Sociology Of Nation Research Paper

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1. Nation: A Late Political Meaning

Etymologically speaking, a Nation, from the latin natio, designates all those linked by birth. In modern language, the word which best expresses that original meaning of Nation is the English word ‘native.’ In ancient Rome, the word had no particular political meaning. It seemed even to characterize human groups devoided of political structures. During the Middle Ages, the word Nation obtained a linguistic meaning. This explains why students at the first great European universities were regrouped in Nations according to the language they spoke and sometimes even clashed along those lines!

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At the Renaissance, during the process of State building, the Nation will again endorse a more political bent until the French Revolution: for a long time, the Nation will be identified with those benefiting from a political status because they were close to the crown (the power) or were represented in those predemocratic parliaments, from which the rest of the population was excluded (Schulze 1996)

Only during modern times will the Nation take its present and more popular meaning. The concept will even absorb almost all the different denominations characterizing political societies. Just think about the ‘League of Nations,’ or the ‘United Nations Organization’: this will testify equally to the might of the word and to its largely undetermined character, quasiassimilating the concept of Nation with any kind of statist political organization.

2. From Nation To The Sociology Of Nation

The Nation as we conceive it today is a product of the nineteenth century, which makes it the main support of the constitution and development of modern States by using the famous ‘principle of nationalities.’ However, sociology will take her own good time to discover the Nation.

The founding fathers of sociology who carved their imprint in the nineteenth century, whether Karl Marx, Max Weber, or Emile Durkheim, were far from giving a central place to the Nation in their analysis of modern society, contrarily to historians or philosophers, or even artists, who started discussions, as witnessed by diverging opinions from Ernest Renan, de Fustel de Coulanges, Fichte, or Herder. Sociology is based on ‘society’ whose meaning remains largely undefined. As her object research, she deals with ‘the State,’ the ‘People,’ but not the ‘Nation.’ However, these notions are often described under characteristics of a modern Nation—as without doubt by Weber in his analysis of society—but never does the concept of Nation emerge.

Marx and Engels deal a little more with the notion of Nation, but they consider it more as an archaic form than as a new reality pregnant with history. The next generation of Marxist authors will be more concerned by the notion, but for practical more than theoretical reasons, given the attractiveness of nationalistic slogans for the working class. We owe to Bauer, and to the ‘Austro-Marxism,’ a more sophisticated conceptualization (Bauer 1907). Staline himself will try to define exactly what he means by Nation in a work where he uses its nonpolitical aspects as a basis—a restrictive one—for the bolshevik policy of recognition of nationalities (Staline 1937).

As pointed out by Hobsbawm, the multiplication of works on the Nation dates back mainly to the period 1968–1988 where more has been written on the subject ‘than at any other period, even twice as long’ (Hobsbawm 1990). The concept of Nation gets then a truly sociological meaning, though its definition has opened new conflicts that are still hotly alive today.

However, in modern times, Nation will be unanimously recognized as ‘the’ political community that will ensure the legitimacy of the State over its territory, and moreover transform the State into the State of all its citizens. The notion of ‘nation-state’ illustrates that new alliance between State and Nation. Nationality will bind the citizen to the State, a bond that will be more and more tied to the advantages of a social policy in as much as the Welfare State will develop.

Nobody will deny either that the Nation finds its ideology in nationalism, where Nation and State necessarily are intertwined into a new entity dominating all others. Nationalism will not only mark the building of Nations, but also provoke the reaction of those populations who feel suffocated by this process and want to build their own nation-state. The violence of nationalism will depend on the surrounding circumstances and evolve according to the obstacles found on its way.

Where true nation-states will emerge, the Nation will be the point of convergence of three historical processes. The first one is the development of States with growing sovereignty over territories whose boundaries are more and more clearly defined, and with growing autonomy vis-a-vis the nonterritorial power of the Church, whose prestige and influence declined after the Reformation; this process being faster in Northern Europe than in the South. The next step is the emergence of democracy in the aftermath of the French revolution, transfering sovereignty from the State to the ‘People’ and regrouping all citizens under principles of equality and solidarity. Finally, the development of capitalism increases communications between individuals, social homogeneity, educational and cultural standardization, and by its very crises leads to the strengthening of States’ power and the development of the Welfare State endorsing an ever increasing part of the life of each citizen.

The differences of evaluation among authors focus on the importance to be given to the ties linking the modern Nation to the former ‘protonational’ entities. These differences concern the process of construction of those Nations and the role of history in that process. For sociologists like Gellner, Hobsbawm, and Anderson, modern Nation is first a rupture, even sometimes a complete one, with the past. This ‘modernist’ definition is at loggerheads with the definitions, called ‘primordialist’ by Gellner, of which the best known representative is Smith, a former pupil of Gellner.

3. Two Concepts Of Nation?

For the modernists, the rise of the Nation can only be understood as the product of State action, and more particularly, according to the famous hypothesis of Gellner, as the result of the nationalist action of its elites (Gellner 1983). Nationalism gives birth to Nation and not the opposite. This voluntarist action is made possible, and even necessary, by modernization, that is, by the transition from agrarian society to industrial society and capitalism. Modernization destroys old social hierarchies and loyalties therein associated, and entails homogeneization of language and culture throughout the State territory in order to allow both for mobility of workers and for mass production. Whereas agrarian societies possessed stable hierarchies where culture was linked to social status, modern society, by destroying these hierarchies, transform culture into a kind of personal appropriation of each individual and creates a longing for harmony between individual culture and the environment: ‘What automatically makes people into nationalism’ (Gellner 1999).

In that sense, Nation is a truly modern invention which takes the form of an ‘imaginary community’ (Anderson 1983). Indeed, nation-states have a past, at least most of them, but modernization is a phenomenon modifying so radically social practices that this past is practically irrelevant for the construction of modern Nations. Or, at best, it is so remolded that it looses any true historical characteristic. One example, pointed out by Gellner, of a Nation created quasi ab nihilo is the case of Estonia. Whereas that Nation has no past to speak of, its elites managed to give it life, to develop a distinctive culture and to impose it among the other Nations. In this manner, Estonia is an ideal type of a Nation in the modern acceptation of the word.

At the opposite end, for the ‘primordialists,’ the development of the nation-state, and therefore of the Nation, is only understandable by analyzing its historical roots. Smith calls this approach ‘ethno-symbolist.’ One cannot but study the role of myths and prenational symbols in order to distinguish nationalisms from one another, and above all to explain why nationalism will be virulent in one case and not in the other (Smith 1986). The existence of competing nationalisms in Greece cannot be understood if one looses sight of ‘its dual heritage of byzantine imperial orthodoxy and classical democratic antiquity.’ ‘Modernism tells half the story,’ writes Smith. But Gellner answers that ‘if it tells half the story, that is enough for me!’ (Smith 1999, Gellner 1999).

In this perspective, Hroch offers an authoritative developmentalist typology of national movements. These movements evolve in three phases. First is that of purely cultural, linguistic, or folklore-related aspirations. Second, that of the rise of militant groups promoting the ‘national idea’ and starting social trouble around the national theme. Third, one that finds a spreading support among the mass for the new national aspirations. The transition from the second to the third phase will often be marked by a ‘nationally relevant conflict of interest’ (Hroch 1985).

What are the factors prior to the Nation that can legitimize its rise? The most frequently mentioned ones are language and religion. Language will be particularly important as a factor when it has been threatened or has been a basic motor of identification. This is the case, for instance, in Belgium, where Flemish nationalism concentrates in a language which has been the object of assimilation by a dominant language (Delfosse 1994). However, language is not necessarily the essential legitimizing source of nationalism and Nation. The French Revolution does not establish a nation-state on a linguistic basis: French language is deemed indispensable to proper revolutionary ideals, but not considered an exclusive and sacred good. It is a kind of tool of citizenship, and, through it, of the Nation. Completely different is the importance of language in the creation of the German or Italian nation-state. Before its founding, language was the only unifying factor of scattered populations and therefore took a more affective meaning than in the French case.

Another factor of importance is religion. The Reformation played a key role in the rise of modern nation-states by emancipating them from the power of the Church, on the spiritual level as well as on the territorial level. However, for a sociologist like Rokkan, religious criteria seem of less importance than language. For him, language has a more defined territorial characteristic than religion and the notion of Nation is linked strongly with a territorial foundation. That last factor is the decisive one: there is no Nation without territorial identity. Therefore one must call upon intricate processes, ethnicocultural, religious, linguistic, and politico-administrative ones that can go back a long way (Flora 1999).

Other determinants could be named here, but it seems almost impossible to find a unique definition of the objective elements that would characterize the Nation. The primordialist school would tend to offer a specific approach of the creation of each particular Nation. Indeed, Nations have been built upon criteria much too different to allow for the constitution of a ‘hard core,’ even if modernization in each case has added its own particular homogenizing effect.

This controversy between modernists and primordialists, that is, between those for whom nationalism created the Nation and those who look for links between nationalisms and pre-existing national characteristics to explain their different development and intensity, that controversy in sociological literature is far from ending. For Hroch, these two approaches are not necessarily incompatible for there is interaction and not dominance between Nation and nationalism (Hroch 1999). In this perspective, we can borrow Disraeli’s lapidary expression that applies so well to national construction: ‘of art and time.’

4. The Future Of The Nation

Since the nineteenth century, the world has become one of Nations whose number is ever increasing in the framework of the United Nations. Some of them have been the result of Europe’s export of her own model of nation-state through colonialism. That model, in spite of it artificial character, has been largely ‘instrumentalized’ by movements of national liberation in order to consolidate their State authority (Badie 1992). National demands inside even the best established nation-states, directed against their domination (the so-called ‘internal colonialism’), never stopped and the ‘desire for a State’ sometimes led to ruptures, sometimes to reorganizations of States on the regionalist or federalist models.

Today, however, nobody can deny that changes are at work on a world scale that put into jeopardy the future of the so-called modern Nation. ‘Mondialization’ and most of all ‘globalization’ send a major challenge to most of the nation-states. Whereas nation-states drew most of their power from their quasi-absolute control over their territory, and particularly over their national economy, globalization deprives them increasingly of their real competences as well as their resources, while severely affecting their legitimacy, even though this globalization is on a ‘shifting scale’ according to different domains. At the same time, that evolution has been facilitated largely by the collapse of the Soviet Empire, which however gave free rein to an unexpected ‘pent-up nationalism.’ An additional phenomenon of ‘cultural melting pot,’ together with the prevalence of English as an international language and the mixing of populations and cultures, be it on the virtual level with Internet or in reality with population migrations and immigration to rich countries, the whole constitutes an evolution whose effects are particularly difficult to integrate in homogeneous cultures typical of classical nationstates.

Habermas states the problem in terms of a relatively simple alternative, at least on the politicoeconomic level: either the most threatened nation-states will withdraw in neoprotectionist tentatives bound to fail, or they will try to reach ‘the same level as the markets,’ which entails their entering some sort of supranational integration. The world of culturally homogeneous nation-states will fade away leaving the stage for new mixed entities, particularly on the level of cultural homogeneity (Habermas 2000).

The big question whether the process of globalization will dissolve nation-states into new and necessarily pluralistic entities, or will give rise to renewed nationalistic demands challenging it, or, yet, whether the two phenomena will go hand in hand, remains largely open, even if what can be observed goes in the sense of the third alternative. In this sense, the European Union represents the most advanced form of supranational integration in the world. Since Europe is also the cradle of modern Nations, an analysis of the processes taking place there is of the utmost interest for the future of the Nation.

Comparative sociological studies show that nationalism in European nation-states has lost some of its acuity which favors European construction. However, reactions of identity withdrawals are manifest from time to time, illustrating thus the double nature of the process at work. ‘Eurobarometers’ surveys show that ‘national pride’—a dimension of nationalism—clearly has decreased in intensity since the 1980s. Those who are very proud of their Nation shift from 41 percent in 1982 to 28 percent in 1994, and this trend is present in all the countries, with the exception of Ireland and Greece. Moreover, it is clearly an effect of era and not of generation (Belot and Tournier 1998).

This does not prevent reactions of national reassertion reappearing at the same time in European countries, which shows that evolutions are not linear. Witness the sometimes important scores—though always in minority—of those ‘populist nationalist’ parties. The highest score reached so far in national elections is that of the Austrian FPO with 26.9 percent of votes (at the last legislative elections in autumn 1999). However, it should be pointed out that these reactions concern less European integration per se as the waves of non-European immigration which have marked most of the European States. Apart from the European Union and from an evolution of nationalism perhaps growing dull with time and with the painful experience of past struggles, the thesis of the irresistible vitality of Nation feeds on the renewed violent outbreaks of center-European nationalisms growing on the rubbles of Soviet domination. However, some authors, like Hobsbawm, question the ‘naturalness’ of this process. For him, it is more the collapse of the USSR than the strength of nationalist movements that made this evolution possible. Alone they would never have been able to impose themselves without first finding the way wide open (Hobsbawm 1990).

Another trend, also stemming from the globalization of problems, is a potential threat to the nationstates: that of the multiplication of effective actors on the international scene.

Beside Nations, some of them lacking in consistency and some others emerging, and in addition to classical international organizations and forms of supranational integration at various levels of development, we find entities as diverse as multinational corporations, non governmental organizations of all types, terrorist groups, new organizations based on language, religion, sport activities, or other, and even entire civilizations if we are to follow the hotly contested predictions of Huntington on the future clashes on a world scale (Huntington 1993).

We find ourselves thus in a world which is not anymore that of a quasi-exlusively ‘concert of Nations,’ but in an environment where diverse entities emerge, making it much more complicated. That world could be in transition towards new dominant structures; it can also wallow in the trough of a relatively chaotic situation, which, for some like Bull, could be identified with a ‘new Middle Age,’ characterized by multiple loyalties towards entities more or less defined by territories (Bull 1995).

Whether this strange ‘back to the future’ takes place or not, one thing is sure: the future of the Nation is uncertain.


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