There has been a long-standing interest in Western culture in "national characters". For the most part, that interest has been essentialist, starting from the belief that there were such things, objectively, as "nations", that these were discrete and well distinguishable mutually, that each was characterized by its own character and that this character could be analysed from that “nation’s” cultural activity.

In the course of the twentieth century, a more critical approach has gained hold. In particular in the field of Comparative Literature, cultural difference has come to be studied in terms of attitudes and perceptions rather than essences. Nationality and "national cultures" are now seen as patterns of identification rather than as identities. To be sure, such perceptions and identifications deeply influence cultural and social praxis - but if they are to be analysed in a spirit of critical scholarship, they should be seen as subjective constructs rather than as objective essences.

The specialism in Comparative Literature which studies intercultural relations in terms of mutual perceptions, images and self-images, was developed in France, where its methodology crystallized in the 1950s under the name imagologie. While it was rejected by more aesthetically-oriented literary critics, mainly in the US, it maintained a certain following in Europe, mainly in Germany (where the critical study of national identification and the deconstruction of nationalism was experienced as a task imposed by the mistakes of the recent past). A leading role was played here by the Belgian comparatist Hugo Dyserinck, working at the university of Aachen.

Imagology was given an additional boost by the fact that in these same decades, anthropologists and social psychologists were beginning to criticize their own ethnocentrist and essentialist inheritance. The Revue de psychologie des peuples, for instance, offered interesting critical analyses of national identity as collective self-images.

Image studies has in recent years come to the fore again with the re-emergence of nationalism and, more generally, of "identity politics"; and in a climate which is more open to study the discursively constructed nature of many social and cultural values.

There are two academic book series dedicated to imagology:

Two fundamentals of imagology are explained in:

  • Hugo Dyserinck, Ausgewählte Schriften zur Vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft, ed. Elke Mehnert (Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2014)
  • Manfred Beller & Joep Leerssen (eds.) Imagology: The cultural construction and literary representation of naational characters (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007).

More relevant titles are given on this website in the Bibliography section. Some fundamental article-length essays are online on this website in the Key Texts section.