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Nationalism: A Brief Introduction

In studies of contemporary politics, the idea of nationalism pops up a significant amount of times suggesting that it plays a central role in the socio-political formation of today’s world. Although the term nationalism is an inseparable part of political and sociological discussions, it carries a rich historical background as the term nationalism can be traced back to centuries ago. Kiley Bickford (2014), a fellow at the University of Maine, in the academic paper “Nationalism in the French Revolution of 1789” underlined that the idea of nationalism plays a pivotal role in shaping societies and provides an example of Joan of Arc who in the mid of 1400s “professed a dedication to her country that raised it above all others”. The underlining point revolves around ‘raised’ as nationalism, as it will be discussed later in the article, presupposes the idea of superiority and dominance of one group of people in comparison to another. However, many historians and academics profoundly dedicate their time and energy to the studies of nationalism, arguing that nationalism in its essence is actually of a modern origin and it was “originated in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (University of Vocational Studies, n.a, p.1). Miley Bickford (2014) further elaborated on the issue arguing that Revolutionary France in the 18th century is the root country of nationalism as “the transition from monarchy to popular Republic” was one of the first expressions of nationalistic ideas that transformed the monarchical and tyrannical regime of France into a Parliamentarian (p.3). In reality, nationalism helped people in France to bring about an understanding of unity and national belonging in challenging the oppressive regime. Although nationalism carries a negative connotation in contemporary politics, particularly during times of colonization, it is also important to acknowledge the wide range of effects that it encompasses.

This leads to another equally significant topic in regards to nationalism. Nationalism is a feeling or a psychological matter that is formed as a result of people’s inner senses in regards to the country and to a nation in general. This notion was detected in the paper released by the College of Vocational Studies that underlines that nationalism, apart from its concrete meaning, is a mindset or a feeling of “personal identification with people around and a consciousness of a common destiny” (n.d., p.3). Feeling of patriotism, cultural and religious belonging as well as the sense of loyalty to a home territory and population in general are the common traits that conceptualize the ideal meaning of nationalism. A person who identifies himself as a nationalist, on its surface level, is someone who possesses the characteristics highlighted above. A feeling of a national belonging, for instance, is something that is bound to the process of life and existence, where individuals gradually develop a sense of belonging to a certain socio-political and cultural background of a specific country. However, it is also important to comprehend that national belonging is naturally embedded in a human being from their birth. Eleanor Knott (2017), a political scientist and assistant professor from the Department of Methodology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, in the paper “Nationalism and belonging: introduction” noted a crucial point drawn from the works of of Guilbernau who notably argues that national belonging, for instance as one of the fundamental features of nationalism, is “the sentiment of belonging to the nation, which does not have to be tied to a state” (p.3). It is something that resides within the individual and acts separately from the state or governmental structures.

Figure 1: Nationalism in the French Revolutionary Army (Medium, n.a)

However, it is an undoubtedly established fact that the notion of nationalism is a highly complicated phenomenon that carries detrimental effects. There are various ways of approaching this issue due to the fact that nationalism can be regarded as a political doctrine practiced and propagated by the states on the socio-political levels as well as a psychological formation within the individuals themselves.

If a state chooses to follow a certain set of rules and regulations that is mainly practiced by the majority of the population, then in that case it can lead to a certain degree of separation and segregation among the people within the national borders. The contemporary world is known for a growing and developing a sense of interconnectedness among various entities and one of the major leaps, resulting from the globalized world, is the process of migration. The main causes of rapidly growing migration are various; however, the central issue is that the increased numbers of migrants have become “one of the most visible and significant aspects of globalization” (Tacoli&Okali, 2001, p.t1). The significance of this issue lies in the fact that the political formation of a specific country that is highly inclined towards the preservation of its ideas and values to an extreme level can result in a growing sense of superiority among the majority in relation to minority groups, especially those who have been the subjects of migration. The examination of majority nationalism is central to the politics of nationalism. Neophytos Loizides (2015), in his book “The Politics of Majority Nationalism Framing Peace, Stalemates, and Crises” underlined that national majorities, or majority politics, deserve attention in academia. Compared to minorities, national majorities use their dominance and superiority by which they control the “state apparatus, including the army and the police, politically and numerically dominant groups” (p.1). It is crucial to note that the root of a majority nationalism arises from the citizens as well as from state leaders, who shape the minds of its population for the purpose of igniting nationalism. Various theorists argue that majority nationalism is a necessary component for modern societies whose primary purpose is to form homogenization and eliminate national and ethnic differences. In any case, Eugene Kamenka (1973) in her book “Nationalism. The Nature and Evolution of an Idea", provided an example of Hans Kohn, who is a distinguished student of ‘Nationalism’ where he noted that nationalism “centers the supreme loyalty of the overwhelming majority of the people” (p.15). People who belong to minority groupings that are either born as minorities within their nations or are the subjects of the migration process, could be suppressed by the national consciousness that is in most cases a product of individuals’ sense of belonging strengthened by the elites of the countries.

The state, as discussed earlier, possesses a substantial effect on individuals’ mindsets. To be more precise, nationalistic rhetorics can be used as mechanisms in developing nationalistic mindsets in people for certain purposes, such as the elimination and degradation of certain minority groups, preserving the class-based identity within the society, as well as the justification of international war affairs. For instance, Philip J. Howe, Edina Szöcsik, and Christina I. Zuber (2021), fellows at various international colleges and universities, in the article “Nationalism, Class, and Status: How Nationalists Use Policy Offers and Group Appeals to Attract a New Electorate”, made an emphasis on the fact that in some countries, the administrative heads of the governments are capable of using nationalism as a distraction of the “poor from class politics, allowing themselves to retain high levels of economic inequality without being punished electorally” as elites are the ones who dramatically impact the voters by “priming national identity” (p.833-8340).

Figure 2: Far-right Nationalist Supporters of Germany's Alternative für Deutschland wave Islamophobic flags in front of the train station in Berlin on May 27, 2018 (Michael Sohn, 2018)

However, it is also important to note that nationalism, in the sense of individuals’ sense of identity as superior to others, can also develop among those who were dominated at some point. In other words, a person or a group of people can develop in them a sense of nationalism once they find themselves to be dominated by another group of people who are also filled with nationalistic beliefs. Eugene Kamenka (1973), provided an example of the Chinese, who were at some point the subjects of domination and superiority from other nations. She argued that as a result of long-lasting foreign intrusions, who thought of themselves to be in a position of superiority, “the proud...Chinese became nationalists only as they came to feel themselves at a disadvantage against the foreigners” (p.33). Nationalism can be a dangerous phenomenon as it possesses a contentious element in it where the disadvantaged groups being the subjects of nationalistic superior ideas, develop in themselves nationalistic consciousness to challenge the domination. Adopting nationalism becomes a counterattack. Eugene Kamenka (1973) further provided an example of nationalistic movements in Asia where the Asian countries implemented nationalism as a method of struggle against the “very idea of Western superiority” in the face of Western nationalism (p.88).

Moreover, it becomes apparent that nationalism, if defined and interpreted as a political doctrine, possesses a dangerous element that is mostly driven towards the invocation of national unity and construction of an idea that the belief of certain people or certain nations are by nature superior to others. Apart from the segregational effect within the national borders, a developed sense of belonging, superiority and dominance is the leading cause of aggressive war affairs in the face of international and civil wars as well as the notions of colonization. Stephen van Evera (1994), a Ford International Professor in the MIT Political Science Department, in his article “Hypotheses on Nationalism and War” highlighted the remarking points in regards to the relationship between nationalism and violent actions. He provided various hypotheses concerning the issue, concluding that nationalism can be the cause of wars and atrocious actions. For instance, Stephen van Evera outlines examples, such as conflicts arising from the nationalist struggle for freedom and justice of Palestinians in the case of “ Zionism's displacement of the Palestinian Arab” where it is to be noted that the Zionist movement is itself based upon nationalism or the denial and lack of acknowledgement of “other nationalities' right to national independence” (p.10). The politics founded upon nationalistic consciousness can cause one country to initiate a war, yet can also contribute to the development of the national movement of the oppressed against the oppressors themselves. It is most vividly seen in the case of wars of independence or anti-colonial movements.

Figure 3: Fall of an empire: matchlock-wielding Qing infantry battle British forces at the battle of Chinkiang during the First Opium War (Imperial & Global Forum, n.a)

The comparison between Nationalism and Patriotism is anther important theme within sociology and political science. Although these two concepts share similarities and patterns, they differ in essence. Without an in-depth analysis of the two ideas, it is impossible to identify the true characteristics that distinguish these two ideas. Ali Altıkulaç and Alper Yontar (2019) highlighted in their academic paper that nationalism and patriotism “indicate the relationship of the individual with his community of people” (p.116). Because of this similarity, it becomes confusing while conceptualizing these terms as one might assume that they represent the same issue and are identical. However, an examination of the concepts suggests that these terms are different. Ali Altıkulaç and Alper Yontar (2019) continued to outline that patriotism has “a defensive nature both militarily and culturally” and patriotic consciousness is founded upon a love for the homeland as well as for the people (p.116). Nationalism, on the other hand, as well as entails a feeling of love; however, it “may be destructive for particularly the nation states of a multiple-ethic structure in the end“ (p.116). To be a patriot is to be someone who demonstrates devotion and love for their nation without creating any destruction for other nationalities whether within the national borders or outside of it. Nationalism takes these feelings to an extreme level by which, a nationalist would acknowledge and express his superiority and dominance. In some cases, state leaders manipulate and reshape the idea of patriotism into a nationalistic belief for the purpose of imposing the belief onto individuals for their self-benefit. The layer between patriotism and nationalism is very thin.

Nationalism and its relation to anti-colonialism also involves a very unique and mesmerizing point. It is undoubtedly a historically proven argument that countries, whose fate was wrapped by the colonial and imperial politics of hegemonic countries, implemented a nationalistic ideological formation in order to battle the perpetrators. However, it is crucial to understand that by saying nationalism, it does not refer to a group of people who are united under one ideology in the sense of beliefs, values, ethnicities or religious background. Rather, a substance of nationalism in the anti-colonial movements is also an undeniable factor in unifying a diverse contingent. Yatana Yamahata (2019), a consultant at CSC - Collaborative Social Change specializing in the areas of peace, conflict and democracy, argued that nationalism is « used by anti-colonial movements to mobilize diverse communities » (p.1). This notion is seen in various instances of post-WWII liberation movements, such as the Algerian War of Independence. The prominence of the Algerian liberation movements does not simply revolve around its significant and impactful achievement in the history of decolonization. Rather, it demonstrates how the internal country’s political formation in the face of various political organisations, that are ideologically diverse, emerged upon one idea - protecting the nation from the colonizers. Mohammed Hennad (2010), a lecturer at the University of Algiers’ Department of Political Science, highlighted that Algeria was a homeland of pluralistic party politics that involved radical party, communist party, liberal as well as Islamic parties, and their attempt in laying a joint venture were stopped after the WWII. He further argued that the political fractions, such as The Democratic Union of the Algerian Manifesto, the Algerian Communist Party and many others complemented each other in the nationalistic movement "even if this complementarity was not necessarily explicit and intended" (Hennad, 2010, p.101-130). Furthermore, Yatana Yamahata (2019) provided an example of India as a colonial struggler where the country that has a highly divergent grouping in cultural-religious and ideological senses, developed into one singular force in attempting to challenge the world’s status quo at the moment. She made emphasis on India’s national movement under Mahatma Gandhi where the impactful resistance remained intact “despite the country being home to many other cultures” (p.1). It becomes apparent that the idea of nationalism reshapes into a facilitation of unity within the national borders during the anti-colonial movements.

Figure 4: A depiction of the 1836 Battle of Constantine in Algeria. The French lost this battle, but ultimately took control of Algeria (HistoryIsNow, n.a).

All in all, this article briefly discussed the issue of nationalism and what it entails. Nationalism, within the studies of political science and sociology, has always played a central role in the history of socio-political formations of countries. Although the notions of nationalism can be traced back many centuries ago, its true consideration became a matter of analysis among scholars in the 17th and 18th centuries. The paper briefly highlighted nationalism as a concept and meaning as well as its relation to anti-colonialism and patriotism. The topic of nationalism is a prominent issue in contemporary world politics. Although it is most often referred to as a political ideology or a political doctrine, in reality, nationalism can also be interpreted as a psychological state of mind or a consciousness of an individual or group of people. In any case, both the variations of interpretation presuppose common characteristics, such as the construction and maintenance of a national unity based upon the strong sense of loyalty to the homeland, nationality, religious-cultural background or race. Even though nationalistic characteristics have played a vital role in the process of decolonization and liberation, in the contemporary period, the case is different. Due to a globalized world that brought up the tight interconnectedness and diversity among nations and people, nationalism became a dangerous notion as it can jeopardize every race and every nationality within any given society. Nationalism, in the contemporary period, requires a thorough examination with the purpose of eliminating such a notion due to its destructive nature.

Bibliographical References:

Altıkulaç, A. & Yontar, A. (2019). Nationalism, Patriotism and Global Citizenship: A Comparison in between the Social Studies Teacher Candidates in the US and Turkey. International Journal of

Education & Literacy Studies. 7(4), 115-123. Retrieved from

Bickford, K. (2014). Nationalism in the French Revolution of 1789. University of Maine. 1-55. Retrieved from

College Of Vocational Studies. (n.a). Nationalism: Meaning and Concept. College Of Vocational Studies. 1-18.

Evera, S. (1994). Hypotheses on Nationalism and War. International Security. The MIT Press. 18(4), 5-39. Retrieved from

Hennand, M. (n.a). Returning to Political Parties: The National Liberation Front in Algeria. Publications de l’institute francais du Proche-Orient. 101-130. Retrieved from

Howe, P., Szocsik, E.& Zuber, C. (2022). Nationalism, Class, and Status: How Nationalists Use Policy Offers and Group Appeals to Attract a New Electorate. Comparative Political Studies. 55(5), 832-868. Retrieved from

Kamenka, E. (1973). Nationalism. The Nature and evolution of an Idea. Australian National University Press. 1-125. Retrieved from

Knott, Eleanor (2017) Nationalism and belonging: introduction. Nations and Nationalism, 23 (2), 1-9. Retrieved from

Loizides, N. (2015). The Politics of Majority Nationalism Framing Peace, Stalemates, and Crises. Stanford University Press. Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. 1-152. Retrieved from

Tacoli, C. & Okali, D. (2001). The Links Between Migration, Globalization and Sustainable Development. International Institute for Environment and Development. 1-2. Retrieved from

Yamahata, Y. (2019). Decolonizing World Politics: Anti-Colonial Movements Beyond the Nation-State. E-International Relations. 1-6. Retrieved from

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Kanan Babazade

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