The Potential of a Novel Research Agenda on the Return of the Native (and what to do about these illiberal narratives)

Editorial by Jan Willem Duyvendak
28 March 2024
Jan Willem Duyvendak
Jan Willem Duyvendak

In years to come, the past decade will be characterized as one of revolt against liberalism. With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, liberalism appeared to reach new heights. But the year also marked what to many seemed like the beginning of the end. Election after election across the globe saw the rise to prominence of pundits, politicians, and parties, particularly from the radical right, that promised an alternative to the broken dream.

With this groundswell came the many academics that sought to diagnose the problem live, as events unfolded. Broadly speaking, the diagnoses fell into one of two camps: the objectivist and the constructivist. Objectivists sought out material reasons for the revolt: it was the economy, demographic changes, or humans’ psychological capacity to cope with such changes. Constructivists, on the other hand, looked to the nature of the myths being spun, the dramatic events being curated, and the imagined futures being conjured. Without dismissing the relevance of objective circumstances, it seems particularly important to pay attention to the constructivist angle: what was it, culturally speaking, that liberalism seemed to be lacking, what was most effectively filling this perceived gap, and how might liberally oriented people and parties find a way forward?

We particularly should try to better understand the prevalence of reactionary nostalgia in liberal countries. Migration scholars need to critically incorporate this pattern into their research agendas and examines the rise, implications, and consequences of political movements that emphasize a broken present that must be restored to glory, a past that must be savored, and a glimmering future that is within “our” grasp if only “we” can remember who we are and what we are capable of.

It is also important for migration studies to further reflect on how the many apparently disparate right-wing reactions against liberalism today, from anti-black racism to Islamophobia and populism, in fact share a common cultural thread: nativism. Drawing on the work of John Higham, nativism can be defined as “an opposition to an internal minority that is seen as a threat on the grounds of its foreignness”. Future research is needed to analyze this core narrative, tying together various developments across different countries around the world.

Crucially, the particular trend today in Europe and elsewhere is that such narratives are not only mobilized by the moderate and extreme but even by center-left politicians. The spread of these rhetorics shows both their insidious ability to proliferate and the importance of taking them seriously as indicating a deeply felt desire for meaning.

Finally, I also think that a future agenda must incorporate these analytical insights to propose an alternative political approach. Rather than focusing on purely economic improvements, it is important to examine nativists’ emphasis on meaning without reproducing their exclusionary attitudes or discourses. People are drawn to narratives that help them place the present in the context of a past they are inheriting and a future they are building. But rather than simply spinning such narratives from on high and wooing people with them, we can reflect on facilitating spaces in which people can come together across differences to tell their own stories, and collectively construct grand narratives together. Crucially, these narratives are most robust when they are forged amid, and tied to, tangible improvements in wellbeing.


Jan Willem Duyvendak & Josip Kesic, in collaboration with Timothy Stacey (2022), The Return of the Native: Can Liberalism Safeguard Us Against Nativism? New York: Oxford University Press.

Jan Willem Duyvendak, Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam and Director of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS-KNAW)

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