Archive for October, 2013

Workshop nationalism and power

There will be a workshop on nationalism and power on Tuesday 5th of November at 16.30 in the meeting room at the sixth floor of the Chrystal Macmillan building. The workshop will be facilitated by Dr Jonathan Hearn. Please see abstract below. All welcome.

A central concern in my work has been to understand the origins and nature of liberal forms of society.  I argue that this has taken shape interdependently with the formation of modern nation-states, and that the success of liberal society (so far) is down to the fact that it generates and harnesses more systemic power than rival systems.  I will talk around this broad thesis, and why I hold to it, and invite questions from the group and seek an open-ended discussion of the issues raised.  Below I list four specific theses connected to the above, and a couple of key readings that people might want to look at in advance.

Four theses:

  • The rise of the idea of popular sovereignty, that authority derives from ‘a people’ in general, is the crucial shift in the formation of modern nationalism.  Ethnicity is of secondary importance in understanding the phenomenon and its emergence.
  • Nations, states, and nation-states are best understood as forms of social organisation that generate and deploy power.  Questions of identity, ideology and culture are important for understanding them, but the analysis of power takes priority in explaining nationalism.
  • Ultimately, the emergence of nationalism is best viewed through a social evolutionary lens.  The rise of nation-states and nation-state systems is due to the fact that they have out-competed and displaced other political forms in the search for power.
  • Liberal democratic regimes, far from transcending nationalism, are fundamentally premised on it.  They are designed to manage the ongoing competition between different conceptions of the ‘nation’ and its ‘state’.


Hearn, J. (2006) Rethinking Nationalism, chp 7, ‘Rethinking Power’, pp. 145-169 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).

Hearn, J. (2012) Theorizing Power, chp 7, ‘Domination, Authority and Legitimacy in Liberal Society’, pp.  135-151 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).

Or alternatively:

Hearn, J. (2011) ‘The strength of weak legitimacy: a cultural analysis of legitimacy in capitalist, liberal democratic nation-states’, Journal of Political Power 4(2): 199-216.

Read Full Post »



     Eric Hobsbawm was born into a Jewish family in 1927 to an Austrian mother British Father. When he was born, they were living in Alexandria. Soon after, they moved to Austria. Following his parents’ death, he moved to Germany to live with his aunt who adopted him and his sister. When Hitler came into power in 1933, they moved to England. He experienced the rise of fascism in Vienna and Berlin. His political stance and historiography were likely affected by this cosmopolite background.

Hobsbawm graduated from the University of Cambridge and lectured in Italy, the U.S., England, and South America. He became a member of The Association of Socialist Pupils at the age of 14 and of the Communist Party when he was 19. During the Soviet Invasion of Hungary in 1956, most of its members left the British Communist Party, but Hobsbawm and a few colleagues did not. Yet he protested the Soviet invasion of Hungary and was in favour of the Prague Spring.

The main reason why he held on to the Bolshevik Revolution ideals so long and while all his colleagues were leaving the party is that he had experienced both anti-Semitism and fascism. In 1994 during an interview he claimed that if the Soviet Union had succeeded in creating a true communist society, it would have been worth the deaths of the twenty million people who perished under Stalin. Additionally, he never denied Stalin’s truculence and never criticized Stalin for being a nationalist. But it should be remembered that he never chose to become a Zionist either. On the other hand, during another interview in 2002 he said; “In Germany there wasn’t any alternative left. Liberalism was failing. If I’d been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they’d become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you didn’t believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed.” Hobsbawm also paid dearly for his Marxism in terms of a reportedly decade-long stymied career trajectory.

Do you agree with him that one cannot be a good historian of the nation and a nationalist at the same time?


     So, in his view, what is a nation? Hobsbawm, while in essence re-hashing a Gellnarian view, ultimately refuses to settle on a single definition of the nation, arguing that objective definitions are doomed to fail because exceptions can always be found (Hobsbawm: 1990 5). This does not mean, however, that Hobsbawm has no tangible theory of nationalism (Hobsbawm: 1990 9-10);

  1.  Hobsbawm defines nationalism as the ideology that the political and national units should coincide.
  2. He views the nation as a changing, evolving, modern construct that is brought into being by nationalism, and not the other way around.
  3. He agrees that there are certain political, technical, administrative and economic conditions necessary for the emergence of the nation, such as the existence of administrative and educational infrastructure.
  4. Finally, Hobsbawm believes nationalism is constructed from above, although it needs to be studied from bellow as this is where it takes root and is most powerful and volatile.

Furthermore, there are three phases to the development of nationalism according to Hobsbawm (1990 12):

  1.  A preliminary phase in which the idea of the nation is purely cultural and/or folkloric;
  2.  A pioneering phase wherein political campaigners begin to try and raise awareness and mobilize the nation;
  3.  And finally, the stage at which nationalist movements acquire mass support, an occurrence which can come to pass before or after the birth of the state.

In his analysis, Hobsbawm’s primary concern is how and why some nations accomplish the transition from phase 2 to phase 3. In other words, why do certain nationalist movements gain mass support and not others? He proceeds to dissect the rise and evolution of various nationalist movements, largely in a European context. However, throughout his historical analysis, a conclusion can be reached: For a nationalism movement to be successful, the nation needs to be “imagined”, it needs to be of a certain size and – the real determining factor – it needs to have a national economy to drive it. Without the necessary economic factors, it would never succeed.

The imagining of the nation can involve three historical aspects

  1. Historic association with a state (which is driven by an economy)
  2. Long-established cultural elite (to create the culture and impose it from above)
  3. A capacity for conquest (less critical today)


     While the decidedly leftist Hobsbawm generally undertakes a fairly materialist review of history, he does leave surprising room for a constructivist case, albeit n elicits, or ‘top-down’ one:

“For this reason they are…constructed essentially from above, but which cannot be understood unless also analyzed from below, that is in terms of the assumptions, hopes, needs, longings and interests of ordinary people, which are not necessarily national and still less nationalist….That view from below, i.e. the nation as seen not by governments and the spokesmen and activists of nationalist (or non-nationalist) movements, but by the ordinary persons who are the objects of their action and propaganda, is exceedingly difficult to discover” (Nations and Nationalism Since 1780, emphasis mine).

Especially within the last 200 years, relatively new phenomenon such as the ‘nation’, ‘nation-state’, national symbols, national reflexes, and nationalism were formalized and were established through newly invented traditions. In The Invention of Tradition, he and Ranger offer a collection of essays about how and why different traditions are invented, what purposes these traditions have and continue to serve. As the concept relates to Nationalism, the construction of historical narratives is widely recognized as a common means of strengthening the legitimacy of a claim to a geographical region, self-autonomy, or even  solidifying a sense of group identity to serve a nationalist agenda. It represents a somewhat cynical view of nationalistic phenomena, but it is a theme which Hobsbawm shares with many more contemporary theorists in the field. Hobsbawm distinguished between three types of invented tradition (Hobsbawm 1983: 9):

  1. Those establishing or symbolising social cohesion and collective identities
  2. Those establishing or legitimatising institutions and social hierarchies
  3. Those socialising people into particular social contexts

Moreover, he stresses that studies of the distant past can prove especially crucial in modern political contexts such as the negotiations of national and ethnic identities. For example, is it any coincidence that the Scottish referendum is occurring in 2014, the 700th anniversary of one of Scotland’s most famous battles (Bannockburn) against the “would-be English overlords”?

Here is an interesting little blurb on how this has potentially manifested in Scottish Highland culture: http://www.history.utoronto.ca/material_culture/rmclean/html/trad.htm


      Hobsbawm’s views on what drives nationalist movements may be extremely useful in explaining why repeated attempts to develop a unified Afghanistan have ostensibly failed. It is arguably a better fit to analyze rival ideas of the nation held by the country’s different ethnic groups than some “hypothetical all-embracing Afghan nationalism”. Nevertheless, the process of nation building under conditions of independence continues at the present time, with inter-ethnic relations fundamentally altered by the changes in power relations brought about during three decades of warfare (beginning in 1978 with the civil war). Indeed, some specific features of the development of nationalism in Afghanistan have contributed to its present crisis, compounded by the failure of rival leaders to create any stable form of government, and what fragile unity the country gained in the wake of the civil war under the Taliban-affiliated government was in turn steadily eroded, as the politics of Afghanistan have been heavily influenced by NATO countries via their effort to “stabilise” and democratise the country. In 2004, the state’s new constitution was adopted and a president – Hamid Karzai – was (theoretically) democratically elected in 2004, winning a second five-year term in 2009, again on the surface suggesting a strengthening central state.

It has been argued (Hyman, 2002) that in modern Afghanistan, the national or patriotic idea remained very weak and undeveloped, “altogether lacking appeal or influence except in a small and unrepresentative educated urban, literate class whose members were often in important respects in culture cut off from the mass of the rural or tribal population” (p. 300). In short, nationalism cannot exert ideological appeal until the majority of Afghanistan’s population are integrated into the collective life of society. This, of course, would involve the creation of one over-arching, unifying “Afghan Tradition” a la Hobsbawm.

While before this narrative remained in essence one dominated by a tribal aristocracy, the Taliban focused on the role of Islam in Afghan society as legitimizer of authority (97% of Afghanistan’s population consider themselves Muslim). While Islam has been a unifying force against foreign and non-Muslim invaders (including in recent anti-NATO sentiment), it has however never been enough in itself to unite all the ethnies of Afghanistan in the past.

The Taliban movement, which began in 1994 among Pashtuns of Kandahar, is engaged on a mission to create a pure Islamic state in Afghanistan. Afghan nationalism as such is not an important element in the Taliban worldview, yet the Taliban had and have as a basic goal to reunite the entire territory of Afghanistan. Moreover, the xenophobic isolationist stance of Afghan nationalism under the Taliban continues to exploit popular Afghan suspicions of Western plots and interference to that end.

On the surface, it may have at times seemed that Afghanistan would disintegrate under into its constituent ethnic components or a plethora of new mini-states emerging out of the wreck of war, but it has not. During the war, there grew and remained popular autonomous sentiment demanding the withdrawal of NATO troops, culminating with the June 2013 security handover from NATO to Afghan forces. Clearly, there can be little sense of a pan-afghan ethnically or linguistically-based nationalism, so why does it remain increasingly content in its new democratic form? Again, perhaps Hobsbawm has the answer.


     Perhaps the increasingly viable, growing economy of the state encourages nationalist rhetoric on the part of the new state government, as Hobsbawm might suggest? The economy of Afghanistan has significantly improved of late due to the infusion of billions of dollars in international assistance and investments,as well as notable improvements in agricultural production. Most interestingly, the new government claims that the country holds up to $3 trillion in untapped mineral and oil deposits, one of the richest mining regions on earth. However, due to the conflicts, it remains one of the least developed countries in the world, ranking just 175th on the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, the writing and rewriting of history has been intimately linked to currents and fashions in national politics. State-promoted historical writing for journals or special publications has tended “slavishly to follow official policy” (Hyman, 2002). This supports Hobsbawm’s theory that constructed societal meanings and narratives (i.e. invented traditions) are a tool of national unification employed by would-be state powers in order to propagate their own legitimacy:

We should expect it to occur more frequently when a rapid transformation of society weakens or destroys the social patterns for which ‘old’ traditions had been designed, producing new ones to which they were not applicable, or when such old traditions and their institutional carriers and promulgators no longer prove sufficiently adaptable and flexible, or are otherwise eliminated; in short, when there are sufficiently large and rapid changes on the demand or the supply side (1983, 4-5).

This is certainly the case in Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan remains under the influence of competing narratives and traditions which, coupled with the as-of-yet sub-par economy, might explain why Afghan nationalism is not yet fully developed as a unifying popular force.

Sources & Further Reading:



     The Kachin people, living mainly in northeastern Myanmar with a population of 1.5 million people, are traditionally hill dwellers. They see themselves as largely Kachin and not at all Burmese, even though the state of Kachin belongs to Myanmar (and previously Burma). Nationalistic feelings in Kachin are high because they long for their own national sovereignty and do not want to be ruled by the government of Myanmar.

The Kachin people are dissatisfied with the central government. They see any forms of initiatives carried out in the state of Kachin as ‘Burmanization’, which they have been trying to resist throughout the years. For instance, the government has been attempting to build Buddhist pagodas in the Kachin state. While Buddhism is the state religion of, the majority of the Kachin people are Christian. The Kachin people have their own language, own religion and own distinct culture. In addition, their territory (homeland) is rich in jade and timber that they did not want the central government to exploit what they see as theirs. The Kachin state produces quality jade, which is currently being controlled by the central government.

As a result, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) was formed. It is one of the largest resistance organization in Myanmar against the central government. Under KIO, it has an armed wing called the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). There are several accounts of clashes between the KIA and the Burmese army as the Kachin people attempt to fight for their own independence via force. Even though the KIA signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government in 1994, they did not disarm or surrender and they continue to recruit, train and mobilize soldiers.


     In Hobsbawm’s theory of nationalism, he believes that political and economic reasons are the drivers of nationalist sentiment. He did not place emphasis on cultural and ethnic elements and he sees them as secondary factors for nationalism. In fact, he claims, “if the nation had anything in common from the popular-revolutionary point of view, it was not, in any fundamental sense, ethnicity, language, and the like, though these could be indications of collective belonging” (Hobsbawm, 1990, p.20)

Discussion Questions: Are cultural and ethnic factors the main driving force of nationalism in this case? Or is it that the KIO is playing the ethnic card in order to garner more support for political and economic reasons, as Hobsbawm might suggest?

Sources & Further Reading:
Kachin state on Map of Myanmar: http://www.freekachin.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/map.gif



     Québecois nationalism is a clear example of a nationalist movement that just fell short of reaching Hobsbawm’s third phase of nationalist development (1990: 12), the phase in which a movement goes from being an elite construct to having mass appeal. Based on the result of the 1995 referendum, Québec was teetering on the edge of attaining critical mass, but failed to do so. As a result, the movement lost steam and has, for the most part, been benched.

How can the failure of this movement be explained? Québec certainly has the necessary size, sitting today at just over 8 million. With its comprehensive education and mass media, it also had the technical and administrative conditions necessary. Consider Hobsbawm’s two main themes and determine if Quebecois Nationalism includes them: a robust “imagined community” and the national economy to drive it.

If anything, Québec is good example for the power of the invention of tradition. Consider the name used to represent the nation. Today most nationalists within La Belle Province consider themselves Québecois. Very few, if any, would associate with the term Canadiens. Yet, this is the banner that the early French Canadians used to distinguish themselves from the British. The very notion of Québecois is a manufactured one that has little connection with the original French settlers of the country. Indeed, even the widely celebrated national holiday, St-Jean Baptiste Day, was only celebrated with regularity at the very end of the 19th century and today bears little resemblance to the original holiday with its religious character.

This leaves economic factors to blame for the failure of movement. This is clearly a complex issue since many attribute Canada’s poor economic situation in the early 80s and 90s to the rise of Québecois nationalism in the first place. That said, the failure of the movement to gain enough traction could still be attributed to economy of the province. Québec is a resource-driven economy that, for the most part, is centered on the extraction and export of its many natural resources, making it reliant on foreign import markets. It is also the Canadian province with the most comprehensive social welfare system in place, one which costs the province billions every year. Many believe that the maintenance of these social programs would be impossible without the support of the Canadian government which casts doubt on the viability of Québec as an independent state. These economic factors could explain the failure of Québecois nationalism.

Discussion Question: While I have approached Québec as a case of failed nationalism, is it? Could the rise of the PQ, the provincial nationalist party, be a re-emergence of the movement?


     In addition to his historical analysis of the development of nationalism, Hobsbawm also has a strong normative vision of nationalism. Hobsbawm’s opinion of nationalism is a negative one. While Gellner acknowledged the dangers of nationalism, notably that attempts to create a homogenous state can lead to persecution and even genocide, Hobsbawm fully embraces the view that nationalism is bad, referring to nationalist movements as the instigators of “difficulties and cruelties” (1977: 4). When examining the causes of nationalism, he describes the “anguish and disorientation” (1990: 177) as the “symptoms of the sickness” (1990: 177) which drive nationalism. This is hardly the noble portrayal of the patriotic spirit of a nation.

The normative question that Hobsbawm is trying to answer through his work, which he views as the central problem of our age, is how to organize the coexistence of multiple ethnic/religious/linguistic groups. As described in the article by Beiner on the Nairn-Hobsbawm debate, while Nairn views the proliferation of states as beneficial, Hobsbawm, as analysed by Beiner (1989: 175), objects to this idea for a number of reasons:

  1. Smaller states are more vulnerable to the dictates of capital.
  2. Due to their limited scope, nationalist movements are often blind to pressing moral global issues, like global social justice or the environment.
  3. The world cannot actually be divided into monocultural units, since even tiny political units will face issues of heterogeneity. Indeed, multinational states that institutionalize pluralism would be safer for cultural minorities than smaller “nation-states” attempting to homogenize their populations.
  4. The desire for ever-smaller states is not politically coherent. Given that nations are not real, but constructed to begin with, there would be no limit to the number of states that would need to be created for each nation to have their own.

In fact, Hobsbawm is a proponent of larger, more stable, multinational states. While he does not seem to have an answer to this own question, he remains optimistic that as long as there are functional multinational states around such as Britain, there is hope (Beiner 1989: 174).

Discussion question:  Are multinational states viable? Can multiple nations peacefully coexist in the current political system? Are their countries we could cite as success stories? Would Britain even qualify as one of these given the Scottish referendum on the horizon?

Post authored by Killashandra,  Madison, Min, & Özge

Read Full Post »

Event: The Case for Left Wing Nationalism

case_for_left_wing_nationalism-smLuath Press and the Institute of Governance
are pleased to invite you to the launch of
The Case for Left Wing Nationalism
by Stephen Maxwell
edited by Jamie Maxwell, with a foreword by Tom Nairn

at New College, 1 Mound Place, Edinburgh, EH1 2LU on
Wednesday 30 October at 5:45pm for 6pm, followed by a reception at 7pm.
Wine and light refreshments will be served.

The event will be chaired by David McCrone and introduced by Jamie Maxwell.
Speakers will include Owen Dudley Edwards, Margo MacDonald,
Robin McAlpine, Joyce McMillan and Andy Wightman, followed by
time for Q&A, comments and discussion.

All welcome. Entry is free. Places may be reserved via Eventbrite https://stephen-maxwell-case-for-left-wing-nationalism.eventbrite.co.uk/
or email events@luath.co.uk or phone 0131 225 4326. A map showing New College is at http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/divinity/map (enter through main entrance on Mound Place and proceed to doorway on right hand side courtyard opposite John Knox statue).


The Case for Left Wing Nationalism considers the class dynamics of the constitutional debate, deconstructs the myths that underpin Scottish political culture and exposes the role Scottish institutions have played and continue to play in restricting Scotland’s progress. In this wide-ranging analysis, Maxwell draws on a wealth of cultural, economic and historical sources. From debating the very nature of nationalism itself, to tackling the immediate social issues that Scotland faces, Maxwell establishes a very real picture of contemporary Scotland and its future.

For Maxwell, independence is about more than building on the country’s rich radical traditions ─ it’s about overturning established orthodoxies. He presents an unblinkered picture of contemporary Scotland.

His son and editor here, Jamie Maxwell, describes these essays as a ‘wide-ranging, nuanced analysis of contemporary Scottish history and culture’. These essays are a provocative and utterly original contribution to the independence debate, and essential reading as the referendum draws near.

More details of the book are at http://www.luath.co.uk/books/all-books/case-for-left-wing-nationalism.html
Details of other forthcoming events are at http://www.luath.co.uk/events

Read Full Post »

nise_logoOn 17-18 September 2014, the NISE platform organises a conference on the notion of heroism in national movements. During this first event of an ambitious project on ‘Heroes and protagonists’, meant to assess and compare the role of both glorified and mostly invisible individuals in European nationalisms, the mechanics of national hero worship will be unravelled. Central to the conference, taking place in Vilnius, is the question why and how people become national heroes and how this is related to the stage of national development, from the nineteenth century onwards. In order to answer this question, several perspectives must be taken into account, including mass communication, education, gender and identity.

While all ‘hero’ classifications are welcome, the conference will have four thematic sessions, dealing with 1. the awakening of historical or mythical figures; 2. contemporary people and the acquisition/attribution of heroic traits; 3. heroism in socio-cultural circles, and 4. heroism in popular media. The results of the conference will be published in a book and made available by the NISE database.

Abstracts counting c. 250 words are due on 31 December 2013. More information on the conference, its theme and the overarching project can be found on the NISE website (http://nise.eu).

Read Full Post »

Week 6: Benedict Anderson


Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson was born in China to an English mother and Irish father whose family was well known for their involvement in Irish nationalist movements. At the age of 5 he moved to California where he spent most of his youth. Anderson received in Bachelors in Politics at Cambridge University and received a PhD from Cornell University. He conducted his doctoral research on the communist coup in Indonesia where his published work on the topic caused him to be banned from the country. Benedict Anderson is currently a Professor Emeritus of International Studies, Government & Asian Studies at Cornell University and is most well know for his book Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983).

In Imagined Communities, Anderson lays out a historical foundation for how nationalism emerged. Within a Marxist theoretical framework he agrees with modernists that the nation was created out of modernity, however it demonstrates that it was through secularization and print capitalism in which the nation was able to emerge. Anderson famously defines the nation as an “imaged political community” (1983: 6) arguing that the 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” (1983: 6).

The nation is described as being imagined in three ways: as limited, as sovereign, and as a community.  A nation is limited in that even the largest nations have boundaries, no matter how imprecise and blurred. The nation is also sovereign due to its development from the modern era where dynastic monarchs were replaced. Finally, the nation is imagined as a community because the nation creates a sense of solidarity even through inequality and injustice at the hands of the nation. “Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings” (1983: 7).

Japan and South Korea Island Dispute


Liancourt Rocks (Takeshima as it is known in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean) is a group of small islets in the Sea of Japan with only one inhabitant. However both Japan and South Korea are fervently claiming ownership to the island causing notable tension between the two countries. Though the island would allow the possibility to claim some fishing and oil rights, the rhetoric used to arguing for claim over this island is very much nationalistic. Korean tourists have started visiting the barren island to prove that it belongs to Korea. In Japan they have a national day dedicated to the island. This March, South Koreans began boycotting products from Japan and staging formal protests. Can Anderson’s concept of imagined communities be used in the case of the island dispute between Japan and South Korea?





Anderson, unlike Gellner, believes that the Americas were where nationalism originated first. Anderson reasons that the Americas already had the boundaries that would one day come to define their nations. He argues that the difficulty to communicate in the pre-industrial age isolated areas of the Americas from each other [1991: 52]. He also argues that Madrid’s commercial policies, due to Spanish monopolisation of ports, created separate economic markets [1991:53].  It is clear that Anderson believes that the Americas had the ability to identify themselves by what they were not. This method of self-identification was then emphasised by the relationship that the Spanish had with the inhabitants of the Americas. Anderson argues that ‘Creoles’ could not be considered Spanish because they were not born in Spain [1991: 58]. Anderson also claims that because ‘Creoles’ were not considered Spanish as they were economically exploited, although remaining vital to the empire [1991:58]. Perhaps here we can identify the resentment of what would materialise into revolution, from the desire to to find positive self-identification as opposed to defining themselves by what they were not. In other words, Creoles seek to identify themselves through a shared culture and history, delivered by education and print capitalism–identification via similarities to each other, and not differences to others. It begs the question as to how one categorizes identification, via what they are not or from the ground up by imagining their community? The former questions are rhetorical and are present for stylistic purposes, yet the next ones provide ideas for one to ponder. In relation to the identity of the ‘Creoles’ who exactly is identifying who? By saying that a ‘Creole’ could never be a Spaniard, which results in exploitation, the Spanish becomes instigator in identification. This implies that the ‘Creoles’ have no say in defining who they are, and the entire issue rests on the Spanish, the European power, identifying themselves by what they are not. In turn, the Americas define their identify as a result of that identification. From this conclusion, could this mean that Spain is the first nation, or at least shows signs of being the first nation? In fact, can every colonial power with a sea border be recognised as sharing the same characteristics as those future nations in the Americas – where Anderson claims nationalism originated?


Anderson argues that nation fills the ideological void that the demise of religion created. He argues that science helped to answer life’s mysteries and thus religion was looked at less for the answers. In the void created lies the ‘secular transformation of fatality in continuity’ [1991:11] He goes onto to say ‘If nation-states are widely conceded to be ‘new’ and ‘historical,’ the nations to which they give political expression always loom out of an immemorial past, and, still more important, glide into a limitless future’ [1991: 11-12]. The nation is thus what holds us together. Instead of religion bringing us together and forcing us to behave appropriately, the nation does that. It is the idea of every member of the nation working towards the same goal, that being the preservation, if not the improvement of the nation. It is this idea that supplies us with comfort and helps us to imagine our community. The nation allows us to look back at the deceased who did the same as we do now, and also look to the future to those who will do what we do and do what those did.

Case Study: Bosnia’s declaration of independence


This case study uses points made in Magaš’ On Bosnianness. It is intended to provoke discussion on whether Anderson’s theory can be applied to Bosnia. It serves no other purpose, and as a consequence may seem crude, if not brief. Magaš makes several important points that will enable us to argue whether or not Bosnia’s declaration of independence works with Anderson’s theory, they are:

1)    Bosnian borders are the same as they were in the middle ages.

2)    Weak Catholic Church = weak literacy = history could not be preserved = Bosnian state disappeared.

3)    Struggle in the nineteenth twentieth century due to competition over state ideas, not ethnicity or religion.

[Magaš: 2003]

Can we see the Bosnian claim for independence because they imagined themselves as a community, despite their time as a new form under Ottoman Rule? Is the criteria that Anderson lists, especially in this case print capitalism, as important as he claims? (On Bosnianness can be found in Nations and Nationalism 9 (1), 2003, 19-23.

Religion as nationalism: an opposing case study


Probably the two largest orthodox modern Muslim states, Iran and Saudi Arabia, were not always so orthodox. It wasn’t until the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979 that increased focus on Islam as national law. In Iran, this came in the form of rejecting the Western-backed Shah as their leader and found representation behind the Ayatollah Khomeini. Saudi Arabia felt the impact of the revolution with growing paranoia in regards to anti-government riots from the Shia minority and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamist extremists. By 1980 both countries had government-enforced observance of Islamic norms, causing disinterest with the west. Iran idolized Khomeini so much to the point that during his funeral in 1989, his body was nearly prevented from being moved to its burial site. It appears religious symbolism has become associated with politics in Iran, reflected by the rhetoric of protesters against the reelection of Ahmadinejad during the Green Revolution of 2009 —marches with Korans, conservative dress, even creating a martyr out of a killed Shia bystander, Neda Agha-Soltan. Her death created such a following, authorities have attempted to hold off her funeral. Several years later, possibly by  influence of the Green Revolution, in Saudi affiliated island of Bahrain, the Arab spring protests saw the Shia majority protesting being persecuted for crimes against human rights in regards to torture and repression, crimes that are common held for the immensely Sunni Saudi Arabia. In this case, they accused their government of naturalizing Sunni Muslims, thereby branding them via a different identity. Anderson cites Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of the Angelus Novus on his philosophy of history, in regards emerging nationalism in the 20th century:

”His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress “

Coll IMJ,  photo (c) IMJ

Does the power of nationalism rest on the legacy of loss, that is, nationalism acting as redemptive ideology toward principles of freedom, independence and representation the same way religion might redeem an unbeliever?

On Iran

Compare dramatic social media response http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vig3qxFuKnY with in the moment fanaticism http://youtu.be/2k7mpnPJWDo?t=1m26s

http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/22/latest-updates-on-irans-disputed-election-3/?apage=5&_r=0 – Shia martyrdom

http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1906069,00.html – religious duty of protest

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/feb/01/egypt-tunisia-revolt – Zizek notices the connection

On Bahrain

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/journalists-arrested-in-bahrain-as-shia-population-protests-its-sunni-monarchy-8760125.html – how the Sunnis rule the majority Shia population

http://www.policymic.com/articles/56843/bahrain-the-arab-spring-protests-you-don-t-know-about – Shia issues faced in Bahrain

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/13/bahrain-shias-terrorism-conspiracy-charges – Shia arrested as terrorists

Print capitalism as nationalism


In 1990, Kyrgyzstan established their national tongue of Kyrgyz as their official language. Strangely enough, it was officiated as the national language in 1989, but with insufficient means the law was not implied. Long before the legal processes, Kyrgyzstan was colonized by Russia by the late 19th century without a written form of language. The Arabic alphabet had been initially instituted for the language, and is still used in the People’s Republic of China by the Kyrgyz population. The Russian colonizers officially established the Turkic alphabet until the 1930’s when, under the USSR, it was replaced with Cyrillic. The modern language of the country uses Cyrillic letters with three extra letters for Kyrgyz sounds, but is defined as a Turkic language with a Perso-Arabic script. While spoken in most large cities and originating in the rural majority under Russian colonization, Russian is the most commonly spoken both in official practice and many schools, Most media is in Kyrgyz and many foreign texts have been translated, but almost no original texts have been published since the country’s independence. Parallel to the nationalization of the language is the recent nationalist political unrest. In 2005, the chaotic Tulip Revolution disposed of the first president for a more democratic government, and ongoing ethnic violence against the 15% Uzbek population as well as the expulsion of foreign journalists from staying in the country. In regards to Anderson, he defines national language as the “language of political love”, and despite allowing cultural integration; it also brings up the question of conformity—are you a member of the speaking community or are you a traitor to the culture. How does a language manifest itself as nationally powerful and not just as an economic tool of the common tongue?


http://www.economist.com/node/18682522 – human rights in Kyrgyzstan

http://www.rferl.org/content/kyrgyz_language_fired/2306401.html – resistance to de-Russification

http://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=ru&u=http://www.gezitter.org/society/3235_kyirgyiz_ne_poymet_poka_ne_skajesh_po-russki/&prev=/search%3Fq%3D%25D0%259A%25D1%258B%25D1%2580%25D0%25B3%25D1%258B%25D0%25B7%2B%25D0%25BD%25D0%25B5%2B%25D0%25BF%25D0%25BE%25D0%25B9%25D0%25BC%25D0%25B5%25D1%2582,%2B%25D0%25BF%25D0%25BE%25D0%25BA%25D0%25B0%2B%25D0%25BD%25D0%25B5%2B%25D1%2581%25D0%25BA%25D0%25B0%25D0%25B6%25D0%25B5%25D1%2588%25D1%258C%2B%25D0%25BF%25D0%25BE-%25D1%2580%25D1%2583%25D1%2581%25D1%2581%25D0%25BA%25D0%25B8%253F%26client%3Dsafari%26rls%3Den – about how Kyrgyzstan leaders just speak Russian, directly translated from Russian

These posts were authored by Edward Rowlandson, Nichole Fernandez and Byron Jaffe

Read Full Post »

Event: What does Scotland think about independence?

Please find below details of a forthcoming AQMeN event that you and/or your colleagues or students may be interested in. This is a one day conference on what Scotland thinks about the referendum on independence which is part of this year’s ESRC Festival of Social Science; and is free to attend.

Full programme and speakers confirmed for FOSS event: What does Scotland think about independence?

What do people in Scotland think about the issues surrounding the referendum on independence in September 2014? Learn, debate and influence the analysis of up to date social science evidence that relates to a matter of crucial importance to the future of Scotland and the UK. Our ESRC Festival of Social Science event will feature special research projects focused on social media, social attitudes and young people in Scotland in the lead up to the referendum on independence.

There are still places remaining for this event taking place in Edinburgh on Wednesday 6th November. The event is free to attend and a full programme is now available http://www.aqmen.ac.uk/events/foss2013

As places are limited you must register to attend this event.

Read Full Post »

Call for Papers

19th Annual World Convention of the
Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN)

International Affairs Building,
Columbia University, NY
Sponsored by the Harriman Institute
24-26 April 2014

Contact information:
proposals must be submitted to:
darel@uottawa.ca and darelasn2014@gmail.com

Over 140 PANELS in nine sections:
Nationalism Studies
Migration & Diasporas
Ukraine & Belarus
Central Europe (incl. Baltics & Moldova)
Eurasia (incl. Central Asia & China)
Caucasus (North and South)
Turkey, Greece & Cyprus

THEMATIC Panels on
History, Politics, & Memory
Ethnicity & Violence
Gender & Identity
Transitional Justice & Minority Rights
Energy & Nationalism

SCREENING of New Documentaries


AWARDS for Best Doctoral Student Papers,
ASN Harriman Joseph Rothschild Book Prize
ASN Award for Best Documentary

The Nationalities Papers Opening Reception

The ASN Convention, the most attended international and inter-disciplinary scholarly gathering of its kind, welcomes proposals on a wide range of topics related to nationalism, ethnicity, ethnic conflict and national identity in several regional sections on Balkans, Central Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, the Caucasus, and Turkey/Greece/Cyprus, as well as the two cross-regional sections of Nationalism Studies and Migration & Diasporas. Disciplines represented include political science, history, anthropology, sociology, international studies, security studies, geopolitics, area studies, economics, geography, sociolinguistics, literature, psychology, and related fields.

The Convention is also inviting paper, panel, roundtable, or special presentation proposals related to:
•“History, Politics and Memory,” on the construction and contestation of the memory of historical events in sites, symbols, discourse and research;
•“Ethnicity and Violence,”on the conditions, construction, and implications of violence perpetrated against “ethnic” or culturally-defined groups;
•“Gender & Identity,” on the saliency of gender in discourse, representation, practices and mobilization;
•“Transitional Justice & Minority Rights,” encompassing human rights, minority rights, war crimes, genocide, international tribunals, and related issues;
•“Energy & Nationalism” touching on oil and gas revenues, pipelines, the “oil curse”, ecology, sustainable development and the securitization of energy

Prospective applicants can get a sense of the large thematic scope of ASN Convention papers by looking at the 2013 Final Program, which can be accessed at
Popular topics have also included language politics, religion and politics, EU integration, nation-bulding, and post-conflict reconstruction.

Papers presented at the Convention will be made available for $10 on a CD to Convention attendees, but will neither be posted on the ASN website, nor be sold to Convention non-attendees.

Nationalities Papers, the ASN flagship journal, will present the consistently popular roundtable “How To Get Your Article Published”, which features the editors of some of the leading journals in the field. Nationalities Papers will also sponsor the opening reception.

For several years, the ASN Convention has acknowledged excellence in graduate studies research by offering Awards for Best Doctoral Student Papers. The ASN 2013 Doctoral Student Awards were given to:

Özkan Akpinar (History, Boğaziçi U, Turkey), Turkey, Greece & Cyprus
Bruce Burnside (Anthropology, Columbia U, US), Central Europe
Katharine Holt (Literature, Columbia U, US), Eurasia
Jean-François Ratelle (Political Science, U of Ottawa, Canada), Caucasus-Russia
Andrej Tusicisny (Political Science, Columbia U, US) Nationalism Studies
Yuri Zhukov (Harvard U, US), Ukraine

Doctoral student applicants whose proposals are accepted for the 2014 Convention, who will not have defended their dissertation by 1 November 2013, and whose papers are delivered by the deadline, will automatically be considered for the awards. Each award comes with a certificate and a cash prize.

The ASN Convention inaugurated in 2010 an annual ASN Harriman Book Prize—the Joseph Rothschild Prize in Nationalism and Ethnic Studies. At the 2013 ASN Convention, the prize was awarded to Şener Aktürk for Regimes of Ethnicity and Nationhood in Germany, Russia, and Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2012). An honorable mention was given to Sherrill Stroschein for Ethnic Struggle, Coexistence, and Democratization in Eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2012). The award comes with a certificate and a cash prize. For information on how to have a book considered for the ASN 2014 Convention Book Prize, please contact Dmitry Gorenburg at asnbookprize@gmail.com, or go to http://www.nationalities.org/prizes/Rothschild.asp.

The Convention is also inviting submissions for documentaries made within the past few years and available in DVD format (either NTSC or PAL). The documentaries selected will be screened during regular panel slots and, in several cases, will be followed by a discussion with the filmmaker. At the 2013 Convention, the Audience Award for Best Documentary went to The Other Chelsea (Germany, 2011). Runner-ups included An Act of Killing (Denmark, 2012), Hitler, Stalin and Mr. Jones (UK, 2012), 900 Days (Denmark, 2012) and Twice a Stranger (Greece, 2012). The full 2013 film lineup can be accessed at http://nationalities.org/convention/films-2013.asp.

Proposal Information

The ASN 2014 Convention invites proposals for individual papers or panels. A panel includes a chair, three or four presentations based on written papers, and a discussant.

The Convention is also welcoming offers to serve as discussant on a panel to be created by the Program Committee from individual paper proposals. The application to be considered as discussant can be self-standing, or accompanied by an individual paper proposal.

In order to send proposals to the Convention, the three mandatory items indicated below (contact information, abstract, biographical statement) must be included in a single Word document (PDF documents will not be accepted) attached to a single email message.

Each applicant – single or multiple authors in individual proposals, every member of a panel proposal – must also fill out a Fact Sheet online that can be accessed at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/PS7FCBM.

IMPORTANT: Applicants can only send one paper proposal — whether as an individual proposal, or as a paper part of a panel proposal. The Program will not consider more than one paper proposal from the same applicant. At the Convention, each panelist can only appear on a maximum of TWO panels, only one of which can be in the capacity of a paper presenter. For example, a panelist can chair a panel and present a paper on another, or chair a panel and be discussant or another, and so forth. This rule applies to co-authored papers, thus a co-authored paper presentation counts as one appearance.

Individual paper proposals must include four items:
*Contact information: the name, email, postal address and academic affiliation of the applicant.
*A 300- to 500-word abstract (shorter abstracts will not be considered) that includes the title of the paper.
*A 100-word biographical statement, in narrative form (a text with the length of one paragraph). Standard CVs will be rejected.
Individual proposals featuring more than one author (joint proposal) must include the contact information and biographical statement of all authors and specify who among the co-authors intend to attend the Convention. Only joint presenters attending the Convention will have their names in the official program.
*A Fact Sheet, to be filled out online (see above). In the case of co-authors, only those intending to attend the Convention must send a Fact Sheet. The Word document proposal must indicate that the Fact Sheet has been filled out online.

Panel proposals must include four items:
*Contact information (see above) of all proposed panelists.
*The title of the panel and a 200- to 300-word abstract of each paper.
*A 100-word biographical statement (see above) for each proposed panelist. Statements in standard CV format will be rejected. The rules on joint proposals are the same as with individual proposals (see above).
*A Fact Sheet, to be filled out online (see above), for each panelist attached to the proposal. The Word document proposal must indicate that all panelists have filled out their Fact Sheet online.

Proposals can also be sent for roundtables and book panels. Roundtables include a chair, four presenters, but no discussant, since the presentations, unlike regular panels, are not based on written papers. Roundtable proposals include the same four items as a panel proposal, except that the 200- to 300-word abstracts are presentation abstracts, rather than paper abstracts.

The Convention is also inviting proposals for Book Panels, based on books published between January 2013 and February 2014. The proposal must include the Chair, three discussants, as well as the author. A Book Panel proposal must include the same four items as a panel proposal, except that the abstract is limited to a 200- to 300-word abstract of the book. The discussants need not submit an abstract.

Proposals for documentaries must include four items:
*Contact information (see above)
*A 300- to 500-word abstract of the documentary
*A 100-word biographical statement (see above). CVs will be rejected.
*A Fact Sheet filled out online (see above).
Two copies of the documentary on DVD (in NTSC or PAL format) will also need to be sent to the Convention, unless there is an agreement to provide a streaming link. These and other matters will be discussed upon receipt of the film proposals.

Proposals for a roundtable following the screening of a film are most welcome. In these cases, the requirements of a panel proposal apply, in addition to the 300- to 500-word abstract of the film.

Proposals to serve as a discussant must include four items:
*Contact information (see above)
*A 100-word statement about your areas of expertise
*A 100-word biographical statement (see above). CVs will be rejected.
*A Fact Sheet filled out online (see above)
Proposals for applicants already included in an individual paper or panel proposal need only include the 100-word statement on areas of expertise.

IMPORTANT: All proposals must be sent in a single email message, with an attached proposal in a Word document (PDFs will not be accepted) containing contact information, an abstract, a biographical statement, as well as a confirmation that the Fact Sheet has been filled out online (or multiple Fact Sheets, in the case of co-authors and/or panel proposals). Proposals including contact information, the abstract and the bio statement in separate attachments, or over several email messages, will not be considered. The proposals must be sent to darel@uottawa.ca AND darelasn2014@gmail.com.

The receipt of all proposals will be promptly acknowledged electronically, with some delay during deadline week, due to the high volume of proposals.

IMPORTANT: Participants are responsible for covering all travel and accommodation costs. Unfortunately, ASN has no funding available for panelists.

An international Program Committee will be entrusted with the selection of proposals. Applicants will be notified by January 2014 at the latest. Information regarding registration costs and other logistical questions will be communicated afterwards.

The full list of panels from last year’s convention can be accessed at http://nationalities.org/convention/pdfs/ASN13_Final_Program.pdf.

The programs from past conventions, going back to 2001, are also online at http://nationalities.org/convention/past.asp

Several dozen publishers and companies have had exhibits and/or advertised in the Convention Program in past years. Due to considerations of space, advertisers and exhibitors are encouraged to place their order early. For information, please contact ASN Executive Director Lydia C. Hamilton (lch2111@columbia.edu).

The ASN Facebook page will post regular updates on the ASN 2013 Convention. To become a follower of ASN on Facebook, go to http://www.facebook.com/pages/Association-for-the-Study-of-Nationalities/116040015082264?ref=ts and click on the “Like” option.

We very much look forward to hearing from you and receiving your proposal!

The Convention Organizing Committee:
Dominique Arel, ASN Convention Director
Lydia C. Hamilton, ASN Executive Director
Zsuzsa Csergo, ASN President
Florian Bieber, Julie George, Dmitry Gorenburg, Lisa Koriouchkina, Vejas Liulevicius, Harris Mylonas, and Peter Vermeersch, ASN Executive Committee

Deadline for proposals: 24 October 2013 (to be sent to both darel@uottawa.ca AND darelasn2014@gmail.com)

The ASN Convention’s headquarters are located at the:

Harriman Institute
Columbia University
1211 IAB
420 W. 118th St.
New York, NY 10027
212 854 6239 tel
212 666 3481 fax

Read Full Post »

Week 5: Smith

Smith’s Ethnosymbolism

A former student of Gellner, Smith differs from the socio-economical approach to the study nationalism advocated by his mentor. Although there are some similarities, especially in the view of nationalism as a modern phenomenon, Smith differentiates himself by stressing the importance of continuity and the long durée. The importance of historical processes in understanding nations can be reflected by his background in the classics.

For Smith, although the roots of nation can be found in antiquity, nationalism is a modern phenomenon defined as “…an ideological movement for attaining and maintaining the autonomy, unity and identity of an existing or potential ‘nation’” (Smith 1989: 343). The nation, according to Smith, is “A named community of history and culture, possessing a unified territory, economy, mass education system and common legal rights” (1989: 342).

Lending from the modernist approach, Smith posits that nationalists cannot create nations ex nihilo.

The concept of ethnie is one of his most controversial to the field and is defined as having:

  1. A common name for the unit of population included
  2. a set of myths of common origins and descent for that population
  3. some common historical memories of things experienced together
  4. a common historic territory or homeland, or an association with one
  5. one or more elements of common culture – language, customs or religion
  6. a sense of solidarity among most members of the community

(Smith 1989:344-345)

Crucial to the development of the ethnie is its distinctive lateral and vertical forms. Lateral (aristocratic) development is marked by a top-down dispersal of ethnic culture from the ruling elites down to the lower classes as seen in France, England and Spain. In the case of vertical (demotic) development, there is an existing sense of belonging through ancestry, symbols and myths shared between the community regardless of social positions. Switzerland is an appropriate example of vertical developments of the nation.

Under Francisco Franco’s regime in Spain, Castilian Spanish and culture were chosen to be the standard across Spain. If we follow Smith’s theory, this is a logical progression as Castilians were the dominant ethnie. In pursuit of this, Franco tried to supress the Catalan language and enacted other restrictions to cripple nationalist sentiment. How would Smith account for Franco’s failure to assimilate the Catalonian culture? Does every nation have to be an ethnie in order to survive? Is it possible to separate the political and cultural processes in the creation of a nation?

The use of myths and symbols has been widespread in the dispute of the shared homeland of the Israeli and Palestinian people. The nationalist movements manipulate the archaeological findings to support their claim. In this case, the patterns of emigrant-colonist and diaspora-restoration can be seen. Each group creates a narrative based on the idea of ancestry in order to tie each group to the homeland. As this area has more than one title-deed ethnic conflict is heightened as Smith expects.

More info:



What is the causal relationship between conflict and nationalism? Is it a chicken and egg scenario? Do you think history and historical culture is as important as Smith suggests? Who would Smith define as the dominant ethnie? Is a historical claim necessary to hold a territory?

Authored by Johan, Matt, Kate and Kasper

Read Full Post »

CFP: ASEN 2014 Annual Conference, 1-3 April

The Association for Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN) is pleased to announce the call for papers for the 24th ASEN Annual Conference: Nationalism and Belonging. The conference will take place from the 1-3rd April, 2014 at the London School of Economics. Please see the attached document for the complete call for papers (ASEN 2014 CFP).

Confirmed keynote speakers include: William Callahan, Sheila Croucher, Alain Dieckhoff, Th­omas Hylland Eriksen, Gregory Jusdanis, and Bo Strath

Proposals are invited for papers focusing on the following themes:


*   How national belonging is ascribed and cultivated
*   The role of symbols and rituals in national belonging
*   The process by which individuals and groups construct their belonging to nations
*   How states use claims about national belonging to define their communities


*   The examination of forms of diaspora and kin nationalism
*   How transnational communities maintain a sense of belonging across space and time
*   How migrant and diaspora communities construct new ways of belonging


*   How national belonging is responding to alternative, non-national forms of attachment
*   The role of supra-national and sub-national forces in redefining belonging
*   The relationship between national belonging and cosmopolitanism/post-nationalism
*   How possible shifts in the centrality of national belonging in the contemporary world affect the study of nationalism.

Abstracts should be submitted online no later than November 30, 2013. To submit your abstract, please follow this link: http://tinyurl.com/asen2014CFP

Successful submissions will be announced in January 2014.

The ASEN conference team looks forward to reading your abstract!

Read Full Post »

Ernest Gellner is widely seen as one of the most important theorists in the study of nationalism.  Gellner was introduced to nationalism and identity politics during his youth.  As a Jewish Czech, Gellner was forced to leave his home in 1939, fleeing Prague for England in the wake of Hitler’s takeover of Czechoslovakia.  Upon his return to Prague after the war, he found a much changed city that had lost most of its multiculturalism.  Not feeling at home, Gellner went back to England to pursue an academic career.  From his experience as an ‘outsider’, he develops his first thoughts on identity politics and nationalism.  For Gellner, nationalism is the imposition of a high culture on society replacing local, low cultures and most multiculturalism.  His most prominent theory on the origin of nationalism starts by regarding the transformation of society from an agrarian based economy and social structure to one centered around industrialism.  For Gellner, society before industrialism, was vertically bound with over 80 percent of the population being peasant farmers.  There was strict boundaries between communities (fiefdoms) as well as between classes.

These separate communities while bound under the ‘state’ do not necessarily share common language, memories, myths, religion or ancestry.  Peasants were born as farmers and died as farmers with no possibilities of economic mobility or social advancement due to lack of a standardized education.  Therefore, these communities did not wish to impose their language or culture on neighboring communities.  There was also no imposition of a high culture due to a lack of standardized education.

According to Gellner, this changes with the rise of industrialism.  In industrial society the barriers between communities are broken due to a standardized, mass education which allows for economic and social mobility.  Gellner notes that industrialization does not spread evenly among all of the communities within the ‘state’.  Therefore, individuals in the community which industrialized later lack the opportunities that those in the already industrialized community possess.  According to Gellner, there are two possibilities, assimilation or lack of assimilation.  If both communities share language and culture, (‘ethnicity’) then assimilation is possible through standardized education.  However, if there is not a shared ‘ethnicity’, then assimilation will not occur but rather are excluded from society.  In this case, Gellner argues that nationalism will emerge as the excluded ‘ethnicity’ pushes for political sovereignty.

Gellner believes that nationalism strives for one culture or ethnicity under one roof, or ‘state’.  For Gellner, this is the most important principle of successful states.  He argues that the worst case is when the ruler of a state is not a member of the ethnic majority within the boundaries of the state.  In this case, Gellner states that nationalism will inevitably occur because members of the ‘nation’ will want to strive for advancement by attempting to gain control of the state.

As one of the main protagonists in the study of nationalism, Gellner and his theory has come in for a fair bit of criticism.  J.A. Hall mentions the main criticism: that Gellner’s argument is too functionalist.  Meadwell also mentions several criticisms of Gellner.  First that Gellner never proves the nationalism is necessary for industrial society.  In addition, Gellner says that nationalism is only available to the dominated, yet this is clearly not always the case as the case studies below will show.


One of the most covered and discussed current nationalist movements is taking place in Syria.  The civil war in Syria is difficult to simplify with many factors involved including factions, deaths, international involvement and chemical weapons among others.  However, Gellner would simplify the situation in Syria and the nationalist conflict there by looking at the ruler and the ruled.  When the current leader’s father, Hafiz al-Assad came into power in 1970, Syria was splintered with the military being the dominant political force.   Hafiz al-Assad was a member of the Ba’ath party at the time, a party largely made up of Alawites.  Hafiz al-Assad and his son, Bashar, are both Alawites themselves, members of a relatively liberal sect of Islam.  However, the majority of the population is made up of Arab Sunnis.  Two articles from the BBC and the Washington Post help explain the ethnic breakdown in Syria.



The map from the Washington Post web site shows the geographical breakdown of religious and ethnic groups in Syria.

Click to enlarge. Each color represents an ethnic or religious group. (The Gulf/2000 Project at Columbia University)

Hafiz al-Assad appointed mostly Alawites and members of his Ba’ath party to leadership positions in the military, explaining the military’s commitment to Bashar al-Assad and the current regime.  While binding the military to the party and the ruling family, this limited advancement possibilities for the Arab Sunni majority.  The Alawites loyalty and can be seen in this clip from the BBC below.

To Gellner this marks the worst case scenario mentioned above.  The ruler is not of the ‘nation’ which makes up a majority of the state but is rather of the minority ‘nation’.  With a lack of assimilation, Gellner argues that this will always lead to a homogenization process which we can see during the current civil war.

Discussion questions:

In your opinion does Gellner’s argument do enough to explain the rise of nationalism in Syria?

Why didn’t the revolt and protests happen sooner since the country has been ruled by the Assad family since 1970?


Gellner claims that “the social organisation of agrarian society, however, is not at all favorable to the nationalist principle, to the convergence of political and cultural units, and to the homogeneity and school-transmitted nature of culture within each political unit (Gellner, 1983, 38-39).” China is a complex country which, on some points, seems to break away from Gellner’s conception of an industrial nation. On the one hand, China has a state-run education system, has managed to converge the national with the political and has experienced unprecedented industrial economic growth.

Yet, there is an argument to be made that the structure of Chinese society remains largely familial and rural. As well, the increasing income gap between the average Chinese citizen and members of the elite class has led some to question whether Chinese society is returning to a pseudo-feudalistic structure. Thus, despite Gellner’s belief that the social makeup of an agrarian society is incompatible with an industrial society, is it possible that China manages to successfully incorporate elements of both?




The country of Rwanda is a former colony of Belgium and a country recovering from major internal strife due to long-term discrimination between two of the country’s major ethnic groups, culminating in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.  Following the Berlin conference of 1884, Rwanda was assigned to German East Africa. Following WWI, Belgium took control of the colony, marking the beginning of a more direct colonial rule.  Introducing large-scale projects in agriculture, education and public works, Rwanda enjoyed a period of industrialization.

The Germans and the Belgians both favoured Tutsi supremacy, despite them being only 15% of the population. In 1935 the Belgians issued identity cards labelling each individual by their ethnic group, either Hutu, Tutsi, Twa or naturalised. Previously a wealthy Hutu could become honorary Tutsi, the identity cards however prevented any movement between the classes.  The Hutu population rebelled in the Revolution of 1959, killing a large number of Tutsi and establishing an independent Hutu-led state in 1962. In 1990 the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) launched a civil war, leading to the culmination of the Rwandan Genocide, in which Hutu extremists killed approximately 500,000 – 1 million Tutsi.

A more detailed overview is given in this article:


Rwanda’s economy suffered greatly following the massacre but has since strengthened.  The establishment of criminal courts to deal with the aftermath have led to years of relative peace. At the height of the crises some 2.1 million Rwandans were displaced by the crises, with some 100,000 still remain abroad.  The cessation clause came into effect on the 30th of June 2013 – it states that a “refugee status should end if the circumstances which led to flight no longer exist in the country of origin”.

More on this here:


“The disastrous and tragic consequences in modern conditions, of the conjunction of economic superiority and cultural identifiability with political and military weakness, are too well-known to require repetition. Sometimes a precarious and uneasy balance is maintained. The main point is that the central power now finds itself in a very different situation, and subject to very different temptations and pressures from those which prevailed in the days of the agrarian division of labor….Now the state has more interest in depriving the minority of its economic monopolies and because of the minority’s visibility and wealth, it can buy off a great deal of discontent in the wider population by dispossessing and persecuting it; and so the inevitable happens.” Nations and Nationalism, 2008 Blackwell Publishing, pp 101-102.

Discussion questions:

Do Gellner’s theories shed light on what happened in Rwanda in 1994?

What do Gellner’s theories have to offer for theorizing a future for Rwanda?

-This post has been authored by Matthew Cuff, Kirsten Gerrie and Gyða Fanney Guðjónsdóttir.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »