A-Level General Studies: How can one define 'British'

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In November 2002, as part of my AS level General Studies course, I wrote this essay relating to the term ‘British’. As with the other school work released here, it’s released here under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales Licence.

How can one define ‘British’?

We use the term ‘British’ everyday in all sorts of situations, but can a set of factors, or even one single factor, be identified which defines the term? While there are a number of stereotypes associated with the British, can any of them be applied to everyone who calls themselves British? Also, with such a diverse mix of people calling themselves British, can one culture be identified as one with which everyone identifies with, and what are the defining characteristics which separate the British from the rest of the world?

Stereotypes have grown up around the British, as do with all groups of people – typical British people are seen to eat fish and chips, drink tea, watch football and have a certain accent. However, how many of the typical British stereo-types can actually be applied to the whole of the population? How do these stereotypes fit to the British population in reality? Quite simply, they cannot, and do not. While football, for example, may have a large following there is no way you can possibly claim that everyone who calls themselves British supports a team, nor that they even like the sport. The same principle is quite true with what foods are eaten, and if the British as a whole drink tea. There is no way that it can be claimed that all British eat fish and chips as it is simply a case of personal preference and taste, as is the same with tea. The largest incorrect stereotype is that of the British accent. In a group of people which contains not only different regional accents but also no one native language – those who’s native language is Welsh, for example, still calls themselves British, there can clearly not be a typical British accent. So, while the stereotypes of the British might apply once or twice, and people may take one or two of the stereotypes but not all, they are by no means a fair way of classifying the British people.

Perhaps then there is a cultural identity that identifies the British. Great Britain is made up of a number of countries which each have their own cultures, and there has been a great deal of immigration into these countries throughout history, which leads to the introduction of a huge number of different cultures – both cultures of a nationality which people bring with them, and religious cultures. Therefore, how can there be one uniting culture which defines what is, and is not, ‘British’? With such a diverse range and depth of culture, there is not one culture with which the whole of the British population identify with.

Geographically Great Britain is separated from the rest of the world as a collection of islands, and be born, or living in this area may be one way of identifying what being British is. It is still not this simple – people who were born in other countries can also be called British for a number of reasons. The British people are also spread around the world – someone living in Australia, for example, might call themselves British even though they might not have actually been in the British Isles for the majority of their life.

With so little to identify what is and is not ‘British’, it is difficult to distinguish between this one group and the rest of the world. Indeed, it maybe argued that there is no such thing as being British, but that everyone is part of a larger community, created through globalisation – the international community. The best comparison that can be made is between the UK and US. Do the two communities have different identities, or are they the same – what can be used to identify a member of one from the other – what makes one person American, and one British? A British person might do exactly the same things in a day or week as an American, eat the same food, work in the same environment, have the same hobbies and the same religion, but still be British, and not American. Maybe there is no defining factor for what is British and what is not in terms of the way people live their lives – one might live a with totally different lifestyle to another, and both be British, while one might have an identical lifestyle to someone else, while one claims to be American, and one British – but solely in legal terms. There is a great number of reasons why someone is permitted to hold a British passport, giving all the same legal rights as another and all would be classed as being British. When all other means of classification can be annulled by examples where they fall down as a comprehensive overview, the legal aspect cannot. Therefore, it would appear, that the only factor which makes a British people, is the shared right to hold a British passport.

Posted on Thursday 12th August, 2010 at 11:57 pm in School Work.
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