Media as a tool for building National Identity

Participants discuss at the three-day Abu Dhabi media summit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Nov. 18, 2014. Queen Rania Abdullah of Jordan delivered a keynote speech here on Tuesday and said that the Arab world shall not allow IS terrorists to hijack the region's identity, but to encounter extremism through creating education, jobs and to retain the region's lead in global cyberspace growth. (Xinhua/An Jiang)

Participants discuss at the three-day Abu Dhabi media summit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Nov. 18, 2014. Queen Rania Abdullah of Jordan delivered a keynote speech here on Tuesday and said that the Arab world shall not allow IS terrorists to hijack the region’s identity, but to encounter extremism through creating education, jobs and to retain the region’s lead in global cyberspace growth. (Xinhua/An Jiang)

The idea of national consciousness has developed in which it is defined as the attachment of secondary symbols of nationality to primary items of information moving through channels of social communication, or through the mind of an individual. In creating certain uniformity within nations, many countries look up to the media to lead the way.

The media therefore plays a pivotal role in the maintenance of societal structures, values and identity. Several scholars have argued that the media has been the foundation over the past three centuries in the shaping, distribution and institutionalization of identities, affirming that the mass education system and the media are major agencies of socialization.

Consequently, culture and social identity can be enhanced. Thus, social identity transcends the realm of national identity. Hence, the media has been largely considered and utilized as a potent tool for building national identity.

National Identity

Due to a lack of a concise and accurate definition of identity in the era of globalization, it is impossible to define the role of mass media as the most important contemporary instrument for strengthening or weakening the identity crisis. However, many identity theorists have conceptualized identity as the subjective state of a sense of belonging, as a group phenomenon, in which the members of a group identify with one another.

National Identity has been an underlying theme in communication research since the 1950s. It refers to a person’s identity and sense of belonging to one nation; a feeling one shares with a group of people, regardless of one’s citizenship status. National identity has been described as a collective sentiment among certain people derived from the belief of belonging to the same nation and of sharing most of the attributes unique to that nation. Three functions of national identity can be proposed as follows:

1- It provides a satisfying answer to the fear of personal oblivion, through identification with a nation.

2- It offers personal renewal and dignity by becoming part of a political “super-family”.

3- It enables the realization of feelings of fraternity, especially through the use of symbols and ceremony.

Media and National Identity

The most potent source of a national identity is the shared political culture of the public domain. Culture is an ambiguous term and often refers to ways of life, which have little to do with the market place. A national society has its own state controlled religion and official language, but it also has its own literary and artistic traditions, its own cuisine, its own sports and a whole variety of customs and family arrangements that distinguish it from other societies. The national culture in this sense is not completely at the mercy of the forces of modernization. While modernization demands that there should be legal, economic, political and educational institutions of a certain kind, this distinctive national culture is likely to be much more resistant to change.

The newspapers, radio and television are vital for encouraging their audience both to see the world in national terms in general, and to think in patriotic terms about their own nation in particular. However, this relationship between the mass media and nation has been left both under-theorized and empirically untested. As for the question of the relationship of the media to national cultural identity, there was an easy and obvious answer: the media must be important because they are so prevalent

National Identity in the Absence of Media

   With the compelling impact of media in shaping the socialization process and therefore the behavior of people, it can be said that media is a potent force in shaping a national identity. For democratic institutions, the media plays a powerful instrument in shaping public opinion whether in politics, culture and economics. Its presence had been so imposing, that citizens in democratic countries take it as a part of life. However, in countries where the national government controls the media, such as, in dictatorial or communist states, the media acts as an instrument used by the governing institution, and largely, is reduced to a propaganda medium. In this context, how can a nation shape its identity when technically, there is an absence of media?

   There are two ways that media can be considered absent: (1) If mass media does not exist; and (2) if the media is controlled, censored and is restricted by one body. Given that we have asserted that media is a very potent force in the socialization process, what happens then to national identity? Several possible scenarios can be discern from this occurrence. Here are a few:

   Firstly, national identity is patterned according to what the controlling body (a dictatorship or any institution that controls media) wants the people to be. This is a practice that communist states had imposed on their media in order to preserve their political and economic teachings. Since the media is a source of information that may contradict what the governing body wants the people to know, they control the media by censoring its content. In this case, we can consider the media to be technically present but the essence of being there does not merit the term of “media”

Since media stands for a free and uncensored medium for any type of information. What happens then to the people? The people can only be contained for a period of time. In the case of countries such as China and Russia, the restriction took its toll when people started to gain access on the possible scenario if the economic system is changed. National identity then is controlled for a period. Nevertheless, history proves that it cannot contain the evolution of national identity forever.

Secondly, the people can be barred from progressing and developing their cultural and national identity since information cannot be accessed. Possibly, the technical absence of media can deter the development of a country. Traditional means will persist and national identity will be the same or if changes, it will be gradual.

Finally, the absence of a national identity may be jeopardized especially in countries that have archipelagos. Moreover, even in societies that are not physically separated, the prospect of a national identity will be hard to achieve for all of the regions. This is because a community may be contained to what they have experienced since their knowledge of the other societies is limited. Thus, the affiliation of the communities may be limited to their community rather than to the nation.

Media in UAE: A good model for supporting national identity

Media in the UAE has played a very important role in the Yamen war

  • Local media is working hard to explain the larger background about the war in Yemen. The historical role played by the UAE has reinforce peace and security in the region so that their readers (citizens) understand the context behind the UAE’s involvement in the Yemen war.

  • As a result, the reaction of the citizens (and also all the people from different countries who live and work in UAE) to the media’s portrayal of the martyrdom of UAE soldiers in the Yemen war has been extremely positive. “They share the pain of the families that have lost their children and their brothers”

  • Media in UAE has not just influenced the concept national identity only, but it has had a critical and successive role to emphasize the concept of Arab identity.

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