Ernest Gellner argued that the nations, the nation state and nationalism had their origins in modernity, more specifically in the French and industrial revolutions of the late 18th century.
The origins of Nationalism and the feelings associated with it are thus not rooted in human nature, but in the social processes which emerged with the particular historical period of modernity.
Industrialisation led to rapid economic growth based on a complex division of labour and this required a large scale rational system to organise and direct it, hence the emergence of the nation state and its bureaucratic systems.
The modern state requires large numbers of people to interact with strangers, which in turn requires them to have some sense of connectedness to each other. Mass education based on an official language taught in schools helped to form the basis for this sense of unity on a large scale.
Evaluations of Gellner
Gellner’s theory is a functionalist one, and it tends to understate the extent to which modern education systems create divisions and inequalities.
His theory doesn’t explain the persistence of nationalism: national identity extends far beyond schooling and the kind of nationalisms we see in political conflicts can’t be explained by people simply having been taught in the same language at school several years or decades earlier.
The longing some people have for national identity precedes the industrial revolution by a long way, and there have been ethnic communities which resemble nations in previous periods: such as Jewish communities which stretch back 2000 years. The Palestinian minority in Israel also claim their origins in a longer historical time frame and that they have been displaced by the creation of the modern Israeli state in 1948.
Formal nation state identities in Europe are not recognised by some ethnic minority groups in many countries. A good example of this is the Basque language and identity which spans the border of France and Spain. Basques claim a unique identity of their own, neither French nor Spanish.
Nationalism is still an important part of identity
Malesevic (2019) reminds us that nationalism still has very broad appeal and argues that it is a ‘grounded ideology’ that has mass appeal and has been part of the political projects of peoples across the political spectrum: from liberals to socialists throughout modernity.
When globalisation theory started to become popular in the 1990s some predicted that the nation state and nationalism would decline in importance.
For example, Giddens thought that the Nation State was too big to deal with local problems and too small to deal with global problems. He also thought we would see an increasing importance for a global, cosmopolitan identity.
However as examples such as Brexit, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the pro-American rhetoric of Donald Trump and Jo Biden show us, ideas of nationalism and national identity have remained a persistent part of modern society!
This material is relevant to the Culture and Identity aspect of the A-level sociology specification.
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Siniša Malešević (2019) Grounded Nationalisms: A Sociological Analysis