Anthropologist Publishes Ethnography on Nation-Building

Professor Robin DeLugan's "Reimagining National Belonging" examines 21st century nation-building in a global context.
Nation-states, as we know them, have been built and rebuilt since the 18th century. Professor Robin DeLugan is an expert in nation-building and recently published a case study examining how the process has changed in the 21st century.

Using post-civil war El Salvador as the example, “Reimagining National Belonging” looks at the creation of social unity and construction of shared identity following an extended, divisive conflict. This research is the latest example of cultural and intellectual contributions made to society by faculty members in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts.

The Salvadoran Civil War was fought from 1980 to 1992 between the military-led government of El Salvador and a coalition of guerrilla groups. Marked by extreme violence, it included the use of death squads, heavy military equipment, the recruitment of child soldiers and various human-rights violations. According to U.N. reports, 75,000 Salvadorans were killed, tortured or went missing during the 12-year conflict. Tens of thousands fled the country to escape the violence.

As a socio-cultural anthropologist, DeLugan tells the story of rebuilding El Salvador not just from the perspective of those who were there in the aftermath of the war but also from her personal experiences while observing the restoration process from 1992 to 2011.

“Watching the process unfold allowed me to identify and explore the process of constructing a national identity, particularly with regard to exclusion and inclusion,” DeLugan said. “Historically, nations will romanticize the past of their indigenous populations yet exclude them as stakeholders from present-day nation building efforts. I studied a process whereby El Salvador was encouraged to take a different approach.”

That approach has included a complex set of participants – civil society organizations, international agencies, scholars, the media, cultural leaders and museums – working together to reconstruct the meaning of El Salvador as a nation. There is even an ongoing initiative to reword an article of the constitution to reflect the presence and contributions of indigenous populations.

“This isn’t just about rebuilding a society or an economy,” DeLugan notes. “It’s about recreating an identity.”

And in this process, the key players aren’t letting borders dictate the definition of their nation. Those who fled the country during the war make up about one-third of the nation’s population and are called hermanos lejanos (faraway brothers and sisters). The country’s first monument erected after the war is dedicated to these citizens living abroad and serves as a reminder of their strong emotional and economic ties to their homeland.

In her book, DeLugan examines these aspects of post-war El Salvador in a global context, leaving the reader to understand that though the anecdotes are from El Salvador, the themes can be applied to any other nation in a similar situation.

“Post-war nation-building is also about democracy,” she said. “After a civil war, there is new attention on the nation and a new focus on inclusion, participation, and rights … some of the expectations of participating in a global community of nation-states.”

DeLugan finds how episodes of government violence are handled and remembered in the post-war era to be of particular interest. Whitewashing history rarely sits well with the people but public admission of government wrongdoing paves the way for forgiveness and understanding. Museums and monuments in honor of victims help to heal the wounds of the past.

Now DeLugan is taking her research on contemporary nation-building a step further by looking at 1930s massacres in similar countries to compare how the past is recalled today by government leaders and citizens. She’ll spend some time in the Dominican Republic this summer researching the government-led killings of about 17,000 Haitians in 1937, which she’ll then compare to similar instances in Spain pertaining to its civil war (1936-39) and El Salvador’s 1932 massacre of indigenous people.

Her hope is to construct a comprehensive picture of what shapes social memory and how that affects nation-building and cohesion among citizens, especially when it comes to equality and justice.

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