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25 Nov

The Origins of the ‘Nation’: Settling an Age Old Debate in Political Discourse

By Yasmin Malhotra

Tracing the roots of the ‘nation’ proves difficult due to the variety of theoretical paradigms, in which the postulations of how the nation is formed, why it is formed, and when it is formed, vary immensely amongst political theories – particularly between primordialism and modernism. After examining these two positions of primordialism and modernism, that use ethnic primordial attachments and modern processes respectively as the basis for the formation of nations, I contend that the hybrid theory encapsulating elements of both primordialism and modernism, formed by nationalist scholar Anthony D. Smith, is the optimal approach. Thus, accepting the nation as formed in the modern era, yet not exclusively a “modern phenomenon” due to the relevance of pre-modern ethnic identities, proves to be the most adequate reflection of nations and nationalism.

Primordialists treat nations and nationalisms by examining the emotions they arouse, finding their origins to be from the primordial attachments that persist as decisive forces for individuals. Primordial attachments, as Clifford Geertz defines, are the “assumed ‘givens’ of social existence,” such as those stemming from language, culture, religion, and kinship. Geertz articulates these attachments to be critical, since people perceive them to be “ineffable, and at times overpowering.” People are deeply bound to those with whom they share these primordial ties due to a deep regard, mutual interest, a sense of commitment, and even to the essence of the primordial tie itself. Furthermore, Geertz insists on both a universal and a natural quality of primordial sentiments.
Within this framework, ethnicity and nationalism serve as intrinsic primordial aspects of human existence and self-consciousness. Primordialists assert identities as being clearly defined and unchanging. The nation is far from being a modern phenomenon; rather it is rooted in ethnic identities, which can be viewed as biologically or historically given. Sociobiologists, such as van den Berghe, view ethnicity as a biological given. The sociological branch of primordialism posits religion, race, ethnicity, territory, and language “as the basic organizing principles and bonds of human history.” Primordialists assert two discrete claims regarding nations: firstly, they are perennial with regard to their historical roots and secondly, they are natural configurations. However, Geertz does recognize that modernity has heightened these sentiments, whilst maintaining the identities to be primordial and rooted in the past. Furthermore, Geertz does not believe the ties themselves to be primordial, rather, people perceive them to be.

While the primordialist account has merit for recognizing the historical precedents of national identities and their ethnic cores, it’s weakness lies in it’s inability to acknowledge the extent to which these identities are shaped by various historical processes. The origins of nations are not natural, in that the attachments people bind to primordial qualities to form collective identities change and evolve throughout history. A static understanding of such identities underestimates modernization processes. Studies must not preclude political processes that have evolved to form the basis for legal political communities. Furthermore, one must acknowledge religious reforms and conversions, massive migrations and immigration, cultural evolutions and the adoption by many, of more than one language. Such processes have altered the “givens of human existence” that shape collective and national identities.

Ernest Gellner offers an ardently modernist vision of nations and nationalism. Disavowing the relevance of old ethnic ties, Gellner posits nations and nationalism to be responses to the forms of social organization born from industrial society. Nationalism created nations and nationalism is the strive for the unity of state and culture in which “men will to be politically united with all those, only those, who share their culture.” Culture binds Gellner’s argument, however, it is not a deep culture spoken of by primordialists and ethnicists, rather a modern, state, “high” culture.

Gellner presents three phases of human development: pre-agrarian, agrarian, and industrial. Gellner’s focus on the transition between the latter two is to demonstrate that industrial society is the prerequisite for nations and nationalism. The fundamental characteristics of the agro-literate polity of agrarian society are: divisions between the ruling elite and the majority, horizontal cultural cleavages and differentiation. Industrial society emerged with an embrace of rationality and the notion of progress. This translates into a society catered to economic and cognitive growth, in which an extremely mobile division of labor is formed. Unlike agro-literate society, which contains rich specializations unique to groups, specialization in industrial society is based on “standardized training.” Socialized individuals are reproduced, and everybody becomes a ‘specialist.’ Furthermore, Gellner articulates that this standardization of modernity necessitates a common language and education. The result is a universal “high” culture – of literacy and education – constructed by the state, no longer confined to the elite. In other words, the homogenization that was made imperative by modernity demanded a cultural logic; nationalism, the quest for political and cultural congruity, fits this logic. Thus the participation in a universal “high” culture forms the nation.

In Gellner’s framework, nationalism is only salient during the period of transition, which fails to address the rise of post-modern nationalisms. Furthermore, Gellner’s configuration of the nation generally examines the economic basis for nation creation, precluding an adequate role for ethnic heritage. Thus his argument fails to explain why nationalism has evoked mass popularity and passion. In the U.S, for example, immigrants retain their ethnic ancestry identity as well as their civic American one, demonstrating the persistence and resilience of ethnic ties.

In determining the origins of nations, a more nuanced approach situated in between primordialism and modernism is better; both theories, as asserted by nationalist scholar, Anthony D. Smith, are extreme. Smith concedes that the nation is modern, yet insists on links between pre-modern “ethnies” and modern nations whilst still recognizing the influences modern processes have had on such ethnic communities.

The nation, defined by Smith as, “a named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members,” is a modern entity due to the latter two qualities of his definition. Contrary to modernist discourse, ethnicity is appropriately given a significant role in Smith’s vision of nations and nationalism, as it is the core of the national identity, and can be traced back to pre-modern ethnic communities (or ethnies). The 7 attributes of ethnie are: collective proper name, myth of common ancestry, shared historical memories, differentiating elements of common culture, association with a ‘homeland,’ and a sense of solidarity. Smith’s “perennialist” theory departs from primordialism with his insistence that collective identities, rather than being unchanging “givens,” are changing, dissolving, or reviving. “History is replete with instances of unintended cultural absorption and ethnic dissolution.”

Unlike primordialist visions that assert “fixity of cultural patterns in nature,” ethnicity survives due to the sense of continuity from generation to generation, yielded through shared memories, myths, and values. Smith’s argument recognizes that historical events such as war, exile, immigration, and religious conversion, have reconfigured cultural patters. Yet, despite these disruptions, some basis of ethnic identity persists due to a “rich inner or ‘ethno’ history.” The forces responsible for the survival of ethnic identities are state making, military mobilization and warfare, and organized religion through the preservation of myths by ‘guardians of the tradition.’ Warfare, in particular, Smith elucidates, has been tremendously influential in the crystallization of one’s sense of ethnic identity. Warfare acts as a “mobilizer of ethnic sentiments” propagating new, shared symbols and myths for future groups.

Smith’s ‘perennialism’ can fill the theoretical gaps and weakness of the other two theories. Neither primorialism nor modernirm, for example, can comfortably situate the case of U.S national identity. In the U.S people strongly identify with the civic, state identity whilst clutching their cultural ethnic ties as well. Smith’s theory explicates the possibility that ethnic identities can seep through and coexist amongst a firmly established identity with the state. Furthermore, Smith’s theory also sheds light on the instrumentalist and constructivist frameworks often present in modernist discourse. Elites cannot “invent” the nation; attempts to mobilize or unite the masses will require the use of the existing essence of the ethnie, which persists over time, as the inner core of national identities.

While the nation in its ideal, legal and political form is a modern phenomenon, ethnic identity is at its core and continuities between pre-modern and modern forms of social cohesion should not be underestimated. Thus, in analyzing what, when and how is a nation, one mustn’t preclude the historical processes that change, shape, and even revive collective cultural identities, which serve as the cultural basis for both the pre-modern ethnie and the modern day nation.


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