PhD Thesis Looked at the Formation of Estonian Identity


Today, on 12 June, Emilia Pawłusz from the Tallinn University School of Governance, Law and Society will defend her PhD Thesis, which is an ethnographic research into the everyday, informal aspects of making Estonianness.

“As nationals of a certain country most of us tend to think that our national identity, namely how we feel about the country and what we associate with it, is rather static throughout our lives,” explained the author. “We learn it from our families, in school and from the social and political environment around us. In this thesis, I wanted to show how the idea of what it means to be Estonian after over 25 years of independent statehood, is constantly remade and altered by us, members of the society,” she added.


The thesis looks into three sites where the notion of what it means to be Estonian is redefined, often informally and unknowingly. “First, it shows that even though the national song festival (laulupidu) is defined by Estonian history and former political situations, it still is a place where people not only express national identity but learn and create it anew. It illustrates particularly how choral singing helps shape the emotional dimension of our identities, namely the emotions we nurture about the nation, national culture, and language,” said Pawłusz.


Second, the thesis suggests that the change of national symbols and myths also happens in popular culture. It looks into the case of the music of Metsatöll, a well-known Estonian folk metal band. This contradicts the idea that the people’s relationship to the nation and state is mainly shaped by the state itself and the politicians. “It argues that non-political actors, such as musicians and other well-known cultural life figures, by choosing to talk about certain national symbols, myths and heroes reorganize our ways of remembering our national heritage, and as a result, influence our identity,” she explained.


“The third case study is Estonian nation-branding. The thesis shows that the new image of Estonia (such as e-Estonia or Estonia as an eastern Scandinavian country) is not just to attract tourists and foreign business. The local population also engages with the new narratives of the nation through acceptance, rejection and other responses,” she said. This case study also shows the importance of placing material objects that relate to the nation – for example the Estonian narrative exhibited at Tallinn airport.


The novelty of the thesis is twofold. First, it challenges the well-established view that the nation is built manly by those in power and state institutions. Second, in contrast to most studies of national identity in Estonia which focus on the identity and integration of Russian speakers, this thesis points to the fact that the way the “ethnic majority” builds its identity is also complex, changing and cannot be taken for granted.

Emilia Pawłusz’s doctoral thesis “In Search of an Estonian Identity: (Formal and Informal) Mechanisms of Identity Construction in Estonia. The Role of Songfestivals, Popular Music and Nation Branding” was supervised by Senior Research Fellow Abel Polese from Tallinn University. Her opponents are Associate Professor Rico Isaacs from Oxford Brookes University, and Professor Marcello Molica from the University of Pisa.

The thesis can be read at the TU Academic E-vault ETERA. Public defence of the thesis will take place today, on June 12th at 14:00 at the Tallinn University Auditorium M-649 (Uus-Sadama 5).