Nationalism & the Modern State Research Paper Starter

Nationalism & the Modern State

How does nationalism manifest itself and what shape will it take in the post-industrial 21st century? This paper takes an in-depth look at nationalism as both a theoretical ideal and a practical application.

Keywords Class; Cultural nation; Folk nation; Nationalism; Nation-state; Stratification



The great composer, Giuseppe Verdi, was certainly worthy of great applause. Indeed, the creator of iconic operas as "Aida," "La Traviata" and "Rigoletto" was adept at generating great audiences who were mesmerized by the music as well as the spectacle of his works. Perhaps the most enthused crowds who greeted Verdi, however, were his own countrymen. While many greeted him with excitement out of regard for his music, many others cheered him with somewhat greater zeal, and with good reason — Verdi's name was spelled the same as a wildly popular acronym applied to the first king of a unified Italian nation — Vittorio Emmanuele, Re de'Italia: "V-E-R-D-I" ("Verdi! Verdie!," 2008).

Nation-states are borne from a collection of subgroups, a large number of which are diverse and, occasionally, competitive with one another. Unification is both an imperative and major challenge for the leading regime. In a general sense, there have been two types of systemic policy endeavors that have been employed toward this end. On the one hand, some governments have granted relative degrees of autonomy to such subgroups as concessions or, in the same vein, allowed greater degrees of political participation. On the other side of the spectrum, more heavy-handed regimes have repressed such subgroups or even committed violence against them to keep them at bay.

Then again, regimes do not always rely on policy implementation to unify their constituents. As was the case with Vittorio Emmanuele II, a regime (and a populace) will turn to rhetorical and symbolic ideals to which the citizenry can become attached. Slogans, pledges, oaths and ceremonies are introduced to coincide with the comments and writers of the leaders themselves. Throughout human history, the activation of a country's nationalistic attitudes has been a consistent part of a burgeoning or rebuilding nation.

Nationalism remains an interesting concept concerning the modern nation-state just as it has in generations past. How does it become manifest, and what is its future use in the post-industrial 21st century? This paper takes an in-depth look at nationalism as both a theoretical ideal and a practical application.

Nationalism within a Theoretical Framework

Throughout history, nations have appeared and disappeared with relative frequency. After international war and hegemonic conflict (such as the Cold War), this trend has shown particular life, as empires and large countries have disintegrated, allowing smaller nations to emerge as independent states.

Nationalism has consistently served as an important resource for the congealment of these burgeoning states. Whether it is unifying a diverse population of sub-national states and social groups, as mentioned earlier in this paper, or underscoring a single sub-group's viability when declaring its own sovereignty, political leaders have looked to the rhetorical underpinnings created by the employment of nationalism.

Put simply, nationalism is emphasis on and stated commitment to the culture of one's nation. Stressing that the nation in question cannot function without its own autonomy, this concept also suggests that the state will only pursue its own goals, irrespective of the goals of other nations. Nationalism, in this context, emphasizes the paramount status of the nation-state in the international political arena.

Historical Framework

To some, this theoretical concept rests on one basic assumption. As stated above, nationalism gives viability to the nation-state as its primary source of energy. In 1994, political scientist Anthony Smith suggested that the issue at hand is historical. To nationalists, Smith argued, the nation was always present and important. In fact, the nation-state is part of the natural order — even when the nation was subjugated to a conquering power, it was always present. The task of the nationalist, he concluded, was to remind his or her fellow countrymen of the past and of the "glory" in which the nation-state at one time existed. Nationalists, he concluded, "have a vital role to play in the construction of nations, not as culinary artists or social engineers, but as political archaeologists rediscovering and reinterpreting the communal past in order to regenerate the community" (Smith, 1994, par. 7).

Sociological Framework

Shedding a much different light on the intriguing study of nationalism is anthropologist Ernest Gellner, who proposed researching nationalism within a sociological framework. Central to his conclusions is the introduction of modernity to human society. Gellner observes that nationalism saw a tremendous surge in the early 20th century, particularly with the rise of the Axis powers. The fact that societies were being transformed with the introduction of new technologies and, therefore, new industries and jobs, meant that the cultures were losing their identities to the new way of life. A homogenous culture that had absorbed these modern changes would find a way to assert its modernized identity, and that vocalization would come in the form of nationalistic fervor (Gellner, 1983).

Nationalism, as it relates to the modern nation-state, is a field of study that has largely gone underdeveloped. Gellner's seminal work on the subject, "Nations and Nationalism," was groundbreaking and ambitious. It was useful during the 1980s, when it was first published, and continues to assist in the study of Islamic fundamentalism (Dannreuther & Kennedy, 2007). To some, however, it answered some questions while forgoing the pursuit of other answers. In the mind of sociologist Emile Durkheim, for example, there is a link between religion and nationalistic fervor, one that warrants further examination among theorists of the field (Wellings, 2006). Still, Durkheim (like other contemporaries) found difficulty in putting into a theoretical context the nation-state itself as it pertained to the increase in modernity in the international community (Chernillo, 2008).

The issues surrounding nationalism are not necessarily borne of the rhetorical and symbolic projection of nationalistic fervor, but rather of the systems in which those manifestations appear. The nation-state itself has become a difficult entity to qualify, and how it will continue to evolve in the years to come remains an important if not variable element in this study.

This paper next provides a few historical examples of nationalism in burgeoning nation-states as well as the nationalistic ideals they have spawned within the context of the analyses of many of the theorists of the period.


For many theorists, the key to understanding nationalism is the application of modern technology. Many students of nationalism believe that nationalism first became manifest at the beginning of the 19th century. Prior to the Enlightenment, most societies consisted of largely agrarian cultures, as people belonged to families, neighborhoods and religious organizations. They did not live in nations — their identities were far more provincial, and the need for expression of those identities was largely unnecessary.

This situation changed considerably as economic development became a priority in the ever-modernizing world. The industrialization of Europe (and later the United States and East Asia) drew people away from their centralized, agrarian way of life and toward the cities, where the new economic engine had taken root. In doing so, they were leaving behind their identities as well. Then again, in their new environs, the people of the new industrial society found a new set of cultural values and, along with common languages, helped contribute to the creation of nations and, ultimately, the nation-states themselves. At the heart of these new nation-states (which were largely unheard-of in the latter 18th century) was common culture and language, an outward expression of which is what is known today as "nationalism" (Smith, 2005).

In the early 20th century, the modernization of the industrialized world created nations that were centered around such development. Such a focus on the urban centers churned the disdain of the likes of Karl Marx, who saw this development as uneven and inequitable, creating a system of classes by which the poorer, working classes are ultimately dependent on the higher-wage-earning upper classes (Lassman, 1989). The revolutions that were occurring in the United States, France and Germany lent credence to his views, as aristocracies and monarchies were being challenged in each situation by the so-called "have-nots."

As stated earlier, despite the clear surge in nationalistic attitudes and the increasing prevalence of nations within political systems, Marx struggled with his interpretations of both concepts. His ideals surrounding class were the central element in his views of society — such concepts as organized religion (at the time a major force in the formation of nations) and the nation itself were superfluous to Marx. It is possible, however, that Marx saw the aforementioned revolutions as indicative of the role of the...

(The entire section is 4161 words.)