In conversation with Melissa Aronczyk

In advance of her lecture as part of the upcoming conference, Canada on the Global Stage, Melissa Aronczyk, author and Rutgers communications professor discusses the importance of national identity for countries and their citizens with the Reporter.
Melissa Aronczyk is Assistant Professor in the School of Communication & Information at Rutgers University
Melissa Aronczyk is Assistant Professor in the School of Communication & Information at Rutgers University

Melissa Aronczyk is Assistant Professor in the School of Communication & Information at Rutgers University. She is the author of Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity and the co-editor of Blowing Up the Brand: Critical Perspectives on Promotional Culture. She is currently writing about reputation, measurement and morality in the media. Melissa grew up in Toronto and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Melissa Aronczyk will speak at the upcoming conference, Canada on the Global Stage, hosted by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC). Feb. 11-12, Hotel Sofitel Montreal, 1155 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal. Get more information.

You’ve written a book about the ways in which national identity has become a commodity of sorts. Could you explain that concept for our readers?

Governments have finally realized what companies have known for decades: that national identity “sells.” National stereotypes have become important ways for political leaders (among others) to communicate their priorities on the global stage. Governments use their nation’s identity to attract potential investors, tourists, skilled immigrants, and students from all over the world. They use it to bid for company headquarters, sports or cultural events (think Olympics hosting, or UNESCO World Heritage designation), or membership in international forums. National identity is a cultural resource that a country’s decision-makers can draw upon to get what they want in international affairs. And this helps politicians improve their reputations at home.

How do nations successfully instil a sense of national identity in their citizens and to a global audience?

The problem with fostering national identity through a “branding” approach is that national identity becomes a competitive asset, used in a global fight for resources. And what happens is that this competition leads people to spend money or promote ideals in ways that may not be good for the country. For instance, in the last few years, major cities have been trying to outdo one another with spectacular towers or stadiums or museums built by “starchitects” to appeal to tourists. But when federal and municipal funds are spent in this way, a lot of other building issues such as infrastructure or affordable housing get sidelined.

Do you think Canada is facing an “identity crisis”?

Canada is certainly facing an identity shift, by virtue of the extreme ideological differences between Prime Minister Trudeau and his predecessor. On the other hand, one thing that has surprised me throughout my research on nation branding is the enduring power of national myths. People all over the world see Canada as a peaceful, welcoming, diverse, and environmentally friendly country, regardless of actual policies or events over the last thirty years.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, during his speech at the WEF in Davos, said the following: “Under my predecessor, Canada was known for its resources. I want Canadians to be known for their resourcefulness.” Can you comment on this statement, and address what this might mean for Canada over the next five years?

Rhetorically speaking, that’s a great statement. It has the potential to speak to issues that have been on Canadians’ minds for some time. But it’s vague enough to be interpreted in any number of ways. Is Trudeau referring to job creation? Immigration? Oil prices? Education? Maybe all of the above. What the statement really does is signal to the global community that the Canada of tomorrow is on a very different path from the Canada of yesterday. In five years, people are going to expect to see evidence of the new path being forged.