Michael Skey 2020
It is a curious paradox that while the two most influential books on nationalism in the past 30 years, Imagined Communities ( 2006) and Banal Nationalism (1997), both put media at the heart of their analyses, the relationship between media and nation has warranted relatively little attention from either scholars of the media or nationalism! On the one hand, nationalism scholars have generally tended to underplay, or, in some cases, overplay, the media’s influence, while showing little interest in wider theories of media and communications. On the other hand, media scholars rarely engage with debates within nationalism studies. Indeed, the most common approach, here, is to note, in passing, that nations are imagined communities before moving on to discuss other, presumably more important, matters.
More recently, the rush to make sense of populist movements and parties has led to a lot of interesting observations about how fake news and misinformation fuel nativist resentment. But again, these studies generally don’t have much to say about nationalism, which is usually conflated with extremism. Some of these contemporary approaches will be addressed in due course, notably as they draw in wider debates concerning the impact of digital technologies on social solidarities and identities. But the first part of this paper will outline how the relationship between media and nation was initially theorised, before noting subsequent critiques and developments.
Classic studies of nationalism
The classic literature was vitally important for not only taking the study of nationalism seriously but also placing the rise of nations within a broader socio-economic and political context. In short, nations were seen as the outcome of particular (usually modern) historical processes and efforts were made to answer the key questions of what and when is the nation? Interestingly, the role of media in these broader processes was either largely ignored, as in the case of Kohn or Kedourie, or placed at the heart of any analysis as in the case of Deutsch or Anderson. Of those who emphasised the importance of media, it is also worth noting that there was a tendency to privilege structure or form over content. This can be most strongly seen in Gellner’s much-cited reflection on ‘the facility of modern communications’ (1983, 126). He wrote;
‘The media do not transmit an idea which happens to have been fed into them. It matters precious little what has been fed in to them: it is the media themselves, the pervasiveness and importance of abstract, centralised, standardised, one to many communication, which itself automatically engenders the core idea of nationalism.’ (Gellner 1983, 127)
In media studies, a focus on the ways in which technologies shape human interactions and social structures is commonly labelled as ‘medium theory’. Closely associated with the pioneering work of Marshall McLuhan, these approaches challenge the idea that content should be front and centre when trying to assess the media’s influence, and, interestingly, find an echo in two classic studies of the nation by Karl Deutsch (1966) and Benedict Anderson ( 2006). In Nationalism and Social Communication, Deutsch emphasises the significance of channels of communication, alongside the growth of markets, industries and towns, in allowing group members to ‘communicate more effectively, and over a wider range of subjects’ (1966, 97). Anderson’s work is particularly interesting as not only is it the most cited study of nationalism of all time, it is also often used to support a view that privileges the importance of content or representations in firing the national imagination (for a critique, see Skey 2014a). Yet, as Sabina Mihelj (2011, 22-23) has argued, Imagined Communities says much more about the impact of standardised and centralised facilities of communication that lead, in the case of print-capitalism, to the fixity of vernacular language and the shaping of temporal rhythms, both everyday and eventful.
It is, perhaps, not surprising that the focus of these authors is on structures of communication given their wider association with an approach that seeks to locate the development and spread of nationalism as a feature of modernity. Beyond ethno-symbolist critiques of this modernist programme (which remain beyond the scope of this paper), it is worth flagging one or two other critical voices as they focus more specifically on the place and power of media. First, approaches that view technologies as the drivers of social change have been critiqued for offering a ‘one-size fits all’ model that fails to take into account the varying ways in which such facilities are utilised, adapted or, in some cases, rejected. For instance, at particular times and places, newspapers underpinned local, religious or class-based, rather than national, forms of community (Mihelj 2011, 23-24), so we cannot simply assume that media ‘will automatically engender the core idea of nationalism’. In a related argument, Philip Schlesinger (1991) noted that many of the classic theories of nationalism conflated nation and state and, in the process, failed to observe the complexities of both socio-political and media landscapes in many parts of the world.
A second key criticism was that content, of course, matters. As numerous empirical studies have demonstrated, what gets fed into the media is actually quite important, whether in relation to ordinary, eventful or crisis periods. In the first case, Billig’s Banal Nationalism (1995), suggested that is often the most taken-for-granted features of media content that are crucial in representing both individual nations and a wider international order as normal and natural during routine periods. In the second instance, Daniel Dayan’s and Elihu Katz’s Media Events (1992) argued for the power of television in integrating (national) societies in profound moments of celebration or commemoration and pointed to the importance of their ‘semantic meaning; they speak of the greatness of the event’ (1992, 10; see also: Skey 2009). Finally, there are numerous studies which highlight the manner in which media content, and in particular news reporting, shifts during periods of crisis or conflict. Research in Europe (Mihelj et al. 2009), the Middle East (Nossek & Berkowitz 2006) and the United States of America (Collins 2004) all indicate that media outlets use much more hyperbolic and exclusionary language, designed to generate a distinct sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’, during these periods.
This leads us on to a final criticism of the classic literature. When it comes to making sense of the relationship between media and nationalism, we hear a fair amount about what the media does to people but almost nothing of what people do with media. A second wave of research, drawing directly on insights from the burgeoning field of audience or reception studies, sought to redress this balance.
The discursive ‘turn’
In her book, Mediating the Nation (2005), Mirca Madianou drew a distinction between approaches that emphasis the power of the media in inculcating (Deutsch 1966; Anderson  2006) and sustaining (Billig 1995) a sense of national identity among the masses and those that focus attention on the ways in which culture shapes people’s responses to media. In the latter case, the key text is Liebes and Katz’s Export of Meaning (1993) a study of audience responses to the U.S. TV series Dallas. Focusing on groups in Israel, the United States, and Japan, it is argued that the show was ‘appropriated in different ways according to . . . ethnic and cultural background’ (Madianou 2005, 20). Liebes and Katz’s work was part of a new wave of research within media studies (Seiter et al.  2013) that emphasised the critical reception of media texts and challenged the idea that viewers were passive consumers of the media. The tenets of reception studies also filtered through to research on the nation, with feminist scholars such as Lila Abu-Lughod (2005) and Purnina Mankekar (1999) conducting research to show how gender, as well as ethnicity (Liebes & Katz 1993) and class (Morley 1980), shaped the ways in which audiences responded to narratives of nation.
These studies were not only important in highlighting the diversity of experience within a given nation but also focused attention on questions of dominance and power. In relation to media, this meant thinking more critically about how the nation was represented and in whose interests. If the dominant vision of India was defined in terms of Hinduism and the caste system, how might Muslims and other marginalised groups construct their own narratives of belonging and community, whether national or otherwise? If Britishness was primarily articulated in relation to the mores and values of white, middle-class, men from England, what did that mean for ethnic minorities, women and those in other regions (Morley & Robins 2001)? Asking these types of questions encouraged scholars to not simply assume that media operate as a unifying force but to investigate whether, and in what ways, the media might bring people together or alternatively generate further divisions within a given social setting (Skey 2014; Skey et al. 2016).
Such an approach was broadly in keeping with the discursive ‘turn’ underway in much of the social sciences at this time. Nations were no longer seen as stable and homogeneous entities, naturally-occurring ‘units of analysis’ that provide the basis for academic enquiry. Instead, they were increasingly conceptualised as discursive formations (Calhoun 1997) or frameworks for ‘understanding and interpreting experience . . . [and] making sense of the world’ (Brubaker et al. 2006, 207). Some, such as Billig, argued that national frameworks still mattered and that the mass media remained crucial in underpinning them, primarily through the routine ways in which it framed stories in national terms and, in the process, addressed national audiences.
Alternatively, an influential, and rapidly growing body of work, argued that nations were not only contingent and contested but also becoming increasingly obsolete in an era defined by intensifying processes of globalisation. Scholars such as Anthony Giddens, Kenichi Ohmae, Robert Cooper and Ulrich Beck noted the growing interdependency of the global economy and the overpowering of borders by movements of people and products, and posited a new era of cosmopolitan relations. It’s perhaps not surprising to note that the media was often viewed as a key driver of globalisation (for an overview, see Rantanen & Jiminez-Martinez 2019) whether in relation to the rise of global media corporations (Zhao & Chakravartty 2007), new types of hybrid media culture (Kraidy 2005), the tastes of trans-national audiences (Aksoy & Robins 2000) or the expanding networks of political activists (Bennett 2004). But it was the rapid spread and popularisation of a set of relatively novel communication technologies, built around the production and dissemination of digital data, that was seen to represent the greatest threat to the primacy of the nation, leading – so the argument went – to a new type of global, networked society (Castells  2011).
Nations in the digital age
According to its most celebrated proponent, Manuel Castells ( 2011), the contemporary era is defined by networks, and a network logic, built around the production and management of information, comes to overpower both traditional hierarchical structures (state, religion, political parties) and parochial forms of identity and solidarity. It’s perhaps not surprising to note that the nation-state features as one of the key losers in this transformation and that recent nationalist-populist uprisings are seen as a partial response to it. Interestingly, arguments concerning the power of the internet to underpin a new type of society, are not so far removed from those which, as we noted above, emphasise the mass media’s role in inculcating novel forms of national community and organisation. They have also been subject to similar critiques, notably that in viewing technologies as primary causal agents they ignore both individual agency and the wider socio-cultural contexts in which such technologies are developed, employed, enjoyed or rejected (Van Dijk 1999).
Beyond those who attribute epoch-defining properties to digital technologies, there are a number of other arguments worth noting when it comes to the place and status of the nation in a digital age. Many have pointed to the impact of the growing mobility of human populations in challenging national frameworks of meaning and practice (Karim 2003; Rantanen 2005). The primary focus has been on diasporic groups, who live in one country but maintain relations with another through family and/or cultural links, using a growing range of communication technologies (satellite television, mobile phones, email, VoIP). A number of brief points are worth making, here. First, as studies of ‘long-distance nationalism’ (Fuglerud 1999) have argued, such groups may use media to actively promote national allegiances and priorities rather than undermine them. Second, while diasporic media do, of course, contribute to the growing complexity of many media landscapes their impact is often negligible beyond the communities that support them. Third, while they are seen to generate ‘critical distance’ among users (Aksoy & Robins 2003), the challenge they represent to national frameworks is not always clear given that they often continue to define themselves in national terms (Boczkowski 1999; Poblocki 2001; Miller & Slater 2000).
Elsewhere, a second significant strand of research has emerged in relation to the recent rise, and political successes, of populist leaders and parties around the globe. Here, the argument is that digital media have had a central role in allowing previously insignificant groups to spread virulent and exclusionary nationalist rhetoric, thereby challenge more liberal narratives of national community and undermining established social and political institutions (Alvares & Dahlgren 2016; Udupa 2019). There is plentiful talk about the resurgence of nationalism and much concern about how to deal with these ‘new’ forms of nationalist sentiment (Eatwell & Goodwin 2018; Judis 2018).
Much of this work has been provocative, not least in highlighting the agency of media users in creating content (participation) and the shift towards more extreme claims and counter-claims (polarization) in a media environment defined by information overload and the power of algorithms. Put simply, it is divisive, emotion-laden content that usually gets liked, shared and pushed. The problem, however, isn’t so much how these scholars discuss media, but how they understand nationalism. For example, Christian Fuchs’ recent books about nationalism and the internet focus on the political sphere and, more specifically, the activities of right-wing, authoritarian groups (Fuchs 2018; 2020).
This is a commonplace in studies of the ‘new’ nationalism in the west (Norris & Inglehart 2019) but similar issues can also be found in relation to studies of digital nationalism in other non-western settings. For instance, much of the work on Chinese digital nationalism has tended to focus on more ‘extreme’ examples, such as online attacks against Japanese or Taiwanese ‘targets’ (Liu 2006; Wu 2007). Even Florian Schneider’s commendable book on China, which covers an impressive range of topics, including search, hyperlinks and regulation, still uses two extreme cases the Nanjing Massacre of 1937–1938 and contemporary disputes over islands in the East China Sea to showcase key arguments (Schneider 2018). Elsewhere, a recent study of cyber-nationalism in Pakistan focused on a terrorist attack on a school during a time of ‘national crisis’ (Kalim & Janjua 2019).
Now the problem, here, isn’t studying the links between nationalism and extremes per se, but only discussing nationalism in these terms. This is a critique that Billig directed at the academy and policy makers over two decades ago in the aforementioned Banal Nationalism. Reducing nationalism in this way matters for two crucial reasons. First, rather than simply viewing nationalism as an exclusionary political ideology it is much better understood as an established belief system, broadly accepted by many people around the globe, which suggests that; ‘the world is (and should be) divided into identifiable nations, that each person should belong to a nation, that an individual’s nationality has some influence on how they think and behave and also leads to some responsibilities and entitlements’ (Skey 2011, 5). Second, the articulation of this idea cannot be simply reduced to the activities of right-wing politicians and drunken football fans. It is also about, for example, every day, seemingly innocuous, conversations about holidays, food and sport (Skey & Antonsich 2017). Just as importantly, the extreme outbursts only make sense in relation to the unremarkable stuff that seems to generate much less concern or interest (Skey & Antonsich 2017a, 324-325). So, what of this ‘unremarkable stuff’? Is there any evidence that national frameworks routinely continue to inform online structures and content or are new forms of identification, solidarity and belonging coming to the fore?
Where’s the evidence?
When trying to make sense of the place of the nation in a digital era, ‘news’ seems like an obvious place to start. First, it represents a key plank in many of the original arguments around the significance of mass media to national imaginaries and, second, there is no doubt that digital technologies have fundamentally altered the ways in which news is collected, collated, presented and engaged with. In many parts of the world, the popularity of many traditional news sources has fallen dramatically and consumption practices have also transformed (Siles & Boczkowski 2012). For instance, a number of studies (Boczkowski 2010; Soffer 2013) have pointed to the impact of rolling news, time-shifting and video-on-demand on the simultaneous consumption of media products, thereby undermining the link between ritualised forms of practice, and (national) imagination (Anderson  2006). At the same time, much remains familiar in terms of journalistic practices (Sonwalkar 2005), news content (Dimitrova et al. 2003; Berger 2009; Hafez 2007; Soffer 2013) and audience preferences (D’Haenens et al. 2004; Tunstall 2007). As Guy Berger observes:
‘it would … appear that many news institutions in cyberspace still retain the character of prior media in regard to three features: preferencing local and national news, domesticating news about other countries, and reflecting imbalanced flows between First and Third World countries.’ (Berger 2009, 355)
If we look beyond news to other types of content, it is not hard to find evidence for the continuing salience of nationally-inflected content and priorities across a range of media and locales. In relation to television, empirical studies have been conducted across a host of formats, and settings, including; soaps (Kumar 2010; Munshi 2012; Gamage 2018; Negra et al. 2013), comedy (Medhurst 2007; Perkins 2010), drama (Dhoest 2004; Cetin 2014), lifestyle (McElroy 2008; Hutchings & Miazhevich 2010), reality programmes (Dhoest 2004a; Volčič & Erjavec 2015), documentaries (Roy 2007, Roosvall 2009), and sport (Tzanelli 2004; Visacs 2011). Even the rapid growth of over-the-top digital television platforms with a more global purview, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, hasn’t necessarily diminished the salience of national frameworks (Lobato 2019). Netflix, which looks to position itself as a global television internet company, often privileges locally-produced content alongside it’s big-budget US productions, has to contend with national-level regulations (quotas, obscenity laws and public service broadcasting protections) and has a restricted presence and appeal in many parts of the world (Ibid., 144-161).
When it comes to the activities of other large-scale commercial producers, the increasingly globalised flows in programmes, formats and genres around the world has been used to evidence the emergence of a more global media culture. These connections are significant, not least in generating networks of media workers, but ‘cultural proximity’ (Straubhaar 2007) is still an important factor in determining which products succeed in overseas markets. As Albert Moran has argued, in relation to TV formats, modifications are generally required to suit the preferences of audiences and the demands of regulators. As a result, the production, regulation and reception of these ‘global formats … continue[s] to be anchor[ed] … in the ongoing reality of the national’ (Moran 2009, 158).
This argument is also borne out by studies into promotional culture, where marketing campaigns are often ‘localised’ to suit national preferences and mores (Zhou & Belk, 2004). Similarly, the literature on place branding has pointed to the ways in which nations are also being aggressively marketed on a global scale in order to attract inward investment and build political alliances (Kaneva 2011; Anholt 2016). Hosting and participating in mega events is a key plank within many of these campaigns and while such events are often global in nature, they are also generally framed in terms of competing nations operating within a taken-for-granted international framework (Grix & Lee 2013).
The continuing salience of national frameworks to ‘legacy’ media such as television and advertising might not seem that surprising, but what of studies that focus more directly on digital technologies themselves? Research into the architecture of the internet is growing apace but tends to focus on technical issues. There is, however, a small body of work that has analysed how certain features of the online world, such as domain names, hyperlinks and algorithms, continue to recreate national distinctions and ways of thinking (Halavais 2000; Bharat et al. 2001; Dimitrova et al. 2003; Segev et al. 2007; Shklovski & Struthers 2010; Szulc 2017). Alexander Halavais’ ground-breaking study of hyperlinks (2000), almost two decades ago, showed that most websites linked to others within the same country and these patterns have recently been confirmed by Lukasz Szulc, in his work on Turkey and Poland (2016; 2017) and, in particular, by Florian Schneider (2018) in an extensive study of the Chinese digital environment. Indeed, Schneider’s work is also important at it offers more empirical evidence of algorithmic bias, whereby search engines provide different information to users depending on where they happen to be located. The biggest digital platforms, such as Google and Amazon, have country-specific versions (google.nl or amazon.co.uk) and often incorporate other features that are framed in national terms, such as the Google Doodle referencing national holidays or particular historical events.
In the Chinese case, the state tightly regulates what users can and can’t see so that some specific search terms are banned and others carefully managed. For instance, searching Tiananmen Square on Baidu, the main Chinese search engines, produces very few results compared to a related search on Google (Schneider 2018, 68-69). Early visions of a global network where users from around the world could effortlessly interact have, then proved, somewhat fanciful and in many cases it’s possible to talk of an online national ecosystem. China is the most obvious example of this, with state-regulated commercial organisations providing Chinese alternatives to all of the main US platforms. Russia is another example where ‘local’ social networking sites such as Odnoklassniki and VKontakte continue to attract more users than the main ‘Western’ alternatives (Baran & Stock 2015).
Finally, while the topics of digital identity and community have generated an enormous body of literature (for an overview, see Baym 2015), relatively little of this work has focused on the extent to which the practices of ordinary users may be informed by national categories, preferences and sensibilities (for noteworthy exceptions, see Zhao et al. 2003; Kim & Yun 2007; Sasada 2006; Mainsah 2011; Bouvier 2012; Soffer 2013; Szulc 2017; Trost 2018). This lacuna leads on to the final section of this paper, which offers a couple of brief reflections on how we might approach the relationship between media and nation in the future.
Theorising and studying media nations and nationhood in the contemporary era
This paper began by arguing that the relationship between media and nation has been neglected by scholars of both nationalism and the media. Books directly addressing this relationship can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand and while journal papers are more plentiful they are often limited by the ways in which they understand and/or theorise the nation. In broader terms, it appears that arguments made in the early 2000’s around the death of the nation seem to have been an over-exaggeration. This isn’t to suggest, however, that processes of globalisation haven’t had profound impacts on people’s everyday lives and, in particular, the ways in which they identify, and engage, with others. Therefore, what we require are theoretical approaches that are able to navigate a path between, on the one hand, theorising nations as contingent and contested while, on the other, exploring the ways in which they are treated as if they are real, concrete entities with a meaning and significance in numerous people’s lives (Skey 2011, 9-21). In the latter case, we also need to actively investigate when, and why, national frameworks come to matter in relation to both routine interactions but also in moments of crisis or celebration. There is an established literature dealing with such everyday (practice theory, mundane reason, ethnomethodology, presentation of self, tacit knowledge, entitativity) and eventful (rituals, solidarity, emotions, affect) issues in a range of disciplines across the social sciences and scholars of nationalism should be encouraged to engage with these approaches in a much more concerted manner (Skey & Antonsich 2017a).
Likewise, those in media studies, need to move beyond Anderson’s celebrated aphorism to think more fruitfully about the ways in which research around, say, media practices, events, rituals and users, as well as affordances and affects, could open up new avenues for theory and research in relation to the nation. Elsewhere, in terms of method, we now have available a range of naturally occurring data, including in the cases of media users, original posts, links, likes, comments, which could be productively exploited through a range of micro and macro perspectives from discourse and content to network analysis. Studies of big data are being used to inform analyses of gender, racism and social movements, why not nationalism beyond the standard stuff about Trump, Brexit and the Five-Star Movement?
Finally, there should be a greater interest in trying to bring these range of insights and features together to think more critically about how they continue (or otherwise) to inform a taken-for-granted understanding of the world as a world of nations. As I have argued before (Skey 2014), making a distinction between the mediation of individual nations and the mediation of nationhood may offer a particularly productive way of theorising the continue power of nationalism in the contemporary era. Individual news-stories, advertising campaigns or Weibo posts may offer fascinating insights into the ways in which a particular version of this or that nation is articulated, by whom and for what purposes. But these often frantic, sometimes ferocious, debates around national belonging and entitlement rarely challenge the legitimacy of nationalism as an established and, often taken-for-granted, framework for making sense of the world.