My intention is to provide a critical sociological interpretation of nationalism. As is typical with any critical analysis, I will depart from common-sense explanations so as to generate alternative understandings of the phenomenon of interest. I will then assess the social and political implications of this newly-imparted understanding of nationalism. Let us begin by first examining the common-sense dimensions of nationalism. How is nationalism typically understood in every-day political discourse?

It is becoming increasingly the case, particularly in Europe, to regard nationalism as a phenomenon situated on the realm of political extremes. This is an outcome of two related developments. The first is the generalization of liberal humanism, which emphasizes the virtues of democratic pluralism and consequently relegates nationalism to the realm of anti-humanistic ideologies. In short, it is considered to be an enemy of diversity and democracy. The second is the rise of right-wing extremism, which adamantly and unapologetically espouses nationalistic rhetoric. This political juncture, between the spread of liberal humanism on the one hand, and the “marginalization” of nationalism on the other, has contributed to a commonly-held idea, which, as I will demonstrate is, at least partly, erroneous: that nationalism is on the decline and that it is predominantly an ideology of the extreme right. In order to counter this assumption, I will first have to take a related detour so as to delineate what is unique about the sociological perspective and how sociology can helps us understand nationalism. And so we begin.

Sociology can very simply be defined as the study of human societies. Even at the level of this elementary explanation one can see how it differs from other social sciences, such as economics and psychology. The general tendency of such disciplines is to impart an understanding of human affairs on the basis of fundamental assumptions about human nature. In the case of economics, humans are seen as being primarily driven by the rational pursuit of wealth. In the case of psychology, humans are seen as being fundamentally driven by inherent instincts or drives that guide their behaviour. Sociologists, on the other hand, in the aftermath of heated and protracted debates within the discipline itself, are increasingly abandoning assumptions about human nature. There is no such as thing as “human nature,” in the strict sense of the term, for the sociologist. In contradistinction, sociologists see human behaviour as a by-product of socialization: the lifelong process whereby humans learn and internalize culture. A most-relevant sociological concept that feeds into this discussion is structure, which we can, for simplicity’s sake, define as cultural regularity, i.e. repeated cultural patterns. This includes behaviours, values, attitudes, goals, beliefs etc. and institutional arrangements, such as the economy, politics, education and religion. The emphasis on cultural regularity does not suggest that culture has a single dimension, but that culture is guided by certain general tendencies, even in the case of pluralism, and even in the case where there is cultural conflict.

What is the relationship between structure and the individual from a sociological standpoint, then? Simply put, individuals, including the particularities that come to constitute them, are seen as by-products of the social structure. All the “things” that make-up an individual—values, behaviours, attitudes, and so on—are all situated in and absorbed from the cultural context. What constitutes the individual are not any inherent natural drives but the unique configuration of their cultural attributes that have been internalized through their unique experiences. So what makes people different is not governed by any internal natural law but by the unique way that the individual has encountered a world that was already outside of them. The individual is thus a product of “the other.” Now, the key question is the following: how does the sociological perspective and, in particular, its emphasis on structure, help us understand nationalism?

The first theoretical premise that emerges out of this discussion is that nationalism is not a phenomenon that is driven by any internal natural human drives. Moreover, as a sociologist who studies social structural configurations, it would be too limiting for me to see nationalism as simply an ideology that is espoused by a certain group of extremists. Why do I say this? Because what interests me always is how and to what extent a phenomenon is imbricated and diffused in the social structure. It could have very well been the case that nationalism was an ideological construct that some people follow, but a closer examination of the social fabric reveals a different picture. I begin the next level of my analysis with the following premise: that nationalism is a phenomenon that is, at the level of social structure, pervasive, and feeds into the collective social consciousness in ways that often elude us. In order to understand this, we have to appeal to the classic Marxian concept of hegemony.

By hegemony, we refer to a socio-political configuration wherein a particular political identity and the ideas that represent its political demands and interests have become generalized. The implication here is that the hegemonic political identity has come to power not through coercion but by consent, precisely because its ideas have been generalized: its ideas not only subvert those of antagonistic political identities but they “contaminate” them. This means that hegemonic ideas, such as those of “the rich,” as an example, will end up constituting, in part, the character of antagonistic ideas, such as those of the poor. This helps us explain why social groups, such as the poor, will often support political ideologies and parties that work against their interest. “Ideas” should be understood in the broadest sense, as constituting behaviours, attitudes, goals, beliefs, values etc. In other words, hegemony is not only situated in “the mind,” but comprises the multifarious institutional actions and processes that organize our world.

Having discussed the basic workings of hegemony, we are now in a position to situate the phenomenon of nationalism historically. Nationalism is not mere ideology or an extreme orientation of particular political identities but a series of ideas that come to hegemonically constitutive the social structure. They become the reigning ideas of modern times. These ideas, though variable in their content, are generalized, often without our awareness, through their dispersion vis-à-vis the cultural and institutional context (i.e. social structure) that come to constitute every society. This means that nationalistic ideas become a constitutive part of a variety of social domains, such as education, religion, the economy, the state, culture etc. Let’s take education as an example. Public education is not simply an institution in the business of educating students, or of producing workers. It is in the service of producing proper national citizens, workers for the national economy, of engendering national love, pride, and patriotism etc. I think we can all agree that these ideas, though often unconscious, accompany the educational process through and through. And this is a principal characteristic of hegemony: a power structure is constructed through the generalized dispersion of particular elements. In this case, the hegemonic element is “the nation.” I believe we can all agree that “the nation” as an element that symbolizes the presumed “substance” of any modern society is rarely critiqued or scrutinized. Moreover, the “the nation”, and the array of elements that it symbolizes, becomes a constitutive component, not only of our social institutions but of our internal worlds: it arouses emotions, it colours our attitudes and it shapes our behaviours to such an extent that as humans we are even willing to die for this idea. In the absence of “the nation’s” generalization, such emotional fervor would be impossible. So what makes an idea strong, therefore, is neither its novelty nor its poignancy, as such. It is, rather, the scope and intensity of its dispersion in the social structure. This casts a new light on how we understand power. The sociological perspective has once again yielded new political possibilities and avenues for social change.

Michaelangelo Anastasiou, ABD (University of Victoria)
Sociology Instructor at Alexander College (Department of Criminology)