Social Identity Theory and Sonic Geographies – A Combined Research Tool for Cornwall

“Individuals have a need for positive social identification or self-conception…groups will produce flattering stereotypes of themselves and demeaning stereotypes of others”

(Tajfel cited in Billig: 2010: p  66)

Conceived by Henri Tajfel in 1979, Social Identity Theory considers how people make sense of who they are through the groups which they become members of. An essential part of this sense of belonging are the feelings of pride and high self-esteem that are produced. This is an area which has parallels with Benedict Anderson’s (2006) notion of an ‘Imagined Community’ as it is highly unlikely that all members of such a group will ever meet. Equally, Said’s (1983) theory of an ‘Interpretive Community’, where “nations don’t just have to be imagined, but also have to create their own histories, or interpretations of themselves” (cited in Billig: 2010: p 70) plays an equally important role. This creation of history, reminiscent of Hobsbawm and Ranger’s ‘Invention of Tradition’ (2000), also sets out to serve as material to reinforce a sense of ‘us and them’. This ‘invented history’ with tales of glorious tussles against those outside of the group, reinforced with recreated languages and other perceived distinctive cultural icons, creates virtual countries and prejudices, which can occasionally lead to conflict on a range of scales ranging from deliberate use of a different language to ensure a ‘pure’ membership of the group, to more overt forms of racism.

Yet how do people become members of such groups, and what is the membership process like? Hogg and Abrams (1988) identified three stages – firstly a self categorisation of membership, secondly comes the process of learning the norms of the identity, and finally, assigning these norms to themselves (cited in Billig: 2010: p 66). For those seeking to be members of a specific Cornish Identity group, the key component is an ability to speak Kernewek due to the fact that “The history of a language is often determined by its geography” (Mackay cited in Breton: 1991: p xi) – and this can be seen in the increasing desire to be able to speak Kernewek because of the emotional tie to the territory of Cornwall. Such a desire will generally be because that person was born and bred to be Cornish or have Cornish ancestry, but there are some in-migrants who have begun to learn the language because they want to immerse themselves in the indigenous culture – becoming a potential member of this particular social group as a consequence.

Within my research for my forthcoming Postgraduate Thesis, I want to closely link concepts of Social Identity Theory with those of Sonic Geography and Sonic Exclusion. Kanngieser has noted how “Geography has had a notable history of bringing together sound, space and politics” (2012: p 338). Studies in this area often focus on natures of soundscapes within a specific region. Boland (2010) studied the use of Scouse within the city of Liverpool and Greater Merseyside, in a work which examined what it meant to be authentically Scouse, and how the different component parts of this region viewed each other. A vitally important parallel in my proposed research and that of Boland is the fact that, like Cornwall, “During the 1970s and 1980s, Merseysiders became increasingly alienated from the rest of country. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ syndrome developed…” (Carragher cited in Boland: 2010: p 5). In Boland’s research, central questions and conflicts arose about people who were deemed to be “Plastic Scousers from the Wirral and to a lesser extent Knowsley” (ibid: p 6), and he went on to examine what it meant that some people perceived themselves to be members of a group that others did not think them sufficiently ‘qualified’ to join – creating a state of Sonic Exclusion. Allied to this are debates around whether or not you have to live within a territory for a certain period of time to be able to become an accepted member of a group and consequently whether or not there can be different types of group membership and what the significances of this means. Although my studies will not focus on accent or dialect, but rather an ability to speak Kernewek, it will still be capable of producing potentially powerful views about which (if any) people are more socially authentic speakers of the language, and thus see themselves as being placed further up a potential hierarchy of group membership.

Another aspect of Sonic Geography and Sonic Exclusion which will form an aspect of my own research involves examining the spaces in which the Kernewek language is spoken. A 2013 study by Brickell noted how “Geographers have a more reticent relationship to the deployment of communicative resources” (p 207) and the influence of what Livingstone termed “spaces of speech” (ibid). By examining not just the people who speak the indigenous Cornish language, but where they speak it, further important data can be gathered about the realistic viability of Kernewek. Long term, the present renaissance in the language needs to be continued by discovering just how much it is spoken within everyday family conversations in a domestic situation. This has parallels with a piece of research by Brickell examining the usage of native proverbs in everyday conversations in Vietnamese homes and how this has aided the reinforcement of “identity through a particular accent or the way in which…(words) are pronounced” (ibid p 208). Ultimately, if Kernewek speakers only speak the language at special gatherings, it becomes almost a forced use of the tongue in a false situation.


Anderson, Benedict (2006): Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism: Verso: London.

Billig, Michael (2010): Banal Nationalism: Sage Publications: London.

Boland, Philip (2020): Sonic Geography, Place and Race in the Formation of Local Identity: Liverpool and Scousers: in Geografiska Annaler B, Vol. 92 No. 1.

Breton, J-L (1991): Geolinguistics: Language Dynamics and Ethnolinguistic Geography: University of Ottawa Press: Ottawa.

Brickell, Katherine (2013): Towards geographies of speech: proverbial utterances of home in contemporary Vietnam: in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Vol. 38 No. 2.

Hobsbawm, E.J. & Ranger, T (eds) (2000): The Invention of Tradition: Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.


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