Nations are integrated communities of compact territory and history which have political aspirations. Anthony Smith has argued that five factors are necessary for the formation of a nation: the construction of a collective name, a common myth of descent, shared history and culture, a bounded territory, and sense of solidarity. These are political units which have a monopoly on the use of force within a well-demarcated territory (Kaufmann and Conversi). Nation-building is the dialectical process through which the modern world-system structurally differentiates ethnicities.
The nation is constructed as “a fictive ethnicity” grounded in “a historical system of complementary exclusions and dominations which are mutually interconnected”. For that reason, nationalism has been closely intertwined with the practices of racism, ethnocide, religious intolerance, and culturicide. Without those mechanisms, the state could neither control population movements within its geographical space nor coalesce a “people” around a common identity, civilizational project, and official history (Dunaway). The persisting feature in the formation and continuity of national identities are myths, memories, values, traditions and symbols. Myths of ethnic descent, particularly myths of ‘ethnic choseness’, lie at its core. Of all these myths, the myth of a ‘golden age’ of past splendour is perhaps the most important.
Theories of Nationalism
The foundations of modern nations are earlier ethnic communities, or ethnies. The first nations were formed around ethnic cores. One of original debates within theories of nationalism is that of Instrumentalism vs. Primordialism. On the one hand, primordialists appeal to emotions and instinctive constraints as ultimate explanations and in primodialism nationalism and ethnic conflict are an emotional given whereas instrumentalists (or constructivists), regard ethnicity as a dependent variable. According to the constructivist view point, ethnicity is produced for its strategic utility in achieving material or political goods, formally in the name of the group, but in fact solely to the elites’ advantage (Kaufmann and Conversi). Given that instrumentalists see ethnicity as a dependant variable it can be argued that elites can manipulate to distort and alter the existing myths. For radical instrumentalists, the category ‘nation’ does not correspond to any objective reality. Ernest Gellner pushes the ‘invention’ argument to its logical consequences: “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist” and nationalists are ambitious ‘social engineers’ deliberately stirring up the atavist emotions of the masses. In short, instrumentalists try to single out the ‘manufacturers’ of nations among those social groups which have more to gain from it (Dunaway). Primordialism is barely present in the scholarly literature and has become maligned for supposing that ethnic affiliations are given rather than chosen (Horowitz 72-73). In contrast, instrumentalism is now the dominant view (Hechter and Okamoto 193).
Impact of Nationalism on the Stability of a Country
The post Cold War era has been characterized by an increasing number of ethnic conflicts within and between nations. Today’s ethnic conflicts stem from two historical processes essential to the world-system: incorporation and nation-building. Nations simultaneously homogenize community while seeking to submerge differences (Dunaway). Nationalism constructs an uneasy, fictitious homogeneity. On the one hand, paradoxes of homogeneity and heterogeneity are negotiated by the state through political domination over ethnicized subjects. Powerful as that dominant ideology becomes, it is never totally hegemonic. National unity is inherently fragile because it is a mythical racial construct. Though nationalism is required for hegemony over a population, “national interests” and cultural dominance are never fully paramount (Dunaway) and hence nationalism arguably is detrimental for the stability of a given nation. In the past, nations were built around a common ethnic core, i.e. common language, religious beliefs and cultural values (e.g. Unification of Germany in 1871) and these ethnic markers demarcated one nation state from another. However, we live in era of increased migrations and globalizations and very few nations can claim to be homogenous ethnic identities. Hence, in this scenario, the criteria of language, religion and territory can no longer be used to define the national space objectively and there is a need to establish new markers to define a given nation.
Dunaway, Wilma. “Ethnic Conflict in Modern World System: The Dialectics of Counter-Hegemonic Resistance in the Age of Transition”. Journal of World System Research IX (2003): 3-34
Hechter, Michael and Dina Okamoto. ‘Political consequences of minority group
formation’, Annual Reviews of Political Sciences, vol. 4, (2001): 189-215.
Horowitz, Donald L. Ethnic Groups in Conflict (Berkeley: University of
California Press, (1985): 72-73
Kauffman, Eric and Conversi, Danielle. “Ethnic and National Mobilization”. Web 6 April <http://www.pacte.cnrs.fr/Recherche/RC14/1-1-Kaufmann-_Conversi_draft3.pdf>
Smith, Anthony.. The Ethnic Origins of Nations. London: Blackwell (1986).