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Why the Inertia? Situated Knowledge and Action in Northern Ireland

I enter this discussion with some caution. My interests lie in the broad field of ethnicity, boundaries and identity, my research on the Irish case speaks directly to some of Aidan’s questions, but my disciplinary expertise lies at the intersection of political science and cultural sociology, not history. Here I simply point to the working assumptions and theoretical perspectives that I bring to the study of contemporary Ireland, in the spirit of cross-pollination of ideas and methods.

First, the great “so what” question. The Irish case is of general interest because it

exemplifies big intersecting global processes of state-building, colonisation and reformation in an early-modern European context. Such historical developments laid structural foundations (demography, power, linkages to the state) for later industrialisation, democratisation and nation-building. Understanding the legacies of that period has provoked major disputes amongst Irish historians and social scientists, and that discussion is embedded and embroiled in wider British, European and global debates. The answers are crucially important for understanding how the divisions in our contemporary world have been and can be overcome, despite obstacles. Thus, if we show what hinders change in contemporary Northern Ireland, it opens up comparative analysis of the processes and prospects of such change in other places – from USA to the Balkans to South Africa.

Questions of legacy demand detailed work. Some of my research has explored the ways the routine practices within the British state in the second half of the twentieth century unintentionally produced apparently colonial outcomes in Northern Ireland. An example: during and after the collapse of the 1974 Sunningdale agreement, PM Harold Wilson was willing to contemplate withdrawal from Northern Ireland but not its restructuring on an egalitarian basis. The outcome – the British state upholding unionist power against nationalist protest so long as sovereignty remained British – was a function of British habits of statecraft intersecting with the administrative structure of Northern Ireland. As those habits of statecraft were reoriented in the late 1980s and 1990s, unionists, nationalists and republicans recalibrated what was politically possible and meaningful negotiations began.

Second, theoretical reference points help ground important questions surrounding group division, identities and ethnicity. Hegelian and critical Marxian emphasis on the primacy of social practice; Pierre Bourdieu’s work on practical judgment and class habitus; and Hans-Georg Gadamer’s emphasis on "substance," all contribute to a deeper understanding of how ideas are always situated and gain their meaning and resonance from the prior embodied, intuitive, perceptual, practice. Thus, ethnic groupness is a product of such practical intuitions: the patterned judgments that result lead to recognition of “people like us,” logically prior to feelings of group solidarity or ideas of ethnic descent.

My own research has focused on the practical grammars through which key concepts and values (national identity and its relation to state, democracy and legitimacy) are used and contested in everyday life in both parts of Ireland, providing a basis for the intermittent triggering of group opposition. Additionally, theoretical concepts are also themselves situated, locating the scholar not as legislator of correct conceptual usage, much less as one who polices this, but rather as a negotiator between general categories of analysis and practical understandings, and as a creator, conceptually opening up perspectives that allow wider shared horizons.

A color photograph shows a mural painted on the side of road. The mural features a banquet of multiple figures. A single, small tree stands in front of the image, towards the right side.
A photograph of "Banquet" by Rita Duffy in Belfast, 2013. Metro Critic via flickr. Accessed October 2023 ,

The Irish-historians’ ethnicity debate began with the opposite approach, lifting old binaries of constructivism vs primordialism off the social scientists’ shelves and using them as weapons of attack. Ian McBride’s recent JBS article has nailed the key problems with this debate and has very valuably shown the nuanced meanings and resonances that Irish historians and other scholars in practice bring to the language of ethnicity. Meanwhile social scientific discussion today has moved on from primordiality to the embeddedness and transformability of (ethnic and other) groupness. Rogers Brubaker’s elegant arguments for problematising rather than presupposing the relation between categories and groupness gave a starting point for analysis. His further work demonstrated, for example, how socially embedded practices in Cluj, Romania, provided continued relevance to national categories allowing intermittent triggering of groupness and how different forms of social embeddedness led to different “grounds for difference.”

In Northern Ireland, embeddedness takes specific forms: ethnic, religious, national, political and other forms of difference are intertwined in institutions of family, neighbourhood, school, church and state, allowing distinction, exceptions, individualism and flexibility in everyday relations, and – at crisis points – radically opposed moral judgments. For example, Niall Ó Dochartaigh and Lorenzo Bosi trace how group division became crystallised in relation to the People’s Democracy march in 1969, not through feeling, solidarity or lack of values but through the structured social practices that surrounded the event: its route through demographically divided Northern Ireland; the villages where the students could safely sleep; and the cohort (republicans all) capable and willing to act as stewards. The practical situation of the marchers in the divided local environment generated radically opposed judgments, positioning the marchers with their universalistic ideals close to nationalists, and provoking strengthened “ethnic” solidarity and opposition.

Of course it is different today. The class, gender and cosmopolitan cross-currents were strong in the 1960s and even stronger now: when they are integrated within groupness, and when they point to a path beyond it, are big questions that I explored in my recent book on identity change after conflict. There are more shared arenas of social practice than in the past, and since 1998 there has been an evident distancing from conventional bloc identities: over half the population distances from traditional binaries in some way, although most keep some linkages to community of origin, and only one in five voters give their first preference vote to non-bloc parties. But still groupness dominates socially, in segregated housing, schooling, and significant polarisation of opinion shown in surveys, as well as in voting practices.

Why this seeming inertia? I interviewed many people who wanted to move beyond division and found a radical diversity. Some were pluralists retaining some of the values of tradition but trying to make boundaries permeable; some were everyday universalists, abstracting from group politics to everyday commonalities and usually not voting; some were cosmopolitans insisting on correct thinking; and then there was a wildly diverse set of people looking creatively to transform tradition. There was little common language and no shared goals. People struggled to move towards convergent horizons, for it was not just the categories (British or Irish or both or neither) that differed, but the grammar that surrounded those categories and defined the importance or unimportance of national identity. Without alternative convergent horizons, groupness impacts well beyond its demographic weight.

I conclude with three summary theses:

1) to analyse groupness and ethnicity, one has to move beyond the binary of primordialism vs easy constructivism. It requires rather what Andreas Wimmer has called a multi-levelled processual approach.

2) to explore the mechanisms that give a level of inertia to groupness is not to presume unchanging ethnic division but rather to problematise the interrelations between groupness, ethnic categories and institutionally embedded social practices.

3) to cross-pollinate ideas and methods across social, political and disciplinary boundaries means negotiating rather than imposing concepts.


Jennifer Todd MRIA, is a Fellow at the Geary Institute, University College Dublin (UCD), emeritus Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations UCD, previously Director of the Institute for British-Irish Studies, UCD, former Fernand Braudel fellow at the European University Institute, and presently on the Steering Committee of the ARINS project ( She has written on issues of identity, ethnicity and conflict with particular focus on Northern Ireland, including her 2018 book, Identity Change after Conflict: Ethnicity, Boundaries and Belonging in the Two Irelands; and studies of British state change (Political Studies, 2007, 2014) and British-Irish negotiation (Oxford UP 2020). With Joseph Ruane, she is preparing a new book, provisionally entitled Dynamics of Conflict in Ireland, following from their 1996 Dynamics of Conflict in Northern Ireland.


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