Perceived Irishness: Irish identity within the continuum of liquid modernity is the name of Yaqoub BouAynaya’s Sociology thesis. The Trinity College PhD candidate’s research focuses on perceptions of Irish identity – mainly by the Irish themselves, through focus group discussions and interviews. Yaqoub spoke to Yeah! Magazine recently and answered a number of questions.

Were all the members of the focus groups for your study Irish? How was that Irishness defined?

I kept the questions very open. Ostensibly the remit for it – now this is something that was a key component to the methodological approach that I took – the only requirement was that they were present, as in they were physically present in Ireland. But one of the focus group discussions I had was in Belfast. That could be seen as somewhat problematic if… Belfast is outside the jurisdiction of the Irish state. One could go beyond it with further research to look at those who self-subscribe as Irish who are living abroad. That could be a future dimension of the research if I were to expand it further.

So you had some people who were not Irish?

I did a focus group discussion up in Drogheda and… [it] was a mixed group of migrants and several Irish people. That was a good exercise. I didn’t want to construct a focus group discussion in those scenarios per se, to create that environment, because I’m trying to focus the lens on the perspectives of a person who would self-subscribe as Irish, primarily. But I didn’t want to close it off. I didn’t want to say “These groups are only open to those who can provide – for example – legal documentation of their Irishness.” I didn’t want to create this categorisation.

So how were the discussions themselves organised?

The focus group discussions ran across three main themes, Ethnicity, Identity and Citizenship.

So bringing in the legal criteria a little bit, and people’s perception of the legal criteria. Again I am not dictating to them what the legal criteria are. It’s more looking at it in an exploratory way about how much they are aware of the legal conditions at present, or as they were before, and then making a relationship between – perhaps their perceptions of legal criteria and in relation to the responses of what is ethnically Irish and that’s why there is an element of divergence. Also taking on board from the outset that identities are socially constructed so [as] to see how participants will respond in relation to that – through how they present their perceptions – whether they revert to ideas or notions that would be ‘inherent’ so there is an intrinsic affiliation to… Irish identity.

One of the things that has come out is a dualism between more modern history, so the colonised Irish and the condition of the Irish emerging as a nation state that espouses egalitarian values, and based on your civic affiliation to the State, rather than your bloodline affiliation to the State. So people refer to that and a very proud tradition of acknowledging the difference and separation from Britain, and that colonial baggage too. But then also at the same time people consider notions of pure Irishness… [as] very Celtic, mythological notions. If we were to examine it, we would find it quite baseless. There’s an acknowledgement of emigration and immigration, and past invasions, and yet there is still a reference to a purity of Irishness that goes back to pre-Christian times. A large proportion of Irish people perhaps believe that.

Yaqoub is also an ardent photographer. The appeal of photography for him, especially photojournalism, is the unspoken word. You can check out his web presence at theconsciouscamera.com and on Facebook.