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Review of  The Discursive Construction of National Identity

Reviewer: Derek Irwin
Book Title: The Discursive Construction of National Identity
Book Author: Ruth Wodak Rudolf de Cillia Martin Reisigl Karin Liebhart
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 21.3197

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AUTHORS: Ruth Wodak, Rudolf de Cillia, Martin Reisigl, and Karin Liebhart
TITLE: The Discursive Construction of National Identity
SUBTITLE: Second edition
PUBLISHER: Edinburgh University Press
YEAR: 2009

Derek Irwin, English Studies, University of Nottingham Ningbo Campus


As a previous reviewer has pointed out (Galasinska 2010), reviewing this volume
is a daunting task: it has been highly praised by very discerning critics, from
its first German publication in 1998, through three other printings, until the
arrival of this expanded volume. Although making a name as the harshest
reviewer of this text is somewhat tempting, such would be a hard sell indeed: it
is meticulous, accurate, and impressive in both its scope and depth. The
general goal of the book is to explore how Austrians negotiate various forms of
being Austrian in spoken texts, from the public speeches of political leaders,
through group discussions, and into private interviews. There are thus a number
of variables present, including the degree of dissemination of the various texts
to a wider audience, the relative power of the speaker over the issues in
question, and the level of formality in text production, to name a few. The
analysis takes advantage of these different contexts of production to
systematically explore the various content and strategies that different
speakers use in different situations to create and negotiate ideas of national
identity, and presents the findings in such a way as to suggest their
applicability outside of the specific Austrian milieu.

The text is ''a considerably abbreviated version of the German edition'' (p. 1),
although the present edition does have an updated chapter in which the analysis
is brought up to the year 2008. The main arc of the arguments is therefore made
more convincing, as well as contemporaneous.

The book comprises eight chapters, as well as two appendices which include
listings of the publicly-available data. The chapters are as follows:

1. Introduction
This short introduction serves to provide the theoretical orientation with which
the authors explore the creation of national identity in Austrian discourse.
However, the authors do point out that, following on Wodak (1996), ''we do not
limit ourselves to theory-building, but place great emphasis on the analysis of
our empirical data'' (p. 2). The analysis aims to ''conceptualise and identify
the various macrostrategies employed in the construction of national identities
and to describe them using a hermeneutic-abductive approach'' (p. 3) - in other
words, the authors emphasize their ability to interpret what is significant in
the data, assumedly because of prior familiarity with the discourse and culture.
Two key theoretical underpinnings are the following of Benedict Anderson's
(1983) notion of nations as ''imagined communities,'' and the concept that
national identities are ''malleable, fragile and, frequently, ambivalent and
diffuse'' (p. 4). This text thus argues for a break from the traditional
national constructs of the Staatsnation and Kulturnation (p. 6).

2. The Discursive Construction of National Identity
This chapter deals with the two major issues in the title, namely those of
''identity'' and the means with which to analyse it in various types of discourse
of nationhood. In broad strokes, it uses the Vienna School of Critical
Discourse Analysis method of triangulation (as per Cicourel 1969), i.e.
''discursive phenomena are approached from a variety of methodological and
theoretical perspectives taken from various disciplines'' (p. 9). While perhaps
open to accusations of subjectivity, this approach allows the analyst to
synthesize various forms of text through a range of disciplinary methodologies,
yielding results which are contextually bound yet meaningful in other situations
with similar variables of nationhood and identity construction. Such fluidity
is also important in the approach because the notion of ''identity'' is itself
fluid (p. 11), through various forms such as those of self, narrative,
system-related, national, and, in fact, multiple. Out of these, perhaps the
most pertinent to this study is that of the narrative identity, as that is the
means through which the imagined national figure - the ''homo nationalis'' - is
constructed, and there is a thorough discussion here of the various means with
which the story of the nation is created.

The discursive practices are similarly thoroughly laid out in this chapter,
divided into the ''contents'' and ''strategies'' employed in various discourses.
The means and forms through which these contents and strategies are employed are
laid out in a series of tables (2.1-2.5, pp. 36-42), which provide a means of
replicating this sort of study in other contexts.

3. On Austrian Identity: The Scholarly Literature
This chapter provides the service of contextualization for readers not familiar
with the Austrian context, giving an historical overview as well as a window
into the practice of Austrian self-definition. It simultaneously recognizes the
efforts to define the Austrian national identity, while at the same time showing
some of the problems with this process given the fact that much of the
identification is done against Germany while simultaneously being conducted in
(Austrian) German. Further, there are a large number of Austrians who are not
unilingual; ''members of local, regional, ethnic and national minorities are
subject to a far more complicated interplay of situation-specific, multiple
identity constructions than are those who belong exclusively to a unilingual
majority'' thus resulting in multiple identities (p. 57). Even in those areas in
which identity seems fairly well-established, there are problems. The first is
historical, and has to do with Austria's complicated relationship with the
National Socialists during the Second World War, both resisting and enabling the
crimes of that state. The second is political, and has to do with the
identification of Austria as a neutral state while simultaneously risking losing
that important piece of self-identity with the joining of the EU. The ways that
these problems are dealt with in the discourse are explored in further chapters.

4. The Public Arena: Commemorative Speeches and Addresses
This chapter deals with the most public discourse, that of political leaders.
The analysis here is largely concerned with the content of these texts, in which
it is found that ''they assigned praise or blame to certain moments of Austria's
past or present'' (p. 70) and that ''the thematic texture centres almost
exclusively on the narration of a common political past and on the discursive
construction of a common political present and future'' (p. 74). In building up
the ''imagined community'' of Austria, these speakers first had to confront the
past of National Socialism, which they generally did by creating an equivalence
of victimhood: all Austrians suffered equally through that point in history.
Moving to the present and future, the public speakers provided a kind of ''locus
amoenus'': ''a 'beautiful landscape' often mentioned in a more general sense to
refer to the common national territory or serving to depict a rather abstract
ideal political place where human beings live together happily, in affluence, in
harmony and without conflicts'' (p. 98). Of course, it was found that the more
power the politicians had over the body politic, the more likely they were to
employ this theme, thus justifying and hopefully perpetuating their roles in the

5. Semi-Public Discussion: The Focus Group Interviews
This data was quite interesting, as the authors were able to use it ''to follow
closely patterns of recontextualisation and the transformation of elite concepts
of national identity during group interactions'' (p. 107). In fact, the group
context was also significant as it led to the participants negotiating and
co-constructing the underlying features of national identity, generally building
consensus instead of asserting definitions - and thus some were able to question
the statements of the public discourse, even to the point where a group
dismissed a speech ''as typical 'politicians' babble' because of its ambivalence
and vagueness'' (p. 132). These groups tended to stress the inclusion of all
members, simultaneously expressing ''explicit emphasis or presupposition of
intra-national similarity and sameness as well as emphasis of national
singularity and autonomy'' (p. 141). They did this in discourse by such devices
as metonymically employing ''Austria'' for the population, or using the somewhat
vague ''we'' to sketch out in-groups.

6. Semi-Private Opinions: The Qualitative Interviews
These twenty-four sessions were set up ''to resemble informal open-ended, private
conversations [thus] there was little observable pressure to articulate
statements conforming to group opinions or politically correct statements'' (p.
146). Because of the open-ended nature, there were also some topics brought in
that the participants believed important to the notion of identity that were not
mentioned in other forums. The ''homo Austriacus'' here did not have such a tight
focus on nationality; ''even where interviewees emphasised citizenship as a
criterion for national membership and identity (which, by the way, did not occur
very often), most of them pointed to linguistically, culturally and ethnically
defined elements of Austrian self-perception at a later point in the interview''
(pp. 150-51). Significantly, it appears that the identification here was less
about finding a national character to agree upon the ''Austrian-ness'' of, but
rather to see how notions of that character could be used to project elements of
the self into. In dealing with the national past, most of the participants
believed it necessary to confront it. ''However, the interviewees scarcely ever
indicated that they saw any connection to current and everyday racism and
exclusionary practices. The topos of 'history teaching lessons', frequent in
political speeches, seems to be of no relevance in the individual-private
discourse of national identity'' (p. 168). Also significant here was that as
individuals, participants tended to be much more positive towards the EU,
contradicting the general consensus of groups in the last chapter and, more
overtly, the Austrian population in general (p. 172).

7. Conclusion: Imagined and Real Identities - the Multiple Faces of the ''homo
The authors here present those parts of the findings which they believe to be
pertinent ''across contemporary Europe'' (p. 186) - and I would argue, as a
Canadian, these may certainly be extrapolated to much wider circles. In this
vein, they point out that ''The discursive constructs of national identities
emphasise foremost national uniqueness and intra-national uniformity, and
largely tend to ignore intra-national difference (the discourses of sameness).
Above all, however, the greatest possible differences from other nations are
frequently simultaneously constructed through discourses of difference, and
especially difference from those foreign nations that seem to exhibit the most
striking similarities'' (p. 186). Intra-nationally, the less public discussions
also served to emphasize the importance of language to group identity: ''language
was perceived as a crucial factor in differentiation (not being able to speak a
language supposedly leads to alienation, fear and rejection), as was the
foreigners' 'insistence on their traditions'. Integration, subordination and
assimilation were demanded of foreigners living in Austria'' (p. 192). Finally,
they list ''at least five different important macro-strategies which play a
significant part in the discourse of national identity. These are: constructive
strategies, strategies of relativisation or justification, strategies of
perpetuation, strategies of transformation, and disparagement and/or destructive
strategies'' (pp. 199-200). It would be compelling to see whether these same
strategies are as clearly employed in data taken from a different national
group, especially those in which the linguistic borders are as fuzzy as those
this text examines.

8. The 'Story' Continues: 1995-2008
This chapter serves to bring the data into the present, integrating new
information from the recent populist political movement in Austria, where
certain discourse strategies have been made more overt. For example, ''the
all-encompassing construct of the 'community of victims' is becoming
increasingly institutionalised and established… 'perpetrators' are more
frequently obfuscated, often by the use of passive constructions'' (p. 207,
italics replaced with single quotes). We see more clearly in this data that the
discourse effect of confronting the National Socialism past is to create an
equivalence of victimhood between, for example, concentration camp inmates and
soldiers (p. 212). Externally, joining the EU a fait accompli, there were a few
bumps on the road, such as the bilateral measures by the EU-14 in 2000 which
were characterized as ''sanctions'' by the populist government, which then called
for a ''closing of ranks'' around the ''fatherland''. The authors here argue that
''calls for a 'national closing of ranks' are part of an authoritarian identity
politics that imagines a homogeneous national community and aims at enforcing
'false consent' and political conformity, which inhibits the pluralist
articulation of conflicts of interest and differences of opinion, which in turn
are vital for a functioning democracy'' (p. 231). An interesting feature of this
trend is that the movement of populism from the opposition into the government
means that the government no longer functions as a scapegoat, thus new
''Feindbilder'' ('bogeyman images') are necessary (p. 214).


As I have already mentioned, many exceptional scholars have already praised this
book, and rightly so. It is an excellent exploration of the means with which we
construct identity through discourse, focusing in on the particular case study
of Austria with outstanding attention to patterns in very detailed data. It is
translated outstandingly by Angelika Hirsch, Richard Mitten and J.W. Unger,
meaning that there is an effort to preserve those parts of the initial data
which can inform our understanding of the linguistic issues while simultaneously
maintaining thorough comprehensibility for non-German readers.

There are two somewhat paradoxical criticisms I might level, as they are also
the very strengths of the book. The first has to do with the aforementioned
''hermeneutic-abductive approach'' (p. 3), or ''triangulation'' (p. 9), which leave
this study open to some of the standard criticisms of Critical Discourse
Analysis, namely that it risks either stating the obvious, or is somehow merely
replacing the ideology of the discourse with that of the critic (or that the
results are somehow ''subjective''). However, the breadth of material and the
depth to which it is analyzed here counters the first issue, and perhaps the
number of significant scholars involved in this project counters the second.
The largest problem with this approach, then, is if it were to be replicated by
those without adequate backgrounds to be able to employ probabilistic abduction,
but such a criticism is shallow, as poor results would similarly speak for
themselves as these significant ones do.

The second criticism is equally contradictory: there are times in which the
cultural specificity of the Austrian-centered data might be somewhat off-putting
for those significantly outside of that particular context. However, this is
also why this book is so authoritative, given that it is based firmly on this
data, and so there is no reason, in this volume at least, to aim for something
more ''universal''. Those seeking a fascinating discussion on more generalized
notions of national identity and discourse can certainly confine themselves to
the Introduction and Conclusion, although much will be lost by doing so.

There are a few very minor errata, which I list simply to inform the next
edition. Typos: ''served'' should read ''severed'' in Note 4, p. 47; ''patters''
should read ''patterns'' and ''interests'' should be singular on p. 231. There is
also a stray apostrophe after ''academics'' on p. 62.

There is also some minor repetition, which may or may not be deemed important:
the Ethnic Group Act's bilingual sign measure (of 25 per cent of the population
being required for bilingual signs in an area) on p. 58 has already been
mentioned, as have Bruck and Stocker's ''optimal group size'' (p. 107) and
Participant CF5's observation on being Austrian (p. 120).

Finally, the introduction might be updated to acknowledge the additional
chapter. Although it is discussed in the preface to the new edition, an
explanation of how this new data fits in with the overall theory would be
useful, as there are some significant findings vis-à-vis the populist movement
that are quite significant in the overall construction of identity.

These minor points aside, I would certainly recommend this book as an excellent
study on nation and identity, and a fascinating read on Austrian culture as well.


Anderson, Benedict (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and
Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Cicourel, Aaron (1969). Method and Measurement in Sociology. New York: Free
Press of Glencoe.

Galasinska, Aleksandra (2010) Review: The Discursive Construction of National
Identity. Applied Linguistics 31, 166-168.

Wodak, Ruth (1996). Disorders of Discourse. New York: Longman.

Derek Irwin is a lecturer in English Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo Campus. His work focuses on language contact, especially that in early Canadian English and the use of English in the Chinese context.

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