Archive for October, 2015


In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson first and foremost argued for a cultural conception of nationality and nationalism, contending that the two ‘…are cultural artefacts of a particular kind’ (Anderson, 2006, p.4). For Anderson, nationalism emerged at the end of the eighteenth century as the spontaneous intersection of various historical and cultural forces, and once formed, they became models to be emulated in a wide variety of contexts. However, and most importantly, Anderson’s main line of Imagined Communities Cover
enquiry was not to ask which political or cultural factors brought nationalism into being, but rather to demonstrate
how and why nations and nationalism elicit such profound and emotional responses, and how their meanings have changed over time (ibid., p.4).

Anderson maintained that nationalism should be treated as if it belongs with other concepts such as ‘kinship’ and ‘religion’, denoting its status as a social grouping, rather than as an ideological construct such as ‘liberalism’ or ‘fascism’ (ibid., p.5). In this vein, Anderson coined the concept of ‘imagined communities’, encompassing his ideas on how humans have conceived, and continue to conceive, of the nation. Anderson forcefully emphasised that ‘imagining’ does not imply ‘falsity’, countering this implication in Gellner’s work. For Anderson, communities should be distinguished not by the degree to which they are false or genuine, but rather by the processes through which they are imagined (ibid., p.6).

Anderson located the roots of nationalism and the modern nation in the disintegration of two previously self-evident cultural systems: the religious community and the dynastic realm. The gradual decline of these systems, beginning in the seventeenth century, provided the historical and geographical space in which the rise of nations could take place. In the context of Enlightenment-era rational secularism, Anderson argued that nationalism would provide a secular alternative to the previously sacral role of explaining and answering for the weight of human suffering (ibid., pp.11-22).

Benedict Anderson Most importantly, Anderson posited changing conceptions of time as a third factor, coinciding with the decline of religious communities and dynastic realms, which made it possible for humans to ‘think’ the nation. Borrowing from the ideas of Walter Benjamin, Anderson argued that the idea of ‘simultaneity-along-time’, referring to the medieval conception of time as situating events simultaneously in past, present and future, was replaced by ‘homogenous, empty time’. Simultaneity could thus be understood as being transverse-across-time, marked by temporal coincidence. This fundamental shift allowed the nation to be ‘imagined’ as a unit, moving ‘through’ time (ibid. pp.22-4).

These cultural roots were supplemented by commercial book publishing on a mass scale, a phenomenon Anderson termed print-capitalism, in turn laying the bases for national consciousness. In its intersection with the impact of the Reformation and the adoption of some vernaculars as administrative languages, print-capitalism created a stratum of communication below the increasingly esoteric Latin, and above spoken vernaculars. Over time, these print-languages were given a new fixity, which imbued them with the sense of antiquity crucial to conceptions of the nation. Anderson used the example of the mass consumption of newspapers to demonstrate how print-capitalism facilitated the conception of simultaneity in relation to national consciousness, arguing that it is difficult to envision a more ‘vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked imagined community’ (ibid., p.35; pp.37-46).

Lastly, Anderson’s theory of nationalism is also concerned with its ‘modular’ development – how subsequent nationalist movements emulated those models that already existed. He controversially located the first nationalist movements in the New World, identifying the creole communities of the Americas as developing their national consciousness before most of Europe (ibid., p.50; pp.64-5). Anderson continued by tracing the development of the European popular linguistic nationalisms of the nineteenth century, against which later ‘official nationalisms’ would react and develop, emphasising that these were not confined to Europe and were in fact pursued in the African and Asian territories subjected to colonial rule (ibid., pp.67-82; pp.109-111). Anderson’s final exploration covered the anti-colonial nationalisms in Asia and Africa, contending they were largely inspired by the examples of earlier movements in Europe and the Americas (p.113; pp.139-40).

Imagined Communities has not been without its critics, yet it remains one of the most original and influential accounts of nationalism to date.


Anderson, Benedict. 2006 [1983]. Imagined Communities. London: Verso.

The Non-Arbitrariness of the Sign: Academic English and Domain Collapse

“… an idea largely foreign to the contemporary Western mind: the non-arbitrariness of the sign. The ideograms of Chinese, Latin, or Arabic were emanations of reality, not randomly fabricated representations of it” (Anderson 2006:14)

“… no idea here of a world so separated from language that all languages are equidistant (and thus interchangeable) signs for it. In effect, ontological reality is apprehensible only through a single, privileged system of re-presentation” (ibid.)

Benedict Anderson proposed that a set of unchallenged sacred languages made possible the vast religious communities that preceded nationalism (ibid:12) – Church Latin, Qur’anic Arabic, and Examination Chinese. I want to capitalize on Anderson’s account of the role of these sacred languages in order to discuss the implications of the contemporary hegemony of the English language in academic writing and publishing.

In a recent article by journalist Adam Huttner-Koros, the dominant status of the English language in academic publishing is highlighted and discussed (2015). For instance, he mentions a 2012 study showing that 80 percent of the articles included in the world’s largest database for peer-reviewed journals are written in English. Moreover, all of the top 50 academic journals are published in English. Huttner-Koros adds that “scientists who want to produce influential, globally recognized work most likely need to publish in English” (ibid.).

Anderson emphasized that the unsubstitutable nature of the sacred languages was vested in their alleged capacity to function, in effect, as “privileged systems of re-presentation” through which “ontological reality is apprehensible” (2006:14). He goes on to detail the historical processes that led to the decline and displacement of these truth-languages, and in this respect he stresses print-capitalism in particular.

In light of Huttner-Koros observations, it has perhaps become prudent to ask whether the privileged status of the English language in academic writing is having a sacralizing effect that would warrant comparing it to the script-languages addressed by Anderson. Huttner-Koros cites a linguist, Joe Lo Bianco, who describes an emergent process of “domain collapse” (2015):

“… the progressive deterioration of competence in [a language] in high-level discourses”. In other words, as a language stops adapting to changes in a given field, it can eventually cease to be an effective means for communication in certain contexts altogether”

In this sense, history as described by Anderson appears to be running in reverse: the unsubstitutability of the sign has returned, privileging academic English as the dominant means through which ontological reality can be accessed – the non-arbitrariness of the sign appears today as the constitutive a priori of scientific discourse, feeding the process of domain collapse.


What are the effects or implications of domain collapse and the dominant status of academic English?


Anderson, Benedict. 2006 [1983]. Imagined Communities. London: Verso.

Huttner-Koros, Adam. 2015. “The Hidden Bias of Science’s Universal Language”. http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2015/08/english-universal-language-science-research/400919/?utm_source=SFTwitter [accessed on 2015-10-28].

 “Storytelling Redifined”: Self-Publishing Online

More than at any other time’ [publishing] was a great industry under the control of wealthy capitalists’. Naturally, ‘booksellers were primarily concerned to make a profit and to sell their products, and consequently they sought out first and foremost those works which were of interest to the largest possible number of their contemporaries. (Anderson, 1983: 38)

Shakespeare Word CloudHow can we link Anderson’s theory of imagined communities to online self-publishing today?

Mass publishing created a new form of “imagined community” (ibid: 5 – 7) as the ability to connect and share news information had no bearing on proximity. Language was also changing; the shift from Latin, for example, to the “vernacular” (ibid: 16 – 18) is something Anderson attributes to the (ongoing) popularity of Shakespeare.

Print capitalism…made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and to relate themselves to others, in profoundly new ways. (1983: 36)

Today, publishing has taken on different forms. The public are able to read news from a variety of sources. Print news, however, is declining whilst online news readers are increasing (Greenslade, 2015). The introduction of e-readers has also proven popular (Walter, 2014).

Online, self-publishing is increasing (LaRue, 2014) and can cost nothing for a new writer yet reap “royalties” of up to 80% per book sold online (Amazon, 2015; Singh, 2012). One website that allows writers to expand their audience is Wattpad.It is one of wattpad logothe largest forms of online publishing available to new and established authors. Based in Canada, the site has a global membership of approximately 40 million “Wattpadders” (Wattpad, 2015); they vary across all demographics and writing experience. Technological benefits for its users include the ability to upload stories on smartphones and tablets (Dilworth, 2015).

Despite its size and phenomenal reach across the globe, Wattpad calls itself a “community” (Wattpad, 2015). Writers and readers can connect with each other, send messages, upload images and discuss ongoing topics related to their interests. Unlike the capitalists who invested in a new, profitable industry in the 16th Century, this mass-oriented work is for free.


Amazon, 2015. Take Control with Self Publishing [online]. Available from: http://www.amazon.com/gp/seller-account/mm-summary-page.html?topic=200260520 [Accessed 24 October 2015]

Anderson, B (1983) Imagined Communities, London: Verso

Dilworth, D (2015). Wattpad Has More Than 40M Monthly Users. Adweek [online] 29 May 2015 http://www.adweek.com/galleycat/wattpad-has-more-than-40m-monthly-users/104245

Greenslade, R (2014). Online news more popular, just about, than news in newspapers. The Guardian [online] 25 June 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2014/jun/25/ofcom-newspapers

LaRue, J (2014). The Next Wave of Tech Change: Self Publishing & Libraries. Library Journal [online]  7 October 2014 http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2014/10/publishing/self-publishing-and-libraries/the-next-wave-of-tech-change-self-publishing-libraries/

Singh, A (2012). Self-published author is Kindle’s biggest seller. The Telegraph [online]  9 February 2012


Walter, D (2014). Self-publishing: Is it killing the mainstream? The Guardian [online] 14 February 2014


Wattpad, 2015. Wattpad is the world’s largest community of readers and writers [online]. Available from: https://www.wattpad.com/about [Accessed 24 October 2015]

Modern Indigenous Nations and the Blurred Lines of Sovereignty 

The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations have been involved in a land claim dispute – involving 1.3 million acres of timberland – with the US government for over 100 years. After a ten year-long lawsuit, it was settled that the US Department of Interior would pay $186 million collectively to the Choctaw Nation Crest Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations. On Oct. 6, 2015, the agreement was signed into law. The rhetoric and events that transpired during this event presented a number of questions, taking Anderson into consideration.

Relevant History and Data

The U.S. 2010 census grouped Chickasaw and Choctaw language speakers together, despite the languages being somewhat distinct from one another. Estimates show around 10,500 speakers out of 195,764 Chickasaw and Choctaw.  In both cases, some resources, education, and print media exist for language learners and speakers. 

In 1983, the Chickasaw Nation created a three branch government and signed a constitution, with the Choctaw Nation following suit in 1984. Since, they have each established programs for education, health, culture, and economic development. (Though it should be noted that all American Indians have the right to access all the same services as other US citizens.) Both refer to themselves as nations. 

The Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations exist within the Oklahoma Tribal Statistical Area, which are areas still defined by their former borders, but hold no legal distinction: the land is managed and owned by Oklahoma.

Key Point

The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations both have print capitalism, defined boundaries, and political structures. A question, however, exists to the issue of sovereignty. Oklahoma Statistical Area MapRegarding the land settlement claim mentioned above, video coverage of the event revealed a number of curious points. First, the leaders present included the Choctaw Chief, the Chickasaw Governor, and the US Secretary of the Interior: this itself is to be expected but is extremely awkward nonetheless because the US Department of the Interior is responsible for national parks and wildlife… and American Indians. Second, while all three nation’s flags are on display, the US flag is more prominent. Third, the language used by the US Secretary of the Interior, during her speech, is noticeably patronizing. This list could continue on, but the point to be known here is that while the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations presented this event as a landmark achievement and spoke of a sovereign-to-sovereign relationship, the images and actual circumstances suggest that the sovereignty of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations is limited.


  1. Accepting the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations’ self-identification as nations, can we define these pre-colonial communities as creole nations, do they more resemble European states, or are they something different entirely?
  2. All American Indians born on US soil are American citizens by law. Would Anderson’s view accomodate people who identify as both Choctaw/Chickasaw and American?
  3. Technically the US government recognizes the Choctaw and Chickasaw peoples as sovereigns and allegedly negotiates with them as such. Thinking of Anderson’s definition of a nation (imagined, political, sovereign, and limited), do we find the lines are blurred in cases where American Indian nations are subjected to the US government’s interpretation of the word sovereign? Does sovereignty, the the case of Anderson’s nation, necessitate complete and total sovereignty or does the partial and conditional sovereignty that the US government grants nations such as the Choctaw and Chickasaw count? 





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A new age of prejudices: France after 9/11
Vincent Tiberj (Sciences Po Bordeaux)

Tuesday 3 November, 17:15
Sydney Smith Lecture Theatre, Doorway 1, Old Medical School

In this talk, Tiberj will present the logics and evolutions of racial prejudices in the last twenty-five years in France. He will examine the question of Muslim integration and confront the general perceptions of this group with what surveys show about “real life” Muslims. He will then explore the mechanisms behind the so-called “Muslim frame” and the partisan logics behind it.

Further details: http://www.ed.ac.uk/modern-conflict/news-events/events/seminars

A Divided Republic ? The past and future of French politics

A special book launch event to celebrate the publication of two recent books on contemporary French politics by Emile Chabal (University of Edinburgh).

Emile will be joined by four leading specialists on French history and politics: Vincent Tiberj (Sciences Po), Karine Varley (Strathclyde University), Jim Shields (Aston University) and Tim Peace (University of Stirling). Together, they will explore some of the most divisive issues in French politics today, including questions of political allegiance, citizenship, nationality, belonging and difference.

Wednesday 4 November, 18:00-20:00
Institut Français, Randolph Crescent, Edinburgh

Further details: http://www.ifecosse.org.uk/A-Divided-Republic-The-past-and.html?lang=en

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COMMENT: ‘Strong evidence’ of genocide in Myanmar

Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit has uncovered what amounts to “strong evidence” of a genocide coordinated by the Myanmar government against the Rohingya people, according to an assessment by Yale University Law School. Read more here.

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Independence Movements in Europe – Threat or Opportunity for the EU?

Thursday, November 26, 2015 – 09:00 to 13:00

Centre on Constitutional Change

The University of Edinburgh
Centre on Constitutional Change & Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia (DIPLOCAT)


Draft programme:


9.00am Welcome

  • Michael Keating, Director, Centre on Constitutional Change
  • Albert Royo, Secretary General, Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia

9.15 am Moving Forward to Independence: Threats and Opportunities for Catalonia

  • Luis Moreno, Research Professor, Spanish National Research Council, Madrid
  • Irene Boada-Montagut, Journalist and Lecturer in Spanish and Catalan, Queen’s University, Belfast

10.00 am Debate

10.30 am Coffee break

11.00 am Self-Determination Processes in the EU

  • Internal Enlargement of the EU: David Edward, Professor Emeritus at the School of Law, University of Edinburgh, and former Judge of the Court of Justice of the European Communities
  • Citizenship and Rights: Nicolas Levrat, Director of the Global Studies Institute (GSI) of the University of Geneva
  • Access to the EU Single Market: David Bell, Professor of Economics at University of Stirling
  • Euro as National Currency?: Xavier Cuadras, Associate Professor, Department of Economics and Business at Pompeu Fabra University, and Director of Escola Superior de Comerç Internacional (ESCI)

12.00 pm Debate
Please book your place via Eventbrite >>

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The Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms of the University of Amsterdam, in collaboration with the Netherlands Institute in Turkey, invites scholars to submit their proposals for a two-day conference on nation-building and nationalism in Turkey and Europe. The conference will be hosted at the Netherlands Institute in Turkey, Istanbul from 25 until 27 May 2016.

The main objective of this conference is to consider the rise of nationalisms and pan-nationalisms in the late Ottoman Empire and nation-building in the early Turkish Republic within a broader European context. The demise and collapse of the Ottoman Empire coincided with the rise of nationalist and pan-nationalist ideologies in the centre and peripheries of the empire. In this conference we aim to investigate the formation of ethnic and other post-imperial identities in the former Ottoman Empire and consider these within a broader framework of emerging post-imperial identity formation in Europe.

We would like to ask applicants to write their papers within the context of one of the following themes:

  • The impact of ethnic and other post-imperial identity formation processes on nation-building in the post-imperial era
  • The effects of nation-building projects and nationalisms on cultural memory in Turkey and its surrounding region
  • The revaluation of the Ottoman past in nationalist discourses of the former Ottoman lands
  • The dialectics between local (urban) and national identity formation in the late Ottoman Empire and early Turkish Republic

Abstracts (maximum 200 words) and a short biographical note should be sent to ennomaessen@uva.nl by 15 November 2015. Please note that this is a pre-circulated paper conference.


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ASN16 Call for Papers-page-001

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Diasporic Trajectories: Transnational Cultures in the 21st Century, IASH, 2 Hope Park Square, University of Edinburgh

Seminar 4, Friday 30th October, 2-5pm
*Prof. Héliane Ventura, ‘Matching the Unmatchable: Alice Munro’s Pictures of the Ice and James Galt’s Bogle Corbet or The Emigrant’
*Dr Michelle Keown, ‘Of goldfields, markets and murder: diasporic Chinese and Sinophobia in The Luminaries and Chinese New Zealand literature’
Chair: Dr Corinne Bigot

The remaining seminars in the 2015 series are the following:
Diaspora studies is a growing area of research within the broader field of postcolonial studies. Its principal focus is the ways in which the experiences of migrant and displaced communities have been represented in thought, literature and art. This seminar series will probe diaspora-related themes in a diverse range of ways, one of its aims being to develop still underworked comparative perspectives between the fields of Anglophone and francophone postcolonial studies. There will be two papers at each seminar, separated by a coffee break. All welcome!

Seminar 5, Friday 13th November, 2-5pm
* Prof. David Murphy, ‘The Performance of Pan-Africanism: performing black identity at major pan-African festivals, 1966-2010’
*Dr James Procter , ‘Diaspora on Air: Radio and Lyrical Modernity’
Chair: Dr Sam Coombes

Seminar series webpage: http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/literatures-languages-cultures/events/diasporic-trajectories
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/diasporatrajectories

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ASEN is holding its 26th Annual Conference

“Nationalism, Migration and Population Change”

19th-21st of April 2016 at the London School of Economics and Political Science

Until the mid-19th century, with limited exceptions such as the Atlantic slave trade, long-distance migration usually took place within civilisations. This changed with world wars, widening disparities in levels of economic development and transformations in communications and transportation. One of the aims of this year’s conference is to address the history of nationalism in relation to migration, a topic which has up until now received less attention compared to that of the historical causes of migration.

Another aspect, on which this conference aims at focusing, is contemporary problems. Today the developed world is ageing at an unprecedented rate while 97% of the world’s population growth takes place in developing countries. This creates a steep population gradient, which in turn leads to increasing inter-civilisational migration. In developed countries, immigration, integration and questions of national identity have risen up the policy agenda. Moreover, new populist right parties have emerged at the political scene of several countries, gaining significant public support. Developing countries worry about the loss of some of their most energetic people, many of whom form immigrant diasporas which play an important role in their homelands’ nationalism. This conference therefore also focuses on the effects of contemporary migration on nationalism.

Migration affects nationalism, but nationalism can also produce population change. Some countries engage in policies of demographic engineering in order to increase their population – or at least that of their dominant ethnic group. Other countries seek to protect their “national culture” from large-scale immigration. Uneven demographic transition is a phenomenon noticed not only between but also within countries. This can lead to internal shifts in the balance between ethnic groups, as in the cases of Northern Ireland and Cȏte D’ Ivoire, which in turn may result in ethnic conflict.

This conference seeks to combine a focus on nationalism with a consideration of migration and population change. Applicants are asked to consider the interplay between nationalism and population changes such as migration, differences in population growth rates and urbanisation. We welcome both historical and contemporary perspectives from a wide array of disciplines.

Each of the three days of the conference will be punctuated by plenary sessions consisting of presentations given by distinguished academics. The first plenary usually has a general theoretical focus; the second a historical one while the final is concerned with contemporary policy issues. Each of them will provide different perspectives on the conference’s central theme of the interrelation between nationalism, migration and population change.

Those wishing to participate in the conference are encouraged to reflect on the many different forms, in which nationalism, migration and population change interact. A range of possible themes is outlined below. Please submit your abstract online by the 5th of January at asen.ac.uk/submit-an-abstract.

Your abstract should be no longer than 250 words and include your name, institutional affiliation and title, when appropriate. Please ensure that you highlight how your paper relates to the conference theme and its central questions.


  • Migration and long-distance nationalism
  • Immigration and populist nationalism
  • Emigration and nationalism
  • Return migration
  • Shifts in the conceptualisation of national identity in response to immigrant diversity
  • Demographic engineering and pronatalism
  • Immigrant societies and nation-building
  • Policies of inclusion (assimilation/integration)
  • Immigration, national identity and multiculturalism
  • Differential ethnic population growth and conflict
  • ‘Sons of the Soil’ conflicts
  • Internal migration, urbanisation and ethnic conflict
  • Warfare, boundary making and population movements
  • Banal nationalism, migration and the language of the media
  • The relationship between ‘old’ (established) and new minorities

For any queries or additional information, please email conference@asen.ac.uk.

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Book Drive for Calais Refugee Library

LIVED book drive

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Theorist in Question: Anthony Smith

Anthony Smith is one of the most prominent figures in nationalism studies. His work draws on the pre-existing history of a group creating bonds of solidarity among members based on shared memories, myths and traditions (Smith, 1991:15). Smith acknowledges the importance of looking at ethnic identities over la longue duree so taking into account pre-modern communities (Smith,2001: 58). According to him, a form of national consciousness existed already in the 18th century while in modernity this consciousness turned into a national identity. In fact, Smith and other ethno-symbolists believe that this link to pre-modernity is vital for the creation of the modern nation and he finds it difficult to see a nation maintain itself as a distinctive identity without the pre-existing ethnie (Smith,2004: 202). His analysis show clear similarities between his definition of an ethnie and a nation.

Ethnie Nation
A collective proper name (self-definition) A collective proper name (self-definition)
A myth of common ancestry and shared memories Common myth of origins and shared history
One or more distinctive elements of common culture A distinctive common public culture
A link with territory/ places Occupation of a homeland
A sense of solidarity for significant sectors of population (often elite solidarity) Common rights and duties for all members

Single economy

(Smith, 1991: 21)

Anthony Smith argues that ‘power is often immeasurably increased by the living presence of traditions embodying memories, symbols, myths and values from much earlier epochs in the life of a population, community or area’ (Smith,1991: 20). This stresses the importance of the ethnic identities identified by Smith.


  • If in pre-modern times, national consciousness only existed among some (usually elites) how can it account for the creation of a national identity? Is it merely an elite construct?
  • Do traditions, symbols and myths still play a vital role for the survival of a nation? Do ethnic identities still matter? Think about examples of conflict and harmony.
  • Where would you place ethno symbolism? Is it an addition to modernism, or inherently primordial? Is it a useful concept for nationalism studies and does it advance our understanding of it? Or is it like Gellner said: ‘cultural continuity is contingent, inessential’?

We have decided to look at a temporary example of the importance of tradition in the Netherlands. Smith believes that they are vital in sustaining, uniting and for the survival of a nation. Culture is at the heart of a nation.

Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet in The Netherlands

Brief History of The Netherlands

During ancient times under Roman control, many small tribal groups occupied the area. During the Middle Ages, Germanic tribes invaded bringing Christianity, prosperity and growth. Three main groups can be identified – the Frisians, Franks and Saxons. The area was one of the richest with a flourishing agriculture, commerce and important trading links were established. When in 1555, King Philip II of Catholic Spain inherited the region the people in the low lands resisted. This event could be seen as a religious clash of cultures resulting in an eighty year war and forming some form of national consciousness. The Dutch Revolt ended in the establishment of the Dutch Republic (Republic of the Seven United Provinces) which lasted until 1795. During this period, the Dutch developed a first modern stock market, the Dutch East India Company. Their strength was not limited to economics but the military, namely the navy was well developed. This allowed numerous conquests and the slave trade from Africa which was supporting the economy. Although their power gradually declined over the 18th century, after the collapse of Napoleon, the Dutch monarchs established the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Their growth was slower yet the Kingdom went through constitutional reforms during the 19th century creating a liberal and modern state. While staying neutral during WWI, they resisted the Nazi regime from incorporating the Netherlands into the Third Reich. This resistance and the struggle against the Nazis is still very alive in the people’s memory.Despite all the beautiful and heroic tales about resisting the Nazis, in fact a large number of people collaborated with the Nazi regime and the country was captured qucikly.After reconstruction, economic growth has been increasing making the Netherlands one of the wealthiest countries.


  • This case brings up the issue of religion and nationalism. Dutch national consciousness can be said to have origins in a religious clash between Catholicism (Spanish Habsburg) and Protestantism (Dutch Protestant) during the Dutch Revolt 1555 (see Gorski’s argument that religion had a strong influence on the formation of the state). Is this taking it too far? Are these merely religious ideas or nationalist ideas to some extent? Can we always distinguish between the two?
  • What role does the empire play in relation to national identity? [Think of other cases too such as Spain, Britain…]
  • What are issues in today’s cultures? In a globalised world many cultures meet, what is the next step? Will we compromise so much and create one global culture? What would resistance to this look like?


Sinterklaas plays a big part of Dutch culture. It is the most appreciated holiday by kids in the Netherlands .The celebration happens on 5th December every year. On the morning of St. Nicholas’ Day, Sinterklaas travels to a city in The Netherlands. He comes from Spain every year riding a horse. He travels with his servants called ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (‘Black Petes’). When Sinterklaas comes ashore from the boat, all of the local church bells ring in celebration. Sinterklaas then leads a procession through the town. Children also leave their shoes out in hope for Sinterklaas to come over night and fill them with presents. The Black Pete’s will usually climb down the chimney and put the presents in the shoes.


Illustration from the 1850 book St. Nikolaas en zijn knecht (“Saint Nicholas and his servant”), by Jan Schenkman, 1850

Through this the tale of Saint Nicolaus is remembered from the 4th century. According to the story, he was a bishop from Asia Minor renowned for helping the needy. It is primarily a Catholic tradition and can be traced back to the Middle Ages in the Netherlands. In the 1800s the school teacher Jan Schenkmann from Amsterdam published a book about the tradition which has been highly influential since then.

Children are told that Sint knows all the good and bad things they have done all year so that they behave. The tradition is very old and loved by everyone in the Netherlands. It’s probably one of the most important cultural celebrations for the Dutch.

The current debate & Tensions

When Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands, streets change. Behind every glass in commercial streets, you see the Catholic Bishop Saint Nicolas waving to passing customers accompanied by his black helpers, called Petes.

There has always been some criticism from immigrants who came to the Netherlands in the second half of last century, but this was so marginal that it didn’t make a change. It was often not even heard. But in 2011, a black artist in Amsterdam started to wear T-shirts during Sinterklaas events with the text: “Black Pete = Racism”. The man was arrested and the debate started.

Now, for four years on, the Netherlands is debating a lot about one of its most important traditions. Nearly every family in the Netherlands celebrates Sinterklaas and children have always been told that Black Pete is black and he climbs the chimney at night to deliver gifts. It is just soot that covers his face.

But when looking back in Dutch history books, we see that the tradition was institutionalised in a period that slavery and racist thoughts were common sense in the Netherlands. Besides that: Black Pete often has golden earrings, curly/afro hair and big red lips. Aren’t these clear stereotypes of black people?

Long story short: it has left the Netherlands with a tensioned debate wherein the strongest groups are:

  • White – often more conservative people – claiming that their culture is under siege (these people are not always extreme and can be moderate as well).
  • A black community accompanied by more progressive groups who think that Black Pete ís racist.
  • A growing mixed group who don’t think that the image of Black Pete is racist but that it can strike as racist. This group believes that the tradition should be changed.

Last year, 6 per cent of the Dutch people thought that Black Pete was a racist phenomenon but 13 % was in favour of changing the outlook of Pete.

The whole debate has also raised another questions. There is a group of people claiming that the Dutch identity is threatened. But what is Dutch identity? This has become an intellectual debate in the Netherlands because there are people who argue that besides traditions like Sinterklaas, the Netherland has also a culture of tolerance and openness towards other cultures and minority groups. Therefore, they argue, it would totally in line with the Dutch identity to change a cultural phenomenon if a minority is offended by it.


Supporters of the campaign ‘Zwarte Piet Is Racisme’

Of course white conservative groups disagree with this and want to keep their tradition as ‘pure’ as it is. It leaves the Netherlands with the question: what are our traditions? Is that our tolerant and open character? Or a party like Sinterklaas? And can they go together?

Some news articles that illustrate the ongoing debate:








Relevance of this tradition in relation to Smith

For Smith, all nations can be traced back to pre-modern times. Although he does admit that the concept of the nation is modern, Smith argues that the collective identity is built around traditions, myths and symbols dating back to pre-modern times, which is why nations and nationalisms are as strong as they are today.

In the case of the Sinterklaas tradition, it could definitely be considered pre-modern, especially in Smith’s eyes. Although it might have changed and evolved through the years, it is commonly considered to be an old tradition dating back centuries and having been made concrete by the wirting of a book from 1800. The tradition is of course only part of the Dutch identity, however, as Smith argues, myths and traditions are part of the making of a national identity. If people share the same memories, then they are part of the same community, and thus the same nation. Traditions like Sinterklaas create a sense that the Dutch people are Dutch because they share the same traditions, and have been sharing them for immemorial times.

In “The Ethnic Revival”, Smith argues that the assimilation process in immigrant countries has failed and has now turned to the idea of accommodation and pluralism. Although he uses the United States as an examples, it is still especially true for the Sinterklaas tradition. Ethnic or nationalist groups now can provide “effective communal organisation to defend rights or make demands” (Smith 1981), as is the case in the Netherlands, as minority groups have come forward in opposition to the current Sinterklaas tradition. Smith also points out how even third or fourth generation immigrants may still retain part of their ancestor’s culture, especially through the remembrance of traumatic past event: in this case, slavery.

The Sinterklaas tradition follows Smith’s ideas that ethnic communities rely heavily on the past to form a modern nation. Both sides of the issue bring up their own cultural history to defend their point of view; the Dutch claim it to be an old tradition that cannot be changed, while the black community claim it to be a representation of their ancestors’ horrific history, which shouldn’t be used by the white Dutch culture. Moreover, for both groups, ‘white Dutch’ and ‘foreign Dutch’, slavery is part of the common history. The distinction between the ‘original Dutch’ and ‘the new, immigrant, Dutch’ is that the first group wants to forget this past, the second group wants to commemorate this.


  • Should traditions be protected because they are part of a cultural past? Think about tensions between traditions and Western, liberal society (Dutch example).

[The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said in a report on the Netherlands this summer that even a ‘deeply rooted cultural tradition does not justify discriminatory practices and stereotypes’.]

  • What do you make of the claims that Dutch culture is being destroyed if changes are made to Sinterklaas traditions?
  • ‘I began to see that the passion evoked by nationalism, the powerful commitments felt by so many to their own national identities, could not be explained in conventional economic and political terms’ (Smith, 2003: VII). Is this true in the Dutch case?
  • Did the Netherlands fail to create a (new) homogenous identity in the last 50 years (the years wherein many immigrants and people from former colonies came here) with own customs, rituals and traditions and do we see the clash of this now? Is it possible at all in our contemporary societies to create new identities on the base of different ones? And is it important to do this?
  • Fluidity of traditions- Can we always compromise and simply ‘change’ a tradition to fit modern contexts? Think about other rituals and traditions or cultural elements of a nation? What about a language? [Catalonia, Quebec…]
  • Smith argues that customs, language, symbolic cults bring the members of communities together over generations. Is this always true? Can these have the opposite effect and create divisions of society? Think about your own nation’s myths and symbols? What do you make of them?
  • What about indigenous populations? How would Smith account for these? Or are they left out because ‘nationalism is modern’?
  • Smith in recent work has identifies a third type of nation formation (the other two being lateral and vertical) – an immigrant nation such as the US and Australia. Could you argue that many nations now are moving towards that third type?


Smith, A.D. (1981), ‘Ethnic Revival’, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, A.D. (1991), ‘National Identity’, London: Penguin.

Smith, A.D. (2001), ‘Nationalism’, Cambridge: Polity.

Smith, A.D (2003), ‘Chosen Peoples’, New York: Oxford University Press Inc.

Smith, A.D. (2004), ‘The Antiquity of Nations’, Cambridge: Polity.

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