Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain

Immigration and indigenism in popular historical discourses

Research Associate: Dr Marc Scully

The relationship between a sense of national or regional identity and collective memory has been a matter of longstanding concern across a range of disciplines, including social psychology, sociology, history and politics. If collective memory is defined as the cultural transmission of a shared sense of the meaning of the past for the present within a given group or community, then issues of immigration and indigenism clearly impact on how identity is constituted and sustained through memory. Narratives about the origins and roots of the group, for instance, are crucial to self-definition, as are accounts of how that identity has been maintained or transformed through ongoing patterns of migration. Equally important is the group’s shared orientation to the media that is treated as the basis for common identity. This may include a supposed common genetic lineage, language/dialect, relationship to place or ethnicity (or a variable mixture of all these media). This project explored how British identity is negotiated through collective memory through a series of case studies based in different parts of Britain and Ireland.

The theoretical basis of the project was to avoid prior assumptions that the 'indigenous' and 'immigrants' are two discrete categories to which individuals can be allocated. Rather, discourses of indigenism and immigration may serve to position individual subjects as either internal or external to the 'imagined community' of the nation, but can also be used by them in negotiating their own identities, and in reshaping and rearticulating what 'Britishness' constitutes.

This project has a particular focus on how a collective past is imagined in contemporary society and, from a social psychological perspective, how the personal and familial narratives that individuals have of their own past, are situated within a wider sense of a shared history. The project also examines how contemporary identities are constructed on a collective basis through the memorialisation of the nation, on both an official and an unofficial basis. The project worked alongside those being conducted by other members of the Impact of Diasporas team, in considering how historical discourses of migration in the more distant past may shape contemporary identities.

The project consisted of a number of interlinked case studies:

  • Identification with the Viking past in Yorkshire: This study arose from the 'Surnames and the Y Chromosome' project's focus on the legacy of the Vikings in Northern England. Preliminary fieldwork was carried out in early 2012, and following a narrowing of the geographical focus to Yorkshire, more in-depth interviews were carried out over the summer and autumn of 2013. In particular, we were interested in how genetic data is used alongside genealogical data by individuals to create a narrative of Viking descent, and what implications this has for local, national and transnational identity. An article based on our early research on this project was published in a special issue of Sociology on 'Genetics and the Sociology of Identity'.
  • Lindisfarne Priory as a 'site of memory': In collaboration with English Heritage, we carried out research among visitors to Lindisfarne Priory in November 2012. We were particularly interested in how Lindisfarne's status as a site of early Christian Heritage and Viking raids becomes incorporated into a regional and national past.
  • The Staffordshire Hoard and the recreation of 'Mercian' identity: We looked at how the discovery and particularly the presentation of the Staffordshire Hoard fosters a sense of regional identity that draws on the Anglo-Saxon past.
  • Celebrating and commemorating a 'Pan-Celtic' past in Cornwall: Based on a study of the Lowender Peran festival, we investigated how Cornish identity is situated within an imagined shared 'Celtic' past, in relation to both England, and other 'Celtic nations'.


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