Nation and National Identity: Definitions, Concepts, Theory

Nation and national identity explained: theory, concepts, definition

Quite often in the place branding context, you will hear people talk or write about nation branding. But what is a nation, why do we feel part of a nation, and what role does discourse, especially mass media discourse, play in what we perceive as national identity? Here are some thoughts and insights from review of literature on the matter.

Learn about:

  • Nations as imagined communities;
  • National identity and the role of discourse;
  • How media representations influence national identity.

Nations: imagined communities

Arguably the best known description of a nation is Benedict Anderson’s (1983) conception of nations as imagined communities. They are imagined “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson, 1983, p. 15).

Martin (1995) and Wodak, De Cillia, Reisigl, and Liebhart (1999) have identified language and discourse as the essential means through which the uniqueness and distinctness of a community and its particular values are presented, making these a key instrument in the social construction of imagined communities.

National identity: the power of discourse

Following Wodak et al. (1999), national identity “is constructed and conveyed in discourse, predominantly in narratives of national culture. National identity is thus the product of discourse” (p. 22).

Conceived in language, rather than blood (Anderson, 1983, p. 133), nations and national identities, when perceived as imagined communities, are essentially socially constructed.

Because they are “mobilised into existence through symbols invoked by political leadership” (Dryzek, 2006, p. 35), discourses are powerful in that they can construct, perpetuate, transform or dismantle national identities (Wodak et al., 1999).

How media representations impact national identities

Media representations are integral to the social construction of national identities (Anderson, 1982; Hallett et al., 2010; Milne, Tregidga, & Walton, 2009). As Thompson (1995) states, “we feel ourselves to belong to groups and communities which are constituted in part through the media” (p. 35).

Media images are powerful in that they contribute to our sense of who we are and how we relate to our environment (Cottle, 2009).

News media in particular actively support a branded, simplified national identity in that they “draw on certain dominant discourses which relate to ideas associated with everyday understandings of notions of ‘objectivity’ and ‘mainstream’” (Huijser, 2009, p. 60).

Moreover, depending on news media coverage, different parts of a nation’s identity come into focus on the international stage at different times (O’Shaughnessy & O’Shaughnessy, 2000; see also Dinnie, 2008).

But also within the imagined national community, new narratives can change people’s perceptions of what constitutes their national identity (Wodak et al. 1999). Clearly, identity and image are context dependent, with image subject to change as societal expectations change (Roper, 2012).

In a nutshell, discourse, language, and the media influence our sense of belonging, who we think we are, or to which nation we feel we belong to.


Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London, UK: Verso Editions.

Cottle, S. (2009). Global crises in the news: Staging news wars, disasters, and climate change. International Journal of Communication, 3, 494-516.

Dinnie, K. (2008). Nation branding: Concepts, issues, practice. Oxford, United Kingdom: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Dryzek, J. (2006). Deliberative global politics: Discourse and democracy in a divided world. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Hallett, R., Hallett, R.W., & Kaplan-Weinger, J. (2010). Official tourism websites: A discourse analysis perspective. Bristol, United Kingdom: Channel View Publications.

Huijser, H. (2009). The multicultural nation in New Zealand cinema: Production-text-reception. Saarbruecken, Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Mueller.

Martin, D. (1995). The choices of identity. Social Identities, 1(1), 5-16. doi: 10.1080/13504630.1995.9959423

Milne, M.J., Tregidga, H., & Walton, S. (2009). Words not actions! The ideological role of sustainable development reporting. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 22(8), 1211-1257. doi: 10.1108/09513570910999292

O’Shaughnessy, J., & O’Shaugnessy, N.J. (2000). Treating the nation as a brand: Some neglected issues. Journal of Macromarketing, 20(1), 56-64. doi: 10.1177/0276146700201006

Roper, J. (2012). Environmental risk, sustainability discourses, and public relations. Public Relations Inquiry, 1(1), 1-19. doi: 10.1177/2046147X11422147

Thompson, J. (1995). The media and modernity: A social theory of the media. Oxford, United Kingdom: Polity Press.

Wodak, R., De Cillia, R., Reisigl, M., & Liebhart, K. (1999). The discursive construction of national identity. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press.

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