Dissertation Abstracts

In Search of an Estonian Identity: (formal and informal) mechanisms of identity construction in Estonia. The role of song festivals, popular music and nation branding

Author: Emilia Pawlusz, emilia.pawlusz@gmail.com
Department: School of Law, Governance and Society
University: Tallinn University, Estonia
Supervisor: Abel Polese
Year of completion: 2017
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Estonia , nation-building , music , branding
Areas of Research: Political Sociology , Racism, Nationalism and Ethnic Relations , Tourism, International


In the nationalism literature on the post-Soviet states in which scholars have investigated state efforts to forge a sense of national identity in the newly emerged countries, they point to institutional, administrative and symbolic measures employed by local political elites to define the nation anew, reclaim national history and give frame to inter-ethnic relations. The nation-building projects across the region have thus been regarded as top-down strategies conceived by those in power. This thesis contributes to another body of literature, which argues that the sense of national belonging not only trickles down into society, but is negotiated and reframed by non-state actors in informal settings. Using the case of Estonia, this thesis analyses practices such as popular music, choral singing, tourism and branding as identity-building factors that happen mostly beyond the state, yet influence how people build their sense of (not) belonging in the nation. Methodologically, this study is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Estonia between 2014 and 2017. The results of the study indicate the following: 1. Markers of identity (official and unofficial) change, circulate and become independent of their intended meaning. While the political elites give the frame to the definition of the nation, the actual experience of it is an independent, ongoing process where even the well-known and taken-for-granted icons of nationhood have no fixed and pre-defined meaning. 2. Nation-builders do not have to be politicians or state actors A variety of social actors affect people's understanding of heritage, nation, and exclusion-inclusion mechanisms on a daily basis. Each article of this dissertation points to one such category: cultural sector workers and activists, popular musicians, and marketing specialists who create brand Estonia for local and international audiences. It is argued that such actors have long been omitted in the studies on nation-building, as they do not represent the state (considered the primary actor of nation-building) and their sphere of activity remains outside of narrowly defined politics. The study of nation branding in Estonia provides evidence that nation-building can happen as a 'side effect' of commercial and economic practices suggested by the state but implemented by private entities and ordinary people. 3. There are plenty of practices in the everyday life that create the experience of identity; many of them lie outside of politics In other words, the experience of national identity has to be understood as part of the everyday life, both formal and informal situations, and as a part of personal experience. This conviction that the everyday is non-political is the exact reason why it is a site where political narratives (such as the one of nationalism) and identity reproduction work so successfully. 4. Nation is an affective practice Affective orientations towards the nation, however noticed in nationalism literature, have been either omitted as situational and separated from thought, or confined to the topic of ethnic violence. This research sees national identity as a part of self, composed of discursive, affective and behavioural elements. It draws attention to the affective formation and experience of the nation.

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