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Understanding our identities

Problem Solved: university research answering today's challenges

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Research into the human experience gives us an invaluable insight into different cultures, as well as art and history. These form the foundations of our understanding of today’s world, which is why they remain an important part of our universities’ research focus. Researchers at Northumbria University, funded by the AHRC for the next three years, are working to understand how the English saw themselves throughout history, a project that has far-reaching implications for our lives and identities today.

Research into the human experience gives us an invaluable insight into different cultures, as well as art and history. These form the foundations of our understanding of today’s world, which is why they remain an important part of our universities’ research focus.

Locating the Hidden Diaspora’ is a ground-breaking project to explore why “Englishness” has been overlooked in America, while other ethnic groups are more celebrated and widely known. While people often think of Scots and Irish exerting a sense of their own ethnicity, particularly as migrants to America, there has been relatively little investigation into what the English thought about themselves.

The researchers believe that Englishness has been overlooked by historians because, as the founding colonists, the English were the benchmark against which all other ethnic groups measured themselves. Ironically, England’s relatively recent decline in global influence and the cultural changes produced by mass immigration and regional devolution has sparked increasing attempts to rediscover and define Englishness.

The project also has implications for the other side of the Atlantic. Recognising the English as a distinct diaspora gives us a clearer picture of the development of an American identity in that it complicates the idea of a coherent ‘Anglo’ cultural mainstream and indicates the fluid and adaptable nature of what it meant and means to be an American or Canadian.

An understanding of what constituted Englishness historically in the US and how the English migrants expressed that will contribute to today’s debates on national identity that are happening across the UK. The growing movement for an independent Scotland has raised the issue of “Britishness” and “Englishness” in the wider society and influenced national debate about identity.

“Today, Englishness in England is bedevilled with fears about right-wing extremists, football hooligans and the uses and abuses of the now prevalent St George’s flag.We hope a project that will demonstrate the vibrancy of Englishness beyond England’s shores will contribute to debates about how Englishness fits into today’s multi-ethnic and increasingly federal political culture.”

Professor MacRaild, Project leader

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