Sociology Of Nationalism Research Paper

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The study of nationalism is a fairly recent development in sociology, a discipline which took for granted the nation-state as the territorial framework of its main subject of investigation—modern societies. Nevertheless, several sociological approaches to the study of nationalism can be distinguished: Weberian, structural-functionalism, modernization theory, neo-Marxism, and a variety of comparative-historical and social-constructionist approaches.

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One recurrent theme in sociological debates about nationalism concerns the nature of the relation (historical and conceptual) between several interrelated phenomena: ethnic group, nation, and nationalism. Each one of these phenomena has been seen either as a historical antecedent of the others or somehow accorded priority. Thus, while one of the most influential theorists argues that ‘nationalism created nations’ (Gellner), another sees nationalism as a ‘subjective reflection’ of the group reality of the nation on the level of social consciousness (Hroch). In addition, whereas some emphasize the ‘ethnic origins of nations’ (Smith ), others argue that ‘ethnic nationalism’ is a latter-day ideological development (Greenfeld). A second line of sociological debate has separated modernization theorists and neo-Marxists who explain the emergence of nationalism by reference to economic factors or the functional requirements of industrial society, and historical sociologists who question this view on a variety of grounds. An important obstacle to sociology in this field is imposed by the subject itself: as the most salient form of particularism in the modern world, nationalism defies easy generalization.

1. Nationalism And Classical Sociology

Nationalism was not a central concern in classical sociology. This curious lacuna must be understood in light of the history of a new discipline preoccupied with demarcating its own field of study—society as a reality sui generis (Durkheim). A second reason might be sought in the intellectual bias of sociology itself: political phenomena were seen as derivative of more fundamental social realities. Finally, sociological interest was consumed by the dramatic transformations caused by industrialism and capitalism. As a result, concentration on the problems of industrial society overshadowed the concern with its overall territorial framework—the modern nation-state. The rise of imperialism and mass politics at the turn of the century changed this equation.

1.1 Max Weber

Weber’s views on the nation must be understood in this historical context. For him, the unprecedented fusion of culture and politics in the modern world offers the main clue to understanding the nation: its differentia specifica as a social group lies in the striving for territorial political power on the basis of a shared culture. This symbiosis of culture and power in the nation-state resulted from a twofold dependency: if the state’s legitimacy increasingly depended on nationalist appeals in the age of mass politics, the nation needed the state for the protection of its unique culture. By combining the status concerns of intellectual strata as the bearers of national culture with the Realpolitik ambitions of political elites, nationalism provided the state with a new source of legitimacy, greatly increasing its mobilization potential. The sacralization of the state as the guardian of cultural values, in turn, inevitably transformed national conflicts, both within and between states, into ‘a struggle of life and death.’ Second, Weber attempted to explain national solidarity. In contrast to ethnic groups whose members must share a ‘subjective belief in common descent,’ national solidarity does not depend on a myth of common origin (Switzerland), or ‘objective’ markers of status differentiation (race, religion, language). Thus, the loyalty of German-speaking Alsatians to France was derived from the historical experience of a revolutionary regime which abolished feudalism. Conversely, the ethnic and linguistic affinity of Serbs and Croats did not obliterate their national differences. Consequently, Weber argued that common historical experiences and shared memories play a decisive role in forging the nation as a community of ‘political destiny.’

Weber’s third point concerns the mass appeal of nationalism: as the only source of status superiority available to the masses in a secularized world (ethnic or national honor), nationalism cuts across class lines in defiance of socialist expectations. An additional reason for nationalism’s appeal to the lower strata has to do with status compensation: in many instances, the denigration of ‘inferior’ ethnic or racial groups by the lower classes of the dominant group (such as the emancipated black Americans by the poor whites in the southern USA) is the very precondition of the latter’s status superiority. These observations do not amount to a theory of nationalism; however, Weber’s main intuition—that the fusion of culture and power constituted the differentia specifica of the nation as a new type of sociological community—became a cornerstone of all later theories of nationalism.

1.2 Emile Durkheim And Marcel Mauss

In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1995) Durkheim notes the similarity between the collective effervescence of religious rituals and revolutionary patriotic festivals: in the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution, the secular values of fatherland, liberty, and reason became the core values of a revolutionary patriotic religion whose object of worship was society itself. For Durkheim, this self-worship of society was another confirmation of his theory of religion; the connection with nationalism as a ‘secular faith’ remained unexplored in his work. On the other hand, as a committed advocate of secular schools in the Third Republic, Durkheim envisaged an important role for civic patriotism in ‘moral education.’ During World War I, Durkheim favorably contrasted this ideal of civic patriotism with expansionist German nationalism, whose excesses he interpreted as a sign of collective anomie.

A Durkheimian view of the nation was elaborated further by Mauss. Mauss saw nationalism as a modern phenomenon originating in the doctrine of popular sovereignty espoused by the American and French revolutionaries. Sociologically, nationalism’s success as a movement was predicated on the presence of three general factors: (a) a strong central power which successfully broke down traditional affiliations of tribe, clan, and estate; (b) a morally integrated society consisting of citizens who identified with the state and its laws; and (c) economic unity. Conversely, the belief in a unique racial or civilizational heritage was a retrospective elaboration of nationalists: its importance lay in cementing an already existing social bond on the level of consciousness. For Durkheim and Mauss, the nation was first and foremost a community of citizens: their understanding of ‘ethnic nationalism’ was limited.

2. Structural-Functionalism

A new sociological interest in nationalism developed as a result of the proliferation of independent states after World War II. The dominant sociological school of the postwar decades—structural-functionalism— viewed nationalism as a by-product of the structural strains caused by industrialization.

Thus, Smelser saw nationalism as a response to the state of collective anomie induced by structural differentiation (division of labor, role specialization, etc.). As a secular ideology of industrialization, nationalism overcomes the resistance of traditional structures, mobilizes new constituencies, and gives meaning to the sacrifices required for social change. Conversely, once differentiation proceeds apace, nationalism can take the form of a nativist reaction against the corroding influences of further modernization.

This logic was generalized by Shils, who built on Durkheim’s idea about secular nationalism as the functional equivalent of religion: the transition from loosely integrated traditional societies to the modern nation-state is predicated on the gradual penetration of the various social and geographical peripheries (kinship, ethnic, religious, and regional) by the ‘charismatic center,’ seen as the embodiment of a society’s core values. By allowing the members of society to partake in the institutionalized charisma of a sacralized political center through the exercise of citizenship rights, the nation-state succeeds in breaking the power of tradition. This sacralization of the secular is of special significance in transitional societies: by transposing the charisma of the tribe or religion onto the nation, the leaders of new states are able to attract mass support and legitimate social change.

Functionalist explanations were criticized on the following grounds: (a) there is no inevitable correlation between structural differentiation and nationalism; (b) teleology: the ‘end-state’ is posited by the observer and used to explain the past; (c) the desirability of meeting select ‘functional goals’ is subject to elite contest; and (d) nationalism is a secular ideology more similar to other modern ideologies than to religion.

3. Modernization Theory

A significantly modified functionalist modernization approach was developed subsequently by Karl Deutsch and Ernst Gellner. The formulations of these two theorists have remained influential to this day.

3.1 Karl Deutsch

Deutsch (1966) begins with a distinction between society and culture. ‘Society’ refers to the division of labor and social stratification; ‘culture,’ in contrast, is a set of ‘stable, habitual, preferences’ based on values inculcated through socialization. Societies ‘produce, select, and channel goods and services’; culture ‘stores’ information about the past, and recombines it in the present, enabling political authority to function. The technological changes and complex division of labor induced by the Industrial Revolution resulted in a growing need for expanding channels of cultural communication. Simultaneously, the breakdown of traditional status barriers and exposure to the insecurity of the market raised the aspirations of the socially mobilized masses, already agitated by democratic ideas. These developments favored the emergence of the nation as a horizontal functional group linked by complementary communication channels, typically language (e.g., Czechs versus Germans in Bohemia), but also shared memories or historical experiences (e.g., Switzerland). As the ideology of popular sovereignty, nationalism held a special attraction for the socially mobilized masses, whose claims to status equality and upward social mobility it helped justify.

Deutsch’s theory is empirical and predictive: the complementarity of communication channels can be assessed by social-psychological indicators; rates of social mobilization can be measured by urbanization, mass literacy, newspaper circulation, etc.; and assimilation depends on the extent and content of communication between in-and out-groups. The theory runs counter to the standard predictions of Parsonian structural-functionalism: the expansion of communications strengthens nationalism, not universalism.

3.2 Ernst Gellner

Gellner (1983) starts with an ideal type of agrarian society: their central feature is an ideologically buttressed functional division of labor which separates the ‘high culture’ of a hereditary administrative military ruling class and universal clerisy from the ‘low cultures’ of socially isolated and illiterate peasant communities. This status segregation has a cognitive dimension as well: the world is experienced as culturally and ontologically heterogeneous.

A profound change occurs with the modern cognitive revolution: the world is now seen as a coherent whole subject to universal laws expressed in a unitary linguistic idiom. The social correlate of this cognitive revolution is industrialism. If intellectual progress presupposes the perpetual exploration of reality, the idea of unlimited growth demands the constant redrawing of traditional social boundaries and roles in line with the functional requirements of the division of labor. These requirements can be met only by a common linguistic idiom transmitted through standardized education. Literacy in a shared language prepares individuals for new functional roles, increases their mobility prospects, and facilitates communication among strangers in an impersonal world. The emergence of a shared culture favors nationalism as a political principle which holds that the state must rest on the foundation of national culture; the state, in turn, acquires a new source of legitimacy (compare Weber). Thus, industrialism is a necessary condition of nationalism. Ethnicity is secondary—it is nationalism which invents nations.

Finally, nationalism disseminates through uneven development. In a typical imperial (e.g., Habsburg) situation an ethnic division of labor is present: the carriers of high culture belong to one ethnic group (or groups), those of low culture to another (or others). The social exclusion of the aspiring intelligentsia of the subordinate group leads it to adopt ‘ethnic nationalism’ as a strategy of collective mobility (e.g., Czech nationalism). In contrast, ‘diaspora nationalism’ develops among politically excluded ‘high-culture’ pariah groups (e.g., Jews). The ideal case is a mature industrial society in which elites and masses share a standardized idiom and consider themselves conationals in a common state.

Gellner’s elegant theory has enjoyed enormous influence. It has been criticized on several grounds: (a) the theory does not specify a causal (group) agent: nationalism is seen as a by-product of the impersonal process of industrialization; (b) nationalism can precede industrialization (e.g., Balkan nationalism); (c) nations can precede nationalism (see Sect. 4); and (d) nations are rooted in premodern, ethnic identities (see Sect. 5).

4. Neo-Marxism

The classics of Marxism failed to develop a consistent sociological theory of the nation (Szporluk 1988). Although partially filled by Austro-Marxism (Bauer, Renner) and the Bolshevik ideologists (Lenin, Stalin), this lacuna was addressed seriously only after World War II. A strong impetus to the Marxist sociology of nationalism was given by Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory: in the underdeveloped periphery of the world capitalist system, class struggle (indigenous proletariat and peasantry versus the ‘comprador’ bourgeoisie) and national conflict (the exploited nation versus the world capitalist metropole) were superimposed upon each other.

4.1 Class And Peripheral Nationalism

Hechter (1975) extended the metropole-periphery logic to ethnic conflict in the UK. In defiance of functionalist logic, the incorporation of the (Celtic) periphery by the (English) center did not result in the creation of a homogenous national society, but a dynamic of ‘internal colonialism’ instead. The subordination of the underdeveloped periphery was ensured by its economic dependence on a developed center and a rigid ethnic division of labor which enabled the English to monopolize power and status privileges. The persistence of ascriptive status identities and the superimposition of class and ethnic conflicts run counter to the expectations of modernization theory: instead of integration and consensus, uneven development leads to the resurgence of peripheral nationalism.

Studying the same case, Nairn (1977) came to a different conclusion: peripheral ‘neonationalism’ could be caused by ‘relative overdevelopement’ as well. Thus, the resurgence of Scottish neonationalism was the result of the relative economic decline of the English center and new opportunities opened by oil exploitation in the North Sea. A newly awakened Scottish bourgeoisie in search of profit appealed to nationalism in its struggle against a parasitic center. In a larger historical perspective, nationalism was the product of the ideological reaction of the awakened intelligentsia of the semiperiphery to uneven development and imperialist exploitation of their countries (not yet ‘nations’) by the centers of world capitalism (England and France). The nationalism of the center, in turn, developed in a ‘dialectical countermobilization’ against its semiperipheral counterparts.

4.2 Class And Nation. The Social Base Of Nationalist Movements

The relationship between class and nation is a central concern in Hroch’s (1985) study of the developmental phases and social base of nineteenth-century national movements in small European nations. For Hroch, the nation is an ‘objective social category’ rooted in the memory of a shared ethnic past, dense linguistic and sociocultural ties, and a conception of citizenship. National awareness and nationalism are only a ‘subjective reflection’ of this reality on the level of consciousness (contrast Gellner).

Hroch distinguished three phases in the development of national movements: in phase A (ethnographic) linguists and folklorists rediscover a shared past; in phase B (agitation) intellectuals promote national awareness among the masses; and finally, in phase C, a mass national movement arises. While the social base of nationalist movements varied, especially in phase B (teachers in Slovakia, the petty bourgeoisie in Norway), the social mobilization of the bourgeoisie and peasantry was a necessary condition for success in phase C: an independent nation requires ‘a fully developed class structure.’ Another necessary condition of nationalist movements was the superimposition of ethnic and class conflicts: only when membership in a small nation appeared as a decisive disadvantage could ‘social contradictions’ be expressed in national terms. Hroch did not conflate class and nation; however, he did argue that a successful national movement must be based on distinct class interests.

Neo-Marxist approaches have been criticized for: (a) an unwarranted ‘materialist’ reduction of national to class conflicts; (b) poor generalizability (internal colonialism); and (c) inability to explain the nationalism of the ‘metropole’ of the world system (England, France), and/or dominant nations (e.g., Russia).

5. Comparative-Historical Sociology

Historical sociologists have questioned functionalist and Marxist explanations in two ways: (a) by emphasizing the premodern, ethnic roots of nationalism; and (b) by demonstrating that nationalism predates industrialization.

5.1 Ethnic Groups And Nations

The first type of argument is developed by Smith (1986). Smith rejects the view that nations are based on primordial ties (e.g., race); however, he states that they are rooted in premodern ethnie. Ethnie, in turn, are not based on ascriptive criteria, but upon intergenerationally transmitted ‘constitutive myths’ (compare Weber). Typically, such constitutive myths include or imply a collective name, a myth of common descent, a shared historical narrative (legends, epics), belief in a unique culture, association with a territory, and solidarity vis-a-vis out-groups. The transformation from ethnie to nations occurred under the impact of the triple revolution of administrative centralization, capitalism, and ‘cultural coordination.’ Capitalism helped bind social classes into a unified economic community; political centralization, warfare, and cultural coordination (the rise of vernacular languages and mass culture) forged the link between state and nation. Whereas nation-building paths varied in accordance with historical timing, religious identifications, the character of the constitutive myth, and its elite carriers (aristocracy, bourgeoisie, intelligentsia), two broad trajectories emerged as a result of uneven development: (a) the early ‘Western’ path in which the nation was defined as a territorial community of citizens bound by laws; and (b) the late ‘German’ (East European) route in which ethnie served as the basis for statehood. However, Western nations also required a ‘constitutive myth’: premodern cultural identities were crucial everywhere, and industrialization was only one factor which helped transform ethnie into nations.

5.2 Nationalism As Ideology

Another approach is exemplified by Greenfeld (1992): nationalism is an antecedent of industrialization. Greenfeld traces the idea of the nation to a long process of semantic transformation: originally applied to ‘groups of students’ in medieval universities and the elite of a ‘community of opinion,’ in sixteenth-century England the ‘nation’ was extended to include the whole people. This momentous change from the medieval (people rabble) to the modern Weltanschauung (people elite) was caused by the structural crisis of feudal society. In the first nation, England, the decimation of the aristocracy and the decline of the clergy (War of the Roses, separation from Rome) shattered traditional status barriers, opening channels of social mobility to gentry and educated commoners. The profound ‘status inconsistency’ felt by members of the elite led them to ‘discover’ the nation: the view that status inequality was secondary to membership in a community of citizens resolved their identity crisis and legitimized social mobility across status lines. English nationalism culminated in popular sovereignty and an individualistic and civic ideological self-definition: the ‘people’ was a composite of individuals, and membership was open to all citizens (likewise the USA).

The diffusion of nationalism was a consequence of England’s hegemonic status. Thus, the eighteenth century French nobility, squeezed between the absolute monarchy and wealthy commoners, imitated its English counterpart and competitor, finding in nationalism a solution for its own identity crisis. However, while membership in the French nation was open to all (as in civic nationalism), the nation came to be seen as expressing a single collective will ( olonte generale)—thus, French nationalism was collectivist and civic. A further semantic transformation occurred in Germany and Russia, where the term was associated with ethnicity, the unique character of a people— nationalism became both collectivist and ethnic. The motor force behind this change was ressentiment—the profound existential envy felt by the elites of follower societies toward the ‘superior’ West. Hence the compensatory glorification of the Volk with all its authoritarian implications.

Greenfeld’s conclusions are original: (a) democracy emerged from individualist and civic nationalisms; (b) ethnic nationalism is a later ideological elaboration; (c) the historical carrier of nationalism is not the bourgeoisie, but aristocracy or intelligentsia (Germany); and (d) capitalism and democracy could flourish only once the idea of the nation delegitimized traditional status barriers.

Greenfeld’s theory avoids ‘materialism’ and teleological functionalism; however, it has been criticized on both theoretical and empirical grounds: (a) the dichotomy between Western, civic (whether individualist or collectivist) and Eastern, ethnic nationalisms is far from clear-cut, as Western nations were based on an ethnocultural foundation as well; (b) early national consciousness should not be equated with a fully developed ideological nationalism; (c) the original ideological code of every nationalism is subject to reinterpretation and change; and (d) cultural determinism—some nations (the USA, England, France) appear destined for democracy, while others seem doomed to authoritarianism (Germany, Russia).

5.3 Nationalism As Cultural Idiom

The continued salience of ‘civic’ vs. ‘ethnic’ national self-definitions is documented by Brubaker (1992). In France, the republican tradition defined the nation as a territorial ‘community of citizens’: membership was not tied to ethnicity. In Germany, a territorially divided nation was defined as a ‘community of descent’: all (and only) Germans were members. The persistence of these cultural idioms (not instrumental interests) helps to explain the difference in immigration policies: the French is assimilationist and inclusive, the German ‘ethnic’ and exclusive.

6. Social-Constructionist Approaches

6.1 Nationhood As Institutionalized Form

In a subsequent work, Brubaker (1996) challenges the fallacy of sociological ‘group realism’ from the standpoint of the new sociological institutionalism: instead of treating the nation as a ‘substantial entity, collectivity, or community’ which can be ‘objectively defined,’ sociologists should study ‘nationhood’ from the point of view of its political and cultural institutionalization, both within and among states. Thus, the dramatic collapse of the USSR has to be understood as a consequence of the ethnoterritorial institutionalization of nationhood both on the group (ethnic federalism) and individual (personal identity document) levels. Such institutionalization turned ethnicity into an ‘organizing principle of social classification,’ constituting the interests of social groups and individuals, serving as a basis for political action, and informing practical conduct in everyday life. In this sense, Brubaker argues, ‘nationalism’ is not so much ‘engendered by nations,’ as induced by particular institutional arrangements.

6.2 Nation As Invented Tradition

The ‘socially constructed’ character of all collective and, ipso facto, national identity is emphasized by a variety of contemporary authors. One influential version of the argument is developed by Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983): the nation is largely a product of ‘invented tradition.’ By ‘invented tradition’ is meant ‘a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983, p. 1). The modern nation is a particularly good example of an invented tradition for, although the nation-state with its well-demarcated territory and standardized national language is an eminently modern phenomenon, nationalists typically claim it be a ‘natural’ community rooted in the ‘remotest antiquity.’ In actual fact, national symbols, flags, languages, and histories are a product of nationalist ‘social engineering,’ while the connection with the remote past is retrospectively established by nationalist imagination. It follows from this that the main task of the historian and sociologist is to study those symbolic and discursive practices that helped establish the particular nation’s idea of itself as a ‘natural’ community in the first place.

6.3 Nation As Imagined Community

A related argument is developed by Anderson (1991), who sees the nation as a new type of limited and sovereign ‘imagined community.’ The nation is an imagined community because most of its members will never know each other; it is imagined as a limited community because it is externally bounded by other nations; and it is seen as sovereign because it is historically rooted in the ideas of internal and external freedom (popular rule and national independence). Finally, the nation is imagined as a community because it is ‘always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship’ (Anderson 1991, p. 7). The emotional resonance of the nation stems from the fact that it replaces kin and religion as the main loci of individual loyalty and self-sacrifice in the modern era.

According to Anderson, the emergence of the nation as a new type of imagined community was predicated on the presence of certain definite cultural and material conditions: (a) linguistic diversity; (b) the increasing relevance of vernacular languages and literacy after the Protestant Reformation; and (c) ‘printcapitalism’—the production of books, newspapers, and journals for mass cultural consumption. Once set in motion, print-capitalism gave an unprecedented stimulus to the development of nationalist discourse, albeit under a variety of historical circumstances that require separate study.

Social-constructionists correctly attacked the fallacy of group realism. However, their views can be subjected to the following criticisms: (a) while the nation might be ‘invented,’ this social construction must be based on a preexisting reality, be it the memory of historical statehood (e.g., Croatia, Poland), ethnicity (e.g., Germany), or a more complex combination of various factors (e.g., Austria); (b) in view of the above, modern national identity might be ‘invented’ but it is not ‘fabricated’; (c) political factors (warfare, state centralization), and elite (or class) interests played an equally important role in the emergence of nationalism as ‘print-capitalism’; and (d) the notion of ‘imagined community’ applies to other kinds of communities besides the nation (e.g., class, religious denomination).

7. Conclusion

Despite the fact that nationalism did not stand at the center of sociological interest, especially in the classical epoch of the discipline, sociologists have studied the topic from a variety of perspectives. Even so, a considerable area of agreement has emerged. For one, sociologists agree that the nation is not based on ‘primordial ties’; rather its emergence as a ‘community of citizens’ was related to the rise of the modern state (administrative centralization), the novel idea of popular sovereignty, industrialization, and the expansion of cultural communications (vernacular language literacy). Uneven development was crucial for the dissemination of nationalism, whether on account of the ‘ethnic division of labor,’ the reaction of the ‘exploited periphery,’ or ressentiment. The salience of ethnicity (itself not an ascriptive but a ‘subjective’ category) was greatest in areas where class and ethnic conflicts were superimposed (e.g., Habsburg empire), where the putative nation lacked a state (e.g., Poland), and where ideology conceptualized the nation as Volk (e.g., Germany). Conversely, ethnicity was secondary in established states (e.g., England), or where shared memories and experiences favored other identifications (e.g., Switzerland). Finally, the consolidation of national identity everywhere involved a considerable effort in the ‘invention of tradition.’ The intimate relation between modernity and nationalism defies liberal and Marxist expectations of a ‘unified world’; this may well be the most provocative insight of the sociology of nationalism.

These areas of agreement point to a considerable, if still relatively modest progress in the sociology of nationalism. Still, many other areas await further investigation: the relations between religion and nationalism, nationalism and collective violence, nationalism and collective memory, diaspora and homeland nationalism, nationalism and gender, and the nationalist narrative. The reluctance of sociologists is understandable—to an extent every nationalism tells its own story, and this presents obstacles to generalization. Yet, as Max Weber demonstrated, the uniqueness of a phenomenon neither diminishes its importance nor precludes sociological investigation: a conceptually informed comparative-historical sociology can develop middle-range theories while taking into account the peculiarities of individual instances.


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