Intergenerational Transmission and
Ethno-National Identity in the Border Area
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The Project


This project links two existing centres of research on identity (as it relates to conflict and reconciliation) – the Identity, Diversity and Citizenship Programme within the Geary Institute, University College Dublin, and the School of Psychology, at Queens University Belfast - through a new collaborative project which will investigate intergenerational transmission of ethno-national identity in the border area. The project is supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation (“Peace II”).

It has long been recognized that oppositional identities lie at the root of the Northern Ireland conflict. This project shows how these identities are transmitted within the family, and the social conditions which may precipitate change.

It involves a series of inter-related studies: semi-structured interviews with three generational families; participant observation; a school-centred study to access children’s views of their identity using focus groups, interviews and essays; quantitative measures of identity strength, salience and preference with all participants.

This multi-method approach facilitates the triangulation of results and highlight social and familial mechanisms by which identity is transmitted and crystallised in oppositional form, and indicates the contexts in which identity change occurs.

The results of this research will be promulgated in both academic and policy-related arenas: it will encourage greater understanding of identity development and consolidation and its relationship to macro-social (geographical, economic) and microsocial (family, school) contexts. This will inform mutual understanding and the development of more inclusive modes of identification.

Project dates: March 2004 to April 2006

Project Leaflet (PDF)
Further details – Theoretical and Policy-related Issues



Theoretical issues addressed in the project


In Northern Ireland, and particularly in the border area, issues concerning ethno-national identity and choices in relation to it have immediate practical significance. We find here a multiplicity of examples relevant to contemporary theoretical debates. The project allows an exploration of the process of ethno-national identity-formation and analysis of the contexts in which oppositional identities emerge. In addition, the many new forces at work in the border area (e.g., European and global investment, cross-border cooperation, North-South bodies) allow us to investigate the interrelation of institutional and identity change.

Key theoretical issues to which this project is directly relevant include the following:

  • Ethno-national identity formation, its timing and mechanisms. When and how is ethno-national identity crystallised? What is the role of the family in transmission of identity, what is the role of events and experiences determined by the macro-political-context? Does this change over time? Was the family more important in the past, for older respondents? These are questions where social-psychological theories and social theory meet. The data on how people categorise themselves, and observe others in self-categorisation is of direct relevance to these questions.
  • The range or repertoire of available ethno-national identity categories. Much of the scholarly literature on Northern Ireland (Trew; Pollak; Ruane and Todd) and more generally (Fearon; Chandra and Laitin; Brubaker; Todd) focuses on the multiplicity of available categories and choices of identity. It is common to point out that there are more than ‘two teams’ to choose from. The project allows us to identify the full range of ethno-national categories used in the local areas and to highlight what distinctions become important when.
  • The depth/salience/normative force of ethno-national identity. When and how does the ascribed ethno-national category become emotionally salient, a source of pride and honour (Laitin)? When it does, how is it understood by the actors themselves: are they ‘primordialist’ in their self-understandings (Connor; Gil-White) and if so when, in what contexts, are they so? Again, this is a potential meeting-point of social psychological theory (Ashmore & al) and social research.
  • The cognitive content of ethno-national identity and its interrelations with other collective categories (e.g. religion). Both in social theory and in social-psychological theory, recent work has highlighted the cognitive content, associated meanings of collective identity categories and how their interrelations with other categories affects their meaning (Ashmore & al; Abdelal & al; Hopkins and Reicher). This research allows a clear study of this in the Irish border area, and in particular the intersection of religion and ethnicity.
  • The oppositional character of ethno-national identity. How and when is identity shaped in oppositional form? Are collective categories of identity essentially oppositional as McAdam, Tilly and Tarrow imply? If so, how does this cohere with the substantive cognitive content of these identities?
  • Causality. McAdam Tilly and Tarrow have argued that all contentious politics involves three variables: cultural oppositions; structural and institutional relations; social interactions, political entrepreneurs. The question is to specify the directions of causality. How does identity affect politics, how does political and social change affect identity, what role is played by institutions and perceived benefits/losses?
  • Change. What forms of change in identity are shown in our study? To what extent is this change inter-generational or life-cycle based? The scholarly literature posits major changes associated with globalisation and Europeanization (Keating; Castells). Our study allows us to assess these claims and make more precise the contexts in which change occurs and the forms which it takes.
  • Familial and intergenerational choices and considerations. Families, and in particular parents, choose strategies of socialisation for the young. How are these choices determined? Are they determined by coordination games (Laitin), by tradition, or by affectivity? How far do the choices vary with the institutional options available (a question with important policy implications)?

This list of theoretical issues and concerns is preliminary. Which of these issues will form the core of project publications remains to be worked out in light of the data and of joint discussions within and between participating researchers and teams. There is considerable publication potential. Moreover this brief overview does not deal with contentious theoretical issues with respect to Northern Ireland and the Irish border to which the project is also relevant.


Abdelal, R. Y. M. Herrera, A. I. Johnston, R. McDermott, 2003. ‘Identity as a Variable’ (May 10th 2003 version), Weatherhead Initiative in International Affairs, Harvard University,

Ashmore, R.D., K. Deaux and T. McLaughlin-Volpe, 2004. ‘An Organizing framework for collective identity: articulation and significance of multidimensionality’, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 130, No. 1, 2004. 80-114.

Brubaker, R., 2002. ‘Ethnicity without groups’, Archives Européennes de Sociologies, xlii.2, pp. 163-189.

Castells, M., 1997. The Power of Identity, Vol. II of The Information Age, Oxford: Blackwell.

Chandra, K and D. Laitin. 2002. ‘A framework for thinking about identity change’, paper prepared for presentation at LICEP5, Stanford University, May 11.

Connor, W. 1994. Ethno-nationalism: The Quest for Understanding. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fearon, J. 1999 ‘What is identity (as we now use the word)?’, unpublished paper, Stanford University.

Gil-White, F. J. 1999. ‘How thick is blood? The plot thickens…: if ethnic actors are primordialists, what remains of the circumstantialist/primordialist controversy?’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 22, 5, 1999.

Hopkins, N. and S. Reicher, 1996. ‘The construction of social categories and processes of social change: arguing about national identities’, pp. 69-93 in G. M. Breakwell and E. Lyons, Eds, Changing European Identities: Social Psychological Analyses of Social Change. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Keating, M., 2001. Plurinational Democracy: Stateless Nations in a Post-Sovereignty Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Laitin, D. D., 1998. Identity in Formation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

McAdam, D., C. Tilly and S. Tarrow. 2000. Dynamics of Contention. Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pollak, A., ed., 1993. A Citizens’ Inquiry: The Opsahl Report on Northern Ireland. Dublin, Lilliput.

Ruane, J. and J. Todd, forthcoming 2005. Dynamics of Conflict and Transition in Northern Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Todd, J. 2005 (forthcoming). 'Social transformation, collective categories and identity change.' Theory and Society, 35.

Trew, K. 1996. 'Complementary or conflicting identities?’ The Psychologist, 46:463.



Policy-related issues


This project will directly aid peace building and reconciliation by:
  • Giving voice and opportunities for reflexivity to the participants in the project – parents, in particular, will have the possibility of reflecting on their own practices;
  • Qualitatively increasing understanding between the different traditions on the island. The research methods will allow individuals to describe - in their own time and in their own terms - the various meanings they have put, and do now put, on identity. Setting this in the context of intergenerational change will allow others to perceive the changes which the participants perceive themselves and increase understanding of cultural traditions and potential for reconciliation;
  • Showing the available and effective modes of intervention to increase the salience and importance of non-oppositional identities and decrease the salience and importance of oppositional ones. For instance, pinpointing the age of ethno-national identification will shed light on the usefulness of school-centred intervention and help show at what stage EMU (Education for Mutual Understanding) and related projects should begin.

Among the outputs of this research will be a set of policy-relevant tools – in the form of identification of the need for and appropriate forms and stages of intervention to foster the creation of inclusive rather than exclusive forms of identity. These will be promulgated in both academic and policy-related arenas.

  • Several workshops are planned to disseminate the findings to educationalists, schools, youth and community groups in the border area;
  • A policy-related conference will be organised in conjunction with the HEA and other related projects to disseminate the research findings to policy-makers, appropriate Government Departments in both Northern and Southern Ireland, curriculum development agencies, third sector bodies (including representatives from the Civic Forum) and funding bodies;
  • Several reports on summary results will be prepared for local stakeholders, advisors and policy makers in both jurisdictions;
  • At least two policy-related reports and/or publications will be produced
  • We want to involve respondents in the research process so as to give them a voice and the opportunity to reflect on their own practice. The various outputs of this research projects will be firmly grounded in what respondents in the various areas tell us and not by our own political views.

It is hoped that the results of this research will inform mutual understanding and will allow us to suggest modes of effective intervention – for example in the educational system and through youth and community groups - in order to promote inclusive rather than exclusive identities and to further peace and reconciliation. It is hoped that the project will also facilitate and increase effective cross-border cooperation.