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PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, York University, Toronto, Canada
Summary of the research question
The shocking murders of both far-right politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and outspoken
film maker Theo van Gogh in 2004 have underlined how the progressive values celebrated by
the Dutch have been challenged, contested and contradicted by the waves of recent political and
social change. In the face of increased concern over issues of immigration and integration,
growing European Union influence, and a surge in support for populist far-Right political parties
and politicians, the current context raises important questions about the values and practices of
belonging in the contemporary Netherlands. In a country where understandings of belonging
have long been framed as civic rather than national, this project will produce an ethnographic
account of how belonging is conceptualized, deployed and negotiated primarily among those
whose claims to ‘Dutchness’ go unchallenged. In the current climate, policy makers, politicians,
academics and the general public alike have been greatly concerned with the question of
belonging in the Netherlands, especially how to integrate newcomers within Dutch society. Yet,
for all of the attention and resources directed to the subjects of immigrants and integration, few
have asked what it actually means to belong. What is it that these ‘outsiders’ are being asked to
integrate into? Who and what kinds of practices are now considered ‘Dutch’, and what actors or
institutions participate in the construction, negotiation, and dissemination of these concepts?
I approach these questions through a theoretical lens grounded in anthropological and
other social science literatures addressing the themes of nationalism, citizenship, modernity,
discrimination and migration. Conducting this research (primarily) in Amsterdam, I am currently
pursuing these questions through sites and events that are important for the ways in which
everyday expressions and practices of belonging are deployed. While my intention has been to
trace practices of imagining community at the national level, the nature of ethnographic
fieldwork has shown that the nation is not the only, nor perhaps even the most important site for
meaning-making surrounding belonging, home-feelings and ‘Dutchness’. Conducting research at
the level of the neighbourhood and through various voluntary networks has highlighted how
easily multiple scales come into play in the daily construction, negotiation, and deployment of
the politics of belonging. As such, additional questions have arisen, complementing my
exploration of national identifications with an exploration of how belonging is configured at
various local levels. As an ethnographer, many of the specific sites of participant observation
have emerged during my fieldwork: these have included moments of everyday interaction, as
well as more specific sites of congregation (through my participation in volunteer work and
networks), through sites of expertise (participation in scholarly research groups and contact with
individuals taking a professional interest in questions related to the politics of belonging), as well
as particular cultural events/ celebrations that are nationally and culturally significant, especially
those evoking cultural tensions (such as the events surrounding the celebration of Sinterklaas, the
upcoming federal elections, as well as Koninginnedag, and activities related to the World Cup).
Description of the Research Project
In asking how meaning is constructed around ‘Dutchness’, this research will engage
numerous other meanings and powerful social constructions, including the values and ideas
connected to nationalism, the state, citizenship, modernity, discrimination and tolerance, and
contemporary patterns of migration. This research speaks to these issues through a theoretical
lens informed by a critical examination of the construction and dissemination of the modern
European nation-state, as well as the changing nature of discrimination and Othering that is
currently taking place within this milieu. In thinking through these themes and problematics, I
have drawn on the anthropological and other social science literatures addressing the
construction of nationalism and the nation, as well as the construction of difference and
discrimination. The following is a brief overview of the literatures that have informed some key
concepts this research engages, as well as my conceptualization of the Netherlands as a fieldsite.
Literature that critically analyses the formation, dissemination, negotiation, and
complications of the nation and related processes has been foundational in the ways in which
such phenomena have been conceptualized in this project. Inspired by the seminal works of
Anderson, Hobsbawm and Ranger I understand the nation to be socially constructed. The
concept of the nation as an ‘imagined community’ supported by ‘invented traditions’ is
important for the ways it questions the foundation of such an integral site of identification and
organization in the modern era, showing that ‘the nation’ can be interrogated at the level of
social science, not unlike any other sociocultural process. In terms of methodology, these texts
are usefully contrasted with the work of Billig on banal nationalism (1995). He suggests “that
‘national identity’ is a short-hand for a whole series of familiar assumptions about nationhood,
the world as ‘our’ place in that world” (Billig 1995:93). Somewhat similar to Anderson’s
‘imagined community’, Billig’s directive to study banal practices of nationalism suggests that we
consider how concepts such as nationalism shift, transform, are daily negotiated and deployed.
Where the work on invented traditions concentrates on moments of ‘hot nationalism’ (highly
public symbols and celebrated events, such as national holidays and performances, see Handler
1988, Guss 2000, and Hage 2000), Billig urges social scientists to study the ‘banal’
(commonplace and unselfconscious performative actions, e.g. products of mass media and
culture) as a way of better understanding the realities of the nation as both concept and lived
experience. In attending to the banal, we observe the everyday cues people use to circumscribe
what the nation is and who, what and how one may be included or excluded from it.
While these texts have been integral to my and other anthropologists’ understanding of
the nation, they are not without their flaws. Segal and Handler highlight how Anderson’s work
has two significant shortcomings: replicating the boundedness and homogeneity of modern
nationalist ideologies (Segal and Handler 1992:55), and treating ‘Europe’ and European
experiences as universals, particularly with regard to the history of nationalism(s) (Segal and
Handler 1992:59). Often critiqued, these problems remain quite prevalent across anthropology
and the other social sciences, making them important considerations for my own work, even as I
study aspects of nationalism in Europe.
Another common trap that those studying the nation must avoid is the phenomenon of
‘methodological nationalism’, which includes:
1) ignoring or disregarding the fundamental importance of nationalism for modern
societies; ... 2) naturalization, i.e., taking for granted that the boundaries of the
nation-state delimit and define the unit of analysis; 3) territorial limitation which
confines the study of social processes to the political and geographical boundaries
of a particular nation-state. (Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2003:577-578)
While these concerns are particularly pressing when one’s research follows circulating objects,
or when research subjects live their lives (physically and/or emotionally) across the borders of
nation-states (Glick Schiller and Fouron 2001, Ong 1999), they apply to anyone who studies
social phenomenon framed in terms of the nation. In my work, the complications arising from
multiple actors envisioning ‘the Netherlands’ in different ways comes readily to mind, e.g. at the
national level, as a state within the supranational European Union, as part of a ‘European’
tradition or civilization, as part of a shifting trans- or international sphere inhabited by particular
individuals, as a sociocultural entity where legal and social belonging do not necessarily overlap.
These complexities are highlighted, for example, when social and legal belonging
necessarily experientially the same, as is the case in the Netherlands. Many autochtonen
allochtonen as outside of mainstream society, regardless of their citizenship status or how long
they (or their family) have lived in the Netherlands. While there certainly are exceptions to this
sociocultural markers (e.g. gendered norms, dress, religion, fluency in Dutch, skin colour)
are more important in reckoning social belonging in Dutch society than legal status. Tonkens (et
al.) observes that the Dutch retreat from ‘multiculturalism’ (which arguably never really existed
in the Dutch context) and what she has called the ‘culturalization of citizenship’ go hand in hand.
In response to fears of an eroding Dutch culture, citizenship status is socially devalued as “more
meaning is attached to cultural participation (in terms of norms, values, practices and traditions),
either as alternative or in addition to citizenship as rights and socio-economic participation”
(Tonkens et al. 2008:6). Like the nation, the meanings attributed to citizenship are socially
constructed, shifting through the negotiations, contestations, and assertions made by diverse
actors: politicians, policy makers, government workers, academics, ‘ordinary’ citizens, migrants,
ethnic minorities/ allochthons. How the nation is conceived depends on whose interests are
Anthropology’s disciplinary bias of searching out (or framing out) ethnographic subjects
as isolated, or in some way on the peripheries of Europe—as Others in keeping with the tradition
of studying non-Western peoples (Herzfeld 1987:6)—has encouraged the belief that nationalism
and the nation are characteristically ‘European’ phenomena. More than this, the anthropological
tradition of studying the ‘Other’, coupled with anthropology’s foregrounding of cultural
relativism has silently and uncritically framed the West (embodied by ‘Europe’, and informed by
the legacies of its Enlightenment) as the site of neutral or universal values (Segal and Handler
1992:52); assumptions also observed in current Dutch literature and public debates. However, far
from being universal values, critical analyses have shown that these experiences are forged in the
imagining of difference—e.g. between ‘Europe’ and its Others, from perceived threats of non-
Western ‘outsiders’ to internally abject groups or individuals (see Bunzl 2004, Mosse 1985)—
boundaries which are constantly shifting, invented, and reinvented in spite of their positioning as
fixed and timeless (Segal and Handler 1992:54). The creation and deployment of European
modernity has been pivotal in this process, particularly for the ways in which national belonging,
however configured, is constructed and pitted against forms of supposedly fixed and enduring
difference. Processes of modernity systematically classify and order what is seen as chaotic
(Rattansi 1994:24-25), thus embedding exclusionary dualisms in the modern framing of the
world. As with the nation-state, the requisite conditions for belonging in ‘Europe’ have shifted
across time and place, variously conceived along lines of bureaucracy, geography, history,
culture, religious affiliation, and civilization (Borneman and Fowler 1997).
In each of these imaginings the role of modern difference-making remains deeply
entangled with the building of the nation-state, the construction of ‘the West’ or ‘Europe’ (as
rational, civilized, Christian), and discrimination—even if it has become more difficult to
recognize. Traditional Others in ‘Europe’ and within individual nation-states (e.g. Jews and
queers, Bunzl 2004) have since been incorporated into the contemporary conceptions of
belonging, and appear to demonstrate a move beyond modern binaries of self and Other.
However, this move signifies “emancipation within rather than from modernity’s exclusionary
categories” (Bunzl 2004:217). In the wake of the political, social and demographic changes
during this period, especially those related to the increased immigration from predominantly
non-Western (and often Muslim) countries, European nation-states have simply shifted the terms
of threatening difference, from anti-Semitism and homophobia to xenophobia (Bunzl 2004:222).
The literature that informs my understanding of (Western forms of) discrimination has
emphasized how similar such processes are to one another, regardless of the terms central to any
particular instance, whether race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, language, religion, or culture. For
the purposes of this project I have been particularly interested in discriminatory processes and
attitudes emanating from the contemporary phenomenon of international im/migration. Pointing
to the centrality of modern practices of difference-making, these formative texts include
examinations of categories of strangeness, such as the current reconfiguration of race/ racism to
discursively emphasize cultural over biological difference. This is especially important for my
current work, where Islam has become a key signifier of cultural difference and a striking source
of sociopolitical tension and debate in the Netherlands.
The postcolonial migration of Others into Europe has spurred for many European nation-
states, the Netherlands included, a crisis of modern identity. How are these strangers who have
for so long been imagined as impossibly Other to become part of the national self? Can they? If
so, how does their accommodation/ integration/ assimilation affect who ‘we’ are? It is interesting
that in this climate, discourses of autochthony have become more visible, especially in the
Dutch-speaking countries of the Netherlands and Belgium. The concept of autochthony
references claims to naturalized origins (including original settlement) in ways that are
reminiscent of indigeneity, whereas allochthony (autochthony’s Other), denotes strangeness or
foreignness, and is deployed to deny the claims of ‘newcomers’. Importantly, as Geschiere
highlights in his exploration of the contemporary deployment of these terms, whereas the
meaning of indigeneity has become ever more specific, the meanings underlying autochthonous
terminology have proliferated, contextually adapting to different points of reference, “combining
apparent self-evidence with great ambiguity and variation in its meaning” (2009:6). In the Dutch
case, the term allochtoon first entered common speech through the efforts of the Centraal
Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS) to encourage equality and to neutralize stigma attached to ethnic
or racialized identifiers. While the CBS uses allochtoon to refer to anyone who is not considered
native Dutch (or Frisian), the term’s colloquial use more specifically refers to people of non-
Western origin, drawing inspiration from “discourses on the need to safeguard ‘ancestral lands’
against ‘strangers’ who ‘soil’ this patrimony, as well as on the right of first-comers to special
protection against later immigrants” (Ceuppens and Geschiere 2005:386). A key characteristic of
autochthony discourse is that it operates as an ‘exclusionary populism’. Entangled in the current
understandings of autochthony/ allochthony in the Dutch context—but also visible across
Western Europe—are ideas of race, ethnicity, culture, language, and religion that highlight the
centrality of migration in Western European concepts of difference.
Increased migration and settlement in European countries from the former colonies and
non-traditional (i.e. non-Western) source countries has marked ‘migrants’
, most of all Muslims,
as the new national Others. In determining difference and belonging, Europeans now use the
language of ‘culture’ instead of race. In practice, whether or not race is officially recognized, and
“[i]n spite of repeated critiques of race as a scientific concept and analytic model, race remains
salient in the everyday lives of immigrants in Europe, as an inescapable social fact whose vitality
and volatility only appear to be increasing” (Silverstein 2005:364-365). The sustained power of
race in deciding social belonging comes from the redeployment of racism through static ideas of
culture that operate within a threshold of tolerable difference, placing migrants (or allochtonen)
in a new European ‘savage slot’ (Silverstein 2005:365; Beriss 2004, Bunzl 2005a, Bowen 2005,
Gingrich 2005, Lebovics 2004, Hage 2000, Povinelli 2002, Wikan 2002, Vink 2007).
Although this shift may be articulated differently across Europe, the results are the same:
by avoiding discussions of race, or by incorporating race into a framework of tolerance via
officially sanctioned cultural pluralism (i.e. multicultural policies or rhetoric), it is presumed by
politicians, policy makers and the general (native) public that ‘racism’ is no longer a problem
(Wikan 2002:43, 44). In reality, the new rhetoric of ‘culture’ does little to dispel the older
problems associated with race, and merely reframes “cultural difference as the fundamental and
immutable basis of identity and belonging” (Silverstein 2005:365-366). This conceptual
tweaking effectively ensnares ‘migrants’/ allochtonen in ‘culturally’ exclusive categories of
association, without actually speaking of race, but all the while operating through the powerful
logic that sustains its projects of Othering; difference becomes synonymous with (‘their’)
culture, (‘their’) ethnicity, with immigration, poverty and broader aspects of ‘social exclusion’
(Beriss 2004:103; Silverstein 2005:366). Through these linkages, ‘migrants’/ allochtonen
become the focal point for national (as well as local, regional, supranational, civilizational)
anxieties concerning internal and external threats, with ‘Muslims’
generally singled out as the
European (or Dutch) Other par excellence (Silverstein 2005:366-367).
The anxieties emanating from what is deemed threatening difference are vividly
exemplified in the kinds of subtle prejudice that are pervasive in contemporary European
societies, including in immigration and integration policies. Unlike the violence and hostility
typically associated with blatant instances of discrimination, the subtle prejudice of cultural
racism operates mostly through acts of “[i]ndirect discrimination, a result of systemic patterns,
[which] is largely unrecognized in Europe” (Pettigrew 1998:88). Subtle prejudice treats people
as separable from their intolerable cultural practices, whereas biology (alternatively read as race,
ethnicity, gender, sexuality) is seen as fixed and unchangeable. Since culture is viewed as
adaptable—cultural subjects (i.e. ‘migrants’, allochtonen) may pick and choose what aspects to
embrace, adopt or discard in their new country (Asad 2003)—the language of cultural difference
produces socially acceptable forms of discrimination (Pettigrew 1998:83, van Nieuwkerk 2004).
As such, many Dutch view migrants “as a group deserving of help, respect, tolerance, and
solidarity, but not the kind of people that anyone would want to employ or would want one’s
child to be in school with” (Koopmans et al. 2005:15). Similarly, “[m]any Dutch take strong
exception to Muslim practices but have a positive attitude toward Muslims themselves”
(Sniderman and Hagendoorn 2007:10).
The centrality of culture as the organizing principle in contemporary Western societies is
apparent in various states’ policy orientations. New World settler societies (e.g. Canada,
Australia, the United States of America) came to terms with the necessity of immigration, and
therefore demographic diversity long before nation-states in Western Europe. However, social
scientists studying settler society ‘multiculturalisms’ have repeatedly highlighted the ability to
dominate Others even while espousing tolerance and equality along cultural lines. As with
cultural racism, the shift from racialized to (multi)cultural national identities has not erased
hierarchical difference from national landscapes. Even as cultural differences are accepted,
praised and celebrated, the threshold for tolerance continues to operate in relation to the norms of
‘mainstream’ (white) society: “a strategy aimed at reproducing and disguising relationships of
power in society, or being reproduced through that disguise. It is a form of symbolic violence in
which a mode of domination is presented as a form of egalitarianism” (Hage 2000:87; Li 2003,
Li 2004). Thus, the real project of multiculturalism is one that “makes thinking otherwise safe
for liberal democracies” (Povinelli 2002:11), by creating space for cultural diversity, while
severely circumscribing acceptable practices in reference to a dominant set of often unspoken
norms. As these norms change over time, the threshold of tolerable difference flexes to
encompass or exclude practices and beliefs viewed as Other, leaving modern processes of
difference making as the only true constant in practices of multicultural accommodation,
acceptance, celebration, denunciation and education.
The Ethnographic Context: why the Netherlands?
While the legacy of anthropology as a discipline has long dictated that we study the
West’s Others, leaving subjects ‘at home’ to sociologists and other social scientists, the
Anthropology of Europe and concerns for ‘studying up’ (or perhaps ‘across’) have become an
accepted part of mainstream anthropological endeavours since the 1970s’ reflexive turn.
Nonetheless, the majority of scholarly attention continues to focus on those positioned as (non-
Western) outsiders in Dutch society, that is allochtonen, and especially in relation to the
effectiveness and approach of integration policies in practice. This tendency has left a significant
gap in the (anthropological, English language) literature regarding those whose claims to
belonging in the Dutch context are not often challenged: namely, those figured as autochtonen.
What makes this gap even more intriguing is how it continues to exist in a time when so many
fascinating shifts seem to be occurring within the Netherlands and across Europe; most notably
for the Dutch case, the crisis and concern for national identity and feeling ‘at home’ transpiring
against a backdrop of changes emanating from internal and international politics. Briefly, this
section discusses some of the more intriguing aspects and changes occurring across the Dutch
landscape as they pertain to my understanding of the ‘field’: shifts in migration and settlement
patterns, the growth of the EU, the rise of the populist Right in Dutch political circles, the
relationship between legal and cultural integration through citizenship, and some of the conflicts
between the public discourse and lived experiences of social belonging in the Dutch context.
While the Netherlands has had a lengthy history of migration, the nature of contemporary
patterns has created unprecedented upheaval in terms of accommodating or integrating cultural
differences that simply did not exist to the same degree between native Dutch people and
historical immigrants (i.e. rich Protestants from France, German seasonal workers, Jews or
Gypsies) (Sniderman and Hagendoorn 2007:12). Contemporary, predominantly non-Western
newcomers have generally been seen as qualitatively different when compared to the majority of
immigrants arriving before the postcolonial period. More than this, many characteristics of
contemporary migration actually seemed to take the Dutch by surprise: its intensity, the ethnic,
racial, cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity of the immigrants compared to the normative
Dutch population, and the lack of a coherent policy framework for the immigrants’ integration.
How can such newcomers’ presence be reconciled within the highly homogenous Dutch context?
In tandem with these striking transformations, the Netherlands has seen their citizenship,
immigration and naturalization policies subject to outside influence from the European Union.
The rise of the EU has meant that the relatively small and politically weak Netherlands has had
to incorporate or adapt to benchmarks and criteria agreed upon by multiple other parties. The
Netherlands is not alone in facing these challenges. An overview of policy typologies highlights
how “European states are still predominantly trying to address international migration through a
framework based essentially on nation-state premises” (Penninx and Martiniello 2004:157). The
destabilizing of these independent national policies and policy approaches owes much to the
EU’s efforts at encouraging member states to harmonize their positions on immigration and
naturalization (Penninx 2006:40), as well as through the creation of EU citizenship and a new
sense of ‘Europeanness’. The presence of the European Union has added yet another layer to the
complicated politics of belonging in the Netherlands, especially when the supranational body is
viewed as encroaching on national matters.
The concerns that Dutch society, sovereignty, and values are being undermined from
within (as a result of immigration) and without (through the agenda of the EU) have been key
platforms for the recent rise of the populist Right in Dutch politics. The defeat of the consensus-
driven ‘Purple coalition’ by the neophyte populist, ‘new realist’,
far-Right Lijst Pim Fortuyn
signified a remarkable shift in Dutch politics, which continues to reverberate through
contemporary populist Right figures, such as Geert Wilders. Although the ideas endorsed by
these politicians had been advocated much earlier (i.e. by Bolkstein), they have only recently
found a place in mainstream public opinion, coinciding with growing (or at least increasingly
expressed) concerns among autochtonen: about the place of immigrants in Dutch society,
feelings of becoming a stranger in their own country, perceptions of government pandering to
allochtonen demands, and the threat (real or perceived) of violence emanating from ethnic
minorities (Sniderman and Hagendoorn 2007:71-74). In an ingenious move beginning with
Fortuyn, populist Right sympathizers have co-opted the public discourse that equates Dutch
values with modern, liberal sensibilities—ideals seen as universal, and therefore inclusive along
the lines of ethnicity or race, religion, class, sexuality, gender and other cultural markers—to
rally against the perceived threats to Dutch society (Sunier and van Ginkel 2006:111).
Against this backdrop of civic values, the relationship between social and legal belonging
is worth remarking upon. While contemporary belonging in the Dutch context is largely
imagined as a civic identity rather than a national one (e.g. requiring the adoption of civic-
cultural values), legal belonging in the state (citizenship) has not necessarily gone hand in hand
with social belonging in the nation (‘Dutchness’) (van den Bedem 1994:106). Today, many of
those considered allochtonen (in both the senses given by CBS as well as in daily public
discourse), regardless of their formal citizenship status, are not really thought to belong in Dutch
society in the sense of being able to lay claim to ‘Dutchness’ for themselves;
once framed as
allochtonen, they become perpetually outside of the autochthonous core of national insiders.
in the sidelining of the formalities of citizenship status as a keystone to social belonging, it is
clear that the sociocultural identification with the nation-state is thought to require a level of
cultural conformity. Policy makers, politicians and others highlight allochtonen’s lack of Dutch
language skills, their marginality in the labour market, isolation from mainstream
(autochthonous) Dutch society, and differing cultural or religious values as underlining the need
for the stricter policies now encapsulated in the inburgering (civic integration or naturalization)
Björnson (2007) illustrates through her study of the inburgering programme that
norms of secularism and gender equality have come to embody the publicly modern values upon
which Dutch identification hinges, and which allochtonen must embrace in order to belong.
In this popular conception of national belonging, claiming a Dutch identity has little to do
with race, ethnicity, class, or even religion; what is said to matter are a person’s civic-cultural
values. However, experience has shown that this construction of contemporary ‘Dutchness’ is at
odds with how aspects of religious belief, ethnicity, race, linguistic or cultural difference often
mark those configured as allochtonen as potential outsiders (van Nieuwkerk 2004, van den
Bedem 1994, Penninx et al. 1993). Although it does not define ‘Dutchness’, ethnicity finds
currency “in the public perception as a means of differentiating between them and us” (Entzinger
2006:123). Religious markers, especially those connected to Islam, reveal another slippage in the
way inclusion and exclusion are framed. Van Nieuwkerk’s research on autochthonous Dutch
women converts to Islam highlights how mainstream perceptions of Islam see it and its adherents
as incompatible with belonging in the Dutch context. For instance, the veil is connected not only
with foreignness, but with oppression, which figures as categorically un-Dutch. This is true even
when the woman wearing a veil is herself an autochtoon: “[s]ince Islam is the belief of
immigrants, by becoming a Muslim one becomes a foreigner too” (van Nieuwkerk 2004:236).
Racial ideologies are also embedded in Dutch conceptions of difference. While most non-
Western allochthons are racially marked, the degree of difference or foreignness is tempered by
overlapping identifications. While people of Surinamese, Antillean, Turkish and Moroccan
heritage may all be pegged as outsiders, “adherence to the Islamic faith ... makes Turks and
Moroccans much more alien, in fact more ‘black’, than other groups such as Surinamese” (Vink
2007:347). Surinamese immigrants and their descendents, coming from a former Dutch colony,
are also more likely to speak fluent Dutch, which as an important marker of belonging in
contemporary Dutch society, makes them appear less strange than non-Dutch speakers.
Although the construction and dissemination of such belonging is not controlled by any
one political, ethnic, religious, linguistic or classed group (Korteweg 2006), these silenced
contradictions reveal that there are ethnic or racial, religious, linguistic and classed assumptions
of who is included or excluded from ‘Dutchness’. However belonging is constructed, Otherness
is clearly a matter of cultural, ethnic or racialized, religious and linguistic difference. These
politically incorrect ideas are perhaps easily brushed aside when they are exposed by
controversial public figures’ unabashed scapegoating of allochtonen’s (especially Muslims’)
supposedly ‘traditional’ or ‘backward’ norms. However, a closer inspection shows that the
‘progressive values’ now entrenched in popular discourse, regardless of political outlook, lead to
two interesting idiosyncrasies: First, the Dutch generally seem oblivious to the quite conservative
norms of their own recent past,
making allochtonen appear anachronously ‘traditional’ and out
of place in the ‘modern’ Netherlands. Secondly, long-established expectations of conformity
have meant that intolerance of progressive views is simply unacceptable.
While this seems paradoxical—being intolerant of those who are thought not tolerant
enough—tolerance in fact operates within a threshold of acceptability defined by a prescribed yet
elastic set of boundaries. Every act of toleration simultaneously justifies “practicing the
exclusion of legitimised objects of intolerance” (Hage 2000:91). As Tonkens (et al.) notes,
[i]t may come as a surprise that a progressive and ‘tolerant’ country demands
conformity from those whose views are not progressive. When it comes down to
such values, a liberal country evidently need not esteem diversity. Distinct
groupings, such as a denominational school, an ethnic sports club, or a migrant
student association are often depicted as akin to apartheid. The cultural consensus
among the Dutch goes hand in hand with a consensual dismissal of other sets of
Thus, allochtonen can only be tolerated within the Netherlands as long as they do not threaten
the country’s progressive values: practices and beliefs now entrenched in the image of the liberal
Netherlands, such as gender equality, sexual freedom and homosexual rights, acceptance of
euthanasia and soft drugs. Modern ‘progressive values’ are widely deployed not only to invoke,
maintain, and manage the troubling figure of the Dutch Other, but also to shape who and what
can be considered Dutch.
A final point of interest in framing the Dutch context is that this boundary management is
predominantly and popularly framed through a civic rather than national lens. Indeed, with the
notable exceptions of the soccer pitch (Lechner 2007) and Right-wing pundits, dialogue
surrounding nationalism or the nation in general is curiously absent in the Netherlands. This has
lead some scholars to reflect on the history of the Dutch nation and to remark that the current
silence is the result of naturalizing discourse, where in fact
[t]he cultural feeling of national belonging has become so ‘natural’ in the
Netherlands that for a long time many thought it hardly needed contemplating.
Some have mistaken this self-evidence for a lack of national consciousness, and
even a denial of ‘Dutchness’. (Sunier and van Ginkel 2006:111)
Contrary to this now-popular opinion, there has been a rich history of nationalism in the
and it has been suggested that the contemporary denial of Dutch nationalism is in
itself an act of national expression.
Questions and goals of the study
Building upon these literatures, I address my research question predominantly among
individuals and groups identified as or associated with those who may be considered native or
autochthonous Dutch. In spite of the nuances attending contemporary aspects of Dutch
identification, many who are considered autochtonen rarely have their status as national insiders
questioned, placing them in the privileged position of gatekeeper and making them an important,
if understudied group. The increasing visibility and criticism of allochtonen and the problems
associated with their ‘failure to integrate’ into Dutch society has motivated Dutch (and foreign)
researchers to predominantly focus on those seen as newcomers. However, in the rush to
document and analyse the perspectives, situations and challenges faced by the country’s new
ethnic and religious minorities, what might be called the ‘native’ perspective has remained
largely unexamined, representing a significant gap in our knowledge. The emphasis and debate
on defining, integrating, and to an increasingly limited extent accommodating Otherness in
Dutch society has meant that very little attention has been given to examining or reflecting on
what it is that these outsiders are required to become a part of. It is in this climate, with a critical
eye to the nuances and complexities of how belonging is configured and deployed, that I choose
to approach my research question primarily through the perspectives, experiences and
observation of those who may identify or be identified as native, ethnic, or autochthonous Dutch.
Of all the cities in the Netherlands, Amsterdam is particularly well known for its
tolerance at individual and institutional levels. This makes it an especially interesting site to
explore the potential tensions of identity politics: between public discourses of belonging,
‘Dutchness’, integration and the lived experiences and daily interactions through which inclusion
and exclusion are conceptualized and performed. However, in localizing and grounding my
project in the everyday experiences of belonging, I must acknowledge the city of Amsterdam
itself, as well as neighbourhoods, networks and other communities within the city, as important
nodes of identification for my participants.
Conducting anthropological fieldwork in a city does present some methodological
problems for consideration. For instance, the American anthropologist Erin Martineau indicates
that she entered the field with “a deeply held idealization of fieldwork” (Martineau 2006:12) that
was soon shattered by the realities of social research in a suburb of Amsterdam Noord:
instead of informally socializing with people, [she] had to schedule appointments;
generally speaking, just “dropping in” on someone is frowned upon. Instead of
being constantly surrounded by people and struggling to find private moments,
[she] found [her]self alone most of the time, except when [she] sought out
interviews, committee meetings, and public gatherings. Instead of being able to
integrate [her]self into daily neighborhood life, becoming inconspicuous over
time, [she] found [she] was often the only person lingering around outside, with
no one to observe. (Martineau 2006:12)
While her expectations of conducting extensive participant observation were disappointed,
Martineau indicates that the general respect for scholarly research meant that nearly all of the
people she asked for an interview generously gave of their time. Martineau was surprised to find
that rather than having to spend time building rapport with potential research participants, the
characteristically direct attitude of Dutch people meant that those she interviewed were frank and
open in their discussions with her from the beginning—an experience confirmed for Martineau
by several other foreign researchers studying in the Netherlands (Martineau 2006:13-15). Given
Martineau’s experiences, I have sought out institutional opportunities that would connect me
with the kinds of people I would like to research. Practically, this has meant seeking out
volunteer work, joining (academic) discussion groups, as well as following up on less formal
connections through networks of personal acquaintances.
Combining participant observation with semi-structured interviews will help to make
sense of discrepancies in what is said about belonging in the Netherlands (public discourse) and
what is actually done (public practice). As Miller and Crabtree indicate, “depth interviews are
usually not a good means for learning about cultural context; they focus on the relations of
individuals to that context” (Miller and Crabtree 2004:191). Interviews conducted with a range
of individuals (from those viewed as ‘ordinary’ Dutch people, to community leaders and
organizers, to academics, and even those who are not necessarily thought to belong, or may find
their claims to belonging variously contested or accepted across different social contexts) will
complement and illuminate general observations made through my participation in various
fieldsites. It will also be important to compare and contrast the experiences and ideas discussed
during interviews with observational data, and draw questions from contradictions and tensions
observed, especially at the key sites from which interview participants are recruited.
The emergent nature of ethnographic fieldwork has meant that new sites, events and
individuals of interest have arisen throughout the course of the project, especially as sites I
originally intended to focus on (i.e. buurthuizen and wijkcentra) have proven less fruitful. For the
purposes of this paper, I conceptualize these as sites of voluntary congregation, sites of expertise,
and moments of cultural congregation and tension.
What I call sites of voluntary congregation are sites I have access to through my
participation in volunteer work and networks. In some cases these include activities that bring
together a number of volunteers and clients for a particular activity (i.e. the Native Speaker
Programme), whereas in other cases, the voluntary organization acts more as a common point of
initial contact, with most subsequent voluntary activities operating with little overhead direction
from the organization itself (i.e. the SamenSpraak speaking partnerships). These diverse
individuals are conceptualized as belonging to a particular ‘site’ through their participation in the
overarching programmes which link together like-minded people for a common purpose.
Given my current level of proficiency in the Dutch language,
it was originally quite
difficult to find volunteer opportunities in Amsterdam.
In spite of initial setbacks, these sites
now include participation in activities organized by the Amsterdamse volunteer organizations
Hart voor Amsterdam, Gilde Amsterdam, as well my volunteer work at a nursing home (through
Cordaan). While most of the research conducted at these sites is through participant-observation,
I intend to interview a number of participants in these networks where possible about their
engagement with voluntary work in Amsterdam, as well as more general home-feelings, and
ideas of belonging.
Both Hart voor Amsterdam and Gilde Amsterdam are voluntary, not for profit
organizations whose shared goal is to invest in Amsterdam society and make the city a better
place to live (Hart voor Amsterdam 2010a:1; Gilde Amsterdam 2009a:1). Cordaan is a large,
private organization that provides a “broad spectrum of care under the Exceptional Medical
Expenses Act” (Cordaan 2010:1), Namely, the organization runs “nursing homes, residential care
homes, assisted living facilities, day centres for work and daily activities” in a number of
locations throughout Amsterdam as well as in other nearby cities (Cordaan 2010:1). Although a
private organization, volunteers assist in many activities and services. My participation in the
Hart voor Amsterdam and Gilde Amsterdam networks relates to their organization of speaking
partnerships, designed to help improve fluency and give an opportunity to practice
conversational skills with a native speaker of the language. Through Cordaan, I assist a regular
employee with her work as the coordinator of art activities for residents of a nursing home.
Hart voor Amsterdam seeks to “stimulate Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in
Amsterdam by developing innovative programs and increasing social cohesion and dialog
between key stakeholders” (Hart voor Amsterdam 2010a:1). One of the initiatives organized by
Hart voor Amsterdam is the Native Speaker Project. Unlike other volunteer opportunities in
Amsterdam, this project is aimed at involving native or fluent speakers of English in community
work through helping ‘at risk’ students (e.g. predominantly allochtonen students in the lowest
academic stream in public education, Voorbereidend middelmare Beroepsonderwijs or VMBO)
practice their oral English language skills (Hart voor Amsterdam 2010b:1). Most participants are
drawn either from a pool of volunteers found through the organization’s corporate participants,
or through expatriate networks. While the organizers of the programme and some volunteers are
native Dutch (both autochtonen and allochtonen), most are actually foreigners living and
working in the city. Alternatively, the students that this programme is meant to benefit are almost
exclusively second-generation allochtonen (e.g. of Turkish, Moroccan or Surinamese heritage).
As one of the Native Speaker volunteers, I spend two hours each week, along with other
volunteers originally from the Netherlands, France, Canada, America, Malaysia, Nigeria and
elsewhere, speaking with two small groups of students about 11-13 years old on various topics
and using exercises designed by the programme coordinator. During this time I have the
opportunity to speak not only with the students, but also with the other volunteers and teachers
about their experiences living in the Netherlands. I am also able to observe some aspects of the
educational system in the Netherlands, and a specific version of an integration agenda through
the Native Speaker activities the students are expected to participate in. Through the Native
Speaker Programme coordinator I hope to access other volunteers, ideally but not exclusively
autochtonen, for interviews for my project.
Gilde Amsterdam has organized a SamenSpraak programme designed to pair a native
speaker of Dutch with an allochthonous partner who wants to improve their fluency and
conversational skills, with the goal of helping newcomers integrate through language acquisition
(Gilde Amsterdam 2009b:1). The organization pairs two individuals with similar interests or
educational backgrounds who live in close proximity to one another to meet once at week, for at
least one hour a week over the course of a year to speak Dutch. Through this partnership the non-
native speaker has access to someone with whom they can practice their Dutch, pose general
questions to about life in Amsterdam and the Netherlands, as well as any questions they may
have about the inburgering process (Gilde Amsterdam 2010b:1). Through my participation as a
non-native speaker, I meet with my partner once a week and, through our informal, self-directed
discussions we speak on a wide range of topics, giving me a number of insights into his opinions
on these matters. I hope to interview my speaking partner more formally, and intend to contact
Gilde Amsterdam in order to set up interviews with other SamenSpraak volunteers, as well as the
organizers of the programme.
My work assisting with the art activities offered to residents at a nursing home appears
less directly useful than the other voluntary sites for the purposes of my research, but is
Indirectly, my participation in this afternoon activity has introduced me
to the Cordaan organization, and I intend to follow up on the offer extended by the volunteer
coordinator at the nursing home I work at to put me in touch with people who are willing to
participate in interviews for my study. I anticipate that these may include workers and other
volunteers in the nursing home or in the wider Cordaan network.
In addition to these sites of congregation through voluntary work, ‘sites of expertise’ also
form an important node for my research. These sites are made up of groups of people and
individuals who have a professional interest in issues relating to my research questions. These
sites therefore include reading groups I participate in at the Universiteit van Amsterdam and the
ethnographic Meertens Insititute, as well as presentations, interviews, and informal discussions
with individuals who participate in these institutions. These sites also encompass individuals
with a professional or personal interest in issues of Dutch identity, citizenship, migration,
integration, etc. through their work whom I have met through personal acquaintances.
Although little has been written on the issues that concern me in the Dutch context
(compared to other European examples), even less has been published in English. This has meant
that in preparing for this project, I have only had access to a small and particular range of
materials to contextualize my research questions. Contact with the participants of the
Culturalization of Citizenship reading group, in particular, has been useful in introducing me to
more current and critical analysis of the questions which intrigue me in the Dutch context. In
addition to these academic reading groups, informal discussions and more formal interviews with
individuals who have a professional or personal interest in such issues (for example, social
workers engaged in integration-oriented programs, or artists questioning how ‘Dutchness’ can be
or is presented) is also useful in providing a glimpse into how such concerns are framed by
different actors who make act as gatekeepers in the politics of belonging in the Dutch context.
The people within these various groups have also been helpful in pointing to other potential
fieldsites and problematics to consider in relation to my research question.
In addition to these fieldsites, I am also conducting more general participant observation
in relation to what might be described as moments of cultural congregation and tension. For
instance, the official arrival of Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten in November (and the various
events and discussions leading up to the holiday on 5 December) has been a particularly
interesting moment of cultural tension—especially regarding questions of race/racism and the
intersections of the Dutch colonial past and contemporary issues of immigration, integration and
cultural diversity. Various episodes of ‘hot nationalism’ are also useful in thinking through my
research questions. These include the recent winter Olympics, national holidays (i.e.
Koninginnedag and the national days of remembrance in May), as well as the local events during
the World Cup taking place in South Africa this summer. Other moments of tension include the
discussions and debates around the just passed municipal elections (3 March 2010), and the
campaigns leading up to the federal elections (9 June 2010)—especially given anticipated results
for Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party. As moments of cultural tension, these events resonate
by either encouraging critical thinking about what it means to belong or by making the criteria
for belonging appear self-evident.
Purpose, Expectations, Significance
This research will produce a contemporary investigation of imagined community in the
Netherlands that will address how notions of belonging are being shaped in the tensions between
long-standing traditions of tolerance and consensus politics at home, alarm over the place of non-
Western newcomers within the Netherlands that has given rise to new integration policies and
fuelled the rise of the populist Right, as well as a general concern over the place of the
Netherlands within Europe and the EU. As outlined above, many complex changes have
occurred in the Netherlands over the past few decades, especially since the turn of the twenty-
first century, which make it a particularly intriguing context within which to conduct research on
the politics of belonging. Within the last decade it has become socially acceptable to actually
discuss cultural and other forms of difference, to openly question the changes wrought by
relatively high rates of immigration (particularly from non-Western source countries), and to
express doubt about the legacies of multiculturalist policy and permissiveness. This research
study is important because it delves into issues that have garnered much attention in public
discourse, but have remained largely unexamined from the perspective of critical social science.
In addition, these issues will be explored among members of Dutch society that do not often
come within the scope of social science research, whether written in English or Dutch.
The purpose of this study is to produce an ethnographic account of how inclusion and
exclusion are imagined, negotiated, disseminated, and enforced in the Netherlands. The
expectation is not that this research will provide a comprehensive examination of Dutch
nationalism, or even ‘Dutchness’. Such a goal would be impossible in the scope of this research,
and would in itself problematically reify the nation (Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2003). Rather,
the modest goal of this research is to provide a window on a question that appears to have been
little asked in the current climate where policy and research lenses are largely focused on those
deemed Other. I intend this project to provide a more nuanced view of social inclusion and
exclusion in the Netherlands, of the framing and dissemination of ideas of belonging, by
focusing mainly on the opinions of those whose claims to ‘Dutchness’ are not often challenged,
and less often considered by researchers and policy makers.
Today, it is clear that even if the figure of a Dutch nation is not at the centre of current
debates about living together in the Netherlands, questions of belonging are nonetheless
important. Indeed, these questions become all the more important for how they are publicly
framed and what is not openly said when compared to the lived experiences that actually define
who and what comes to be understood as Dutch. It is clear from both the literature and my
ongoing research that the ways that belonging in the Netherlands is imagined often conflicts with
the realities of who and what practices and values are actually considered Dutch. This
necessitates thinking about the Dutch context in broader terms that allow the nature of
negotiations, assertions and performances of belonging and exclusion to unfold through the ways
in which they are in fact imagined and constructed on the ground.
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Prins provides a useful conceptualization of the nature of social belonging that I draw on in my
work. For Prins,
[b]elonging refers to an experience of ‘fitting into’ certain intersectional locations
– locations that may be manufactured by hegemonic discourses of ethnicity,
nation, culture and race, but also by articulatory practices around family, gender,
age, religion, sexuality or class. Furthermore, belonging does not refer to a state
of being, but to a desire to belong, a ‘longing to be’ ... . Hence, because identities
are performatively produced in and through narrative enactments, belonging is
never given, but always a precarious achievement” (Prins 2006:288).
Here, I configure social belonging primarily in relation to the national ‘we’ (though also
in relation to more localized communities). In the Dutch context, the national ‘we’ may include
markers such as race, ethnicity, language ability, religion, or past citizenship claims. Social
belonging may be negotiated through claims made on an individual or group by the national (or
another localized) group.
Alternatively, legal belonging is viewed as extending from formal claims made on (or by)
the nation-state such as citizenship, and to a lesser extent denizenship.
The use of the language of autochthony and allochthony is admittedly problematic and shifting
across context, as Geschiere (2009) has highlighted. Even within the context of the Netherlands
we can observe two distinct usages of the terminology in the realms of statistical data gathered
and published by the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS) and among the terms’ everyday
use in the public sphere (e.g. in the media). While the terms allochtonen or allochtoon when used
by CBS refer specifically to “residents who were themselves born elsewhere, or who were born
in the Netherlands to a parent who was born elsewhere” (Martineau 2008:62), the colloquial use
of the terms generally refer to those categorized by CBS as non-Western allochtonen. This
distinction highlights assumptions among the wider Dutch public about racial/ ethnic, cultural,
linguistic and religious difference between allochtonen and autochtonen—the latter being a term
conspicuously absent from everyday discourse. While I acknowledge the problems and nuances
associated with the use of this terminology, as an ethnographer I have chosen to critically employ
the Dutch terms in this paper following their colloquial usage, unless otherwise indicated.
The current mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, is the country’s first Muslim mayor of a
major city and one such notable exception. Moroccan born and currently holding dual citizenship
with the Netherlands, Aboutaleb has been described by many as a shining example of the “model
non-Western immigrant” (NRC Handelsblad Staff 2008). Regardless of Aboutaleb’s dual
citizenship, it is plain to see that he considers himself Dutch and—except for his new realist
critics—it is arguable that so do most autochthonous Dutch.
In common speech, the term ‘migrants’ seems to habitually encompass a broad range of
Others. This includes actual migrants, as well as settled immigrants, ethnic minority groups or
allochthons that may have been established in the country for generations. Many of the
individuals in these groups may have citizenship status in their country of residence. While the
term may be used to indicate migrants (especially migrant labourers) from within the EU, its
usage appears to emphasize the outsider status of those of non-Western heritage, regardless of
their levels of mobility. It appears that in the Netherlands, for the most part, the ‘migrant’ has
been replaced by the equally troubling and problematic figure of the allochtoon.
Again, as with the terms ‘migrants’ and allochtonen, the concept of ‘Muslims’ is not
necessarily fixed in its meaning in this context. Here, the figure of the Muslim is generally
conflated with cultural or civilizational otherness and is perceived as potentially threatening the
social order with their difference. In general, this vision of the Muslim is strongly associated
with fundamentalism and asocial behaviour in the Netherlands. As a group, it appears that
Muslims are by default marked as outsiders in the ‘European’ or ‘Dutch’ context, whereas
individuals who identify as Muslim may prove themselves to belong through showing
themselves to be ‘integrated’ (e.g. by upholding what are seen as core national or civilizational
values, such as gender equality or secularism in the public sphere).
According to Prins and Saharso, the defining features of this ideology in the Dutch context
include: an emphasis on listening to the ordinary people, here configured as “the ‘autochthonous’
lower classes in urban neighbourhoods” (2008:367); breaking social taboos and speaking
critically of the dominant discourse’s failure to recognize the facts of contemporary social
realities; opposing what is perceived as imprudent political correctness and relativism, and
“instead call[ing] for an affirmation of the values of western civilization over and against Islam,
such as the separation of state and church, freedom of speech and the equality of men and
women” (Prins and Saharso 2008:368); a revival and affirmation of national identity;
approaching contentious issues like multiculturalism through questions of gender and sexuality.
While this is in part owing to some perceptions that the Netherlands granted citizenship too
easily (Entzinger 2006:122), even those who obtained Dutch citizenship through birth (and may
have spent their whole lives immersed in Dutch culture) may not be really considered ‘Dutch’.
Moreover, the recent introduction of the more demanding inburgering (civic integration)
programme has made civic-cultural and linguistic integration to a certain extent mandatory (Vink
2007:347). Since the late-1990s, these policies have mandated non-EU immigrants to take six-
hundred hours of language and social skills training within a year of arrival in the Netherlands,
and citizenship is granted only to those who are deemed to have acquired at least “a lower
intermediate level of Dutch” (Björnson 2007:65). Although all newcomers are required to attend
these courses, it is clear that they are more particularly directed at a “core target group [of] four
classes of ‘non-Western’ immigrants, or allochthons, as they are now commonly called: Turks,
Moroccans, Antilleans, and Surinamese” (Björnson 2007:66). In 2006 inburgering regulations
became even stricter, requiring non-EU spouses or fiancés to have the same level of language
proficiency before they are permitted to join their partners in the Netherlands as other
immigrants already residing in the country (Björnson 2007:65).
This tendency is evidenced in public discourse, such as in the news where allochtonen who
hold Dutch citizenship are described as, for instance Kenyan rather than Dutch or Kenyan-Dutch,
or among middelbareschool students who refer to themselves (and their ‘blood’) as Surinamese
or Turkish rather than Dutch, in spite of having been born and raised in the Netherlands. Dutch
academics and policy analysts have also betrayed this attitude, as when Penninx et al. write that
“[m]any aliens acquired their Dutch nationality at birth, while another substantial group of these
immigrants already held Dutch citizenship on arrival, including considerable numbers coming
from former colonies, like Surinam (Dutch Guyana)” (Penninx et al. 1993:1; my emphasis).
Interestingly, these critics are comprised of both autochthonous and allochthonous Dutch, who
have integrated into Dutch society through their subscription to normative discourse and
practices, e.g. attitudes toward gender equality and secularism. Thus, critics include not only
people whose claims to ‘Dutchness’ are generally unchallenged (i.e. those figured as
autochtonen, white, middle-class, native-Dutch speakers), but also those who have otherwise laid
claims to such belonging. The current mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, is an example of
an allochthonous Dutch critic. Although a number of new realist politicians have called
Aboutaleb’s loyalties and background into question, it is clear that he identifies and is generally
identified as belonging in the Dutch context, though not Dutch per se. In spite of his immigrant
roots he is seen on tough on those who do not conform to the vaunted civic ideals. This clearly
surfaces in the speech he gave “in the Alkabir mosque in Amsterdam on the day after the killing
of film-maker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist, [where] Aboutaleb said that those who do
not share the core values of Dutch society should leave on the next plane” (NRC Handelsblad
Most of the contemporary values considered ‘typically Dutch’ actually emerged only as
verzuiling waned. As the dramatic changes experienced across the West during the 1960s came
to the Netherlands, older concerns for family, employment and economic security lost ground to
concerns for the self and secularism (Lechner 2008:132). Thus, the characteristically broad
threshold of tolerance that has become a ‘distinctively Dutch value’
was very nearly the other way around only a (historically) short time ago. Even
after World War II, the Netherlands was characterized by traditional male-female
roles; gender segregation in primary schools and in the church on Sundays; fear of
nudity and sexuality; physical punishment for children; an ideology of family
solidarity over individualism; and immense respect for authority. Paradoxically,
the values now taken to be distinctively Dutch clash with traditionally Dutch
values. (Sniderman and Hagendoorn 2007:129-130)
Dating back to the 1780s, print publications emphasizing shared traits and enduring qualities
such tolerance, permissiveness, open-mindedness were used to popularize a sense of a unified
Dutch identity (Sunier and van Ginkel 2006:109); ideals still visible in the civic understandings
of contemporary ‘Dutchness’. In 1830, what is now Belgium seceded from the Netherlands,
owing in part to “strong objections to the guarantees of equality offered by the new constitution
of 1814 to all existing religious denominations” (Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2009a,
2009b)—a clause characteristic of the ideal of tolerance that would continue to shape the country
through verzuiling. Even with verzuiling’s institutionalization of religious and political
differences and the corresponding compartmentalization of all aspects of social life nationalism
played a role, with each pillar subscribing to its own version of ‘Dutchness’ (Sunier and van
Ginkel 2006:109). Moreover, it was precisely through the establishment of these pillars that the
organization of Dutch society removed even the possibility for conflict, further entrenching the
notion of tolerance as a defining trait of belonging in the Dutch context. Concerns for raising
national sentiments have resurfaced in more recent times as well, especially in response to the
perceived national crisis following World War II (van Ginkel 2004:421).
When I arrived in the Netherlands I had a basic understanding of Dutch based on the
completion of four levels of Dutch language instruction at the University of Toronto’s School of
Continuing Studies (2008-2009). In August 2009, during my first month of residence in
Amsterdam, I attended and satisfactorily completed a three-week intensive course at the ‘Pre-
intermediate level’ through the Amsterdam-Maastricht Summer University.
For instance, the Vrijwilliger’s Centraal Amsterdam website, the main job-database for
voluntary opportunities in Amsterdam, is entirely in Dutch. Although there is an option in the
database search section to search for voluntary work that requires little or no comprehension of
Dutch, the fact that the website is only available in Dutch makes such opportunities less
accessible to non-Dutch speakers. This in itself seems to point to voluntary work as belonging in
the domain of autochtonen (or at least, those already highly socially integrated through language
acquisition). Even the speaking programme offered by Gilde Amsterdam to help improve the oral
and aural comprehension of non-native Dutch speakers is presented on their website only in
Dutch. As an illustration of how difficult it can be for non-Dutch speakers to participate in
voluntary work, the first voluntary opportunity I applied for I found through a general, English-
language Google search, which turned up only two results: an English Google-translation of the
Vrijwilliger’s Centraal Amsterdam homepage, and the Hart voor Amsterdam Native Speakers
Programme (a programme designed to help middlebareschool students improve their oral
English language skills). A discussion with Hart voor Amsterdam’s volunteer coordinator during
my intake interview highlighted that this programme was intended to draw on members of the
expat community in Amsterdam, and provide this group of people with the opportunity to give
back to their adopted community. Links to the programme had been posted in two English-
language forums, including the English-language version of the Amsterdam city website, and in
connection with the American consular webpage.
In relation to their participation in voluntary work, questions may include: Who participates in
the events offered or who is the intended beneficiary the services provided? Who are the people
providing the service or organizing the activities, and what are the reasons motivating their
involvement? What other organizations do these participants belong? What are the debates or
tensions that arise from this context, and who is implicated in them? Conversely, who does not
participate, and what are the reasons given or projected for their non-participation?
Questions relating to personal experiences and ideas of home may include: Where do you
feel at home (i.e. work/ school/ social activities, neighbourhood, city, province, the Netherlands,
Europe)? Can you describe what makes you feel (not) at home (e.g. language, the attitudes of
people)? Is there a difference in how you feel at home in these different places? Is there a crisis
of identity in the Netherlands? Where does this crisis (or talk of this crisis) come from? Can
immigrants (ethnic minorities or allochthons) ever really become Dutch? How? What would I
have to do to become Dutch? How does one integrate into Dutch society? What does (holding)
Dutch citizenship mean to you? Are citizenship and integration the same thing? If not, what
makes them different?
This is mostly due to issues of language comprehension on my part. Many of the seniors with
whom I have the opportunity to interact through this activity do not speak English, and speech
impediments due to long term illnesses (from strokes to mild dementia) make it even more
difficult for me to understand and converse with them.