure CNI. ISSP is a comparative survey programme which covers changing topics in annual survey waves. The surveys from 1995 and 2003 cover national and other types of identities. The ISSP data is well suited to be used in aggregated form to measure strength and different types of CNI. We will primarily use the standard indicators of national identity from ISSP; namely how important factors like, birth in the country, to have lived there, citizenship, language, religion, feelings, ancestry and respect for institutions are for being truly Swedish, German or any other nationality. In order to go beyond the standard division of national identity we will apply latent class analysis to secure the content of CNI across countries.

In order to analyse the impact of CNI on individual attitudes towards welfare state topics, we will merge them with individual attitudinal data. To achieve maximal quality on the individual level we will use data from the European Social Survey (ESS). ESS is a biannual attitude and behavioural survey that has been undertaken three times in more the 30 European countries. More than two thousand individuals are interviewed in each country about their attitudes towards immigration, democracy, trust and so on. We will primarily use individual data from ESS4 (available during fall 2008). ESS4 includes a module specifically focused on the welfare state that covers for example taxation and redistribution issues. The combination of high quality multifaceted individual background and attitudinal data with the most extensive data on welfare state attitudes make the ESS the perfect dataset for this project.

For the second part of the project we need to be able to measure multilevel territorial identities in a meaningful way. This is to some extent possible in ISSP, but better possibilities exist in the Eurobarometer. The Eurobarometer surveys are normally carried out twice a year, in general with 1000 persons in each EU member state. The questions vary, but measures of multi-level territorial identities are included regularly since 1995. The latter includes possibilities to measure strength and quality of attachments towards a variety of geographical entities like neighbourhoods, towns, regions and the EU.

The analysis has to be completed by taking other macro-variables into consideration. Since the analysis explicitly focuses on CNI as a structural factor other institutional (such as tax legislation, quality of democracy, civil rights and political articulation) and distributional variations across countries (national transfers, general welfare state expenditure, GDP, etc.) have to be tested. The needed data are readily available from OECD and other similar sources. Softer institutional variations like the quality of democracy, civil rights and political articulation will be taken from The Quality of Government Institute (Teorell et al., 2006) and Manifesto data (Klingemann et al., 2006) and other comparable sources.

For the individual part we need questions of identity and the welfare state to be surveyed at the same time for the same individuals. In order to enable this we have added identity questions in the third round and fourth round of the Swedish ESS. This means that we have a unique dataset with regard to the possibilities to study national identity related to welfare state issues and politics in general.

Key Questions Themes Sources of Data Methods
Does collective national identity (CNI) influence the support for the welfare state? Intensity and kinds of CNI.
ISSP 1995 and 2003 Individual data are clustered into the latent variables of strength, distribution and kind of CNI
Influence of CNI on welfare state attitudes Latent variables + ESS4 + other contextual variables Multilevel analysis
How do multi-level territorial identities interfere with CNI and how do they influence attitudes towards welfare and redistribution?
Territorial identities, CNI and individual welfare state orientations Latent variables + Eurobarometer + ESS4 +other context variables Multilevel analysis
How does Individual national identity influence attitudes towards the welfare state? Individual national identity, CNI, and individual welfare state orientations ESS3/4 for Sweden Regression analysis

Applicant, scientific environment and time plan
The project will be led by Mikael Hjerm, Sociology, Umeå University, in collaboration with Annette Schnabel, same department, and Linda Berg, Political science, Göteborg University. This project is the result of earlier collaboration within the Political Sociology of the Welfare State Program. Both departments are excellent research environments with a prominent international position within the fields of analyses of the relation between institutions and preferences. Mikael Hjerm is the National Coordinator for the ESS and all the applicants are all well based within the fields of identity and welfare state research. The project is planned as a three-year project, with all applicants mainly working within the project, but part of the financing will come from other sources. The existence and familiarity of data and theoretical knowledge and expertise within the fields will result in quick publications. The latter will primarily be realised in form of articles in international scientific journals and a summarizing anthology. Project meetings are planned three times a year, plus hosting an international workshop on identity and welfare state research to disseminate our results. The project will disseminate results both to the academic community, to policy makers and to society more at large.

Contribution to Research and society
Welfare state research benefit from the results insofar as that we provide an understanding of how variations in CNI may be responsible for differences in attitudes towards spending and tax compliance across different countries. Economic theories and theories of rational choice mostly lack an understanding of the effects of non-monetary incentives on contributions to the common. The proposed project helps to gain a better understanding of the processes behind the willingness to contribute to common goods. Identity theory will gain from the multi-dimensional approach that takes the socially shared and the individual dimension of national identity into consideration at the same time and focuses on the outcomes of this and its interplay with other territorial identities.

Methodologically, this combination of research perspectives will contribute to the connection of different data sets by using the method of multilevel analysis and to the enlargement of the individual-level databases by acquiring and compiling new macro-level cross-national data. From a more political point of view, the project may contribute to the question of how to create and maintain a common welfare orientation via identification with the nation state. In the whole, if we gain a better understanding of the effects of national identity on individual attitudes we will gain better insides in the mechanisms that turn collective national identities into nationalism and that lay behind separatist efforts (like those we observe in Kosovo nowadays), behind xenophobia or behind the broad acceptance of welfare retrenchments.


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Latest update: 2018-06-20