Contemporary Nationalism Research Paper

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‘Nationalism’ is the belief that one’s own land and people are unique and superior to all others, and or a policy that systematically advantages one’s own nation. Frequently the two, belief and policy, are linked, occurring simultaneously.

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Nationalism’s manifold dimensions are captured well by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED): ‘Devotion to one’s nation; national aspiration; a policy of national independence.’ This concatenation of concerns has fueled modern research classics such as C. Hayes (1931), H. Kohn (1944), and E. Gellner (1983). Yet even such a definition is inadequate, for it ignores the role nationalism has played in changing the modern world.

More helpful but still not without problems is K. Deutsch’s (1963) concept of nationalism. It speaks of a people as a social grouping linked communicatively, a nationality as a people seeking control over its members, a nation as a nationality seeking self-control, and a nation-state as a nation with its own political apparatus. The center point is the nation, which the OED describes as ‘an extensive aggregate of persons, so closely associated with each other by common descent, language, or history, as to form a distinct race or people usually organized as a separate political state and occupying a definite territory.’ Does this tell us what we want to know about, for instance, the Yugoslav revolution of the late 1990s and the policy of ethnic cleansing?

1. Conceptualizing Nationalism

Fundamental to the basic concept of nationalism is, first of all, the observation that the nation into which we were born makes a difference. Not all nations are born equal. Moreover, the social values that nations offer to their citizens—such as preferred jobs and access to higher education—are distributed unequally. In the international arena, some nations are ‘haves’ and some are ‘have nots.’

Second, one’s responsibility as a member of a nation is to improve its competitive position. But note: while the first postulate is uniform across a nation or people, the second offers variable individual acceptance of the nation’s policies, instruction, or behaviors.

Third, nationalists may at least in principle undertake whatever actions they deem appropriate for improving their people’s access to wealth, power and other values.

In such an approach the term nationalism becomes ambiguous, and its meaning a matter of time and place. Even so the idea of nationalism is useful as an analytic marker. Europe’s march across history before the fourteenth century frequently repeated the social mobilization sequence: ‘people nationality nation/ nation-state.’ Using nationalism as a concept reminds us of its many dimensions, among them national consciousness, national character, ethnonationalism, national cleansing, and National Socialism. It offers a framework for differentiating among population groups.

2. Historical Origins

Although the English-language usage of the word ‘nationalism’ dates back only to the 1840s, its earlier presence as a concept had deep roots. An oft-cited point of origin occurred a half-century earlier—1776 when colonial Americans bolted from their English sovereigns, 1787 when they met in Philadelphia to pen a Constitution, and 1789 when French revolutionaries drafted their Declaration of the Rights of Man.

2.1 An Inchoate Concept

The historical record merits more attention, however. Consider the rich medieval fabric with centuries of unified governance and political stability. Charles IV’s Golden Bull (1356), by removing Papal power from the Holy Roman Empire, contributed to a process that eventually killed the HRE itself. The end of the Hundred Years War (1453) sealed the division of England and France.

During the Renaissance (fourteenth to seventeenth centuries) the cosmic drama shifted from gods to humankind, and a concomitant sense of personal responsibility. Also deserving our attention are Martin Luther who tore apart a united Christendom (1517), Philip II’s Escorial (1563–84) which gave Spain a residence cum administrative center, and arts and literatures intoning national pride. Who has not thrilled to Shakespeare’s account of Prince Hal exhorting his troops: ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’?

But all this was prototypical, not full-scale nationalism as we know it today. The next two and a half centuries would further secularize Europe and shore up this popular albeit inchoate concept. Thoughtful observers and policy makers, like Plato’s cave dwellers, could only dance around the idea’s images, unaware that thoughts dancing through their minds could transform European and, by now, North American politics.

2.2 Belonging: Romantic Nationalism

The nineteenth century was one of romantic nationalism. Policy makers were interested in the idea of nationalism and in understanding the ways in which it might be used to accomplish their own national goals. Among these goals was of course military defense. By and large, however, political leaders were more preoccupied with traditional ways of conducting warfare, and dubious when ‘psychological’ variables were brought into play.

Had the nationalist movement been presented as an organization table, then surely a major item would have aimed at understanding and communicating information about the status of the national entity itself, whether that entity was a people, nationality, nation, nation-state, or something else. Another major item would have been proselytizing: bringing more recruits into the national fold, expanding the entity’s structure, and propagandizing. Yet another item would have involved the emerging world of advertising: symbols, heroes, flags and anthems, operas and plays, and common histories, as well as formal presentations.

What made this late nineteenth century nationalism ‘romantic’? Among other factors two stand out: undigested sentiments endorsing the glories of nation- hood in general, and unbridled acceptance of their own nationalizing efforts. Nationalism became viewed as the modern society’s universal solvent, ready on call to remedy all of society’s ills. Such conditions may produce an elan that improves the quality of a society. Indeed, elan and competence are both necessary for effective governance. But eventually such political thinkers as President Woodrow Wilson turned against the tide of popular sentiment: they saw nationalism as a universal evil.

2.3 Aggressive Nationalism

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century nationalism became more aggressive. Each kind of nationalism, we might assume, aimed at improving the lot of its own members. The critical question became the treatment of territorially linked individuals or groups who did not share much else in common with the dominant national population. Other societies had for centuries tolerated this apparent anomaly: thus under the Roman empire the famed legions relied on some Romans but mostly on foreigners recruited abroad to fight for Rome. Europe’s nineteenth century romantic nationalists also treated nonconformers with benign neglect.

Writers favoring aggressive nationalism took a different stance, one that neither sought nor tolerated any more than a modicum of diversity. If, they reasoned, we are responsible only for our own people, and if territory and population are conterminous, then we have no obligation to sustain or protect aliens in our midst. If our nation-state continues to house ‘The Stranger within our Gate’ (in Rudyard Kipling’s poetic vision), perhaps because of long-accepted customs or usages, then we are justified in doing whatever is necessary to restore our social balance.

How can nation-states deal with ‘alien’ minorities (or even majorities) in their midst? First, individual options include bureaucratic hassle, hostile customs officers, burdensome taxation, visa denial—and a whole host of other boundary maintaining techniques designed to intimidate the timid; ‘we don’t want you here in our country.’ A second level of anti-outsider actions might seek to isolate alien groupings in ghettos or deny their children access to public education. A third technique expels outsiders. Ousting the personae non grata has been used since ancient days.

An extreme hallmark of modern aggressive nationalism is genocide, which OED characterizes as ‘The deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group.’ Examples include formal war crimes charges after the American Civil War, the US Army’s extermination of American Indians, concentration camps in Cuba during the Spanish–American war, Turkey’s murder of Armenians in the 1910s, Germany’s mass murder of Jews and others, and internal mass murders in Yugoslavia, Laos, and Rwanda. All have made today’s world more dangerous.

3. The Study Of Nationalism

Nationalism has now and again captured the attention of scholars and others wanting to understand the concept or perhaps employ its policy opportunities. Some research has been suggestive, some others less—in part because the topic itself is a moving target that is approached in very different ways.

3.1 Analytic Approaches

Early writings on nationalism were not systematic but rather

(a) descriptive accounts, such as St. John de Crevecoeur’s (1782) Letters from an American Farmer and A. Tocqueville’s (1835) Democracy in America, which sagely characterized American ways. The model they set up became the pathway for a plethora of subsequent journalists, historians, academics, and other writers. An important twentieth-century innovation was work in

(b) cultural anthropology by such specialists as R. Benedict (1946) and M. Mead (1942) who were trained to study the ways in which institutions and cultural patterns shape the individual. Social scientists like vs. Kracauer (1947) and H. Lasswell et al. (1952) used

(c) content analysis to explore how culture and such artifacts as movies and novels inform us about a society’s values, perspectives, and norms. By the mid- 1930s researchers were using

(d) survey research to study ‘modal personality structures’—relatively enduring personality characteristics and patterns among a society’s adults (Inkeles and Levinson 1954). These and other research techniques have deeply enriched our ability to understand social processes affecting modern nationalism.

3.2 Research Pitfalls

Analysts using these various approaches have unquestionably enriched our understanding of nationalism. Certain elements, however, have occasionally produced little more than discord. The sharpest split has pitted historians against data-oriented social scientists. Consider ‘consciousness.’ Attention to national consciousness stems from the plausible and hence oft-heard notion that individual and national consciousness are tightly linked to each other, and that its presence has a political or otherwise social impact on the rest of us. Is this hypothesis warranted? The social scientist may have little difficulty describing individual consciousness (for instance, as manifest by an individual’s perspectives). The good-natured social scientist may even tolerate rhetorical sallies suggesting that people who have been together for a long time may develop a group consciousness. But when the analysis moves from loose words to precise understandings, and tries to merge activities at different levels of analysis (individual, family, small group, religious sect, and so forth), social scientists are likely to cry ‘Foul!’ At this point the analysis is committing the logical error that W. Robinson (1950) identified as an ecological fallacy. The idea of national character encounters a similar problem.

4. Contemporary Issues In Nationalism

What progress have we seen regarding the various dimensions of nationalism? The question is particularly complex because theoreticians and practitioners use the relevant terms in different fashions. For instance, what is ‘national’ about Hitler’s National Socialism? (For that matter, what is its ‘social’ or ‘socialist’ content?) It was a term of uncertain meaning that caught hold in a particular place at a particular time. The fact that it caught hold, however, ensures that international studies will continue to wrestle with it. Similar concepts include ‘ethnonationalism,’ ‘ethnic cleansing,’ and ‘nation-state.’

4.1 Ethnonationalism

‘Ethnonationalism’ is a neologism seeking clarity in the worldwide discussion of nationalism. The Greek word ‘ethno-,’ which means ‘race,’ ‘culture,’ or ‘people,’ has been added to the root ‘nationalism.’ This makes explicit the link between the nation’s location and ethnicity—without, however, addressing such central issues as the nonscientific nature of words such as ‘race.’

4.2 Ethnic Cleansing

The notion of ethnic cleansing captured the world’s attention in the 1990s. It is a policy that ‘cleanses’ one’s own national entity (such as ethnic group) by systematically expelling or even killing residents who are not part of that dominant entity. What is the desired outcome? Purity of race is a major goal. The idea is that, if our ethnic group were truly free, and if it were permitted to exert its own control over our nation-state, then we would have a ‘pure’ society that could realize our goals. Critics view ethnic cleansing as a euphemism for an inefficient genocide.

4.3 Nation-state

A dominant norm organizing international life is the nation-state. Nineteenth-century thinkers and policy makers treated nationalism as the mantra of the new age. ‘Nationalists’ moved around the world encouraging other nationalist groups—writers (the Grimm brothers with their ‘purely German’ fairy tales), composers (Tchaikovsky’s Marche slave, so powerful that if threatened to disrupt public order when it was first presented), and many more. Liberals such as Woodrow Wilson who had originally favored the nationalist movement soon came to believe that its excesses were the causes of rather than the solution to a continuing international disorder. The post-l945 euphoria spawned by the United Nations movement in turn gave way to the nationalist, divisive orientation of Cold War politics.

The early 1990s once again found national leaders in the international arena making moves toward conciliation, while at the same time we have seen an increase in the number of national entities around the globe. The point is twofold. First, the idea of nationalism is alive and well, and seems likely to persist in the new millennium. Second, even steps toward interstate unity do not mean the end of the nation-state. Thus European unity does not necessarily mean abandoning France or Germany.


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  4. Hayes C J H 1931 The Historical Evolution of Modern Nationalism. R. R. Smith, New York
  5. Inkeles A, Levinson D J 1954 National character: The study of modal personality structure and sociocultural systems. In: Allport G W, Lindzey G (eds.) Handbook of Social Psychology. Addison-Wesley, Cambridge, MA, Vol. II, pp. 977–1020
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