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Language and Intercultural Communication

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What's in a National Stereotype? An

Introduction to Imagology at the Threshold
of the 21st Century
William L. Chew III

Vesalius College, Brussels, Belgium

Available online: 05 Jan 2009

To cite this article: William L. Chew III (2006): What's in a National Stereotype? An Introduction to
Imagology at the Threshold of the 21st Century, Language and Intercultural Communication, 6:3-4, 179-187
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Whats in a National Stereotype? An

Introduction to Imagology at the
Threshold of the 21st Century

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William L. Chew III

Vesalius College, Brussels, Belgium
Image studies, or imagology, was traditionally subsumed under the uncritical notion
of national character, which was itself replaced by the constructivist term national
stereotype. Since its origins in comparative literature, the field has moved beyond
the narrow disciplinary confines of the humanities, with their predominantly
qualitative methodology, and become truly interdisciplinary. This happened in
two steps. First, by bringing history into the picture, thereby adding a strong
diachronical approach and additional elements of theory. Secondly, by attracting the
interest of social scientists
in the main psychologists, sociologists, and social
and, in the process, adding further theoretical frameworks and
quantitative methodologies typically absent from the humanities. This has resulted
in a whole array of insights and models. Specialists aside, however, mainstream
scholars are still largely unaware of the fields essential notions, insights, models,
disciplinary composition and claims to relevance. This article, therefore, provides a
brief survey of the state of imagology on the threshold of the 21st century.

Die Imagologie, das Studium der,,Images, wurde zunachst unkritisch unter dem
Begriff,,Nationalcharakter zusammengefasst, der spater jedoch selbst unter dem
konstruktivistischen Terminus des,,nationalen Stereotyps subsumiert wurde. Seit
seinen Anfangen in der vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft hat dieses Forschungsgebiet allerdings den ursprunglichen geisteswissenschaftlichen, und daher
methodologisch vorwiegend qualitativen Rahmen gesprengt und ist nun wirklich
interdisziplinar geworden. Diese Wendung vollzog sich in zwei Schritten. Zuerst
wurde die Imagologie um die Geschichtswissenschaft, und damit um einen stark
diachronen Ansatz sowie um zusatzliche Theorieelemente, bereichert. Danach
wurde das Interesse der Sozialwissenschaftler
hauptsachlich der Psychologen,
geweckt, wodurch weitere theoretische
Soziologen und Sozialanthropologen
Rahmen und quantitative Methodologien hinzugefugt wurden, die den Geisteswissenschaften fur gewohnlich fehlen. Dies fuhrte zu einer ganzen Reihe von
Einsichten und Modellen. Dennoch sind den meisten Wissenschaftlern, ausgenommen einigen Spezialisten, die wesentlichen Begriffe, Erkenntnisse, Modelle, die
disziplinare Zusammensetzung und der Relevanzanspruch dieses Forschungsgebiets weitgehend unbekannt geblieben. Dieser Beitrag mochte nun eine kurze
bersicht uber den Stand der Imagologie an der Schwelle zum 21. Jahrhundert

doi: 10.2167/laic246.0

Keywords: studies, imagology

In recent years, the study of images of the other  traditionally subsumed
under the uncritical notion of national character, then replaced with the
1470-8477/06/3 179-09 $20.00/0
Language and Intercultural Communication

2006 W.L. Chew III

Vol. 6, No. 3&4, 2006


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Language and Intercultural Communication

constructivist term national stereotype  has evolved considerably from its

origins in France in comparative literary studies, in the 1950s. This evolution
has had a profound influence, for it has taken the field beyond the narrow
disciplinary confines of the humanities, with their predominantly qualitative
methodology, and made it truly interdisciplinary. This happened in two steps.
First, by bringing history into the picture, thereby adding a strong diachronical
approach and additional elements of theory. Secondly, by attracting the
interest of social scientists  in the main psychologists, sociologists, and social
anthropologists  and, in the process, adding further theoretical frameworks
and quantitative methodologies typically absent from the two classic humanities. This has resulted in a whole array of insights and models, which Dutch
imagologist Joep Leerssen has collectively termed  drawing on linguistic
metaphors  a grammar of image studies (Leerssen, 2000). Recent international developments, finally, marked by continued regional conflicts and a
global terrorism characterised by apparent ethnic and religious incompatibilities  famously stylised by some as a clash of civilisations  has lent added
urgency to the deconstruction of complex stereotypes that seem to obscure and
hinder understanding the other rather than provide the true understanding
and insight that can lead to a peaceful co-existence, characterised by
humanistic values and common respect. If ever a scholarly field had direct
relevance to contemporary social issues, it must certainly be imagology.
Therefore, a practical manifesto of this young, exciting and interdisciplinary
field might be the proposition that:
We are all imagologists, even if we do not realise the fact, and we cannot
function socially and politically, in a humane and reasoned fashion, as
individuals or groups, without studying the (national) stereotypes so
current in our collective memory. For these stereotypes colour, to a large
extent, not only our self-perception (our auto-image) via the image of
the other (our hetero-image), but determine for better and, regrettably,
more often, for worse our behavior toward the other. Indeed historically,
this behavior has taken forms as relatively harmless as bad ethnic jokes
and as noxious as ethnic cleansing and the Holocaust. (Chew, 2001: 34)
Specialists aside, however, mainstream scholars are still largely unaware of
the fields essential notions, insights, models, disciplinary composition and
claims to relevance. A brief survey of the state of imagology on the threshold of
the 21st century, therefore, appears much needed. Such a survey must also, for
purposes of historical explanation, provide a brief summary of the fields

Historical Roots and Development of the Concept of

National Character
The traditional notion of national character is as old as Western
civilisation, and examples of stereotypical depictions of peoples and nations
can already be found in the early ethnological descriptions of foreign
peoples by classical authors, such as Herodotus, Tacitus, or Caesar. Yet a
systematisation of national stereotypes, and subsequent pseudo-scientific

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An Introduction to Imagology


justification, did not take place until the early modern period through the
interwar era (Leerssen, 2000). National types were classified for literature and
drama in the 17th century, while the 18th century linked national character
with politics, attempting to demonstrate that certain types of national
character could be matched to one of the three classical governmental systems
 despotism, aristocracy, democracy  already distinguished in antiquity, e.g.
by the Greek historian Polybius. None other than Montesquieu put this
approach on a proto-scientific footing with his famous climate theory,
developed in De lEsprit des Lois , book XIV. Climate made the man, he
contended, so that Northern men from cold climates were vigorous and
virtuous, honest and hard-working, rational and reflective. Southern types
were temperamental, impulsive, highly sensitive and indolent. In effect, the
Baron de la Bre`de had already enunciated what imagologists now call the
North-South model (see below).
The 19th and early 20th centuries further elaborated, hardened, and indeed
attempted to provide empirical scientific proof of this essentialist position, i.e.
that there is a positively demonstrable essence of national character inherent
in the representatives of a nation or people. Fichte and Hegel even elevated
national character to the status of Geist or Volksgeist. Evolutionary theory
and so-called racial science soon merged with volkisch ideologies in Germany,
and general European and American colonialist notions of manifest destiny,
mission civilisatrice, or Sendungsbewusstsein , to produce Social Darwinism 
with the well-known consequences for indigent populations and all manner of
racial undesirables. Yet, during the inter-bellum, even eminent historians
with impeccable anti-fascist credentials, such as Johan Huizinga, continued to
hold to an essentialist view of national character. Indeed, research tended to
confirm traditional and uncritical notions of national character (Stokvis, 1997;
Zacharasiewicz, 1982).

Birth and Evolution of Imagology as a Discipline

Since World War II, however, mainstream imagological scholarship has
moved toward the study of national stereotypes in terms of perception and
attitude, rejecting positivismessentialism in favour of constructivism. Pioneering work was conducted by French scholars in comparative literature,
Jean-Marie Carre and his student, Marius-Francois Guyard, who examined the
national stereotypes so prevalent in literary texts, with their conventional
depiction of actors and settings. While their work has since undergone
criticism for conceptual and methodological reasons, it had the merit of firmly
grounding the comparative imagological principle in an otherwise highly
traditionalist discipline.1 As early as 1977, the perhaps then leading literary
imagologist, Hugo Dyserinck, could argue that, thanks to Carre and Guyard,
imagology, fragt in der Tat nicht: Welches ist das Wesen oder die nationale
Eigenart der deutschen, franzosischen, englischen Literatur? Sondern sie
fragt, welche Eigenschaften von auen der deutschen, franzosischen und
englischen Literatur zugeschrieben werden (Dyserinck, 1977: 131). Still, up to
that point, image studies remained limited to the domain of literature.

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Language and Intercultural Communication

Since the late 1970s, however, the field has broadened, with major impulses
from history providing greater depth in the dynamic study of images shifting
over time. By drawing on their research into group mentality, social
psychologists have also helped sharpen the definition of national stereotypes
conceptually as self-serving biases or belief systems, which associate
attitudes, behaviours and personality characteristics with members of a social
category, in the process strengthening ones own group identity (Cinnirella,
1997: 37). Modern imagologists, therefore, refuse to pronounce on any
supposed objective validity of national stereotypes but, recognising their
existence as commonplace discursive constructs, focus on their description
and analysis, origin and impact (Stokvis, 1997). National stereotypes, imagologists conclude, continue to be highly recognisable, and many people, while
conceding that these stereotypes are generalisations, stubbornly contend that
there might be a core of truth substantiating the basic allegation.

Imagology: Insights, Interdisciplinarity and Models

Drawing on the categories of comparative literature (or communication
theory), imagologists distinguish culture regardante from culture regardee,
or spector from spected. National stereotyping occurs because spectors
perceive an effet de typique, whereby they recognise (and ascribe) characteristics as typical of the spected countrymen. These characteristics are
perceived as both distinctive and representative of the group in question.
Leerssen has cited trivial examples from clothing to illustrate the effect, such as
German Lederhosen and the French beret. I would argue that these examples
indicate an additional paradigm of national stereotyping, namely a pars pro
toto attribution, elevating regional characteristics to the national level.
For Lederhosen are typical of Bavaria, but not Germany as a whole; the beret
is typical of the Midi, but not France as a whole. Indeed, Caesar in De Bello
Gallico (4.14; cf. also 6.214) already made use of this paradigm when he
elevated one regional German tribe, perceived as typically vigorous and
warlike, to the status of typical German barbarian warrior. The effet de
typique, as we shall see, is one of a whole array of insights gained, and
models developed by imagologists since the 1960s.
Imagologists have also demonstrated, through a varied array of case studies,
that national stereotypes owe their origins, construction, dissemination,
reception, and impact, to historical circumstances. These stereotypes are
dynamic, and can only be understood in their historical context. This
historicist argument implies a diachronical methodology, as opposed to the
synchronical methodology of the social scientist looking at a single segment of
time. It also implies the application of the classic categories of historical
criticism pioneered by Jean Mabillon in the 17th century, for medieval studies,
and brought into mainstream historical scholarship by Leopold von Ranke.
One class of source which typically abounds with national stereotypes,
long analysed by historians  though not necessarily with an imagological perspective  is the travel account.2 More recent examples might be
the propagandistic productions of 20th-century totalitarian regimes or the

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An Introduction to Imagology


schoolbooks published in the ex-Yugoslavian states, most of which demonise

regional ethnicities, perceived as hostile to the national group identity.
When analysing sources with national stereotypes, one must take care to
differentiate within the spected group, rather than proceed in a reductionist
manner  which would, of course, tend to replicate the stereotype. This means
giving due attention to regional, religious, or gender differences, always
bearing in mind that the stereotypical characteristics of the image are a
function of the dynamic between alterity and identity, for the auto-image is
normally the spectors point of reference (Leerssen, 2000). Thus, imagologists
tend to conclude that their research reveals more about the culture regardante
than the culture regardee. Indeed, social psychologists argue that stereotypes
are, to a degree, necessary as a simplified classification scheme for a complex
reality. In addition, because classification categories are highly emotional,
differences between self and other tend to be exaggerated, intra-group
differences within the spected group minimised (Stokvis, 1997). This social
psychological functional approach to stereotyping can help explain complex
phenomena of historicalsocial causality, such as the scape-goating of the Jews
by the Nazis for the German defeat in World War I (Cinnirella, 1997).
Sociological research into the origin of national stereotypes of the other
(nation) has stressed the significance of stereotypes for the complex process of
image-building of ones own national identity. The function for the specting
group is the construction of a positive identity and a feeling of belonging,
unfortunately often at the expense of the identity of the spected group. This is,
of course, a projection, on the national level, of the well-known psychological
in-group/out-group paradigm or, in imagological terms, the self-serving
dynamic. In 1993, Orvar Lofgren and colleagues examined the historical
origins of Swedish national auto-images in a case study, with results that
appear to be largely valid, structurally, for other national groups as well. The
self-image of Swedish national character (the auto-stereotype), Lofgren
determined, was expressed by evoking a common cultural identity based on
language, religion, manners, common myths and common-place national
symbols. This image was further strengthened by a selective national memory,
with roots which could be traced back to the 19th century, and what he termed
the nationalisation of the past through the creation of a gallery of heroes.
During the 20th century, with the apparent end of large-scale nation-state
conflicts, sports heroes and patterns of leisure behaviour tended to replace
national political heroes as focal points of national character (Ehn et al ., 1993).
Given their long history, origin in historical circumstance, and apparent
fundamental socialpsychological function, it is not surprising that imagologists have demonstrated again and again that one of the key features of
national stereotypes is their durability. This is true, not only because national
stereotypes are generally rationalised by the spector as based on a supposedly
objective reality, but also because they tend to be omnipresent in comics,
cinema, literature, computer games, public media, jokes and the like, and are
constantly  though not consciously  invoked to confirm ones auto-image,
ones national identity. Once established, they remain latent in the individual
consciousness, or collective mentality, to be called upon when needed (Stokvis,
1997). Here, they tend to manifest themselves in binary form, as a pair of

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Language and Intercultural Communication

opposite characteristics, to be activated according to the exigencies of historical

circumstance. Probably inspired by the linguistic term phoneme, Leerssen
has termed this Janus-like characteristic of image-building, an imageme.
Meta-attribute or meta-stereotype might be other apt terms for the same
phenomenon. Drawing on his own research into how the Irish are perceived
by other national groups, Leerssen demonstrates the existence of an Irish
imageme of emotionality, which manifests itself in positive form in the image
of the convivial, slightly drunk singer of folk-songs in a pleasant pub
atmosphere; in negative form as the knee-capping, bombing IRA terrorist
(Leerssen, 2000).
An example from popular media illustrates how both sides of an imageme
can sometimes be activated in a single context. Consider American filmmaker
Steven Spielbergs depiction of an SS-raid on the Cracow ghetto in the film
Schindlers List. Nazi soldiers are storming a Jewish house, when one
German stumbles on a piano and sits down to play. Joined by two comrades,
the mayhem is interrupted while the SS men argue over the pieces composer.
Ist das Bach? the first soldier queries. Nein, du Idiot! Das ist doch Mozart!
the second replies, upon which the rampage continues. The basic stereotype is,
of course, that of the highly cultured German  note that these soldiers are not
monocled officers of noble Prussian extraction  but einfache SS-Manner. The
opposition within the imageme is that of creator of culture and, in this context,
destroyer of culture.
In addition to the basic insights and paradigms sketched out above,
imagologists have developed a series of models to help explain the mechanics
of national stereotypes, with a functionalstructural approach. Similar to
the meta-stereotype or imageme, these models consist of oppositions.
We have already encountered the basics of the North-South model, opposing
the supposedly cooler temperament of the more cerebral, individualist, more
rugged, less pleasing but more trustworthy and responsible Northern
peoples, better suited to democracy and egalitarianism, and imbued with a
spirit of business enterprise, a lack of imagination and a more introspective,
stolid attitude with the warmer temperament of the Southerner, who is
considered more sensual, collective, more polished, more pleasing but less
trustworthy or responsible and better suited to aristocracy and hierarchy
(Leerssen, 2000: 271). Going beyond Montesquieu, however, the model
suggests that this opposition works not just inter-nationally, but also intranationally (i.e. between regions). This can lead to contradictory characterisations, given the relative position of any region to any other. The German
province of Hesse can be northern if viewed from Bavaria, or southern if
viewed from Hannover; Flanders northern if viewed from Wallonia, southern if viewed from Holland, and so on.
The centre-periphery model attaches various characteristics to nations and
regions, depending on whether they are seen as central or peripheral.
Centrality and peripherality can be ascribed in both the literal (geographical)
or metaphorical sense. Centrality, as a stereotypical characteristic, is perceived
as dynamic, progressive, and modern, whereas peripherality is viewed as its
antithesis, i.e. static, traditionalist, and old-fashioned. Similar to the NorthSouth opposition, centrality or peripherality can be assigned on a scale ranging

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An Introduction to Imagology


from municipal to global. Thus, a nations capital might be seen as the

dynamic powerhouse at the center of a ring of backwater provinces, while
whole continents, i.e. North America, Europe and Australia can constitute the
geographically dispersed progressive center of an otherwise backward global
The last imagological model, the weak statestrong state opposition, is the
most historically minded of these models, in that it focuses on the temporally
shifting stereotypes of the classic nation-state during its rise and fall.
According to this model, states at the height of their power tend to be
assigned negative stereotypes because, at the moment of observation, they
often pose a threat to their neighbours. Conversely, the very same states  in
decline  are assigned more benign stereotypes. A case in point might be
Spain under Philip II (with a negative-hostile stereotype), oppressed by
Napoleonic hegemony (positive-sympathetic), under Franco (again negative),
and modern democratic Spain under a constitutional monarchy (again
positive-sympathetic). This dynamic bi-valence demonstrates the key relationship between spector and spected in a context of shifting historical
An integration of these insights, paradigms and models, might result,
I believe, in an attempt at a total imagological system, not unlike the
Diasystem proposed by the Romance philologist, Bodo Muller, for the study of
the French language (Muller, 1975). Thus, three key parameters for the study of
national stereotypes appear to be emerging. Of these, the diatopical (geographical) and diastratical (social), are inspired by, and more suited to, a
synchronical and quantitative social scientific approach. The diachronical
(historical) parameter, of course, inspired by comparative literature and
history, is suited rather more to a humanities-based and qualitative histoire
des mentalites approach. The current state of research indicates that this is, in
fact, the overall trend.

Of all academic specialisms we have seen, image studies number among
the most inter-disciplinary, though the center of gravity remains in the broad
domain of the humanities, in particular history and literature/philology.
Historical-criticism and literary analysis thus remain core methods that
complement each other nicely when analysing texts containing national
stereotypes. Nonetheless, much can be learned from the social sciences, as
evident in the strong influence of social psychologists and ethnologists. Most
recently, an eminent team of over 60 social psychologists collaborated in a
massive international field project aimed at testing the possible objective
validity of national stereotypes for 49 cultures. Using quantitative socialscientific tools, applied to 3989 individuals, they compared character traits
ascribed to these cultures from outside (i.e. the hetereo-stereotypes of
spectors), with the cultures own self-perceived character traits (i.e. the
auto-stereotypes). Not surprisingly, the team determined strong differences
between the two. In fine , Terracciano and colleagues concluded that
Perceptions of national character thus appear to be unfounded stereotypes

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Language and Intercultural Communication

that may serve the function of maintaining a national identity (Terracciano

et al ., 2005: 96). In other words: the self-serving dynamic at work. This result
is far from anti-climactic and serves to strengthen not only the interdisciplinary character of imagological studies, but also to buttress the conclusions
of colleagues from the humanities, employing the qualitative methodologies
of their own fields.
Scholars such as Terracciano, Leerssen, and Stokvis have repeatedly underscored the broad academic and social relevance of image studies. This, I
believe, is above all the case in the field of language and inter-cultural
communication  itself, like image studies, a relatively young and highly
interdisciplinary field drawing primarily on the methodology and theoretical
models of the more traditional fields of linguistics, literature, sociology,
anthropology, and cultural studies in the broadest sense of the term. Image
studies, I would argue, can make a real contribution to language and intercultural communication in two important ways, i.e. the structuraltheoretical
and the practicalsocial. Several of the papers presented at the 2005 IALIC
conference  to name just one among several relevant examples  approached
language and inter-cultural communication with sociolinguistic methods
applied to a given case study, e.g. a series of dialogues between a Greek
employer and his Albanian guest-worker. Such case studies, all of which are
situated not only in a sociocultural synchronical, but also a historical and
therefore diachronical context, could clearly benefit from the application of
several imagological insights, notions and models. One might, for example,
explore how far a self-serving dynamic is at play in the cultural categories
used by the two interlocutors; examine how the GrecoAlbanian stereotypes
shifting over time and dependent on the fluctuating relations between the two
states, resonate in the dialogue; or how the large statesmall state, centerperiphery, or North-South models apply to the stereotypes implicit (or explicit)
in the given dialogue. This would doubtless constitute a worthwhile
structuraltheoretical contribution of image studies to existing language and
inter-cultural communication paradigms. On a practical-social level, lastly, the
potential sociocultural and, indeed, political benefits of image studies for the
field of language and inter-cultural communication can hardly be exaggerated.
While both fields are slowly emerging as recognised  if not yet quite
mainstream  academic disciplines, it is very much hoped that they will find
their way, sooner rather than later, into schoolbooks and school curricula.
In this way, they might be able, in a small yet significant way, help mitigate  if
not prevent outright  any of the several intractable contemporary regional
ethno-religious conflicts, many of which are fuelled by a persistent lack of
inter-cultural communication and a lack of insight into the origins and
function of stereotypes. Perhaps then current history schoolbooks in Serbia,
glorifying the great Serbian past, and demonising the other ex-Yugoslav ethnic
minorities it found itself pitted against during the last Balkan conflicts, might
be replaced by books promoting the cultural understanding necessary for a
peaceful co-existence based on fundamental humanistic values.

An Introduction to Imagology


Any correspondence should be addressed to William L. Chew III, Vesalius
College, Pleinaan 2, Brussels, B-1050, Belgium (wchew@vub.ac.be).

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In his foreword to Guyards textbook La Litterature comparee , Carre defined the new
role of comparative literature studies as follows: Comment nous voyons-nous
entre nous, Anglais et Francais, Francais et Anglais. For a review of the origins of
image studies in France, with a critical assessment of Carres and Guyards
contribution, see Fischer (1981: 15790).
For an introduction to the methodological problems entailed in the analysis of
travel accounts within the field of European cultural history, including the
discussion of several case studies, see Maczak and Teuteberg (1982).

Chew, W.L. III (2001) Literature, history, and the social sciences? An historicalimagological approach to Franco-American stereotypes. In W.L. Chew III (ed.)
National Stereotypes in Perspective: Americans in France  Frenchmen in America (pp.
153). Amsterdam: Rodopi Press.
Cinnirella, M. (1997) Ethnic and national stereotypes: A social identity perspective. In
C.C. Barfoot (ed.) Beyond Pugs Tour: National and Ethnic Stereotyping in Theory and
Literary Practice (pp. 3751). Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Dyserinck, H. (1977) Komparatistik. Eine Einfuhrung. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag Herbert
Ehn, B., Frykman, J. and Lofgren, O. (1993) Forsvenskningen av Sverige. Det nationellas
forvandlingar. Stockholm: Natur och Kultur.
Fischer, M.S. (1981) National Images als Gegenstand Vergleichender Literaturgeschichte.
Untersuchungen zur Entstehung der komparatistischen Imagologie . Bonn: Bouvier Verlag
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Guyard, M-F. (1951) La litterature comparee. Paris: PUF.
Leerssen, J. (2000) The rhetoric of national character: A programmatic survey. Poetics
Today 21 (2), 267292.
Maczak, A. and Teuteberg, H.J. (eds) (1982) Reiseberichte als Quellen europaischer
Kulturgeschichte, Aufgaben und Moglichkeiten der Historischen Reiseforschung . Wolfenbuttel: Herzog August Bibliothek.
Muller, B. (1975) Das Franzosische der Gegenwart. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitatsverlag.
Stokvis, P.R.D. (1997) Nationale identiteit, beeldvorming, stereotypen en karakteristieken. Theoretische Geschiedenis 24 (3), 279288.
Terracciano, A. et al . (2005) National character does not reflect mean personality trait
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Zacharasiewicz, W. (1982) National stereotypes in the English language: A review of
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