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Chapter 2 of "The Georgian - South Ossetian Conflict"

 

 


2 Nationalism and Ethnicity - A Theoretical Overview

A great deal of ambiguity and confusion surrounds the use of terms like ‘ethnic group’, ‘nation’, ‘state’, and ‘nationalism’. The different terms are being used and understood in a variety of often related, but different meanings by academics, nationalists, journalists and in everyday language. The idea of this chapter is to shed an explaining light on these terms and concepts and to give an overview of the theories of nationalism and my interpretation of the phenomenon.

What I would call the ‘modern classics’ of theory of nationalism, have mostly dealt with the subject from a historical point of view, explaining the emergence of nationalism and the nation-state. In this chapter I will try to focus on the nature of nationalism and on the conflictual aspects of this. Nevertheless I will also draw on the historical angle because it shows, as we shall see, that we are not dealing with one phenomenon but several forms and shapes formed by the last 200 years.

The different theories of nationalism evolves around certain focal points which are also the main elements in an understanding of the phenomenon:

-      Nationalism as a political phenomenon legitimising actions or systems as opposed to nationalism as a cultural phenomenon, providing meaning/raison d’être.  

·       Nationalism as either a modern phenomenon inseparably connected to the emergence of the modern centralising state or nationalism as a primordial phenomenon, something natural and rooted in the past.

These two sets of opposing views are furthermore reflected by the angle of analysis either primarily from a structural or an actor-oriented angle.

In order to understand these different aspects of nationalism better, I will start off with the classical distinction of nationalism, as either a political or an organic phenomenon, which then later hopefully should give us a better opportunity of understanding the conflictual aspects of nationalism.

2.1 The Genealogy of Nationalism

The nation-state and democracy are so to speak twins born out of the French and American revolutions. With the French Revolution the nation became the source of state sovereignty. Not understood as if each nation is supposed to be granted the right to political self-determination, but rather, in the way that the people living within the given territory of the state constitute the nation. This is the so-called French or political-civic notion or principle of the nation. According to this notion the nation of citizens does not derive its identity from some common ethnic or cultural characteristics, but rather from the praxis of citizens who actively exercise their civil rights and duties (Habermas 1992, p.2-3). Hence the primary meaning of nation was political, patriotism was conceived as love to the nation (in the meaning of state and state-patriotism) expressed by the wish to renew it by reform or revolution, and thereby breaking with former loyalties. In this way their patrie, opposed to an existential, pre-existing unit, was a nation created by their free choice. ‘American are those who wish to be’. French nationality was French citizenship and the nation was ‘un plébiscite de tous les jours’. Ethnicity, language and history were irrelevant to the French nation (Hobsbawm 1990, p.87-88). It was the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment that were pronounced - universalism and rationality. It represented the common interests against particular interests. This kind of nationalism is aimed to extend and unify, rather than to restrict and separate (Hobsbawm 1992, p.23), or in the words of Mary Kaldor, to unify and centralise rather than decentralise and fragmentize (Kaldor 1993, p.108).   The Romantic Movement, mainly German, reacted on the ideas of the Enlightenment, with its mechanical and rational view on society and humanity.

The Romantic Movement stood for the defence of ‘the national characters’; what was unique had value and with these ideas emerged a romantic worship and study of ‘genuine’ ‘volks’-art, and the notions of a ‘Volk’ and its ‘Volksgeist’. In this way the so-called German notion of the nation, or the organic-ethnic, is to be seen in opposition to the French, political-civic notion of the nation. It is an objective ethnic definition of the nation which draws the conclusion that there should be a congruency between the nation and the state (in ethnic terms), understood in the manner that every nation (ethnic group) has the right to its own state. Hence the concept encompasses collective self-determination and expression of national character. In conclusion nations are seen as natural entities and with the development of national consciousness, nations, by the laws of nature, have the right to express themselves in a national idiom. 

Many of the authors I deal with in this chapter have developed typologies of nationalism evolving around this distinction, calling it political/organic, French/German, official/vernacular, revolutionary-democratic/ethnic etc. One of the first and, according to Smith, most influential typologies was made by Hans Kohn, in which he distinguishes between a ‘Western’ and an ‘Eastern’ version:

Fig 1.: Kohns Dichotomy[1]:

Western Nationalism

Eastern Nationalism

Great Britain, France, America. Eastern Europe (east of the Rhine).
Rational. Mystical.
A product of the middle classes (bourgeoisie), whom came to power at the end of the 18th century. Eastern Europe had no developed middle class; instead nationalism became a product of a few intellectuals, which made it more authoritarian.
An association of human beings living on the same territory, under the same government and laws. The nation as a seamless, organic unit with a mystical 'soul' and 'mission'.

Smith has several reasons for criticising this typology. First of all because of its geopolitical dimension which overlooks the influence of both kinds of nationalisms in different European communities: the organic version in Ireland and later 19th century France, the rational ideal in some versions of Czech, Hungarian and Zionist nationalism, as well as in early West African nationalisms (Smith 1991, p.81). Furthermore the western nationalisms owe much to the earlier monarchies (as seen as well in Anderson’s chapter on ‘official nationalism’, where the old monarchies of Europe tried to legitimise themselves by ‘naturalisation’ (Anderson 1983, p.86-87)). Finally Smith states that there should be made a distinction between German and Italian nationalisms opposed to the relatively underdeveloped Balkan and Eastern Europe. But despite these criticisms, Smith finds Kohn’s distinction between a more rational and a more organic version valid and useful. But it is important, he stresses, that both models can be found in the ‘East’ and in the ‘West’, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and as a mixture with greater or lesser emphasis on one or the other (Smith 1991, p.79-82). 

Like Smith I also find it appropriate for analytical purposes to describe the two different (in a Weberian understanding) ideal types of the nation, the cultural or organic and the political or the civic. As seen in the figure below:

Fig. 2:[2]

Nation
The Political-Civic The Organic-Cultural
A juridical-political community of laws and institutions with a single political will. Ethnic comprehension of the community as common descent.
Political territory. Homeland - ‘Vaterland’.
Social contract between citizen and state, individual, subjective consciousness.
Volksgeist/descent, fictive super-family, collective, objective consciousness.
Inclusive, in the way that it tries to unify and extend. Exclusive, in the way that it tries to restrict and fragmentize.
Rational Irrational
The nation is a choice; the nations are created by the will of the members. The individual is born into and organically connected to the nation, the will of the members is determined by the belonging to the specific nation.

In this way the organic-cultural notion of the nation has as its basic assertion that the nation should be defined on the basis of ethnic criteria, and that every nation, ethnically defined, should be gathered in their own state. Contrary to this, the political-civic notion of the nation has as its basic assertion that everyone that lives within the boundaries of the state should become a part of the nation, which is what lies in the concept of nation-building. Both principles then stress the cultural similarity of their adherents but in fundamentally different manners. The political-civic in an inclusive way and the organic-cultural in an exclusive way.

Let us now turn to look a little bit closer at the different aspects of the phenomenon, as they are described by the different theories, and in this way see that this distinction is also reflected in the different views of nationalism. The typology I will return to later.

2.2 Nationalism as a Political Doctrine

Some authors view nationalism as a political phenomenon legitimising actions or systems. In this way nationalism is primarily viewed as “a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent” (Gellner 1983, p.1 and Hobsbawm 1990, p.9). According to this view the nation and nationalism can only be understood in relation to a certain kind of modern territorial state; the nation-state. In this understanding the state plays a central role in the process of building the nation. As Hobsbawm writes: “It is the state which makes the nation and not the nation the state” (Hobsbawm 1990, p.44-45). Nations and nationalism are hence in this perspective seen as something constructed mainly from above.

In this respect it is interesting to see that both Gellner and Hobsbawm, refuses a fixed definition of the nation (Gellner 1983, p.6-7 and Hobsbawm 1990, p.7-10). According to Hobsbawm the question ought not to be ‘what is the nation?’ but rather ‘what has the notion - the nation - meant in different, often competitive, contexts, in different periods, for different groups with different political strategies?’ 

Hobsbawm generally sees the ‘national question’ as situated at the point of intersection of politics, technology and social transformation. He states that nationalism should be seen as something essentially constructed from above but not only as that. According to Hobsbawm, it is also necessary to analyse it from below. Thus he criticises Gellner for being to one-sided, making it difficult to analyse nationalism from below, in terms of the assumptions and feelings of the ordinary people. However, although Hobsbawm mentions this duality of nationalism, he is mostly concerned with analysing nationalism from above and neglects to analyse it from below.

Anderson deals in his book with what he calls ‘official nationalism’. Originally it is something that should be understood in connection to the decline of the monarchies of Western Europe, during which nationalism could function as legitimising the continuation of dynastic rule. The purpose was to unite dynasty and subjects. The king was no longer ruling as God’s representative on earth, but now as a number one among his fellow countrymen. In this way official nationalism was used to make the king a symbol of the nation. Furthermore the official nationalism developed after, and in response to the national/popular movements, the aim of the official nationalism being not only to legitimise the king, but also the empire, as Anderson writes: “These ‘official nationalisms’ can best be understood as a means for combining naturalisation with retention of dynastic power, in particular over the huge polyglot domains accumulated since Middle Ages, or, to put it another way, for stretching the short, tight, skin of the nation over the gigantic body of the empire” (Anderson 1983, p.86).

What is important here is that Anderson have a layer upon layer conception of nationalism, so that the different nationalisms that he speaks of (Creole nationalism, vernacular nationalism, etc.), can be copied, refined and mixed and then be used differently, depending on time, place and the concrete contents. In this way official nationalism can be seen as a model used for its ‘manipulating’ abilities by those who are in control of the political apparatus, as he writes: “The one persistent feature of this style of nationalism was, and is, that it is ‘official’ - i.e. something emanating from the state, and serving the interests of the state first and foremost” (Anderson 1983, p.159). In this way you can state that Anderson also (but not only as we shall see) view nationalism as a political doctrine, legitimising actions or systems.

An extreme, but nevertheless fruitful, version of viewing nationalism as something political we find at Paul R. Brass. He understands basically nationalism as something political. As a social and political creation by elites, whereby ethnic groups, or rather their elites, uses ethnic/national identity when it comes to put forward demands on the political or economical level to obtain political power or economic gains. A modern phenomenon inseparably connected to the activities of the modern centralising state.

Brass sees two ways in which nations can be created. Either by the transformation of an ethnic group to a self-consciousness political identity in a multi-ethnic state or by the fusion of different ethnic groups creating a homogenous national culture by the modern state as promoter. An ethnic group he defines as a subjective self-conscious community that establishes criteria for in- or exclusion using cultural symbols in order to differentiate themselves from other groups (Brass 1991, p.18-20)[3].   

Ethno-nationalism and state-centred or generated nationalism can therefore both be seen as subtypes of a general identity creating process, defined as a process whereby the subjective meaning of a number of symbols is intensified, and as a strive for obtaining “a multisymbol congruence among a group of people defined initially by one or more central symbols, whether those symbols are ethnic attributes or loyalty to a particular state” (Brass 1991, p.20).

Brass’ instrumental approach is made clear when he states that ethnicity can be activated in special contexts or/and at specific times. The main point is that the formation or politicisation of ethnicity is seen as a process created in the dynamics of élite competition. The elites make use of the attributes of the ethnic groups as resources, intensifies them and thereby creates a political identity, which is used in the competition for political power and economic gain (Brass 1991, p.15-16). Basically he sees ethnic groups as mobilised by disgruntled elites to a growing sense of group solidarity (Brass 1991, p.41). Hence ethnic groups, or rather their elites, are using the ethnicity to put demands to the political system in order to improve their status, economic situation, civil rights or educational/job possibilities.

2.3 Nationalism as a Modern Phenomenon

In continuation of the view of nationalism as a political doctrine it is easy to view nationalism as a modern phenomenon, something understood in connection to the emergence of the modern centralising state. 

To illustrate what nationalism has meant in Europe, Gellner asks the reader to imagine two ethnographic maps, one drawn up before the age of nationalism and one after. The first would be a chaos of different colours, where no clear pattern would be found and where it would be difficult to make out, where one colour stops and the other takes over. In the other the colours are clearly separated, neat flat surfaces clearly separated from each other and there is little if any ambiguity or overlap. If one shifts to reality, one will discover that the prevailing part of the political authority has been placed in a certain kind of institution - the modern centralising nation state. This always identifies itself with one kind of culture and one style of communication within its boundaries. In order to exist, the state is dependent of a centralised educational system, the content of which it dictates as well as finances.

If we look at the economy in a society with such a state, it will become clear why it has to be this way. Its economy depends on communication between the individuals and their mobility at a level it would not be capable of maintaining, if the individuals had not been socialised into the culture of the concerned society (Gellner 1983, p.139-140).

In this way Gellner sees nationalism as the organisation of human groups into large, centrally educated, culturally homogeneous units. Its roots should not be found in the human psyche but in the distinctive structural requirements of industrial society and modes of production (Gellner 1983, p.34-35). The requirements of “a mobile division of labour, and sustained, frequent and precise communication between strangers involving a sharing of explicit meaning, transmitted in a standard idiom and in writing when required” (Gellner 1983, p.34).

Also Hobsbawm views nations as new phenomenon, invented and socially produced, “it belongs exclusively to a particular, and historically recent, period. It is a social entity only insofar as it relates to a certain kind of modern territorial state, the ‘nation-state’”, but it is not exclusively a function of this. The emergence of nationalism should also be seen in the context of a particular stage of technological and economic development   (Hobsbawm 1990, p.9-10), whereby he is in line with Gellner’s thesis.

Anderson however, as we shall see, holding a primarily cultural understanding of nationalism, also relates the emergence of nationalism to the processes of modernisation and the emergence of capitalism, but this he relates to the weakening of two cultural systems. That of the kings divine right and the religious community. In this way the imagination of the nation was made possible by changes of some fundamental cultural conceptions. Anderson puts special emphasis on the role of  print-capitalism, which made it possible for a rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and to relate themselves to others. Although he speaks of cultural systems he puts emphasis on some structural changes, in connection with the processes of modernisation, which made it possible to imagine the new community.

Brass stresses specifically the relevance of the nature of the modern centralising nation-state in explaining ethnic conflict. He writes that there is nothing natural or inevitable about ethnic conflict, the answers should be found in the relations between the centralising state and the regional ethnic elites (Brass 1991, p.242 and 244). Brass sees the state, especially in societies undergoing secularisation, modernisation and industrialisation, as both a resource and as a distributor of resources and at the same time as promoting new values. Therefore, the state and its policies are described as a potential advantage for some groups and societies and a threat for others, especially for local elites and societies whose values differ (Brass 1991, p.272).

The processes of modernisation in a society consists of a dual fight for control of resources and values between bureaucracies and political organisations at the centre and between the elites of the centre and local elites. The ethnic elites function as effective rivals to the civil and military bureaucracies because of their ability to mobilise popular support, exactly because they control symbolic resources and values on the grounds of their cultural fundament. In this way the necessity for local collaborators arises - in the sense that the state makes alliances and coalitions with local ethnic elites, both because of state intrusion by its centralising policies, but also because of the fact that the ethnic groups pose a threat to the state due to their position as competing systems.

As to the fight over resources Brass states that the objective existence of disparity is an indispensable explanation of ethnic conflict but not an explanation in itself. The mere presence of disparity is not enough to explain or produce a nationalistic movement, nor can it explain why dominant groups develop a such (Brass 1991, p.41-42). In Brass’ understanding elites and competition among elites and the relation to the state are the essential elements in ethnic group conflict and political mobilisation. All other factors, including size and richness of available cultural symbols, regional economic disparities or the like, are just background material for the elites to draw from to their aims. Without the elites these differences or disparities will just vanish or be accepted or maybe be the cause of sporadic or isolated incidents of conflict or disorder. In this way Brass explains the rise of Croatian nationalism, not as a feeling of relative deprivation or deprivation at all, but due to the fact that there existed advantages for the élite that could be gained by emphasising Croatian distinctiveness (Brass 1991, p.44).

Basically Brass puts emphasis on the interaction between the state and the peripheral ethnic elites in times of modernisation and drastic changes in the society, such as changes in the political context and in the balance of the centre-periphery relations. Ethnic conflicts emerge especially under three types of conditions: “...during transfer of power from colonial to post-colonial states, during succession struggles, and at times when central power appears to be weakening or the balance in centre-periphery relations appears to be changing” (Brass 1991, p.244).

2.4 Nationalism as a Cultural Phenomenon

Other authors put more emphasis in explaining nationalism from the angle of fulfilling a basic need in people, meaning from a more actor-oriented angle. Benedict Anderson, who takes the task of explaining, what it is that make people love and die for nations - as well as hate and kill for it, finds it necessary, like Gellner and Hobsbawm, to understand how nations have come into historical being. In this sense you can say that he too holds a structuralistic historical approach. Unlike the other theorists, Anderson looks closely at the emotional power nationalism holds, and in this way he states that “it would, I think, make things easier if one treated it (nationalism) as if it belonged with ‘kinship’ and ‘religion’, rather than with liberalism or fascism” (Anderson 1983, p.5).

Anderson’s definition of the nation as “an imagined political community - imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson 1983, p.6) reveals that he as well puts emphasis on the political aspect of nationalism and the importance of the emergence of the modern centralising state. But unlike especially Gellner, he seeks to understand the emotional appeal and cultural nature of nationalism, this is especially underlined in his descriptions on the effects of print-capitalism, as a structural condition, but in the light of making it possible to imagine the community in a different way.

Theories, like Gellner’s, are good for explaining the changes in linguistic and cultural standardisation that happened during the transition from agrarian society to industrial society. Gellner’s theoretical construction suffers however, from a very instrumentalist understanding of nationalism as such. It is as if he has never known the feeling or felt the need to confront with people that have felt it. Gellner lacks the ability to explain the emotional appeal nationalism holds. Therefore, as much as you can agree with his definition of nationalism as “a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent” as much you can disagree with his definition of nationalist sentiment as “the feeling of anger aroused by the violation of this principle” and “a nationalist movement as one acurated by a sentiment of this kind” (Gellner 1983, p.1).

The imagination of the community plays a central role in Anderson’s understanding of nationalism. The community of the nation reaches beyond social and religious layers in society. In spite of inequality and exploitation, the community is always imagined as a deep horizontal brotherhood. Thus Anderson looks at the strength of the community as a brotherhood, assuming a common past and destiny, in the course of which enormous sacrifices in the name of the nation was made in wars. Nationalism is strong as opposed to ideologies because these are not capable of giving answer to human sufferings and basic questions such as the meaning of death, illness and life in general.

In this way nationalism is viewed as a transverse, cultural phenomenon which offers a feeling of community and identity in the nation which religion previously could offer (Anderson 1983, p.12).  The nation is ‘eternal’, it offers a feeling of common destiny - it is worth dying for. Anderson points to the fact that nearly every West-European nation has a ‘tomb for the Unknown Soldier’. A symbol of the continuance of the nation, in spite of the fact that the soldier is dead and even not in the tomb. Because of the nature of the nation, the soldier is so to say still alive and the sacrifice that he made for his country is not forgotten (Anderson 1983, p.9). This is also the case when one refers to his homeland. This often happens in the style and vocabulary of kinship: Motherland, Vaterland, Patria, etc. These terms refer to something natural that one is ‘naturally’ - by birth - tied to (Anderson 1983, p.143). In everything ‘natural’ there is always something not chosen, things are just as they are. You are a part of the above-mentioned community of destiny. As a result, the nation can appeal for sacrifice and patriotism.

Anderson makes in this way a comparison between family and patriotism/nation-ness. The nation calls for unselfish love and solidarity. This is what the family traditionally has been conceived as being the domain of. His conclusion is that patriotism is the same form of unselfishness, and that the nation therefore - via people’s patriotism - can make people sacrifice their life in war. 

Another important exponent of viewing nationalism as a cultural phenomenon rather than as an ideology or form of politics is Anthony D. Smith. According to him national identity provides for the individual a satisfying answer to the problem of ‘personal oblivion’, through the creation of a community of ‘history and destiny’ which saves the individual from obliviation and restores ‘collective faith’ (Smith 1991, p.160-161).

He stresses the close relationship between the family, the ethnic community and the nation. He sees nationalism as a collective cultural identity, a sense of continuity over generations of a given cultural unit (the myth of common descent, rather than actual continuity of cultural patterns), as shared memories of earlier events, and as the idea of a collective destiny entertained by each generation. The pattern is the myths, symbols, collective memories and values which bind the generations together and demarcates ‘the outsiders’ (Smith 1991, p.25). In this way it is as to become part of a political ‘super-family’, to realise the ideal of fraternity. Nations are in this way understood simply “as families writ large, a large sum of many interrelated families, brothers and sisters all” (Smith 1991, p.162).

However, Smith still terms nationalism as an ideological movement, but here it is important to stress that he sees it as an ideology of the nation rather than the state. Smith’s definition of the nation, as a “named human population sharing an historic, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members”...“sets it clearly apart from any conception of the state” (Smith 1991, p.14). In this connection it is also interesting that his definition of nationalism does not necessarily include the wish for statehood but for maximal control of the homeland and its resources. But still this definition makes it possible to see national identity and nationalism as multi-dimensional and hence easily connected to political ideologies like liberalism, fascism, and communism.

Furthermore Smith does not deny the close historical relationship between the state and the nation, but he sees them as two clearly separated concepts. Nationalism in this way is seen as a sort of culture rather than a political doctrine and should not be mixed up with the fact that states use nationalism for legitimising purposes, which they have done and still do. The main difference then between Smith and Anderson is that Smith ascribes nationalism a cultural inner core while Anderson consistently views nationalism as an abstract phenomenon.

2.5 Nationalism as a Primordial Phenomenon

As noted above most of the theoreticians of nationalism understand the phenomenon in connection with the emergence of the modern centralising state and the related processes of modernisation. However, some of the authors put, more or less, emphasis on the so-called primordial aspects of nationalism in their understanding of the phenomenon. Primordialism means that the modern nation is seen as a representation of age-old cultural patterns. A modern form of group belonging formerly expressed in clans, kinship and ethnic groups. In this lies the understanding that nationalism should be seen as an expression for the human need of group belonging (which we also can recognise from Anderson).

The rhetoric of nationalists themselves is the closest we come a pure primordial understanding. From this perspective nations are regarded as natural phenomena of great antiquity, to this picture we can add the nationalist myths of the nation waiting, ‘Sleeping Beauty-like’, to be awaken from its slumber, to fulfil its predestined goal of attaining freedom and autonomy (Anderson 1983, p.195 and Gellner 1983, p.48). As we have seen, Gellner views nationalism and nations as creations, and in describing them as such, he pictures the nationalist rhetorics and myths well. The myth of the nation as nature-given and eternal is false, he states, and goes on by writing that “Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent though long-delayed political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures: that is a reality...” (Gellner 1983, p.48-49).

In Smith’s book ‘National Identity’ he focuses exactly on the continuity between pre-modern ethnic identity and the modern nations. This puts him within the primordial school, although, as we shall see, he holds a more differentiated view. Contrary to the modernist, who claims that nations are inventions, Smith stresses that nationalism is not more invented than other forms of culture, ideology or social organisation (Smith 1991, p.71). Smith argues for a view in between the primordialists and modernists, stating that an ethnie (the French word he uses for ethnic communities) is formed, neither by actual ancestry nor by lines of physical descent (which is irrelevant). But through a sense of continuity, shared memory and collective destiny. Ethnies are so to speak formed by lines of cultural affinity, expressed in distinctive myths, memories, symbols, and values which are maintained and retained by a given cultural unit of the population (Smith 1991, p.29).

Collective cultural identity, he writes, refers not to a uniformity of elements over generations but rather, “to a sense of continuity on the part of successive generations of a given cultural unit of population, to shared memories of earlier events and periods in the history of that unit and to notions entertained by each generation about the collective destiny of that unit and its culture” (Smith 1991, p.25).

Smith is of the opinion that there is a relation between the modern nation and the premodern ethnie; “...many nations have been formed in the first place around a dominant ethnie, which annexed or attracted other ethnies or ethnic fragments into the state to which it gave a name and a cultural charter” (Smith 1991, p.39). But the connection is complex because of the fact that not all modern nations are based on this, i.e. United States of America, Australia and most of the African post-colonial states.

Despite this fact, Smith states that there are some reasons why, the origins of the nation should be looked for in the pre-modern ethnic ties. First of all, the first nations were formed on the basis of pre-modern ethnic cores, and because they were so powerful and culturally influential, they became models for other cases of nation-formation. The second reason is that the ethnic model of the nation became increasingly popular and widespread, because it fitted so well to the premodern demotic kind of community that had survived into the modern era. The ethnic model was hence sociologically fertile. Third, even in the cases where there were no ethnic antecedents of importance, nations anyway need to create a certain coherent mythology and symbolism around a historical-cultural community (Smith 1991, p.41-41).

2.6 Ethnicity

In this section I would like to expand on the issue of ethnicity. First of all the difference between ethnicity and nationalism, an ethnic group and a nation. This mainly because of the fact that the chosen theoretical writings I have used so far are not specifically focused on ethnicity. Secondly from my point of view they also generally lack, what one might call, a social comprehension of ethnicity and national identity. I have therefore allowed myself to seek some answers from an anthropological perspective using mainly Thomas Hylland Eriksen ‘Ethnicity and Nationalism’.

Basically the difference between nations and ethnic groups is seen to be a question of size but that the structural composition and functioning are of the same kind. Hylland Eriksen states that yes they are kindred conceptions but a distinction is worthwhile because of the relationship to the modern state (Eriksen 1993, p.98-99 and 105).

In this respect you can speak of the difference between the notions of nation and ethnic group corresponding to the earlier mentioned distinction (section 2.1), between the nation seen as either political-civic or organic-cultural. In the organic-cultural the nation is defined in ethnic terms. In the political-civic the nation is defined in political terms inseparably connected to the notion of the nation state.

But as we have seen, nations defined initially political-civic still are not to be understood exclusively as political organisations. They also have had and have to draw on symbolic resources in order to uphold a collective identity. Nations are thus seldom defined only by citizenship, but also by culture. Nations can contain different ethnic groups or be defined mainly or only by the dominant ethnic group. Both nationalism and ethnicity strives for and stresses the cultural similarity of their adherents, but in different ways. When we speak of this in relation to the two ideal types, the important difference is as mentioned, that the political-civic, is unifying and expanding, striving for inclusion. So even though we are dealing with ideal types, in the way that they are seldom found in a pure form, this does not make the distinction irrelevant. The governments of Mandela and Yeltsin are not nationalistic in the same way, as the governments of Tudjman or Landsbergis, who contrary to the first mentioned, have had an exclusive understanding of the nation and thus have agitated for fragmentation and restriction.

The term ethno-nationalism should therefore be used to refer to the claim, of an ethnic group or a state, to an ethnically homogenous state. The conflictual aspect lies thus in the fact that many states or ethnic groups do strive towards this goal or behave as if it was the case. In this way nationalism differentiate from ethnicity by its relation to the state, even though Smith have a point in not including the state in his definition of the nation and speak of maximal control of the homeland and its resources.

Smith is one of the few who include this in his definition of the nation, whereas most others have it as the major difference between nation and ethnic group. In this way ethnicity is exactly not necessarily about attaining statehood. The statistics of the former Soviet Union spoke of 104 nations comprising the union, they were in fact ethnic groups in as much as they didn’t want full independence (Eriksen 1993, p.119). On the other hand however, one could also state, as Hylland Eriksen point out, that the phenomenon of ethnicity like nationalism is inseparable from the notion of the modern centralising territorial nation state since this has meant a politicisation of culture (Eriksen 1993, p.125). Ethnic groups become relevant because of the homogenising nature of the modern centralising nation state.

Still we have to account for the differences between nation and ethnic group or what Anthony Smith calls an ethnie, the latter, according to Smith, being a premodern basis on which most nations are formed. Both Smith and Brass describes levels of ethnicity, from ethnic category through ethnic community to nations, which imply a focus on consciousness but also more or less on objective criteria. Objective criteria - since the starting point of this ladder is a set of criteria - which separate the different groups from each other. Smith’s starting point is the ‘ethnic category’, which by others are seen to constitute a separate entity without any special self-consciousness to ‘ethnie’ defined by believed common cultural traits and a self-consciousness and finally to the nation. Brass also operates with the difference between ‘ethnic category’ and ‘ethnic community’ defined by ethnicity as self-consciousness and then finally the nation. The ethnic category being defined by some more or less objective but chosen criteria, amongst many possible, which through the ethnic community to the nation increases in number as well as subjective meaning.

Hylland Eriksen also operates with different levels of ethnicity but with another agenda. That is looking specifically on the relationship between groups and in this way showing that ethnicity can have different social importance, be up- or downgraded according to the social context (Eriksen 1993, p.41).

Brass also states, as we have seen, that ethnicity can be activated in special context or/and at specific times. The difference is however, that Hylland Eriksen has a more social angel than, as Brass, a mere instrumental angel to this.  Before entering this discussion I have to dwell a bit on Hylland Eriksens overall position on ethnicity, which will shed some light on the subject.

Hylland Eriksen defines ethnicity as a special kind of consciously communicated and manifested cultural identity. An identity building on the consciousness of being different. However, cultural difference between two groups is not the decisive feature of ethnicity, only in so far as cultural differences are perceived as being important, and are made socially relevant do relationships have an ethnic element. Ethnicity is rather constituted through social interaction than cultural content (Eriksen 1993, p.18 and p.36). Hence ethnic groups does necessarily emerge because of contacts between groups. Ethnicity is therefore an aspect of a social relation between groups (Eriksen 1993, p.11-12). To speak of an isolated ethnic group is like to hear a sound from one hand clapping as he writes (Eriksen 1993, p.1).

Hylland Eriksen also draws on the work of Frederik Barth from 1969, which can be characterised as a watershed within the study of ethnicity. Barth precisely turned the focus from the cultural content to looking at ethnicity as emerging in the borderland between groups. Therefore it is the boundaries - as a social and not territorial phenomenon upon, which the focus should be put. Ethnicity is always about culture - people or groups that subjectively maintain cultural peculiarity. The problem is precisely that cultures, which subjectively differentiate from each other, not always do so objectively. But when the mutual subjective understanding is such that the groups do differ from each other, then it constitutes a social reality, which is manifested as ethnic identity. The maintenance of ethnic boundary is therefore, from the point of view of Barth, a social phenomenon, rather than a cultural, and therefore it is exactly the life and movements of the boundary that must be studied and not the cultural content. Cultural variation is rather an effect then a cause of boundaries. Hence a focus on the social relations, the way the borders are maintained and changed over time and in that way also how the meaning changes. 

This corresponds to the view on culture as complex, something fluid and dynamic. Culture is not something that is, but something that takes place in a constant process of change and negotiation. This also implies a view on persons as complex entities with several social identities, which are created, undergo change and that is activated in different social situations. In this paradigm ethnicity is defined as fluid and negotiable. The importance varies situational. The ‘we’ category can be expanded and contracted according to the situation and the individual can choose to emphasise different social identities at different times (Eriksen 1993, p.20-35). 

Although somewhat unfair to most of the theories, as their main focus rest upon other aspects, we may use this discussion to criticise the body of theoretical work so far used. They have, I would not say a too categorical view on nations and ethnic groups, but do exactly not stress this fluid, situational and negotiable aspect of ethnicity and national identity. Most of them, as we have seen, do emphasise the constructed aspect of ethnic and national identity but roughly speaking I would still say that they treat nations in a too fixed and categorical manner.

Thus I find this anthropological approach by Hylland Eriksen and Barth very useful because they turn the focus on boundaries rather than cultural content and by doing so particularly points to the fluid or situational character of ethnicity. This opens up for a more complex view on these collective categories. Not just as something that is not static but also not treated as a totality. This point became very obvious to me in the field, working closely with the different UN agencies and the OSCE. These organisations, as well as several NGO’s, very often treated the different ethnic groups almost as if they were singular actors. Thereby playing along in the continuos entrenchment of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy.

Of cause one could say to their defence that this is exactly what nationalism and ethnicity is about, as the Croatian writer Slavenka Draculic so nicely puts it: “The problem with this nationalism is however, that where I previously was defined by my education, profession, my thoughts, my personality - and yes also my nationality, - I now feel deprived from all of this. I am nothing, no longer a person. I am one of 4.5 million Croats” (Draculic 1993, p.49-50, my translation).

But academically, and in the field for that sake, it is still important to have an eye for the fact that “...identities are never completed, never finished, that they are always as subjectivity itself is, in process...all of us are composed of multiple social identities not of one” (Stuart Hall 1991, p.47 and p.57). In this lies the assumption that identities can crosscut one another and sometimes even be contradictory. This opens up for not just treating these aggregated groups as totalities, but to look at the internal role-divisioning and the possibility for individuals to not only over- or under-communicate their ethnic or national identity but to shift between different identities and in some instances even change affiliation[4].

2.7 Summing Up and Conclusions

Nationalism as we have seen above has not one, but several meanings depending on space and time and is changeable as well. Nationalism or rather nationalisms are multidimensional and ambiguous phenomena. Most of the theoreticians not only emphasise one aspect of nationalism but include several different aspects, although to a greater or lesser extend.

Nevertheless nationalism can broadly be understood as a socio-political phenomenon, as an emotional affiliation to a country and/or a group of people, as a form of collective consciousness. I.e. the nation-state can be understood as a territory where the population is united in a nation by the bond of nationalism, that being mainly defined in a civic-political or in a mainly organic-ethnic manner. But nationalism can also be attached to people or ethnic groups across or within the framework of the state and might be expressed in demands of grades of autonomy of own affairs or in the more extreme cases, as ours, separatism.

Nationalism is a relatively modern phenomenon, but it is a mixture of old and new, politics and culture. Nationalism would not possess the strength in emotional appeal if it couldn’t draw on the feelings of a shared community, cultural, historical memories and fulfil a need in the individual. This is a very important fact to note in relation to ethnic conflict; ethnic mobilisation is only possible where these symbolic resources have been continuously maintained and developed in order to command its emotional strength and thus function as the basis of mobilisation. The nation is imagined and a construction, but also a social reality, and it should not be treated as something false and unreal. 

The argument, that states such as the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia are ‘artificial’ implies that there are ‘natural’ nations. As we have seen the nation is a modern phenomenon, all nation states are ‘artificial’, i.e. social and political constructions.  In fact only 10 per cent of states can claim to be ‘true‘ ‘nation-states’, in the sense that the boundaries of the state coincide with the nation, defined ethnically (Smith 1991, p.15). And then again ethnicity is, as we also have seen, no less imagined, but also a social phenomenon. Culture is not something, which is but something we do. 

Although I agree up to a point, that contrary to many nationalist ideologies, it is not nations that make states, it is at the same time important not to reverse the argument and simply claim the opposite like Hobsbawm does, when he writes that “Nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way around” (Hobsbawm 1990, p.10). Nations can be developed without the agencies of the state and strive for statehood. One should not only see nations as creations, or something made imaginable by the elites of the state-apparatus. This can also happen through ethnic elites without a state-structure at hand. Here it is often intellectuals or academics that are having an important role in shaping and maintaining the symbolic resources of the group. But it is a point worth stressing, in the spirit of Brass that this is often happening exactly as a consequence of the policies of the modern centralising nation state.

Already now we can thus draw some conclusions. Ethnic conflict does not steam from old ancient hatreds. Ethno-national identities are a modern phenomenon. Multinational or heterogeneous states are not artificial constructions. The idea of the nation is artificial - a construction or an imagination - a social reality - yes - but the idea of the homogeneous nation-state is an illusion. The fact is that 90 percent of present days states are ethnic heterogeneous makes homogeneity an illusion. And this illusion or strive towards homogeneity is the conflictual aspect - not heterogeneity.     

Finally it should be mentioned that despite the acknowledged strength in the emotional appeal of nationalism and its spread as a principle all over the world, most of the authors however, agree with the point, that nationalism is theoretically and ideologically weak, especially due to its abstract and multidimensional character.

In this way Anderson notes the philosophical poverty and incoherence of nationalism (Anderson 1983, p.5). But this emptiness also reflects the strength of nationalism (besides its emotional appeal), which lies in its chameleon-like nature and its facility in combing with other issues and ideologies (Smith 1991, p.144). Nationalism “...once created, they (different forms of early nationalisms) became ‘modular’, capable of being transplanted, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to a great variety of social terrain’s, to merge and be merged with a correspondingly wide variety of political and ideological constellations” (Anderson 1983, p.4).

Because of the emptiness, it becomes possible to fill the void with other elements like ideologies and political programmes. So the conclusion must be that in order for nationalism to have success it needs more than cultural differences it must be attached to political questions. As Gellner writes, nationalism is not as strong as it seems like, who for the simplicity of his argument mentions language as the criteria for culture, and states that then we have 8000 potential nationalisms but only around 200 states (Gellner 1983, p.44-45). Cultural, national, and linguistic etc. differences are constituent parts of nationalism, but in themselves not enough to produce nationalism. As even Smith writes ”...national aspirations tend to combine with other non-national economic, social or political issues, and the power of the movement often derives from this combination” (Smith 1991, p.145).

In further continuation of this it is a theoretical point that an analysis of ethno-national conflicts must be contextual. The specificity of the individual ethnic conflict is thus interesting, i.e. socio-economic, historic, political etc. conditions and relations. At the same time I want to stress that one should not only focus on rational calculations in an understanding of ethnic conflict. The power of nationalism lies in the combination of the ‘rational’ with the ‘irrational’. You might see the irrational as being the fuel of nationalism and the rational the catalyst. In this way the imagination of the community, the feeling of belonging, the shared myths, collective memories of earlier events in history, symbols etc. should be understood as the irrational fuel of nationalism in order to give it or uphold its emotional strength.  


[1] Based on Smith 1991, p.80-81.

[2] This figure is made on the basis of Smith 1991,  Hobsbawm 1990 and Marlene Wind 1992, p.41-51.

[3] I will return to a closer definitional discussion of ethnic groups and ethnicity in section 2.6.

[4] The latter part of this section I owe a great deal from the article by Stuart Hall, “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities”.

Chapter 3