"Typically German?": national character and the eye of the beholder

Rothenberg, Bess, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Hays, Sharon, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

This cross-cultural, comparative analysis considers how the nation is constructed and understood differently across cultures. Taking Germany as my case study, I explore how images of the nation come to be influenced by the national membership of the observers. I discover a paradox in which varying images of Germany reveal more about the national character of those doing the perceiving than about the inherent nature of "Germanness." I find that social location comes to structure not just the image of this one nation but also influences understandings of the place of the nation in the larger world order. I term this process in which social location affects the role and image of the nation nationing. As I discover, this phenomenon comes to speak to issues of individualism, postmodernity, and stratification. Drawing on literature from the sociology of culture and interdisciplinary research on the nation, I argue for an understanding of nations as cultural objects interpreted differently dependent upon the social position of the observer. Specifically, I compare the treatment of Germany in four major newspapers and nineteen world history school textbooks from India, Kenya, England, Germany, and the United States. I also conduct in-depth interviews with 45 Americans and Germans (in German), asking their thoughts and perceptions of nations. In each stage of the analysis a paradox emerges: an image of a nation speaks less to the inherent qualities of that nation and more to the national character of those doing the evaluating. I conclude that although the effects of globalization are far-reaching, there are still fundamentally different approaches to relating to the world that fall along national lines, and these profoundly affect our relationship to the world.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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