On the Concept of Nationalism


  • Nationalism, like nation, is very hard to define clearly and unequivocally. The contention that nationalism is what nationalists make of it, is, in fact, an evasion. There are no two authors, whether sociologists, historians, political scientists, or psychologists, who define nationalism in the same way. This may lead novices in the study of nationalism to infer that, having read a few works on the subject, they are even less knowledgeable than when they began.


Throughout history people have been attached to their native soil, to the traditions of their parents and to established territorial authorities; but it was not until the end of the 18th century that nationalism began to be a generally recognized sentiment moulding public and private life. The American and French revolutions may be regarded the its first powerful manifestations of nationalism. After penetrating the new countries of Latin America, it spread to central Europe and from there,  to eastern and southeastern Europe. At the beginning of the 20th century, nationalism flowered in the ancient lands of Asia and Africa. Thus the 19th century has been called the age of nationalism in Europe, while the 20th century has witnessed the rise and struggle of powerful national movements throughout Asia and Africa.

Nationalism asserts that humanity is naturally divided into nations, and, on this basis, claims to supply a criterion for the determination of the unit of population proper to enjoy a government exclusively of its own for the legitimate exercise of power in the state and for the right organisation of a society of states.


1. Professor Liah Greenfeld

Nationalism is “an image of a social order, which involves the people as a sovereign elite and a community of equals.”

2. Ernest Gellner

“Nationalism is defined as a political principle holding that the political and national unit should be congruent, as a sentiment about that principle, and as a theory of political legitimacy requiring that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones.”


Nationalism as a modern political ideology and modern nations emerged only following the French Revolution of 1789. It developed and evolved during the 19th century, reaching its highest stage in the 20th century. Benedict Anderson argues that the nation has its origins in the “originary nationalism” of the “Creole pioneers” of Latin America which was “modularly” adopted by European nationalist movements and those in Asia and Africa.


Alter define two major categories of nationalism: Risorgimento (the Italian word for. “resurrection”) nationalism and integral nationalism.

a. Risorgimento Nationalism

It is derived from a publication in1847 by Cesar Balbo in Turin, the capital of Piedmont. Giuseppe Mazzini of the Young Italy Movement and John Gottfried Herder are exponents of this type of nationalism. This type of nationalism applies to nations that seek to establish a state.

Examples: Nineteenth century, Greece, Italy, Germany, Poland and Serbia.

b. Integral Nationalism

The opposite of Risorgimento nationalism is integral nationalism, known also as “radical”, “extreme”, “right-wing”, “reactionary”, “aggressive-expansionist”, “derivative” and/or “militant” nationalism. Integral nationalism results after a nation has achieved independence and has established a state. In integral states, a totalitarian system results where the government or state dominates all aspects of the society or nation. The state is one and indivisible, une et indivisible.

Examples: Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.


I. Primordalism

Primordialism assumes that group identity is a given; that there exist in all societies certain primordial, irrational attachments based on blood, race, language, religion, region, etc. They are ineffable and yet coercive ties which are the result of a long process of crystallization. Modern states, particularly, but not exclusively, in the Third World, are superimposed on the primordial realities which are the ethnic groups or communities. Primordialists believe that ethnic identity is deeply rooted in the historical experience of human beings to the point of being practically a given.

ii. Instrumentalism

Instrumentalists believe that ethnic identity is flexible and variable; that both the content and boundaries of an ethnic group change according to circumstances. Under the label of instrumentalism, one can range a variety of approaches which are based on the idea that ethnicity is the result of economic, social or political processes, and hence that it is by definition a flexible and highly adaptable tool. Ethnic groups have no fixed boundaries; they are rather collective entities which change in size according to changing conditions.

iii. Social Communication Theory

The theory predicted that an accentuation of social mobilization would enhance the importance of language and culture and hence of nationalism. One of the implications of this theory is that modern nation-states are likely to absorb or assimilate the languages and cultures of the subordinated ethnics or national minorities within their borders.


i. Micro: It looks into how the identity is formed and experienced by individuals in the context of interacting with other individuals.
ii. Median: It examines the formation and mobilization of groups. At this level, the key focus should be on leadership and entrepreneurship. Stereotypes are often important at this level.
iii. Macro: It considers how the state affects ethnic groups through legal frameworks and specific policies as well as through the use of force and the threat of force.
iv. Global: It investigates recent developments which are based on the emergence of a global discourse on human rights, the increasing role of the United Nations as a peacekeeper and a peace enforcer and of the NGOs.


  • Ethnic Nationalism: where the nation is defined in terms of ethnicity and descent from previous generations. It also includes the idea of a culture shared between members of the group, and usually a shared language.
  • Civic Nationalism: where the state derives political legitimacy from the active participation of its citizenry and from the degree to which it represents the “will of the people”.
  • State Nationalism: a variant of Civic Nationalism, where the nation is assumed to be a community of those who contribute to the maintenance and strength of the state, and that the individual exists in the community expressly to contribute to this goal. This often results in Fascism.
  • Expansionist Nationalism: a radical form of imperialism that incorporates autonomous, patriotic sentiments with a belief in expansionism, usually by military aggression.
  • Romantic Nationalism: a form of Ethnic Nationalism in which the state derives political legitimacy as a natural (”organic”) consequence and expression of the nation. It relies upon the existence of a historical ethnic culture which meets the romantic ideal (folklore developed as a Romantic Nationalist concept).
  • Cultural Nationalism: where the nation is defined by shared culture; neither purely civic nor purely ethnic.
  • Third World Nationalism: where nationalist sentiments result from resistance to colonial domination.
  • Liberal Nationalism: where it is claimed that individuals need a national identity in order to lead meaningful, autonomous lives, and that liberal democracies need national identity in order to function properly.
  • Religious Nationalism: where a shared religion can be seen contributing to a sense of national unity, and a common bond among the citizens of the nation.
  • Pan-Nationalism: where ethnic or cultural nationalism applies to a nation which itself is a cluster of related ethnic groups and cultures.
  • Diaspora Nationalism: where there is nationalist feeling among a diaspora, (an ethnic population living outside their traditional homelands).
  • Stateless Nationalism: where an ethnic or cultural minority within a nation-state seeks independence on nationalist grounds.
  • National Conservatism: a political term, used primarily in Europe, to describe a variant of conservatism which concentrates more on national interests than standard conservatism, while not being unduly nationalist or pursuing an excessively far-right agenda.


Nationalism is based on the creation of a group fantasy and an “imagined community” based on a common language, common religion, common race or ethnicity and a common culture. From the above discussion, it can concluded that nationalism is an emancipatory ideology wherein the nation as a whole is involved. It defies colonialism and imperialism, although it is not completely protectionist in its foreign policy. The geopolitical reality forces nations to find allies for the short and long term to advance the goal of popular nationalism: the survival of the own nation among the other nations without reaching for   jingoistic/imperialistic means.

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