On Nationalism

As policy discussions to nationalism, it is instructive to consider nationalism from a more neutral and intellectual perspective. Immigration is an increasingly salient policy issue as there are a sizeable number countries in which one fifth or more of their population lives abroad. As such large numbers of people move across the globe, changing notions of nationalism are certain to arise. Facile comparisons to nativism and fascism are unhelpful, so it makes sense to think about what exactly it is, its history, and why it exists.

Anthony D. Smith wrote about nationalism from a sociological perspective at the London School of Economics. Smith’s Ethnic Origin of Nations makes the case that nations, despite their modern interpretations, have ethnic origins and that ethnic core is at the heart of the concept of nation. That is, countries were created when distinct ethnic populations or nations were associated with specific geographies and their borders. The modernist project took this traditional nationalism, what sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies called gemeinschaft, and transformed it into a more explicitly contractually transactional and economically mediated set of relationships called gesellschaft.

Nationalism however is something more than the opposite of modernity, it denotes fellow feeling among members of a nation that leads to cooperation and sacrifice for the common good. Looking to pre-modern Britain, or rather England, one need only compare the early pre-kings, such as Offa of Mercia,  who while they had king-like qualities, ruled their dominion more like a tyrant with little to know public consent or fellow-feeling. Later elites, like Alfred the Great, held the allegiance of the people, so the government and the people were mutually beneficial and undertook collective action without being physically compelled to do so. That is, they behaved as a nation. True elites elicit this fellow-feeling from the non-elites and take it seriously rather than take it for granted and demand it.

Smith points out that narratives about common myths and historical ages help to prompt these common feelings, and he points out that such myths need not be, strictly true. For example, the tartans that support Scottish nationalism are not quite as ancient as some might believe, only going back to the late 18th century. However, it is not the historical accuracy of such narratives and stories that matters so much as the fellow-feeling and social cohesion they elicit.

In conclusion, there a three takeaway points from Smith’s study of nationalism. First, the modern nation-state has its historical roots in common ethnicities associated with a common geography. Second, nationalism entails a conversation and mutual respect between elites and non-elites. Third, national narratives may not be strictly true but serve to support and reinforce these mutual bonds. Nationalism is often described negatively, but a sensitive and academic understanding of it demonstrates much of the social organization that people enjoy, depend on, and take for granted derives from nationalism.


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