The durability of nations and nationalism


Nationhood remains a 'durable' political concept primarily due to its intimacy with the ongoing process of modernity and its focus on human agency. As a result of this relationship, cultural analysis is uniquely placed to make observations about its past present and future. 

Atsuko Ichijo
17 June 2013

There was a time when the irresistible wave of globalisation was said to do away with modern states, nation-states, nations and nationalism and to bring about a ‘global village’ mediated through electronic communication. Globalism, global civil society, global consciousness and cosmopolitanism were to sweep away tribalism of nations to clear the path for a new and better world in which humanity would finally achieve unity and share happiness. In this current world of post-this-and-that, it is very hard to find any trace of this optimistic view of globalisation. The financial market is globalised yet it was the nation-states that had to intervene in the market in order to ‘save the world’ as Gordon Brown let it slip. Meanwhile, world-wide solidarity among workers, disadvantaged and oppressed appears to remain an ideal than a reality and anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise in the many parts of the world. The world is certainly globalised and is still globalising but the old nations and nation-states have not withered away.

Globalisation was supposed to make nations and nationalism redundant because a) nations and nationalism are modern phenomena and b) globalisation is a force that would go beyond modernity. In short, globalisation was expected to make nations and nationalism obsolete because modernity itself was being overcome by globalisation.

The modernity of nationalism is self-evident and there are several points where the two concepts meet: industrialisation, the growth of capitalism, the rise of the modern state and the emergence of modern consciousness. There is a teleological assumption behind this understanding. If nationalism is a function of industrialisation, the growth of capitalism and the rise of the modern state, then it is inevitable for all societies to converge on the European model with an industrial economy driven by the logic of capitalism which is regulated by the powerful nation-state. This also suggests that the cultural specificity of different societies is neglected and, in effect, the agency of different societies is denied. Those theories that suggest that nationalism is a constitutive element of modernity rather than its product appear to have some distance from the conventional theories of modernisation, thus, the teleological tendency is weaker. By definition then, explanations focusing on culture or how human beings think are better disposed to take into account cultural specificities of different societies.

The theory of multiple modernities as developed chiefly by Shmuel Eisenstadt is instructive in thinking about the modernity of nationalism. The theory does not define modernity as a concrete stage of development. In fact, it does not clearly say what modernity is but instead elaborates as to how modernity should be considered. In the theory of multiple modernities modernity is conceptualised as continuous constitution and reconstitution of diverse cultural and political programmes; it is a state of mind rather than a set of material and institutional arrangements (though the mindset would in due course obtain certain institutional expressions). Being modern is marked with an enhanced level of self-reflexivity and unprecedented affirmation of the power of human agency to create new order in order to bring about collective good. The centrality of human agency is therefore the most appropriate way of describing what modernity is in the theory of multiple modernities.

When set against this particular take on modernity, institution-oriented and evolutionary theories of nationalism which draw from Marxism and functionalism are not appropriate as an explanation of the modernity of nationalism. Culturally-oriented explanations such as those offered by Benedict Anderson, Liah Greenfeld, Michael Billig, and Craig Calhoun are more helpful as these explanations focus on how human beings think about the world. Anderson proposes the idea of ‘imagining’.  Nations are imagined and they are imagined collectively. Nationalism is a new way of comprehending the world, which is supported by various changes including the decline of sacred world order, the change in conception of time, and the rise of print media to facilitate the sharing of the imagination. Greenfled’s understanding of nationalism directly correspond to the theory of multiple modernities: nationalism is “the modern culture” and “the specifically modern consciousness”. Calhoun’s definition of nationalism as “a more basic way of talking, thinking and acting” links Greenfeld’s understanding with Billig’s concern with the omnipotent presence of nationalism in contemporary society. Both Greenfeld and Calhoun argue that nationalism is not a product of modernisation but constitutive of modernity.

In light of these considerations, nationalism should primarily be understood as a quintessentially modern form of human self-reflexivity with the nation at the centre of societal self-understanding. It is part and parcel of modern human endeavour to make sense of the world and to try to bring about a brighter future by their own efforts: to exercise one’s autonomy and to achieve mastery of one’s surroundings. Nationalism as a form of human self-reflexivity has the nation at its core because of the nation’s importance in articulating new forms of political legitimation.

Why nations? Because nations have proven to be, at least so far, the best form of community which reflect the enhanced level of human agency, the essence of modernity. Nations transcend older forms of community defined by a variety of ‘givens’ such as status, village, religion and so on. While the primordiality of the nation may be emphasised in many empirical cases, the nation is, theoretically, a community of individuals who are autonomous and equal to each other, which serves as the basis of solidarity. The nation as a community of sovereign individuals would demand a type of political legitimation such as democracy which would affirm the centrality of human agency.

The nation’s transcendence is not, however, universalistic or free-floating. The nation has to be a community of shared cultural codes, most typically language; otherwise, interpretations of the world cannot be shared. There is therefore a degree of primordiality to the nation, through which it is tied to its pre-modern history or civilisational background. The formidable power of the modern state, widely called the nation-state, is not essential in the way advocates of ‘bringing the state back in’ would have it, but it is not insignificant in making the nation the most important unit in thinking about the world. The centrality of the nation-state in ordering the world may be challenged by different forms of collective identity that are formed and maintained along the lines that go beyond the nation-state. However, the nation-state’s resources and institutional power has not been decisively overcome and the importance of the nation as the basic unit in thinking about the world is not diminished.

Eisenstadt’s theory introduces further insights into the relationship between nations and globalisation through references regarding the importance of the nation-state as a new form of political legitimation in modernity. He also hinted at the importance of national identity in modernity when discussing the distinct features of collective identity formation and maintenance, but also suggested that the nation-state framework was being undermined by the surge of different kind of protest and contestation. In these terms, precisely because globalisation is part of an unfolding modernity, it is expected nonetheless to one day facilitate the emergence of new cultural and political programmes that will make these nationalist programmes obsolete.

In this context, the possibility of ‘Europe’ as a cosmopolitan orientation that would surpass the homogenising nation-state’s hegemony becomes interesting. The newly emerging European identity can be seen as a realisation of tendencies which are challenging the nation-state’s hegemonic status in the constitution and reconstitution of cultural and political programmes. As Peter Wagner puts it, “the construction of a European polity should be seen as the Europeans’ contemporary response to the persistent problems of interpreting and institutionalising modernity”.

‘Europe’ can be captured as a future-oriented sociological project which puts forward the question of European identity and its meaning for the Europeans as actors in their daily reality. European identity can understood as a social work-in-progress, as a social project of being or even becoming European. Gerard Delanty has summarised this work-in-progress as follows:

To be European is not to identify with something called Europe or have a common identity comparable to a national identity and for which the hyphen is needed. (…) Europe does not exist except as a discursively constructed object of consciousness and Europeans also do not exist as a people with shared past. (…) Europeaness consists as much in the ways that values, interests and beliefs, modes of justification, etc. are mediated and negotiated as in a specific set of identifications.   

This conceptualisation is certainly cosmopolitan in its orientation with an emphasis on multiplicity of the meaning of Europe and firmly grounded in the ‘bottom-up’ approach; it clearly eschews any connotation of European hegemony.

However, empirical data suggests there is little sign that Delanty’s work-in-progress has been going on or will become engaged in the near future. ‘Europe’ certainly has a potential to be the bases of new cultural and political programmes which challenge the nation-state’s hegemonic position in the current configuration of modernity. However, it is fair to say these newly emerging cultural and political programmes have not yet gathered enough momentum to challenge the hegemony of the nation-state. Their emergence is closely watched by a large number of researchers and their development will no doubt be documented and analysed closely. For the time being, though, European identity or being European has not seriously undermined the centrality of nationalism in the modern world.

Nations are, therefore, here to stay because of and despite globalisation. Because of globalisation because globalisation is a set of processes through which the exercise of human agency is enhanced; despite globalisation because cosmopolitan orientations that accompany globalisation have not yet consolidated themselves to constitute a strong cultural and political programme that can take on that of nationalism.

This article is drawn from Atsuko’s forthcoming volume, Nationalism and Multiple Modernities: Europe and Beyond, Palgrave, 2013

Craig Calhoun (1997) Nationalism, Bukingham: Open University Press

Gerard Delanty (2005): What does it mean to be a “European”?, Innovation, Vol. 18 (1):  11-22

Shmuel Eisenstadt (2000) ‘Multiple modernities’, Daedalus, 129: 1-29

Liah Greenfeld (2006) Nationalism and the Mind: Essays on Modern Culture, Oxford: Oneworld Publications

Peter Wagner (2008) Modernity as Experience and Interpretation: A New Sociology of Modernity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData