Nationalism and Ethnicty: Definition and History of the Concept of Nationalism

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Nationalism and Ethnicity: Definition and History of the Concept of Nationalism


Ideas and definitions of nationalism are as much a product of scholarship on nationalism as they are the creation of nationalists. Many scholars of nationalism have been (and some still are) nationalists in the sense that they make certain claims on groups of people in order to define their belonging to one or another nation. Key thinkers have developed and refined the concepts and definitions of nations and nationalism, their work and lives interwoven with the major events of the past two centuries. This introduction will set up some of the main definitions and, at the same time, locate the conceptual debates within the discipline of nationalism studies.

Indeed, the emergence of a discipline in an era of nation building explains much of the ambiguity of scholarship on nationalism. The question of origins-whether nationalism precedes the nation or nations spawn nationalist movements—has been one of the key debates in nationalism studies. Ernest Gellner (1925–1995) famously asked the question, “Do nations have navels?” implying that the origins debate was less essential than the question of how nations and nationalism emerged. But there is also another underlying question of causality: whether nations and nationalism are in part the product of a professional interest in nation building by scholar-statesmen. From the post-Napoleonic years of Romanticism, liberalism, and wars of unification to the twentieth century's wars of ideologies, racial supremacy, decolonization, and state collapse, nationalism has proven resilient both as a conceptual tool and as a lived reality. Nationalism as a discipline of study has tried repeatedly to reconcile the reality with the concept, but cannot do so because the discipline itself is embedded in the reality it seeks to analyze.

A dual approach to nationalism that first emerged in the nineteenth century also remains firmly embedded in scholarship and nationalist practices today. Nationalism in its many forms across the globe, from the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Asia to the Americas, has at its core both an ethnic (cultural) and civic (political) component, combining culture, language, ancestry, and religion with institutional, geopolitical, economic, ideological, and social processes of inclusion and exclusion. While the emphasis classically has been on ethnic or civic forms of nationalism, there is now a growing consensus in nationalism studies that no type of nationalism is mutually exclusive and, equally, one form can influence or borrow from another. Moreover, it is possible to see this shift toward mutually inclusive forms of nationalism in the light of another paradigmatic shift from content to

process: rather than being a static set of ideas, nationalism can instead be defined as a set of processes, of invented traditions in the Hobsbawmian sense and “imagined communities” in the famous phrase of Benedict Anderson. Finally, a third related tension between universalism and exceptionalism can be observed in a shift away from the claims of post–World War II scholars, who explained violence and genocide as products of deviant or exceptional forms of nationalism, toward comparative and transnational approaches that break down the exceptionalism paradigm. The following sections will summarize the main contributions of scholarship on nationalism by discussing each of these three tensions—ethnic versus civic, static versus process, and universalist versus exceptionalist—and linking them to key concepts such as citizenship, nationality, and the state.


The ethnic-civic dichotomy has been used as an analytical tool to explain differences in concepts of nationality and citizenship, but it has also been applied to historical differences between nations. France and Germany have classically been regarded as the respective models of civic and ethnic nationhood following the ideas of the French scholar Ernest Renan (1823–1892) and the German scholar Friedrich Meinecke (1862–1954). In fact, the concept of civic nationhood dates back further than Renan to French republican nationalism, which made the state and its institutions, rather than religion or ancestry, the basis of a shared fraternity, liberty, and equality between citizens. Following France's defeat in the 1870–1871 Franco-Prussian War, Renan launched an attack on the old republicanism that in his view had weakened the French nation. In his famous lecture at the Sorbonne, “Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?” (What is a Nation?), in 1882, Renan argued that members of the nation either choose or reject categories of race, language, territory, and religion to create the nation through “a daily plebiscite.” His model of a voluntary nation, or Willens-nation, was both an attack on Germany's territorial claims to Alsace-Lorraine and an attempt to lay claim to a population that could be counted as French on the basis of its voluntary commitment to the political will of the nation.

The public war between French and Prussian historians during the territorial dispute was as polemical as the diplomatic standoff between politicians. In 1907, more than two decades after Renan's address at the Sorbonne, Meinecke published a lengthy defense of the Prussian school of history's belief in a German nation of “language, blood, and soil.” In his Weltbürgertum und Nationstaat (Cosmopolitanism and the Nation-State), Meinecke linked the development of the German nation to the influences of other national personalities. He distinguished between whathe saw as the truly cosmopolitan German Kulturnation (cultural nation) and the overly homogeneous French Staatsnation (nation-state).

The distinction between cultural and political nationhood has persisted since Renan's and Meinecke's formulae. More recently, in the work of Rogers Brubaker, the model has been applied to differences between citizenship laws in France and Germany. Brubaker has argued that whereas France's citizenship law of 1889 was based on the law of birth (jus solis), which corresponds to a civic concept of nationhood, Germany's 1913 Reich Citizenship Act was based on the law of blood (jus sanguinis), which constructs nationhood according to ethnicity. However, this divide is less clear-cut when we consider that so-called civic nations also extend quasi citizenship rights to those with ancestral ties to the nation, as in the case of Britain. Moreover, the requirement of countries like France that immigrants assimilate to the state language often blurs the distinction between ethnic and civic nationalism and almost always results in exclusionary policies of immigration and citizenship.

The problem with the ethnic-versus-civic school of nationalism is that it assumes that nationalist actors emphasize either civic or ethnic forms of belonging, when in fact they can and often do invoke both. Nineteenth-century French republicans eradicated non-French languages in their attempts to create a centralized state, and German statesmen deferred to civic principles of territorial unity, rather than ethnic arguments about language and religion, in their creation of a unified state in 1871.

There is now a revisionist trend that supports an ethnic-and-civic model of nationalism. Anthony D. Smith has revisited the writings of late eighteenth-century nationalist thinkers and found there a blend of both neoclassical (civic) and Romantic (ethnic) ideas. One of Smith's students, Oliver Zimmer, has made perhaps the most important contribution so far to this revisionism. Zimmer argues that nationalist actors use “boundary mechanisms” such as rhetoric, legislation, and the media to delimit and define national identity by drawing on “symbolic resources” such as language, culture, history, and political institutions. Moreover, these mechanisms or discursive practices can be both ethnic and civic, even as they draw on the same resource. For example, the anti-Dreyfusards in France conceived of language in ethnic terms of descent, whereas French revolutionaries a century earlier had seen language as the path toward assimilation in a nation created by political will. Similarly, in Germany, eighteenth-century Romantics believed that national consciousness emerged organically through language, while nineteenth-century liberals claimed that Polish minorities were part of the German state on the basis of their linguistic assimilation to the German language.

This is not to say that civic constructions of national belonging are never chauvinistic, or that ethnic discourses of identity do not have the state and its citizens as the central focus. But the shift toward mutually inclusive forms of nationalism, as the contributions in this encyclopedia also show, demonstrates that nationalism is more than the sum of its parts. Rather, it is the construction of the various parts that defines what nationalism is and how it works in practice.


A process-oriented approach defines nationalism by its practices, rituals, and traditions, as opposed to the more traditional static approach that defines nationalism as a set of ideas. Scholars who emphasized the ideological roots of nationalism, including Hans Kohn (1891–1971) and Carlton Hayes (1882–1964), drew on the earlier neo-Romanticism of scholars like Meinecke and sought to explain retrospectively the path of nations toward either destruction, in the case of Nazi Germany, or liberal democracy, in the case of France, Britain, and the United States. For émigré scholars like the Austrian-born Kohn, America was a haven of freedom that reinforced this ideological dichotomy. Later scholars from the 1960s on emphasized the modern practices and rituals of nationalism and created a new consensus that has remained largely intact. These scholars, including Eric Hobsbawm, Ernest Gellner, and Benedict Anderson, can be loosely grouped together as constructivists; that is, they all define nationalism and national identities in terms of construction, or invention or imagination, even if they differ on how that process of construction occurs.

The leading proponents of the invented-nation theory, Hobsbawm and Gellner, locate the origins of nations in the modern era. Hobsbawm argues that a popular national consciousness develops through the invention and appropriation of national traditions, such as uniforms, flag ceremonies, and anthems. For example, when the German gymnastics associations changed their uniform colors from the revolutionary black-red-gold to the imperial black-white-red tricolor during the 1890s, this visual inauguration of a new national tradition in late-Wilhelmine Germany showed more saliently than the public statements by politicians and associational leaders a popular shift from liberal to right-wing expansionist nationalism. Hobsbawm's own recollection of learning Austria's national anthem while attending a Viennese primary school in the 1920s shows how such invented traditions are primarily intended for patriotic indoctrination. The republic's first chancellor and veteran Social Democrat, Karl Renner (1870–1950), wrote the lyrics of the Austrian anthem in 1919, which Hobs-bawm describes as a “travelogue” of saccharine geographical descriptions. The anthem later went through a stage of reinvention in 1929 under the Christian Social Party's efforts to revive imperialist sentiment in Austria and was composed to the tune of Joseph Haydn's more familiar Habsburg anthem, “Gott Erhalte,” which shared the same melody with Germany's “Deutschland, Deutsch-land über alles.”

The (re)invention of Austria's anthem in the interwar period reveals how political nation-builders engineer collective remembering to institutionalize an “acceptable” past. Beyond the realm of popular and official memory, Gellner links the invention of a national identity to a common language. He points to the Reformation as the birthplace of modern national languages, through which the vernacular became the medium of new elite cultures. Although nationalism was largely secular when it emerged as a political movement in the late eighteenth century, the invention and codification of national languages during the sixteenth century was a precursor for the development of national consciousness in Western Europe and was aided by such industrial advances as mass print production.

Gellner's interpretation of nationalism as the product of industrialization has been criticized for being reductionist in its emphasis of outcomes over processes. But a more serious flaw in Gellner's argument, and one that Anglophone historians rarely point out, is his underlying assumption that the trajectory of nationalism in Protestant and industrialized countries, specifically Britain, was the model for nationalism elsewhere in Europe. In his posthumously published work, Nationalism (1997), Gellner argues that nations emerged through a “marriage of state and culture,” in which nationalism was not always the central historical agent. He distinguishes between Europe's four geographical “time zones,” stretching west to east across the continent, to show that all European nations were created by elite cultures, albeit at different speeds and stages of development. France, Portugal, Spain, and Britain, in the first and westernmost zone, were dynastic states with already recognizable cultural, linguistic, and political identities that were never contested by nationalists. In the second zone, Italy and Germany, on the territory of the former Holy Roman Empire, did not become political nation-states until the late nineteenth century, but Gellner argues that suitable elite state (Staatsfåhige) cultures had existed among both Italian-speakers and German-speakers since the Renaissance and Reformation periods. The third zone includes the nationalities of Central Europe that gained independence after the demise of Austria-Hungary in 1918. Finally, the fourth zone incorporates those nationalities that became independent following the collapse of the USSR and Yugoslavia during the 1990s. According to Gellner, the nations of zones three and four in Central

and Eastern Europe were belated, and therefore more contrived and often aggressive products of invention by the cultural and political elites than the nations of zones one and two in Western Europe. Yet the task of turning Breton-speaking peasants into Frenchmen, as Eugen Weber (1925–2007) has argued, was no less artificial than the forms of invention that occurred elsewhere in Europe or, for that matter, anywhere outside the normative boundaries of Western secular enlightened countries.

Benedict Anderson's model of an “imagined community” is more nuanced than that of invented traditions. Like Hobsbawm and Gellner, he sees nations as products of modernity, but he rejects the notion of invention, which limits nation building to the spheres of the state or intelligentsia. His Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983) defines the nation as an imagined, limited, and sovereign political community whose members may never meet, but who are connected in the modern information era by newspapers and other sources of “print-capitalism.” This simultaneous transmission of information forms a self-awareness of the group and is one of the processes by which nationalists construct the boundaries of the nation. Anderson's approach has enriched a whole body of scholarship that defines nationalism primarily in terms of construction of national identities and mentalities.

In response to seemingly endless permutations of Anderson's famous phrase, some critics have protested that national identity is not an exclusive, or even dominant, category of imagination. These scholars argue that national ideas also contain within them overlapping ideas of political, religious, social, or gender identity. State monuments and war stories contain themes of personal sacrifice, heroism, charity, and political sovereignty in addition to their commemoration of the nation, as in interwar France's “monuments to the dead” that commemorated republican, pacifist, and religious as well as national themes of sacrifice.

Other critics of Anderson's work assert that nations cannot be imagined into existence without some form of symbolic continuity with their premodern past. The most prominent exponent of this view is Anthony D. Smith, whose theory of ethno-symbolism holds that nations must have developed enough linguistic and cultural traits to form primordial ethnic clusters, or ethnies, which later could be constructed as the ethnic lineage of nations. He argues that nationalism in the modern period recalls this shared ethnic past by way of memories, myths, traditions, rituals, symbols, and artifacts. Smith is critical of Anderson's assessment that the origins of nations lie in “print-capitalism,” which did not exist in the early nineteenth-century territories of Serbia or the Ukraine, where germinal national movements were created by a handful of intellectuals, literati, and priests. Smith's concern is that to see nations only as discursive simplifies or ignores cause and effect explanations of how the nation gained its geographical, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic composition.

Another critic of the constructivist school, John Breuilly, sees nationalism as a political doctrine, first and foremost, not an imagined or invented community. He contends in Nationalism and the State (1993) that nationalism is “neither an expression of national identity … nor the arbitrary invention of nationalists for political purposes” (p. 63), but rather a set of ideas and strategies made and carried out by nationalists for social and political gain. Breuilly's criticism of constructivists who focus on cultural and social processes in isolation from the political project of state building is important. Political ideologies are not the product of national identities, but nationalists do draw on the popular appeal of those identities as they devise and execute their ideological programs according to perceived social and political needs.

As constructivists have branched out from the early idealism of much scholarship on nationalism, differences remain over how those processes function in society and at the level of politics. But the consensus is that wherever there are nationalists, there will be elements of invention, myth creation, and public and private imagination all going into the mix to nationalize the members of a community framed by both ethnic and civic notions of belonging.


The consensus on modernity and nation building overlaps with another consensus on universalist understandings of nationhood. While universalism seems a paradoxical twinning with nationalism, it is in fact the universalist claim that certain preconditions are necessary for the creation of inclusive, secular, enlightened, and, above all, Western nations, as we saw in Gellner's theory, that makes this paradox work. Nations and nationalisms that do not fall into this category, starting with Central and Eastern Europe in the Gellnerian taxonomy, are by default “exceptional.”

One of the first historians to develop this distinction between Eastern exceptionalism and Western universalism was Hans Kohn. His book The Idea of Nationalism, published in 1944, was an innovative attempt to explain why certain forms of nationalism lead to political ideologies and regimes like fascism. He sought to link nationhood with political behavior by arguing that civic nations displayed rational political behavior, while ethnic nations, including Italy and Germany, engaged in irrational political behavior. Kohn's approach has been favored by a long line of successors, from Gellner, as we

have seen above, to more recent scholars, including Liah Greenfeld, Michael Ignatieff, Rogers Brubaker, and Jürgen Habermas, among others.

Specialized research on Central and Eastern European nationalism shows, however, that where there is an absence of institutional traditions of nationhood, national identity instead is defined by cultural attributes and social behavior. The contributions in Ivo Banac and Katherine Verdery's edited volume, National Character and National Ideology in Interwar Eastern Europe (1995), all demonstrate that the intelligentsia consciously sought to construct national identity through cultural, rather than political, traditions. For example, Hungarian folk art mythologized the indigenous peasant culture through such artifacts as shepherds' carvings and women's embroidery, while ethnomusicologists, including the composer Béla Bartók, researched and recorded traditional peasant songs to recreate an authentic, autochthonous folk music culture. Czech nationalists in the multiethnic Czechoslovakian state disseminated nationalism through museums, literature, the press, and schools by a form of cultural education similar to consumerism, whereby the intelligentsia “sells” the national idea to the public “consumer,” who then identifies with and participates in national life.

The universalist school of nationalism developed out of the earlier ethnic-versus-civic school of Renan and Meinecke and preceded the process-oriented approach that abandoned the notion that nationalisms are static creations of a handful of intellectuals. But while revisionism of the first two tensions discussed here are now well established, the revision of the exceptionalist paradigm remains largely unwritten. That is not to say that scholars of Yugoslavia or Soviet Russia or the Arab Peninsula are not making headway down this path, but that the scholarship on these non-Western examples has so far not been integrated within comparative and transnational approaches. Scholars who rejected Kohn's East-West distinction ground their objections on historical exceptions to the rule, rather than any theoretical reassessment of that divide. Missing from these accounts is a rigorous comparative and transnational model that can account for the high proportion of nationalists borrowing from other forms of nationalism, which would refute the exceptionalist argument.

A revisionist approach to the universalist school would need to examine the contacts and exchanges between different nationalisms; rather than pitting nationalisms against each other as belligerent types that always and everywhere are ideologically opposed—as in fascism, socialism, or liberalism—scholars of nationalism have much work ahead to examine the points of intersection and overlap between competing visions of nationhood. The ethnic-and-civic approaches of recent scholarship, combined with the process-oriented analyses of nationalism, have much to contribute to this revisionism of exceptionalism. Moreover, the shift away from universalist understandings of nationalism and nation building will also dispense with an unhelpful Eurocentrism in nationalism studies, which as a discipline has been embedded in European history over the past two centuries. As Europe itself now undergoes a process of reinvention and reimagination as a community of nations from competing ethnic and civic traditions, the discipline of nationalism studies will also have to undergo a process of embedding itself within new realities of integration and globalization and the inherent challenges of constructing identity to those processes.


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Julie Thorpe

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Nationalism and Ethnicty: Definition and History of the Concept of Nationalism

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Nationalism and Ethnicty: Definition and History of the Concept of Nationalism