The concept of nationalism is embedded in the everyday lives of citizens of modern nation-states. The pride that people feel for national accomplishments, the appeals of politicians to the national interests in justifying policies, and the symbols that nations use for self-identification (e.g., flags, national anthems, and monuments) are omnipresent and help create a national consciousness and national identity among diverse individuals. However, when examined in its historical, political, and social context, nationalism takes on a much more sophisticated, controversial, and ambiguous meaning that goes beyond the romantic view reflected in everyday notions of this concept. Although nationalism was essential to the formation of modern nation-states and can play an important role when societies face times of crisis, it can also lead people to view their nation as beyond reproach, justifying the use of force and violence to deal with real or perceived enemies. This entry provides an overview of various approaches to nationalism, giving special attention to potential negative consequences of extreme nationalism.
Academics from a wide variety of disciplines, including history, anthropology, sociology, political science, and cultural theory, have contributed to a large body of literature that explores many issues of nationalism, including definitions, origins, development, and forms. Scholarly interest in the concept of nationalism increased significantly during the 1980s and has continued. Earlier studies focused on European nationalism, but recently there has been more emphasis on non-Western examples, particularly in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Nationalism has been approached from various philosophical perspectives, with considerable debate surrounding these different interpretations. There is general agreement that nationalism is a Western construction or conception that is inextricably linked to the formation of modern nation-states in Europe. This gradual process, spurred by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution as well as by the development of new economic structures, involved transforming diverse peoples inhabiting a defined territory into a nation with a single identity.
Scholars usually make a distinction between nations and states. A nation often consists of an ethnic or cultural community, whereas a state is a political entity with a high degree of sovereignty. The sociologist Anthony D. Smith defines a nation as a group of people sharing an historic territory; common myths and historical memories; a mass, public culture; a common economy; and common legal rights and duties for all members. A nation signifies a cultural bond, a community of people united by ideology, language, mythology, symbolism, and consciousness. A state refers to public institutions that exercise legal and political power within a given territory and require obedience and loyalty from its citizens. The nation-state is a result of a successful nationalist movement; thus, the state has the same political boundaries and homogeneity of the population as the nation.
Social and political scientists have traditionally made a distinction between the Western civic model of the nation, which is based on European nation-states, and the non-Western ethnic concept of the nation, which is more closely associated with Eastern Europe and Asia. The civic model emphasizes a spatial or territorial conception of homeland, the idea of a legal-political community and equality among its members, and a common civic culture and ideology, whereas the ethnic model stresses common descent, popular mobilization, and vernacular languages, customs, and traditions.
Contemporary scholarship defines the concept of a nation more broadly, combining both civic and ethic categories. In this view, a nation is a cultural group, one that may have a shared origin, with loyalties to a common political state. Individuals’ membership in the nation is usually involuntary, though there are instances where individuals choose to be part of a particular nation (e.g., immigration). In the classical form of nationalism, which is concerned with the creation and maintenance of a sovereign state, loyalty to the nation takes precedence over other allegiances, such as regional, local, or kinship ties. In contrast, moderate forms of nationalism are more likely to promote individual rights, creativity, and diversity of communities within the nation. Liberal nationalism, for example, strives to protect cultural communities while promoting liberal universal principles.
Although most scholars today view the nation as a modern creation, some scholars consider it as a timeless phenomenon (primordialist view). Others argue that nations have existed for a long time, though they take different forms at different points in history (perennialist view). Modernist scholars also differ in their interpretation of nation. Although some anti-realist modernists view nations as pure “constructions,” others, such as Benedict Anderson, view the modern nation as an “imagined political community.” For Anderson, a critical feature of the emergence of a nation is its “community of anonymity.” This form of community enables citizens to identify with one another in a shared allegiance to the nation, allowing them to imagine themselves as part of a national culture without having personal contact with the vast majority of members of that community. Anderson emphasizes the role of literacy and print capitalism in this process.
Since its advent in the 19th century, nationalism has had an overwhelming impact on human history. In his work The Wrath of Nations, William Pfaff shows how in its historical evolution, nationalism has been a relentless, driving sociopolitical force that transcends and overshadows class differences, distinctions between the political ideologies of the right and the left, as well as internal differences in specific policies and strategies within the nation-state. Johann Gottfried Herder and Giuseppe Mazzini spoke of nationalism as a divinely ordained, historical force of liberation, destined to lead humanity to universal justice and global peace. Others have interpreted it as a functional, sociocultural phenomenon that unifies people, sustains the cohesion of the national community, defines and clarifies collective values, and generates loyalty to the larger whole. More recently, nationalism has also been viewed as a legitimate moral and political force securing the rights and independence of people from the onslaught of globalization.
In contrast to those who conceptualize nationalism as a positive force, others view nationalism as subversive and erosive of the human spirit. Nationalism is seen as an intolerant and destructive historical force; a phenomenon that deeply divides nations and societies; an approach to politics that fosters a culture of collective narcissism and exclusivist notions of belonging; a power-driven and self-serving national and international political force that escalates conflicts, precipitating both civil and international wars; and as a worldview that accommodates the use of force/violence as a premium instrument of national politics and that tolerates the loss of human life as a legitimate necessity. Furthermore, nationalism has been viewed as a sinister force that has contributed to the globalization of conflict, while rendering globalization a conflict-proliferating process.
Nationalism may thus be seen as creating a positive-negative dialectic—promoting loyalty and helping unify people across a variety of perspectives into a national community, but at the same time allowing the nation to absolutize its moral authority regarding its freedom, interests, identity, and power. In this sense, nationalism supports a belief that we have “the right” to employ all means, including adversarial and lethal means, in the nation's defense, sustenance, and advancement. Nationalism justifies the expansion of powers to realize the nation's alleged historical destiny. Such a linkage helps explain the frequently perplexing question as to why nationalism has been so appealing and ennobling but simultaneously dangerous and violent.
The idea of the nation has a power over people that is perhaps best understood as a derivative of the exaggerated qualities that the nationalist mind elaborates and projects onto the entity referred to as the nation. Irrespective of whether they see nationalism as a positive or a negative force, scholars generally acknowledge that in nationalism, the nation is placed on the highest pedestal and viewed as the supreme agency of meaning, collective identity, and moral justification. Eric Hobsbawm critically noted that one of the powerful ways in which nationalism becomes historically established is through its presumption that the nation is sacred—an attribute that he likens to a kind of secular equivalent of the church. Smith, an advocate of nationalism, similarly speaks of the nation as being a religion surrogate. This assertion can be applied both to nationalisms that have incorporated traditional religion as part of their mental edifice of values (e.g., Serbian, Greek, Hindu, Islamic, Irish Protestant, and Irish Catholic nationalisms) and to secular nationalisms that purport to have expunged traditional religion from their values structures (e.g., Turkish, French, Egyptian, and Syrian nationalisms).
Historically, the attribution of sacredness to the idea of the nation has been ritualized in the images of national leaders, in ethnocentric public ceremonies, and in master narratives of national heroic acts that focus on extraordinary achievements and events. These narratives are underscored by a presumed history of national glory, greatness, binding destiny, and even divine election. Centered on an exaggerated notion of the nation, nationalist historiography projects a glorified image of the nation into a superlative, primal past, transposed by necessity into a compelling, duty-bound present and an infinite, grandiose future. It cultivates a monocentric, narcissistic concept of the nation's life-world, creating a perception of the nation's history that identifies the “good” with one's own nation and the “bad” with that of “the other,” particularly of “the enemy other.” In so doing, nationalist historiography presents the nation as an inerrant, eternal political entity, concealing its historical follies and the crucial fact that the nationalist concept of the nation was a historical product of the 19th century.
Such a nationalist approach to nationhood places the nation in an untouchable “moral realm,” above and beyond question, reproach, and accountability. The concept of national sovereignty and self-determination, usually viewed as the cornerstone of world order and stability, has often been framed and conditioned by nationalism. Such a perspective implies that the “right” to pursue policies, devise strategies, and take actions unilaterally supersedes the requirement for bilateral or multilateral deliberations. From this perspective, the nationalist mind often views even international law as subsidiary and secondary to the status of the nation.
The most problematic aspect of nationalism at both the national and international levels has been its capacity to link moral reasoning and the use of force and violence, especially in time of conflict. In a unique manner, nationalism has historically grounded the right to use force or violence in the moral rationale that the nation is the ultimate collective value and the imperative basis for community, identity, security, and well-being. This configuration of belief and action has made nationalism a strong legitimizer of the use of force and violence throughout modern and much of postmodern history. The most prominent symbols of nationalism, including national anthems, national flags, monuments, and historiographies, disclose symbols and involve narratives of war, revolution, heroics, and the shedding of blood as supreme references of national identity, glory, and honor.
As a result of the capacity of nationalism to “morally” legitimize force and violence in the name of the nation, nationalist-minded leaders and followers tend to develop high levels of tolerance for the use of lethal means in dealing with conflicts, particularly in confronting identifiable historical “enemies” of the nation. Nationalists are inclined toward a high level of tolerance for the loss of human life among their own national community as well as among the enemy community. Nationalism presumes the nation to be sacred, so the taking and offering of human life to its service at critical moments in history is viewed as legitimate and as a “moral duty.” Hence, according to the nationalist mind, though momentarily inconvenient, the offering and taking of human life for the sake of the nation is ultimately neither a problematic nor a tragic phenomenon but one of “supreme duty” and altruistic “ultimate sacrifice.”
During the periods preceding and following nationalist conflict, the overall political process becomes forged in a manner that structurally links legitimate human needs and interests to nationalist positions. In other words, vital needs such as security, economic well-being, cultural identity, and community become structurally intertwined with nationalist positions derived from notions of moral or cultural superiority, unilateral projections of power and grandiosity, a sense of historical destiny or divine mission, self-serving justice, and a “we-do-as-we-see-fit” narcissism, all of which inevitably function belligerently in relation to “the other.” Legitimate human needs thus become absorbed by, and integrated into, the framework of the absolute and uncompromising value of the nation.
The rising phenomenon of globalization, associated with a postmodern world, has posed new challenges to the nationalist concept and organization of the nation-state. Advanced technologies, international trade, energy needs, climate change, electronic media, and international capital markets have rendered national economies structurally interdependent and interlinked to global, complex networks that transcend what any individual nation can manage. This makes the nationalist premise of the nation-state increasingly problematic and perhaps even untenable. To the degree that the tenets of nationalism persist, nationalist approaches to governance will collide with the increasingly interconnected structures of a globalizing world.
Conflict, Ethnicity, Globalization, Group Identity, Political Identity, Transnationalism
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