Ethnonationalism Research Paper

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Claims to national identity based on race, kinship, language, or common culture are described as ‘ethnonationalist.’ Such ethnonationalist claims have been widespread throughout the modern era. They sometimes extend beyond the construction of identity to the reproduction of enmity, demands that members place the nation ahead of other loyalties, and attempts to purge territories of those defined as foreign. As a result, ethnonationalism is often associated with ethnic violence and projects of ethnic cleansing or genocide. However, ethnic solidarity is also seen by many as basic to national identity as such, and thus to the notion of the nation-state. While this notion is as much contested as defended, it remains influential.

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In such usage, ethnonationalism is commonly opposed to civic nationalism. The latter is understood as the loyalty of individual citizens to a state based purely on political identity. Habermas (1998) has theorized this as constitutional patriotism, stressing the extent to which political loyalty is to a set of institutional arrangements rather than a prepolitical culture or other extrapolitical solidarity. Ethnonationalism, in such usage, refers precisely to rooting political identity and obligation in the existence of a prepolitical collective unit—the nation—which achieves political subjectivity by virtue of the state. The legitimacy of the state, in turn, is judged by reference to the interests of the nation.

The contrast of ethnic to civic nationalism is heavily influenced by that of Germany to France (Kohn 1967, Alter 1989). The contrast has been enduring, and has resulted in different understandings of citizenship. France has been much more willing, for example, to use legal mechanisms to grant immigrants French citizenship, while Germany—equally open to immigration in numerical terms—generally refuses its immigrants German citizenship unless they are already ethnic Germans (Brubaker 1992). Other countries vary on the same dimension, but it is important to recognize that the difference is one of proportion and ideological emphasis (Calhoun 1997, Sassen 1999). As Smith (1986, p. 149) has remarked, ‘all nations bear the impress of both territorial and ethnic principles and components, and represent an uneasy confluence of a more recent ‘‘civic’’ and a more ancient ‘‘genealogical’’ model of social cultural organization.’ Not all scholars accept the distinction or hold it to be sharp; those who do use it often attribute ethnonationalism to countries that are ‘late modernizers’ (Bendix 1964, Nairn 1998, Schwarzmantel 1991).

Two enduring debates have shaped social science scholarship on ethnonationalism. First, is ethnonationalism an ancient (or historically nonspecific) phenomenon, possibly rooted in ‘primordial’ social relations, or is it distinctively modern? Relatedly, is it vanishing, enduring, or recurrent? Second, is ethnicity basic to nationalism in general, perhaps even an explanation for nationalism, and is ethnonationalism thus its ‘normal’ form? Much nationalist ideology has claimed definitive ethnic roots; social scientists are more divided on the question. Beyond these broad questions of orientation, research focuses on a variety of issues from the cultural content of ethnonationalism to explanations of its occurrence, forms of public performance, dynamics of leadership and mobilization, and reasons for violence.

1. Modernity vs. Primordiality

A long-running debate in the literature on nationalism pits arguments that it is an extension of ancient ethnicity (Smith 1986, Armstrong 1982, Hutcheson 1994) against those who argue that it is essentially modern (Gellner 1983, Hobsbawm 1990, Greenfeld 1992). Majority scholarly opinion tends toward the latter view, though explanations differ. ‘Modernists’ variously see nationalism rooted in industrialization (Gellner 1983), state-formation (Tilly 1990, Mann 1993), the rise of new communications media and genres of collective imagination (Deutsch 1966, Anderson 1991), and the development of new rhetorics for collective identity and capacities for collective action (Calhoun 1997). While many favor specific factors as primary explanations, most recognize that several causes are interrelated.

Many nationalists but few scholars see nationalism as ubiquitous in history and simply the ‘normal’ way of organizing large-scale collective identity. Most social scientists point rather to the variety of political and cultural forms common before the modern era— empires and great religions, for example—and the transformations wrought by the rise of a new kind of intensive state administration, cultural integration, popular political participation, and international relations. Many of these social scientists argue that nations and nationalism in their modern sense are both new. In particular, they would argue that ethnicity as a way of organizing collective identity underwent at the least a substantial reorganization when it began to be deployed as part of ethnonationalist rhetoric in the modern era. Others, however, including notably Anthony Smith (1986, 1991, 1998) and John Armstrong (1982) argue that there is more continuity in the ethnic core of nations, though they too would agree that modernity transformed—if it did not outright create—nationalism.

The attraction of a claimed ethnic foundation to nations lies largely in the implication that nationhood is in some sense primordial and natural. Nationalists typically claim that their nations are simply given and immutable rather than constructions of recent historical action or tendentious contemporary claims. Much early scholarly writing on nations and nationalism shared in this view and sought to discover which were the ‘true’ ethnic foundations of nationhood (Skurnowicz 1981, Zacek 1969). It is no doubt ideologically effective to claim that a nation has existed since time immemorial or that its traditions have been passed down intact from heroic founders. In no case, however, does historical or social science research support such a claim. All nations are historically created.

Noting this, one line of research emphasizes the manipulation of popular sentiments by the more or less cynical production of national culture by intellectuals and state building elites. Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983), for example, have collected numerous examples of the ways in which apparently definitive cultural markers of ethnonational identity can in fact be traced to specific acts of creation embedded in political (or sometimes marketing) projects rather than reflecting pre-existing ethnicity. The Scots tartan kilt is a famous example, dating not from the mists of primordial Highland history but from eighteenth century resistance to Anglicization (Trevor-Roper 1983). Likewise, nineteenth century Serbian and Croatian intellectuals strove to divide their common Serbo-Croatian language into two distinct vernaculars with separate literary traditions. But as this example makes clear, it is not obvious that because the ‘traditions’ of nationalism are ‘invented’ they are somehow less real or valid (see also Hobsbawn 1990). Anderson (1996, p. 6) finds the same fault with Gellner: ‘Gellner is so anxious to show that nationalism masquerades under false pretences that he assimilates ‘‘invention’’ to ‘‘fabrication’’ and ‘‘falsity,’’ rather than to ‘‘imagining’’ and ‘‘creation’’.’

Hobsbawm and Ranger imply that long-standing ‘primordial’ tradition would somehow count as legitimate, while by contrast various nationalist traditions are of recent and perhaps manipulative creation. Many ideologues do claim origins at the dawn of history, but few scholars have doubted that cultural traditions are constantly renewed. What so-called ‘primordialists’ have argued is that certain identities and traditions— especially those of ethnicity—are experienced as primordial (Geertz 1963). Sociologically, thus, what matters is less the antiquity of the contents of tradition, than the efficacy of the process by which certain beliefs and understandings are constituted as unquestioned, immediate knowledge. This has more to do with current bases for the reproduction of culture than with history as such. Ethnicity or cultural traditions are bases for nationalism because they effectively constitute historical memory, because they inculcate it as ‘prejudice,’ not because the historical origins they claim are accurate (prejudice means, following Gadamer (1981), not just prior to judgment, but constituting the condition of judgment). Moreover, all traditions are ‘invented’ (or at least in a more diffuse sense, created); none are truly primordial. This was acknowledged, though rather weakly, even by some of the functionalists who emphasized the notion of primordiality and the ‘givenness’ of cultural identities and traditions (see Eisenstadt 1966, 1973, Geertz 1963, Gellner 1964). All such traditions also are potentially contested and subject to continual reshaping, whether explicit or hidden. Some claims about nationality may fail to persuade because they are too manifestly manipulated by creators, or because the myth that is being proffered does not speak to the circumstances and practical commitments of the people in question. Notions of nations as acting subjects are distinctively modern, part of a new way of constructing collective identity (Steiner 1988). This said, there is no scholarly agreement about when nationalism began. Greenfeld (1992) dates it from the English Civil War, Anderson (1991) from Latin American independence movements, Alter (1989) from the French Revolution, and Breuilly (1993) and Kedourie (1993) both from German Romanticism and reaction to the French Revolution. Calhoun (1997) suggests that rather than trying to identify a single point of origin, scholars should see nationalism as drawing together several different threads of historical change. As a discursive formation, it took on increasingly clear form through the early modern period and was fully in play by the Napoleonic era.

2. Nationalism As An Ethnic Phenomenon

Most prominent twentieth-century analysts of nationalism have sought to challenge the explanation of nationalism by ethnicity. Kohn (1944) and SetonWatson (1977) stress the crucial role of modern politics, especially the idea of sovereignty. Hobsbawm (1990) treats nationalism as a kind of second-order political movement based on a false consciousness which ethnicity helps to produce but cannot explain because the deeper roots lie in political economy not culture. The dominant approach in contemporary scholarship treats nationalism largely as an ideological reflection of state formation (Tilly 1975, 1990, Hall 1995, Mann 1993). Gellner (1983) emphasizes industrialization, and also stresses the number of cases of failed or absent nationalisms: ethnic groups which mounted either little or no attempt to become nations in the modern senses. This suggests that even if ethnicity plays a role it cannot be a sufficient explanation (though one imagines the nineteenth century German Romantics would simply reply that there are strong, historic nations and weak ones destined to fade from the historic stage). Hayes (1931) argues for seeing nationalism as a sort of religion. Hechter (2000) analyzes it in terms of strategic individual action aimed at maximizing mostly economic and political benefits. Kedourie (1993) approaches nationalism as an ideology, and attempts to debunk nationalism by showing the untenability of the German Romantic cultural-ethnic claims. Indeed, in their different ways, all these thinkers have sought to debunk the common claims that nationalists themselves make to long-established ethnic identities.

Against this backdrop, Smith acknowledges that nations cannot be seen as primordial or natural, but nonetheless argues that they are rooted in relatively ancient histories. Smith argues that the origins of modern nationalism lie in the successful bureaucratization of aristocratic ethnie, which were able to transform themselves into genuine nations only in the West. In the West, territorial centralization and consolidation went hand in hand with a growing cultural standardization. Nations, Smith thus suggests, are long-term processes, continually re-enacted and reconstructed; they require ethnic cores, homelands, heroes, and golden ages if they are to survive. ‘Modern nations and nationalism have only extended and deepened the meanings and scope of older ethnic concepts and structures. Nationalism has certainly universalized these structures and ideals, but modern ‘‘civic’’ nations have not in practice really transcended ethnicity or ethnic sentiments’ (Smith 1986, p. 216).

The ethnic similarities and bonds that contribute to the formation of nations may indeed be important and long-standing, but in themselves they do not fully constitute either particular nations or the modern idea of nation. While some critics of ethnic explanations of nationalism emphasize the influence of state formation or other ‘master variables,’ a number assert that nations are created by nationalism—by this particular form of discourse, political rhetoric, or ideology—not merely passively present and awaiting the contingent address of nationalists (Kedourie 1993, Gellner 1983, Anderson 1991, Chatterjee 1986).

An emphasis on pre-existing ethnicity—even where this is rightly identified—is unable to shed much light on why so many modern movements, policies, ideologies, and conflicts are constituted within the dis-course of nationalism. Indeed, as Gellner (1983, pp. 8–18, 61) has suggested, the very self-recognition of ethnicities or cultures as defining identities is distinctively modern. Walker Connor (1994, p. 103) uses a similar point to distinguish ethnic groups as ‘potential nations’ from real nations: ‘While an ethnic group may, therefore, be other-defined, the nation must be self-defined.’

Explanations of ethnonationalism, thus, need to address the contemporary conditions that make it effective in people’s lives, attempts to orient themselves in the world, and actions. Such conditions are of course subject to change and nationalist constructions are apt to change with them. Thus Indian nationalists from the nineteenth century through Nehru were able to make a meaningful (though hardly seamless or uncontested) unity of the welter of subcontinental identities as part of their struggle against the British. The departure of the British from India changed the meaning of Congress nationalism, however, as this became the program of an Indian state, not of those outside official politics who resisted an alien regime. Among other effects of this, a rhetorical space was opened up for ‘communal’ and other sectional claims that were less readily brought forward in the colonial period (Chatterjee 1994). Similarly, the proliferation of nationalisms in Eastern Europe attendant on the collapse of communist rule involved a ‘reframing’ of older national identities and nationalist projects; the nationalisms of the 1990s were neither altogether new nor simply resumptions of those that predated communism. The opposition between primordiality and ‘mere invention’ leaves open a very wide range of historicities within which national and other traditions can exert real force.

In 1871, in one of the most famous essays ever written on nationalism, Ernst Renan (1990, p. 11) grasped the importance of the tensions masked in nationalist invocations of history:

Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of ] nationality. Indeed, historical enquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations, even those whose consequences have been altogether beneficial. Unity is always effected by means of brutality.

The common contrast between France and Germany—the literature’s paradigmatic opposition of civic to ethnic nationalism—thus, is between two different styles of invoking history and ethnicity, not radically between nonethnic and ethnic claims. French schoolchildren learn that their commonality is not merely ethnic but achieved in the collective action of the Revolution. German nationalist historians put forward stronger claims for the primacy of common culture and ethnicity partly because their narratives must help schoolchildren ‘forget’ that Germans spent most of their history as members of separate polities (often combative and not all very uniform culturally), even while they celebrate the roles of Bismarck and others in unifying Germany.

Like all forms of nationalism, ethnonationalism is partly a matter of narrative construction, the production (and reproduction and revision) of narratives locating the nation’s place in history (Bhabha 1990). As Anderson (1991) puts it, nations move through historical time as persons move through biographical time; each may figure in stories like characters in a novel. This is one reason why the continuity of ethnic identities alone does not adequately explain nationalism: The narrative constructions in which it is cast change and potentially transform the meaning of whatever ethnic commonalties may exist. Ironically, the writing of linear historical narratives of national development and claims to primordial national identity often proceed hand in hand. Indeed, the writing of national historical narratives is so embedded in the discourse of nationalism that it almost always depends rhetorically on the presumption of some kind of preexisting national identity in order to give the story a beginning. A claim to primordial national identity is, in fact, a version of nationalist historical narrative.

3. Conclusion

The modern literature on nationalism is centrally structured by debates over the extent to which nationalism is based on and/or explicable by ethnicity. The rhetoric employed by nationalists around the world commonly presents nationality as an extension of ethnicity, but academic analysis often challenges this. Researchers point to the extent to which national identities are based on new cultural creativity, not ancient traditions, or on selective appropriation of ancient traditions. They stress the role of state formation, industrialization, and economic change, of geopolitical pressures and rivalries, of the availability of a globally distributed rhetoric of nationalism, and of the interests of those who promote nationalism. Even if ethnicity is not the primary explanation of nationalism, it still often plays a role—at the very least in ideology. Movements and policies shaped by ethnonationalism are powerful sources of both collective identity and collective conflict in the contemporary world. They do not seem to be declining in significance, but rather to be among the main forms through which people grapple with the challenges and opportunities posed by globalization.


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