Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, INTERNATIONAL STUDIES ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 16 January 2018

Conceptual Debates in Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Migration

Summary and Keywords

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the term “ethnic” has come to mean “member of a group of people with a set of shared characteristics,” including a belief in common descent. As such, “ethnic groups” refer to human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical or customs type or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration. Ethnic phenomena are primarily explained through the “primordialist” and “instrumentalist” explanations. Primordialism holds that ethnicity is a constitutive and permanent feature of human nature. Instrumentalists argue that ethnicity is a social construct with the purpose of achieving political or material gain. However, the real debate is among constructivists over whether ethnicity should be studied from the participant or the observer perspective. Meanwhile, it is difficult to determine exactly when and where “the nation” first became identified with “the people” as it is today, but the process is closely tied to the rise of popular sovereignty and representative democracy. When nations and nationalism became the subject of academic inquiry, three positions emerged: “modernism,” which holds that both nations and nationalism are modern phenomena; “perennialism,” which argues that nationalist ideology is modern, but nations date back to at least the Middle Ages; and “ethno-symbolism,” a combination of the previous two. Most contemporary classifications of nations and nationalism are typological, the most prominent of which identify two dichotomous types, such as the distinction between “civic” and “ethnic” nationalism. Other classifications are better described as taxonomies.

Keywords: ethnic groups, primordialism, instrumentalism, ethnicity, constructivists, nations, nationalism, modernism, perennialism, etho-symbolism


As Walker Connor has long maintained, a significant obstacle to the progress of nationalism studies has been the lack of consensus on its fundamental concepts (1978; 1994). Thirty years after his well-known examination of this problem, studies of nationalism and related subjects have multiplied exponentially, and some of the early conceptual debates in the field have seen important advances. Nevertheless, it is clear that despite the fact that many scholars now take certain shared assumptions for granted, we are a long way from unanimity.

The purpose of this essay is to review some of the basic conceptual debates in nationalism studies under the broad and interrelated categories of “ethnicity,” “nations and nationalism,” and “classification of nations and nationalism.” The sheer volume of literature produced on these subjects, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, poses a major challenge, but the present selective focus using key and influential texts as examples should provide the reader with a solid foundation for further research.

The essay has three sections, organized as follows. The first, on ethnicity, provides a brief history of the term and an overview of what is usually described as the debate between “primordialist” and “instrumentalist” accounts of ethnicity, but suggests that this characterization is misleading. Section two, on nations and nationalism, begins with a similar etymology before surveying the debate between “modernist,” “perennialist,” and “ethno-symbolist” conceptions of the nature of and relations between those two phenomena. Finally, the third section reviews the range of ways that nations and nationalism have been classified, including the now dominant distinction between “civic” and “ethnic” types.


The term “ethnicity” was not recorded in the English language until the 1950s (Glazer and Moynihan 1975). Its etymological root, the Greek noun ethnos, has no equivalent in English, and is usually substituted with the term “ethnic group” or sometimes, in scholarly discussions, with the French noun “ethnie” (Smith 1986).

The earliest recorded uses of ethnos do not refer to groups of people sharing culture or descent, but instead denote “large, undifferentiated groups of either animals or warriors,” in instances “where great size, amorphous structure, and threatening mobility are the qualities to which attention is being drawn.” Aristotle, though, used it for foreign or barbarous peoples, and it is this sense of the word that predominated in ancient Greek and foreshadows its modern derivations. Like the modern English “tribe,” ethnos in this context connoted “aspects of naturality, of non-legitimate social organization, of disorganization, and of animality” that are said to characterize peoples other than our own. It was a moral term, similar to goyim in Hebrew or gentiles in English, that indicated exclusion, disdain, and strangeness (Tonkin et al. 1989:12).

This meaning persisted through the Byzantine and medieval periods, but then underwent a notable reversal, probably in the context of the Ottoman empire's system of self-governing religious communities called millets. Here, the Orthodox Christian Greeks were a minority, and it is likely that they began referring to themselves as ethnos because of the religious grouping and “otherness” that the term had come to suggest (p. 13). In modern Greek, ethnos denotes a united people, and is usually translated into other languages as “nation,” except in circumstances where the latter is used as a synonym for “state” (Just 1989).

In English, the term “ethnic” has been used since roughly the fourteenth century, initially as an occasional substitute for “gentile” to denote persons who were neither Jewish nor Christian. Since the mid-nineteenth century, however, it has come to mean something more general like “member of a group of people with a set of shared characteristics,” including at minimum a belief in common descent. It is likely that an English equivalent to ethnos never developed because in the past the term “race” meant roughly the same thing. The latter is now more often associated with biology, but previously “could have been substituted by, for example, ‘nation’, ‘society’, ‘culture’, ‘language’, or ‘tribe’” (Tonkin et al. 1989:14).

One of the few early social scientists to address the concept of ethnic groups is Max Weber. Despite its brevity, his discussion of them as a type of “status group” has had significant influence on subsequent scholarship, and is worth quoting at length:

We shall call “ethnic groups” those human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration; this belief must be important for the propagation of group formation; conversely, it does not matter whether or not an objective blood relationship exists. Ethnic membership (Gemeinsamkeit) differs from the kinship group precisely by being a presumed identity, not a group with concrete social action, like the latter. In our sense, ethnic membership does not constitute a group; it only facilitates group formation of any kind, particularly in the political sphere. On the other hand, it is primarily the political community, no matter how artificially organized, that inspires the belief in common ethnicity. This belief tends to persist even after the disintegration of the political community, unless drastic differences in custom, physical type, or, above all, language exist among its members. (1968:389)

As some of the preceding comments suggest, Weber is not completely convinced of the utility of the “ethnic group” as an analytically distinct concept. A thorough analysis of all of the phenomena subsumed under the idea, he says, would ultimately leave the category empty. He concludes, though, that “we do not pursue sociology for its own sake” (p. 395), and therefore must take the beliefs of social actors seriously, no matter what we might think of them ourselves.

Notwithstanding the interest of a few scholars like Weber, ethnicity did not attract significant academic attention until after World War II. As Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan explain in their early books on the subject, it appeared to them to be both a new term and a new phenomenon (1963; 1975). Social scientists had expected that the differences and divisions between groups would dissipate in modern and modernizing societies, and that associative ties would shift to a “more rational” basis through socialization in common social and political systems and institutions. Instead, Glazer and Moynihan argue, ethnic groups not only survived modernization and the “liberal expectancy” of assimilation, they became politicized in the process (1975).

Glazer and Moynihan's work raised several questions that are still central to the study of ethnicity today. Their second book, for example, departed from earlier work on the subject, including their own (1963), with the idea of “majority ethnicity.” While most scholars, particularly American sociologists like Richard Schermerhorn, had previously defined an ethnic group as a collectivity within a larger society (1970:13), Glazer and Moynihan instead suggested that all groups in society “characterized by a distinct sense of difference owing to culture and descent” can be rightfully classified as ethnic groups (1975:4). This idea, particularly relevant to the debate over the relationship between nationhood and ethnicity, will be addressed later on.

The larger debate that Glazer and Moynihan helped to frame, however, is on the nature of ethnicity itself. The dividing line here is usually said to be between “primordialist” and “instrumentalist” explanations of ethnic phenomena but, in practice, few scholars can accurately be listed as advocates of the former, and the latter is better subsumed under the broad category of “constructivist” explanations, which itself covers a range of sometimes very different approaches. The rest of this section addresses the orthodox distinction by first explaining primordialism and instrumentalism, but then suggesting that the real debate is not between these two camps, and is instead among constructivists over whether the participant or the observer perspective is more appropriate for studying ethnicity.


Primordialism holds that ethnicity is a constitutive and permanent feature of human nature. While this view is often consistent with popular perception and portrayals in the media, sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe is almost alone among specialists in supporting it. The association of other authors such as Edward Shils and Clifford Geertz with this position is a common misinterpretation explained below.

According to van den Berghe, both ethnicity and race “are extensions of the idiom of kinship, and […] therefore, ethnic and race sentiments are to be understood as an extended and attenuated form of kin selection” (1978:403). This is the “main genetic mechanism for animal sociality” (p. 402), he says, because it maximizes “inclusive fitness” (the ability of an individual organism to pass on its genes to the next generation). Reciprocity and coercion, the two other bases of human association, are also important, especially in modern societies, but racial and ethnic groups are “ascriptive, defined by common descent, generally hereditary, and often endogamous” (pp. 403–4).

For nearly all of human history, van den Berghe contends, ethnic groups functioned as super-families that were more closely related to each other than to even their closest neighbors, and they explicitly recognized that fact as the basis for clear territorial and social boundaries with other ethnic groups. Migration, conquest, and interbreeding did take place, he concedes, but the fact that “the extended kinship of the ethnic group was sometimes putative rather than real was not the important point” (p. 404).

Indeed, cultural criteria were until recently the most reliable test of kin relatedness. The problem, van den Berghe explains, “was for small groups to distinguish themselves from their immediate neighbors, not with unknown populations thousands of kilometers away. Even the most trivial differences of accent, dialect, vocabulary, body adornment, and so on, could be used far more reliably to assess biological relatedness or unrelatedness than any physical phenotype” (p. 407). This does not mean that the belief in common ancestry is just a cultural myth, however, because a “myth, to be effective, has to be believed, and a myth of ethnicity will only be believed if members of an ethnic group are sufficiently alike in physical appearance and culture, and have lived together and intermarried for a sufficient period […] for the myth to have developed a substantial measure of biological truth” (1995:360).


Most scholars reject the essentialist character of primordialism, and instead conduct their research under the assumption that social phenomena like ethnicity are the product of human interaction, or “socially constructed.” Against the primordialist claim that ethnicity is an inherent feature of human nature, “constructivists” argue that there is nothing necessary about ethnicity, and that it should be understood as the contingent result of specific historical circumstances.

“Instrumentalism” (sometimes called “circumstantialism” or “situationalism”) is the most familiar constructivist approach, and is the direct opposite of primordialist accounts. Instrumentalists argue that ethnicity is a social construct with the purpose of achieving political or material gain. Ethnic groups, on this explanation, are best understood as “interest groups for which ethnicity serves as an effective strategy” (Hempel 2004).

Paul Brass’s “elite manipulation” argument is a classic example of this perspective. An ethnic group, he says, is any group of people that is distinguishable from other groups by objective cultural markers such as language, custom, or religion. Ethnicity or ethnic identity is consciousness of membership in such a group, and the use of its cultural characteristics to create an internally cohesive, subjectively self-conscious community.

The transition from ethnic group to community, Brass argues, is one that only some groups make, but for those that do the impetus for change is always elite interest. “Ethnic selfconsciousness, ethnically-based demands, and ethnic conflict,” he says, “can only occur if there is some conflict either between indigenous and external elites and authorities or between indigenous elites” (1991:26). Ethnic communities are created through the selection of some cultural symbols from a variety of available alternatives in a manner that benefits particular social groups, leaders, or elites, who use ethnicity as a basis “to make demands in the political arena for alteration in their status, in their economic well-being, in their civil rights, or in their educational opportunities” (p. 19), just as any other interest group does.

Accounts of this debate often end here, on the assumption that primordialism and instrumentalism are the poles of a continuum, and that any alternative perspective will be some combination of the two. As already suggested, however, this characterization is misleading, since primordialism is usually a red herring in a debate that has for the most part been carried out between constructivists of different persuasions.

Clifford Geertz, for example, is often described as a primordialist because of an essay he wrote on nation building in newly independent states, in which he identifies the persistence of “primordial attachments” as a significant obstacle to the establishment of a state-wide national identity superseding all others. By primordial attachment, he says,

is meant one that stems from the “givens” – or, more precisely, as culture is inevitably involved in such matters, the assumed “givens” – of social existence: immediate contiguity and kin connection mainly, but beyond them to the givenness that stems from being born into a particular religious community, speaking a particular language, or even a dialect of a language, and following particular social practices. These congruities of blood, speech, custom, and so on, are seen to have an ineffable, and at times overpowering, coerciveness in and of themselves. One is bound to one's kinsman, one's neighbor, one's fellow believer, ipso facto; as the result not merely of personal affection, practical necessity, common interest, or incurred obligation, but at least in great part by virtue of some unaccountable absolute import attributed to the very tie itself. (1973:259–60)

Many people cite this passage in particular as clear evidence that Geertz understands ethnicity as an intrinsic part of human nature, and some even portray him as the quintessential primordialist (Eller and Coughlan 1993). In fact, this is a misinterpretation based on a superficial reading of the text (Grosby 1994; Fenton 2003; Brubaker 2004).

The term “primordial” is borrowed from Edward Shils, who first used it to denote the affective ties that bind some “primary groups” (particularly family) together. Discussing these groups in the context of social integration, Shils writes that such attachments are “not merely to the other family member as a person, but as a possessor of certain especially ‘significant relational’ qualities, which could only be described as primordial. The attachment to another member of one's kinship group is not just a function of interaction […] It is because a certain ineffable significance is attributed to the tie of blood” (1957:142). Even in circumstances where there is little affection, he says, such attachments persist based on the perception of membership in the kinship group.

Geertz elaborates on this idea, broadening it and putting emphasis on its perceptive character with modifiers like “assumed” and “seen to have,” as in the above passage. This is because primordiality is a participant, not an observer concept. As he acknowledges in a later lecture, this has often been misunderstood:

Designed to expose the artifactual, or as we would say now “constructed” (and, indeed, often quite recently constructed), nature of social identities, and to desegregate them into the disparate components out of which they are built, it was often seen to be doing just the opposite – ratifying them, archaizing them, and removing them to the realm of the darkly irrational.

In any case, by primordial loyalties is meant (by me, anyway) an attachment that stems from the subject's, not the observer's, sense of the “givens” of social existence […] from the actor's perspective, of blood, speech, custom, faith, residence, history, physical appearance, and so on. (1994:6)

This bears obvious similarities to Weber's analysis, and is what most social scientists who talk about the “primordiality” of ethnicity are getting at – employing, as Connor puts it, “the wisdom of the old saw that when analyzing sociopolitical situations, what ultimately matters is not what is but what people believe is” (1994: 93). The relevant disagreement is not between primordialists and instrumentalists, but among constructivists over whether our focus should be the processes through which ethnic identities are constructed, or the self-understandings that those processes create. This division is closely related to the traditional methodological distinction between “explanation” and “understanding” (Hollis 1994), and clearly has important consequences.

Geertz's analysis, for example, is based on his theory of culture, which he defines as “a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (1973:89). This definition includes both “cultural markers” such as style of dress, cuisine, and language, as well as the systemic relation that underlies the shared meanings attributed to these symbols. Any satisfactory discussion of ethnicity, he contends, must begin with a deep understanding of the relevant culture from the participant's perspective.

Fredrik Barth, on the other hand, is well known for his incisive and influential critique of accounts of ethnicity that focus on shared cultural values. Barth argues that a common culture should be seen as an implication or result of ethnic group organization and not its constitutive basis. If objectively identifiable cultural traits are used to distinguish one ethnic group from another, we lose the ability to explain the persistence of groups whose attributes change over time. “We can assume no one-to-one relationship between ethnic units and cultural similarities and differences,” he explains. “The features that are taken into account are not the sum of ‘objective’ differences but only those which the actors themselves regard as significant – some cultural features are used by actors as signals and emblems of difference, others are ignored.” Our focus, he says, should instead be the boundary that defines a group, and “not the cultural stuff which it encloses.” Such boundaries are created and maintained by the subjective identification of group members, based on the presumption that they are all “playing the same game,” and it is the act of playing the game, not how it is played, that matters (1969:14).

Perhaps even more provocative is Rogers Brubaker’s recent call for “ethnicity without groups.” One of the central problems with the study of ethnicity and related subjects, he says, is the “commonsense groupism” that often characterizes it. Groupism, Brubaker explains, is “the tendency to take discrete, bounded groups as basic constituents of social life, chief protagonists of social conflicts, and fundamental units of social analysis.” While this accurately reflects the “psychological essentialism” of social participants, he argues, it should not be the foundation of our analysis as social scientists. “Ethnic common sense […] is a key part of what we want to explain, not what we want to explain things with; it belongs to our empirical data, not our analytical toolkit” (2004: 9).

A better approach, Brubaker says, is to understand ethnicity as a category of cognition. Ethnicity, race, and nationhood (which, he says, there are strong reasons for treating together) “are not things in the world, but perspectives on the world” (p. 17) that help us to organize it in ways that we find more manageable. Treating ethnicity as a cognitive process addresses not only its socially constructed nature but also how it is constructed, by focusing on the assumptions that structure the way people parse, frame, and interpret their experiences. Our minds use categories and schemas to make sense of the world, he explains and, by its very nature, “categorization creates ‘groups’ and assigns members to them; but the groups thus created do not exist independently of the myriad acts of categorization, public and private, through which they are sustained from day to day” (p. 79). Instead of asking what ethnicity is, we need to ask how, when, and why people interpret social experience in ethnic terms.

These three examples demonstrate the range of constructivist conceptualizations of ethnicity and the limits of casting the debate in “primordial” and “instrumental” terms. The key point of contention among most scholars is not whether ethnicity is “natural” or “constructed,” but whether it should be studied from the participant or the observer perspective. These approaches are not necessarily antagonistic, but often reflect different methodological assumptions that can be difficult to reconcile.

Nations and Nationalism

Like ethnicity, the term “nation” has its root in antiquity; in this case, the Latin word natio. Derived from the past participle of the verb nasci, meaning to be born (Connor 1994:94), the Romans understood a natio “to be a group of men who belonged together in some way because of similarity of birth,” such as the same city or tract of land. These groups were larger than a family but smaller than a clan or people, and always foreign – there was a populus Romanus, but never a natio Romanorum (Zernatto 1944:352).

This meaning persisted into the Middle Ages when it was applied to communities of university students who came from geographically or linguistically related regions. The University of Paris, for instance, had four nations: “l'honorable nation de France, la fidèle nation de Picardie, la vénérable nation de Normandie and la constante nation de Germanien” (p. 355). These official titles did not, however, indicate that each respective nation was made up of “Frenchmen, Picards, Normans, and Germans.” The “nation of France,” for example, included all students who spoke Italian, Spanish or another Romance language in addition to those who spoke French. In this context, nations were like student unions – communities of shared purpose and often opinion – whose members only referred to and thought of themselves as such when they were away from home.

The sense of a nation as a community of opinion was expanded from the late thirteenth century onward to denote groups of representatives to the Church Councils, starting with the Second Council of Lyon in 1274. With members who represented various intraecclesiastical positions and different rulers, the word “nation” came to indicate a group of political, cultural, and social elites sharing a common territorial origin. It was not long before this meaning, which endured into the eighteenth century, was extended to all communities of aristocrats.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where “the nation” first became identified with “the people” regardless of class as it is today, but the process is closely tied to the rise of popular sovereignty and representative democracy that came to a head in the mid-to-late eighteenth century. One of the best-known statements of this dramatic shift is Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès’ influential pamphlet What is the Third Estate?, published just months before the French Revolution began in 1789, in which he insists that the nation properly includes all citizens living under a common law and represented by the same legislature, and may even exclude the nobility because of their exploitative privilege and lack of purpose in modern society (2003).

The history of a word, however, is not necessarily the same as that of the concept it has come to represent, and one of the most contentious questions in the study of nations has been whether they are longstanding features of human association or unique to the modern world. Early commentators assumed the former, suggesting that even if nations were not recognized as the legitimate basis of political authority until the “Age of Nationalism” that began with the revolutions of the eighteenth century, they have always been a natural and persistent feature of human identity. This perspective, which often but not always had a primordialist character, remained relatively unchallenged until the early twentieth century, when nations and nationalism first became the subject of sustained academic inquiry. Since that time, three competing positions, first categorized by Anthony Smith, have emerged: “modernism,” the presently dominant perspective which holds that both nations and nationalism are modern phenomena; “perennialism,” which maintains that nationalist ideology is modern, but nations date back to at least the Middle Ages and in some cases all of recorded history; and “ethno-symbolism,” a combination of the previous two.

The dividing line between these different datings is the answer to the logically prior question of the nature of nations and nationalism. Nearly all contemporary scholars agree that nationalism as an ideology is a modern phenomenon associated with the extension of the principle of popular sovereignty to include national self-determination, but there is significant disagreement over whether nationalism is more than just an ideology, and whether it expresses the sentiments of preexisting nations or creates them where they did not previously exist.

It is important to avoid confusing nations with states when addressing these issues. While the doctrine of popular sovereignty identifies “the people” as the font of all political power, the state is the set of institutions through which that power is exercised (Connor 1994:95). A wide variety of different independent political units (such as city-states and empires) have existed throughout history, but the sets of institutions that we now refer to as states are the product of a relatively recent centralization of power that first took place in Western Europe: the “Europe of 1500 included some five hundred more or less independent political units, the Europe of 1900 about twenty-five” (Tilly 1975:15). The key characteristic of the modern state, famously established with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, is its sovereignty, most often defined as a monopoly on rule making and the legitimate use of force within a bounded territory.

The term “nation-state” signifies a state whose boundaries coincide with those of a particular nation, and is seen as the expression of that nation's political self-determination. The assumption that most states are nation-states is the reason that “state” and “nation” are commonly used as synonyms but, in reality, “the vast majority of contemporary states are multi-national, and less than ten per cent can be described as ‘nation-states’ in the sense that the boundaries of the nation and the state are congruent” (Connor 1994:29). The persistence of this assumption, despite the clearly multinational (sometimes called “plurinational” to emphasize the possibility of overlapping identities) character of modern states, is the result of the complex relationship between the development of states, nations, and nationalism discussed below.


Modernism holds that both nations and nationalism are unique to the modern world. It can be divided into two broad approaches: those that focus on nationalism as an ideology, and those that focus on it as a new cultural system.

The classic statement of the former position is Elie Kedourie’s book Nationalism, first published in 1960, in which he argues that nationalism is a doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century that “pretends to supply a criterion for the determination of the unit of population proper to enjoy a government exclusively its own, for the legitimate exercise of power in the state, and for the right organization of a society of states” (1993:1). Kedourie traces this doctrine to Immanuel Kant’s principle of self-determination but does not implicate Kant himself as a nationalist, instead placing most of the blame on two of Kant's disciples, Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Johann Gottfried Herder.

The revolutionary characteristic of Kant's moral philosophy, Kedourie explains, is the separation of morality from phenomenal knowledge, making the former “the outcome of obedience to a universal law which is to be found within ourselves, not in the world of appearances” (p. 14). An important implication of this is that freedom is not, as was traditionally the case, defined against coercive impediments, but is instead obtained whenever a person acts in accordance with what Kant calls the “categorical imperative” (the duty to act in such a way that you can at the same time rationally will everyone else to do the same). The pursuit of autonomous, self-determined action is the most important criterion for moral and political legitimacy.

This philosophy is premised on a distinction between “appearances” and “things-in-themselves” that Fichte finds unsatisfactory. Kant's view that we can never really know things-in-themselves due to the limitations of human reason is contradictory, Fichte argues, because to assert their existence is, by definition, to know them. Instead, the world as we know it, including things-in-themselves, should be understood as a product of our consciousness, which is itself dependent on a “universal consciousness” or world-order “which embraces everything within itself, and of which everything that happens is a manifestation” (p. 28).

The crucial political consequence of this reformulation, Kedourie says, is “that the whole is prior to, more important, and greater than all its parts” (p. 29). When Kant's doctrine of moral self-determination is interpolated into this ontology,

the freedom of the individual, which is his self-realization, lies in identifying himself with the whole, belonging to which endows him with reality. Complete freedom means total absorption in the whole, and the story of human freedom consists in the progressive struggle to reach this end. From this metaphysics the post-Kantians deduced a theory of the state. The end of man is freedom, freedom is self-realization, and self-realization is complete absorption in the universal consciousness. The state therefore is not a collection of individuals who have come together in order to protect their own particular interests; the state is higher than the individual and comes before him. It is only when he and the state are one that the individual realizes his freedom. (p. 30)

This, combined with a philosophy of history that praises struggle and war between states as the means through which cultures progress, firmly establishes Fichte as a father of nationalism.

Herder, though, is no less culpable. His most significant contribution to the development of nationalism, Kedourie says, is the view that diversity is a fundamental characteristic of the universe. In the system of Natural Law, nature meant regularity and uniformity, but for Herder these “imply imitation, imitation implies artifice, and artifice is, on the diversitarian view, unspontaneous, hence unnatural” (p. 50). Diversity is God's will, and it is our duty to cultivate our own particularity and not mix or merge it with others. “This view, applied to politics,” Kedourie contends,

drastically alters the idea of nation. A nation, to the French revolutionaries, meant a number of individuals who have signified their will as to the manner of their government. A nation, on this vastly different theory, becomes a natural division of the human race, endowed by God with its own character, which its citizens must, as a duty, preserve pure and inviolable. Since God has separated the nations, they should not be amalgamated. (p. 51)

Both Fichte and Herder argue that language is a reflection of this natural diversity and is the best way to distinguish one nation from another. Any group that speaks the same language is a nation and should have its own state; arrangements that do not respect this principle are unnatural and unjust.

The staunchest critic of Kedourie's account of nationalism is Ernest Gellner, who finds it deeply unsatisfactory. Though Gellner opens his famous book Nations and Nationalism with the declaration that nationalism “is primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent” (1983:1), he rejects the idea that the development of any particular nationalist ideology is an important constitutive component of nationalism itself. The precise doctrines of nationalist ideologues like Fichte and Herder, he argues,

are hardly worth analysing. We seem to be in the presence of a phenomenon which springs directly and inevitably from basic changes in our shared social condition, from changes in the overall relation between society, culture and polity. The precise appearance and local form of this phenomenon no doubt depends a very great deal on local circumstances which deserve study; but I doubt whether the nuances of nationalist doctrine played much part in modifying those circumstances. (p. 124)

Gellner's alternative explanation describes nationalism as both an effect of and a functional prerequisite for industrial society, taking the emphasis off the influence of ideas and focusing instead on the social relations that generate, transmit and support them. It is not the case “that nationalism imposes homogeneity; it is rather that a homogeneity imposed by objective, inescapable imperative eventually appears on the surface in the form of nationalism” (p. 39).

Agrarian society, Gellner explains, is both stratified and segmented. A small minority of ruling classes (clerical, military, administrative, and sometimes commercial) enforce a rigid cultural separation from the majority of the population who are agricultural producers (peasants, themselves divided into laterally insulated communities). Literacy is generally limited to clerics, and the organization of political units varies considerably, ranging from city-states to empires. The central fact about such a society is that “almost everything in it militates against the definition of political units in terms of cultural boundaries” (p. 11).

Industrial society is radically different. Unlike a traditional social order, where knowledge and culture are passed on through self-perpetuating local relationships, the high productivity and perpetual growth associated with industrialism require a more complex division of labor on a much larger scale. The most efficient means of achieving this is a centralized education system that provides a standard skill set to a consequently literate and mobile workforce that can effectively interact with and understand people whom they do not know. This process, which Gellner calls “exo-socialization” (on the analogy of exogamy), is only possible with the resources and capacity of the modern state, and is characterized by the universalization of the “high culture” (literate idioms and styles of communication) previously associated with the clerical class. In modern society, everyone is a cleric, and culture “is no longer merely the adornment, confirmation and legitimation of a social order which was also sustained by harsher and coercive constraints; culture is now the necessary shared medium, the life-blood or perhaps rather the minimum shared atmosphere, within which alone the members of the society can breathe and survive and produce” (p. 38).

Nationalism, accordingly, should be understood as first and foremost the process through which nationhood is made. It is

the general imposition of a high culture on society, where previously low cultures had taken up the lives of the majority, and in some cases of the totality, of the population. It means that generalized diffusion of a school-mediated, academy-supervised idiom, codified for the requirements of reasonably precise bureaucratic and technological communication. It is the establishment of an anonymous, impersonal society, with mutually substitutable atomized individuals, held together above all by a shared culture of this kind, in place of a previous complex structure of local groups, sustained by folk cultures reproduced locally and idiosyncratically by the micro-groups themselves. (p. 57)

Nationalism is not explicable as either the “awakening” of long dormant nations-in-waiting or the result of a world-historical intellectual error, Gellner insists. It is, “on the contrary, the crystallization of new units, suitable for the conditions now prevailing, though admittedly using as their raw material the cultural, historical and other inheritances from the pre-nationalist world” (p. 49).

Benedict Anderson’s approach to nationalism bears many similarities to Gellner's, especially in its focus on nationalism as a cultural system rather than an ideology. “Part of the difficulty” in analyzing nationalism, Anderson says, “is that one tends unconsciously to hypostasize the existence of Nationalism with-a-big-N (rather as one might Age-with-a-capital-A) and then to classify ‘it’ as an ideology […] It would, I think, make things easier if one treated it as if it belonged with ‘kinship’ and ‘religion’, rather than with ‘liberalism’ or ‘fascism’” (1991:5).

Anderson's definition of the nation as an “imagined community” is probably more frequently cited than any other. The nation, he says, is imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign:

It 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 […] The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations […] It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm […] Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. (pp. 6–7)

Unlike authors such as Gellner or Eric Hobsbawm (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983), however, Anderson does not think of nations as “invented” – “imagined” is not the same thing as “imaginary,” so to speak. “In fact,” he explains, “all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even those) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined (1991:6).” In the case of nations, the imagined community is dependent on systems of mass, standardized communication, which Anderson thinks is best exemplified by the development of print capitalism in vernacular languages.


“Perennialism” and “ethno-symbolism” are terms first adopted by Anthony Smith that are now commonly used to describe theories of nationalism that challenge the modernist orthodoxy by insisting on the premodern origins of nations without endorsing primordialism.

“The perennialist,” Smith explains, “readily accepts the modernity of nationalism as a political movement and ideology, but regards nations either as updated versions of immemorial ethnic communities, or as collective cultural identities that have existed, alongside ethnic communities, in all epochs of human history.” Both variants of perennialism, which Smith calls “continuous” and “recurrent” respectively, refuse “to see either nations or ethnic groups as ‘givens’ in nature; they are strictly historical and social, rather than natural, phenomena” (1998:159).

Joshua Fishman’s work is a clear example of the more common “continuous perennialism” (though not all continuous perennialists date nations as early as he does; many start with the Middle Ages instead). Fishman says that ethnicity and what we call nationality both refer to the same “socio-cultural behavior and values derived from membership in communities of putatively common ancestry” (1980:71), and that membership in such communities has been recognized by scholars throughout recorded history as part of the human condition. Industrialization and other processes associated with modernization changed how ethnicity was viewed and mobilized, he argues, but did not change its fundamental character as “an experience of deeply rooted, intimate and eternal belonging” (p. 94), or the desire of groups to maintain their “authentic spirit,” usually through the preservation of their own unique language, across time and in sometimes very different incarnations.

An example of “recurrent perennialism,” on the other hand, is John Armstrong’s work, particularly his book Nations before Nationalism (1982). Like Fishman, Armstrong equates ethnicity and nationality, but for him these communities are not necessarily continuous across time (even if some are). Instead, nations are a recurrent form of community, with particular nations emerging and disappearing in every historical period. There may even be an underlying cycle linking each manifestation, Armstrong suggests, but pending more “historical investigation, one cannot predict that sufficient regularities were present to be confident in using the adjective ‘cyclical’” (2004:13).


Some approaches, though, do not fit well in either the modernist or the perennialist camp, and Anthony Smith’s own position, which he calls “ethno-symbolism,” is the most prominent example. Nations only emerged in the modern period, but “we cannot derive the identity, the location, or even the character of the units that we term nations from the processes of modernization tout court,” Smith argues. “We must go further back and look at the premodern social and cultural antecedents and contexts of these emergent nations to explain why these and not other communities and territories became nations and why they emerged when they did” (2000:69–70).” All nations, he says, are founded on ethnic “cores” which provide symbolic resources such as myths, memories, values, and traditions that serve as the basis for their claims to land and statehood.

Ethnic communities or “ethnies,” which Smith defines as “named human populations with shared ancestry myths, histories and cultures, having an association with a specific territory and a sense of solidarity” (1986:32), played a much larger role in the ancient and medieval worlds than modernists are willing to admit, he argues. There were ethnic minorities, diaspora communities, frontier ethnies, ethnic amphictyonies, and states and empires dominated by particular ethnicities (1998:191–2). The crystallization of such groups “as self-aware communities, as opposed to other-defined categories,” he says, “was the product of external factors such as folk cultures resulting from shared work and residence patterns; group mobilisation in periodic inter-state warfare producing memories and myths of defeat and victory; and especially the impact of organised religions with scriptures, sacred languages, and communal priesthoods” (p. 192).

Smith identifies two types of ethnie, which he calls “lateral” and “vertical,” based on variations in these factors. Lateral ethnies are aristocratic, but often also include clerics, scribes, and wealthier urban merchants, and develop through the interactions associated with this shared social status. Vertical ethnies, which cut across class lines, are “demotic” and forged through the experience of common defense in warfare. While the boundaries of lateral ethnies are often ragged and indeterminate, owing to their territorial dispersal and status-derived cultural inclusivity, vertical ethnies are sharply bounded and characterized by an emphasis on religious purity and cultural assimilation.

The exact origins of the transition from ethnie to nationhood are unclear, Smith says, but Western European revolutions in the division of labor, control of administration, and cultural coordination revolving around the creation of centralized and culturally homogenous states are what made it desirable. Like ethnies, nations are named populations sharing an historic territory, common myths, and historical memories, but in addition to these features, they also share a mass, public culture, a common economy, and common legal rights and duties for all members. However, because the effects of the three revolutions were uneven, and because the two types of ethnie provided different bases for nation-formation, two distinct types of nation emerged, which are discussed in the next section.

Classification of Nations and Nationalism

Classifications of nations and nationalism have been proposed in various forms for more than a century. They are usually called “typologies,” but this description can be misleading. As Kenneth Bailey explains, classification “involves the ordering of cases in terms of their similarity and can be broken down into two essential approaches: typology and taxonomy. The former is primarily conceptual, the latter empirical” (1994:v). Most contemporary classifications of nations and nationalism are in the first instance typological because they feature rationalized abstractions that accentuate the essential characteristics of their subjects without directly corresponding to particular cases (Max Weber’s “ideal type” method). The most prominent of these identify two dichotomous types, such as the distinction between “civic” and “ethnic” nationalism. Other classifications, however, are better described as taxonomies because they identify each category according to empirical similarity, as with the catalogues of different nationalist ideologies that some authors have proposed. These approaches are also sometimes mixed when, for example, a conceptual typology is used to make a taxonomy easier to understand.

Another important consideration is what unit of analysis is being classified. Early distinctions tended to focus on nationalist ideology, and this is still the dominant approach, but other referents include nationalist movements and nations themselves. For many authors, though, the term “nationalism” encompasses all of these different phenomena so, except where otherwise noted, that is the case here as well.


Before continuing, it is worth addressing what Walker Connor describes as “the most fundamental error involved in scholarly approaches to nationalism,” the “tendency to equate nationalism with a feeling of loyalty to the state rather than with loyalty to the nation” (1994:91). The former, he argues, is properly called patriotism, and to describe it as a variety of nationalism is a conceptual mistake based on the erroneous conflation of “state” and “nation.”

Many scholars, however, remain unpersuaded. In his book Banal Nationalism, for example, Michael Billig contends that the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is only rhetorical: “‘Our’ nationalism is not presented as nationalism, which is dangerously irrational, surplus and alien. A new identity, a different label, is found for it. ‘Our’ nationalism appears as ‘patriotism’ – a beneficial, necessary […] force” (1995:55).

While it is true that some nationalists call themselves patriots in opposition to others whom they wish to denigrate, and some recent normative distinctions between patriotism and nationalism are overdrawn (Habermas 1995; Viroli 1995; Müller 2007), Billig's take is still too narrow. Patriotism significantly predates nationalism (for its history, see Viroli 1995; Dietz 2002), and even most critics would agree that there are important conceptual differences between the two. The real trouble is that it is often difficult to distinguish patriotism from nationalism empirically because for many nationalists the state is an expression of their nationhood. In plurinational states, however, things are not so straightforward, and it is in these circumstances that the concept of patriotism is most likely to have analytic value. Many sub-state nationalist movements seek independent nation-states of their own, but not all of them do, and those that do not, usually want some kind of institutional accommodation (federalism, consociationalism, or another form of power sharing) instead. In cases like these, the denial of a distinction between patriotism and nationalism can have the unintended consequence of rendering loyal citizens of a state whose only national identification is with a sub-state nation “unpatriotic” by definition (for an example of this kind of separation of citizenship from nationality, see Gagnon and Iacovino 2007). By assuming a priori that all citizens of a state belong to the same nation, such “methodological nationalism” (Chernilo 2007) rules the concept of patriotism out in the situation where it may be most useful.

Multiple Classes of Nationalism

Many early classifications of nationalism identified three or more classes (this is less common now, but see Hall 1993 for a recent exception). The earliest of these appears in an article by Max Handman (1921) that lists four categories of “nationalist sentiment,” and the most extensive can be found in Anthony Smith’s first book, Theories of Nationalism (1983), which identifies no fewer than 18 distinct types and sub-types (including the two he later focused on, discussed below). The best example of such classifications, though, is the one proposed by Carleton Hayes.

In The Historical Evolution of Modern Nationalism, first published in 1931, Hayes explains that while he believes that the treatment of nationalism as a social process or popular movement is legitimate, his intention is to explore it “as a body of doctrines, as a political philosophy, and to discuss the successive schools of nationalist thought which have had important popular followings” (1968:vi). He identifies five different varieties in the order of their development: humanitarian; Jacobin; traditional; liberal; and integral (for a relatively recent adaptation of Hayes’ categorization, see Alter 1994). Eighteenth-century humanitarian nationalism, the earliest, was the only kind for some time, and is characterized by the Enlightenment ideals of natural law, reason, and progress. In an earlier article he describes this as “original” nationalism and the other four as “derived,” providing a typological framework for the taxonomy (1928). Of the four derivatives, liberal nationalism comes closest to the original, but it has been overcome by integral nationalism, which casts the nation as “not a means to humanity, not a stepping-stone to a new world order, but an end in itself” (p. 166), and Hayes feared that this may be the inevitable endpoint of nationalism's evolution.

Two Types of Nationalism

The most influential classifications of nationalism, though, have been those that distinguish between just two types, which began to appear in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In his Bibliographical Introduction to Nationalism (1935), Koppel Pinson lists eight different authors, all writing between 1900 and 1935, who organize their analyses this way. Of the eight, five are German, and most of them describe the distinction as one between “Staatsnation” and “Kulturnation.”

The most prominent author to take this approach was Frederick Meinecke, whose Cosmopolitanism and the National State was originally published in 1907. According to Meinecke, the two necessary conditions for all nations are a natural core based on blood relation and a firm territorial base, which he contends are together the only suitable foundation for a unique and self-conscious intellectual community. The distinctiveness of each nation prevents any generalizable explanation of the development of particular communities beyond this, but two broad types can be identified: the Staatsnation (state nation, or “political nation” as it is commonly and more ambiguously translated), “based on the unifying force of a common political history and constitution,” and the Kulturnation (cultural nation), “based on some jointly experienced cultural heritage” (1970:10), such as language, literature, and religion. The latter usually precedes the former and, until the French Revolution, most nations existed solely as cultural entities, but the rise of individualism and democratization lead to the development of political nations that either coincided with or came out of preexisting cultural nations. Some, like the French and the English, had existed as both cultural and political nations during the ancien régime, but their political nationality had been imposed from above, ultimately leaving them imperfect. Mature nations, he maintains, are those where both cultural and political nationality coincide, based on the desire for self-determination.

This approach served as an important inspiration for Hans Kohn, whose own distinction between “Western” and “Eastern” nationalisms (or, more accurately, “the West” and “the rest” (Brubaker 2004:224)) has been much more widely influential. In his well-known book The Idea of Nationalism, first published in 1944, Kohn argues that national characters “are not determined prehistorically or biologically, nor are they fixed for all time; they are the product of social and intellectual development, of countless gradations of behavior and reaction.” In the Western world (defined as England, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United States and the British dominions) nationalism was “predominantly a political occurrence; it was preceded by the formation of the future national state, or, as in the case of the United States, coincided with it” (Kohn 2005:329). Finding its chief support in the political and economic strength of the middle classes, Western nationalism is “basically a rational and universal concept of political liberty and the rights of man, looking towards the city of the future” (p. 574). Deeply influenced by both the Renaissance and the Reformation, Western nations are held together by the rational concepts of contract and citizenship.

Outside of the Western world, nationalism “was basically founded on history, on monuments and graveyards, even harking back to the mysteries of ancient times and of tribal society. It stressed the past, the diversity and self-sufficiency of nations” (p. 574). It found support, Kohn says, among the aristocracy and the masses. Nationalism outside of Western Europe, beginning as the dream and hope of scholars and poets, was a reaction to the older nationalism of the West. “Nationalists in Central and Eastern Europe,” he writes, “created often, out of the myths of the past and the dreams of the future, an ideal fatherland, closely linked with the past, devoid of any immediate connection with the present, and expected to become sometime a political reality” (p. 330).

These differences between Western and non-Western nationalisms are due to disparities in social, political, and economic development. “So strong is the influence of ideas,” Kohn contends, that

while the new nationalism in Western Europe corresponded to changing social, economic, and political realities, it spread to Central and Eastern Europe long before a corresponding social and economic transformation. The cultural contact among the educated classes of the continent changed their moral and intellectual attitude while the economic order and the ways of life of the vast majority of the peoples remained untouched. (p. 457)

Nationalism outside of Western Europe thus began prematurely, a product of cosmopolitan elites imposing Western norms on an economically and culturally underdeveloped system. These conditions led to different interpretations of nationhood, which produced diverging types of nationalism: “one based upon liberal middle-class concepts and pointing to a consummation in democratic world society, the other based upon irrational and pre-enlightened concepts and tending towards exclusiveness – which were to supply the ideological background of the great conflicts of the contemporary world” (p. 457).

Kohn's argument remains influential today, and is the foundation of the distinction between “civic” and “ethnic” types of nations and nationalism which now dominates the field (its influence on Anthony Smith and Liah Greenfeld is particularly obvious). Smith, the person most responsible for the development of this typology, follows Kohn closely when explaining the initial development of nationalism as an ideology, but diverges from his account in other important ways. The most notable are his insistence on the importance of “dominant ethnicity” across types, and his assertion that these are ideal types that do not directly correspond with existing cases but instead describe tendencies in the formation and justification of nations and nationalist movements. There are no purely civic or ethnic nations, he maintains, and all nations feature both civic and ethnic characteristics regardless of which is emphasized in a particular circumstance.

Like Kohn, Smith says that the first nations were Western and civic. England, France, Spain, and Holland began as “ethnic states,” he argues, and were gradually transformed “into genuinely ‘national states’ through the unification of the economy, territorial centralization, the provision of equal legal rights for more and more strata, and the growth of public, mass education systems” (1986:138). In most cases, this entailed a lateral ethnie becoming dominant in the social institutions and political life of the whole population, and the forcible incorporation of other ethnic minorities against their will. “Through their cultural influence and political–economic domination,” Smith says,

the English, French and Castilian ethnie stamped their outlooks and lifestyles, myths and symbols, on the state and traditions of the whole population, but without destroying the traditions and myths of incorporated ethnic minorities […] Yet the dominant culture of the expanded state remained that of the original core ethnie, even if outlying areas were allowed to retain their local character, and subordinate ethnie their cultures, until the advent of the age of nationalism. In the process, a new concept of community arose: that of a population bound by ties of politically delimited territory, of allegiance to identical sovereigns and of membership in a common political culture. (p. 139)

Civic nations also developed in non-Western contexts, but not until the twentieth century, and usually in postcolonial states. Some followed the original “dominant ethnie” model of Western civic nations, while others, where there was no dominant group, developed a second, “political culture” model, in which a supra-ethnic political culture, not associated with a particular ethnie, was created (1991:110–12).

Ethnic nations first emerged in the early nineteenth century. The revolutions that changed the West, Smith says, were experienced unevenly in Eastern Europe, which consisted mostly of “polyethnic empires made up of a host of separate ethnic communities and cultures subordinated to a core ethnie exercising political domination […] and placing dynastic allegiance before other loyalties” (1986:141). The incongruity between politics and culture made the territorial delimitation of the nation and its integration problematic, forcing nation builders, who were usually members of a vertical ethnie, to rely on folk symbols and populist mythologies. This pattern is also consistent with the two subsequent waves of ethnic nationalism that have occurred: the first in the overseas territories of European colonial empires in the early to mid-twentieth century, and the second beginning in the 1960s with the sub-state nationalist movements of Western Europe and other parts of the developed world, and peaking in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union and the surge of nationalism in its former territories.

If Smith has done the most to develop the distinction between civic and ethnic nationalisms, Michael Ignatieff, himself a declared civic nationalist, is most responsible for popularizing it (though other authors such as Liah Greenfeld (1992) and Michael Keating (2001) have also been influential). At the height of public interest in nationalism in the early 1990s, Ignatieff's Blood and Belonging became an international bestseller, and his simplified version of the distinction became a focal point for both academic and public debates.

According to Ignatieff, civic nationalism “maintains that the nation should be composed of all those – regardless of race, color, creed, gender, language, or ethnicity – who subscribe to the nation's political creed. This nationalism is called civic because it envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values” (1994:6). Civic nationalism is necessarily democratic, because it vests sovereignty in the entire citizenry. It also has the greatest “claim to sociological realism […as] most societies are not mono-ethnic; and even when they are, common ethnicity does not of itself obliterate division, because ethnicity is only one of the many claims on an individual's loyalty” (p. 7).

Ethnic nationalism, on the other hand, claims “that an individual's deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen. It is the national community that defines the individual, not the individuals who define the national community.” This may be more psychologically compelling, he suggests, but it is sociologically less realistic. Ethnic regimes are, on the whole, more authoritarian than democratic, as “common ethnicity, by itself, does not create social cohesion or community, and when it fails to do so, as it must, nationalist regimes are necessarily impelled toward maintaining unity by force rather than by consent” (p. 8).

Despite its current status as a kind of “theoretical common sense” in nationalism studies (Brubaker 2004:136), however, the distinction between civic and ethnic nations and nationalism has received significant criticism. The best-known conceptual critique is Bernard Yack’s article “The Myth of the Civic Nation,” in which he argues that the “characterization of political community in the so-called civic nations as rational and freely chosen allegiance to a set of political principles” is an untenable “mixture of self-congratulation and wishful thinking” (1999:105; other important critiques include Marx 2003 and Brubaker 2004). The key problem, he explains, is that civic nationalism promotes liberal principles without accounting for the conditions that make their implementation possible. Both the social contract and popular sovereignty tacitly assume the existence of a prepolitical cultural community, and reflect norms that “tend to say much more about the way in which we should order lives within given national communities than about why the boundaries of these communities should take one shape rather than another” (p. 111). Defenders of the distinction have generally responded to Yack and other critics by invoking Smith's qualifying claim that, as ideal types, their descriptions are not required to directly correspond with the real world, and that in practice all nations reflect a mix of civic and ethnic characteristics.

Some scholars, including the author of this essay, find that response unsatisfactory. While the flaws of Ignatieff's explicitly normative account of “good civic” and “bad ethnic” nationalisms may be relatively obvious, even Smith's more carefully developed analytic version is mistaken. The retreat to ideal types does not solve the problem of abstraction because it still maintains that the tenets of civic and ethnic nationalist ideologies accurately reflect the constitutive character of nations. In fact, even though these ideologies are important and often reflected in citizenship policy, national symbols, and participant self-understandings, the basis of nationhood is the systemic cultural relationship that underlies that participation. Nations are perceived and justified through ideologies limited only by the imagination, but it is a mistake to assume that there is a direct correspondence between the two.

Civic nationalists, for example, conceive of their nation as coterminous with the boundaries of the state and inclusive of all its citizens. In many cases, however, a significant proportion of the citizenry do not accept this perspective and instead identify with sub-state national groups. This discrepancy is sometimes mitigated by the presence of overlapping or “nested” identities where citizens identify with both nations (Miller 2000; Keating 2002), but the fact that in most circumstances only the majority population identifies exclusively with the “civic” nation should raise suspicion about its universality.

Smith's own “dominant ethnie” model accounts for this, but the strength of that insight is undercut by his definition of the nation. As Walker Connor (2004) and Montserrat Guibernau (2004) have argued, Smith's inclusion of “a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members” (1991:14) in this definition, and even his later shift from these to just “common laws and customs” (2002:15), fails to adequately distinguish between the concepts of nation and state. While the processes of “exo-socialization” are often closely tied to state institutions, the characteristics of the state should not be considered part of the nation itself. The fact that civic nationalists think otherwise should be taken seriously, if only for its political consequences, but we should not confuse what Brubaker calls “categories of practice” with “categories of analysis” (1996; 2004) by assuming that nationalist self-understandings accurately represent the social relations that underlie them. Nationalism can create and reproduce nations, but not necessarily on its own terms.


Alter, P. (1994) Nationalism, 2nd edn. London: Edward Arnold.Find this resource:

Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd edn. London: Verso.Find this resource:

Armstrong, J.A. (1982) Nations before Nationalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.Find this resource:

Armstrong, J.A. (2004) Definitions, Periodization, and Prospects for the Longue Duree. Nations and Nationalism, 1/2 (10), 9–18.Find this resource:

Bailey, K.D. (1994) Typologies and Taxonomies: An Introduction to Classification Techniques. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Find this resource:

Barth, F. (1969) Introduction. In F. Barth (ed.) Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. Boston: Little, Brown, pp. 9–38.Find this resource:

Billig, M. (1995) Banal Nationalism. London: Sage.Find this resource:

Brass, P. (1991) Ethnicity and Nationalism: Theory and Comparison. London: Sage.Find this resource:

Brubaker, R. (1996) Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Brubaker, R. (2004) Ethnicity without Groups. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Chernilo, D. (2007) A Social Theory of the Nation-State: The Political Forms of Modernity beyond Methodological Nationalism. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Connor, W. (1978) A Nation is a Nation, is a State, is an Ethnic Group, is a...Ethnic and Racial Studies 4 (1), 377–500.Find this resource:

Connor, W. (1994) Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Connor, W. (2004) The Timelessness of Nations. Nations and Nationalism 1/2 (10), 35–47.Find this resource:

Dietz, M. (2002) Patriotism: A Brief History of the Term. In I. Primoratz (ed.) Patriotism. Amherst: Humanity, pp. 201–15.Find this resource:

Eller, J.D., and Coughlan, R.M. (1993) The Poverty of Primordialism: The Demystification of Ethnic Attachments. Ethnic and Racial Studies 2 (16), 183–201.Find this resource:

Fenton, S. (2003) Ethnicity. Cambridge: Polity.Find this resource:

Fishman, J. (1980) Social Theory and Ethnography: Neglected Perspectives on Language and Ethnicity in Eastern Europe. In P. Sugar (ed.) Ethnic Diversity and Conflict in Eastern Europe. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, pp. 69–99.Find this resource:

Gagnon, A.-G., and Iacovino, R. (2007) Federalism, Citizenship, and Quebec: Debating Multinationalism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.Find this resource:

Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

Geertz, C. (1994) Primordial Loyalties and Standing Entities: Anthropological Reflections on the Politics of Identity. Budapest: Collegium Budapest.Find this resource:

Gellner, E. (1983) Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Find this resource:

Glazer, N., and Moynihan, D. (1963) Beyond the Melting Pot. Cambridge: MIT Press.Find this resource:

Glazer, N., and Moynihan, D. (1975) Introduction. In N. Glazer and D. Moynihan (eds.) Ethnicity: Theory and Experience. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 1–26.Find this resource:

Greenfeld, L. (1992) Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Grosby, S. (1994) The Verdict of History: The Inexpungeable Tie of Primordiality – a Response to Eller and Coughlan. Ethnic and Racial Studies 1 (17), 164–71.Find this resource:

Guibernau, M. (2004) Anthony D. Smith on Nations and National Identity: A Critical Assessment. Nations and Nationalism 1/2 (10), 125–41.Find this resource:

Habermas, J. (1995) Citizenship and National Identity: Some Reflections on the Future of Europe. In R. Beiner (ed.) Theorizing Citizenship. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 255–81.Find this resource:

Hall, J. (1993) Nationalisms: Classified and Explained. Daedalus 3 (122), 1–13.Find this resource:

Handman, M.S. (1921) The Sentiment of Nationalism. Political Science Quarterly 1 (36), 104–21.Find this resource:

Hayes, C. (1928) Two Varieties of Nationalism: “Original” and “Derived.” Proceedings of the Association of History Teachers of the Middle States and Maryland, (26), 70–83.Find this resource:

Hayes, C. (1968) The Historical Evolution of Modern Nationalism. New York: Russell and Russell.Find this resource:

Hempel, L. (2004) What’s It Worth to You? The Questionable Value of Instrumentalist Approaches to Ethnic Identification. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 3–4 (45), 253–75.Find this resource:

Hobsbawm, E., and Ranger, T. (eds.) (1983) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Hollis, M. (1994) The Philosophy of Social Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Ignatieff, M. (1994) Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism. Toronto: Penguin.Find this resource:

Just, R. (1989) Triumph of the Ethnos. In E. Tonkin, M. McDonald, and M. Chapman (eds.) History and Ethnicity. London: Routledge, pp. 71–88.Find this resource:

Keating, M. (2001) Nations Against the State: The New Politics of Nationalism in Quebec, Catalonia, and Scotland, 2nd edn. New York: Palgrave.Find this resource:

Keating, M. (2002) Plurinational Democracy: Stateless Nations in a Post-Sovereignty Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Kedourie, E. (1993) Nationalism, 4th edn. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Kohn, H. (2005) The Idea of Nationalism: A Study in its Origins and Background. New Brunswick: Transaction.Find this resource:

Marx, A. (2003) Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Meinecke, F. (1970) Cosmopolitanism and the National State. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Miller, D. (2000) Citizenship and National Identity. Malden: Polity/Blackwell.Find this resource:

Müller, J.-W. (2007) Constitutional Patriotism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Pinson, K. (1935) A Bibliographical Introduction to Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Schermerhorn, R. (1970) Comparative Ethnic Relations. New York: Random House.Find this resource:

Shils, E. (1957) Primordial, Personal, Sacred and Civil Ties. British Journal of Sociology 2 (8), 130–45.Find this resource:

Sieyès, E.J. (2003) What is the Third Estate? In M. Sonenscher (ed.) Political Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett, pp. 131–42.Find this resource:

Smith, A.D. (1983) Theories of Nationalism. 2nd edn. New York: Holmes and Meier.Find this resource:

Smith, A.D. (1986) The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Smith, A.D. (1991) National Identity. London: Penguin.Find this resource:

Smith, A.D. (1998) Nationalism and Modernism: A Critical Survey of Recent Theories of Nations and Nationalism. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Smith, A.D. (2000) The Nation in History. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.Find this resource:

Smith, A.D. (2002) When is a Nation? Geopolitics 2 (7), 5–32.Find this resource:

Tilly, C. (1975) Reflections on the History of European State-Making. In Tilly, C. (ed.) The Formation of National States in Western Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 3–83.Find this resource:

Tonkin, E., McDonald, M., and Chapman, M. (1989) Introduction – History and Social Anthropology. In E. Tonkin, M. McDonald, and M. Chapman (eds.) History and Ethnicity. London: Routledge, pp. 1–21.Find this resource:

van den Berghe, P.L. (1978) Race and Ethnicity: A Sociobiological Perspective. Ethnic and Racial Studies 4 (1), 401–11.Find this resource:

van den Berghe, P.L. (1995) Does Race Matter? Nations and Nationalism 3 (1), 357–68.Find this resource:

Viroli, M. (1995) For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Weber, M. (1968) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. New York: Bedminster.Find this resource:

Yack, B. (1999) The Myth of the Civic Nation. In R. Beiner (ed.) Theorizing Nationalism. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 103–18.Find this resource:

Zernatto, G. (1944) Nation: The History of a Word. The Review of Politics 3 (6), 351–66.Find this resource:

Nations and Nationalism. At, accessed Nov. 2009. An interdisciplinary journal published by the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism. Since its first issue in 1995, Nations and Nationalism has become the most prominent journal in the field of nationalism studies. Many of the authors cited in this essay have published their work there, and some thematic issues deal extensively with particular conceptual debates (for example, vol. 10 (1/2) 2004 is a symposium on ethno-symbolism and its critics). Online access is restricted to individual and institutional subscribers.

Ethnic and Racial Studies. At, accessed Nov. 2009. An interdisciplinary journal with an emphasis on sociology. Ethnic and Racial Studies has been in print since 1978 and is one of the oldest journals to focus on ethnicity, race, nationalism, and other related issues. A quick glance through the bibliography of this essay will show that many of the debates that it discusses have been carried out in the pages of this journal. Online access is restricted to individual and institutional subscribers.


In addition to the two anonymous reviewers, the author wishes to thank the following people for their helpful comments and support: Walker Connor, Oded Haklai, Rémi Léger, Emmett Macfarlane, John McGarry, Margaret Moore, and Stephen Noakes