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Individual and Ethnic Identities

While ethnicity may appear as an ascriptive characteristic acquired at birth by every individual, many of its constitutive elements are voluntaristic, and individuals have some choice in their degree of identification with ethnic groups.1 smith argues that ethnic groups are characterised by a common name, myth of common ancestry, elements of a common culture (such as religion or language), shared historical memories (often informed by religious myths), link to a territory or homeland and a sense of solidarity.2 As Chap. 3 explains, local religious, national and linguistic communities in Lebanon, Northern Ireland and Macedonia meet Smith’s criteria and can be considered ethnic groups. When ethnic groups demand sovereignty over a territory, as in the case of certain communities in Northern Ireland and Macedonia, they can be considered ethnonational.3

According to Smith, the sum of accepted historical narratives (a common past generally linked to a homeland), markers of identity (both physical and immaterial features) and exemplary heroes and enemies (or stereotypes) constitutes a ‘myth-symbol complex’.4 Myth-symbol complexes endow ethnic groups with ‘an aura of primordiality, of being a natural entity, of having always been there’.5 In fact, the markers and boundaries between communities in deeply divided societies are socially constructed and reproduced in a context where individual identities are ‘multiple, nested and overlapping’.6 Yet, Chap. 3 shows that markers of identity and community boundaries are ‘deeply constructed’, making their change slow and painful.7

The construction, reproduction and evolution of group identities occur in an inter-group context, where identity markers are expected to identify ‘a particular community as distinctive and bounded’.8 Markers of identity often maximise the perceived difference between communities in a plural society: Lambkin notes that had race been chosen as a ‘badge’ of identity in Northern Ireland, it would have eroded the boundary between the Unionist and Nationalist communities.9 Similarly, the Arabic language mitigates more politically salient religious cleavages in Lebanon. Indeed, Hughes suggests that the very existence of ethnic groups ‘is possible only if there are ways of telling who belongs to the group and who does not, and if a person learns early, deeply, and usually irrevocably to what group [he or she] belongs’.10 In other words, identity markers and group boundaries are salient, and can become politically relevant only if community members and non-members are aware of their distinctiveness.

Moreover, politically salient markers and narratives of belonging are born out of the interaction between groups and the institutions of a state. Stewart argues that during violent conflicts, communities mobilise on the basis of the identity ‘that is perceived as being important from the point of view of the allocation of government resources’.11 Brubaker also introduces the distinction between ‘state-formed’ nationalisms and ‘counterstate’ nationalisms,12 particularly relevant to deeply divided societies, where group identities are often framed in alignment or opposition to the state (as Chap. 3 shows).

Finally, the saliency of specific markers of identity depends on the political regime: in democratic contexts, the voluntaristic aspects of ethnon- ational belonging, such as a sense of solidarity or a shared history, assume particular significance.13 Indeed, group identities that are ‘experienced and understood as something deep and natural’ tend to be ‘learn[ed] over time and grounded in and shaped by a person’s experience’.14 But how do individuals learn and internalise group identities? Why are collective identities so resilient? Social identity theory offers some answers to these questions.

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