Thursday, January 21, 2010

When the French need to prove they're French...

Who decides on your race, ethnicity or nationality? What are the features you need to have in order to be placed in one of these categories? While I am usually more concerned with deconstructing such categories and with showing how unsustainable they are, this post will be slightly different.

A few days ago, TIME published an interesting story on how the French must prove they are French. The idea was that children born abroad to parents that were French nationals are having a hard time getting their nationality recognized by France. If this nationality is not recognized, then you cannot be a French citizen. However, to be recognized as such, you need to be either born out of French parents, or to be born and to have lived in France until you reach adulthood. The TIME story traced the saga of one of the children born outside of France from French parents who were working abroad at the time.

Without getting into the intricacies of the law here, it is interesting to observe the struggle around defining what nationality is, who has the authority to recognize it and by what means it can actually be attained.

Nationality is a notoriously hard to define concept. Back in the 1950s, Karl Deutsch defined it as "a term which may be applied to a people among whom there exists a significant movement toward political, economic, or cultural autonomy” (1953, p. 3). There were obvious problems with this definition, and Deutsch was the first to notice that: just how do you measure that? It is fine to say "a people with a common will to being autonomous", but just what does the 'common will' mean here? Do you count those who are not in favor of that autonomy? Do you count those who do not recognize themselves as belonging to the group in question, but still live with the group?

And even if you come up with seemingly more 'objective' features to define nationality, such as language or common history, you're in trouble again. For instance, language is not as uniform as we want to believe it. In fact, language is better understood as 'languages', where the plural emphasizes the lived diversity of spoken dialects.

However, trying to understand 'what nationality is' is by far less interesting than trying to understand 'how nationality becomes the main principle of categorization' within modern world. Since most people are social beings, they have always lived in groups. What's different in modernity is the nature of the group boundary as well as the importance of the group as an essentializing force acting upon the individual. To the extent that nationality becomes the political principle justifying the organization of the state, nationality also becomes the most important category defining who is in and who is out, who has access to resources, and who has rights or not.

The overlap between nationality and the monopoly of authorized violence (the state) is the most intriguing and the most problematic one. With this overlap, the main authority in placing you within groups resides with the state. The state takes over the possibility of negotiating this placement in everyday life and rigidifies it into a set of rules that establish your location within a system of rights and exchanges.

Photo credits: fdecomite
References: Deutsch, K. (1953) Nationalism and Social Communication. An Inquiry into the Foundations of Nationality. NY: The Technology Press of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology & John Wiley & Sons, I nc.; London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd.

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