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date: 16 January 2018

Devolution, Regional and Peripheral Nationalism

Summary and Keywords

Social science scholars have repeatedly predicted the demise of regional (or peripheral) nationalism, from the late nineteenth century to the post-World War II period and in the 1990s. However, all suggestions about the death of regional nationalism have been proven wrong. On the contrary, nationalist movements in the West have not only survived advanced capitalist development in liberal democratic contexts but have thrived as well. In the developing world, decolonization gave rise to a variety of regional nationalist movements that frequently spiraled into violent conflict and secessionist attempts. To deal with regional nationalism, states often turned to devolution, resulting in the implementation of various schemes of autonomy, most of which came under the guise of federalism. Three trends characterize the literature on regional nationalism and its management through devolution: a change in the way regional nationalism is viewed; a transformation in the type of political, institutional, and constitutional response scholars have suggested toward regional nationalism; and a willingness to accept, or even favor, secession as a possible solution to conflict in multinational and/or multiethnic countries. At the same time, there are at least two challenges in the study of regional nationalism and its management: objectivity and the need to develop a greater comparative perspective.

Keywords: regional nationalism, nationalist movements, devolution, autonomy, federalism, secession, conflict


The death of regional (or peripheral) nationalism has been announced more than once in the social science literature. In the late nineteenth century, prominent theorists saw socioeconomic divisions developing as the main fault lines of industrialized capitalist societies at the expense of territory, culture, and nationality (Marx 1998; Durkheim 1984). After World War II, capitalism and democracy were viewed as involving the eradication of territorial cleavages (Deutsch 1966). By the 1990s, scholars such as Eric Hobsbawm (1992:169) argued that globalization meant that regional nationalism would never be the force it was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Speaking about technological developments, free trade, and extraterritorial industrial zones, Hobsbawm declared: “The ideology of nations and nationalism is irrelevant to any of these developments” (1992:182). These predictions focused first and foremost on Western societies since the broad forces of capitalism, liberalism, and democracy were considered the crucial ingredients for the displacement of forms of politics linked to cultural, ethnic, and national cleavages in favor of non-territorial and functionalist divisions. In the developing world, the persistence of regional nationalism or, as it has been more commonly called, ethnicity was more easily accepted since these societies had not undergone the types of fundamental transformations that would lead to the demise of “particularist attachments.” However, considering the teleological leanings of the meta-theories (Marxist sociology, modernization, globalization) used to postulate the end of regional nationalism, the advance of development into non-Western societies has typically been viewed as a force for the creation of “civic ties” and for “political integration” (Geertz 1963).

All suggestions about the demise of regional nationalism have been proven wrong. Nationalist movements in the West have not only survived advanced capitalist development in liberal democratic contexts but they have thrived. In the last forty years or so, regional nationalism in Quebec, Scotland, Wales, Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Flanders has challenged the structures and processes of politics in Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Belgium. Nationalist conflict has divided the island of Cyprus (Loizides 2007). The fall of the Berlin Wall and the loss of Soviet control over the states of Eastern Europe, and then the breakdown of the Soviet Union itself, coincided with a surge in regional nationalism. In the developing world, decolonization paved the way for an array of regional nationalist movements (in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, to name only a few) that often spiraled into violent conflict and secessionist attempts.

This surge of regional nationalism throughout the world has spawned a considerable literature. In doing so, it has added to the broader scholarship on nationalism that has been heavily centered around debates between “modernists” and “primordialists” on the nature and origins of nations (Gellner and Smith 1996). (Primordialism has evolved into approaches known as perennialism and ethnosymbolism, all of which focus on the ethnocultural qualities of nations.) Indirectly, the rise of regional nationalism has also produced an equally impressive literature on nationalist management strategies as scholars and political practitioners have thought of ways to ensure political stability in multinational and/or multiethnic settings. States having to deal with regional nationalism often chose devolution, that is, the decentralization of political power to a territorially concentrated population that thereby acquires its own political institutions (for example, the United Kingdom). In this context, various schemes of autonomy have been implemented, most of which came under the guise of federalism, whether explicitly (Belgium, Ethiopia) or implicitly (Spain, South Africa). These efforts at accommodation through devolution have led scholars to think about the structures, dynamics, and conditions necessary for federal and other autonomous/devolution arrangements to successfully manage regional nationalist movements.

This essay reviews the literature on regional nationalism and on devolution. (I will use “devolution” and “autonomy” interchangeably.) It is divided into two main sections. The first section examines the scholarship on regional nationalism and makes three points: the literature covers a tremendous number of cases across all areas of the world; it is multidisciplinary; and it features great theoretical diversity as it reflects competing traditions in the social sciences and humanities that emphasize culture, structure, and rationality, respectively. The second section covers the literature on devolution. After situating devolution within the broader literature on nationalist management strategies, this section looks at the literature on federalism, which constitutes the broader corpus focusing on managing regional nationalism through territorial autonomy. It reviews the debate over the usefulness of federalism and territorial autonomy for managing regional nationalism. The essay concludes with a discussion on trends and challenges.

Regional Nationalism

The early scholarly literature on nationalism centered first and foremost on the nationalism of states. Hans Kohn (1944), typically considered the “founding father” of nationalism studies, sought to locate the origins of nations and to establish typologies between different nationalisms. In this context, nationalism was treated primarily as an idea whose consequence could be either the integration of societies into open, liberal, and enlightened communities, or their constitution into exclusive, authoritarian, and aggressive groups. This early scholarship was marked by the influence of the recent wars and concerned by the destructive potential of nationalism. After 1945, the focus on the nationalism of states remained since the political and intellectual emphasis was on “political integration,” that is, the building of a single nation under the auspices of one state. During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the dominant perspective was the “diffusionist model,” exemplified by the work of Karl Deutsch (1966), which understood nationalism to correspond to the diffusion of political, cultural, social, and economic processes from the center toward the periphery.

State nationalism remained a focus for researchers through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s as the question of the origins of nations remained high on many scholars’ research agenda (Seton-Watson 1977; Armstrong 1982; Greenfeld 1992). Indeed, this question was at the center of the classic texts of the modernist approach, produced in the 1980s (Gellner 1983; Anderson 1983), and it animated the debate between modernists and primordialists (Gellner and Smith 1996). At the same time, however, it became clear that “political integration” and “diffusion” were not completely successful in many countries, including some Western industrialized democracies where modernization had clearly been achieved.

In this context, there developed a new literature that focused not so much on “nation building” but on what was viewed as “nation destroying” (Connor 1972), that is, on regional nationalist movements seeking autonomy, recognition, better redistribution of resources, or simply independence for the specific community they claimed to represent (Smith 1971). In Western liberal democracies, regional nationalism was often treated as the revival of forces that were spoiling attempts at “national integration,” that is, as a sort of revenge of the periphery (Mény and Wright 1985; Rudolph and Thompson 1989). In this context, it was perceived by many as a narrow, backward, and chauvinist movement (Paterson 1977) that threatened the efforts of national states to achieve progress and modernization. Others, however, saw regional nationalism as the reawakening of nations subjugated by states and gleefully anticipated the break-up of countries (Nairn 1977). From this perspective, regional nationalism was considered a movement of cultural affirmation and of resistance against oppressive and colonial-like forces (Payne 1975; Hechter 1975). The literature on postcolonial developing societies focused on “ethnicity” rather than “regional nationalism,” even if the nature of the processes at work (social and political struggles on the basis of collective territorial identities) was similar to what was happening in the developed world. The concept of ethnicity referred to kinships that were deemed premodern, primordial (Geertz 1963; Isaacs 1989), and indeed incompatible with the social, political, and economic modernization of the societies of Asia and Africa. From this perspective, regional nationalism in developing societies was necessarily a movement of resistance and retrenchment against enlightened ideas and the forces of progress.

If, during the 1960s and the 1970s, regional nationalism seemed an interesting yet fairly marginal phenomenon in contemporary politics, beginning in the 1980s it started appearing as an enduring and significant phenomenon that merited study. By the 1990s, nationalist movements were clearly thriving in Western liberal democracies, surging in the context of the dismantlement of the Eastern block and shaping the politics of developing countries in spectacular fashion, sometimes leading to secession attempts and/or serious armed conflicts. An impressive literature developed to shed light on the various cases of regional nationalism across the world.

The Literature on Regional Nationalism: Covering the Globe

The literature on regional nationalism is far-reaching in geographical scope, covering advanced industrialized liberal democracies as well as developing countries.

Contrary to the predictions of the “diffusionist” thesis (Deutsch 1966) and the implications of Ernest Gellner’s theory of nationalism (1983), regional nationalism has not disappeared but rather thrived in the developed West. Scholars have investigated this development by looking primarily at four countries: the United Kingdom, Canada, Belgium, and Spain.

On the United Kingdom, there is a literature on Scottish nationalism that looks at national identity, the political challenge put forward by Scotland to the British state through home rule movements, and the Scottish National Party (SNP) (Nairn 2000; Hearn 2000; Lynch 2002; Harvie 2004). Moreover, more general works on Scottish politics typically deal with nationalism from one angle or another (McCrone 2001). Welsh nationalism has generated less literature, probably because it is weaker and less influential than its Scottish counterpart, and the emphasis is typically on the linguistic dimension of the Welsh identity (Aull Davies 1989). The conflict in Northern Ireland, although not an instance of regional nationalism per se because the two communities seek the citizenship of different states rather than a completely distinct one, attracted much academic attention (for example, McGarry and O’Leary 1995). (The case of Northern Ireland is illustrative of how perceptions of nationalist conflict in Western liberal democracies changed toward the end of the twentieth century. When the “troubles” first began, they were viewed as anachronistic and, although violence kept setting Northern Ireland apart from other instances of territorial and identity politics thereafter, the emergence or resurgence of nationalist movements elsewhere in Western Europe and Canada made the nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland appear much less peculiar. In addition to violence, the religious aspect of the situation in Northern Ireland seemed to make this case exceptional in Western liberal democracies, but many scholars (McGarry and O’Leary among others) have offered analyses that nuance the place of religion in the conflict.)

On Canada, the focus of nationalism scholars has been Quebec. Much of the literature is in French (for example, Balthazar 1986) although there are several very good contributions in English (for example, Seymour 2000; Rocher 2002). From a temporal perspective, the literature on nationalism in Quebec is divided between the pre-1960 (Quiet Revolution) era and the post-1960 period. In the pre-1960 years, the focus is on the conservative French-Canadian nationalism (Boily 2003). After the 1960s, it is on the Quiet Revolution, linguistic politics, the Parti Québécois (PQ), and the political struggles for autonomy and/or independence (McRoberts 1993). The intensity of the political debate has meant that much of the literature on Quebec nationalism involves scholars who defend a secessionist position (Seymour 2000) and those who oppose it (Derriennic 1995).

Spain has also attracted much attention from specialists of regional nationalism as it features strong movements in the Basque Country and Catalonia. Basque nationalism has proven particularly fascinating for scholars since it is the only major nationalist movement in the Western world to have a violent stream. The literature on Basque nationalism has therefore focused heavily on violence and the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), looking both for explanations for the organization’s resilience and possible solutions to the conflict (Clark 1984; Mees 2003). Violence and the ETA are the aspects of Basque nationalism that have generated the most scholarship, although there are also strong contributions on the broader nationalist movement (Payne 1975; Lecours 2007). Catalan nationalism is also the focus of a rich literature that typically looks at Catalonia’s place in Spain (Balcells 1996; McRoberts 2001; Requejo 2005).

Flemish nationalism has brought major transformations to the structures of the Belgian state but, somewhat surprisingly, the literature in English (and even in French) on that movement is not as considerable as the corpus on Scotland, Quebec, the Basque Country, and Catalonia. Nevertheless, there are strong contributions on the historical development of Flemish nationalism and its challenge to the Belgian state (Deprez and Vos 1998; Wils 1996). The Vlaams Belang, a far-right separatist party, has received a lot of attention (Erk 2005).

The study of regional nationalism in Western liberal democracies also includes works on Aboriginal nationalism that have articulated claims of recognition and autonomy in such countries as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States (Alfred 1995).

Although there were some exceptions (for example, Rakowska-Harmstone 1977), regional nationalism in Eastern Europe was not much of a research topic during the Cold War since the Soviet regime seemed to have crushed “the nationalities” of the Soviet Union, or at least rendered their manifestation purely folkloric. Moreover, other Communist governments, such as Tito’s in Yugoslavia, appeared to have effectively controlled, and perhaps superseded, national and ethnic cleavages in their country. However, when the Soviet Union began to crumble and was, at least partly, finished off by these very same “nationalities” that were earlier presumed dead, scholars of nationalism once again paid attention to this area of the world. There were many works discussing nationalism and the demise of the Soviet Union (Brudny 2000; Beissinger 2002) and analyzing the nationalism of various republics (Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States, etc.) in the context of the breakdown (Diuk and Karatnycky 1993; Kuzio and Wilson 1994; Lieven 1994; Dunlop 1995). (These nationalisms were technically regional nationalisms as long as the Soviet Union still formally existed but they obviously became state nationalisms once the former Republics gained their independence. The nationalism of the Central and East European states that were under the control of the Soviet Union were never regional nationalisms since these countries were always formally independent.) Thereafter, the former Soviet Union (and, more widely, the former Eastern Bloc) became fertile ground for specialists of nationalism (Tishkov 1999; Barany and Moser 2005). A considerable literature developed on Russia’s struggle with a variety of nationalist movements (Arbatov et al. 1997; Alexseev 1999; Balzer 1999), especially Chechnya’s (Dunlop 1998; Evangelista 2003). A major research issue became the “minorities” of Central/Eastern Europe, for example the Russian speakers of the Baltic States (Laitin 1998), the Roma (Vermeersch 2003) and the Turks in Bulgaria (Ganev 2004) as well as nationalist conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Caucasus (Chorbajian 2001).

The East European state that triggered the most literature on nationalism was without question Yugoslavia as scholars sought to explain not only the dismantlement of this country, but also its civil war involving Serbs, Croats, and Muslim Bosnians, and more recent secessionist efforts in Kosovo and Montenegro (Moodie 1995; Allcock 2004; Emmert and Ingrao 2006). Overall, this literature was very much focused on the role played by elites (especially Serb leaders) in spearheading nationalist mobilization and creating violent conflict (Bennett 1995; Gagnon 2004), although some scholars chose to emphasize history and the role of symbols (Denich 1994; Petersen 2002) while others investigated the importance of religion (Kunovich and Hodson 1999; Duijzings 2001). The distinct path towards independence taken by Montenegro, which had a referendum on independence, could produce a literature less permeated by civil war perspectives than studies on the other territories of the former Yugoslavia. The split of Czechoslovakia, probably because of its swiftness and peaceful character, attracted much less attention (Innes 2001) than the conflicts in the Balkans.

In the developing world, many different countries have attracted the attention of specialists of regional nationalism (Coplan and Quinlan 1997; McCracken 1998; Osamba 2001). In many cases, violence has been part of regional nationalist movements in developing societies, which means that scholars have focused on the dynamics of conflict as much as on the origins and nature of nationalism and identity (Horowitz 1985). From this perspective, there have been considerable works on Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka (DeVotta 2000, 2005), the nationalist movements in Indonesia (Bertrand 2004), the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria (Jabar and Dawod 2007), Tibet in China (Davis 2008), the Moro rebellion in the Philippines (Brown 1988), etc. In Africa, Nigeria, with a failed secession attempt and ongoing group tensions, has been a favorite case study (Osaghae 2003) as have other countries where nationalism has taken ethnic forms and generated violence, such as Ethiopia (Abbink 2000), Sudan (Jok and Hutchinson 1999), Rwanda (Prunier 1998), and Burundi (Lemarchand 1994). Contemporary conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (Roberts 2003; O’Leary et al. 2005) are producing literatures that look at nationalist/ethnic dimensions. In some other cases, such as India and Malaysia, the focus is not on violent conflict but on the politics of complex multinational and/or multiethnic countries (Dutt 1998; Hirschman 1986).

At least two observations come out of the above review. First, research on regional nationalism is very much structured by area studies. Specialists of regional nationalist movements are typically country specialists or, more to the point, specialists of the region where a specific nationalist movement finds its home base. Consequently, most of the work in the field consists of single case studies. When comparisons are conducted, it is typically between cases in one specific area (Keating 1996; Conversi 1997). From a practical perspective, this choice is easily understandable. Indeed, understanding regional nationalism arguably requires an in-depth knowledge of a (substate) region and a country’s history, institutions, culture, and language, which means that mastering many different cases is difficult. The consequences of this choice, however, are that it is risky to put forward generalizations that are not area-specific, and that we might be left with knowledge on a series of individual cases.

Second, in addition to a certain compartmentalization stemming from the area studies design, there is a fairly sharp divide between, on the one hand, the research on regional nationalism in Western liberal democracies and, on the other hand, work on the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and especially the developing world. This divide reflects different ontologies that are embodied in the distinct concepts typically used to discuss phenomena of collective group identity, politics, and mobilization. While the term “nationalism” is commonly used for cases in Western liberal democracies, the notion of “ethnicity” is preferred to discuss the developing world, even if it ostensibly refers to phenomena similar in logic if not in outcome. In this context, nationalism is associated with modern and developed societies whereas ethnicity is necessarily a form of identity politics that occurs in less modern, less developed and less democratic societies (Kohn 1944). This distinction hampers cross-national comparisons insofar as they immediately suggest completely different worlds from which comparable cases cannot be drawn.


Research on regional nationalism is multidisciplinary. Many different types of social scientists have studied this phenomenon, as have specialists of law, philosophy, and the humanities. At the broadest level, this multidisciplinarity has meant that scholars have tackled regional nationalism from many different angles. Of course, there is not necessarily a coherence of approach within a specific discipline, and scholars from different disciplines can share much as they investigate nationalism, but disciplinary traditions nonetheless produce some noticeable patterns.

Political scientists have been major contributors to the study of regional nationalism (Connor 1994; Smith 1995; Keating 2001). Despite having adopted a variety of different approaches, political scientists have tended to emphasize two things in their research on regional nationalist movements. The first is power. This focus stems from the understanding that nationalism is a form of politics, and that it is therefore about struggles for political power between groups and their leaders (Brass 1991). The second is the state. Political scientists have often looked at the relationship between regional nationalism and the state, both for how regional nationalist movements challenge the state (Keating 1996) and for how state structures condition forms of, and opportunities for, regional nationalist mobilization (Roeder 1991).

Sociologists have also greatly contributed to the study of nationalism (Brubaker 1996; Calhoun 1997; McCrone 1998). Although sociologists have certainly not ignored the state and power issues in their research, their primary focus has been the structure of the relationship between groups. They have also tended to pay great attention to societal variables such as language, class, and religion that can potentially affect regional nationalism.

Other social scientists have studied regional nationalism, although their imprint has been less visible than that of political scientists and sociologists. For example, anthropologists, who typically work with the concept of ethnicity as they study solidarity, identity, and kinship in small groups (Geertz 1963), found inspiration in the pioneer work of Benedict Anderson (1983) to take their interests in culture and symbols into the study of larger-scale communities (Spencer 1990). Cultural anthropologists and ethnographers have focused on cultural practices through “fine grain” studies that often involve participant observation research (Brintnall 1980; Jackson 1995). Geographers have looked at regional nationalism through issues of space and demography (Mikesell and Murphy 1991).

Historians have been key contributors in the study of regional nationalism, most often through narratives detailing the genesis and evolution of a particular regional nationalist movement (Cook 1986; Watson 2003; Harvie 2004). In many instances, historians served to legitimate the study of regional nationalism, which, in a particular (state) national context, can often be obscured by statist historiography. From this perspective, historical studies of regional nationalism are often among the most controversial because they challenge conventional readings of (state) national history. In the same vein, these studies can create a “regional nationalist” orthodoxy subject to the discourse and politics of regional nationalism.

Two other categories of scholars have left their mark on the field. The first is legal scholars. Regional nationalist movements typically challenge a prevailing constitutional order; as such, they raise constitutional questions relating to the legality and legitimacy of change. Constitutionalists have looked at these issues while also asking about the legitimacy of existing constitutional arrangements (Tierney 2006). The second is political theorists and philosophers (Miller 1995; Canovan 1996). These scholars ask normative questions about regional nationalist movements and the political and constitutional structures of the state they challenge (Carens 1995). Overall, this scholarship has favored the recognition of nations by states and their structuring along multinational lines (Kymlicka 1995). Political theorists and philosophers have also looked at the issues of self-determination and secession (Buchanan 1991; Tamir 1995), thinking about how and under which conditions self-determination applies as a right and when secession is legitimate.

The multidisciplinarity of the scholarship on regional nationalism has served the research on this topic well. Nationalism is a multifaceted phenomenon with many different causes and consequences and, in this context, the presence of many different perspectives (empirical and normative, political and sociological, etc.) has truly enriched the field. This being said, there is room for more frequent and more meaningful conversations between scholars from various disciplines. Indeed, works that reflect this diversity are fairly rare (Gagnon and Tully 2001; Gagnon et al. 2003).

A particularly salient, yet surprising, cleavage in the literature on regional nationalism combines issues of disciplinary boundaries, methodology, and ontology. Indeed, there is a large literature on “ethnic conflict” stemming primarily from international relations specialists (Brown et al. 1997; Lake and Rothchild 1998), which stands in relative isolation from the scholarship on “regional nationalism.” In other words, scholars of “ethnic conflict” rarely discuss and cite scholars of “regional nationalism” (or even comparative nationalism), and the reverse is equally true. This is not because these two groups of scholars study different things per se. As we suggested before, the difference between “regional nationalism” and “ethnicity” is not clear insofar as the distinction seems to rest on a value-laden dichotomy between the developed West and the developing world. Of course, the notion of conflict suggests violence while regional nationalism does not. Yet, this is more a question of definitional meaning than empirical reality. Violence between groups can be expressed in terms of ethnic conflict or in terms of nationalism (the literature on the former Yugoslavia reflects this duality) and so can nonviolent yet confrontational dynamics.

The lack of dialogue between these two groups of scholars has more to do with ontological and methodological issues. On the one hand, scholars who study ethnic conflict tend to bring assumptions of anarchy taken from international relations into their research on domestic ethnic conflicts where the state is either weak or collapsing (Snyder 2000; Fearon 2004). This ontological choice leads them to emphasize security dilemmas and ensuing rational calculations as the main drivers for ethnic conflict. These scholars are grounded in the dominant methodology of American political science and favor formal modeling or large-n quantitative analysis (Snyder and Walters 1999; Saideman et al. 2002). On the other hand, scholars of regional nationalism typically come from an intellectual tradition that features comparative politics, sociology, and history (Smith 1986; 1991). Violence and anarchy are not central to their understanding of nationalism and ethnic conflict, and they most often conduct qualitative case studies (Keating 1996; Conversi 1997).

Theoretical Diversity

In addition to being characterized by multidisciplinarity, the study of regional nationalism also exhibits theoretical diversity. In other words, not only have scholars of regional nationalism approached the phenomenon in different ways, they have also formulated different, often competing, explanations for its existence. The various theoretical explanations put forward to explain regional nationalism mirror the schools and intellectual traditions that structure the social sciences: culturalism, structuralism, and rationalism (Lichbach and Zuckerman 1997).

The importance of culture in regional nationalism seems almost self-evident. After all, the claims of regional nationalist movements almost always include a cultural dimension, that is, reference to language, religion, ancestry, ethnic features, etc. The early literature gave a lot of causal importance to these types of factors. Scholars of developing societies such as Edward Schils (1957), Clifford Geertz (1963) and Harold Isaacs (1989) were struck by the salience of what they termed “primordial attachments” or “basic group identities.” Their conception of the nature, origins, and consequences of these attachments or identities opened the way for an approach called primordialism, which viewed identities as flowing naturally from “givens” of social existence like ancestry and race, although some scholars also emphasized the role of genetics (van den Berghe 1979). These identities were seen as natural, irreducible, overbearing, imminently political, and generally conducive to instability, if not to outright conflict and violence.

The primordialist approach has been severely criticized over the years (Eller and Coughlan 1993). Most importantly, the idea that nations are naturally existing entities or, in other words, that cultural markers are so overwhelming as to make the formation of the nation an almost spontaneous process runs counter to thirty years of social science research that emphasizes the construction of group identity. Yet primordialism drew the attention of researchers to the emotional appeal of nationalism. This important insight led culturalist researchers to develop approaches (“perennialism” and “ethnosymbolism”) that focused on symbols, myths, beliefs in common ancestry (true or not), a shared history (real or imagined), narratives and stories, in addition to paying attention to objective cultural markers such as language and religion. The result is a solid body of scholarship (Smith 1986; Connor 1994; Guibernau and Hutchinson 2004; Ross 2006) that is very good at grasping the power of nationalism and its a-rational qualities. The weakness of culturalist theories is that they tend to be vague on the exact causal mechanisms involved in the development and reproduction of regional nationalism.

An alternative to culturalist theories of regional nationalism is structuralist theories. In the larger field of nationalism studies, the strongest challenge to primordialism came during the 1980s in the form of macro-structural modernism. The classic statement came from Ernest Gellner (1983), who argued that the emergence of nations was a functional necessity as industrial capitalist societies could only operate in the context of cultural homogeneity.

This structuralism of the Gellnerian perspective has had quite a bit of influence on the study of regional nationalism, despite the fact that Gellner’s framework supposed that regional nationalist movements would disappear with modernization. In the context of regional nationalism scholarship, Gellner’s heritage is the emphasis on the state. At the broadest level, structuralist theories of regional nationalism that focus on the state make the argument that the development of regional nationalist movements is a function of state and nation building at the center (Harty 2001; Stevenson 2006; Lecours 2007). The specific arguments vary. One idea is that decentralized structures, when they guarantee territorial political autonomy, become spaces for nation building and nationalist mobilization. For example, the literature on the former Soviet Union has suggested that the federal organization of the country structured the nationalist mobilization that occurred when the regime liberalized (Roeder 1991; Gorenburg 2003). Another is to emphasize state repression as the trigger for regional nationalism and ethnic conflict (Gurr 1993; 2000). Structuralist theories of regional nationalism can also emphasize particular political institutions. There is, for example, an important literature on the relationship between, on the one hand, systems of government (parliamentary versus presidential) and electoral systems (majoritarian versus proportional) and, on the other hand, regional nationalism/ethnic conflict (Horowitz 1985; Lijphart 1986). Not all structuralist theories of regional nationalism focus on political institutions, however, and some scholars have attempted to account for regional nationalist movements by centering their analysis on class (Hechter 1975).

An alternative to structuralism in the study of regional nationalism is to give theoretical primacy to agency and rationality. Rationalist theories of regional nationalism, often dubbed “instrumentalist,” have taken different forms. Some are explicitly informed by rational choice theory, and have explained regional nationalism as the product of a cost–benefit calculation on the part of political elites seeking power (Rabushka and Shepsle 1972; Hechter 1988; Barreto 2001). Others have adopted a less strict perspective on the place of rationality in the development of regional nationalism while at the same time emphasizing the role of elites in shaping, politicizing, and mobilizing national identities (Brass 1991). From the instrumentalist perspective nationalist leaders choose to ignite, if not simply invent, national identities through the manipulation of symbols and the reinterpretation of history in order to satisfy their own ambitions (Young 1976; Rothschild 1981; Brass 1991).

Rationalist/instrumentalist theories are coherent with the now conventional academic wisdom that nations and nationalism are constructed, contingent, and fluid. Their great strength is that they apprehend regional nationalism in the broader context of politics and power. As agency-centered theories, their main weakness is that they often marginalize political institutions, often leaving the impression that elites operate in an institutional vacuum. Finally, rationalist theories of regional nationalism, while they are very good at explaining the motives of elites in spearheading nationalist mobilization, have a harder time accounting for why followers follow.


The literature discussed above is primarily concerned with explaining the existence, development, claims, and logic of regional nationalism. This being said, specialists of regional nationalism are also acutely aware of the potential consequences of regional nationalist movements (from the transformation of state structures to secession) and have, in this context, often taken their research to the question of management strategies, where scholars with a different substantive focus (typically federalism) are also active. Therefore, in addition to the literature on regional nationalism per se, there is also a corpus on the management of regional nationalism and nationalist/ethnic conflict (McGarry and O’Leary 1993; Safran and Maíz 2000; Coakley 2003).

This literature typically looks at four approaches to regional nationalism. The first approach consists in attempting to supersede regional nationalism through state nation building. This was the prescription of the “integrationist” or “diffusionist” scholarship (Geertz 1963; Deutsch 1966). A variation on this strategy is to explicitly seek assimilation through the projection of a “dominant ethnicity” (for a discussion of the concept, see Kaufmann 2004) or to neutralize regional nationalist movements through the control of one group by the other (Lustick 1979). All these strategies have been questioned on democratic grounds, especially for their lack of consideration of minority rights.

A second approach is consociationalism, or power-sharing. The logic of consociational democracy, as presented by Lijphart (1977) and others (McRae 1974; 1997) is to accept the presence of distinct national identities and groups within a society rather than seek assimilation, or integration in a larger alternative identity. The mechanisms of consociationalism involve the sharing of political/executive power between the groups and the use of collective vetoes on matters deemed to affect vital group interests. The most serious criticism of consociational arrangements is that they serve to build up, consolidate, and politicize identities that are by nature fluid and malleable.

A third approach to the management of regional nationalist movements is the “recognition” of national distinctiveness (Taylor 1994; Kymlicka 1995). The literature on this approach suggests that regional nationalist movements cannot be compared to interest groups and that their leaders are not primarily in pursuit of material benefits but rather seek to secure for members of their group the recognition that they form a nation. Hence, the recognition approach is viewed as having the merits of meeting the symbolic demands of regional nationalist movements.

A fourth approach is the devolution of political power through the creation of autonomous territorial units. (Autonomy can sometimes be implemented in ways that do not tie it to territory (Bauer [1907] 2000), but that is fairly rare. Belgian federalism (Erk 2007) is one contemporary example.) The general argument behind territorial autonomy as an approach for managing regional nationalism is that the decentralization of decision making reduces majority–minority conflict. In this context, scholars have also emphasized that autonomy for a specific region/community provides the type of political empowerment and cultural protection, as well as recognition of distinctiveness, that regional nationalist movements seek to gain (Lapidoth 1996; Ghai 2000; Nimni 2005). The United Kingdom has been the focus of a large literature on devolution since the late 1990s, when autonomy was granted to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, without stripping Westminster of its sovereignty (Dickinson and Lynch 2000; Wright 2000; Aughey 2001; Trench 2004).

The more general framework for discussing territorial autonomy has been federalism. Within the literature on federalism, there exists a solid corpus on federalism and territorial, national, and ethnic cleavage (Amoretti and Bermeo 2004; Burgess and Pinder 2007). The dominant view expressed in that literature is that the management of ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and/or national diversity is a foremost virtue of federalism (Elazar 1994; Burgess 2006). The idea is that conflicts in multiethnic and multinational states can be avoided, or at least lessened, by devolving power over language, culture, and other fields such as education that traditionally create tensions between the various communities.

The literature on federalism often makes a distinction between federalism and federation (Watts 1999) that is useful for understanding its management possibilities. Federalism is typically defined as a principle of government whose crux is the idea of combining self-rule and shared rule. Hence, federalism attempts to maintain the delicate balance between the federal government’s tendency to favor centralization and the will of the units to preserve and/or expand their own powers. From this perspective, states that provide territorial autonomy to selected regions/communities are shaped by federal principles, although they fall short of being federations. Indeed, federation is a more descriptive concept referring to types of political system, more specifically, to the way territory is structured politically. In this context, federation is defined as a state where two or more levels of government are sovereign (autonomous) within their own given jurisdiction as specified in a constitution.

This distinction has important implications for understanding how federal contexts relate to ethnic, national, and cultural diversity, and also for grasping its varying degrees of effectiveness. For example, the literature on Switzerland has emphasized how federalism is present both in institutional terms and as an idea. Swiss federalism is often hailed as the key ingredient for the peaceful coexistence of four language groups (German, French, Italian, Romansch) and two religions (Protestantism and Catholicism), although other aspects of the Swiss political system (the use of referenda, political neutrality, the collegial executive) are also said to contribute to this unique outcome (Linder 1994).

Not all scholars are convinced of the usefulness of territorial autonomy, either through federalism or region/community-specific devolution, for managing multiethnic and multinational societies (Cornell 2002; see the discussion in Simeon and Conway 2001). Skepticism tends to come from the idea that autonomous political institutions crystallize ethnic and national identities, and offer resources to substate leaders to spearhead nationalist mobilization (Nagel 1986). Taken to its limit, the skeptical position on federalism and autonomy in multiethnic and multinational contexts views it as setting countries on the “slippery slope to secession.” To this argument Michael Burgess replies that “if federation does not guarantee success, it is hard to see any form of successful accommodation of multiple nations within a single state that does not include some form of federal arrangement” (Burgess 2006:131).

There probably is not a single answer to the question of whether federalism can help in securing stability and democracy in multiethnic and multinational countries. Federations as a set of institutions come in many different forms and federalism as an idea may be understood in very different ways across countries and, even, within a particular federal system. The consequence of this multiplicity of meaning and structures is that it is difficult to formulate straightforward conclusions about territorial autonomy and regional nationalism. Another potential influence on the consequences of federalism for the political dynamics of multiethnic and multinational societies is the structure of majority–minority arrangements, although the exact causation remains a matter for debate. Hale, for example, has found that federal states “are more likely to collapse when they contain a core ethnic region – a single ethnic federal region that enjoys dramatic superiority in population” (2004:166). McGarry and O’Leary, for their part, have argued that the presence of a Staatsvolk, a dominant ethnic core, makes a multinational federal state more stable because members of this Staatsvolk “can feel secure – and live with the concessions attached to multi-national federation, and, ceteris paribus, has the demographic strength and resources to resist secessionism by minority nationalities” (2007:198).

There is a general sense in the literature that federalism and autonomy are adequate or promising principles and frameworks for managing diversity (Forsyth 1989; Burgess 2006), but that the devil is in the details. There are at least four aspects of federal and autonomy arrangements that are discussed in the literature in relation to their success or failure to manage regional nationalism.

The first has to do with the distribution of powers between the federal and regional governments. If there is a broad agreement that culture and language should be decentralized, disentangling responsibility for other policy areas is usually more complex. For example, on Belgium, there is a considerable literature on federalism and Social Security, with Flemish scholars typically arguing that Belgian federalism could satisfy Flemish nationalism better if Social Security were decentralized and francophone researchers suggesting that such a move would in fact threaten the country (Béland and Lecours 2005). The literature on regional nationalism management in Spain also examines and debates the respective legislative role of the central government and the governments of the “Autonomous Communities” (Moreno 2001).

The second aspect of federal and autonomy arrangements that conditions the judgment of many scholars on their usefulness in regional nationalism management is money matters. In many countries with regional nationalist movements, scholars have studied and discussed financial arrangements and transfers between levels of government. Here, the literature stresses that, at least in advanced industrialized societies, central states typically have the greatest revenues while regional governments often run expensive programs such as health care (Watts 1999). Some scholars have found that leaving the federal government with greater financial capacities allows for the effective promotion of national unity through, for example, the setting of national programs and standards while others have argued that these initiatives undermine autonomy and therefore spur regional nationalism (Telford 2003). Control over natural resources (water, oil, etc.) is also a central focus of the literature on regional nationalism management, especially in developing countries.

Specialists on federalism and autonomy have also focused on intergovernmental relations as a determinant of how successfully regional nationalism can be managed. In this context, the literature has highlighted that center and region most often cannot live in isolation from one another and that there need to be some mechanisms for information sharing and coordination between levels of government. Some scholars have shown a preference for intergovernmental models where the central government is a dominant presence that more or less directs regional governments while others have argued that this type of intergovernmental relations only serves to sustain the grievances of regional nationalist movements (Gagnon and Iacovino 2006).

Finally, many scholars have suggested that federalism and autonomy are most effective in managing regional nationalism when the structures establishing the territorial division of power reflect the country’s national/ethnic cleavages through some type of asymmetrical or differentiated arrangement. The argument is, in other words, that there should be recognition of distinctiveness built into the structures. The granting of autonomy to selected regions/communities, as occurred in the United Kingdom, necessarily provides for such recognition but federal models may not necessarily, because power is decentralized to many different units. For example, many scholars have argued that Canadian federalism would be more effective at securing national unity if its structures were more asymmetrical and therefore acknowledging of Quebec’s claims of nationhood (McRoberts 1997). Scholars of Ethiopian federalism have highlighted how this country has gone the furthest in this direction by constitutionalizing a right to secession (Habtu 2005).

Conclusion: Trends and Challenges

The study of regional nationalism and its management through devolution has evolved quite a bit since it first became a topic of academic inquiry beginning in the 1960s. At least three, interrelated, trends are noticeable in the literature.

The first trend is a change in the way regional nationalism is viewed. Until the late 1990s, the dominant normative view of regional nationalist movements was that they were essentially backward phenomena, defensive reactions against the rapid change of the modern world (Hobsbawm 1992). They were almost automatically labeled as ethnic nationalism whereas the nationalism of states was typically assumed to be civic. These types of ideas can still be found, of course, but many scholars have effectively challenged them, making the case that regional nationalist movements can very much be modern and civic (Keating 1996).

The second trend is a transformation in the type of political, institutional, and constitutional response scholars have suggested toward regional nationalism. In the 1960s and 1970s, regional nationalist movements were seen as problems, obstacles to the construction of civic communities and, in this context, scholars tended to favor a “political integration” approach. In other words, the idea was to eliminate regional nationalism either through assimilation or the depoliticization of a group’s distinct cultures. In the last two decades, the dominant perspective on how to react to regional nationalist movements has emphasized management and accommodation rather than elimination. This perspective is reflected in the voluminous literature on nationalism and federalism/autonomy where autonomous schemes are never considered promising tools for the eradication of regional nationalism, and on the growth of a literature that favors accepting and building upon multinationalism (Requejo 2005; Gagnon and Iacovino 2006).

The third trend surrounding the study of regional nationalism is, beginning in the 1990s, a willingness to accept, or even favor, secession as a possible solution to conflict in multinational and/or multiethnic countries (Roach 2007). An important force behind this switch from an unquestioned commitment to state territorial integrity to a greater acceptance of secession was a scholarship that examined the normative bases of claims for self-determination and often found those claims legitimate (Buchanan 1991; Tamir 1995). The consequence of all these discussions on self-determination and secession has been to make more room for normative questions about justice, as opposed to simply concerns about stability, in the scholarship on regional nationalism and its management. Interestingly, as secession has become a major focus of inquiry, the literature on regional nationalism has emphasized how regional nationalist movements, at least in industrialized democracies, are increasingly seeking political statuses that fall short of full independence (Keating 2001)

The study of regional nationalism and its management face at least two challenges going forward, the first epistemological and the second methodological.

The first challenge is objectivity. Regional nationalism as a field of study is strongly dichotomized. On the one hand, there are scholars who are clearly sympathetic to regional nationalist movements and their claims. These scholars are most often critical of states where the movements are active, finding their constitutional, institutional, and political structures oppressive and unfair. They are typically friendly to arguments about the legitimacy of secession. On the other hand, there are writers for whom the status quo (especially state territorial integrity) is the, often implicit, normative position. In this context, how can knowledge be gathered and cumulated in the field of nationalism? More specifically, where can the objectivity necessary for the production of this knowledge be found in the study of regional nationalism? Most often, it is the “nationalist” writings on regional nationalism that are considered partial and biased. Eric Hobsbawm, for example, has argued that “no serious historian of nations and nationalism can be a committed nationalist” (1992:12). However, the notion that favoring the status quo and state territorial integrity corresponds to neutrality is fallacious. This becomes clearer when the state is attributed its own nationalism instead of some neutral-sounding quality such as patriotism or republicanism, which means that there is no a priori normative basis for favoring one nationalism over another. In this context, there are no easy solutions for scholars of regional nationalism. The best attitude is probably to be reflexive, that is, to be aware of one’s bias as a researcher.

The question of objectivity is also important when it comes to policy prescription. Here, the issue is not only that some scholars are sympathetic to nationalism while others are deeply suspicious of it, but that certain theoretical readings of nationalism have policy implications. As a result, some scholars become strongly associated with, and invested in, specific policy prescriptions. A good example here is Arendt Lijphart, who has strongly defended the merits of the consociational model of democracy, for which he has been the main theorist. Ian Lustick (1997) suggested that Lijphart’s objectivity was seriously compromised by its intellectual and professional stakes in consociational democracy.

The second challenge for specialists of regional nationalism and its management through federalism and autonomy is to develop a greater comparative perspective. As we mentioned before, the bulk of the work consists of case studies whereas comparative studies typically feature most similar cases. What are the possibilities for broadening the scope of comparative inquiry? Indeed, few comparisons between “most different cases” have been conducted. One central issue is the “comparability” of cases. For example, can regional nationalist movements in industrialized democracies be compared with movements in developing countries and/or in nondemocratic areas? Does violence change the way regional nationalist movements operate? In other words, is there a similar logic to regional nationalism everywhere that would validate a comparative exercise independently of crucial differences in their environment, objectives, strategies, and methods? For scholars answering “no” to this question, the most productive comparisons are those between similar cases. If, on the contrary, one thinks that there is a universal logic to regional nationalism, then the possibilities for comparisons open up.

Multidisciplinarity, theoretical diversity, and various normative positions all characterize the study of regional nationalism and its management through federalism and autonomy arrangements. There is tremendous richness in all this diversity, but this richness also comes with the challenge of integrating insights in a way that contributes to the furthering of knowledge.


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