Identity dynamics among Belgians

Working Title : Flemish, Walloon, Belgian and European identification processes in bilingual towns

Background of the study

Demonstration for Belgian unity in Brussels

Belgium has an intricate institutionalisation combining economic, linguistic and cultural factors in the statutory federalisation of 1993. The complexity comes vividly to expression in the fact that the country has three economic districts; Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia, four language areas; Dutch (also referred to as Flemish), Francophone, the bilingual area Brussels and German, and, to a certain degree overlapping, three cultural communities; German, French and Flemish. Within this federal framework, the two largest – geographically and demographically – Flemish and French communities play the most dominant role in federal politics.

The complicated organisation of Belgium can be described as an historical evolution taking into consideration the growing emphasis on linguistic and cultural distinctiveness. This has attracted scholars interested in the interaction of politics, groups and identity, among whom a prominent anthropologist, Clifford Geertz. He refers to Belgium as a country which is “[...] one of the most devolved in the world” and “a hollowed-out country” (Geertz, 1998: 103) herewith implicating a decreasing value of Belgium as a national framework.

In relation, many others point to a decreasing attachment to ‘being Belgian’ and some suggest the artificiality of this identification (for reference to this artificiality see de Heusch, 2002; van de Craen, 2002). It remains rather unclear if, when and in what manner Belgium is still a reference point. In addition, scholars view a growing influence of the European Union resulting in a reduced relevance of the federal government for political players (Dewinter & Gomez-Reino Cachafeiro, 2002; Lindahl, 2003). Moreover a greater emphasis on European identification since the treaties of Amsterdam and Maastricht and a growing rate of identification with Europe as primary or secondary identification next to regional attachments among Belgians in surveys (EC, 2006; Hooghe & Marks, 2005) complicate this situation further.

The fieldsite

Burning a Belgian flag during a demonstration for Flemish independence in Sint-Genesius-Rode

Fieldwork has been done in Wemmel and Sint-Genesius-Rode, two cities with a French speaking and Dutch speaking population situated near the Brussels capital region. These so called ´facility municipalities´ are part of the Flemish region but have been given a special status during the establishment of the language border, because of a large percentage of inhabitants of the other community. The municipalities provide linguistic facilities such as schooling and voting options for the parliament for the inhabitants originated from or identifying with the other community. In these towns one is able to go to a French or Dutch school and interaction between French and Dutch speaking inhabitants is part of everyday life. Due to the monolingual status of language regions, these ‘anomalous’ municipalities often become the centre of linguistic issues in federal Belgium.

Project focus

Conflict, nevertheless, between the communities is most obvious at the political level were both Flemish and Walloon politicians try to mobilize support of the inhabitants of their respective districts in electoral competition with communitarian interests, but whether such contentious interaction exists in everyday life is rather unclear. This project tries to elaborate on this, and focuses on the interaction of Dutch and French speakers in daily life.

Within this interaction the project concentrates on identification processes, on the micro-level, and investigates how these different identities are integrated, (situational) excluded or included, neglected or emphasized. This means that processes of inclusion and exclusion of different reference groups and how they are interrelated, configured and expressed are to be examined. The motivations and discourses surrounding these processes are part of this project.

Points of interest are the relationships between the French and Dutch speakers, the role played by national identification and, if existent, a European identification. It will investigate how and when people of different regional identities interact. Additionally this also asks for inquiries into the salience of identification categories and markers. The persistent significance of the linguistic marker and emanating group distinctions will be an important explorative theme in this. For this purpose an analysis will be made of collective memory (A. Assman, 2006; J. Assman & Czaplicka, 1995; Connerton, 1999; Halbwachs, 1992; Mannheim, 1970) in situations of linguistic issues in the past and current commemorative and expressive practices.


Different methods have been used to examine the project focus, the foremost one being in-depth interviews with inhabitants, representatives of organisations and (local) politicians. Within different interviews with inhabitants a generational perspective was attempted by interviewing persons from different generations within one family. This generational perspective was maintained in another method used during the fieldwork; the documenting of genealogies during which – among other – questions were asked concerning intermarriages, social-economic background and language use. Besides these two methods participant observation was one of the core methods. In this, the project focus on everyday life became most evident whilst living in Sint-Genesius-Rode and Wemmel. During this time short fieldtrips were made to ‘regular’ municipalities situated in the hearth of Flanders, Lochristi, and in the hearth of Wallonia, Fléron. The data gathered through interviews, family trees and participant observation is supplemented by a literature study of different publications; newspapers, official documents, archive documents and all kinds of leaflets, booklets, magazines and reports.


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