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Does the "Nation" Shape the Consciousness of the People?

Posted by Stéphane Lévesque
30 May 2013 - 1:33pm

In 1882, Ernest Renan claimed that a nation is “a daily plebiscite;” its existence depends on a perpetual affirmation of shared beliefs among its members to live and continue to live together. Individuals play a crucial role in contributing to the nation and giving meaning to it. Recent works in social psychology and historical consciousness have come to the conclusion that individuals are in fact “group beings” whose identities are strongly influenced by social structures, norms, language, and collective identity.  Individual beliefs and personal differences do matter in thinking the nation, but they only tell half the story.

A basic assumption in these works is that people need groups like nations for various reasons including public services, work, security, and a sense of commonality and shared life experience extending from the past to the present and envisioned future. Structured groups like nations are made up of individuals who -- at various degrees -- need to be interdependent. They work together to accomplish common objectives that could not be attained individually (such as creating public policies or building an independent country). Group structure favours cohesion, rules, and expected behaviours. It is through such group structure that public/collective memory gets developed and reinforced through such things as “cultural tools” (official stories, commemorations, approved textbooks, etc.).

Studies of historical consciousness have suggested that individuals and groups always act in tandem. Narratives of the nation are as much personal as they are collective. While people develop or internalize personal attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours they do so with an “inner adaption” to social requirements of particular group structure. In other words, political and cultural settings influence the personal construction and appropriation of stories of the nation.

With this in mind, our team recently looked at the histories developed by young francophone Québécois. The case of Québécois is particularly interesting to study from the perspective of historical consciousness because of the circulation of multiple stories of the “nation” in Canada. In our study, we looked at how high school students in French Québec narrate the history of their nation and what these narratives tell us about their selection and categorization of the past as well as their vision of “national history.” We found that their "usable past" as expressed in their stories of the nation is very much influenced by forces outside the realm of formal education.

The results of our study, based on a sample of students from the works of Létourneau (2006), is published in:

Stéphane Lévesque, Jocelyn Létourneau, Raphael Gani, “A giant with clay feet: Québec students and their historical consciousness of the nation,” International Journal of Historical Learning 11, 2 (2013), 156-172. To access online, click here.