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National Identities
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Australian National Identity: Young Peoples'


Conceptions of What It Means to be Australian
Nola Purdie; Lynn Wilss
Online Publication Date: 01 March 2007
To cite this Article: Purdie, Nola and Wilss, Lynn (2007) 'Australian National Identity:
Young Peoples' Conceptions of What It Means to be Australian', National Identities,
9:1, 67 - 82
To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/14608940601145695
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14608940601145695

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National Identities
Vol. 9, No. 1, March 2007, pp. 67 82

Australian National Identity: Young


Peoples Conceptions of What It
Means to be Australian
Nola Purdie & Lynn Wilss

To investigate young peoples conceptions of Australian national identity, 242 school


students were invited to write a small essay about what they think it means to be
Australian. Multiple constructions of national identity were evident, including both
traditional understandings relating to lifestyle and personality characteristics as well as
more expanded views. Expanded views were characterised by plurality, and voices of
care and justice. Despite recent terrorist world events (including September 11, but
excluding the Bali bombing), a dominant view concerned national well-being and the
notion that to be Australian meant that one lived in a safe and prosperous environment.
In accordance with social identity theory, students understandings of conditions and
sentiments existing in other countries were often used as points of reference, leading at
times to somewhat rose-coloured views. There was no reference to an identity that
encompassed intellectual, economic, scientific or cultural pursuits or achievements.
Keywords: Australia; National Identity; Conceptions; Young People; Social Identity
Theory
Introduction
The ways in which people identify themselves are important because they influence
how they think and behave. Social identity theory proposes that social identities
influence behaviour through group norms (Vaughan & Hogg, 1995). People are more
likely to perform a particular behaviour that fits with the values and beliefs of a group
to which they belong. This is especially more likely if they strongly identify with that
group. For instance, affiliation with a particular political group has been shown to be
associated with individuals endorsement of solutions for social issues like
Nola Purdie and Lynn Wilss are both at the Centre for Innovation in Education, Queensland University of
Technology, Australia. Correspondence to: Nola Purdie, Australian Council for Educational Research, 19
Prospect Hill Road, Camberwell VIC 3124, Australia. E-mail: purdie@acer.edu.au
ISSN 1460-8944 (print)/ISSN 1469-9907 (online) # 2007 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/14608940601145695

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N. Purdie & L. Wilss

unemployment (Heaven, 1999). Similarly, identification with a nation or country


influences ones behaviour in relation to that nation or country. National identity
permeates just about every aspect of our everyday practices and discourse, including
the language(s) we speak, the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the education we
receive, the lifestyles we adopt and our attitudes to people from other nations
(Barrett, 2000; Billig, 1995).
National Identity
Just as membership of a social group such as a sporting club can foster a sense of
belonging and identity for individuals, membership of a national group also can
foster a sense of belonging and identity and influence certain aspects of an
individuals behaviour (Feather, 1994). Two general models of nation*one
encompassing birth, religion and residence, and the other relating to subjective
feelings of membership and belief in core institutions*were proposed by Jones and
Smith (2001) following their examination of data from the 1995 International Social
Survey Program (ISSP). They reported that homogeneity exists in the way people
around the world think about national identity, and that individuals usually give
greater emphasis to aspects of the first model.
Smith and Jarkko (2001, p. 1) define national identity as the cohesive force that
both holds nation-states together and shapes their relationships with the family of
nations. Factors that Phillips (1998) regards as important in defining national
identity are a shared understanding within a nation about its people and values,
common languages, and the symbols and practices that represent them. On the other
hand, Deaux (2001) views national identities as flexible and subjectively defined. She
bases this view on the premise that in countries such as Australia it is possible to
maintain dual identification, and this implies flexibility. For example, immigrants
may still have affiliation with their country of origin yet have developed a new
identification with their country of residence. In the present study, we aimed to
identify a set of core conceptions of what it means to be Australian from the
perspective of a group of young adolescents in Australia. At this stage, we did not
attempt to identify differences in conceptions held by ethnic subgroups, although we
recognise this to be an important factor in debates about national identity.
Australian National Identity
The genesis of an Australian national identity dates back to the time of early white
settlement. Influences on the developing culture at that time comprised a composite
of British or Anglo-Saxon heritage and harsh conditions due to terrain and climate.
Thus, physical toughness, mateship and the ability to withstand hardship were
foundational in the development of an Australian identity. These qualities have been
proposed as engendering a sporting spirit that has endured (Feather, 1994; Phillips,
1998). Patterson (1998) suggests that over time other factors of historical significance

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69

have influenced the development of a national identity*for instance, the gold rush
days, Federation, the Depression, the World Wars and the development of an ANZAC
tradition, and the internationalist era of today.
Trends that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s that provided an impetus for change
in national identity included multiculturalism, Aboriginal nationalism and republicanism (Phillips, 1998). Phillips contends that, at present, Australian identity
includes the ideals of common-sense thinking and everyday life; a shared understanding within Australia about its people and values; and common languages,
symbols and practices. The findings of a study by Feather (1994) with university
undergraduates revealed that students who identified with Australia were more likely
to endorse such values as hedonism (pleasure and enjoyment), security (family,
national, social order) and achievement (success, ambition, influence). According to
Feather, their attachment to their country possibly reflected awareness that Australian
students could pursue a life that provided some degree of pleasure, comfort, security,
social order and success. The more these values were important to them relative to
other people, the more students identified with the nation.
Studies of national identity in recent years have challenged earlier attempts to
identify a set of common and stable values that provide for social cohesion. For
instance, Mewett (1999) disagrees with Andersons (1991) and Gellners (1983)
position that nations represent culturally homogenous polities. He argued that there
is a plurality of national identities, and that it is important to pose the question of
how ordinary people embrace a belonging to their nation. He claimed that to ignore
or gloss over how ordinary people identify with a nation leads to a deproblematisation of how elite, hegemonising, standardising influences are acquired
and given popular voice (Mewett, 1999, p. 360).
Phillips and Smith (2000) noted that critical theorists and postmodernists claim
that cultures are multiple and fragmented and that societies cohere in the absence of
common values. According to Phillips and Smith (2000, p. 219), recent discourses on
national identity in Australia have repudiated claims of a radical nationalism about an
Australian ethos and iconography that is centred on traditional values and activities.
However, in their study of What is Australian?, they found that the people, places,
values, events and activities, and groups that ordinary people spoke of as Australian
were consistent with old, traditional or past-oriented understandings of what it means
to be an Australian person. Ideas focusing on the conquering of fear, sport, strength of
character and achievement, and physical prowess emerged repeatedly in their data.
The physical aspect of a national identity is a strong and common theme in the
literature, particularly as it relates to sporting involvement and prowess (Bairner, 1994;
Duda & Allison, 1990). This theme has been explored also in the context of a
multicultural Australia. Following a review of the relevant literature, Taylor and Toohey
(1995) concluded that: there was a lack of valid and reliable data; where data had been
gathered, sample sizes were generally too small to permit inferences to be drawn; and
ethnic groups in Australia have used sport both to maintain their non-Australian
cultural identity, and as a means of acculturating into the Australian society.

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In contrast to the role of the physical in the construction of a national identity,


there is an absence of reference in the research literature on Australian national
identity linked to academic or intellectual pursuits, despite the push for a clever
country over the last decade. Some groups have worked to promote Australia as the
clever country, evidenced, for instance, by the formation in 1998 of the Make
Australia the Clever Country political party and the publication of a number of
books around the clever country theme (Kannegiesser, 1996; Maslen & Slattery, 1994;
Petre & Harrington, 1996). In general, however, this push has come from what some
would term an elitist group, consisting mostly of academics and intellectuals, many
of whom perceive a devaluing of their contribution to the nation.
Studies of Australian national identity have mostly focused on the understandings of
adults. Studies with younger people have been rare, but include a study by Howard and
Gill (2001) with 21 Anglo-Australian schoolchildren aged 1112 years. Children were
asked What does it mean to say youre Australian? Responses suggested that the
children were adopting a national identity influenced by global as well as local issues.
Thus, knowledge of what it meant to be Australian derived from knowledge gained
through interaction with the Australian environment as well as through interaction with
the global citizenry they were exposed to via mass media, mass communications and the
Internet. Global citizenship allowed the children to compare and contrast Australia with
other countries and draw conclusions about what was uniquely Australian.
To summarise, studies from the perspective of social identity theory have
demonstrated the links between group identities and ways of thinking and acting
(Terry & Hogg, 1996). Social identity theory has informed studies into national
identity. Such studies are important because how one conceives of ones nation have
implications for how one will behave in relation to it (Barrett, 2000). Early studies of
Australian national identity were premised on the existence of a set of common and
stable values that provide for social cohesion; recent discourses on national identity,
however, have challenged this notion (Mewett, 1999). The development of Australia
as a multicultural society has led some researchers to explore ethnic factors in the
construction of a national identity (in this respect, though, there is a marked absence
of discussion or research into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander constructions of
national identity). Most of the research has considered adults conceptions of national
identity, and studies with young people have been rare. Thus, the aim of this study
was to explore conceptions of Australian national identity held by adolescent
Australians. The specific research question was: What do Australian adolescents
think it means to be an Australian person?
The Study
Participants
A total of 242 students from eight primary and secondary schools in one Australian
state participated in the study. Schools were selected to provide variability in student

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intake demography (e.g., rural/urban location, sociocultural indicators). Primary


school participants comprised 135 Year 6 students (56 per cent), and 12 Year 7
students (5 per cent). High school participants comprised 95 Year 10 students (39 per
cent). Two schools were located in rural areas and six schools were located in the
metropolitan area of a major city. The sample comprised 125 boys (52 per cent) and
117 girls (48 per cent), with 205 students (85 per cent) having been born in Australia.
Some 124 students (51 per cent) were born in Australia and had both parents who
also were born in Australia, while 76 students (31 per cent) were born in Australia,
but had one or both parents not born in Australia. Another 35 students (14.5 per
cent) were not born in Australia. A total of 15 students (6 per cent) identified
themselves as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander; 11 (4.5 per cent) reported that their
mother was of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent; and 13 (5.5 per cent)
reported that their father was of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.
Procedure
Students were invited to write a small essay in which they described what they think it
means to be Australian. They were not asked specifically to identify typical
Australians, events or places. The intention was that students would construct their
own notions of Australianness, unaided by external prompts.
Data Analysis
We used methods of analytic induction and constant comparison (Miles & Huberman,
1994) to identify themes in the essays. Initially, the researchers read several of the
essays in order to get a feel for the data. Although we were not tied to themes that other
researchers had identified in research on national identity, we were nevertheless
cognizant of previous findings and theme identification was guided by this literature
in the early stages of coding. After initial identification of themes, another batch of
essays was read and discrete aspects were coded according to themes that had been
tentatively established. The researchers met regularly to discuss the emerging themes
with three additional coders and to examine theme exemplars extracted from the data.
The iterative process of close examination of essays for similarities and differences led
to the modification, deletion and addition of themes, and data were recoded
accordingly. This process continued until all essays had been read and coded by at
least one of the researchers and one of the research assistant coders. A final inter-rater
reliability check was conducted whereby each of the five coders (two authors and three
research assistants) coded 20 essays: 96 per cent agreement was reached.
Results
A total of nine distinct themes of what it means to be Australian emerged from the
data. Within some themes, there were specific aspects that were subsequently

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categorised as sub-themes. Both traditional understandings relating to lifestyle


and personality characteristics as well as those deriving from a consideration of
Australia as a member of a global community were apparent. The themes are:
national well-being (security, prosperity); personal well-being (safety, health,
education); democracy; agreeableness of personal characteristics (e.g., friendly,
kind, fair); uniqueness and diversity of environment (landscape, animals, weather,
conservation); sporting prowess; rules of citizenship (birth, living here, citizenship,
pride, language); diversity (cultural, other); and lifestyle. The distinguishing
characteristics of each of the nine categories are described and illustrated with
examples from students written essays.
National Wellbeing
The most frequently mentioned theme (41 per cent of students) was that in Australia
there was a sense of national well-being . Students spoke of this in terms of two subthemes*namely, national security and national prosperity.
In terms of national security, 30 per cent of students asserted that Australia was a
secure place in which to live because it was safe and there were no wars. Students also
reported that no wars meant freedom and being able to feel happy. There were also
sentiments that living in Australia was a privilege and that you can trust people. Some
students suggested that Australia was a country of power in the Asian sphere as well
as in the Western World and that, in part, its national security was a product of its
alliances with other countries and its willingness to lend a hand.
Examples
Australia is a good country because there are not terrorist attacks like in America,
and because people are not destroying our population.
We dont have bad people in our country/not having to be scared of someone
blowing up our country. Being able to go out without worrying about bombs.
I think Australia means to me is freedom and happy because we dont have wars in
Australia not like other countries who always want wars and we dont have heaps of
bad people. I think Australia is the best country because we are safe. I think
Australian means to me . . . a good country to be in if you want to be safe.

A total of 21 per cent of students exhibited a belief that being Australian meant
living in a prosperous nation, particularly when compared to other countries. For the
most part, this meant not being poor and having everything one needs such as food,
water, land and clothes. There was a sense that in Australia people experienced a
quality of life that came with having money and jobs. Australia was seen to be a lucky
country, full of opportunity.

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Examples
I am lucky to have what I have *a beautiful home, family, animals, food on the
table. Many other countries dont have the luxury we do.
Australia is a place of opportunity.
I am proud of being an Australian as I feel that Australia is a very well off country.
Australia has very little hunger, poverty and disease. Australia doesnt have that
much of a population which is most likely the reason why the atmosphere around
Australia is a lot better off than most other countries. Australias living conditions
seem to be a lot better than most other countries. Most Australians have luscious
green lawns where the family can get out and have a game of cricket and BBQ. Most
other countries have hardly any backyard at all.

Personal Well-being
Some 32 per cent of students wrote of aspects that related to their personal well-being .
Three sub-themes emerged: safety, health and educational opportunities .
A total of 13 per cent of students believed that in Australia they were personally
safe. Students reported being able to walk down the street without having to worry
about being attacked. Some acknowledged that while crimes and accidents occurred,
for the most part living in Australia meant being safe personally. Another dimension
to personal safety was that Australia was a free country and with this came the
opportunity to appreciate ones surroundings and life in general.
Examples
We can walk home from school without being scared, unlike England that have all
those bad people that can take you away from your families.
Although we have car accidents and break-ins we are actually quite safe and free
country and thats why I love being an Aussie.

Issues related to health were mentioned by 10 per cent of the students. Students
referred to Australias health system as providing a high level of health care. Students
also reported that there is clean water and good hygiene compared to other countries.
Examples
Australia is also very healthy; not a lot of people die because of sicknesses. Most
Australians have clean water to drink; Australia is not a third world country.
Abundance of different facilities for all ages from babies to old pensioners. There
are free health benefits (Medicare/Medibank).
The actual best part is the medical people such as doctors, dentists and
chiropractors.

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Some 18 per cent of students reported that in Australia it was possible to get a good
education that was free. It was also noted that education was important in terms of
securing a future in which one could work or go to university. Some students stated
that schools and educational opportunities in Australia were better than the
education available in other countries.
Examples
I like Australia because they actually have schools and thats why a lot of people are
intelligent and smart.
Most Australian children take things for granted like going to school. Children
overseas would beg for a school to get built.

Democracy
A total of 32 per cent of students acknowledged that being Australian meant having
freedom of speech and the freedom to pursue a lifestyle of choice. There was a focus
on equality of rights in Australia, including the right to democratically vote for a
government, choose a religious affiliation and be whomsoever you want. Also aligned
with this democratic way of life was the idea that Australians are privileged to have
such freedom. Students exhibited awareness that in other countries the attributes
associated with democracy did not exist.
Examples
I think it means that we have a free country and we have a free political
policy . . . can vote which politicians we want.
To let go and think your mind and not to make yourself what people want you to
be. To wear whatever you want to wear and be who you want to be. Be yourself.
To be an Australian means to myself that I accept others and have a faith in
Australians as a whole nation and community, a belief that everyone has the right
to be free in their own special and unique way of living . . . having the right to say
something against it if its the wrong thing.

Having an Agreeable Nature


Overall, 31 percent of students explained that Australians were agreeable people (i.e.,
nice, kind or friendly). A spirit of support and mateship and giving everyone a
fair go was an important aspect of being Australian. Tolerance of others and being
supportive of people whether they were Australian or from other countries was a
common sentiment. Some students wrote that being Australian meant that people
were altruistic in helping those less fortunate than themselves. Australians were
depicted as having a good sense of humour, and as being friendly and helpful.

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Examples
People in Australia are very pleasant, and its nothing for them to stop and say
Gday.
The atmosphere is always happy and Australians are seen to the rest of the world as
cheerful people who say Gday to each other.
Throughout the world we are seen as having a larrikin sense of humour while
maintaining strong bonds with our allies. We are a nation concerned with the
welfare of other nations and a people who strongly believe in the concepts of
mateship and a fair go. This is shown in our support of countries like Cambodia
and East Timor.
Happiness . . . to be kind to everyone around if they have a different colour skin or
glasses, freckles or buck teeth *dont tease them because they are exactly the same as
you.

Being Aware of a Unique and Diverse Environment


The Australian environment was noted as being diverse yet specific to Australia.
Overall, 30 per cent of the students mentioned the environment, which included four
sub-themes: the landscape, Australian animals, weather and conservation.
Some 21 per cent of students wrote about the Australian landscape as being vast
and diverse. There was frequent mention of beaches, bush, mountains and desert, and
notable non-natural landmarks. An underlying theme in this category was the beauty
and uniqueness of the Australian environment.
Examples
Australia is a good country because it has some tourist spots like the Sydney
Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. There is snow in some places, deserts like in
Western Australia, and beautiful beaches.
Our rivers are all fresh and clean, great to fish in and swim in, then there are all our
rocks and ditches. Theres Ayers Rock and the great Carnarvon Gorge. Our gum
trees and bottle brushes.
Lets start with the beautiful landscapes, there are three types of landscape, the
beautiful green landscape, the outback landscape, and the sea.

Australian animals were regarded by 13 per cent of students as contributing to a


sense of Australianness. Students were aware that many animals are native to
Australia and as such they contributed to the Australian identity.
Examples
I think were the only country with marsupials.

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I think being Australian means our free and wild animals roaming the land, like the
kangaroo, emu, echidna and koala.
The animals in Australia are one of the biggest parts and people take a lot of notice
of them especially the kangaroo.

Some 5 per cent of students wrote about the weather as contributing to an


Australian identity, particularly the heat.
Examples
The Australian climate is more a hot one.
The seasons dont change so much, well it does change the temperature. Were in a
very hot country which is mainly desert.

A total of 5 per cent of students mentioned this sub-theme. Most references


concerned either conservation of native flora and fauna, or the cleanliness or lack of
pollution of the Australian environment.
Examples
To have many native forests. Some rainforests are protected and animals are safe. To
know that rare wildlife is protected.
Australia isnt as polluted as other countries.

Sport
The term sport almost seemed synonymous with being Australian for 28 per cent of
students. Students spoke of diversity of choice, either as a participant or as an
observer, and of pride in the achievements of sporting icons at state, national and
international levels. Although many students reported that winning was good, they
also reported that this was not necessary to enjoy sport.
Examples
Being Australian is great in our sporting area because of the great determination of
all athletes. Australia is always cheering on people and congratulating all athletes
even if they dont win.
Being Australian also means to enjoy sport.
Our nation is well known for its sporting talents, excelling in sports such as
swimming, rugby league and rugby union. All Aussies have a sporting side to them
and we barrack for our sports people more than any other country.

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Rules of Citizenship
Being an Australian related to rules of citizenship for 19 per cent of students. This
sometimes meant respecting the Queen and recognising that Australia is part of the
Commonwealth. Students explained citizenship as a multifaceted concept that could
be achieved in five ways*by birth, living in Australia, gaining Australian citizenship,
pride in being Australian and factors relating to language.
Some 5 percent of students stated that to be an Australian you had to be born here
(I think it means you were born in Australia), while a total of 8 per cent of students
indicated that living in Australia constituted being Australian, even if you were not
Australian-born (It doesnt matter if you were born in India or African as long as you
live in Australia and want to be an Australian). Some 8 per cent of students wrote
that being Australian meant you were officially an Australian citizen (My mum
wasnt born in Australia, but she is Australian. She has lived here a while and became
Australian by becoming an Australian citizen). Being proud of aspects of Australia
(such as the flag, the national anthem, the outback) constituted being Australian for 6
per cent of students (Every Australian should wave the Australian flag and be proud
to sing the National Anthem and say*I AM AUSTRALIAN). Finally, 3 per cent of
students wrote one aspect of Australian identity related to speaking English, with
some noting that Australians have developed their own form of English that includes
slang, and is different from other countries (You have to at least learn English.
When being Australian we speak sometimes slang that other English people will not
understand from other countries. We have our own accent and way of talking varies
from other countries.)
Diversity
Recognition of diversity was regarded as integral to being Australian by 25 per cent of
the students. Most references were to cultural diversity, although other forms of
diversity were acknowledged.
A total of 20 per cent of students acknowledged cultural diversity as an important
feature of what it means to be Australian. Students spoke about variety in language,
religion and way of life. For the most part, students were positive about cultural
diversity, stating that it led to respecting everyone and involved being tolerant of
difference. However, some students acknowledged that cultural diversity could lead to
racism.
Examples
Australia is very fond of our cultures especially Aboriginal cultures. All the stuff left
from Aborigines is still here *thats why Australia is so interesting.
I think an Australian can be anyone. There are a lot of people that come from
different countries . . . they have a different religion to us, they are still Australians.

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The multicultural society that we live in is also becoming an image of Australian
identity today, so many different cultures in the community are influencing the
decisions of everyone.

Overall, 8 per cent of students mentioned other forms of diversity, with some
indicating that there is no way of defining a typical Australian because of the great
diversity of beliefs and backgrounds. Acceptance of these differences, though, is a
feature of what it means to be Australian.
Examples
Every Australian person is different and they should be accepted for this and
cherished.
My uncles, Peter and Paul, Dame Edna, Paul Keating, the bagman. Someone who
loves this country, the desert, the cities and rainforests. They can be someone who
works for a hefty wage in a high-flying job, who lies in a boatshed on a lonely beach
in northern Queensland, vegetarian, Muslim, wasted youth.

Lifestyle
Some 14 per cent of students wrote about the lifestyle that was typical in Australia.
Generally, lifestyle was described as relaxed and often involved outdoor activities. It
was depicted as laid-back, casual and relatively carefree, with opportunity to
participate in a great variety of leisure activities. A typical aspect of the relaxed,
outdoor lifestyle was the barbecue, which occurred either at home in the backyard or
on a picnic.
Examples
Great things that Aussies do like having a BBQ on Saturday with a beer or going to
the rodeo with their mates too.
I like long hot summer days when I go swimming with my friends.
A lot of people go pig hunting and I even go emu hunting with a few Aboriginal
friends.
Our laid-back culture, BBQs on the weekend, friends and not having a hectic
lifestyle.

Discussion
There are several aspects of the conceptions of what it means to be Australian held by
this group of young Australians that struck us as particularly noteworthy. First,
traditional as well as more expanded views were evident. Expanded views were

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characterised by plurality and voices of care and justice (Carrington & Short, 1998).
Second, despite recent terrorist world events (including September 11, but excluding
the Bali bombing), the dominant view of an Australian national identity concerned
national well-being and the notion that to be Australian meant that one lived in a safe
and prosperous environment. Third, young peoples understandings of conditions
and sentiments existing in other countries were often used as points of reference,
leading at times to a somewhat rose-coloured view of an Australian national identity.
Finally, there was an absence of reference to an identity that encompassed intellectual,
economic, scientific or cultural pursuits or achievements.
Traditional views of an Australian identity exhibited by students in this study
included a focus on sport and a leisurely lifestyle often linked with the outdoors and
sunshine. These views are similar to those found by Phillips and Smith (2000) in their
study of What is Australian? Their findings revealed that people focused on aspects
such as conquering of fear, sport, strength of character and achievement, and physical
prowess. Even the agreeableness that our young participants associated with an
Australian identity was linked to the traditional mateship sentiment espoused since
the early days of white settlement. There was divergence, however, from the
traditional view. For instance, the theme of diversity reflects the more recent history
of Australia that includes large programmes of immigration, the current focus on the
treatment and status of refugees, and greater awareness of a pre-British history of
Australia that continues in the lives of contemporary Aboriginal Australians. A focus
on democracy was also a non-traditional concept espoused by students, and was
reflected in their comments pertaining to pursuing a lifestyle of ones choice, voicing
an opinion, choosing a religion and voting for government.
Another non-traditional theme that emerged from our data was that of national
well-being, particularly as it related to national security. This was the most commonly
mentioned aspect of what it means to be Australian, commented on by over 40 per
cent of students. We were not surprised by this finding because students wrote their
essays at a time of growing awareness of international terrorism (June 2003). That
they saw Australia as a safe place reflected a tendency to define what it means to be
Australian by contrasting Australia with other nations. Wars and terrorist events were
seen to happen elsewhere, not in Australia. Students also indicated that it was
important for them to feel safe on a personal level. The issue of security is a
contemporary theme and the high status afforded it in the young peoples
constructions of national identity may reflect an increasing global awareness
influenced by media representations of global issues. The students essays indicated
that they not only were aware of global events, but they also possessed knowledge of
political and lifestyle factors of other countries. For example, some students suggested
that Australia was influential in the Asian sphere; others stated that we are a very well
off country enjoying better living conditions than found in most other countries.
Issues of national wellbeing were often raised as a point of comparison with other
countries. Many students also believed that health and educational opportunities
were better than might be found overseas. Such beliefs are in accord with social

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N. Purdie & L. Wilss

identity theory, whereby individuals understandings of conditions and sentiments


existing in other countries are often used as points of reference. Comparing Australia
to other countries in these ways meant that many of the young people in our study
had a somewhat rose-coloured view of what it means to be Australian.
National well-being also included the sub-theme of prosperity. In this respect, it is
worth reflecting on the sentiment expressed in The Lucky Country nearly four decades
ago (Horne, 1964). Contrary to popular belief, Horne was not expressing a sentiment
intended to create the warm after-glow of prosperity achieved through ones
own endeavours. Instead, he was using irony to comment on the complacency
of Australians who had the good luck to develop as a nation at a time when
they could reap the benefits of technological, economic, social and political
innovations that were developed in other countries, rather than by themselves.
Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its
luck (Horne, 1964, p. 220). Only in very recent years has the challenge to create the
clever country*Hornes corollary to the lucky country*been taken up. For
example, the Science State-Smart State initiative of the Queensland government urges
teachers, academics, industry and the community to shape Australian society by
using recent advances in science and technology. Although 18 per cent of students
mentioned that a feature of what it meant to be Australian was the high-quality
education available, comments mostly related to how such availability would enhance
personal well-being in the future because of increased employment prospects. The
clever country notion, it seems, is not yet an important aspect of national identity for
young Australians.
On the contrary, conceptions of Australian identity connected with intellectual,
economic, scientific or cultural endeavours were completely missing from students
written comments. This finding differs from those from research with young people
in some other countries. For instance, Smith and Jarkko (2001) reported that Italian
youth associate national identity with achievements in the Arts and Literature.
German youth associate economic achievement with their national identity. Smith
and Jarkko suggest that pride in specific national achievements is related both to
actual achievement and to the value that a nation places on that achievement. Thus,
to increase awareness of intellectual and cultural pursuits and achievements in
Australias youth, there may need to be greater public recognition of achievements in
these areas at a national level. School curricula may need to include greater content
relating to significant intellectual, economic, scientific and cultural achievements in
Australia, both pre and post white settlement.
It could be argued that the full range of young Australians conceptions of what it
means to be Australian was not tapped because our sample was not large and
was drawn from only one of eight Australian states and territories. For instance,
young people from Western Australia may well have included a notion of remoteness
or isolation in their conceptions of national identity because these are common
themes in the conversations of many people from that state, isolated as they are
from the other Australian states by vast distances. Tasmanians may not have focused

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81

so much on diversity as a characteristic of what it means to be Australian because


the population in that state is less culturally diverse that that of the other Australian
states. Future studies should include a broad-scale sample of individuals from
each state and territory, including representation from urban, rural and remote
areas. Generation and ethnic variations in identity conceptions should also be
examined.

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