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The Cross-Cultural Construction of National Identity: a Polish-British Case Study

by Beth Edginton of the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

When we're abroad, whether on holiday or for research, I guess we've all had that experience of finding ourselves attracted to, or indeed revolted by, aspects of a foreign culture. Whether it's relaxing in a café, looking at the scenery, or slogging through manuscripts in someone else's national library, most of us when in another country have probably at some point thought 'Yes, I feel at home here, this is me!' or alternatively, 'God I can't stand this place, get me out!'. Often, of course, it's a subtle combination of the two, and the longer the stay, the more confusing it tends to get. At the same time, we've probably also all occasionally felt that our national origin has dictated the way in which people have responded to us: perhaps we've felt that an identity has been imposed on us, or maybe that we've been interpreted or constructed in particular ways because of where we come from. In a complicated set of exchanges, then, we have all inevitably - and probably mostly unconsciously - used other cultures to reflect on and to redefine who we are, sometimes loathing, sometimes identifying with what we perceive to be the vices and virtues of another nation, and have been on the receiving end of the process as well. It's something we do when we go abroad, it's something that's done to us when we go abroad, whoever 'we' are, and wherever it is we're travelling from or travelling to.

In this paper, I'd like to talk about a kind of extended version of those everyday experiences and feelings, by outlining some ethnographic research on Polishness and Britishness that I did in Poland, and by discussing some of the theoretical reflections about the epistemology of ethnography that have come out of that research. In particular, I want to ask whether it's actually possible to engage single-handedly in the kind of 'reflexivity' that ethnography demands - whether it's possible, in other words, for the ethnographer to reflect independently on his or her own interpretations and constructions of the culture he or she is studying. I also want to propose a new, and I hope more radical, approach to ethnography, in which the ethnographer not only investigates another culture, but also submits to a parallel process of investigation of his or her own, personal culture.

Before thinking about some of the more theoretical aspects, I'd like briefly to fill in a bit of the background as to why I did the research and how I approached it.

I first went to Poland in 1985 and I went back again in 1987; these initial visits largely occurred by chance (I'd volunteered as an assistant on UNESCO summer schools and was allocated to Poland) and each trip lasted for a month. I felt an immediate attraction to the place and affinity with the culture - or at least an affinity with my idea of Polish culture - and so when I graduated, I went to teach at a Polish University from 1988 - 1990 - obviously a fascinating time to be there because it was the last year of Communism and the first year of the Solidarity Government. I then moved back to Britain, but continued to make short visits whenever I could. There were three things which particularly fascinated me and which made me want to go back time and time again. The first was what I was told about Polishness, how it was represented to me, and why it was represented in the ways that it was - I think I got a sense very early on of how important the national culture was to many people, and how there was this desire that outsiders should understand why it was significant. The second thing that fascinated me was how the people I met reacted to me in terms of my Englishness: I was interested in what they thought Englishness was, where those ideas came from, and how they affected the ways in which I was read - I had a definite feeling that my Englishness carried a lot of cultural and historical resonance - indeed, there were times when I felt I was being held almost personally responsible for what Britain had - or more to the point had not - done during the Second World War ! The third thing I found interesting was my own strong, positive emotional reaction to what I perceived Polishness to be - something I found particularly puzzling in as much as I had no Polish background, and, prior to 1985, no previous experience of, or contact with, the country.

As a way of investigating these interests, which I found intensified each time I went back to Poland, I decided to spend nine months in 1995/96 doing ethnographic research with the Polish British Friendship Society. I chose this group because it seemed likely that its members would have the kind of strong emotional attachment to another culture that particularly fascinated me. I gradually got to know some of the members, and then interviewed fifteen people on three separate occasions over a period of about six months. As I also wanted to get a sense of how typical or otherwise their views about Polishness and Britishness - or as it turned out, Englishness - might be, I also interviewed another fifteen people who didn't belong to the Polish British Friendship Society, but who to me represented different factions of the Polish intelligentsia, and who I therefore expected to have different views of Polishness and possibly also of Britishness/Englishness. So for example, several people from this second group were members of the main political parties, or people who for other reasons provided a range of specific viewpoints on Polishness. Finally, I interviewed a small number of people who could be said to be specialists in some way or other on Polish culture: the novelist Andrzej Szczypiorski, the sociologist Professor Antonina Kloskowska, the Priest and Professor, Józef Tischner.

At the same time as selecting interviewees and conducting the interviews, as an ethnographer, I also engaged in participant observation, recording and reflecting on everyday events, conversations, and aspects of the culture which struck me as interesting or revealing.

Now in a short paper it's obviously not possible to go through the results of the interviews or of the participant observation in any detail, but in addition to providing information about contemporary images of Polishness and Englishness, the interviews gave me an indication of the extent to which, in Poland at least, national histories and personal histories were inextricably intertwined. Before asking about Polishness and Britishness, I usually started off by asking the interviewees to tell me about their families, about where they'd been brought up, and about where they'd lived during their lives. Perhaps because of the age range of my interviewees, which went from about 17 to about 70, and maybe also because I was doing the research in Warsaw, where of course you get people from all over the country, I found that among other things, I basically ended up with an oral history of Poland in the 20th century. I suppose it sounds a bit daft to say this, but that was perhaps the first time that it really hit me how a nation's history is actually the collective history of its individual members and their families. Just to cite a few examples, I found that one of my interviewees had fought in the Polish Resistance, another's father had died in Treblinka, someone else's grandfather had been born in what is now Lithuania as a member of the minor nobility and had lost all his land, I found out about people's views of Poland in the 1970s, and how they'd felt about the strikes in the early eighties - and so forth. That, in itself, really got me thinking about the connections between national and personal identity, and it was something I was also wondering about with regard to the participant observation aspect of the ethnography.

In this part of the research, I was struggling hard with the concept of 'reflexivity', and with the idea that I was meant to be able to distinguish between what in my own reactions to Poland and Polishness was personal, and what cultural. Given that writing an ethnography essentially involves cultural translation, I needed not only to convey the 'foreign-ness' of Polish culture, but also to render it comprehensible to those from my own society. As one of the contributors to the Writing Culture collection puts it:

The ethnographer...has to make sense of the foreign. Like Benjamin's translator, he [sic] aims at a solution to the problem of foreignness, and like the translator...he must also communicate the very foreignness that his interpretations (the translator's translations) deny... He must render the foreign familiar and preserve its very foreignness at one and the same time. The translator accomplishes this through style, the ethnographer through the coupling of a presentation that asserts the foreign and an interpretation that makes it all familiar.

(Crapanzano in Clifford and Marcus 1986: 53)

The problem was, that in order to 'make it all familiar' to potential readers from my own culture, and to give my representation of Polish culture some wider validity, I had to be able to judge the extent to which my interpretations were idiosyncratically personal, and the extent to which they were likely to be shared by my compatriots: in other words, I had to be able to determine my precise relationship to my own culture. But given that most cultural knowledge is unconscious, I found myself wondering how on earth I was to work out what that relationship was, and indeed, whether it was even relevant to want to do so.

According to the classic end of the discipline, I was meant to be collecting verifiable data about an independently existing social reality. As Hammersley and Atkinson, authors of one of ethnography's fieldwork bibles put it, apparently unaware of the contradictory nature of their position:

...there is no way in which we can escape the social world in order to study it...[but] we can still make the reasonable assumption that we are trying to describe phenomena as they are, and not merely how we perceive them [to be]...

(Hammersley and Atkinson 1995: 17 - 18)

For adherents of this position, then, subject and object were still apparently entirely separable.

According to the radical end of the discipline, what mattered was how I represented, and therefore effectively constructed, the culture I was researching: I was meant to be thinking about the topoi, tropes, and realist operators of the ethnographic text I was eventually going to produce, and of the rhetorical sleights of hand used by more traditional ethnographers. Thus I was to be aware of the danger of the all-encompassing, roving subjectivity used by Malinowski and Firth which, as Pratt comments sarcastically, 'is a multifaceted entity who participates, observes and writes from multiple, constantly shifting positions' and 'can absorb and transmit the richness of a whole culture'. (Pratt in Clifford and Marcus 1986: 39). I was also to avoid more subtle attempts to achieve the same ends, such as shifts in focalisation. This technique is amusingly illustrated by Clifford with an example from Whitten, who at one point blurs his own perspective with that of his subjects by writing: '"During the ceramic manufacturing process, women converse gently, quietly, always without conflict, about ecosystem dynamics..."'. (Whitten 1978: 847 in Clifford and Marcus, 1986: 101). Clearly, then, for the radical end of the discipline, awareness of textual strategies was all.

According to those somewhere in the middle of the discipline, there was bound to be a discrepancy between what the people I was working with said about their cultural values, beliefs and behaviours, and what they actually did, between their conscious construction of the culture, and their unconscious enactment; between the way I actually was, and the way in which informants interpreted me according to the latent identities with which they attributed me. For adherents of this position, however, I, as an ethnographer, was not susceptible to any of these problems, but was instead meant to be able to keep my emotions well out of the equation, to control my personal front, and to work out how my own presence might or might not be affecting the data. I found each of these three positions untenable.

Pretending that I was able to be entirely objective seemed to me not only foolish, but also potentially damaging and likely to result in a pretty boring ethnography: if I tried to write a supposedly 'scientific' account, then where would I put all the confusion, the excitement, the anger, the sheer emotional intensity of trying to come to terms with another culture ? Pratt encapsulates the problem when she asks of some of the early ethnographies by authors such as Evans Pritchard 'How...could...people doing such interesting things write such dull books ? What did they have to do to themselves ?' (Pratt in Clifford and Marcus 1986: 33).

Thinking about tropes, metaphors, allegories and the constructed nature of cultural accounts, and experimenting with modes of narration, as Clifford and Marcus advocate, seemed to me to be a much more sensible position, but if it was worth analysing the ethnographic text, then why wasn't it worth analysing the ethnographer as text ? When they were so enthusiastic about deconstructing ethnographic narratives, why did they draw the line at the ethnographer's narratives implying that autobiography leads 'to hyper self-consciousness and self-absorption'? (Clifford and Marcus 1986: 15).

And if, as Hammersley and Atkinson argue, culture for my informants was at the very least partly unconscious, then how was I to follow their stern advice to 'learn to cope with...[my] own feelings...[so as] to sustain...[my] role as a marginal native and complete the fieldwork' ? (Hammersley and Atkinson 1995: 123).

All of these positions seemed to me to be problematic, inasmuch as they either maintained a rigid distinction between the ethnographer as subject and the culture under consideration as object, or attempted to avoid the problem by veering off into the albeit interesting realm of the text, or simply maintained a stiff upper lip about the whole business and resorted to the colonial assumption that the ethnographer was far more rational than the 'child-like natives'.

Hoping for a rather more sophisticated and holistic approach to the problem, I started to read about the tradition of psychoanalytic ethnography, and the recent autobiographical approach. Psychoanalytic ethnography seemed to be all about how to psychoanalyse everyone else in the field apart from the ethnographer, while autobiographical ethnography recognised that 'the "race", nationality, gender, age and personal history of the fieldworker affect the process, interaction and emergent material' (Okely and Callaway 1992: xi) of the ethnography, but nevertheless seemed to maintain a highly naive belief about the powers of autobiography as praxis, and a surprisingly atheoretical idea of how the ethnographer was to go about researching her own identity narratives. Okely thus simply asserts that 'Autobiography dismantles the positivist machine' (1992: 3) and later, apparently unaware that she has just provided herself with the obvious answer, argues:

We simply do not know how to explore the specificity of the fieldworker in...[fieldwork] relationships, in order to theorise participation...We are like pre-Freudians presented with the plain narratives of dreams whose significance we are not called upon to decipher.

(Okely and Callaway 1992: 13)


None of these approaches, then, seemed to me on its own to offer a solution to the problem of subjectivity and objectivity in contemporary ethnography. Instead, I found myself wondering whether it would be possible to combine Clifford and Marcus's analysis of the ethnographic text and Okely and Callaway's use of the ethnographer's autobiography by making use of the experience of psychoanalysis. This seems to me to offer a rigorous deconstruction of the ethnographer's life narratives, the possibility of bringing to consciousness at least some of their central tropes and topoi, and the potential for a better understanding of the ethnographer's relationship with her or his own culture. The analyst, then, effectively becomes the ethnographer's ethnographer, reflecting on interviews of a sort, and using a kind of imaginative participant observation, to come to an understanding and interpretation of the ethnographer's personal culture.

What might an ethnography written using such an approach look like ? Well, in addition to a description and analysis of the culture under consideration, it would supply a psychoanalytically informed account of the ethnographer's own life narratives: in this way, the reader would have a sense of the particular filters through which the culture portrayed had been interpreted and constructed, and perhaps also of the extent to which she or he would be likely to share that viewpoint. It would not, of course, provide an objective account of the other culture, but it would at least foreground the fact that the account was very much subjective and partial. I think it might also avoid the accusation of an easy relativism, in as much as it would allow the ethnographer to make judgements about the other culture, whilst nevertheless explaining their possible provenance. Of course, psychoanalysis in itself is highly culturally specific: it cannot succeed in completely deconstructing the culture from which it originates. Nevertheless, in its more radical versions, it does, I think, offer us ways of breaking down the rigid Enlightenment subject/object dichotomy that Fabian (1983), among others, sees as lying at the foundations of the ethnographic project.

Some of the papers in Okely and Callaway's Anthropology and Autobiography collection do begin to seem to recognise that even the ethnographer possesses an unconscious: nevertheless their authors appear to find the idea extremely threatening. Cohen, for example, argues that:

It would not be contentious to suggest that many anthropologists are motivated by a personal problematic as well as by mere intellectual curiosity... [as] Fabian tersely remarks...'our past is present in us as a project'...

(Okely and Callaway 1992: 223 quoting Fabian 1983)

but he later continues: would be impractical, tedious and a denigration of our expertise to provide an autobiography as the interpretive key to our ethnographies. If we are really saying that the only paths to...[specific cultures]...are through the life-histories and self-analyses of their ethnographers, we clearly call into question the scholarly integrity of the entire ethnographic record.

(Okely and Callaway 1992: 223)

Whilst I would agree that the self-analysis is highly problematic, and no better than the scientific sounding, but ultimately rather mundane practice of 'reflexivity', it does strike me that 'calling into question the scholarly integrity of the entire ethnographic record' would be no bad thing, and entirely in keeping with the current epistemological moment.

If, as Foucault argues at the end of The Order of Things, the human sciences [of psychology, sociology, and the study of literature and myths] explain how 'man' can be both a subject and object of knowledge, then it is only because the unconscious 'is ultimately co-extensive with their very existence' (Foucault 1970: 364). But if the unconscious is an inherent consideration for the human sciences, then the 'counter sciences' of psychoanalysis, ethnology and linguistics address it far more directly. As Foucault puts it, using a image reminiscent of Benjamin's Angel of History:

Whereas the human sciences advance towards the unconscious only with their back turned towards it, waiting for it to unveil itself as fast as consciousness is analysed, as it were backwards, psychoanalysis, on the other hand, points directly towards following the same path as the human sciences, but with its gaze turned the other way...

(Foucault 1970: 374)

Although Foucault argues against a 'psychoanalytic anthropology' which combines psychoanalysis and ethnology in order to produce a universal theory of 'man' capable of unifying the human sciences, he nevertheless suggests that:

In relation to the 'human sciences', psychoanalysis and ethnology...ceaselessly 'unmake' the very man [sic] who is creating and recreating his positivity in the human sciences.

(Foucault 1970: 379)

What I wonder, then, is whether the kind of psychoanalytic ethnography that I've been discussing in this paper might begin to blur the relation between subject and object - not by subsuming the object within the subject, as Malinowski and Firth do, but by deconstructing both on a similar basis ? It seems to me that if this kind of paradigm shift is going occur anywhere, then the field of the cross-cultural construction of national identity provides some of the most fertile ground.


Benjamin, W., (1992), Illuminations, London, Fontana Press, Fontana Press edition.

Clifford, J., and Marcus, G. E., (eds) (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography University of California Press, Berkeley.

Fabian, J., (1983) Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object New York, Columbia University Press.

Foucault, M., (1970) The Order of Things: The Archaeology of the Human Sciences London, Routledge.

Hammersley, M., and Atkinson, P., (1995) Ethnography: Principles in Practice London, Routledge, 2nd edition.

Okely, J., and Callaway, H., (eds)(1992) Anthropology and Autobiography London, Routledge.

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