Heritage and Nationalism: Understanding populism through big data

Posted on May 23, 2022 by Margie Coughlin

How are the Romans invoked in Brexit Britain compared to Donald Trump’s United States of America, and to what purpose? And why is it critical to answer these kinds of questions? One might think that matters such as being part of a supra-national project like the European Union or electing the US Head of State would be decided predominantly based on the assessment of economic and political factors.

But is this in fact the case? What if, as time has proved, arguments rooted in identity and feelings of belonging were at least as compelling to human hearts and minds? Then, surely, it becomes paramount to know who people identify with, where they place their origins and the language and images they more or less consciously choose when thinking and speaking of present-day political issues and social challenges.
In this context, I began a large-scale and joint programme of research that used big social media data to establish how objects, people, places and practices from Iron Age to early medieval times have become rhetorical tools through which populist and populist nationalist views are framed and communicated today.
Notions of ‘us’ and ‘otherness’ are constructed through processes of identification with, for example, either the ‘Romans’ or the ‘barbarians’, native Iron Age tribes or Germanic peoples. When invoked, each of these collectives symbolises sets of values that may vary dramatically from one person to another and even within the same individual conscience.

These issues addressed here through a study of populist nationalist positions expressed on social media and linked to the Brexit referendum, Italian populist politics in the last decade and up to the 2018 General Election, and the United States in the ‘Trump era’.

An excerpt from chapter 1 of Heritage and Nationalism: Understanding populism through big data, by Chiara Bonacchi. 

Heritage and Nationalism Heritage and Nationalism Understanding populism through big data Chiara Bonacchi

About the Author 

Chiara Bonacchi is Chancellor's Fellow in Heritage, Text and Data Mining and Senior Lecturer in Heritage at the University of Edinburgh (from March 2022).

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