7.1.1 Modernist and Ethnosymbolic Theories: The Consolidation of Nationalism Studies

Frédérick Guillaume Dufour and Dave Poitras

The bulk of the theories on nationalism are based on the assumption, or come to the conclusion, that nations are products of modernity or a modern way of organizing policy. Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (1983) is the most well-known book that forwards this theory. Investigating culture in 18th century Europe during the industrialization era, Gellner observes that modern economies, or industrial cultures, require the ability to communicate between strangers in a standard idiom and a mobile division of labour that is able to rapidly learn new positions. To provide such a workforce, exo-education must become a universal norm. Only the communities that are able to sustain an independent educational system are then able to reproduce themselves. The state, the only institution capable of supporting such complex organizations, uses mass education to standardize a culture, that of the political elites, over a large-scale territory. In this sense, Gellner understands the homogenization of cultures through mass education as a necessary measure to meet the economic needs precipitated by industrialization. The homogenization of cultures, the way people understand the world and their position within this framework, is therefore unintentional. The consequences of this transformation are, however, durable. For Gellner, since the industrialization era, individuals have not been loyal to a monarch or a religion but rather a national culture. According to this logic, the state is only legitimate when it represents and protects this culture. While discussing Max Weber’s theory of the emergence of states, Gellner argues that nowadays, the monopoly of legitimate violence is not as important to modern states as the monopoly of legitimate education. Acquiring the cultural idiom in a given state then becomes, Gellner argues, the basis of citizenship. By investing themselves in the mastering of the idioms of their culture, individuals unintentionally become nationalist.

Benedict Anderson, the author of Imagined Communities (2006 [1991]), emphasizes the role of print capitalism during the proto-industrial era in the advent of nations and nationalism. The diffusion of books published in printed languages, he argues, “created unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above spoken vernaculars. Speakers of the huge variety of Frenches, Englishes or Spanishes, who might find it difficult or even impossible to understand one another in conversation, became capable of comprehending one another via print and paper” (ibid.: 44-45). Creating new ways of linking fraternity and power, the homogenization of languages spread while two important cultural systems were losing influence: religions and dynasties. The demotion of such orders, combined with the rise of print capitalism, allowed individuals to project their life in a different perspective. Mass publication and print capitalism, in other words, created another representation of communal belonging by adjoining new symbols: a shared language and culture, but mostly a daily life marked by similar news, events, interests, and routines. In so doing, communities became “imagined” in the sense that a person from a given community—or a contemporary nation—will most likely never know or meet all of his or her compatriots, yet s/he can still imagine their existence and everyday life.

The modernist school of thought in nationalism studies, as discussed through its main representatives, Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson, thus argues that the advent of nations as modern ways of belonging is the unintended or indirect result of state policies. Mainly enforced to sustain the necessary conditions for contemporary economies, this course of action inadvertently homogenized cultures. Nations and nationalism are then to be understood as unintentional consequences of industrialization that became, throughout the years, efficient means of bounding citizens and political elites. In a bid to supply what modernist theories lack, i.e. what is actually national, the ethnosymbolic school of thought further developed the field of nationalism studies. Its founder, Anthony D. Smith, agrees that nations are a modern phenomenon. However, he emphasizes their ethnic origins by arguing that they require the unifying myths, symbols and memories of pre-modern ethnicities (1987; 1991; 1998). The combination of these elements constitutes what he refers to as the ethnic core of a nation. The ethnic core of a nation, in his theory, is what makes it unique—whereas most of its other components, whether it be shared codified laws, common rights and duties, a unified economic zone, or a delimited territory, are interchangeable from one nation to another. The particularities of an ethnic core mark the difference between the concept of a nation and that of a state, a distinction that modernist theorists have rarely underlined. Hence, instead of examining the role of cultures as Gellner did, Smith explores what these cultures consist of and how their elements have come to be understood as national.

According to Smith, the keepers of traditions, individuals who are or who closely collaborate with the elites of a given political unit, have throughout history passed on cultural components that have come to form the ethnic core of a nation. By the end of medieval times, the culturally homogenous elite of a given territory began forming the core of what would become a state. Growing in complexity, elites would influence the state’s administrative, judicial, fiscal and military apparatus, whose expansion meant the annexation of culturally different territories. To strengthen their legitimacy, government leaders encouraged the assimilation of minorities so that their state could be perceived as a nation-state, an entity that represents and speaks for one people. What is hence precisely modern in the concept of nations, in Smith’s theory, is the idea of merging a political identity with a cultural identity, endowing the nation as the basis of state citizenship.

John Hutchinson, Smith’s student, identifies two distinct processes within the advent of nation-states and argues that nationalism is a twofold phenomenon that mainly involves two types of actors with different yet complementary goals (1987). A first set of actors is engaged in “cultural nationalism.” This form of nationalism is a response to the erosion of traditional religious and feudal identities. It attempts to regenerate the moral of the national community. The protagonists of cultural nationalism are mainly artists and scholars, such as historians, anthropologists, and political scientists. These “ethnic revivalists,” by using the past, formulate the cultural ideals of the nation. The effectiveness of their endeavour rests on their ability to invoke and appropriate genuine communal memories while at the same time connecting them to specific homelands, cultural practices, and forms of sociopolitical organization. A second set of actors is engaged in “political nationalism.” Their aim is to erect a rational and civic political community composed of equal citizens unified through shared idioms and laws. To do so, they transform the ideals formulated by the ethnic revivalists into political, economic and social programs. They mainly consist of politicians trying to legitimize an independent state or an independent state-to-be with the work of individuals engaged in cultural nationalism. They use ethnic sentiments to muster diverse groups and secure a representative national state. Although those two ideal types of nationalism convey different objectives, they complement each other: political nationalists require ethnic sentiments to be conceptualized, whereas cultural nationalists need channels to champion their findings—though the latter may sometimes be invented traditions (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983).


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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction Copyright © 2021 by Frédérick Guillaume Dufour and Dave Poitras is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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