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People out of place: allochthony and autochthony in the Netherlands' identity discourse — metaphors and categories in action


As with much of Europe, the Netherlands has no explicit ‘race’ discourse; however, the state, through its public policy and administrative practices, does categorise its population along ‘ethnic’ lines, using birthplace — one's own or one's (grand-) parent's — as the surrogate determining factor. The contemporary operative taxonomy has until recently been binary: autochtoon (of Dutch heritage) and allochtoon (of foreign birth). Used earlier at the provincial level in respect of internal migration, the taxonomy was expanded in 1999 to demarcate between ‘Western’ allochtoon and ‘non-Western’ allochtoon, with the latter being further subdivided into first and second generation. Informed by a ‘generative metaphor’ approach (Schon 1979) that links cognition to action, this article subjects the allochtoon/autochtoon binary to metaphor analysis and the Western/non-Western taxonomy to category analysis. The work done by ‘birthplace’ in the term pair suggests that they are, in their everyday usage, surrogates for a race discourse, carrying the same (ancient) assumptions about individual identity and the earth-air-sun-water of the spot on which one was born that underlies definitions-in-use of ‘race’. Their meaning in contemporary policy discourse derives from the interaction of metaphoric and category structures, with implications for policy implementation.

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Figure 1


  1. As this article focuses on the Netherlands' case and the Dutch and English pronunciations are roughly the same, we use the Dutch allochtoon/autochtoon spelling for the singular, unless the referent context changes. We use the English plural forms allochthons/autochthons, however, as they more clearly signal the plural to a non-Dutch reader.

  2. To be a hyphenated American was considered negative well into the 1980s. The term itself came into usage at the beginning of the 20th century, with both the then-Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and President Woodrow Wilson expounding on how the people it designated were dangerous and less than ‘full’ or ‘real’ Americans (‘There is no place here for the hyphenated American and the sooner he returns to the country of his allegiance the better’ (New York Times 1915); ‘… any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready’; Wilson 1919). For a discussion of its more recent implications, Yanow (2003: 186–96).

  3. This formulation captures the parallels between metaphor debates and broader ontological-epistemological ones concerning whether or not language mirrors the world whose characteristics it articulates objectively (i.e., as observed and known from a position outside that world), through the reception of sense data. From that perspective, metaphoric language would always be seen as ‘defective, deviant, and parasitic on literal language (and literal language as defective with respect to mathematical logic)’ (Müller 2008: 43). As McCloskey (1994: 328) puts the assumption, ‘If we snatch away the veil of ornament, … we can confront the Facts and the Reality direct’.

  4. This is the term commonly used in metaphor analysis. Unfortunately, it is still also used in academic policy analysis in reference to those for whom policies are being designed, without attention to its metaphoric meaning, in ways that deny them agency. Such usage appears to have originated with Robert McNamara as he moved from the presidency of Ford Motor Company, where in an earlier capacity he had spearheaded the development of management control systems (including cost-benefit analysis), to Secretary of the US Department of Defense and thereafter to the presidency of the World Bank. For a critique of this usage of policy ‘targets’, see DeHaven-Smith (1988), Yanow (1996a).

  5. Lakoff (1987; Lakoff and Johnson 1980) argues that ‘dead metaphor’ is a misnomer reflecting earlier, now discredited, theories of language. He makes the further point that metaphor theory needs to be able to distinguish between commonplaces and terms whose metaphoric origins are no longer available. Müller (2008) further extends the argument, taking issue with Lakoff's bipartite distinction from the perspective of actively making, and not just ‘receiving’, metaphoric meaning. Although not engaging this debate in metaphor theory directly, this article follows in this vein.

  6. Alan Cienki (personal communication, 12 August, 2009) calls our attention to the fact that this Wittgensteinian ‘family resemblance’ form of prototype category may work in slightly different ways in that it may have no real ‘best exemplar’ (Rosch and Mervis 1975). This distinction may hold more for language analysis, however, than policy analysis.

  7. In attempting to respond to the perception that its existing category schema did not fit the lived realities of the population it sought to enumerate — as manifested in much discussion and debate during the 1990s concerning the 1990 Census and the geometric growth of people who identified themselves there as ‘Other’, as well as growing attention to ‘mixed race’ in general public discourse — the US Census Bureau changed its policy and invited respondents to the 2000 Census to mark off more than one answer, as applicable, to the ‘race’ question. This was a major departure from the ‘slotting’ approach it had used until then. The new practice posed a challenge for statisticians analysing census results as to how to tabulate the multiplicities of combinations and permutations of the six available categories.

  8. What makes this work, paradoxically and ironically enough, is the existence in the United States of a slotting type of race-ethnic category practice, in which one is either/or enforced by the ‘one drop rule’ (F. J. Davis 1991) and other discriminatory practices of long standing, in everyday social life if not in law (Haney López 1996). ‘Racial’ mixture, through ‘inter’-marriages, was legally outlawed in many states, the last prohibition being repealed only in 1967; but slave ownership yielded many mixed offspring, and it was these and later generations who increasingly diverged from the prototypical ‘racial’ norm and passed over the fuzzy boundary into a different slot — the White one. ‘Mixed’ race was only acknowledged in federal policy in 1997, operationalised for the first time in the 2000 Census and other administrative programmes implementing the new policy, as mentioned in the previous note (Yanow 2003).

  9. During the 1950s and 1960s, after Indonesia had gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949, some 100,000 ‘White’ or ‘European’ Dutch (who had spent years living in the Dutch East Indies; called totoks, a Malay term) and 200,000 ‘Indonesian Dutch’ or ‘Eurasian Dutch’ (Indische Nederlanders, or Indos, of mixed parentage having one ‘White’ Dutch parent) moved to the Netherlands (Jones 2007: 338; in the Netherlands, Indische Nederlander is also used to refer to ‘White’ Dutch — i.e., totoks). Together, they were labelled ‘repatriates’ (repatrianten) or ‘repatriated’ (gerepatrieerden) in Dutch policy and research because they were considered to be ‘ethnically’ Dutch and therefore ‘belonging’ or ‘at home’ in the Netherlands. The nomenclature is odd, however, as many of them had never lived in the country to which they were being ‘re’-patriated, as Geschiere (2009: 149) also notes.

  10. Also spelled Amboinese, the Ambonezen consisted of a group of 12,500 soldiers of the Royal Dutch Indies Army (Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger, KNIL) and their families, who had been living on the Southern Moluccan island of Ambon. The Moluccas, a group of islands in East Indonesia between Sulawesi (Celebes) and New Guinea, were taken by the Dutch in the 17th century from Portugal. Verwey-Jonker's report uses Ambonezen as a synonym for the group more commonly known now as Moluccans. After Indonesian independence in 1949, these KNIL soldiers and their families, who during the colonial regime had been categorised as ‘indigenous non-Dutch Netherlands subjects’ (Inheemse Nederlandse onderdaan niet-Nederlander), were given Indonesian nationality (Jones 2007: 83, 100). Their military service, loyalty to the Netherlands, and rejection of the newly formed Indonesian state, however, put them in a difficult position, and in 1951 they were brought to the Netherlands. As Jones indicates, this was intended to be a temporary solution; but over 50 years later, they are still in the Netherlands.

  11. Suriname, a republic on the northeast coast of South America, was a Dutch territory. Many Surinamese migrated to the Netherlands before the island gained independence in 1975; many also came shortly after independence under special passport regulations implemented at that time.

  12. ‘Netherlands Antilles’ refers to a set of islands in the Caribbean to the north and northeast of Venezuela, consisting of Aruba (sometimes listed separately), Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten. On 10 October, 2010, their status changed: Curaçao and Sint Maarten became autonomous states within the Netherlands Kingdom, as Aruba has been since 1986, and Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba became ‘special municipalities’ within it.

  13. The ‘importation’ of temporary foreign labourers, similar to Germany's gastarbeiter (guest worker) programme, began in 1960 (Tweede Kamer 1969–1970: 4), although Geschiere (2009: 149), citing John Schuster, notes that ‘an official Dutch delegation’ had already gone to Italy to recruit temporary workers in 1955.

  14. Chinese people have been present in the Netherlands since at least the early 20th century, primarily in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, working in shipping, mostly as stokers. The economic crisis of the 1930s, together with changes in the shipping industry, left many of them unemployed, illegally stranded, and increasingly impoverished. Many were forcibly repatriated (Sanders 2008).

  15. She is deceased, and no explanation has yet come to light among her papers, which are held in the Verwey-Jonker Institute. In fact, although allochtoon may have entered some national-level policy documents in 1971, its policy use did not become widespread for another 20 years; instead, ‘ethnic minorities’ (etnische minderheden) was the main policy term well into the 1990s.

  16. We have been unable to determine precisely where it was being used by these social geographers or in what context. From our reading of other reports produced then, we suspect that they were working for the Ministry of Transportation researching patterns of work-home commuting.

  17. This statement does not do justice to the degree of animosity felt by Catholics (in the southern part of the state) towards Protestants (in the north), and vice versa; nor do we have space here to develop an explanation of how Dutch governance at that time regulated exchanges across its four ‘pillars’ — Catholic, Protestant, liberal, and socialist (on the Netherlands's ‘pillarisation’ and consensus-based decision making, Lijphart 1968; Andeweg and Irwin 1993, and Geschiere's discussion, 2009: Ch. 5). This long-standing animosity may have laid the groundwork for the pejorative character of the use of allochtoon today, as we note below.

  18. We have, in fact, found an even earlier — much earlier — usage of autochtoon, which suggests that the historical account of the term's usage will need to be revised still further. In his best-selling novel Multatuli, first published in 1860, Max Havelaar (pseudonym for Eduard Douwes Dekker) writes about autochthons serving in Java as colonial managers. One passage reads: ‘… a Regency in Java is headed by a native official who combines the rank given him by the Government with his autochthonous influence, in order to facilitate the rule of the European officer who represents Dutch authority’ (Havelaar 1967: 69–70). Its presence in a book that was printed in three editions (1860, 1875, 1880) suggests that the term would have been commonly understood at the time and perhaps even used in other accounts, for example, histories or new reports or travellers’ accounts.

  19. We cannot say for certain when the CBS began using these terms. In an 8 December, 2008, interview, CBS statisticians also could not put a date on it, but they linked their usage to the 1989 WRR report (see also Geschiere 2009: 150). Data from the GBA, which now consists of reports amalgamated from 483 local registries, have become even more important for CBS statistics since the termination in 1971 of the hitherto decennial census. It is interesting to note that part of the initial discussions about category terms and their definitions concerned the possibility of self-definition; but, as the CBS officials noted, CBS statistical analysis was tied to particular population group (bevolkingsgroep) categories, ruling out the possibility of categories generated through self-identification.

  20. Family reunification policy was introduced in 1960 and encompassed the families of labour migrants from EEC countries such as Italy and Spain. It was extended in 1961 to those from non-EEC countries, including Morocco and Turkey (Bonjour 2008).

  21. The first extended definition of the third generation that we have found is from a 2010 CBS document: ‘The non-Western third generation consists of children of second generation non-Western allochthons. The third generation has parents who were born in the Netherlands, but at least one grandparent who was born in a non-Western country. Because both parents were born in the Netherlands, the third generation would usually be considered autochthons. The individual may him- or herself have been born abroad (in either a Western or non-Western country)’ (Goedhuys et al. 2010: 8; translation DY). From a statistical perspective, using 20 years as the span of a single generation, tabulating data on today's third generation requires records dating back to 1951–1971. Because the CBS does not have complete data from the 483 municipal-level population registries (GBA) prior to 1994, when standardisation of those registration practices was started, it can only estimate the size of the non-Western third generation. This it does based on the age of the non-Western second generation (Alders and Keij 2001). That is, guest workers who would be considered today as first generation allochthons, who arrived in the 1960s–1970s, for instance, would not be in the GBA system (because they were born outside of the Netherlands); their Netherlands-born children (the second generation) might be in the system, depending on where and when they were born; and CBS statisticians can estimate the size of the third generation — the guest workers’ grandchildren — through population projections based on age and birth rates, but only when this information is known. The incompleteness of the data is discussed in the 2010 report, which introduces the notions of upper and lower limits (ondergrens en bovengrens) in tabulations. The former, based on a limited full knowledge of grandparental origins, is the statistic used in that report.

  22. Not surprisingly for an older word, it also has uses in other fields: in psychology, autochthonous thoughts are those coming from outside one's train of thought (although that seems paradoxical); in pathology, it refers to the origin and location of a disease, lesion, and so on.

  23. Original: Bij de niet-westerse allochtonen wordt vaak onderscheid gemaakt naar de volgende herkomstlanden: Turkije, Marokko, Suriname en de Nederlandse Antillen/Aruba. Het zijn de belangrijkste doelgroepen van het minderhedenbeleid.

  24. Immigrants from Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles/Aruba, unlike those from Indonesia, had not been working for the colonial administration, so the sense of obligation would not have extended to them. Perhaps more importantly, they themselves were not of Dutch descent.

  25. In addition, each of these was seen as combining two primary qualities: the dimensions of hot/cold and dry/moist (Greenwood 1984). This aspect is not explored here.

  26. Frederic Schaffer (personal communication, 15 February, 2009) raises the question of euphemistic and pejorative intent with respect to the introduction of allochtoon/autochtoon: Were they introduced to euphemise pejorative ‘racial’ categories, he asks, or to introduce racist talk? The questions are intriguing, but we have found no ‘smoking gun’ in the documentary record that would unequivocally support either case, and the historical account we provide here, with its 1950s usage, renders any account perforce more complex. Clearly, the Ministry's demand of Verwey-Jonker that she not use ‘migrant’ suggests an effort to euphemise; but that would imply a neutrality to allochtoon that, in our view, the earlier history does not support — less on ‘racial’ grounds than on grounds of difference. This account also suggests a more complex unfolding of the ‘euphemism treadmill’ than what Pinker (2002: 212) proposes: if our historical account has merit, it suggests that the later pejoration recovered, so to speak, earlier attitudes towards ‘foreigners’, even those who were co-nationals but from other provinces with other socio-economic and religious-cultural backgrounds. It confirms, however, his notion that ‘concepts, not words, are primary in people's minds’ (2002: 213).

  27. Belgian researchers have coined another term — islamallochtoon, referring primarily to people with Turkish and Moroccan backgrounds — for counting the number of allochthonous students coming from Islamic countries (Lacante et al. 2007).

  28. Srdjan Vucetic (personal communication, summer 2010) pointed our attention to the role of the late right-wing party leader Jörg Haider in these language fights, which tied into his long-standing opposition to bilingualism there. Autochthon is also used among wine growers and experts in Austria, including at wine seminars and tastings, to designate the origin of the grapes used to produced the bottled wine: such grapes are considered ‘pure’, growing naturally in their region, and are not cross-bred; some growers specialise in autochthonous wines, growing only autochthonous grapes (Heidrun Huber, personal communication, 5 August, 2008;, accessed 30 August, 2010). This echoes discussions in Jerez, Spain, concerning the varying quality of the wine produced in the sherry solera as the vine is moved as little as a few metres down the hill from one soil-sun-water-air spot to another, as well as the likeness a vine bears to the human figure (first author's fieldnotes, 25 May, 1993).

  29. The matter of authenticity — who ‘really’ belongs and therefore is entitled to enjoy certain rights — is also part of the identity discourse in Malaysia, where the category bumiputra/bhumiputra, used to distinguish indigenous Malays from ethnic Chinese and Indians, carries a meaning equivalent to allochtoon: ‘son of the soil’ (Yanow 2003: 73). Des Gasper (personal communication, 5 May, 2010) notes that the term ‘has been virulent in Malaysia (since the 1950s), used by Malays against Chinese (and Indian) Malaysians’. He suggests that there have been similar ‘Bhumi-X’ discourses elsewhere, for example, in Bangladesh.

  30. We thank Conny Roggeband for help in articulating this point.

  31. The distinction is meaningful from a state-level perspective: the birth certificates required for certain population registration activities are issued in Europe only at the municipal level; passports, issued by the state, are not accepted as substitutes, even though they themselves include birth-place and -date information verified when they were issued on the basis of a birth certificate.

  32. Alan Cienki discusses whether people ‘hold the histories of words in their heads’. We agree with him both that this is unlikely and that ‘earlier meaning … can be maintained and developed as associations between words in a network’ (Cienki 1999: 314); but the case we present here is not one of Dutch-language words building new meanings on older roots, as in his examples. Instead, we have a term pair borrowed into everyday discourse via natural and social scientific usage. Their meanings, then, seem to have travelled from those sources, that is, from outside of the linguistic sounds and logic of spoken Dutch, rather than from older Dutch terms.

  33. We thank Frank Hendriks (personal conversation, 22 September, 2008) for raising this point. It parallels one made elsewhere with respect to US categories for ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ (Yanow 2003: 186).


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Earlier versions of this article have been presented at the Interpretive Policy Analysis (Amsterdam, 31 May — 2 June, 2007), International Studies Association (New York, 17 February, 2009), and Western Political Science Association (March, 2009) conferences and in several seminars, including a University of Vienna Institute for Political Studies Ganggespräch (5 May, 2008), Tilburg University's School of Politics and Public Administration (22 September, 2008), the University of Strasbourg's MISHA Center/Sciences Po (3 November, 2008), Columbia University's Center for Urban Research and its Policy Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy (25 November, 2008), the Vrije Universiteit's Faculty of Social Sciences/COM DHL Workgroup (2 December, 2008), the University of Essex’ Center for Theoretical Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences’ ESRC Networks for Methodological Innovation Mini-conference on Discourse Analysis Networks (10–11 October, 2008), the Institute for Global and International Studies at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, and the Institute for Social Studies, Den Haag (7 May, 2010). Many thanks to Vincent Dubois, Anna Durnová, Lee Ann Fujii, Des Gasper, David Howarth, Merlijn van Hulst, Aletta Norval, and Dorian Warren for making these possible and to them and other participants and colleagues, especially Hans van Amersfoort, Alan Cienki, Kerry Crawford, Didier Georgakakis, Halleh Ghorashi, Steven Jeffares, Niilo Kauppi, Lorraine Nencel, Bowen Paulle, Conny Roggeband, Jay Rowell, Fred Schaffer, John Schuster, Karlijn Völke, and Srdjan Vucetic, for their thoughtful readings of the ideas and their challenges to clarify them.

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Original texts of epigraphs

Mevrouw van Gent: Mijn eerste vraag is: bent u allochtoon?

Mevrouw Felter: Ik ben geen allochtoon. Ik ben een Nederlandse staatsburger. Ik ben een zwarte Nederlander.

Mevrouw van Gent: Ik vraag u dit, omdat wij het hier in het voorgesprek uitgebreid over hebben gehad. Toen zei u ook: Nederlandse staatsburger dan wel ingezetene. U vond dat het woord ‘allochtoon’ een negatief effect kan hebben, omdat mensen daarmee in een groep worden gedrukt. Ik zou het plezierig vinden als u dat toelicht.

Mevrouw Felter: ‘Allochtoon’ is in mijn visie een racistische term die mensen uitsluit. Ik ben een geboren Nederlander. Vanuit de koloniën kom ik hier. Toen ik hier kwam, was ik rijksgenoot. Die connotatie is veranderd naar ‘allochtoon’, heel negatief. ‘Allochtoon’ wil zeggen dat je niet van hier bent. Ik ben van hier, ik woon hier, ik participeer in en draag bij aan de samenleving. Ik zie niet in waarom ik niet van hier zou zijn … .

Source: Tweede Kamer (2003–2004: 241).

Ik smurf hier al vijftig jaar en ze zien me nog steeds als een allochsmurf. Semantisch gesmurf!

Source: [Ruben L. Oppenheimer], NRC Handelsblad, 1 March, 2008: 14.

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Yanow, D., van der Haar, M. People out of place: allochthony and autochthony in the Netherlands' identity discourse — metaphors and categories in action. J Int Relat Dev 16, 227–261 (2013).

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  • allochthony
  • ethnicity
  • integration policy
  • interpretive policy analysis
  • race