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date: 19 January 2018

Nationalism as a Social Movement

Summary and Keywords

Since the late eighteenth century, nationalist movements have been one of the world’s most powerful agents of social change. As a social movement, nationalism serves as a primary instrument both for popular aspiration and for ruling ideology. It is embedded in political contexts and can only be explained in relation to the resulting dynamics of contention. There is considerable debate over types of nationalist movements and their role in history, in large part because nationalism is not often explicitly conceptualized as a social movement. These debates, especially those that played out through the 1980s and into the mid-1990s, offer important insights into nationalist mobilization and its conditions of emergence and development. In order to understand the dynamics of nationalism as a social movement, one may draw insights from the “political process” school of social movement scholarship, where the exercise of state power is seen as framing movement identification and as structuring mobilization. Three interrelated dimensions deserve consideration in this regard: material interests and resources, institutional opportunities, and ideological framing of nationalist mobilization. Each is linked to the other by a process of capitalist development that creates systemic inequalities and fragments global society into national units. What emerges is a political sociology of nationalist movements, where movements are embedded in the social forces that they inhabit. The interaction of social forces and nationalist mobilization can be conceived of as a hierarchy, where one leads to the other.

Keywords: nationalist movements, social movements, nationalism, nationalist mobilization, state power, material interests, resources, institutional opportunities, ideological framing, political sociology


Since their emergence in the late eighteenth century, nationalist movements have been one of the world’s most powerful forces for social change. As a social movement, nationalism is certainly unrivaled; it has been the principal vehicle both for popular aspiration and for ruling ideology across nearly 300 years. If anything, the spread and intensity of nationalist movements increased in the twentieth century. Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes noted with regret that the century’s most powerful social movements had embraced nationalism. From the early challenge posed to the Communist movement by the outbreak of World War I, to the post-1989 “velvet” revolutions, Hobsbawm found nationalism dominant, driven by a “hunger for a secure identity and social order in a disintegrating world” (Hobsbawm 1994:567). Nationalist movements have characteristics in common, but they also have particularities. With each historical juncture nationalism is re-made anew, and any account of nationalism as a social movement has to address its consequent plurality (Löwy 1999). Nationalist movements, whether they are “official” movements initiated by ruling elites or whether they are movements “from below” geared to supplanting such elites, are soaked in the ideological conflicts of their period. A typology of nationalist movements may be useful, but it only makes sense when set in a historical trajectory that can account for conditions of emergence. Nationalisms are vehicles for ideological agendas embedded in particular sets of social forces, themselves embedded in histories of nationalist assertion and imposition. Nationalism generates nationalism, but not of the same hue.

Not surprisingly, there is much debate about types of nationalist movement, and their role in history. This essay seeks to conceptualize nationalism as a social movement, and explores its dynamics as a social formation with world historical force. As a social movement, nationalism is embedded in political contexts and can only be explained in relation to the resulting dynamics of contention (Vladisavljevec 2002:771). By understanding its dynamics we may then generate possibilities for the normative engagement sought after for instance by Joan Cocks, namely the ability to “probe how one might think, feel and judge in order to act well in relation to nationalism” (Cocks 2002:8). Unfortunately, though, nationalism is not often explicitly conceptualized as a social movement. The field of social movement studies does address nationalism, but more on its peripheries than as a central problematic. There is a tendency to treat nationalism sui generis, to the detriment of both nationalism studies and social movement studies. The 2006 Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism, for instance, does not address nationalism as a social movement (Delanty and Kumar 2006). Across the 74 articles in the four volume 2007 Routledge collection, Social Movements: Critical Concepts in Sociology, there is one article devoted to nationalism (Jasper and Goodwin 2007).

This essay seeks to chart some linkages, and falls into two main sections. The first section, “Nationalist Movements in History,” seeks to survey and critique general propositions about the origins and dynamics of nationalist movements across historical periods, engaging with debates between theorists of nationalism insofar as they touch on questions of nationalist mobilization. The second section, “Nationalist Movements as Social Movements,” draws on insights of political sociologists to debate frameworks for nationalist mobilization, centered on interests, institutions, and ideologies, as three discrete dimensions of nationalist movement.


Before proceeding, it will be as well to mark out some distinctions and operational definitions. A key challenge is to identify elements that distinguish nationalist movements from their non-nationalist counterparts. The dividing line is not easily established, and this is primarily because political power, and therefore counter-power, generally takes a national form (Billig 1995). Notwithstanding globalization (perhaps, as we shall see, primarily because of it), the national state is the central vehicle and fulcrum for political power: states remain central “arenas for democratic struggles” and the category of nation remains a “helpful mediation between the local and the global” (Calhoun 1993). The “nation-state” is a central target for social movements seeking political change: movement agendas are geared to national agendas, and in that sense are methodologically nationalist (Beck et al. 2007). But being a national movement is qualitatively different from being a nationalist movement.

Nationalist movements are distinguished from other social movements by their pursuit of nationalist goals – that is, by their commitment to the central tenets of nationalist ideology. As an ideational frame, nationalism, though, is relatively weak, although this may be a source of its adaptive strength. As Freeden argues, and this is reflected in the discussion of nationalist plurality below, nationalism is filled out by other ideologies, and does not itself become dominant except in historically particular contexts where nationality itself comes under challenge (Freeden 1998). We may then want to view nationalism as an ideological vehicle that only becomes visible when it collides with its others. We may add though that in collision it defines the limits of polity, setting epistemologies of power, and straitjacketing other ideological frames.

What is it that becomes visible in nationalist collisions? The first and most obvious feature is the centrality of the nation, and the related assumption that national identity frames all other identities. Nationalist movements propagate an explicit assumption that the peoples of the world are divided into nations, each with an a priori right to self-governance, which, if denied, automatically translates into a right to sovereign statehood. Gellner’s formulation is perhaps clearest – that nationalism is the “political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent” (Gellner 1983:1). Nationalist movements emerge from state formations, aspiring to nation-statehood: the nation, as constructed by the movement, is thus at its simplest, a mode of communal aspiration to political statehood. As Calhoun notes, “nationalism is thus simultaneously a way of constructing groups and a normative claim” (Calhoun 2007:39). Nationalist movements are usually embedded in territoriality and recruit territorially specific lineages to legitimize their self-determining agendas (although there are transnational nationalisms, such as black nationalism, see Essien-Udom 1995; Carr 2002).

As the “angel of history,” indeed of modernity itself, nationalism looks back on the past to define the future, but generally does so within closely defined limits (Nairn 1977). The privileging of the nation, of national identity, and of associated national interests, over all non-national categories, necessarily involves a process of forgetting. Whether understood as a symptom of amnesia (Renan 1996), or a feat of the imagination (Anderson 1991), nationalist movements dissolve all other categories into the category of the nation. As such, they require people to at least lay aside class, gender, ethnic, regional, and other divisions for the sake of the nation. Despite erasing internal difference, assuming away internal barriers to unity, nationalist movements simultaneously reify external difference, constructing clear boundaries between “us” and “them” (Bhabha 1990).

Like many other movements, nationalist movements differ markedly on how to define membership, and thus how to include and exclude. Although by definition exclusionary, the category of the nation may be more or less founded on fixed dimensions. The only necessary requirement, across all nationalist movements, is the attachment to nationalist goals. Loyalty to the nation, above all, is the defining characteristic of a nationalist; at the very least she or he must, as Renan argued, participate in its “daily plebiscite” (Renan 1996). Hence membership of a nation may be ascribed purely on the basis of aspiring to nationalist aspirations, as expressed for instance through an oath of loyalty. Loyalty, after all, is what constitutes the nation: in the early 1920s for instance, up to 4000 lives were lost in the Irish Civil War, a war fought against the imposition of an oath of allegiance to the British monarch for the politicians of Home Rule Ireland.

In practice, though, while it is a necessary component, aspiration is rarely sufficient in itself. Measures of loyalty may exclude on the basis of acquirable characteristics, such as knowledge of a national language or a minimum period of residency, or they may lay greater emphasis on immutable characteristics such as ancestry. Once successful, a nationalist movement is able deploy the power of its own “nation-state” to determine the conditions of membership, and to enforce those conditions at its borders. Indeed, with the success of nationalist movements worldwide the myth of the nation-state has been universalized, effecting a “substitution of a popular for the prescriptive principle of international society” (Mayall 1990:149). The territorialism of nationalist movements thus directly translates into physical borders between peoples, and nationalism captures international political space, as well as the domestic sphere. As the globe is normatively constituted as a patchwork of “nation-states,” internationalism emerges as a doctrine of solidarity between nations (Löwy 1999; Laxer 2001). Where individual “nations” are dispersed across the globe, they produce diasporic “long-distance nationalisms,” as Anderson calls them (Anderson 1998). Elite migration, universalizing technology, and transnational media spheres are thus made inseparable from “parochialism” (Skrbis 1999; Das 2002:45; Safran 2007).

Social Movement

We may say nationalist movements generate and deploy a universalizing ideational framework, one that is embedded in particular communal associations and territorialities. But does this qualify nationalist movements as social movements, and if so, when?

A social movement is not so much a thing as a process; it exists by being enacted. Sidney Tarrow thus positions social movements as “collective challenges by people based on common purposes and social solidarities, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents and authorities” (Tarrow 1998:4). Four elements – collective challenge, common purpose, solidarity, and sustained collective action – become defining characteristics of social movement. A group qualifies as a social movement when it sustains direct collective action that challenges “elites, authorities, other groups or cultural codes”: movements must have a common purpose, founded on “common or overlapping interests and values”; the group gains salience as movement leaders mobilize a consensus and tap into “deep-rooted feelings of solidarity or identity”; the group only becomes a movement, rather than a “contentious episode,” when it is able to sustain collective action against its antagonists (Tarrow 1998:5–6).

The dominant “political process” school of social movement studies, of which Tarrow is a central member, interprets social movements as an extension of the formal political process. By creating structures for engagement in the political process that then become institutionalized in the polity, indeed as the polity, social movements literally generate “movement society.” The process begins with the “rise of modern states and an international capitalist economy that provided the targets and the resources that helped movements flourish and laid the bases for today’s social movements” (Tarrow 1994:191). The assertion of jurisdiction – principally the jurisdiction of the state – becomes the central spur to social movement. Where there is no claim to jurisdiction, there is no target, and no social movement.

For Charles Tilly, another exponent of this approach, social movement is then by definition “a sustained challenge to power holders in the name of a population living under the jurisdiction of those power holders” (Tilly 1999:260). Social movements are thus embedded in the politics of categorization: their purposes, challenges, and actions are manifestations of particular constituencies. Social movements, though, are not simply aggregations of particular interests; they are collective agents that make a claim on society founded on a shared consciousness greater than the sum of their parts. Social movements are not interest groups, nor are they political parties seeking government, nor state agencies, although there is much debate about the extent to which social movements can take on official forms. Certainly social movements must be autonomous of the state, but they can spawn political parties, and can engage with state structures. The key issue is that the driving dynamic of the movement remains autonomous, as a self-conscious and reflexive social force that acts on society from within society.

From this perspective we may say that the nationalist movement is a special kind of social movement, in being directed at challenging, recasting, and forging the jurisdictions inhabited by movements. The introduction to Tarrow’s seminal Power in Movement, cites the special power of solidarity and identity in nationalism, as offering a “more reliable” basis for movement organization than for instance social class (Tarrow 1998:6). The rest of his book is silent on the resulting power of nationalist movements, suggesting nationalism is more of a meta-movement, offering a frame or container of other movements. In this respect, as noted, movements can be seen as implicitly or methodologically nationalist, reproducing an everyday “banal nationalism” (Billig 1995). Where national framing becomes explicitly nationalist we may observe constituent movements becoming recruited and subsumed into the overarching nationalist frame.

Certainly, in acting for the nation, nationalists construct and reproduce a category that is much greater than the sum of their parts, an a priori entity, perhaps religion’s secular successor, that is at times imbued with spiritual qualities (Cocks 2002:27). Like other social movements, there are instances where nationalist movements become defined more clearly as instruments of particular sets of groups, and operate more like interest groups than social movements. Likewise, there may be occasions when a nationalist movement becomes more “official” than societal (see Anderson 1991). While some nationalist movements directly challenge state structures, and take on the characteristics of a social movement, others operate within state ideology and are geared to meeting legitimacy needs rather than broader aspirations. Indeed, when a nationalist movement captures state power, perhaps through a nationalist political party, the movement dissolves into officialdom. At this stage the focus of loyalty shifts from the nation to the state, and the movement disappears into a broadly diffused patriotic orientation (Connor 1994). Which is not to say the nationalist movement may not be revived as a social force at a later date, perhaps as a far-right movement, or indeed as a state-led countermovement (Mayer and Staggenborg 1996; Goldstone 2003).

When nationalism is approached as a social movement, nationalist social agency, and its socio-historical roots and dynamics are foregrounded. In the process nationalism is pluralized: what may appear static and fixed become quite clearly fluid and changeable. As social formations, nationalist movements are made and re-made by diverse social forces, and in this sense do not stand outside society. Following Tarrow we can ask how nationalists mobilize – how they pose a collective challenge, construct solidarity and identification with a common purpose across a constituency, and then sustain collective action in pursuit of their purpose. We may question why nationalist movements of a particular type arise in one or other period, seeking socio-historical accounts and generic explanations of their emergence. At one historical conjuncture a particular social force may be dominant, while at another, not so. Nationalist movements thus undergo dramatic reorientations, from liberal nationalism to fascist nationalism for instance, or from anti-colonial nationalism to socialist nationalism.

In sum, approaching nationalism as a social movement provides us with a particularly powerful analytical lens, and one that has been deployed by a range of classical scholars, as well as contemporary thinkers. In what follows, these themes are addressed through two related accounts. The first centers on nationalist movements in history, surveying and critiquing how they have been interpreted. The second addresses the social dynamics of nationalist movements, debating social foundations framed by interests, institutions, and ideologies.

Nationalist Movements in History

The classical sociology of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim directly engaged with the phenomenon of liberal nationalism as it spread across Europe and its colonies through the nineteenth century. The intense engagement with nationalist ideas proceeded through to debates about fascism into the twentieth century. By the immediate post-World War period the debates had subsided dramatically. Nationalism was consigned to history for Europeans, and presented as a passing phase elsewhere (McCrone 1998). With the eruption of neo-nationalist movements from the 1960s in Europe and North America, in the supposed heartlands of post-nationalism, along with the emergence of postcolonial nationalisms to challenge newly independent former colonies, and latterly, the upsurge of post-communist nationalist movements, debates about nationalism were forced back onto the agenda (Day and Thompson 2004). But, almost as soon as it had arrived, the preoccupation with nationalism had subsided; by the late 1990s globalization was rapidly overtaking nationalism as a cause for concern. This latest shift again reflected political contexts, with the emergence of transnational social movements and religious movements (for instance, Guidry et al. 2000).

The first flowering of debate on nationalism in the nineteenth century saw some key parameters established. The instrumentalist pole in what became the instrumental-primordial debate was firmly planted by Marx and Engels in condemning nationalist chauvinism and establishing the priority of capitalist social relations as the constitutive or “concrete” dimension that patterns the social formation (see James 1996). In this scenario, nationalist movements are by definition instruments of the ruling class, and the extent to which their ideas gain traction amongst workers is a measure not of the strength of nationalism, but of ruling class manipulation (Nairn 1997:41). Nonetheless, the category of the nation when claimed by a national working class was no anathema, even to Marx. Re-reading Marx’s position on nationalism, Benner argues the central priority was to forge political identities that did not depend on viewing other nations as barriers to freedom (Benner 1995). With this proviso, Marx and Engels relied on the category of the nation as a primary unit of mobilization; the Community Manifesto itself stated the working class “must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation […] though not in the bourgeois sense of the word” (see Cocks 2002:41; italic in original).

Durkheim and Weber allowed nationalism still more credence, and established positions closer to the primordialist pole (see Day and Thompson 2004). Both constructed nationalism as a reaction to modernity: Durkheim positioned nationalist sentiment with traditionalist modes of mechanical solidarity, which were ranged against the organic solidarities imposed by industrial divisions of labor; Weber likewise characterized nationalism as a reaction to the rationalization of modernity, although one that could ameliorate over time (James 1996). Significantly, both Weber and Durkheim viewed nationalism as a subjective reaction to modernity, and, in this respect, a product of modernity. Taken together, these classical theorists opened up themes replicated later, but (oddly) naturalized the “nation,” and shared a common failure to explain “the conjunctures of material relations and subjectivities which grounded national formation” (James 1996:180).

With the second more recent period of intense engagement with nationalism, the range of distinctions and explanations has been deepened. These later accounts of nationalist movements can be categorized into five broad approaches: ethno-national, modernization, state-centered, class-centered, and uneven development variants. Each identify an explanatory “motor” of nationalism, and use it to build a historical account of its development.

First, “ethno-national” theories such as those developed by Walker Connor and Anthony Smith emphasize ties of ethnic identity as a determining factor in the development of nationalist movements (Connor 1973; 1994; Smith 1979; 1981; 1998). Connor collapses the idea of the nation into ethnicity, defining the nation as the modern manifestation of ethnicity, a term “reserved for ethnic groups that have in fact achieved group self-awareness” (Connor 2002:25). Nationalism simply denotes identity or loyalty to the ethnic group, more a cultural identification than a political ideology. Ethnic attachments, and the nationalist movements they produce, are seen as abiding and necessary features of human societies. A universal “psychological bond” unifies the nation “in the subconscious conviction of its members” (Connor 1994:92). While not seen as a primordial urge, ethno-nationalism is presented as a non-rational attachment that vested in the “nation-state” can be deployed to exercise atavistic ethnic violence (Connor 1973).

Smith’s “ethno-symbolist” approach builds on Connor’s approach, but parts company with its psychological aspects (see Smith A. 2002; Conversi 2002). Like Connor, Smith argues that ethnic categories, such as pre-modern ancestry, genealogy, and a common cultural history, define nationalism. These aspects of national belonging can have a powerful hold over subjectivity, not as epiphenomena, but as an autonomous “ethno-symbolic repertoire” that can lie dormant for long periods of history. The repertoire is deployed by nationalists “as they face the problems of modernity,” offering the ethno-history for nationalist mobilization (Smith 1998:224). Accordingly, Smith identifies three waves of “ethno-nationalism” – all precipitated by intelligentsias mobilizing against the modernizing and centralizing state: the first, in the nineteenth century, is directed against the autocratic “scientific” states of Western Europe; the second, in the mid-twentieth century, is directed at imperial states and later, at the newly created ex-colonial states; in its third manifestation, ethno-nationalism breaks out in “Western” liberal democracies in reaction to the postwar interventionist state (Smith 1979).

Second, “modernization” theories in contrast, for instance developed by Ernest Gellner, explain the emergence and persistence of nationalist movements in terms of the specific requirements of modern industrial society (Gellner 1983; 1987). Feudal social structures, which predetermine the life paths of their “subjects,” are contrasted with the “musical chairs” society under industrialism, where “citizens” become mutually substitutable. This requires the creation of a national culture wedded to the state – nationalism and nationalist movements, then, are a “genuine, objective, practical necessity” of industrialism (Gellner 1964:64). Societies pass through phases of early, late, and very late industrialization, a series of stages reminiscent of the modernization theories of Rostow (the debt is attributed, Gellner 1964:167). This accounts for the emergence of widely contrasting forms of nationalist movements as waves of industrialism affect different societies at different times, reflected in the variety of national cultural markers, types of nationalist support base, and nationalist political practice.

A third, “state-centered” approach can be identified that links nationalist movements to the demand for popular sovereignty and to the emergence of the modern state. John Breuilly, for instance, defines nationalism as a political ideology carried by nationalist movements that emerge to challenge monarchical claims to unhindered realm over territory and peoples (Breuilly 1982). This ideology became more powerful as states began to mobilize public opinion as well as coordinate oligarchic interests. With state secularization as a public institution separated from “private” capitalist development, nationalism became an expression of ruling class coalitions. Finally, with the doctrine of popular sovereignty – that the people were sovereign in a territorially bounded national state – nationalist ideology became the universal ideology of “public” statehood, founded on the belief that the globe is “naturally” divided into “nations.” In each of these phases, nationalism is linked to changing definitions of statehood, on a model that moves from the despotic to the liberal-democratic, and broadens from the Euro-centered to the global context for institutional and ideological development.

Fourth, writers such as Eric Hobsbawm and Jim Blaut use Marxist theory to interpret nationalism and nationalist movements as expressions of class conflict. Drawing on critiques from anti-nationalist Marxists, such as from Rosa Luxemburg, Hobsbawm defines nationalism as primarily an ideological tool of the ruling classes. The state elites that promote the national interest are seen as directly acting in the interests of dominant capitalist classes, and nationalism itself is seen primarily as a means of maintaining capitalist relations (Hobsbawm 1990). Blaut meanwhile draws on Leninist-influenced approaches, to stress nationalism’s role as an anti-imperialist ideology giving political force to popular demands from nationalist movements in the “external,” “internal,” and “neo” colonies of imperialist powers (Blaut 1987). Again, both Hobsbawm and Blaut trace the historical development of nationalism – in its dominant and subordinate variants – illustrating how it relates to phases of capitalist development.

The fifth and final approach argues that historical unfolding of global uneven development is the determining variable of nationalist movements. This approach is especially useful as it explicitly seeks to embed nationalism in the sweep of international history, and is therefore addressed in greater depth.

Samir Amin, the development studies theorist, for instance, stresses the tension between the unifying, class forming, logic of global capitalism and its fragmenting, nation forming, impact. While the forces of production define a global framework of exploitation, productive relations ensure that its surplus is distributed to dominant class alliances concentrated in core national states (Amin 1980:13). This is seen as generating spatially unequal class relations: the resulting national class alliances reflect these inequalities, and are seen as centrally important in maintaining capitalist stability (Amin 1980:164). Using this framework, Amin outlines several phases of nationalist movement, the most recent, from the 1970s, associated with a heightened crisis in capital accumulation, which narrows the national class alliance and sharpens interstate competition. With globalized accumulation, he predicts a “lack of any fit between state space and economic space” that will undermine “official” nationalisms both in the “core” and “periphery,” opening up new opportunities for subordinated peoples and movements (Amin 1980:233).

The dynamics of unevenness are also explored by Tom Nairn, who argues that the persistence of nationalism directly results from the globalizing spread and deepening reach of capitalism (Nairn 1977). For him, nationalism was not chosen as the vehicle for political change, it was imposed by the logic of uneven development: nationalist movements are a “grim necessity of modern social development,” and the primary vehicle for popular anti-capitalist aspiration (Nairn 1977:38). Hence, nationalism’s “real origins are […] located not in the folk, not in the individual’s repressed passion for some sort of wholeness or identity, but in the machinery of world political economy” (Nairn 1977:337). Nationalist movements express the fact of territoriality in class relations that if anything, deepens with the increased globalization of productive forces. Consequently there is a constant tension between the two competing spatial dynamics, expressed for instance in the tension between national liberation and socialist internationalism.

With a similar focus on linking capitalism and ideology, Hroch argues that nationalisms are shaped by the uneven spread of capitalism across the three broad historical periods: the fall of absolutism and bourgeois revolution; the victory of capitalism and its early development; the emergence of global integration and advanced capitalism (Hroch 1985). He focuses on the ideological development of nationalist movements – identifying phases of “scholarly interest,” “patriotic agitation,” and “mass mobilization” – arguing that the type of nationalism that emerges depends on when the movement shifts into the second, “agitational” phase. This forms the basis for a typology of nationalisms, highlighting differences between political programs and class bases.

Anderson’s work also engages with the process of uneven development, focusing on cultural identification and sociopolitical frameworks rather than class dimensions (Anderson 1991). He too identifies several “waves” of nationalism. The first originates in late eighteenth century South America, amongst territorially defined colonial elites, “creole pioneers,” who challenge subordination to European overlords, deploying the new printing press technology and drawing on local resources and social power to reconstitute themselves as national elites. Their nationalist mobilization transforms political legitimacy in the core as well as the periphery, leading to the “second wave” of nationalism in which the nationalist “imaginings” of peripheral elites are adopted by the core, as an “awakening” to nationhood. This emergence of what Anderson calls “official” nationalism was later associated with an imperial land-grab in the nineteenth century and was reinforced by a further wave of anti-imperialist nationalist movements in the resulting colonies. This third wave of nationalist movement erupted out of the tensions inherent in constructing an imperial nationalism, as the colonial dominions of the metropolitan states, defined as subordinate members of the “nation,” mobilized behind their own versions of the national community. Subsequent waves, driven by sociopolitical unevenness can be elaborated – for instance in postcolonial states, in settler states, in Western European “multinational” states and, latterly, in post-communist states. From the beginning, in the Americas, and through the history of nationalist assertion, what triggers mobilization is a people’s “capacity to imagine themselves parallel and comparable to” others (Anderson 1991:192, italic in original). That capacity to produce a popular mass consciousness defined in relation to others, then offers the basis for politicizing what become nationally defined lines of hierarchy and antagonism.

Overall, each of the five general approaches emphasizes a particular form of nationalism and constructs a historical account of its development. In each, successive historical “waves” of nationalism and nationalist movement are presented as variants on the main theme, for instance, of the “ethno-national” impulse or the “modernization” dynamic. Consequently each has a different interpretation of the impact of contemporary transnational integration – or “globalization” – on nationalism. Smith, for instance, emphasizes the lack of an ethnic basis to the new transnational frameworks and the consequent likelihood of “global ethnic resurgence” (Smith 1990; 1998:216). Gellner argues that greater transnational industrialization will lead to convergence in international political relations and a diminution in national conflict (Gellner 1992). Breuilly is more skeptical, pointing out that increased transnational integration has converted nationalist doctrine into a “hollow sham,” at the same time the state has become more, not less, interventionist, leading to an intensified nationalism of “emotion and pragmatism” (Breuilly 1982:380). Hobsbawm, as noted, highlights identity politics and ethno-nationalism, lamenting the decline of socialist internationalism (Hobsbawm 1994:567). Amin suggests more optimistically that transnational integration weakens national class alliances and welcomes the new forms of non-nationalist movement politics that are thereby strengthened (Amin 1980). Meanwhile, Nairn argues that transnational capitalism can only engender new nationalist movements, suggesting that “the cure for the ills of nationalism is no longer the chimera of internationalism […] it can only be a different sort of nationalism” (Nairn 1997:99). In broad terms, Anderson agrees, arguing that nationalism is a profoundly “modern imagining,” that is not about to be dissolved in the global context: the very forces that are stretching popular consciousness across national borders create new forms of “long-distance” nationalist mobilization (Anderson 1998). As for state-led official nationalisms, Nairn has since argued that the nationalist project has outgrown the nation, so that post-2001 we see the first instance of a truly global nationalist project in US-led War on Terror (Nairn 2005:91; 2006).

For some, expectations or hopes for a cosmo-political “end to nationalism” are counterposed with assertions that exclusivist identity politics or ethnic nationalism has become increasingly important. Integration and reaction are paired up to offer an explanation (more often a description) of current developments. More convincing arguments bind nationalism and globalization into a single theoretical “movement.” Contrary to ethno-national interpretations, nationalism cannot be reduced to an “ethnic” core separable from the state and from the broader global context, and globalization does not simply stimulate ethno-nationalist “reaction.” Similarly, against “modernization” approaches, the nationalisms that emerged out of industrialization are not in any sense “completed,” on the contrary, they are constantly undermined, buffeted, and realigned, and as a result the global diffusion of industry does not necessarily lead to a diminution of national conflict.

Neither an ethno-nationalist “revolt” against globalization nor a modernist “embracing” of it is the likely outcome. Indeed, counterposing internationalism against nationalism, and what Hobsbawm calls “identity politics,” misses the message that capitalist globalization neither simply integrates nor fragments, but creates fragmentation with integration, reflecting its driving dynamic of “conflict in unity.” On the global stage nationalism is driven by uneven development, to either challenge or entrench territorially defined unevenness. Hence, insofar as globalization reproduces and redefines uneven development, so it also reproduces and redefines nationalist movements. Globalization and nationalism, then, are not inversely related. Historically, and today, successive waves of globalization are associated with successive waves of nationalist movement.

Nationalist Movements as Social Movements

Debates about nationalist movements played out through the 1980s and into the mid-1990s offer important insights into nationalist mobilization and its conditions of emergence and development. To address the dynamics of nationalism as a social movement, we need an approach that takes nationalist movements seriously as key sociopolitical forces. To do this it is imperative to avoid the twin perils of empiricism and deconstructivism. As James notes, analysis must avoid the pitfalls of “mainstream sociology,” which remains “divided between those who continue to treat the nation, in an untheorised way, as a deeply embedded historical formation, and those who over-emphasise its culturally-invented modernity” (James 1996:190). Central to this is the capacity to apprehend the “constitutive” process, to offer a “materialist, social relational account” of nationalist subjectivity and agency (James 1996:126).

The following discussion draws on the insights of the “political process” school of social movement scholarship, where the exercise of state power is seen as framing movement identification and as structuring mobilization. What is proposed is a political sociology of nationalist movements, where movements are embedded in the social forces that they inhabit. The interaction of social forces and nationalist mobilization can be conceived of as a hierarchy, where one leads to the other. “Objective” social conditions, such as relative deprivation, may be seen as shaping “subjective” identifications, in one or other approximation to the base superstructure schema. Alternatively, as proposed by Paul James, a “constitutive levels” approach may be preferred, where nationalist subjectivity is constituted in the interaction between levels of communicative abstraction (James 1996). Drawing on the sociology of nationalism and social movements, the focus here is on dimensions of social life rather than levels of communication, or hierarchies of structure and agency.

Three dimensions are explored: material interests and resources, institutional opportunities, and ideological framing of nationalist mobilization. Section 1 explores overlaps between sectional interests and cultural division, producing cultural divisions of labor, along with incentives and resources for nationalist recruitment and identification. Section 2 investigates the institutional frameworks of nationalist movements, mapping relations between official and non-official nationalists in constituting the political opportunity structures of nationalist mobilization. Section 3 addresses the role of nationalist ideology, highlighting how social and political conflicts are framed in ways that redefine but reproduce nationalist consciousness and identification.

These three dimensions clearly cannot have an independent existence, and are patterned by each other, as a nexus rather than a hierarchy. To refer to Gramsci’s formulation, the “problem of the relations between structure and superstructure,” has to be resolved not by concepts of hierarchy and priority but by concepts of interaction, reciprocity, and immanence (Gramsci 1971:177). Each dimension has “relative autonomy” from the other, with for example, institutions and ideologies affecting conflicts over interests, as much as interests shaping ideologies and institutions (Gramsci 1971:175). Yet each is bound one into the other by a process of capitalist development that creates systemic inequalities and fragments global society into national units (Cox 1982; Wallerstein 1991). Nationalists and their nationalisms are embedded in social formations that have transnational scope: the social relations of capitalist development on a world scale, what Rosenberg calls the “empire of civil society,” thus play a crucial role in patterning these social dynamics of nationalist movements (Rosenberg 1994).

Interests and Resources

Social stratification both differentiates people along lines of cultural identification and homogenizes people into classes. As noted, global capitalist relations simultaneously create spatio-cultural divisions and class divisions, yielding a sharply uneven spread of national development across the globe. Recruitment to nationalist movements hinges on a sense of national belonging, of being part of a “nation,” with its own markers of distinctiveness. These markers are privileged by social conflict: the process of deciding “what shall be remembered and what shall be forgotten” is a social process (Tiryakian 2007:57). The markers of nationalism are constructed by the process of sociocultural engagement, where specific lines of difference acquire symbolic significance as cultural barriers or divisions. The process of converting cultural division into national division is what reflects and establishes the incentive structure of the nationalist network: it thereby generates movement resources, and recruits the required constituency.

The process of producing and reproducing national division is clearly linked to the interests of nationalist players, and thus to the process of maintaining relations of production. Paradoxically, struggles between subordinates and their elites simultaneously produce classes and nations. National divisions are integral to the workings of contemporary capitalist societies: they actively “condition the form and scope of the class struggle” (Benner 1995:9). The pressure to integrate peoples into uniform classes with an internationalist cosmopolitan consciousness has to be set against the pressure to differentiate between peoples as a means of sidestepping or containing the impact of class struggles. As Nairn argues, tensions between cosmopolitan, transnational class formations and national class formations is a consequence of the clash between the unifying logic of the forces of capitalist development and the fragmenting logic of capitalist relations of production, which pit one culturally defined national group against another in a competition to maximize capital accumulation (Nairn 1977).

A key factor is the spatial strategy of displacing costs and obstacles to accumulation. Where subordinate classes win concessions, for instance in the “historic compromises” negotiated in postwar West European states, flows of production and finance seek new locations. In the search for new sites of accumulation, capital “amplifies existing schisms” between cultural groupings, and sharpens national divisions (Palloix 1977). National division is thus “inscribed in the very movement of capital,” created in the same instance as class division (Palloix 1977:22–3). At the same time, by enabling the formation of national class alliances, such national differentiations are a deciding factor in maintaining system stability. Vast and deepening social divides between countries are maintained through an internationalist system of distributed power across a hierarchy of “nation-states.” The potential for a clash between universalizing forces is averted, ironically enough, through the universalization of nationalist particularism: we are all required to look to our own “nation-state” to deliver for us. Nationalism thus becomes – and remains – “one of the forces by which the seemingly irreconcilable clash of interests between classes within the international community [is] reconciled” (Carr 1984:231).

On a world scale, then, the centrality of nationalist movements is greatly magnified by global development divides. The clash between modes of production on the “periphery” reinforces pre-capitalist divisions, allowing “super exploitation” of immediate hinterlands (Dore and Weeks 1979:84). Symptoms of this “development of underdevelopment” include the emergence of peripheral “reserve” armies of labor, entrenched dependencies, and various forms of direct interventionism (Foster-Carter 1978:60; Frank 1978). Hence, paradoxically, even as capitalist relations of production “spread worldwide to unify human society,” they “engender a perilous and convulsive fragmentation of society” (Nairn 1977:34).

From this perspective nationalism is bound into the logic of class struggle, both as a source of legitimation and as a source of resistance. Clearly national divisions do not define class divisions, just as class divisions do not define national groupings (Leifer 1981). As emphasized by Hroch, nationalist movements are contingent, founded on particular circumstances that change over time. The fluidity of nationalist identification is also an important aspect of Breuilly’s discussion of the state and nationalism, and of Anderson’s emphasis on the interaction between nationalisms of the colonial periphery and the imperial core. The class dynamic of a nationalist movement – whether it welds core to periphery within the existing state apparatus or challenges the state apparatus by demanding independence for the periphery – is located within the movement itself as well as between the nationalist movement and other political configurations. The focus, then, needs to be on “the relations which are established between classes in the determination of the nation” (Munck 1986:157). Competition and conflict between classes in the nationalist constituency plays a key role in defining the class connotation of the national movement, and is as important as the relationship between nationalists and non-nationalists (Hechter and Levi 1979; Hechter 2000).

Interests, though, are by no means the only factors. Indeed, overemphasis of the role of interests may ignore altogether the central issue of why classes mobilize along national rather than transnational lines. It can also lead to a dependence on psychological concepts of false consciousness wherever a direct class interest in the nation cannot be detected (Avineri 1990). Cultural categories are central: it is only in interaction with cultural divisions that the class dynamic assumes a national form. By the same token, nationalists are “forced to address class issues,” for instance when West European neo-nationalists in the second half of the twentieth century sought to establish legitimacy against state jurisdictions (Keating 1988:172).

Social movement theorists shed light on these origins of these structural orientations, focusing on the prevailing power structures of society. Where power structures center on the institutions of the state, as argued in the “political process” school, we may see movements mobilizing state-centric claims and identifications, ultimately shoring up official nationalisms (see Tarrow 1998). Where power is exercised through cultural codes or informational infrastructures, we may expect movements to be autonomy-centered. In this context, ethnic territorialism and ethno-nationalism can manifest, with “explosive power,” in breakaway regionalist or separatist formations (Melucci 1996:159). In both cases, nationalist identification is generated and sustained by movements on the basis of specific constellations of power and interest.

Structural embedding of this sort offers the nationalist movement a resource base articulated within existing power structures. The national identification process is so clearly embedded in the articulation and pursuit of sectional interests, and the movement itself is so dependent on such interests in order to garner the necessary resources, that we cannot separate the two aspects. Structural embedding is a central factor shaping an individual’s involvement in social movements – as McAdam highlights, “microstructural factors,” namely “the nature and extent of […] the structural location” most clearly distinguish the active from the inactive members of a movement (McAdam 1986:87). The interaction between cultural differences and a material interest in the nation is critical in creating the required “microstructural” incentives, a two-way interaction that reduces the “autonomy” of both (Leifer 1981). We cannot, as a result, usefully describe nationalist movements as simply products of class interests, nor indeed simply as “identity” movements.

Institutions and Opportunities

States, and the states system in which they are embedded, clearly play an important role in the reproduction of nationalist movements. The concept of the national state and the national interest is central to nationalism, and the universal claims of nationalist ideology – the claim to absolute legitimacy over the national populace within the national territory – directly relate to state power. As Hobsbawm argues, the state has become the “framework for citizens’ collective aims” by virtue of its claim to universal secular power over a population (Hobsbawm 1983:264). Following Breuilly and Anderson, both the mass aspiration to popular sovereignty and the elite aspiration to national autonomy generate and sustain nationalism. The state’s ability to draw together and maintain a national class alliance, as stressed by neo-Gramscian writers (including Cox 1987), is a crucial element in the social reproduction of nationalism.

The role of the state in defining the national community thus needs to be analyzed as a product of hegemonic conflict, as stressed by Hobsbawm and Breuilly, rather than as a by-product of state structures required in the “modern” era, as suggested by Gellner and Smith. As state legitimacy became increasingly populist, whether due to print capitalism (Anderson 1991), the spread of liberalism (Kedourie 1960), the need for state education (Gellner 1987), or the linkage between interests and identification (as argued here), the sovereign state was forced to become more pluralistic. Only the state could unify a concept of universal sovereignty with a concept of the “nation” and so satisfy the demand for popular sovereignty: only with nationalism could the idea of popular self-determination become a possibility and so give popular legitimacy to the concept of the “nation-state” (Breuilly 1982; Knight 1983:118; Seton-Watson 1986).

Notwithstanding the popular myth and aspiration, national states primarily serve dominant interests rather than the interests of the national citizenry. Yet state elites depend upon civil society, not least for their revenues: in the first instance, state legitimacy is crucially dependent upon an ability to siphon off resources from civil society and transform these resources into structures and policies that maintain hegemonic unity. Just as a dialectical relationship within the absolutist state can be traced between the dynastic ambitions of warring monarchs and the prosperity of a mercantile bourgeoisie, so the contemporary capitalist state is dependent on industry and continued accumulation by private business (Tilly 1990). From this dependence arise manifold political opportunities for nationalist movements seeking to drive a wedge between the “nation” and state elites who are beholden to private interests.

Indeed, the state structure itself is implicated in class and cultural divides. States are “constituted with and by class contradictions” and are – in essence – a “condensate of a relation of power between struggling classes” (Poulantzas 1978:72–4). State policies are aimed at constituting a hegemonic class alliance in civil society and are necessarily partial. The claims espoused by the state – to guarantee economic growth, to dispense justice, to educate according to merit, or to provide democratic control over the “political” arena – all exist in contradiction with the perpetuation of an unequal society. Hence, “official” nationalism masks “selfish vested interests” (Carr 1984:88). The state’s autonomy as the embodiment of national aspirations – its claim to political legitimacy – is constantly under challenge, including from nationalist contenders.

The failure of the central state to deliver on its own promises offers fertile ground for contenders: in this respect, nationalist movements exploit the liberal state’s own rhetoric to pursue their claims. These opportunities and resulting instabilities pose a central dilemma for state power: the state is tied to the contradictory role of shoring up an elite ruling alliance while securing mass consent. It attempts to define a people as subject to a prevailing order, but to be effective it must fuse a range of interests into a class alliance capable of securing consent from the subject population, a process of manufacturing consent that contrasts with the purely repressive aspects of social control (Hall 1986:67). State policies, then, reflect the division between those benefiting and those suffering from the effects of state hegemony, effectively those “inside” and those “outside” the national class alliance (Gramsci 1971:106).

Of all social movements, nationalist movements are perhaps most susceptible to institutionalization: their objective after all is to establish their own institutional expression, whether or not through formal statehood (Meyer and Tarrow 1998). But, at the same time, nationalist movements are able to subvert official accommodation and exploit a range of political opportunities “from within,” presenting some of the most intractable problems for state authorities. Insofar as national community fuses cultural difference and class interest, so national interests as pursued by state elites have to reaffirm the linkage. National states must devise policies that serve the interests of the various segments of nationalist adherents, and clearly distinguish “insiders” from “outsiders” if they are to retain legitimacy. But every effort at shoring up a catch-all nationalist movement in pursuit of its national interest immediately conflicts with the necessary partiality of state power (Watson 1990:209).

Ironically, increased socioeconomic integration on the national state model accords greater significance to territorial authority over resource distribution, highlighting lines of domination and transforming territories into objects of political struggle (Keating 1988). The very policies designed to address disparities, for instance, often bind peripheries into a closer dependence on the core and highlight lines of cultural subordination. If, for instance, the state raises public expenditure in disadvantaged peripheries or colonies it merely confirms dependence, as interventions are multiplied in response to peripheral disequilibria (Rivera-Ramos 1990). Attempts at welding peripheral cultures to the national state – for instance by creating “national pilgrimages” (Anderson 1991:121) or by inventing national memorials and events (Hobsbawm 1983) are as likely to reinforce the cultural dimensions of peripheral nationalisms as inspire state-centered nationalist sentiment.

As a result, we find a world political system constituted not by “nation-states,” but by multinational states (Máiz 2003). Strategies to address the “nationalities” question may emerge, whether to deepen engagement with the “civic” culture of the would-be nation-state, or through the assertion of unity on the basis of ethnic diversity, a form of multicultural nationalism, or indeed through a more authoritarian assimilationist ethno-cultural nationalism (Brown 2000). In response, nationalist movements can deploy a wide range of resources to exploit the political contradictions of accommodation. Nationalist interventions may parallel those of the national state but be presented as more immediately and authentically serving the would-be nationalist constituency. Wherever the national state extends autonomy rights to “nationalities,” it must by definition impose limits on those rights, thereby offering nationalist contenders a range of targets and opportunities (Tejerina 2001). The state can reach an impasse, a political sclerosis, with class-based political parties linked to official nationalism in the “core” wielding majority control, and minority regionalist or nationalist parties based in the “periphery.” Such deadlocks may be stoked by the similar zero-sum insecurities of interstate relations, where different national interests as defined by state executives, can have the effect of fueling nationalist movements (Rokkan and Urwin 1983:119).

When these and other factors coalesce we may witness an intensifying cycle of contention, where the opportunities available to nationalist players can expand dramatically. Where countermovements emerge to contest nationalist claims, perhaps inspired by patriotic loyalty to the existing state, national conflict can be further polarized with opposing forces deliberately “creating or amplifying critical events” in order to maximize recruitment and open up political opportunities (Mayer and Staggenborg 1996:1638). Whether producing a centripetal nationalism, of the fascist variety perhaps, or a more centrifugal disarticulation with fragmentation into separatisms or irredentisms, nationalist movements can find new ground, engendering nationalist revolutions against the existing apparatus. The associated political violence can become established as a movement repertoire, and embedded in the political process, with a momentum that can reshape the political opportunity structure and outlive democratic transitions (Tejerina 2001).

Ideologies and Framing

Identification and interests may define national constituencies, and political institutions may generate opportunities for contestation, but in themselves they are insufficient to explain collective national consciousness. To develop an understanding of nationalism’s “popular resonance,” interests and institutions must be linked to the ideological framing process that politicizes the nationalist constituency (Hobsbawm 1990:264). People only become nationalists through a self-conscious process of ideological struggle: as argued by writers such as Hroch and Anderson, these struggles then politicize peoples into a national identity that expresses broader global divisions.

Depoliticization and demobilization is a central hegemonic tool of state elites. In the field of political conflict, the “mask justifying man’s exploitation by man” is vested in an ideological domination that unifies the dominant classes, neutralizes opposition and in the process, defines whole swathes of civil society as uncontested territory “free from politics” (Lefebvre 1966:31; Habermas 1976:22). To do this, a form of “common sense discourse” emerges that presents the sectional interests of the dominant elites as no different from the wider interests of the mass of the population (Larrain 1989). Various “means of legitimation” are thus mobilized to construct a collective, national consciousness that submits to the prevailing order (Femia 1981:33). This “free subjection” sees the individual “interpellate” herself or himself as a national subject, and plays a key material role in maintaining prevailing hierarchies (Althusser 1984).

But ideologies are by definition unstable and contested. As stressed by Blaut and Amin, the logic of ideological struggle in forming nationalist agendas reflects conflicts over national interests and national development. The dominant ideologies constructed by a ruling bloc – whether for example, between landed aristocracy and a mercantile bourgeoisie or between a skilled segment of the working class and a cosmopolitan bourgeoisie – are necessarily partial to the interests of some groupings over others. The day-to-day experience of inequality maintains the “resistance embedded in the existing forms of popular culture and subjectivity” and ensures that a bipartisan national “common sense” is never easily constructed or maintained (Schwarz 1986:179). Groups construct competing concepts of political legitimacy and challenge the definition of what is and what is not a “political” issue, and thereby challenge the dominant agenda. Hence, civil or national society is rarely – if ever – fully subordinated to the hegemony of the “nation-state.”

To put it another way, the dominant national “frame” is asserted as totalizing, as generating the political facts of life. The frame expresses cognitive and affective structures of interpretation and understanding, and thus meaning, grounded in communicative interaction (Goffman 1974). It establishes a normative architecture of contention, delimiting political engagement to specified repertoires of contention (Tilly 2006). Compliance is mandated on pain of political irrelevance: groups or organizations that step outside of the established repertoire are deemed a threat, having violated the political norms. At the same time, and in contradiction with the claim to certainty, frames are necessarily contingent and open to interpretation and elaboration.

Social movements engage in a purposive and active process of strategic “reframing”: a “rights” frame for instance, may be used to legitimize individualism, but it may also be deployed to promote group rights, including those of “national minorities.” Challenges may thereby be posed from within the dominant “master frame,” in alignment with it, disrupting the ruling group and its constituencies (Benford 2000). Challengers deploy reframing strategies not simply by articulating them, but also by symbolically enacting them in the public sphere. Such “unruly” enactments may be deliberately designed to polarize issues and antagonize opponents, testing or symbolically breaking the limits of existing repertoires of contention, and forcing a process of public deliberation, and frame shift (Gamson 1990; also see Tejerina 2001; Johnston and Noakes 2005). McAdam for instance shows how the US Civil Rights Movement embedded its appeal in the ideational bedrock of US national culture, in Christian values of forgiveness and self-sacrifice, and in popularly held assumptions about the character of the US constitution and its democratic system. Combined with this, the movement deliberately engineered disruption in sites of publicly endorsed racism in the US South (McAdam 1999).

Conceptualized as frame engagement, the ideological practice of social movements is inescapably embedded in the dominant national meta-frame: the Civil Rights Movement’s reframing efforts challenged assumptions of American culture, but was geared to remaking that national culture in its own image. With strengthened international sources of authority – such as in the guise of interstate organizations – strategic reframing has to a degree shifted from national contexts, but the process remains weakly developed and dependent on national level leverage (Smith, J. 2002). Certainly, movements seeking to redefine the “national interest” or to challenge the legitimacy of national rulers, continue to build bipartisan alliances claiming to speak for “the nation.” Historically this is reflected in the transition of many anti-systemic movements that have reconciled themselves to the national framework. For instance, the history of the international labor movement is replete with concessions to the national principle – from Marx’s insistence that workers must become the “leading class of the nation” to the Soviet declaration of “socialism in one country” (Barnett 1989:141). Indeed, as the entire concept of “popular sovereignty” is locked into the state framework, any social group trying to gain the lead in a hegemonic conflict must in some way define itself as “the unique true expression of the nation” (Gramsci 1971:52; Barnett 1989:148). In this context nationalist ideology can become politically ubiquitous (Munck 1986).


The analysis of nationalism has tended to focus on its cultural and structural origins and development, rather than its “political-contextual” dynamics. As discussed, social movement theory has much to offer in this regard, especially from the “political process school.” Social movement scholarship points to movements as active and reflexive players, embedded in political dynamics. From this perspective, nationalist mobilization relies on binding together the symbolic and strategic aspects: it mobilizes interests and resources for ethno-territorial affiliation; it generates opportunities by engaging the cultural politics of national state legitimacy; it reframes ideological claims to rule from within national discourses. When addressed as a social movement, nationalism is revealed as a dynamic force embedded in interests, institutions, and ideologies. Its historical relationship with the global spread of state formations and the parallel extension of uneven development positions it quintessentially as the social movement of capitalist modernity. Nationalism, we may say, is a very special social movement.


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I would like to acknowledge the support of those who inspired me in nationalism and social movement studies since the late 1980s, most especially: Rosemary Sales, James Anderson, and Paul James.