Nationalism Research Paper

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I. Introduction

II. Political Dimension of Nations

III. The Political Presentation of Nationalism

I. Introduction

Nationalism is a modern ideology that tries to explain the individual’s devotion to the nationstate by neglecting other interests. It has taken many different shapes in various geographies, cultures, histories, and political systems. Even in a particular location, nationalism has transformed from one form to another throughout history. The core of nationalism is nation. What constitutes a nation is a question scholars are still trying to clarify by using approaches developed throughout the ages. Not only political science but also other branches of the humanities are trying to understand the concepts of nation and nationalism. The current technological innovations and rapid globalization have added new dimensions to nationalism and its movements. Each day brings a new peculiarity of nationalism.

The various definitions recall the story in which a group of blind men touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one touches a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes on what they felt and learn they are in complete disagreement. All attempts to define nationalism are similar: They come from the perspective of the scholars’ disciplines, and like the blind men, each discipline touches only one aspect of nationalism. As a result, a remarkable amount of research has been published regarding nationalism, but theoretical progress has been limited.

The concept of “nation” is historically older than nationalism as a political movement. The English word nation comes from the Latin word nasci, which literally means “to be born.” The word has gradually taken the meaning of large group of people with a common ancestry. The idea of nation takes shape in conjunction with cultural, political, and psychological factors.

Language, religion, history, literature, folkloric themes (epics, myths, legends), and customs are the elements creating bonds among a group of people that transform a nation. Indeed, there is no consensus among scholars and researchers on the subjective and objective factors for the definition of nation. Anthony Smith (2001) distinguishes the objective factors of language, religion, customs, territory, and institutions from the subjective category of attitudes, perceptions, and sentiments. Renan (1882) identified the nation as a form of morality and solidarity that was supported by historical consciousness. On the other hand, Max Weber agrees that the nation is “obviously an ambiguous term” (quoted in Gerth & Wright-Mills, 1948, p. 176). But his way of understanding takes us to the point at which his nation concept becomes a prestige community unified around a myth of common descent. Weber also understands the nation as a political project that “tends to produce a state of its own” (p. 177). On the other hand, Stalin expounded on the nation as a combination of subjective and objective elements. According to Stalin, “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture” (quoted in Franklin, 1973, p. 57). From a different perspective, Greenfeld (1992) states that “social, political, and cultural in the narrow sense, or ethnic qualities, acquire a great significance in the formation of every specific nationalism” (p. 8).

The idea of a nation as a cultural entity dates back to 18th-century German political thinkers. Johann Gottfried von Herder, a critic, poet, and philosopher, was the first author to mention that each nation had a cultural distinctiveness (Hayes, 1927; White, 2005). He emphasized the importance of language and asserted that certain ideas of an individual in one language could not be understood in another language. He also believed that language constructed one’s worldview (weltanschauung). He demonstrated how epics, myths, legends, and folk songs build a spirit that can be named volksgeist. Herder preferred to refer to it as the “spirit of nations” (Geist des volkes). Herder collected folk songs, which he published in his work Voices of the People in Their Songs to underline the value of national culture, collective memories, and traditions for a nation (Herder, 1818). The definition of the German romantic writers was criticized with the claim that cultural commonalities were not as powerful as in agricultural societies. On the contrary, modern researchers underlined the role of the industrial revolution and modernization in the spread of nationalism. Ernest Gellner (1983), a modern philosopher, defined “nationalism as primarily a political principle that holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent” (p. 1). He interpreted the new cultural cohesion as a product of the industrial revolution promulgated by education and the division of labor in industry. He conceptualized the culture of the industrial age as high culture transmitted through education (Gellner, 1983).

German historian Karl Renner (Reifowitz, 2009) added another level to the discussion by demonstrating how historical destiny transformed “passive people” (passiver Volkheit) into a group that had become conscious about itself (Renner, 1899, p. 89, quoted in Hobsbawm, 1990, p. 101). Anthony Smith (1983) followed a similar approach by explaining modern nationalism in relation to premodern ethnicities. He claimed that a nation is embedded in the history of its cultural, linguistic, and political values. This type of self-affirmation also led to cultural nationalism with a primary emphasis on cultural distinctiveness. Another German historian, Friedrich Meinecke (1919), clarified the modern state-and-culture relation by identifying Kulturnation as a “largely passive cultural community” and the Staatsnation as an “active self-determining political nation” (pp. 2–3). He identified the nation as cultural or ethnic affiliation versus the nation as political state. Meinecke referred to the Germans, the Russians, the Irish, the Greeks, and the English as examples of kultur nation. From this perspective, since culture cannot be learned, it is not possible to become German by learning the language and adopting the lifestyle and values. You have to be a native German to perceive the culture. This distinction also implies two enduring ways of understanding the rise of the nation-state.

The first appearance of European nationalism has been a topic of discussion. In 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years’War, the European powers signed the Treaty of Westphalia in Munster and Osnabruck, ending interference in each other’s domestic politics. The principle rule—cuius regio, eius religio (whose realm, his religion)— of the treaty confirmed that the ruler’s faith became the official religion of his state. The states formed on this principle were accepted as preliminary examples of the nation-state in the political science literature (Schulze, 1998). Unlike other researchers who have taken the French revolution as a first example, Greenfeld (1992) argues that “the original modern idea of the nation emerged in sixteenth century England, which was the first nation in the world (and the only one with the possible exception of Holland, for about two hundred years)” (p. 14).

II. Political Dimension of Nations

The political allegiance, citizenship, and homogeneous population that form the nation are products of the modern age. A nation is a group of people bonded to each other by citizenship under the authority of a political construction that ignores cultural, ethnic, and other loyalties. In this sense, Andrew Heywood (2000) basically understood the nation as a psycho political construction. But it also has a historical progress dating back to the French revolution, when the transition from monarchic structures, in which the individuals were subjects of the crown, to the constitutional state, which promoted participatory rule, took place. Jean-Jacques Rousseau conceptualized the participation of the people with the term general will. In Social Contract, Rousseau (1762/2008) wrote, “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole” (p. 77). In these lines, he explains general will not only as one of the principles of the nation but also as a condition for the formation of the nation-state. Nationalism emerged from the national sentiment created within these nation-states. Mainstream researchers understood nationalism as an output of nation-states. Meinecke created the term state nation to describe an entity differing from the nation-state. The concept of state-nation was based on Rousseau’s idea of general will and the nations formed by states. According to Meinecke, the nation-state gradually evolved from an individual culture. As a result, he concluded that states were formed from nations.

Eric Hobsbawm (Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983) opposed the idea that nations were basically ethnic groups formed throughout history. He asserted that nations were superficially formed by nationalism, and he conceptualized the condition as an “invented tradition.” He presented his example thusly:

Israeli and Palestinian nationalism or nations must be novel, whatever the historic continuities of Jews or Middle Eastern Muslims, because the very concept of territorial states, of the current standard type in their region, was barely thought of a century ago, and hardly became a serious prospect before the end of World War I. (pp. 13-14)

Benedict Anderson’s research also supports Hobsbawm with his use of the term imagined communities. Anderson (1991) stated that “a nation is an imagined political community that is imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” He also clarified his approach thusly: “A nation is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (pp. 5–6). He claimed that education, political communication, and the mass media played a crucial role in building this imaginary sense. These approaches have also been supported by Marxism, which believes that the concepts of nation and nationalism belong to the bourgeoisie. These concepts were constructed as instruments to exploit (rule) other classes through the creation of loyalty based on the sense of nation, which was more powerful than the binding power of the working classes.

Nations somehow evolved into politics and have thereafter been processed under the rules of politics. As in Meinecke’s definition of political nations, the significance of citizenship is more intensive than that of ethnicity. Cultural heterogeneity is one of the common indicators of these countries. The United States and the United Kingdom are given as the examples of this type of political nation. In this context, Meinecke also differentiates the terms state nation and nation state. The nation-state refers to the state that was built on the crystallization of an individual culture. However, the state-nation is based on Rousseau’s “general will” and is a nation constructed by the state. The case of the United States fits the state-nation concept. It is hard to build a national identity that depends on the commonality of a shared cultural and historical past because of the multiethnic and multicultural characteristics of the United States. U.S. nationhood formed around the voluntary acceptance of a set of common values, principles, and goals by all citizens. It is possible to use the melting-pot analogy for these types of states. Since state-nations are not composed of one individual culture, they have the challenge of creating an organic unity.

Nationalism and the political nation concepts have generally been understood in the European context.As a result, the nation-state and national identity have peculiar problems in the third world, where two major streams have been followed. First, national identities were built up during their struggles for freedom in national independence wars against colonial powers. These identities were strongly shaped under the anticolonial characteristics of that period. Second, national identity was shaped by territorial boundaries. These borders were usually inherited from the colonial past. Contemporary maps of the Middle East and Africa provide a clear example of these divisions. These “nations” have a wide range of ethnicities, but few commonalities except their shared colonial past. Therefore, to achieve statehood, “nationhood” had to be built on existing conditions, which rewrite the history, fabricate a national language, and produce a national education system. Nevertheless, the differences in ethnic and political identities generate tensions within the nation and, from time to time, escalate into conflict. The transformation from colonial rule and empires to nation-states affected the nationalism movements of the 20th century.

Theories of nationalism contain the tensions of the definition of a nation, whether it is the old, naturally given sense or a fabricated output of modernity. Theories of nationalism can be grouped into two major categories. The first group is bounded by two opposing ideas: instrumentalism and primordialism. Primordialism mainly understands nationalism as a natural process that stems from such givens as the same blood, language, religion, kinship, and common fate. This type of nationalism is also known as organic nationalism. Primordial nationalism approaches the natural nations as having been present throughout history as major actors that played a critical role in shaping the modern world.

On the other hand, instrumentalism explains the nation as a product of elite manipulation and concludes that nations can be fabricated. According to the instrumentalist view, the concept of a natural nation is the purposive output of the processes of mental production. The instrumentalist also believes that the statesmen and the elite of the bureaucracy construct the nation and nationalism as “a strategic device to be utilized for political gain, as a great manipulating force that can be used in order to corral a population into a desired position” (Ozkirimli, 2000, p. 86). In his book Theories of Nationalism, Umut Ozkirimli (2000) summarized the case thusly: “True instrumentalists believe that nationalism comes from the state, not the other way around” (p. 86). Instrumentalism focuses on the functional capabilities of nationalism. In practice, these two theories are mainly implemented more on ethnicity and ethnic identity than on nationalism.

The second major group of nationalism theories, perennialism and modernism, focus on nations and nationalism. Perennialism accepts that nationalism is a modern concept but insists that ethnic communities and cultural identities have existed in all periods of history. Different from the primordialist, the perennialist claims that nations or ethnicities are not natural givens but historical, social, and cultural phenomena. Perennialists view modern nations as updated versions of ethnic communities. However, the modernist approach believes that the nation and nationalism emerged in the modern period as a result of structural changes in societies during the transition to modernity. The modernists also emphasize the change of social institutions and how that change affects society in terms of nationalism.

III. The Political Presentation of Nationalism

The application of theories on the ground generates varieties of nationalism in political life. Nationalism seems to have been one of the most progressive and driving forces of political life in the 20th century. However, the characteristics of nationalism are generally shaped in the context of and according to the political ideas attached to it. Nationalism could be progressive, liberating, reactionary, authoritarian, conservative, democratic, oppressive, left wing, or right wing. In a colony, it emerges as anticolonial nationalism and promotes the liberation of the people. The major political presentations of nationalism could be grouped as liberal nationalism, conservative nationalism, expansionist nationalism, and anticolonial nationalism.

Liberal nationalism, also known as civic or civil nationalism, is different from the other types of political presentations of nationalism in that liberal nationalism is characteristically nonxenophobic. The main assumption of liberal nationalism is that human beings naturally divide into nations that possess a separate and unique identity. Liberal nationalism supports every nation’s right to self-determination and freedom. The builder of Italian unification, Giuseppe Mazzini, defined the harmony of nationhood in his work as “the idea of a sisterhood of nations” (Snyder & Montgomery, 2003, p. 322). Liberal nationalism is opposed to oppressive and autocratic multinational empires. For example, Mazzini wished not only to unify Italy but also to throw out autocratic Austrian rule. After World War I, Woodrow Wilson’s principles also emphasized the character of liberal nationalism by respecting the rights of nations. The progressive aspect of liberal nationalism mainly appears in its promotion of unity, not rivalry, among nations. It also fosters an environment of peace at the state level, which also influences the international system. In this way, liberal nationalism brings universalism with its scope over nations. Indeed, this approach stemmed from liberals’ fear that otherwise the international system would degenerate, causing wars and conflicts. The criticism of liberal nationalism mainly considers the approach romantic and unsophisticated because it concentrates only on the progressive side of nationalism while neglecting tribalism, xenophobia, and racism. Other major critics have focused on the political practices of nation-states without considering how these coincide with the linguistic, religious, and ethnic areas within a state’s borders.

Conservative nationalism reached its zenith after World War I with the establishment of national states, although it could be dated back to Bismarck’s German nation and Disraeli’s one nation concept. Conservative nationalism brings social cohesion and public solidarity derived from patriotism into focus and is not interested in the national self-determination of liberal nationalism. After the establishment of a nation-state, the political elite of that state try to build a nation through the creation of a consistent history and language. Conservative nationalism takes its power from a shared past, building on its values and institutions. Thus nationalism becomes evident with its traditionalism and nostalgia. The acts of protection of conservative nationalism also grow with the growth of its perceived enemies and suspicion. It furthermore boosts intolerance, bigotry, and zealotry. In this type of nationalism, insiders and outsiders are very clearly differentiated. Conservative governments and their elite are capable of aggressively using the military and foreign policy for expansion. Contrary to liberal nationalism, conservative nationalism does not promise a peaceful political system at either the state or the international level.

One of the major political manifestations of nationalism is expansionist nationalism. This type has an aggressive character coupled with intentions to extend its territory. Governments that pursue expansionist policies explain their interest in the territories either with historical causes or with claims that the existing territory the nation inhabits is too small or is not able to physically or economically support the nation’s population. Expansionist nationalism became visible before World War II with the examples of Germany and Japan. Expansionist nationalism appears with right wing ideologies and emphasizes the importance of the nation over the individual. Another nation or race is defined as a threat or enemy, and this fear is used in building a national identity sustained by a type of negative integration. The sense of the “other” is the main force and motivation to keep “us” together. The image of the other is formed by prejudgments and negative feelings. In the literature, expansionist nationalism is also referred to as integral nationalism and was first mentioned by Charles Maurras (Buthman, 1939), a French nationalist. Throughout history, national liberation struggles have led to extreme nationalism. The last step of expansionist nationalism is to define a natural space for the nation, as in the example of Nazi Germany’s demand for lebensraum (living space).

Anticolonial nationalism emerged at the end of the struggle against colonial powers. Early appearances of anticolonial nationalism imitated European forms of nationalism but displayed peculiar characteristics. Each instance of anticolonial nationalism was unique and carried a spatial characteristic. Anticolonial nationalism built on the idea of nationhood by the degree of the exploitation and inequality to which the nations that had a colonial past were exposed. Socialism and particularly Marxism– Leninism were embraced in anticolonial nationalism. During the cold war, the peak of nationalism was the rise of Arab nationalism, which was led by Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir (Dawisha, 2003). He aimed to unite Arabs to fight a common enemy and to reach common goals. Nasir’s radio speeches stole the hearts and minds of the Arab people. Arab nationalism reached its peak just before the Arab– Israeli wars, which also empowered the unity of Arab nations. However, the defeat of Arab states in 1967 initiated the dissolution of the movement. Arab nationalism quickly gave birth to a new ideology known as Ba’athism (literally, resurrection), which sought the promotion of pan-Arab socialism (Tibi, 1997). Later, the Ba’ath movement continued its presence in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon with the motto of “Unity, Freedom and Socialism.” Since the bipolarity of the cold war played a role in regional politics, the Soviets liked the idea of the establishment of an Arabic socialist party and supported its political presence in the region.

The bipolarity of the cold war ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Its former constituent states then became independent, and this development has spurred the debate on nationalism. At least 18 states have come into existence, 14 of them out of the Soviet Union. Under the Soviet Union, political leaders heavily emphasized soviet identity over national identity. History, literature, myths, and other values were constructed on union membership. In the early years of the Soviet Union, new histories were written to emphasize the unity of the soviets (Edgar, 2004). However, after 1991, the newly independent states felt the necessity to build nationhood and debated hotly the objective and subjective factors to choose in order to become a nation. In this discussion, they rewrote their history books and common values up to the present time. Nevertheless, the multiethnic and religious character of these states formed their biggest obstacle in naming their nation. On the other hand, ethnic nationalism was also enhanced in the post-Communist states. Yugoslavia, and how it divided, was the most vivid example of rising ethnic nationalism. The remarkable shifts in the population due to the immigration of a workforce, rapid industrialization, and urbanization expedited the emergence of ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia (Denitch, 1996). In addition to these trends, the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy triggered national exclusivism and ignited conflict between Serbs, Bosnians, and Croatians. In 1992, the Serbian militia systematically killed many Bosnians to capture cities and terrorized families, causing them to flee from their homes. This action was labeled ethnic cleansing in the literature (Carmichael, 2002). The deployment of 60,000 soldiers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization established a cease-fire, but the conflict left 200,000 casualties and 2 million refugees.

The destabilization of Yugoslavia and the ensuing power vacuum due to the loss of authority promoted ethnic nationalism on the ground. The U.S.-led intervention into Iraq in 2003 crystallized the ethnicities and religious sects in the region. Iraq became divided between Sunni Arabs, Shi‘iteArabs, Kurds, and Turkomen (Fontana, 2010; Marr, 2007). The chaotic security environment of the transition period greatly provoked the condition, and the mobilization of the different ethnic groups began. The establishment of a new central authority has lessened the tension among ethnic groups, but it has not totally ended and continues as low-intensity, ongoing conflict. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the conflicts, coupled with the rise of nationalism, could be seen in the examples ofAfghanistan, Rwanda, Nigeria, Macedonia, Transnistria in Moldova, and the Caucasus.

After the end of the cold war, the newly independent states displayed extreme hatred toward their colonial past, as well as rising nationalism. These cases of anticolonial nationalism were mostly engaged by, and presented with, Islam. Religious communities and groups were used to initiate anticolonial struggles and to neutralize the comprador bourgeoisie.

To sum up, in the 21st century, the subjective and objective factors of nationalism are rapidly changing with globalization and technological innovations. Indeed, with its Internet communication capabilities and mass media, the digital age has made the world smaller. Now even the untouched spaces on earth have been connected by global information, which squeezes the local culture in order to accommodate itself. Indigenous cultures are forming counterreactionary identities, and micro-scale nationalisms are emerging. In the long run, the number of small nationalities will probably increase. From the regional perspective, these local nationalisms also unify and create more powerful regional nationalist movements, as well. Because borders are changing and new identities are emerging, social scientists of this century are witnessing how the process of nation building commences and continues in various parts of the world. Local languages are more apparent and supported by international organizations. Oral literatures have been published as books, and rituals of culture are turning into traditions. On the other hand, the concept of the nation is changing, especially in the sense of ethnicity. Thanks to the advances in DNA research, several projects now aim to find the genetic sources of various ethnic groups. Today, it is growing easier to follow the traces of a nation’s birth and development, a trend that might modify the meaning of nation and nationalism. Social, technological, and economic challenges are jeopardizing the nation-state concept. It is expected that the term will deviate slightly from its original meaning. Gellner (1992) has described the world we are living in as follows:

a world in which one style of knowledge, though born of one culture, is being adapted by all of them, with enormous speed and eagerness, and is disrupting many of them, and is totally transforming the milieu in which men [sic] live. (p. 78)

In this context, the definition and study of nationalism are also in transition, and one does not expect them to settle down soon. But nationalism will be the center of various discussions in world politics and will be the core of political science.

Read more:


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