The Two Main Theories Of Nationalism Politics Essay

During this assignment I will discuss the two main theories of nationalism and how it came about. The two main theories I will discuss are primordial ad constructivism. The fundamental definitions of nationalism will be primarily defined independently; afterwards nationalism will be justified as not being exclusive to any one of these theories but instead that they are linked together due to the complexity of politics and social transformation. Primordial nationalism is the theory that nations have a “national identity embedded, nations are rooted in a common cultural heritage and language” [1] where nationalism is not an ideology and that it is natural and instinctive. The constructivists theory states that national identity is forged in response to social and historical circumstances where it has an ideological basis for it to exist this also extends to the idea of nationalism used through the political dimensions and state power to achieve political objectives which is a political ideological system. [2] 


In order to discuss the difficulties of defining nationalism it is essential we understand what ideology is. Ideology is “an inherently subjective collection of ideas, or concepts, about how power should be, or is, ordered within society” [3] . This ideology is to be understood by great masses of people, and it is about how to use power within a society.

Primordial Nationalism:

Primordial nationalism focuses on historic and inherent social practices as the source of the roots of its nation. The most fundamental factors of primordial nationalism are:

That people are inherently group orientated and nations are a product of this.

National identity is forged by common descent, shared language and a sense of territorial belonging.

Nations are historical entities

Nationalism is characterised by deep emotional attachments that resemble kinship ties. “individuals identify with families, villages, regions, age, sex groups, classes, religions, ethnic and national communities” [4] 

Such views are shared with philosophers such as Johann Herder who argues that each nation has a “volksgeist” which is the spirit of the people which expresses itself through song, myths and legends. [5] 

Anthony Smith, The Ethnic sources of Nationalism

Anthony Smith advances the studies of primordial nationalism emphasising the continuity with modern nations and pre modern ethnic communities which he calls “Ethnies” [6] . He views pre modern ethnic communities as a template for modern states. For a nation to be present he believes that the most fundamental factors in achieving nationalism are “names…myth of a common ancestry…importance of historical memories…shared culture…attachment to a specific territory [and]… finally an element of solidarity” [7] . From Anthony smith’ beliefs, there are three basic processes of ethno national transformation which is the transition from Ethnies to an ethnic nation. Ethno-nationalism is the ideology of uniting an ethno-cultural group with territory by way of genealogy [8] .

The first process is called “Vernacular Mobilization” which involves the rediscovery of indigenous traditions, customs, symbols, memories and language by ethnic intellectuals. E.g. Quebecois nationalist movement. The second process is known as “Cultural Politicization”, in which the community’s cultural heritage is treated as a political resource, where what use to be regarded as “traditions now become weapons in a cultural war waged both against outsiders and against the guardians of tradition” e.g. Indian nationalism. The third process is known as “ethnic purification” which is a consequence of the other two processes. It begins with a return to the popular vernacular which is used specifically for political purposes and incorporates a belief in the sanctity of that culture. To preserve the culture it must be kept away from undesirable influences [9] .

A good example of primordial nationalism is the Rwandan genocide in 1994 where in and around 800 people were murdered. It is argued that it was due to ethnicity and rivals between ethnic groups. The Hutu which were an ethnic group in Rwanda felt they needed to kill their ethnic neighbours the Tutsi so they could gain establishment and distinction of others ethnic identities.

Constructivist theory:

The constructivist theory states that national identity is forged in response to social and historical circumstances in which nationalism is a method of finding replacements for the loss of some cultural concepts. Constructivism links the origins of nationalism to the process of modernization. Constructivism can be related to three very important themes which are:

The emergence of industrial economies which created new social tensions and broke traditional social bonds which begged the need for a national identity for the people.

States play an important role in creating a sense of national identity which constructs a nation.

The spread of mass education and mass literacy was a massive contribution towards national identity. [10] 

Ernst Gellner, Nations and Nationalism

Ernst Gellner a philosopher stated that emerging industrial societies promoted social mobility and competition which inevitably required a new source of cultural cohesion which was to be provided by nationalism. Nationalism invented the nation not the other way around, “Having a nation is not an inherent attribute of humanity but it has now come to appear as such” [11] . He illustrates and discusses a nation in which for two men to be in the same nation requires two things:

Common culture, as in a mutual understanding of each others meanings

Recognition of mutual rights and duties to each other and virtue of shared membership in it.

Benidict Anderson, Imagined Communities

Benidict Anderson, an Irish academic, views nations as an “imagined community” [12] where individuals only meet a fraction of those with whom they share a national identity with. His theory of imagined communities suggests that nationalism is constructed through common literacy, common language, education, mass media and political socialization and that a nation as a community can only be imagined due to the sheer number of people who never see each other and the loss off supranational religions and political identities. “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” [13] 

Constructivism through political views

In re-constructing the political order of a society it is essential to have new ideologies, this has led to modern nations being built on philosophical grounds. A good example of this would be the USA which was founded on the principals of liberalism [14] . Once this ideological basis has being formed a historical identity is creation for the nation. Through this new discovery of the past cultural bonds and an essence of relationship between people is formed. Constructivism portrays nationalism quite clearly as an ideology.

An extension to the constructivism theory is the political view of nationalism which states that nationalism has its objective of gaining and using state power. This form of nationalism relates to political movements already existing in states where they use the concept of the “nation” where the interests of the nation are supposed to take priority over all other interests where the nation has full sovereignty. Realistically it’s a response to the distinction between state and society, nationalism eliminates the distinction between cultural and political life where it soon becomes a dictatorship. Political Nationalism utilizes the perceived culture of society for the purpose of gaining political power. [15] 

Eric Hobsbawm, The invention of Tradition

Marxists such as Eric Hobsbawm tend to view nationalism as a device through which the ruling class counters the threat of social revolution by ensuring that national loyalty is stronger than class solidarity thereby binding the working class to the existing power structure. Hobsbawm’ beliefs are that “nations and nationalism is a product of modernism and have been created as a means to political and economic ends” [16] . He discusses the “inventions of tradition” which are products of social creation which are engineered to serve the interests of the elites. After the invention those traditions establish continuity and “use history as a legitimate action and cement a groups cohesion” [17] . When a state is under pressure they would target class, church and the nation where they transferred people into citizens of a particular state, “peasants into Frenchmen” [18] . He believes that nationalism does not make states visa versa that states make nations. Hobsbawm argues that, at the time of the French revolution In 1789 only have of the people spoke some French and between 12%-13% spoke it “fairly” [19] . “Nationalism is created at the top. True nationalist feelings will only occur if the needs of the average person can be achieved from it. [20] 

A good example of this would be Bismarckian unification with Germany in 1871. The inventions of traditions manifested with the concepts of cultural, political and military supremacy in which it could claim the right to be united as a single greater German state. This unification was the only historical experience which the citizens had in common. The Franco-German war was central as Germany had a national tradition which they clearly wanted to emphasise, they emphasised it through ceremonials and rituals invented. One gymnasium record there were no less than 10 ceremonies between august 1895 and march 1896 recalling the 25th anniversary of the Franco-Prussian war.

Posen Barry Nationalism, the Mass Army, and Military Power

Posen another philosopher argues that nationalism is caused due to preparation of war and “mass mobilization” warfare. “Nationalism is purveyed by states for the express purpose of improving their military capabilities [21] “. Nationalism helps generate the individual commitment to make for military combat. The anarchical condition of international relations revolves around his idea of nationalism and why it is constructed. There are two aspects to his idea of nationalism which constitute literacy and ideology which are subject to state action, “states institute compulsory education and engage in propaganda because military and political leaders believe that such ideas enhance the commitment of the groups to the purpose of the war to increase their willingness to sacrifice their lives” [22] .

He discusses the war between Prussia and France emphasising how large masses when used, needed nationalism where people were “bred not trained”. Political propaganda was used through journals and pamphlets which were often read aloud. There was an increased emphasis in literacy within the army as criterion for promotion. In 1794 it was made compulsory for commissioned and non- commissioned officers to read and write. John Lynn stated that these efforts were highly successful. Not only did they contribute to the well- known “elan” of these French troops, but they encouraged a “rise in self- and group-imposed standards of performance and sacrifice.” These standards facilitated the rapid training of these French troops, which he concludes was critical to their developing combat power. “Without strong normative compliance, large scale reliance on open-order combat would have been out of the question.”


Through my studies of nationalism and its main theoretical approaches I have come to the understanding and conclusion that nationalism is neither exclusively “constructed” or primordial, that it is a combination of these two theoretical approaches which forms the concept of nationalism. I believe that nationalism is founded primarily naturally and that the need to build a fundamental power structure influences the ignition of constructivism. Primordial nationalism acts a building block towards constructivism, without either of these two theoretical approaches nationalism would not exist.

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