The basics of modernisation

Nationalism is a very complex and vast ranging phenomenon, a significant number of theories have been proposed to explain its historical emergence and continued existence. Despite the number and wide range of available theories it would be very inaccurate to use any of the theories in isolation to explain and define the concept of nationalism, as it is such a broad and complex concept. This essay will focus on explaining the emergence of nations as well as examining the two different approaches to nationalism in relation to current issues.

The two main theories that dominate the study of nationalism are the primordialist (pre-modernist) approach and the instrumentalist (modernist) approach (Uzelac, 2005:196). The primordialist approach believe that nations are natural, organic, inborn phenomena that occur spontaneously and stress that nationalism is historically ingrained and plays a critical role in man kinds organisational and social structure. (Smith,1998:87).

It is natural for people to want to belong and be part of a community and according to primordialist ideology, it was this sense of belonging that prompted the rise of nationalism as the modernization and advancement of the world meant that most pre-modern communities could no longer serve their role as a basis for community spirit in the modernized world (Uzelac, 2005:203). The emergence of the 'Nation' was the alternative and it instilled feelings of membership to the community that continuously developed into a form of nationalism.

In this way, people belong to a certain nation at their birth and consequently that sense of belonging explains nationalism. As a reaction to the first approach the second approach was envisaged and is called the instrumentalist or modernist approach, which by contrast, emphasizes that nations are artificial, manipulated and constructed phenomenon that only occur as a result of social and economic changes (Gellner, 1964).

According to Gellner, who was one of the most renowned scholars of the modernist approach, "the economies of industrialized states depend upon a homogenizing high culture, mass literacy and an educational system controlled by the state" (Gellner, 1983). In other words, the creation and continuation of nationalism was initiated by cultural homogeneity and state control over education, which are the basics of modernisation. There are many arguments against the modernist approach including the fact that the power of nationalism can be attributed to the people's psychological insecurity about their identity as the world became modernised.

Throughout history the fragmentation and differentiation of society has interfered with human interactions and undermined basic traditional and cultural values, which forced many people to adopt nationalist ideas as a way to regain and re-assert lost cultural and traditional values (Smith, 1986:77). Tradition therefore plays a crucial role in driving nationalism as traditional values represent major events in the history of a particular community and provide a sense of togetherness and security.

One historian who is explicit in his disagreement with modernism is Adrian Hastings who, in reaction to the words of Hobsbawm (1992:5) that "The nation is a very recent newcomer in human history" describes this view as "absolutely misleading" and if we assume the rightful place of the nation to be exclusively in the modern period, we will "undermine an understanding not only of nations and nationalism but also of a millennium of European history". (Hastings, 1997:5)

So therefore, if we accept Hasting's claim that nationalism does not belong exclusively to the post-French Revolution era, we must wonder, in what period should nationalism be rightly placed? One theory that has been suggested is that nationalism dates back as far as the middle-ages and even the mediaeval period, however, the 'nationalism' that was prevalent during this period was inspired by a fear of domination by another entity and as a result people needed to protect themselves and their own being (Hale, 1994:8).

With this in mind, it could be argued that nationalism did exist before the late eighteenth century but can this form of early nationalism be effectively compared with the same political ideology of nationalism as defined by the modernists? The Modernist approach pinpoints the start of nationalism as being 1989, which was the beginning of the French revolution (Hobsbawm,1992;89).

Although they accept that some forms of 'nationalism' did exist before the late eighteenth century, modernists argue that this early form of nationalism was not nationalism at all but rather a step towards the development of a later nationalist movement. EJ Hobsbawn was an advocate for the modernist approach and he believed that the populist cultural renaissance provided the foundation for subsequent nationalist movements.

Hobsbawm insists that nationalism can only be considered nationalism when it acquires "at least some of the mass support that nationalists always claim they represent" and therefore his work is, for the most part, concerned with the nineteenth century as he describes the late eighteenth century as being "swept by the romantic passion for the pure, simple and uncorrupted peasantry". (Hobsbawm, 1992:206) Nationalism is a very complex and intertwined phenomenon and is very much open to interpretation depending on certain individuals.

With this in mind, it is very difficult to specify the factors which allowed for the rise of nationalism as nationalism is not a concept that can easily be defined, I would be inclined, however, to conclude that nationalism, as a political movement, did not exist before the late eighteenth century. This conclusion is based primarily on the fact that there is not sufficient evidence to cater for nationalism before the late eighteenth century being an active political movement.


Gellner, E. (1964) 'Nationalism', in Thought and Change (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson) Gellner, E. (1983). Nations and Nationalism (Oxford: Blackwell)