What makes a “true” New Zealander?
Research evidence examines the different consequences of ethnic and civic concepts of national identity.
In the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque terror attacks, researchers sought to understand local attitudes towards towards Muslims and diversity. Academic literature demonstrates that such attitudes are “inextricably linked” with “how people define national identity and conceptualize who is a ‘true’ member of the country,” so the researchers sought to test local beliefs about what makes a “true” New Zealander.
Their study adopts a distinction between two ways of understanding national identity: ethnic vs civic.
“Ethnic national character refers to national identity defined by shared ancestry or heritage in specific linguistic, ethnic, or religious traditions. According to such a conception of national identity, only people of certain descent or ancestral bloodlines can claim national identity … By contrast, civic national character defines national identity by political membership and participation along with a shared commitment to certain ideals and principles. By such a definition, anyone … can be ‘true’ members of the nation …”
Using data from the New Zealand Attitudes and Values survey, the researchers found that most New Zealanders define national identity in inclusive, civic terms: “a vast majority of New Zealanders believe that respecting New Zealand’s political institutions and laws, having New Zealand citizenship, and being able to speak English are somewhat to very important for someone to be considered a ‘true’ New Zealander.”
However, this isn’t the full story: “a sizeable minority (35%) believe that having European or Māori ancestry is somewhat to very important for someone to be a ‘true’ New Zealander.” And the researchers found evidence that:
“the more people believe that having certain ancestral bloodlines or certain cultural characteristics are defining of what it means to be a ‘true’ New Zealander, the more negatively they evaluate a minority group like Muslims, and the more negativity they express toward diversity.”
As the authors point out, an exclusive, ethnic conception of national identity has social and personal consequences. It not only poses increasing challenges in an increasingly diverse society, it also negatively affects anyone who doesn’t come within the definition, in the form of issues like “reduced life satisfaction, hope, and increased depressive symptoms.”
Neighbourliness and “a shared sense of home”, says Roger Scruton, are a better foundation for a nation than the divisions of religion or ethnic identity. He argues those divisions quickly turn attachment to the nation into the dangerous ideology of nationalism, and this research evidence appears to support his philosophical point.
We pride ourselves on being a friendly, open, welcoming country. On this evidence, we’re heading in the right direction, but we still have some way to go.