10 June 2010

3103) Issues Of National Identity Preservation In The Armenian Diaspora: Social-Psychological Perspective by Sona Manusyan

Among the central problems of Diaspora communities and nations which have Diasporas, issues of the preservation of the identity take traditional place. In the context of globalization and transnational processes, alongside with the geopolitical, economic and cultural re-divisions, changes in the collective self-consciousness are taking place as well. The discourse of identity is particularly activated in reaction to the permanent processes of the revisions and reshaping of group boarders; efforts to maintain the borders of one’s own group are brought up to date; ethno-defensive mechanisms are launched. Rapid social changes, the development of the means of communication and informational influences form new-type societies and new group identities, which, however, . . do not remove the issues of the national identity from the agenda but even more so - to some extent underline them evoking concerns about the preservation and integrity of the nation. Against this background identity becomes not only point at issue but, per se, one of the key categories of the modern societies’ analysis1.

And almost all the national units, even those for whom the preservation of the national identity is not a priority, demonstrate certain anxiety about the transnational processes. However, the Diaspora communities which have the issue of the national identity in their agenda are facing particular challenges. It is known that the Diaspora by itself is a rather complicated subject of research; it implies single nation but not a single culture, single nation, but not a single language, one ethnic identity combined with many other group identities, as well as the necessity to integrate and organize them from time to time.

Before turning to the social and psychological problems of the Armenian Diaspora, let us try to clarify the contemporary interpretations of the identity. Today the identity’s phenomenon is considered in different discourses not as a homogeneous and static essence but as a complicated, changing and changeable, hybrid phenomenon. Such concepts as multiple identity, identity construction as well the plural use of the term identity (identities) have become customary.

The social identity, alongside with the ethnic identity, also includes the layer of national identity, civil identity and others, which differ in their meaning2. It is also spoken about the diaspora identity, bicultural, transnational, cosmopolitan and a number of other identities. Of course, ethnicity still remains one of the key forms of group identity which provides and nourishes a person’s feeling of having grounds and roots and his/her attachment to them, and ensures the sense of psychological security and stability. In this aspect ethnos is perceived by a person as a kind of psychological commonality and ethnic identity as one of its fundamental characteristics3. It is natural that people, wherever they are, try to identify themselves with their ethnic group and just the opposite – the difficulties of building of positive ethnic identity cause problems both at intrapersonal level and at the levels of in inter-group and intra-group interactions. As mentioned above, however, ethnicity is not the only form of the group membership especially in our modern complex life implying the involvement in different groups. Quite reasonably, identity is considered today not as an objective belonging according to the fixed criteria of compliance/non-compliance but as a subjective belonging – self-categorization.

And even under such a big “choice of identities”, the Me-Other, We-They oppositions still remain one of the fundamental mechanisms of the work of our mental sphere when building identity. Along with these terms, contemporary social psychology also uses such constructs as in-group(the group of belonging) and out-group (the totality of others outside this group). Meanwhile, those borders are not set once and forever; they may be reconsidered and changed in accordance with the social contexts. In other words, one's being “insider” or “outsider” may depend on the group of comparison in the given situation, and the border may accordingly change, broaden etc. Thus, while in some context ethnicity may act as a basis for the differentiation of “we-they”, in another situation a person with the same identity can be ragarded as an «other», «alien» if in that case other dimensions of social identity - e.g. civil or even professional identity, prove to be more topical and salient.

Taking into account the aforementioned it is worth considering some issues of the identity of the Armenians in Diaspora in the context of their interrelations with those living in Armenia. It is clear that alongside with such an essential commonality between the Armenians from Diaspora and from the RA as well as between the representatives of different Armenian communities as is the same ethnic background, there are also distinguishing characteristics, certain distance and boundaries which are conditioned by the noticeable differences in social, cultural and political contexts as well as the realities of their everyday life.

To take a sober view of things one should turn to the dimensions of “We-They”. Basing upon the idea of ethnic commonality it may seem natural that any given two Armenians or Armenian communities should be unified and mutually positioned by the feeling of “we”; they should be inside the “we” space. However, this is not self-evident reality. Together with the ethnic identity there are also other types of group membership which are not less essential in the context of everyday life regulation. Thus the Armenian may feel commonality with representatives of another society which is close to him by its value and semantic systems, which “shares” his everyday, tangible social realities and just the opposite- he/she may feel estranged to his compatriot during a concrete interaction with him/her. Here we do not speak about the repudiating their national or ethnic background because, as it was mentioned above, its vitality is conditioned by the intrinsic need to have roots and backgrounds. It simply means that not always the ethnic identity is a suffice platform for effective communication with the Armenians from the RA or the compatriots from other communities; likewise for the sense of closeness, attachment and mutual preferences. That is the reason why the habitual appeals to unite, to think the same way based merely on shared ethnicity cannot easily change the boundaries reinforced by realities of everyday life. Further to this, it should also be considered that a human being feels more comfortable in the environment which provides higher psychological comfort and lower tension, and all these are the familiar and predictable environments. Contrariwise, those objects which are vague and not familiar enough cause the sense of strain and avoidance. In this context, of course, the image of the motherland for the Armenian from the Diaspora (or for the Armenian who settled in other country in the issue of the migration flows) is a construct which although has a positive connotation but at the same time it contains a kind of uncertainty as compared to the country of residence. There can be traced certain differences at the layers of actual and imaginary realities. In the later case, e.g. a young Armenian from Diaspora is connected by the shared ”We” with his/her compatriots who are part of his idealized motherland. The real communication (actual association with his compatriot), however, may challenge that sense of “we”, underlining the differences and revealing the barriers for communication and uneasiness associated with it; and in order to avoid them a person can evade further real communication.

The mechanisms described above seem obvious and natural at the level of psychological truths. However, when coming down to discussing definite national issues, they, in our opinion, are not sufficiently considered as a factor, and this under-consideration brings about certain mutual attributions, clichés, and accusations. The concerns about national identity and their preservation often sidestep these simple realities and shifting the questions to the radical nationalistic plane, they set only one possible model of a nation and any “deviation” is qualified as a betrayal to own nation.

As an example we can take one of the public opinion polls we carried out among the Armenian youth from some communities in the Armenian Diaspora4. Among other questions we asked them to grade 4 groups (Armenians from the RA, Armenians from the local Armenian community, the representatives of the titular ethnic group of the country of inhabitance, the representatives of other nations) and in a descending order mention the preferences while choosing their life’s companion (in the first case) and business partner (in the second case). It is remarkable that while choosing the life’s companion preference was given to the Armenians from Armenia (and not, for example, to the Armenians from the local community). Such a positive choice in case when you want to jump to conclusions can make one glad. And while choosing a business partner the picture was quite different – Armenians from the RA were loosing their grounds. Perhaps the point is that answering the question about the marriage young people who had not faced such a choice at given period of life were guided by the existing socially “prescribed” and desirable ideas and thus they chose their compatriot. Meanwhile more pragmatic and concrete question about a business partner in this case might have functioned as a kind of “controlling” question which reveals certain mistrust and psychological distance.
Conclusions: outlining the possible

All the aforementioned, of course, do not purpose to outline bleak prospects and leave out of our field of vision opportunities which are given by the specificity of situation in the Diaspora. Even more, the article does not aim to show that different groups of Armeniancy are alien to each other in every way either. The goal of the article is to draw attention to the fact that there is such grading in general and to make the necessity of knowing it obvious enough. “We-They” is not a static structure but a dynamic relation which is constantly being revised by the choice and which can be influenced in the desired direction. In that very sense it is important to clarify the inward psychological meaning of “we”.

Besides, that very globalization, which is today considered as a threat to the resisting small nations, is taking a positive turn by providing chances to communicate in the social networks and real life. There with, that communication is also a kind of platform for cultural interpenetration, creation of the common semantic space and its broadening or simply speaking for better understanding each other. In this regard the positive tendencies can be observed and this is evidenced by the existing virtual and real groups uniting Armenians from Diaspora and the RA.

And, finally, it’s quite long time now that identity no longer assumes physical embededdness in the ethnic culture and it is more often formulated as and imagined community5, constructing subjective membership. Thus the point we are making is not that all the Armenians should be alike by their cultural and civil characteristics and tend to be alike in their everyday life, but the point is that they should have commonalities in those ideas, visions. I.e. in case if there are suffice mechanisms for the sense of belonging (for which civilization and ethnic commonalities seem to be suffice basis) a person who, e.g. lives in London may feel and act like and Armenian – for a group of Armenians and on its behalf, which in its turn, will not prevent him from doing and feeling in everyday life like a Londoner.

Summing up, let us mention that ethnicity (starting from Fredrik Barth already) is considered to be not an exclusively inherited and static cultural content but as a political, social and cultural resource which is “placed” and selectively used in a definite social and political context.

It was F. Barth who also suggested that the researchers should pay attention not so much to the primordial basis of the cultural content but to the efforts an ethnic group applies to preserve its boundaries clear6.

1See Борисова О.А., Ускользающая идентичность или анализ категории «идентичность» в рамках структурно-конструктивисткого подхода, http://vestnik.udsu.ru/2006/2006-03/vuu_06_03_15.pdf; Meyer, Brigit and Geschiere, Peter. Globalization and Identity: Dialectics of Flow and Closure. Blackwell Publishing, 1999.

2Бунаков М.Ю., Лукин В.Н., Национализм и национальная идентичность в условиях глобализации: проблемы концептуализации, http://credonew.ru/content/view/553/58

3Степаненко Т.Г., Социально-психологические аспекты изучения этнической идентичности, 1999, http://flogiston.ru/articles/social/etnic, 1999

4The purpose of the research was to reveal in the given group social and psychological aspects of relations with Armenia, compatriots and the local Armenian community.

5See Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities: Reflection on the origin and spread of nationalism”, Verso, 2006, ինչպես նաև՝ Halleh Ghorashi: How Dual is Transnational Identity? A Debate on Dual Positioning of Diaspora Organizations. Culture and Organization, December 2004, Vol. 10(4), pp. 329–34.

6Barth Fredrik, Ethnic groups and boundaries. The social organization of culture difference. Oslo, 1969
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