Identity is back. It is simultaneously being manipulated (by politicians), negotiated (by citizens) and crafted (by international institutions). These new dynamics of identity construction often come with a rejection of the norms and institutions of the global order. To understand this trend, we need to explore the interplay between local and national identities – those citizens and politicians – and the broader senses of community promoted by regional organizations – those institutions. This project argues that regional organizations (ROs) do shape identity, but this process is mediated by local politics, daily experiences, and articulated beliefs. Our theory-building explores these identity dynamics across three regions and country cases: the Africa Union and South Africa; the Association of South-East Asian Nations and Singapore; and the European Union and Germany.
We harness an interdisciplinary set of theories and methods to understand how mechanisms and practices construct identity, and the role ROs play in this process. From political science, we draw on international relations and institutional theory, process tracing and standard interview methods; from sociology and everyday nationalism, we use practice theory, ethnography and interpretive interviewing. This epistemological, theoretical and methodological pluralism is the project’s backbone; it is essential for opening the black box of identity construction in today’s globalized yet increasingly inward-looking world.
Our findings will provide novel insights on the tools and policies – both strengths and limitations – that ROs and states can mobilize to counter populist backlashes against the institutions of the global order. These institutions are indeed increasingly ‘at bay’ – be it over the globalized economy, security, or human rights and norms. To reverse or at least slow this trend, we must first understand it.