An Introduction To Nationalism Theory

An introduction to modernism, primordialism and ethnosymbolism.




“A man must have a nationality as he must have a nose and two ears; a deficiency in any of these particulars is not inconceivable […], but only as a result of some disaster, and it is itself a disaster of a kind.”
Ernest Gellner


[dropcap]M[/dropcap]odernists see nations and nationalism as entirely modern phenomena, beginning predominantly in Europe at the advent of industrialization. Ethnic and cultural roots are irrelevant to this view because not all modern nations have them. According to prominent modernists, nationalism and its cultural symbols used in the construction of the nation are invented as a form of top-down control. This view has been frequently criticized by ethnosymbolists for giving no agency to the masses in a more bottom-up approach.

The foremost modernist is Ernest Gellner who hypothesized that the industrial age ushered in a need for new forms of identity to mend rifts in society brought about by major shifts in social mobility. According to Gellner, modern industrializing societies require cultural homogeneity to perpetuate economic success. The most prominent and entirely relevant critique of this view lies in its failure to account for the widespread popularity and virtual fanaticism that nationalisms frequently inspire. To this end, perhaps a review of the pre-modern roots and symbolic layering of such ties and identities can elucidate further.

Benedict Anderson, another key modernist, evokes ‘imagined communities’ as an explanation for feelings of kinship amongst citizens who will never meet, expanding on Gellner’s thesis, with a focus on print capitalism as the lynchpin for the rise in national comradeship. This ‘fuzzy’ label, whilst taken to mean ‘created’ can be mistaken for ‘illusory’ and again fails to account for the sheer power behind nationalist sentiment and leaves little legroom for ethnic, religious and racial factors, falling rather too close to post-modern, single-factor constructionism.

Modernism, though an important contribution to the understanding nationalism de jour, tends to focus on single-factor hypotheses or broad explanations that cannot explain why its influence is just as strong in countries that experienced industrialization at a much later stage and more importantly, why it is almost non-existent in other, incredibly industrious countries. Symbols and ceremonies of nationalism are only important ‘insofar as they are able to mobilize, co-ordinate, and legitimize the various sub-elites who seek power through control of the modern state.’ [John Breuilly 1993 summarized by Anthony D. Smith 1999 p7]

One view that all agree on is that nationalism is not necessary but only appears so, thus reinforcing its existence as a self-referential and self-reinforcing concept.


Primordialism is the perspective that nationalism derives from the early, ‘primordial’ [fundamental], roots and sentiments such as being born into a particular religious community, speaking a certain language or having or taking part in certain traditions and rituals. This ‘cultural’ or ‘naturalist’ view implies that the nation, or some early form of nation, is ancient and thus a natural part of human experience. Primordialism is most often associated with ethnic attachments and thus predominantly ethnic nationalism. Place of birth is another characteristic ‘attachment’ used to emphasize the longevity of nationalism. These attachments are felt as natural for the individual, ‘spiritual’ in character, and provide a foundation for an early ‘affinity’ with others of same or similar backgrounds. [Paul R. Brass in Hutchinson & Smith (eds.) 1994 p83]

On the extreme end of primordialist thinking sits Pierre van den Berghe whose socio-biological perspective holds that nationalism is a product of ethnic and racial ties, described as an ‘extended and attenuated form of kin selection’. [van den Berghe in Hutchinson & Smith (eds.) 1994 p97] His theory of ‘inclusive fitness’ reduces behaviours and social structures both great and small to the basic fundamentals of resource competition and ‘adaptive evolution’. [ibid p99] In this subcategory, nationalism is one of many identities to which individuals adhere (both consciously and subconsciously) to manipulate the ‘cost/benefit ratio of [social] transactions’ to ones advantage. [ibid p97] This reduces the importance of language, race, religion and symbols to ‘myths of shared descent largely correspond[ing] to real biological ancestry’. [Smith 1999 p4 emphasis added]

The primordialist branch of nationalism is popular because it recognizes the need for identification with the familiar and meaningful, rather than ‘absorption into a culturally undifferentiated mass [or] domination by some other rival ethnic, racial, or linguistic community’. [Clifford Geertz in ibid. p30] However, few groups around the world would be able to posit a serious claim to a ‘known common origin’ and thus, as in the modernist viewpoint, the belief in a shared descent is more important than any proof of its existence.

Similar to primordialism, perennialists are of the opinion that nations have existed since time immemorial but that they are infrequent, unnatural developments, occurring in peaks and troughs.


Ethnosymbolism emphasizes the importance of symbols, traditions, values and myths in the creation and continuation of modern nations. Most scholars agree that the nation has taken on a particular form and prominence since the mid-eighteenth century, but prominent ethnosymbolists such as Anthony D. Smith argue that early memories, myths and symbols hold a continued importance in the understanding of nationalisms.

Smith’s distinction between ethnic or ethno-cultural communities – which he calls ethnies – and ‘nations’ is generally accepted as valid in the exploration of early civilizations such as medieval Islam and Christendom, which show that ‘ethnic belonging’ had very strong roots and contributed to nation-formation. [Smith citing Armstrong, 1986 p15, see Ch3]

In some ways, this approach has often been labelled a ‘middle-ground’ or compromise between the first two opposing views because Smith and others maintain that nations themselves are modern creatures (or that nations were ‘consolidated’ in the modern, industrial and post-industrial age), but that the pre-modern roots espoused by primordialism are also vital to understanding peoples’ relationships to the nation.

Potential nations needed to take on ethnic models and components in order to thrive but ethnies also adapt to territorial and civic models in the route towards ‘nationhood’. Nations have been described as ‘quasi-kinship groups, regulated by myths of common descent, a sense of shared history, and a distinctive culture.’ [Hutchinson in Guibernau & Hutchinson (eds.) 2001 p75]

The evocation of identity and history – the main concern of nations when considering nationalism according to this theoretical branch – as ‘culture’, to an ethnosymbolist, means more than symbols and rituals but ‘the meanings and orientations to collective action that these evoke.’

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