Nationalism and Nationality
Nationalism and Nationality
Nationalism is one of the most potent political forces on the world stage today. Fusing the intractability of cultural politics with the power of the state, nationalism organizes individuals into cohesive political communities that are unique, exclusionary, and wedded to mythologized histories. Nationalism sometimes inspires violence and xenophobia, but it also supplies the wellspring for sentiments such as patriotism and self-sacrifice. The deep emotions that nationalism taps into make it a powerful tool in the hands of demagogues, who manipulate nationalist sentiments for political gain. Scholars offer several competing explanations of nationalism and nationality; this entry highlights where they overlap while indicating some of the range of scholarship that exists on the topic.
To understand nationalism and nationality, one must first have a working definition of the terms nation and state. A nation is a self-identified cultural group that regards itself as distinctive in some fundamental and significant way. There is no particular attribute that a group must have in order to qualify as a nation, but language, ethnicity, and religion are the three most common bases of national identity. Nationality is the aspect of identity that derives from one’s membership in a nation. Typically, members of a nation imagine themselves to share a common history that binds them both to one another and to a given territory, and this sense of mutual attachment feels natural even if its objective bases are sometimes exaggerated or even invented. Despite the subjective origins of national identities, they possess an objective status that shapes how individuals regard themselves and are treated by others. Most scholars regard nationalism as a modern phenomenon due to its explicit association with states, which are a product of modern European history. States are the territorially based political units that structure global politics today; their provenance is conventionally attributed to the Peace of Westphalia (1648). During the period spanning the age of imperialism in the latter half of the nineteenth century through the years of decolonization in the mid-twentieth century, all of the world’s territory and peoples came to be organized politically as states. As statehood emerged as the fundamental mode of political organization during these years, nationalism became the standard means of legitimating state authority, with extant political communities reconceived as nationalities.
Nationalism exists when a nation seeks to fuse its identity with the administrative apparatus of a state. Ideally, coordinating the boundaries of a nation and a state will yield a neatly delineated nation-state, but this outcome is almost impossible as a practical matter and is rarely approached in reality. All states are to some degree multinational, and most states also include segments of their populations that could one day evolve from subcultures into nationalities. Throughout the world, nationalism influences social and political relations in important ways for three related reasons. First, nationality has become a universal component of identity; everyone belongs to a nation. Second, nationalist sentiments are emotional and thus less amenable to rational compromise than are most other political interests. For example, disputes over land that is deemed to possess nationalist significance, as in Israel/Palestine, cannot be solved easily through bargaining, because the nations involved regard their identities to be tied deeply to the land itself. Third, the way that state boundaries were historically drawn often resulted in the division of nations into multiple states, the aggregation of several nations within a single state, or, most commonly, some combination of the two. Insofar as nationality issues are politically salient in these circumstances, the possibility for violence is increased, as demonstrated for example in the numerous conflicts that plague central Africa. Taken together, these three factors promise a pervasive and often disruptive role for nationalism in world politics for the foreseeable future.
Nationalism originated in Europe. Its roots are most commonly traced to the Napoleonic Wars of the late eighteenth century, although some identify Henrician England or even the medieval era as the actual period when nationalism first emerged. Scholars who focus on the way groups have described themselves or others using the vocabulary of nationality tend to place the origins of nationalism in the earlier periods, whereas those who stress its role in political mobilization and legitimation point to the Napoleonic era as marking the true birth of nationalism. Either way, the widespread acceptance of nationality as a marker of identity and of nationalism as a mode of political legitimation depended on the existence of technological and administrative capacities that could enable geographically dispersed individuals to imagine themselves as belonging to a community larger than the village or town; the invention of the printing press and the gradual consolidation of Europe into unified states thus provided essential foundations for the spread of the national idea.
Nationalism as a social construct has thrived by giving meaningful form to the basic human tendencies to categorize and to distinguish the self from others. The positive and negative features of nationality both issue from this source. On the one hand, nationality confers status on the self by defining an individual as belonging to a higher, meaning-bearing collectivity, which in turn inspires loyalty and pride in one’s national identity. On the other hand, nationality is an essentialist characteristic—you either have it or you don’t, and the status of minority nationalities within states is often one of vulnerability and marginalization. By asserting its special nature and history, in other words, each nation implicitly provides a rationale for excluding those who are not full members of the national community.
Nationalism legitimates political authority by grounding it in the will or “essence” of the community over whom sovereignty is exercised. As a result, when rulers do not share the national identity of a territory’s population, as with colonialism or cases of one group’s domination of a multinational state, nationalism provides a way for the population to articulate why it regards the rule of the community by “others” as being illegitimate. It is not coincidental that nationalism and democracy took root together, because both reflect variations on the theme of popular sovereignty. Despite their similar foundations in the primacy of the people, however, democracy and nationalism follow very different logics and are often mutually exclusive in practice, because democracy is blind to the cultural characteristics of the individuals who participate in its processes. Nationalism, by contrast, seeks to empower the group—the nation—without necessary regard for either the individuality of its members or the rights and interests of individuals of different nationalities.
Within Europe, the blossoming of nationalism as a political force was spurred by resistance to Napoleon’s imperial ambitions—hence the widespread identification of his reign with the birth of nationalism. Because Napoleon was clearly an “other” in the eyes of the populations in the territories that he conquered, leaders of those states, particularly in Central Europe, rallied their people partly on this basis. In addition, the Napoleonic Wars also marked the start of the modern era, when the creation of citizen armies first gave ordinary people a perceived stake in the chessboard warfare of their rulers. After Europe subsequently conquered the rest of the world, nationalism in turn supplied a rationale that the world’s peoples could hold against the Europeans themselves. Although nationalism was not necessary to challenge the Europeans as being illegitimate exercisers of sovereign authority in their colonial possessions, its vocabulary was adopted by political entrepreneurs among the colonized. These leaders, including Mohandas K. Gandhi in India and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, recognized that nationalism was a construct that could inspire their conationals to pursue independence, even as it provided a justification for their efforts that Europeans could understand. A growing consensus holds that the colonial era ended only after Europeans accepted that the norm of self-determination trumped their own interests.
As a political force, nationalism can take several forms. First, as just described, nationalist sentiment can lead a nation to seek control of a government that is dominated by nonmembers of the nation. This process was most obvious during the decolonization period of the mid-twentieth century, when the peoples living in what are now the states of Africa and Asia gained independence from European imperialism, and it was repeated in the 1990s, during the most recent wave of nationalist awakening, after the Soviet Empire relinquished control of many of its subject nations, which became states such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan. During these episodes, nationalism seems to be a positive force—who can argue against decolonization?—but the fissiparous tendencies thereby unleashed can sometimes spiral out of control. For example, after Georgia separated from the USSR and became an independent state, the South Ossetians almost immediately sought to gain independence from Georgia, and the Abkhazians achieved autonomy within Georgia that they have since sought to convert into sovereign independence. Considerable bloodshed has accompanied both efforts, and neither situation appears to be close to resolution. This sort of fractiousness, and the impossibility of distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate cases of nationalist aspirations, has made self-determination on the basis of national identity deeply problematic.
A second common manifestation of nationalism occurs when one segment of a state’s population seeks to align the state’s policies and identity with the nation’s values or cultural preferences, without regard for the values of minority nationalities. For example, after Yugoslavia split into smaller states during the 1990s, Serbian nationalists and Bosnian nationalists fought a vicious civil war whose purpose was to establish the identity of the emerging Bosnian state as “belonging” to one or the other nation. This episode was extreme in several respects, including the efforts of the Serbs to “ethnically cleanse” the territory of non-Serbs in order to create a nationally homogenous territory that could then be united with Serbia. A less dramatic example is the reassertion of Russian national identity after the fall of the Soviet Union. Among the manifestations of renewed Russian nationalism during this period were the renaming of Soviet cities according to their original Russian designations, with Leningrad becoming Saint Petersburg once again, and the reestablishment of the Russian Orthodox Church as the state religion of Russia. (The church had been marginalized under Communism’s official policy of atheism, but it always remained a potent source of identity and pride for the Russian people.)
A third expression of nationalism is irredentism, which relates to the relationship between a nation-state and the members of the nation who live in other states. A currently prominent example is the status of ethnic Germans who live in Poland. After World War II, when the eastern border of Germany was moved westward for geopolitical reasons, the German population living in the ceded territory were simply transferred to Poland along with the land on which they lived. So far, no major problems have resulted from the status of the German minority community in Poland, but both states seem to agree that the situation calls for a neater resolution than is realistically possible. Like many nationalist issues, this case reflects how rarely political line-drawing has historically taken account of the distribution of the national populations within the territories. The lack of fit between national identities and state borders has been the cause of considerable tensions, and is currently responsible for instability in, for example, China, central Africa, and Kashmir, among other places.
Other representative examples of nationalism shaping politics in the world include: whether Northern Ireland will remain a province of the United Kingdom or rejoin with the Republic of Ireland; the recurring debates in the United States over immigration, which have always included clear ethnic overtones, especially during the late nineteenth century, when Chinese nationals specifically were prohibited from coming to the United States; the hyper-nationalism of Nazism and Italian fascism; the failed efforts of Gamel Abdel Nasser to unite the Arabs of the Middle East under a pan-Arabic umbrella; the dispersion of Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran; and intermittent efforts of Basques in Spain to establish themselves as an independent state. All of these examples, which can be multiplied practically without end, demonstrate how nationalism evokes fundamental questions about who is, should be, or can be a member of a political community. Insofar as this question is answered on the basis of nationality, one should expect the recurrence of international tensions and conflict, both within and between states. Then again, it is not clear that the underlying function that nationalism serves in constructing political identities can be replaced with a less conflictinducing alternative. In the final analysis, the central role of nationalism in modernity’s cognitive structure guarantees it a long life in social and political affairs, for good or ill.
SEE ALSO Borders; Colonialism; Culture; Ethnocentrism; Fascism; Gandhi, Mohandas K.; Identity; Ideology; Immigration; Jingoism; Land Claims; Nasser, Gamal Abdel; Nation; Nation-State; Nativism; Nazism; Nkrumah, Kwame; Other, The; Pan-Arabism; Patriotism; Self-Determination; Sovereignty
Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities. Rev. ed. New York: Verso.
Breuilly, John. 1994. Nationalism and the State. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Greenfeld, Liah. 1992. Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kedourie, Elie. 1993. Nationalism. 4th ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Blackwell.
Paul T. McCartney