Conference Agenda

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Session Overview
SP06: Nationalism, Europe and Brexit - with Michaela Benson, Gurminder K. Bhambra, Max Haller and Vanessa E. Thompson
Thursday, 22/Aug/2019:
9:00am - 10:30am

Session Chair: Susan Halford, University of Bristol
Session Chair: Sue Scott, Newcastle University
Location: The Bridgewater Hall
Lower Mosley Street Manchester, M2 3WS

Session Abstract

organised by the ESA and the British Sociological Association

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Brexit and Britain’s Overseas Citizens: Reframing Britishness from Beyond the Borders

Michaela Caroline Benson

Goldsmiths, United Kingdom

Brexit has made visible the extent to which political and public understandings of Britishness conceive of it as an identity and citizenship allied to an ‘island nation’, contained by its borders. Yet, Britain’s overseas citizens – its emigrants settled outside Britain and citizens of its former colonies and overseas territories – are conspicuously absent from such understandings. In a period when the question of who counts as British has fuelled major political transformation this talk argues that bringing overseas citizens centerstage offers a powerful corrective to hegemonic constructions of a solely White and/or indigenous Britishness. It builds on critiques that identify the neglect of Britain’s imperial history and the presence of a multi-ethnic polity in the (post-)imperial core within such narratives of indigeneity (see for example, Bhambra 2017; Virdee and McGeever 2018), extending the geographical purview of this perspective to include overseas citizens – who only feature in these debates as and when they enter (or are asked to leave) the British Isles – and Britain’s diasporic population – one of the largest in the world proportional to the resident citizen population in the United Kingdom.

In particular, the talk draws on one element of a broader project looking into Britain’s relationship with its overseas citizens: recent research on what Brexit means to British citizens living in the EU27. Through this focus it offers initial insights into Britain’s ambivalent relationship to its overseas citizens, their inclusion and exclusion from public and political debate, and how a focus on dispersed contemporary geographies of Britishness might challenge contemporary understandings of who counts as British.


Michaela Benson is Reader in the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths and the project lead for BrExpats: Freedom of Movement, Citizenship and Brexit in the lives of Britons resident in the EU27 ( She has been Visiting Professor at Universidad Diego Portales, Chile (2014) and Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès (2018-19). She is the author of The British in Rural France (2011), which was shortlisted for the British Sociological Association Philip Abrams Memorial Prize 2012, and co-author of Lifestyle Migration and Colonial Traces in Malaysia and Panama (2018) and The Middle Classes and the City (2015). She has edited 3 volumes and is the author of 37 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters. She is currently Managing Editor of The Sociological Review, the longest-standing journal of sociology in Britain. Throughout her career she has been committed to engaging publics with social science research, through public speaking, broadcast and print media, podcasting, and contributions to educational resources.

European Cosmopolitanism and Atavistic Nationalism: The Twin Conditions of Brexit

Gurminder K Bhambra

University of Sussex, United Kingdom

The European project is commonly argued to be organized around the idea of ‘cosmopolitan Europe’ – a Europe that would distance itself from its recent past by uniting in recognition of its deeper, long-standing institutional commonalities and celebrating its cultural diversity within those commonalities. There is little discussion, however, of the diversity constituted by multicultural others as part of cosmopolitan Europe. This rests on a particular understanding of European history that evades its colonial past. It also disavows examining the consequences of that domination for the contemporary multicultural constitution of European societies – one that those on the far-right see as having been imposed upon them rather than created from Europe’s historical imposition upon others. It is the colonial histories of Europe that have produced its multicultural present – a multiculturalism that over the last five years political leaders have declared to have failed. What does it mean to say that multiculturalism has failed when it is colonialism that created multi-cultural Empires and multicultural European societies? What does it mean to say that multiculturalism has failed when post-colonial European societies continue to be empirically multicultural? What sort of politics does it legitimate? In this talk, I suggest that the failure to acknowledge Europe’s colonial past is responsible precisely for the rise of atavistic nationalism that is central to the politics of Brexit and I ask how could a postcolonial sociology better help us to understand this present.


Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies in the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. Previously, she was Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick and has been Guest Professor of Sociology and History at the Centre for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at Linnaeus University, Sweden. She is author of Connected Sociologies (2014, available open access) and the award-winning Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (2007). She also co-edited a volume on Decolonising the University (2018) and has spoken regularly on the crisis for refugees in Europe and on questions of citizenship in the light of Brexit. She set up the Global Social Theory website ( to counter the parochiality of standard perspectives in social theory and is co-editor of the social research magazine, Discover Society (

The European Union – The Failure of a Dream? An Ambitious Scenario Disproved by the Brexit

Max Haller

University of Graz, Austria

My book European Integration as an Elite Process (Routledge 2008) had a question as a subtitle: “The failure of a dream?” In my lecture, I will argue that the Brexit has proven that this scenario came true; it was in fact a massive event of disintegration. The dominant interpretation sees it as the result of an irresponsible behavior of British political elites and an inadequate application of direct democracy. However, against these views, I will argue: (1) Already among the historical ideas about European integration, there were two contrasting views: one of a loose federation of nation states, the other of a new federal, globally powerful state; (2) the political elites pursued European integration secretly along the second model; (3) the Brexit was only the logical consequence of deep doubts of the Britons about the EU; similar doubts had already been expressed by French and Dutch people in 2005 when rejecting the EU constitution. I will not argue that the EU will disintegrate. Rather, European integration has achieved some important aims, although by far not all which are ascribed to her. There exists an alternative, viable vision of European integration which could be attractive also for Britain irrespective if it will remain a member or not. This vision is that of a socio-economic Community of Law. As such a Community, the EU should abstain from all governmental functions, slim down many of its present institutions and strengthen its elements of Citizen’s Initiatives. In this process, also Britain could contribute ideas and support.


Max Haller, born 1947 in Sterzing (Italy), Dr.phil. Vienna 1974, Dr. phil. habil. Mannheim, Professor of Sociology at the University of Graz (Austria) 1985-2015. He was president of the Austrian Sociological Association and is a member of the Austrian Academy of Science. He was co-founder and Vicepresident of the European Sociological Association and co-founder of the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP). He was a visiting professor at universities in Austria, Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Italy, California/USA and Tanzania. He published and edited 40 books and about 250 papers in international sociological journals (incl. AJS, ASR, Revue Française de Sociologie, International Sociology) and readers. His main research areas are social stratification, sociology of European integration, comparative social research, and sociological theory. Recent publications include Ethnic Stratification and Economic Inequality Around the World (with Anja Eder), Ashgate Publishing 2015; Higher Education in Africa. Challenges for Development, Mobility and Cooperation, Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2017 (ed. with Anne Goujon and Bernadette Müller).

Identity Politics and the Crisis of Europe: On Current Articulations of White Reconstructions and the (Im-) Possibilities of an Intersectionality of Struggles

Vanessa Eileen Thompson

Goethe University, Germany

The political developments of the last years in various European countries demonstrate that Europe and its democratic values are in crisis. Whether it be the ‘necropolitical’ responses to the flight and movements of those rendered refugees, the continuous rise of the far-right, or the neoliberal securitization of increasing poverty: The normative paradigms that undergird the project of Europe such as freedom, justice and equality are severely put to the test. At the same time, many social and political theorists analyze and explain these troubling formations against the backdrop of socio-economic developments such as neoliberal globalization and increasing economization. Most of these approaches as well as dominant democratic and left political movements signal the need for renewing the 'social question' and call for a return to (white) ‘class politics’ that respond to the fears of those who had been ‘left behind’. However, these discussions often dismiss politics of racialized and minoritized groups and movements, disqualifying their claims as ‘identity politics’ that focus solely on the particular realm of rights. My talk problematizes these approaches, drawing on an actualization of W.E.B. Du Bois’ conception of ‘white wages’ and Gurminder K. Bhambra’s critique of ‘methodological whiteness’. I suggest that these approaches allow for a historicization of the interconnections of racism, colonialism and capitalism, including their gendered logics, that not only challenge the historical wrongs of the European project, but further enable the reconstruction of another Europe through what Angela Davis calls an ‘intersectionality of struggles’.


Vanessa E. Thompson is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the Institute of Sociology at Goethe-University Frankfurt. She was previously a fellow at the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research and teaching are focused on black studies, critical race and racism studies, post- and decolonial feminist theories and methodologies, gender and queer studies, and social movement theories. Her book project, Solidarities in Black: Anti-Black Racism, Black Urban Activism and the Struggle beyond Recognition in Paris, explores forms of black urban activism and anti-racist mobilizations against anti-black racism in France as well as analyzes the re-production of coloniality through the workings of neoliberal French Republican Universalism. Her current research project focuses on racial gendered policing in Europe and transnational articulations of abolitionist alternatives from a black feminist perspective. Vanessa has published articles on the work of Fanon, black social movements in Germany and France, and racial gendered policing in Europe.

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