1st Edition

Frontiers of Identity The British and the Others

By Robin Cohen Copyright 1994

    Originally published in 1994, this book considers one of the enduring themes of social science. How is a national identity forged and sustained? How does it change over time? Who is included in the body politic and who is socially excluded? How do the established population, opinion-makers and politicians react to more marginal people, including long-spurned minorities and recent migrants?

    This original analysis shows how the British as a people are constantly defined and redefined through their interactions with several ‘frontiers of identity’, namely Celts, expatriates, Americans, Europeans, citizens of the Commonwealth and more crucially with ‘aliens’. The alien-British relationship is particularly loaded with uneasiness, aversion and hostility. ‘Aliens’ a category created by what the author calls ‘the frontier guards’ of British identity, are frequently deported or detained. Their sanctuaries are invaded, their legal and humanitarian claims for asylum minutely examined and often denied. This searching exploration of these processes shows how the meaning of who one is depends crucially on who one rejects.

    Drawing on a wealth of historical scholarship, research compiled at the time of the original publication and contemporary social theory and now reissued with a new Preface this book exposes the unstated assumptions and hidden meanings in the relationship between the ‘British’ and ‘the others'. It uncovers how the British and their rulers seek to reshape their national identity in a difficult period of post-imperial adjustment, relative economic decline and the European integration of the 1990s.

    The book will be of use to students of sociology, politics, history and European studies.

    Introduction. 1. Six Frontiers of a British Identity 2. Expulsions and Deportations: The Practice of Anthropemy 3. Asylum: The Shrinking Circle of Generosity 4. The Detention of Aliens and Asylum-Seekers 5. Sanctuary and the Anti-Deportation Movement 6. Inclusion and Exclusion: Britain in the European Context 7. Theoretical Implications and Conclusion.


    Robin Cohen is Emeritus Professor of Development Studies at the University of Oxford. For the first decade of his academic career, he worked on comparative labour issues. His books included Labour and Politics in Nigeria (1974) and the co-edited collections The development of an African working class (1975), International Labour and the Third World (1987), African Labor History (1978) and the current title, Peasants and Proletarians. He subsequently wrote on the themes of migration, globalization and diasporas. His best-known work is Global diasporas: An introduction (3rd edition, 2022).

    Review of original edition of Frontiers of Identity:

    ‘While objectivity is ensured with the use of an extensive and balanced range of sources, and by Cohen’s fabulous control of the language, the author’s deep concern about recent trends of exclusion is never far from the surface’ Khalid Koser, New Community 21 (2).

    'The notion that we only have an identity by defining ourselves as something we are not, is a key theme in the analysis and serves to inform the vast bulk of this work which is well-written and carefully analysed.' Kenneth Christie, Australian Journal of Political Science, 32 (3) 1996.

    '[Is] Europe going to maintain its generosity [to outsiders]? Robin Cohen's passionate and detailed book, concentrating on the British case casts much light on this question. Cohen's book opens with a brilliant chapter on the components of British identity.' John A. Hall, Sociology, 30 (10) 1996.

    'Robin Cohen pints out the 'Celtic Fringe' marks one of those fuzzy frontiers of Britishness: "for the English, the boundary is marked by irresolution, uncertainty, incongruity, derogation or humour"' Bernard Deacon, International Journal of Regional and Local History, 5 (2) 2009.