Nuran Yıldırım

Middle East Technical University


In ‘We, the People: Popular Culture and Popular Identity in Modern Europe’ Peter Burke examines the uses of various kinds of popular culture in defining popular identity. He tries to ensure that popular culture is not left out the story of construction and reconstruction of popular identity. In this context, he uses the term identity as something plural and included a sense of membership in a city, a nation, a region and a class. Thus, he discusses the very notion of ‘the people’ as an important form of collective identity in post-medieval Europe and examines two concept of this collective identity: the inclusive and the exclusive. First of them linked with the right-wing politics and defines ‘the people’ as a term including everyone in a particular nation or a city as opposed to other people. The second associated with the left-wing politics and defines ‘the people’ as the members of subordinate as opposed to the ruling class (Burke, 1992). Taking Burke’s perspective of the cultural construction of identity into account, in this essay I shall try to define the very concept of identity through placing particular emphasis on the culture.  In the following analysis it will be shown how collective identities have been formed or reformed and ‘identities of resistance’ has started to appear. Further, I shall discuss the rise of ‘class consciousness’ among the subordinate classes.

According to Burke, in many parts of Europe, ordinary people were always invited to identify themselves as members of a class and as members of nation at the same time. But the important question is whether these invitations received a response as expected or not. Initially it might be argued that the task of identity building is by no means easy. For instance, when we look at the politics of European Integration, the years of 1990s can be defined as a ‘cultural term’ regarding European Union elites’ attempts to invent Europe through the medium of ‘culture’. Even though European Union was traditionally defined as a common market dissolving the barriers to free movement of goods, capitals, services and labor, European Union has always harbored a deeper vision of cultural construction of Europe and the issue of Europe’s identity has become important isssue since it has being seen as parallel development to the construction of European Union. In 1992, Maastricht Treaty, for example, created the category of European citizenship and it gave the European Commission legal right to promote integration in the sphere of culture through enhancing what it saw as ‘the European identity’. Thus, European Commission has defined a European identity which is harmoniously integrated with other identities such as local, regional, ethnic, religious and it has argued that people can have multiple identities. Therefore, the creation of identity or identities discussion yields an obvious question whether these identities are in fact antagonistic or compatible. Just like the Commission has defined, Burke has defined the term ‘identity’ as in essence plural but he has also argued, ‘the same individual or group may privilege one identity over another according to the situation and the moment.’ (Burke, 1992). Thus, I might argue, the possibility of conflict between different multiple identities is out of question in Burke’s work and in European Union case and a sort of apolitical conception of identity has been defined and it has been grounded consensus model of society.

Another important issue is that of ‘identities of resistance’ which is defined by Burke in his work “We, the People: Popular Culture and Popular Identity in Modern Europe”. Throughout the world, as Burke puts it, collective identities have been formed or reformed and ‘identities of resistance’ has started to appear. From Burke’s perspective, whilst the inclusive concept of the people was associated with the acceptance of these changes, the exclusive concept of the people associated with the resistance to attempts by other people to change their very own culture and the way of life.  While Burke gives particular attention to identity of resistance is that of ‘the people’ in the exclusive sense, more exactly, the subordinate people as opposed to the ruling class, we can also give an example of identity of resistance from European Union in the inclusive sense. In this context, the rejection of the European Constitutional Treaty by referendum in France and Netherlands in 2005, the strong “Non” and “Nee” of the French and Dutch voters were not only a simple vote on the content of the constitutional text but rather they indicates a sense of resistance to top-down regulations, rules and most importantly identities that are constructed exclusively above by European Union elites (Wind, 2001). Thus, an antagonistic relationship with the state is being rejected at the European Union level.

As stated before, in “We, the People: Popular Culture and Popular Identity in Modern Europe” Burke gives particular attention to the spread of the idea of the people more exactly among the subordinate classes. Thus he has defined identity of resistance is that of ‘the people’ in the exclusive sense, the subordinate people as opposed to the ruling class in particular. The ruling class has been using the term ‘the people’ to refer the rest of the population by defining them as ignorant, disorderly and so on. The problem, for Burke, was to discover when and where this rest of population identified themselves as ‘the people’ or the working class. Much has been written and discussed on the rise of ‘class consciousness’ but Burke defined it from somehow different perspective. He has argued, ‘Ordinary people seem to have become aware of resisting what they regarded as attempts by the privileged classes to take this culture from them.’ (Burke, 1992)

All in all, in this essay, I have tried to analysis the work of Peter Burke, ‘We, the People: Popular Culture and Popular Identity in Modern Europe’. In this respect, I have pointed out the cultural construction of identity and the culture. My examples were mostly from European Union and its history.



BURKE, P. (1992), ‘We, the People: Popular Culture and Popular Identity in Modern Europe’, in Lash and Friedman (eds.), Modernity and Identity, Oxford: Blackwell.

SHORE, C. (2000) Building European Union: The Cultural Politics of European Integration, London, Routledge, pp.15-65

WIND, M. (2001). The Commission White Paper: Bridging the Gap between the Governed and the Governing? Academy of European Law.