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20th, March, 2013



The concept of nationalism is believed to have first emerged during the French Revolution in the eighteenth century. During this period, states and boundaries were existent, but nations did not utilize them to their benefit. France was first to utilize the phenomenon of nationalism. According to Mill, as quoted in Smith (2010, p.9) “Nationalism is a necessary condition of free institutions that the boundaries of government should coincide in the main with those of nationality . . . Where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is prima facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government, and a government to themselves apart.” Nationalism cannot be termed as either good or bad, just like the phenomena of socialism, capitalism, or imperialism. Nonetheless, in a good nationality, citizens strive to ensure that their nation is maintained. On the other hand, in bad nationalism, a nation only considers its superiority, and acts against other nationalities in order to remain superior (Smith 2010). Examples of past leaders who perpetuated bad nationality include Slobodan Milosevic and Adolf Hitler. Therefore, nationality is a factor that can cause unification or lead to disintegration.

Today, there are various theories of nationalism, which attempt to explain the phenomenon of nationality in different contexts. According to Conversi (1995), these theories can be divided into different categories, namely the ethno-symbolic, transactional, and homeostatic. However, this categorization was made basing on those theories, which put an emphasis on the boundary mechanisms of nations. Here, Conversi dismisses the traditional categorizations of instrumentalism and primordialism, since these might not apply to modern nationalism (Conversi 1995).

Primordialist and sociobiological theories of nationalism are some of the universal theories applied to nationalism. In the primordialist perspective, it is believed that nationalism confers some form of group identity to the members of a nation. A nation is compared to a society, and therefore, just like the society, a nation is characterized by irrational attachments of people, which are based on race, blood, language, among others. Today, most countries, especially those in the third world, have embraced their group identities, which are evident in their communities and ethnic groups. Geertz was a contributor to the theory of primordialism. According to Geertz, the factor of identity in the primordialist approach is natural. These identities are coercive, therefore, cannot be understood basing on people’s social interactions. Finally, he asserted that these identities base on affection and might make the involved people sentimental (Conversi 1995).

Another contributor to the primordialist approach was Harold Isaacs. According to Harold, people are normally born into a specific group of people or society at a particular time in history. Therefore, upon being born, each person acquires an identity, similar to that of the group in which they are born. Harold also identified various elements of the identity, which an individual gains. First, he identified the physical factors of skin color, hair type, body size, and type of face, among others. Secondly, he identified the name that is given to an individual. Mostly, people are given family names, and other names common in their group. In addition, a person’s first language identifies them with a specific group of people. Harold also identified the elements of religion, culture, nationality, or ethnic affiliation, the geography of a person’s area of birth, and the history of the group a person is born into, as factors, which grant a person a form of identity (Harris 2009).

On the other hand, the sociobiological approach bases on human behavior, in its explanation of nationalism. This bases on three factors, namely, kin selection, reciprocity, and coercion to investigate human interactions. Nepotism is an important player in kin selection. This helps individuals in the same group to make use of their potentials and gain success. Ethnicity is also evident in this element, as it happens among the members of the same group. In the second element of reciprocity, individuals in the same group tend to cooperate in order to achieve success. On the other hand, the element of coercion identified the existence of unequal powers within a group or between two different groups. Pierre Van den Berghe was among the first to present the element of ethnicity using the sociobiological framework. He therefore, explained how similar biological traits among group members results in their solidarity, which sometimes turns out to be nepotistic. According to him, although members of the same group might experience misunderstandings and conflicts, it is more probable that cooperation in human beings is higher where the parties have a common descent (Conversi 1995).

            Instrumentalist theories are a second category of nationalism theories. Although this category does not address nations directly, its assumptions can be generalized to fit in the case of nations and nationalism. Unlike the primordialist thinkers, instrumentalists hold the assumption that ethnic identity is not rigid, but can vary, and it holds flexibility. This means that with regard to change of circumstances, the boundaries of an ethnic group are as well entitled to change. In this theory, ethnicity is viewed as highly dynamic, and individuals in an ethnic group are believed to have the chance of changing their ethnic identity to a different one. In addition, this theory claims that individuals in a group change their ethnicity in order to achieve economic or political security (Kumar & Delanty 2006). This theory, like the others, also emphasize on strong bonds among members of the same group. Some of the contributors to this approach include Fredrik Barth, Michael Banton, Michael Hechter, Susan Olzak, and Joanne Nagel, among others (Moliis n.d).

Modernization theories are yet another set of theories that can be used to explain the element of nationalism. Most theories in this category base on different aspects of modernity to explain nationalism. The difference between modernism theories and the primordial and sociobiological theories is that in modernism theories, modern nations are considered a continuation of past nations, while in primordial theories, nations had existed throughout history, and were not considered to have undergone any sort of transformation (Moliis n.d). Nonetheless, the modernization theories mainly trace the roots of nationalism to industrialization, even as nations transited from traditional to modern societies. Economically speaking, nationalism emerged as a result of trade and commercial activities. Politically, nationalism emerged with the formation of the centralized and bureaucratic nation state (Llobera 1999).

Modernization theories are further grouped into other sub-groups, namely, the social communication theories by Karl Deutsch and Dankwart Rustow, among others, economistic theories, and politico-ideological theories. In the social communication theories, Benedict Anderson is well known for his Imagined Communities. He based on the print capitalism to explain nationalism. Use of same language in the print mechanism by capitalists resulted in the cohesion of people, since they could use a similar language (Llobera 1999).

The economistic theories hold the assumption that nationalism is a false consciousness, as economic interests drive nations. Therefore, according to thinkers in these theories, nationalism serves to fool people, and acts to cover up the economic exploitation on the people. The Marxist thinkers mainly hold this view (Kumar & Delanty 2006). In the 1970’s Michael Hechter developed a new theory, based on the initial Marxist thinking. This argued that in a state, there existed ethononational movements, especially due to the inequalities experienced by different ethnic groups. For example, today there are inequalities in different countries, based on the aspect of racial background. In reality, the blacks in the USA are not entitled to the same privileges as whites, while the Indians in Latin America face inequalities, compared to the natives (Brubaker 2009).

Hechter also identified economic disparities in nations, basing on his study of the United Kingdom. He noted economic disparities in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. While some were economically dependent, others thrived on capitalism. Hechter noted that in one nation, there also exist economic disparities in various regions, since the state might subordinate specific regions, while developing others. According to Hechter, this subordination and marginalization of other areas results in different types of political behaviors as well as ethnonational movements in a country (Brubaker 2009). On the other hand, Ernest Gellner in his theory of industrial homogenization argued that nationalism has its roots in industrialization. Therefore, he did not consider countries in the pre-industrial era as bearing nationalism. This is because cultural boundaries had not been adopted by countries. He also notes that colonialism, protestant reformation, and imperialism influenced nationalism in special ways (Conversi 1995).

All the theories of nationalism have attempted to explain the roots of nationalism, as well as the effects of nationalism. Most have come up with identity types basing on ethnicity and the aspect of race, as some of the effects of nationalism. According to Van den Berghe, race is a form of ethnicity, and therefore, this should be studied under ethnicity. On the other hand, Michael Banton has argued that race and ethnicity are two different concepts. While race is an element that leads to the categorization of people, ethnicity confers identification to people (Harris 2009). Fredrik Barth is the most influential theorist of nationalism. From his approach, different levels of ethnicity are realized. These are the micro level, the median level, the macro level, and the global level (Llobera 1999).


In the global level of ethnicity, Barth has based on the most recent developments in the world, which have emerged because of pursuit of human rights, justice, among other issues affecting humankind. This therefore, identifies the important role, which the United Nations Organization plays in the world today. Despite the different ethnicities and races that exist in the world, the United Nations has continued to serve as a unifying factor of different nations and races in the world. The United Nations also continues to serve as a peacekeeper of many nations in the world. Most of the time, conflicts between different nations emerge mainly because of differences in their nationalisms and ethnicities, or even races. However, the United Nations acts as a neutral party in the conflicts, while trying to help the warring nations regain peace (Llobera 1999).

Apart from restoration of peace and human rights, the United Nations also continues to provide humanitarian aid to various needful nations. Hechter, in his theory of nationalism identified economic disparities in various nations. This, he attributed to nationalism, which he termed as being built on capitalistic intentions. Therefore, the capitalistic nations will manage to economically exploit the less capitalistic nations, making them to be economically dependent. Similarly, a nation might disguise itself as promoting nationalism when it does exploit its citizens economically (Llobera 1999). Additionally, imperialism and colonialism contributed to the economic marginalization of most countries. The third world countries today are the most affected, as this has led to their economic marginalization. It is considered by most theorists that today’s third world countries still lag behind in industrialization, compared to the first world countries. This state of economic disparity witnessed between different categories of countries is influenced by nationalism, and has detrimental effects to the relationships between these countries. In most third world countries, there are harsh economic realities, including hunger, underdevelopment, and internal ethnic conflicts, among others. The United Nations, therefore, comes in again. Based on its philanthropic and humanitarian nature, the United Nations helps such countries to reduce poverty levels, hunger, internal conflicts, as well as rescuing them when faced with natural catastrophes. The UN acts without any affiliations to any specific nations. Similarly, other in non-governmental organizations have joined hands with the UN in helping the economically underprivileged countries (Llobera 1999).

In addition, the USA being the world superpower has shown its efforts in helping the economically downtrodden countries. This is mainly through aid and donor funds. In this case, the USA looks beyond the ethnic, and race factors, which are creations of nationalisms. Most third world countries have benefitted from international aid from the USA. The USA also intervenes in wars between different countries, and sends aid to countries stricken by disasters (Kumar & Delanty 2006). Similarly, international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF have equally provided different aid to needful countries (Llobera 1999). In all these case, it is clear that these international bodies serve a different purpose. These influence ethnicity, race, as well as the overall nationalism in a different way. Where nations have confined nationalism within their political boundaries, the international organizations have proved that nationalism is better if it is global. Therefore, the United Nations and other international organizations attempt to move nationalism from being particularistic to being universalistic. These organizations have proved that it is only through this way that all countries might gain equality in social development, as well as economic development. Particularistic nationalism has confined economic development within the boundaries of specific countries, while others are marginalized economically (Llobera 1999).

In conclusion, nationalism is an ideological phenomenon that continues to play an important role in the world today. Since this is mostly defined by the political boundaries of a country, it has led to more cohesion and cooperation being experienced among people of the same nation, compared to people of different nations. Different nationalism theories have also pointed to this factor, identifying ethnicity as the resultant factor. With regard to race, some theorists have argued that people will identify with one another if they share similar physical, historical, or religious traits, among others. Therefore, people of the same race will exhibit a high level of cooperation. Nationalism has also resulted in economic disparities between nations, because of the demarcation of nations based on political boundaries. This has therefore, resulted in other countries being underdeveloped socially and economically. Nonetheless, the United Nations and other international organizations such as IMF, World Bank, and other non-governmental organizations, have brought a new meaning to nationalism. These are committed to turning nationalism into a universalistic aspect, instead of its particularistic nature today. In doing this, these will be able to address the various detrimental effects of particularistic nationalism today, thus promoting equal social and economic development for all nations.




Works Cited

Brubaker, R 2009, ‘Ethnicity, Race and Nationalism,’ Annual Review of Sociology, 35:21-42,

Viewed 20 March 2013



Conversi, D 1995, ‘Reassessing Current Theories of Nationalism: Nationalism as Boundary

Maintenance and Creation,’ Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, 1(1): 73-85. Viewed 20

March 2013 <>

Harris, E 2009, Nationalism: Theories and Cases, Edinburgh University Press, New York.

Kumar, K. & Delanty, D 2006, The SAGE Handbook of Nations and Nationalism, SAGE,


Llobera, J 1999, Recent Theories in Nationalism, Viewed 20 March 2013 <;jsessionid=3DA0E5536660B3E50C90692086CC3A05.recercat1?sequence=1>

Moliis, J n.d, Nationalism, Viewed 20 March 2013 <>

Smith, A 2010, Nationalism, Polity, London.

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