Dimensions of National Historical Narratives

Our empirical work has tried also to distinguish not only themes but which specific dimensions can be found in the schematic template of national narratives (Carretero & Bermudez, 2012; Carretero & Van Alphen, 2014). We have selected national master narratives as main tasks of our work carried out in relation to national foundational processes of both Greece and Spain. In all the cases, we have worked with qualitative interviews. In general terms, we have developed a theoretical framework based on five dimensions that characterized citizens narrative representations of national history. That is to say:

  • 1. As is the case in the above example about Greek citizens internet comments on Citizenship regulations, the historical subject is established in terms of inclusion and exclusion, radically opposing it to others as a coherent and homogeneous group. See above the distinction between the “metekos” and the “Greek” where an imagined homogeneity of the nation is defended and conceived as having very clear historical roots. Therefore the establishment of the nation is based on a pre-existent and everlasting historical subject. Of course this determines the main voice of the narrative. As is well known, any narrative strongly depends on who its subject is. Another important feature of this dimension is precisely that the establishment of the narrative subject follows a nonhistorical process. This is to say the historical subject is not seen as a result of a number of changes across different times but as something prior to those historical transformations. This is to say this “historical subject” is in fact an “essentialist and nonhistorical subject” based on a process of continuity between the past and the present. Also besides this continuity citizens tend to see the historical subject as homogenous instead of heterogeneous. This is to say all the members of this imagined national community (Anderson, 1983) is seen as a prototypical part of if instead of considering the possibility of different and heterogeneous groups of nationals. As it can be easily seen this is a very idealized conception of the nationals of any community.
  • 2. The historical subject is referred to in the first person plural “us,” often logically opposed to “them,” and valued more positively. The presence of an identification process with the mentioned historical subject and its political unit. Identification processes are at work in the narrative, attaching personal affect and value judgments to the unification and opposition mentioned above. A shared identity—a timeless national identity— between the present storyteller and the past historical subject is established. Of course the continuity feature mentioned earlier is also related to this identification feature is adding very influential emotional ties. This implies that the person not only has a historical misconception about her national origin but also feels this misconception as an emotional content. This process would be responsible for establishing the origins of the persons (as nationals) who are learning the concept. These (national) origins would be considered ontological instead of constructed through precisely a historical process.
  • 3. The historical events are simplified around one common narrative theme, such as the search for freedom or territory. This simplification is based on rather simple causal relations. Basically it is a monocausal explanation instead of being multicausal as most of sophisticated historical explanations. In relation to previous two dimensions, this explanation only considers the freedom of a specific group: the freedom of the historical subject. The narrative tends to minimize, and avoids mentioning, the right to freedom of additional and possible subjects, such as natives, slaves, or women. Also, this particular freedom is considered in a teleological way, as the pre-established outcome of the historical processes. The existence of a natural territory belonging “since ever” to the nation, instead of a conception of the correspondence of nations and their territories as the result of different complex political, social, and historical processes. Needless to say this historical territory is precisely the same territory than the present one. This is to say the present territory is considered as an ontological a priori.
  • 4. The application of moral features that legitimize the actions of the nation and the nationals. Especially in relation to national territory and all the actions related to its developments and changes. These moral judgments provide a tautological legitimization for the nation’s main acts. National historical narratives, both in and out school, play an important role as moral vectors, because they are designed with that goal in mind. This purpose is accomplished in at least two ways: First, the master narrative establishes the distinction between “good” and “bad” options, people, and decisions. Typically, the first one is associated with the national “we”, and the second one is related to “they”. Also master narratives offer living examples of civic virtue, particularly of loyalty. As it can be easily inferred, this loyalty function was essential in the construction of the nation, and it can still be found in many symbolic forms out of the school like sports for example.
  • 5. Essentialist concept of the nation and nationals. They are both presented as entities that predate the processes that led to their creation, independent of historical development. Our empirical studies show that historical concepts (e.g. nation, revolution, and independence) are expressed within the framework of the general structures provided by master narratives. Adolescents use a concept to construct a narrative and, at the same time, that narrative expresses the concept itself. Therefore, concepts play a double role in historical narratives. On a level of analysis, they are tools for building narratives, giving them meaning and direction. At the same time, the characteristics of the concepts are defined through the narratives, which contextualize and particularize them (Carretero, Castorina, & Levinas, 2013).

Let us present some examples which illustrate these dimensions. In the case of Spain, the selected task has been about the so called “Reconquest”—a period in which the Spanish nation did not exist—began in 718 and ended in 1492 with the expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula. This process was reinterpreted through romantic historiography and became a master national narrative based on the loss of Spain to the Muslims and its subsequent recovery. Spanish national identity has been built upon this one (Alvarez Junco, 2011). However as Rios Saloma (2005) pointed out, the very term “Reconquest” just appears in the late eighteenth century. In this sense, we can say that the very idea of the Reconquest is an “invented” concept if we apply the essential idea of Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) that national traditions are invented solely to give legitimacy to the national past. Similarly, one could also say that “the Reconquest” is an “imagined” concept because it helps to imagine the nation, as Anderson states (1983). However, the empirical facts of the 800 years of Muslim presence on the Iberian Peninsula and the fighting between Christians and Muslims during that time should instead be defined as successive conquests by different sides. Importantly, there was not a single struggle between Christians and

Muslims, but over 800 years, alliances varied among certain Christian and Muslim factions, and there was also infighting among factions of the same religion.

One important objective of our studies has been to comparatively look at citizens’ representations about a similar narrative of another nation. Through using a foreign historical event, we aim to analyze the student’s view on national narratives once their identity connection and emotional link with the content is minimized. For this reason, we presented Spanish university students a task about the history of Greece. The period analyzed refers to the so-called “Ottoman occupation of Greece” (1492-1850) and the nation’s subsequent independence. Therefore, in both cases, students faced a historical task where either Muslims or Turks remained several centuries in a country, which currently is a national state (Spain and Greece). As our students were Spanish we hypothesized that they would demonstrate different historical interpretations for these two similar historical scenarios. This is to say, we predicted that the previously mentioned dimensions would be much more present in the task about Spain than in the task about Greece (Lopez, Carretero, & Rodriguez- Moneo, 2015a, 2015b). In general terms, this was indeed the case. Let us see some examples.

In both cases, the interview was very similar and focused on each period in chronological order. For each period the participant was asked about: (1) who the inhabitants of either the Iberian peninsula or the Balkan Peninsula at that time were, (2) the legitimacy of the actions of one group against the other, and (3) whether these were carried out by the inhabitants for the gain of territory. Let us compare these two interview fragments. The first belongs to an interview about the so-called Spanish Reconquest and the second to an interview on the Greek independence process.

Interview about the “Reconquest”. [And whom do you think that territory belonged to?] Well, at that moment it is true that it would be dominated by Arabs, but it was still of the Spaniards.. .Even though it had been taken by force, but sooner or later they had to expel the Arabs. (...) [The conquests you have drawn (making reference to the further Christian conquests in the year 1212), do you think they were legitimate?] Conquests in the opposite way, to throw them out? Well, they seem to me more legitimate. A bit more legitimate yes, because they are like recovering what was taken from them. Well, wars are not alright, but I do think it could be slightly justified. To recover their territory and customs and whatever they were not allowed to do by the Arabs. (Sara, 22 years old)

Interview on the Greek independence. [Does it seem to you that it legitimately belongs to (the Byzantines) at that time?] Well, at that time, they had won it, right? So to speak. However, I also don’t think that a territory belongs to anyone concretely ... (...) it is not attached to anyone. (...) [In that sense, does it seem to you that the territory (in the period of the Ottoman Empire) legitimately belongs to the Ottomans or not?] No, as with the Byzantines, it is a matter of ambition to have more territories but I do not see that it has to belong to anyone as I said with the Byzantines... (???). It does not belong permanently to anyone. (...) [In the period of

Greek independence, does it seem to you that the territory legitimately belongs to the Greeks?] No, not to them either. [Why?] Well, what I have said before, the territories are there, and an empire that wants to have more territories, well they are going to conquer them, but I don’t think that because of this it always owns this territory and that the territory has always belonged to it, because it is not so. It is not going to be like this forever (Belen, 17 years old)

As it can be seen in the case of the interview about Spain, the Spanish student clearly legitimizes the actions of the Spaniards against the Arabs, applying some of the dimensions presented above. But it is not the case for the Spanish student interviewed about the presence of the Ottomans in Greek territory. In both cases, the participants are university students, and therefore, their historical knowledge in general is rather high. Considering this, the more plausible explanation for the difference encountered would be based on the relation of the interview’s main topic with the participant’s national identity. Interestingly, this difference disappears when the interview deals with the establishment of the historical subject.

But let us compare two more examples. The first is related to the Spanish Reconquest and the second to the Greeks and the Ottomans. These examples will show that there are also some similarities. In this case about the establishment of the historical subject of the narratives.

Interview about the “Reconquest”. The Arabs invade a territory, which is not theirs. During more than seven centuries they keep trying to conquer what is the entire Spanish territory and, the Spaniards, when it in fact was in essence their territory before the Arabs came in, hey reconquered it again to make it once again their own,. (Juan, 25 years old)

Interview on the Greek independence. [How long could the feeling of belonging to the Greek nation have been present?]

I think since forever. (...) If we forget history ... there has always been a feeling of saying I belong to Greece, to ancient Greece (??? ). And then came a moment in which you say, “So far and so further!” One after another spreads the word; (...) they create that feeling until they say: “We have been invaded by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans; now is our moment.” (...) “Now is the time for us to rebel and become independent as Greeks.” (Maria, 21 years old)

As it can be seen in both cases, the two Spanish students establish a rather essentialist historical subject. Thus in both cases this historical subjects are fundamentally based on present national subjects and not on historical changes and developments. As mentioned above, Spain and Spaniards do not exist properly speaking until the sixteenth century. The Kingdoms of Castile, Aragon and other similar political entities of the Iberian Peninsula carried out the fights against the Arabs. Similar arguments could be applied to the Greek case. Therefore, it can be concluded that analyzing the narratives about these two topics as a whole a more historiographical view on historical narratives is easier to apply when they have to do with nations that are not our own. Nevertheless, a number of difficulties remain, like the concept related to the establishment of the historical subject. This is likely to be related to the issue of the possible origins of the dimensions described above. This issue of origins is also related to the educational implications of our research.

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