The demise and prevalence of national culture

If you have read Strategizing Communication, you will know that we do not make much of national culture. Skirting traditional takes on intercultural communication in which one’s cultural identity is assumed to be defined by the imprint on one’s passport, we prefer an approach in which nationality is never the only and rarely the most important determinant of the collective identity of a target group. Now, you may agree with this approach. After all, your everyday routines are likely to constantly transcend national boundaries (your toothpaste and your shampoo are probably manufactured by some multinational corporation; your milk may be locally produced, but your coffee is most likely not; your phone is perhaps designed in the US or maybe in South Korea, but it is almost certainly assembled in China). Further, the choices you face during the course of a day do not seem to have much to do with a single nationality either (should it be pizza or perhaps sushi tonight? Was the combination of Nike sneakers and Armani shirt really a good sartorial choice? Is Beyoncé or Adele the better singer?). But wait, such examples are extremely shallow (there’s more to you than your brand of phone or your choice in music, right?) and awfully privileged (who can afford an Armani shirt anyway?). And they ignore the prevalence of nationality in deeper processes of socialization as well as life-choices that really matter (most of us got our primary education in public schools, which tend to be rather nation-centric institutions, and although international marriages may be more and more common, they are still in minority; the rise in cross-border marriages is a trend to be noted rather than a well-established fact).

Thus, we may scorn the idea that we as individuals are bound to and/or identified by national culture, but the socio-political bounds of the nation-state nevertheless seem to prevail. And this prevalence has cultural over- and undertones, relating to the widespread resurgence of nationalism. Thus, nationalist parties are – and have been for some time now – on the rise across Europe, and these parties clearly connect more with a culturally defined nation than with a politically defined state, often aligning national belonging with cultural heritage as well as religious belief and ethnicity.

As an example, a 2016 campaign by the Danish People’s Party confined ‘our Denmark’ and the wish to safeguard it to one ethnic identity with clear socio-cultural implications. Although this campaign lent itself nicely to various forms of repurposing and recirculation showing alternative opinions and images as to what ‘our Denmark’ might be, it cannot be neglected that it pinpoints the position of a party that won 21.1% of the votes in the most recent parliamentary election (held on June 18th, 2015).


The reports of the death of national culture, then, are greatly exaggerated. Or, perhaps more accurately, national culture understood in substantial terms (as the actual content of all its members’ daily lives; their norms, values, traditions, practices, etc.) has by all accounts disappeared, but a socio-political imaginary has forcefully imposed itself in its place.

socialmedia_kvadra_1027891yThis imaginary may have little to do with the actual lives of the people who feel drawn to it; it may be an ideological construct rather than a material fact. Yet it has very real effects – as, for instance, witnessed by the formation and rising popularity of Alternative for Germany (formed in 2013, this nationalist-conservative party gained 12,6% of the votes in the latest state elections, held in March, 2016), the looming Brexit (following the leave vote in the referendum of June, 2016) and the prospect of Donald Trump becoming the next president of the US (at the elections to be held on November 8th, 2016). For strategic communicators, this does not mean that we can return to an understanding that ‘Germans are like this’, ‘Brits like that’, ‘Americans something else altogether’ and adapt our communication accordingly, but it does mean that national culture – particularly, in its ideological guise – continues to be a factor to be reckoned with.

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