Social Science Bites

Michael Billig on the Royal Family and Nationalism

Sept. 1, 2016

“One of the values of the social sciences,” argues Michael Billig, “is to investigate what people take for granted and to bring it to the surface.” In this Social Science Bites podcast, Billig, a professor of social science at Loughborough University since 1985, discusses a particular strain of something taken for granted, what he terms “banal nationalism.” That refers to the idea that much of what we would consider markers of the nationalistic impulse pass without notice, the “unwaved flags” we’d only notice if they disappeared.

In his conversation with interviewer David Edmonds, Billig dives more deeply into one particular example of nationalism, the British royal family, and what the British themselves think about the royal  family and the place of the royals in British ideology.  

Drawing on what he learned while supervising the qualitative surveys of average British citizens that formed the basis of his 1992 book Talking of the Royal Family, he suggests that the British people, while much less deferential to the royals than outsiders might think, tend to accept that the RF is a good thing and therefore sympathize with them – as long as the public perceives the family as publicly suffering from their privilege.

As he tells Edmonds, it was while doing that project that he realized he in fact was writing about nationalism when he write that book, which started him down the road to his 1995 book, Banal Nationalism. Since then he’s addressed a number of other topics, including laughter, rock ‘n’ roll, and how to write badly – a topic that concludes the podcast. He also defends the role of social scientists – trained as a social psychologist he prefers to describe himself using the broader term by citing the ephemerality of the findings. “The idea that you may get eternal truths from social science is a bit of a mythology,” he insists. “This is why you always need social scientists.”

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