On Measuring National Identity


First published

Social Science Paper Publisher

Vol. 4, No. 1 (September 2001), pp 1-6.

(ISSN 1492-4062)


William W. Bostock, Ph.D. and Gregg W. Smith, Ph.D.

School of Government

University of Tasmania, Hobart TAS, Australia 7001

Email: bostock@utas.edu.au




This paper argues that national identity and state stability have a close contingent relationship, analogous to the mind/body relationship, such that a strong sense of national identity will be congruent with a highly stable state, and vice versa. If an index of the strength of national identity can be devised, then it will have some predictive capability in relation to the stability and durability of states. A methodology is proposed and evaluated. Input to the project from scholars in other fields is invited.



On Measuring National Identity




We perceive that the survival of the state is a major, if not the major question confronting the present world order. There is a lack of precision in common understanding of the meaning of the term state, (from the Latin stare, to stand), but we will provisionally define it as the legal authority possessing and being recognised as possessing control over a given territory through a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force (see Robertson, 1993, 444-445). The state is not the only major form of human organisation in widespread existence, but since the late 16th century when it largely replaced the holy empire, it has predominated and despite many claims that it may be becoming obsolete, it could well remain dominant for the foreseeable future. It is not necessary for our purposes to discuss the concept of the state as a value: obviously there is a plethora of different forms of state ranging from the hegemonistic and overbearing to the weak and diffuse. Our objective is to study the long term survival of states, their strength, durability, stability and longevity, vvhile noting that of the world's present 195 states, many are experiencing extreme difficulties such that they are breaking down in the face of forces of separatism or anarchy, and will probably be replaced by new units which may be larger or smaller.

The state should be distinguished from a regime which usually refers to a particular form of government within a state, and a government which can refer to a particular group of persons who happen to be in control of a state at a given time and is therefore in possession of the power to direct a state in any direction, somewhat as in the metaphor of a driver and vehicle. When is a state a completely new state is a moot point: for example Russia is a new state with a new regime and a new government but obviously there is substantial continuity with the USSR, the state which preceded it. Yet the suddenness of the collapse of the USSR which took political scientists as much as statesmen and stateswomen and diplomats so completely by surprise demonstrates the need for some kind of predictive capability.

It is significant that U.S. Vice-President Al Gore has commissioned the Central Intelligence Agency to set up a State Failure Task Force to try to predict which states are at risk of failure. This project has identified high infant mortality and scant world trade as possible indicators of a state which is at risk of collapse. The State Failure Task Force has identified a potential risk of ethnic conflict in countries which have a "youth bulge" (Zimmerman, 1996, 46) and although the relationships hypothesised in this report are not necessary the same as ours, the overall objective is similar.


National Identity


Nation is another term about which great uncertainty exists. Formerly nation was regarded as synonymous with state, hence the term nation-state, which was applied to England, France and Germany, when they first emerged in their modern forms after the collapse of the medieval concept of the holy empire, and where a people with a single language, culture and tradition were united in a single state, though there is also the view that a state-nation, such as the United States or Australia, where the order of precedence has differed in that the state has preceded the nation in terms of its development (Arbos, 1990). This terminological confusion can be found in the Australian passport which refers to something calied "Australian Nationality", thus tacitly endorsing the nation-state concept, while the subtitle of a recently published book refers to "Three Nations, One Australia?" (Reynolds, 1996). It is now common to recognise that many nations do not possess their own state, and that less than 10 per cent of the world's so-called nation-states can justifiably be called nation-states (Connor, 1978, 382). In current usage, a nation, coming from the Latin nasci,to be born, is defined as a category of persons who, as a result of common history language,.culturer and assnciation with territory, regard themselves as a distinct people or ethnic group and who aspire to some form of statehood of their own. Not every people or ethnic group aspires to its own statehood, hence the terms potential nation and pre-national people have been introduced (Connor, 1978, 382).


The fundamentally different nature of these two categories of state and nation, that is, an objective, politico-legal-coercive one and a subjective, psychological one creates a disjunction which can be the cause of great tension. The linkage between the two has been recognised by many philosophers and social scientists as identity. Identity (from the Latin idem, the same) was introduced by Aristotle and employed by medieval theologians, the philosophers Locke and Hume, mathematicians, and this century, by psychologists. Without formally conceptualising it, many poets, playwrights, novelists, composers and visual and other artists have given expression to sentiments taken up by many as statements of their identity, and have

thus had great influence in the creating of nations and states: the great 19 th century romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz who gave a new form to Polish identity and the great writer and political activist Jose Rizal who powerfully shaped Philippine identity, particularly after his martyrdom, are just two to whom we can point. When Marx wrote of class consciousness, he was using a form of identity theory, but the main impetus has come from psychoanalysis where it is seen as being at the basis of the socialisation process by which societies are created: "Identification is knovvn to psychoanalysis as the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person..." (Freud, 1955, 105). To Freud, identification was a mechanism by which a child would recognise himself or herself through interaction with a parent. In the 1960s this theme was taken up by Erikson (1968) who saw a strong sense of identity as a necessary condition for both a successfully functioning individual and for a society and who discussed at length the dysfunctional states of confusion, crisis and panic of identity. Erikson saw a strong sense of identity as a generator of energy and a weak or confused sense of identity as a source of decline . As a crisis of identity develops, powerful negative identity factors are produced which in man a hatred of "otherness"(Erikson, 1968, 62).


Many identity theorists have seen identity, the subjective state of a sense of belonging, as a group phenomenon, in which the members of a group "identify" with one another. There are two views about the nature of group identity: either that it is something found collectively in a group of individuals, or that it is metaphorically like a person and is its own separate identity that has emerged. For our purposes, this philosophical question does not need to be resolved as we can simply say that group identity can exist at many different levels from family unit to sporting team, ethnic group or group of ethnic groups; for example, francophonie, a grouping of French-speaking peoples (Bostock, 1986), nation, group of nations forming a state, or grouping of states as in the "non-aligned nations." Identity can thus be said to refer to the categories in which membership is claimed and the sense of meaning associated with each category (Deaux, 1993).


National identity is generally seen as a process occurring at a subjective level like morale, esprit de corps, or mood, except that it is far more complex and includes myth and epistemology. If one paraphrases Brewster Smith's (1978, 1053-54) definition of individual selfhood one can define national identity as: a process of collective self-awareness; having boundaries; having continuity in space and time; being in communication and in communion internally and externally; engaging in enterprises with the world and with forethought and afterthought; appraising performance; feeling responsible for actions carried out collectively and individually and holding others responsible for theirs; with the end product being successful adaptation and survival; in short, nothing less than the psychic condition necessary for survival, in the same way that a strong sense of identity is necessary for the well-being, adjustment and survival of the individual.


The functions of national identity have been discussed recently by A.D. Smith (1991 ) who has proposed three functions. Firstly, national identity provides a satisfying answer to the fear of personal oblivion, through identification with a "nation". Secondly, national identity offers personal renewal and dignity by becoming part of a political "super family", and thirdly it enables the realisation of feelings of fraternity, especially through the use of symbols and ceremony (Smith, 1991, 160-162).


We see national identity as a collective psychological state that is a necessary condition for the survival of the politico-legal-coercive state. But also, the presence of a stable state can engender a strong sense of national identity. Many political scientists and other scholars have discussed the order of precedence in the national identity/state relationship, particularly in the context of the politics of development or "nation-building" (see for example Pye, 1965 ) but so far the discussion of an appropriate methodology is still very much on-going(Lane and Ersson, 1994). The formulation we are proposing is to visualise this complex relationship as contingent, that is, development of a strong national identity will engender the development of a stable state and vice versa, a stable state will engender the development of national identity, and correspondingly, an unstable and failing state will engender a weak and failing sense of national identity and vice versa, on the metaphor of the mind/body relationship.


As the national identity/state relationship is not one of simple unidirectional causality, a measure of the strength of national identity would not be an absolutely reliable predictor of state stability, but would have a limited predictive capability and in the absence of anything better, would still be of great value.


Measuring State Stability


The discipline of Comparative Govemment has seen devised many useful indicators of state performance, state stability and regime stability (see Gurr, 1970, Lane and Ersson, 1994). In addition, there are many economic performance indicators, and also human rights indicators. The United Nations Development Program has an Index of Human Development which combines longevity, literacy, schooling and income per capita, and there are also the indicators selected by the State Failure Task Force referred to above. However ,we see a need for renewed effort in the construction of a standard of measurement of the strength of national identity.


But first of all it is necessary to have some indicators of state stability and among all those available we have selected the following:


(1 ) Failure of security, intemally and extemally. This is reflected in the presence Of no-go areas, areas beyond the protection of the state, rebel-held areas through the full gamut to full-scale civil war. Political assassination and the widespread occurrence of violence by state and anti-state or non-state forces are a further indication of instability. Failure to provide an adequate response to external aggression is also an indicator of the potential breakdown of a state.


(2) Major change of structural type. The imminent or actual occurrence of revolution is a clear indicator of the breakdown of a state, as is a major realignment of a state within an international power bloc. Regime change and government change are much less likely to be indicators of state instability, and in fact a change of government and possibly regime by normal and legitimate means could assist to ensure the long-term stability of a state.


(3) Failure of economic performance. The relationship betvveen economic performance and state stability is fundamental in that economic decline and rapid loss of income are a cause of instability to a state and the resultant vvidespread insecurity and loss of confidence can lead to violence and an undermining of the state.


Measuring National Identity


The indicators of strength of national identity are less manifest than the indicators of the stability of the state. Taking the concept of national identity presented above, it is possible to find indicators of each of the characteristics included in the definition. They are:


(1 ) Collective self-awareness. The frequency of discussions of identity questions in newspapers, magazines, television and radio broadcasts, and artistic statements of "who we are" in poetry, novels, films, operas and musical comedies.


(2) Boundaries. Statements of the perceptions of geographical, linguistic, cultural and religious boundaries, which need to be tested to see whether they are in correspondence with existing state boundaries.


(3) Continuity in space and time. Generally one could expect the sense of national identity to strengthen with the passing of time, therefore one would attempt to assess the historicity of a group.


(4) Communication and communion. Communion is the sense of common possession, and one would identify commonly-held assets. Communication is the total quantum of letter, telephone, fax and email messages sent within a state. If one were to find considerable disjunctions of communication between various categories of persons with in a state, it would be an indication of a potential source of instability.


(5) Enterprises with the world. Trade and commerce, including tourist visits, within a state and between a state the outside world are indicative of state stability.


(6) Forethought and afterthought. The presence of plans, objectives, targets and goals are indicative of a sense of national identity and the presence of short-term only perspective are an indicator of a weak or failing sense of national identity. The celebration of the achievement of goals and plans after the event has been achieved are another indicator of a strong sense of national identity, especially vvhere they are not marked by controversy.


(7) Appraisal. Media discussions, reports, debates and commentaries by respected figures are an indicator of a strong sense of national identity. 


(8) Responsibility for actions. Expressions of conscience, contrition, remorse and guilt are an important component of national identity, particularly where a nation has engaged in major criminal activity. Where this "coming to terms" with past activities has taken place, then the stability of a state has been strengthened.


Method of Measurement


We have linked three dimensions to the concept of state stability (security, structure, and economy) and eight dimensions to the concept of national identity (self-awareness, boundaries, continuity, communication, enterprise, forethought, appraisal, and responsibility). These dimensions are latently unobservable; hence, observable indicators of the underlying dimension are required. Just as a paper and pencil test is used to measure the unobserved concept of intelligence; in which we believe that the answers on the paper are caused by the intelligence of the respondent, we need observable indicators that are caused by the dimensions of the concept. Likewise, the values of each dimension for each state are caused by the manifestation of the concept within the state. The flow of causality is from the concept to the dimension, the dimension to the indicators. The analogy of intelligence is heuristically useful because it easily identifies the very real problem of measurement error, i.e., the answers to the paper and pencil test do not provide a perfect (error free) measure of intelligence. Hence, we are led away from methods based on least squares estimation - which assume the absence of measurement error–and toward a maximum likelihood solution based on structural equations which gives better estimates in the presence of error.


The advent of a workable structural equation approach can be traced to the work of Goldberger (see Goldberger and Duncan, 1973). A good review of this approach is found in Bentler (1980). However, the mathematical complexity of this approach restricted its usefulness as a social science tool until Joreskog and Sorbom developed the software commonly known as LISREL (see Joreskog and Sorbom, 1988).


The particular model that we propose is a second-order factor analysis based on the following structural equation


h =     x + z


where h is a vector consisting of the 11 dimensions of state stability and national identity where each dimension is endogenous to the model,


   is a matrix of the effects of the exogenous concepts of state stability and national identity on the 11 dimensions,


x is a vector of the exogenous concepts of state stability and national identity and the covariance among those concepts constitutes the matrix f which establishes the strength of the relationship between national identity and state stability, and


z is a vector of the error for each dimension and the covariances among these


(Insert Chart One about here)



Chart One is a diagram of the structural model and indicates the h and x


variables, and the g and f coeffficients to be estimated.


The measurement equation is


g = g (   x + z ) + e


where y is a vector of the observed indicators of the 11 dimensions,


g is the matrix of the effects of the 11 dimensions on the observed indicators, and e is a vector of the error for each indicator and the covariances among these errors constitutes the matrix Q e .


The first-order factor loadings for our observed indicators are given by /\y; the statistical relationship between the indicators and the dimensions. The second-order factor loadings are given by  ; the statistical relationship between the dimensions and national identity and state stability respectively.


The identification of the five matrixes noted above,    , /\y, Q e , f , and y are sufficient to estimate the model (see Joreskog and Sorbom, 1988, chapter 1).


Hence, national identity and state stability are simultaneously measured and their relationship assessed.




The complex relationship of contingency between national identity and state stability as proposed by this project is not one easily capable of statistical proof. Perhaps this explains why the literature has largely avoided a quantitative approach to the measurement of national identity. We believe that such an effort is worthy of consideration and have detailed how it should be approached. As with the metaphor of the mind/body relationship, the concept of mind is far from understood and the definition of bodily health is notoriously controversial. Yet the past absence of predictive capability shows the need for a measure of national identity.




Arbos, X. (1990),'Nation-State: the Range and Future of a Concept', Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism, XVl, 1 -2, 61-65.


Bentler, P.M. (1980) 'Multivariate analysis with latent variables: Causal modelling', Annual Review of Psychology, 31, 419-456.


Bostock, W.W. (1986), Francophonie, Organisation, Co~rdination, Evaluation, Melboume, River Seine.


Brewster Smith, M. (1985), 'The Metaphorical Basis of Selfhood', in A.J. Marsella, G. de Vos, and F.L.K. Hsu, eds., Culture and Self, Asian and Western Perspectives, New York and London, Tavistock, 56-88.


Connor,W. (1978), 'A Nation is a Nation is a State, is an Ethnic Group...', Ethnic and Racial Studies, 1, 4, 377-400.


Deaux, K. (1993), 'Reconstructing Social Identity', Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19,1, 4-12.


Erikson, E.H. (1968), 'Identity, Psychosocial', in D.R. Sills, ed., Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, New York, Macmillan and Free Press, 61-65.


Freud, S. (1955),'Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology and Other Works', in Standard Edition, XVIII (1920-1922), London, Hogarth.


Goldberger, A. S., and Duncan, O.D., eds. (1973), Structural equation models in the social sciences, New York, Seminar Press.


Gurr, T, (1970), Why Men Rebel. Princeton, Princeton U.P.


Joreskog, K.G and Sorbom, D. (1988), LISREL: A guide to the program and applications, Chicago, SPSS.


Lane, J.E. and S. Ersson, (1994), Comparative Politics, An Introduction and New Approach, Cambridge, Polity.


Pye, L.W. and S. Verba, eds. (1965), Political Culture and Political Development, Princeton, Princeton Univeristy Press.


Reynolds, H. (1996), Aboriginal Sovereignty, Three Nations, One Australia? Sydney, Allen and Unwin.


Robertson, D. (1994), The Penguin Dictionary of Politics, London, Penguin.


Smith, A.D. (1991), National identity, London, Penguin.


Zimmerman, T. (1996), 'Why Do Countries Fall Apart? Al Gore Wanted to Know, US News and World Report, 120, 6, (Feb.12), 46.