New Zealanders on the net: discourses of national identities in cyberspace

Smith, Philippa Karen
Bell, Allan
Goodwin, Ian
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

The New Zealand Government’s assertion, in the early years of the 21st century, of the emergence of a new and inclusive national identity reflected a political strategy to unify the nation amidst fears about its increasing diversity. Its rebranding of New Zealand as part of its goal to build a socially cohesive society involved the management of diversity by containing the bicultural relationship between indigenous Maori and dominant Pakeha, along with the country’s growing multiculturalism, within the notion of a reworked, shared national identity. Constructing a distinctive and stable nation was also seen as a positive factor in positioning New Zealanders as global citizens as well as national citizens.

This study sought to understand how people in New Zealand constructed their national identity within this political milieu by comparing their ‘talk’ in cyberspace with the official discourse I had identified in political texts. Acknowledging the Internet as a new media technology that had often been heralded as providing a new form of public sphere, I focused mainly on two archived online discussions to identify discourses about national identity during the Labour-led Government’s last term of office (2005 to 2008). The first discussion was located on the Yellow Peril blog site and was in response to a posting titled “the identity game” that questioned the acceptance of ‘New Zealander’ as a new ethnicity in the 2006 census data. The second discussion appeared on the Aotearoa Ethnic Network e-list where members debated the headline of a news article that referred to a man of Kurdish ethnicity as a “New Zealand passport holder” rather than as a ‘New Zealander’.

My use in this study of the discourse-historical approach of critical discourse analysis, which emphasises the role of power and ideology in the construction of identities, was notable for its unique application in a New Zealand context, particularly in the examination of online texts. The analysis – conducted on three levels of content, discursive strategies and linguistic features – highlighted several intersecting discourses about national identity that either legitimised or resisted the official discourse. These discourses were explained in terms of Anderson’s social constructivist theory of nations as ‘imagined communities’ and took into account the social, historical, political and cultural contexts in which the texts were embedded. In particular, I highlighted various topoi (argumentation strategies) which were used to persuade readers to accept certain points of view and which included taboo topics such as subtle racism and white dominance.

My findings showed that the official discourse about a new national identity was not necessarily shared or accepted by all New Zealanders and was challenged on a number of different levels. Rather, a national identity was emerging that involved a multiplicity of national imaginings, signalling a number of ambiguities and contradictions about what it meant to be a ‘New Zealander’. This was due partly to differing world views, but also to the confusion surrounding diverse perspectives about the use of categorisation labels that merged ethnicity with nationality.

While the promotion of this new national identity was a response to the challenges of globalisation such as those faced by many nations, I regard it to be the latest in a number of transformations that have occurred in New Zealand’s history. I contend that further challenges are likely as diversity continues to increase in the future. In highlighting the Internet as a virtual public sphere for democratic discussion, I argue that this piece of research demonstrated how the study of discourses about national identities can result in a greater critical consciousness of the concerns and points of view of others, and of the unequal power relationships that exist.

Critical discourse analysis , National identity , New Zealand , Computer-mediated communication , Nation branding
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