Nationalism Defined

Nationalism Globe

“Nationalism” is a tricky term to define in Political Science. Though there are book length treatments of the subject, I was pleased to stumble across a clear and concise definition which I decided to share below. This typology should prove particularly helpful as we think about contentious politics unfolding around the globe. At its core, nationalism is about demarcating “us” and “them.”

In its most general terms, nationalism involves the twin claims that distinct nations have the right to possess distinct states, and that rulers of distinct states have the right to impose national cultural definitions on inhabitants of those states. Nationalist politics therefore divides into two interdependent forms: attempts of self-identified members of nations that do not currently control their own states to acquire independent states, and efforts of rulers to make their definitions of national interest and culture prevail within their own territories. In either case, obviously, political disputes concern both who has rights to control what territories, and who has rights to speak for what nations. Following Haas (1986) in large part, we proceed from the following definitions:

A nation is a body of individuals who claim to be united by some set of characteristics that differentiate them from outsiders, who either strive to create or to maintain their own state.

A nation-state is a political entity whose inhabitants claim to be a single nation and wish to remain one.

Nationalism is a claim by a group of people that they ought to constitute a nation or that they already are one; but this generic category divides into:

a. National sentiment, a claim that people on one side of a categorical boundary ought to exercise self-determination at some point in the future;

b. Nationalist ideology, a body of arguments and ideas about a nation advocated by a group of writers and activists embodying a political program for the achievement of a nation-state; and,

c. A national myth, the core of ideas and claims that most citizens accept about a nation-state beyond their political divisions when a nation-state is successfully created. A nationalist movement…is a struggle between (a) activists that embrace a nationalist ideology and (b) states and/or other groups which either oppose or are indifferent towards their claims.

Dynamics of Contention, McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly 2001, 229-30



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