Political Culture and National Identities

Description of the research programme

The research group Political Culture and National Identities investigates a wide range of national political cultures in Europe and the Americas in the 19th and 20th centuries. Instead of only analyzing high politics (the acts of governments and political parties), the research group focuses on political culture in a broad sense. The group's interests cover three main realms. Firstly, the cultural aspects of the political realm, such as the use of religious elements and the 'sacralization' of politics, the rhetoric and debating skills of politicians, cultural diplomacy, and the relationship between the army, politics, and civil society. Secondly, forms of political behaviour in a broad sense of the word (outside of government), such as populism, the role of civic associations, and terrorism. Thirdly, the social, cultural and intellectual embedding of politics, such as the political implications of nation-building processes, the rise of new moral ideas, and new forms of historical memory such as those concerning the Paris Commune and the Holocaust.

National uniqueness?
Politics has to a large extent developed within national contexts, and as a result ‘national identity’ is often partly equated with ‘national’ traditions in the field of political culture. For decades the focus was on the ‘unique’ characteristics of individual countries (such as the German Sonderweg, Great-Britain’s splendid isolation, ‘pillarisation’ in the Netherlands and American exceptionalism). Comparative analyses help to overcome this excessive focus on national uniqueness.

Beyond traditional borders
Expertise in the field of national history reaches its full comparative potential if it also focuses on the connections between the different national cases. Political historians can utilize the concept of ‘cultural transfer’, referring to the adoption of foreign examples and the inspiration which they engender, for instance by analyzing how social movements, parties and parliaments adopt and adapt symbols, material objects and practices from abroad. Social scientific methods can be applied as well to understand these developments in a changing world. Looking beyond traditional geographical borders of national or even continental history can provide new ideas. If we want to understand the recent growth of populism in European democracies, it helps to look at Latin American politics, which has had its own brand of populism. We draw on sources from local and national contexts, but we ask questions that relate to the international, European and global level. This diversity is reflected in the research group’s title: Political Culture and National Identities, in the plural. Leiden University offers an ideal environment for this approach due to the presence of experts on the history of politics in Europe and the Americas.


Last Modified: 09-12-2015