Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town

by Brubaker, Rogers, Margit Feischmidt, Jon Fox, and Liana Grancea. 2006. Princeton University Press

Key words: every-day ethnicity, minorities, nationhood, nationalism
Summary by Margaux Dandrifosse – IBEI


Micro-summary: Ethnicity can be reproduced and experienced as a salient social category in certain every-day practices at specific moments, but it does not play a prominent role in most every-day concerns.

Summary: In this book, the author sets out to investigate a puzzling observation in the Transylvanian town of Cluj (a Romanian town with a Hungarian minority), namely, the discrepancy between high ethno-nationalist mobilization and contestation by elites and the relatively low manifestation of nationalism by the population. Based on this observation, this book aims to examine how ethnicity is working, experienced, and produced in day-to-day settings, in a context of salient ethno-nationalist struggle in public debates.

The book innovatively combines two perspectives on nationalism and nationhood: how it is constructed from above in nationalist politics (top-down nationalism) and how it is manifested in and reproduced by processes from below (every-day ethnicity). To do so, numerous interviews were conducted with Romanians and Hungarians in Cluj to determine how ethnicity is experienced, produced, and salient for Clujeni in every-day settings. The author explicitly tries to escape from the common bias of viewing all events in ethnic terms. Moreover, “Romanians” and “Hungarians” are defined as categories rather than groups, and are not considered static, exclusive or impermeable to each other. Accordingly, the book rejects a group-based perspective of ethnicity.

The author conceptualizes ethnicity as a specific lens, among others, through which experiences are interpreted and framed. He finds that ethnicity and nationalism do not play a prominent role in framing most of the day-to day concerns of the population. However, in all settings, ethnicity framing is more salient for Hungarians than Romanians. It is argued that in nation-states, the dominant ethnicity is “unmarked”, rendered less salient and visible, while the minority ethnicity is “marked”, more manifest and observable. In Cluj, a Hungarian world exists as a permeable enclave within the Romanian world through formal Hungarian institutions such as schools, churches, organizations, and through networks of informal social interactions. Within this enclave, the Hungarian ethnicity becomes “unmarked” while the Romanian one becomes “marked”. The author shows that the Hungarian World reproduces itself through socialization in formal institutions which, in turn, shapes informal social interactions. Furthermore, language and mixed relationships occasionally reproduce ethnicity in every-day life through category identification and issues of contention.

The book ultimately emphasizes the importance of not overestimating the role of ethnicity and nationalism by focusing solely on top-down visible national reproduction and political manifestations. It underlines the importance of every-day practices and experiences in producing the salience of ethnicity as a social category.

Follow-up: Brubaker has significantly influenced the scholarship on ethnicity through his innovative sociological approach of not taking groups as units of analysis to study ethnicity. This has continued in “Ethnicity, Race, and Nationalism” (2009). The author has also examined the different ways to conceptualize the relationship between nationalism and religion in “Religion and nationalism: four approaches” (2012). More recently, he has looked at the conceptual underpinning of populism in Europe in “Why populism?” (2017) and “Between nationalism and civilizationism: the European populist moment in comparative perspective” (2017), and the relationship between populism and nationalism in “Populism and nationalism” (2020).

Relevance for the SECUREU Project: This book provides a conceptual lens to examine how the ethnicity of minorities and migrants can be reproduced in every-day experiences and how this contributes to the securitization of those groups in Europe. Xenophobia and securitization may arise when ethnicity or nationhood is made salient in certain every-day settings and this leads to contestation or unease by the majority group, for instance, through the use of a different language by minority groups. Accordingly, in which every-day practices is ethnicity made momentarily salient and securitized in Europe? Additionally, does securitization arise because the ethnicity of migrants and minorities is visible in Europe as compared to the invisible dominant ethnicity in each Member State?