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Definitions on the concept of nationalism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2613 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Nationalism is a concept that is not easily defined. There are numerous definitions and forms of what is nationalism, and many of these definitions even overlap. However, there is no one definition that is more adequate than another. Keeping in mind that these definitions are constantly evolving, with thorough analysis and the juxtaposition of arguments set out by eight prominent scholars, a clearer definition of nationalism can be attained.

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To begin with, the most well know definition today is from Professor Anthony Smith. He states that nationalism is simply “an ideological movement for attaining and maintaining autonomy, unity and identity for a population which some of its members deem to constitute an actual or potential “nation” (Smith, 2001).” In this definition, Smith reveals what he believes the three main goals of nationalism are: autonomy, national unity, and national identity. Even Smith’s profound definition has not been available for very long considering he was born in 1933. Although there is much argument on the definition of nationalism, Smith agrees that there is one main point of agreement and that is that the term nationalism is a modern phenomenon (Smith, 2001). Civic nationalism is basically defined as a group of people which have a certain loyalty to civic rights or laws and pledge to abide by these laws. Ethnic nationalism is basically a group that possesses a common culture, language, land, etc. It is more specific in terms of who can be in it (McGregor, 2010). Smith writes that “every nationalism contains civic and ethnic elements in varying degrees and different forms. Sometimes civic and territorial elements predominate; at other times it is the ethnic and vernacular components that are emphasized (Smith, 2001).” Smith’s most popular argument features civic and ethnic types of nationalism as opposed to eastern and western types. Even more specifically, Smith makes the distinction between both civic and ethnic nationalisms. He also believes that “Many modern nations are formed around pre-existing, and often pre-modern, ethnic cores (Smith, 2001).” Smith is claiming that nations had pre-existing-origins prior to their ‘new origins’ of their new nation. One of the most important arguments by critics is that the civic and ethnic viewpoint of nationalism collapses too much on the ethnic category (Shulman, 2002). Smith’s definition seems to be the foundation for nationalism, although he certainly was not the first to attempt to define it. Other scholars go in to more detail on certain elements of the definition, but most relate back to Smith’s original definition.

On the contrary to Anthony Smith’s definition of nationalism pertaining to the civic and ethnic type, Hans Kohn has argued that the two main types of nationalism are eastern and western. His definition states, “Nationalism is a state of mind, in which the supreme loyalty of the individual is felt to be due to the nation-state (Kohn, 1965).” Kohn’s argument includes both eastern and western types of nationalism which refer to Eastern and Western Europe. “Eastern nationalism conceived the nation as an organic community, united by culture, language and descent (McGregor 2010).” This particular idea could possibly be related to Smith’s ethnic type of nationalism. “Western nationalism conceived the nation as a political and civic community, held together by voluntary adherence to democratic norms (McGregor 2010).” Again, western nationalism could be perceived as a civic type of nationalism. This can be recognized as two similar classifications on two unfamiliar grounds. Kohn believes that nationalism relates directly with eastern and western Europe and that it is also where the ‘state of mind’ of nationalism originated. The main criticism of Kohn’s classification of nationalism is him being over simplistic. He certainly does not go into as much detail as Smith on the definition. He also relates only towards Europe which is why he is being identified as over simplistic.

Next, Carlton J. H. Hayes’ definition of nationalism states, “Loyalty and attachment to the interior of the group (namely the nation and homeland) are the basis of nationalism (Hayes, 1926).” In this definition, a common cultural background and a common cultural group are considered the main factors in forming a nation (Naqvi, Ali). That remains true with most of the definitions of nationalism. Hayes definition of nationalism seems to be more specific to the ‘ethnic’ ties toward nationalism. In other words, Hayes is saying that land, language, and blood are the basis of nationalism. He is saying that nation is something to be proud of (Naqvi, Ali). Hayes also believes that these ‘ethnic’ qualities are the most important; even religion does not compare.  “It is attachment to nationality that gives direction to one’s individual and social postures, not attachment to religion and ideology. A human being takes pride in his national achievements and feels dependent on its cultural heritage, not on the history of religion and his faith (Hayes, 1926).” This quote further proves Hayes’s view on nationalism and how it relates to one’s culture and past, and specifically not related to religion at all. The reason Hayes’s definition is unique from others, is his emphasis on the fact that religion is not a factor in forming a nation. To further specify Hayes’s definition on nationalism he says, “What distinguishes one human being from another are not their beliefs, but their birth-place, homeland, language and race. Those who are within the four walls of the homeland and nation, belong to it, and those who are outside it, are aliens. It is on the basis of these factors that the people have a feeling of sharing a single destiny and a common past. (Hayes, 1926).” This quote goes hand in hand with Hayes’s definition of nationalism and just further explains it. According to Hayes, nationalism does not exist without that ‘ethnic’ background.

Furthermore, according to scholar Benedict Anderson, nationalism is, “a new emerging nation imagines itself to be antique (Anderson, 2003).” This is similar to how Anthony Smith and Carlton Hayes defined nationalism. It is mostly like Smith’s ethnic nationalism, which focuses more on the origin of the nation. Anderson focuses more on modern Nationalism and suggests that it forms its attachment through language, especially through literature (Anderson, 2003). Of particular importance to Anderson’s theory is his stress on the role of printed literature (Anderson, 2003). In Anderson’s mind, the development of nationalism is linked with printed literature and the growth of these printed works. People were able to read about nationalism in a common dialect and that caused nationalism to mature (Anderson, 2003). Anderson’s definition of nationalism and nation differ greatly from other scholars. He defines nation as “an imagined political community (Anderson 2003).” He believes this because “the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings (Anderon, 2003).” Not only is Anderson’s theory distinctive because of the “printed literature theory”, but also because it is the “imagined political community.”

Another prominent Nationalist researcher, Ernest Gellner states that, “nationalism is primarily a political principle that holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent (Gellner, 1983)”. Gellner was once a teacher of Anthony Smith. Although most scholars would agree that nationalism appeared after the French Revolution, Gellner further argues that nationalism became a “sociological necessity in the modern world (Gellner, 1983).” His argument is similar to the uniqueness of Benedict Anderson’s “printed literature” theory, but Gellner focuses more on the industrialization of work and cultural modernization to explain how nationalism expanded (Zeulow, 1999). Gellner believes that “states only exist where there is division of labour, therefore the state comes before nationalism (Gellner, 1983).” Like other scholars, Gellner believes that nationalism is a political force. Gellner also stresses the congruency of nation and politics. He does not believe one can occur without the other one. There are many criticisms to Ernest Gellner’s theory, including Anthony Smith saying, “It misreads the relationship between nationalism and industrialization (Smith 1998).” Not all of the critics view Gellner’s theory as a misread. Most agree that he is the father of nationalism studies and most say that his nationalism work was brilliant (University of Wales Press). One can usually relate their definition of nationalism with Ernest Gellner or Anthony Smith. Gellner stresses the importance of the political side, while Smith puts the importance on cultural. Neither are right or wrong, just a difference of opinion.

Historian John Breuilly defends a more modern theory of nationalism, similar to Benedict Anderson’s. In reference to nationalism, he concludes, “The rise of the modern state system provides the institutional context within which an ideology of nationalism is necessary (Breuilly 1985).” Breuilly argues that the process of “state modernization provides an important factor in understanding historical signs of nationalism (Cormier, 2001).” Breuilly argues that nationalism does not have much to do with ethnicity or ethnic background, but rather more to do with political motivation. Breuilly is not the first scholar who believed that ethnic background had nothing to do with nationalism. In fact, Breuilly’s definition relates well to Gellner’s in the sense that they both argue in favor of political motivation. “Nationalists are seen to create their own ideology out of their own subjective sense of national culture. (Breuilly, 1982).” This particular quote is quite similar to Anderson’s imagined political community theory in that Breuilly does not support the ethnic side of nationalism nearly as much as others nationalists. Breuilly criticizes most scholars due to the fact that they believe in national culture because he believes that there is no such thing. He believes that the political component of nationalism is by far the most important. Breuilly indicates in his definition the importance of the state system; hence the political force necessary for nationalism to occur.

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Next, Michael Hechter defines nationalism as a, “collective action designed to render the boundaries of the nation congruent with those of its governance unit (Hechter, 2000).” He further explains, “Nation and governance can be made congruent by enacting exclusive policies that limit full membership in the polity to individuals from on one more favoured nations (Hechter, 2000).” Hechter stresses the importance of the correspondence of the government and the boundaries of the nation; much like Breuilly in the sense that both of them indicate that nationalism requires congruency for it to take place. In Hechter’s book, Containing Nationalism, he expresses his belief that the reason nationalism occurs is because of “self-determination.” Hechter further explains his definition and clarifies that there are two different types of nationalism. The first one is of the ideology of freedom and he gives the example of the French Revolution. The second form is “xenophobic or even goes as far as genocide” (Hechter). This explains where the different views of nationalism come in; civic versus ethnic or eastern versus western. Furthermore, Hechter defines the two different types of nationalism to even more specific forms of nationalism that go beyond his original definition. These definitions include: state-building nationalism, peripheral nationalism, irredentist nationalism, and unification nationalism (Hechter, 2000). Hechter doesn’t argue that there are two definitions of nationalism like other scholars do, but he concludes that nationalism is specific to the means of each and every situation.

In Peter Alter’s definition of Nationalism, he states, “Nationalism is a political force which has been more important in shaping the history of Europe and the world over the last two centuries than the ideas of freedom and parliamentary democracy or, let alone, of communism (Alter, 1994).” His argument is similar to John Breuilly in the sense that he agrees that there is a strong emphasis on nationalism being a “political force.” Alter is saying that it has everything to do with being a political movement instead of the idea of freedom. In reference to nationalism, Alter states, “It can be associated with forces striving for political, social, economic and cultural emancipation, as well as with those whose goal oppression (Alter, 1994).” His outlook on nationalism seems much broader than other scholars. This particular reference virtually sums up many scholars definitions together. Alter does not seem to have a specific argument on nationalism, as in civic vs. ethnic or western vs. eastern but just an acceptance that nationalism could be based on all of these arguments. Again, Alter says, “It can mean emancipation, and it can mean oppression… dangers as well as opportunities (Alter, 1994).” There is no precise argument when he tries to define nationalism even though he does have the idea that nationalism is directly related to a political force. Alter also states that nationalism was important to shaping Europe, however most scholars agree with that statement to begin with. Most modern scholars would relate to Alter’s style of defining nationalism.

In conclusion, the definition of nationalism is not easily defined and scholars that have tried to define it differ, in some amount of detail, from each other. Each scholar seems to have his own uniqueness and input to the definition, however, these definitions tend to pertain to one certain area of nationalism. According to the eight previous scholars, there are a myriad of styles of nationalism including: political, cultural, ethnic, civic, eastern, and western. Many aspirations are desired because of nationalism, including establishment of homeland, separation, expansion, etc. Although the definition of nationalism is essentially particularistic, scholars have been able to identify a few common ideologies. Some common ground includes; most scholars agree that nationalism started after the French Revolution. They also agree that nationalism occurs because of a desire for national independence. Scholars are always doing research and finding new things which will result in new definitions. Most of the most protrusive definitions of nationalism have come about in the last fifty or so years, so no telling what scholars might come up with in future years.


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