Topic: CultureTraditions

Last updated: January 29, 2019

Nationalism could be defined as an ideology which creates an inter-connectedness of a particular community of peoples, linked to their identity, jurisdiction, and territory. Nationalism is a complex issue, with some scholars holding the view that, ‘Nationalism is at the basis of the world in which we live’ (Greenfeld, 1992: 3). However, there are many different views as to what nationalism entails. To understand this broad term ‘nationalism’ we must analyse the term though some theoretical approaches. This theoretical review will examine nationalism from the primordial, modernist and ethno-symbolist perspectives in trying to understand nationalism.Primordialism is one theory in which can be used to analyse nationalism, this theory argues that nations and nationalism can be traced back to primitive emotions and instincts, which have, ‘deep roots in human associational life’ (Hankin, 1937: 27-41).

A major component of primodialists theory is common decent, combined with the biological ties, ancestry, and kinship these all play a crucial part in the formation of national bonds (Hearne, 2006). primordialist also sees “group solidarity as based on “primodial” ties which bind people together, by virtue (…) or through perceived cultural similarities based on such features as language and territory”. (Smith 1998: 145-53, 223). Territorial belonging links to nationalism, it plays on individuals’ emotional attachment to the land. Combined with historical analysis of a nation, the shared culture, and link to historic territories, all invoke a sense of primordial nationalistic feeling towards a nation. A territory is crucial to national feeling, the use of imagery from territories link people to the land.

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Over time, as a group occupies a territory, a change occurs, “Instead of a group defining the territory, the territory comes to define the group” (Herb and Kaplan, 1999: 17). Whilst territory makes the character of a nation tangible, national anthems make reference to their environment to underline their unique appearance (Lowenthal cited in Herb and Kaplan, 1999:18). Although some nations have a similar appearance, their uniqueness is enhanced by incorporating cultural elements to help differentiate themselves.

Primordialists also believe that a common language is vital in the construction of a nation, linking to the feeling of nationalism. Language provides social cohesion and an emotional bond, “Language is synonymous with thought, and as each language was learned in the community, then each community must think differently” (Herder, 1772). Whilst territory and language are key to primordial ideology, there focus on the belief that national identities are transferred from generation to generation intact is a notable weakness as it fails to acknowledge alternative variations in ethnic group creation. Some ethnic groups have identities embedded deep within historical roots and others don’t. This static view has been eroded over time with, “boundaries continuously negotiated and redefined in each generation as groups adapt to changing circumstances” (Özkirimli, 2000: 62-64). Combined with this weakness Brass an instrumentalist critique, states that many people speak more than one language. In some cases, members of different ethnic groups choose to change the language to provide better opportunities for their family. As a result, there nationalist attachment to their nation by a common language isn’t as important as primordialists stress.

Modernists mostly argue that nationalism rose to prominence, “between the sixteenth and the late eighteenth centuries” (Hearn, 2006). Modernism evolved as a response to primordialism, who viewed nationalism as a natural feature of human society. For modernists, nationalism is a byproduct of historical forces and events. One of the main themes of modernism is the industrialisation and capitalisation process which created recognisable national identities, this subsequently led to the mass spread of literacy and mass homogenisation of education creating a mass culture (Hearn, 2006: 67).

The proponents of the economic theory believe the starting point of a nation is the economic and industrialisation process. The Nation is defined in terms of power and emphasises economic power and cultural supremacy. Gellner identified that nationalism could only be comprehended through the context of industrialisation and the integrating effects of language and education that in-sued. The process of industrialisation eroded traditional societal structures and paved the way to a more cultural, communication-driven society.

For Gellner’s vision of a nation, certain criteria are needed to create a nation notably: the centralisation of power, access to education through the industrial process, giving people the opportunity to become better educated creating unity in a national system and a shared culture (Gellner, 2008, pp. 85-89). These requirements are highlighted through the unification of Italy in 1815 – 1871. Provinces and states where originally separate entities, with their own customs.

As each state grew it transformed into a larger conglomerate. Power was transferred from the individual and made part of the larger collection of states. Combined with this Italy also had the unification element of a common language. Italian was considered a literary language with some semblance of systemisation which could bring unity to states with differing dialects.However, Gellner’s theory fails to take into account for the nationalist developments in Western Europe, largely present prior to industrialisation and followed a different pattern from his predictions. Gellner, “Admits ancient Israel provides us with an example of a pre-modern nation” (Gellner, 2006: 38-44), undermining his argument that nationalism was formed as a consequence of industrialisation. Combined with this, his approach doesn’t comprehend what motivates nationalists, whilst it may highlight what motivates them socioeconomically this theory lacks an explanation for nations emotions. Without looking into the antecedents of nationalism it is difficult to account for the passions that it generates (Gellner, 2006: 38-44).

Also, is some instances nationalists act in ways which stops their country progressing (E.g. Pol Pots genocide of Western-educated elites in Cambodia).Ethnosymbolism was manufactured as a way of counteracting the modernist and primodialsit approaches. Ethno-symbolist pitches their theory in a way, “to change the modernist analysis ”from within” by exposing the debts of the modern nation to pre-modern ethnic ties” (Smith 1998: 202). Ethnosymbolists point to the ethnic lineage of nations in earlier periods, and the impacts ethnic communities have in sculpting the modern nations.

It’s the ethnicity that helps identify certain characteristics, which can be used to differentiate one nation or nationalism from other.Ethnosymbolists also place significant importance on cultural factors such as symbols, myths, memory, and ritual in evaluating the question of nationalism. The cultivation of these cultural factors requires a certain class of individuals or elites with the repertoire of skills that enable them to select and apply ethnic memories, symbols, values, myths and traditions into new social and political situations (Smith 2009: 19-39). These values, help ensure a sense of continuity with past generations, profoundly increased by the widespread acceptance of collective symbols such as the flag and national anthems, therefore whilst meanings may change over time the forms remain relatively fixed.The role of the elite plays a major role in the communication of symbols to the nation. The elite role is seen by ethnosymbolists as, “providing ‘bridges’ between past and present, between ethnic myths and their modern translation into viable coherent identities” (Grosby and Leoussi, 2007: 23).

The task of the elites is to carefully select those symbols and traditions which have resonance over a large section of the population and have the potential to strike a chord among the latter. These elites must not “merely have the will and inclination, but also the power and capacity to apply and disseminate the ideas produced by the intellectuals” (Grosby and Leoussi, 2007: 22).Ethnosymbolism offers a foundation for a more wide-ranging understanding of the nation than modernism alone. However, there are some weaknesses of this approach, the myths and symbols chosen must resonate with a significant segment of the population if mobilisation is to be successful. The limitation lies in the restricted environments under which given myths or symbol will have such resonance.

Smith focuses on authenticity must be present in the heritage of the ethnic community. However, such ethnic authenticity is only one possible reason a signifier may have meaning to a national group (Mock, 2011). Combined with this as nations evolve, they will sometimes express themselves in dissimilarity to the ethnies they come from, “Even when a rich vein of ethno-history has been mined, the cultural wars have only began” (Mock, 2011: 28).


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