Globalisation, Nations and National Identity

two responses to globalisation are more hybrid identities but also a retreat to more restrictive national identities.

Andrew Pilkington (2002) argues that nationalisms are socially constructed. Nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon, despite the fact that many nationalist movements claim their origins go back thousands of years.

For most of human history, humans organised themselves in small social groups, and the idea of identifying with millions of strangers would have seemed alien.

It was only in the 18th century that the idea of nations and national identities started to emerge, encouraged by economic changes brought about through the industrial revolution. Strengthening the idea of the nation was also useful for colonialism.

A concept of ‘otherness’ was also central to developing national identities. For example the British (Protestant) national identity was developed in contrast, even opposition to the French (Catholic) national identity and vice versa.

development of mass communications that the abstract idea of the nation became possible and national identities started to be constructed.

Pilkington documented how a sense of Britishness gradually filtered down from the elite to the middle classes as the population became more literate during the 18th and 19 centuries and then down to the whole population as mass communications spread the idea more broadly.

All of the pomp and ritual surrounding the British monarchy has been a crucial part of establishing British national identity over the centuries, as well as stories about heroes who fought the French, such as Nelson.

Pilkington notes that the British National Identity has historically been very white, with Black and Asian people having almost no representation (NB this may have changed recently), but that it never managed to overwhelm Scottish, English or Welsh identities.

Globalisation and National Identity

Because they are socially constructed, ideas surrounding national identities change over time, and globalisation has had a profound impact on nations and nationalisms around the world.

Globalisation brings a dual threat to nations and national identities which come under pressure from centralisation and decentralisation.

  • Centralisation creates pressures from above, with the increasing importance of regional and international institutions such as the European Union and the World Health Organisation.
  • Decentralisation creates pressures from below with the strengthening of ethnic identities within countries and the breakup of some countries, such as the collapse of the USSR.

One response to globalisation is the strengthening of ethnic identities as ethnic minorities, such as the Welsh and Scottish within Britain (for example) stress their ethnic distinctiveness in relation to the English and campaign for more independence and autonomy from the British State – as we see with the development of the Welsh and Scottish partially devolved governments.

Some people see globalisation as threatening national identities and one response is to retreat into a more restrictive and narrow definition of Englishness. Anyone who claims that White Britishness is superior would fall into this category.

Another response is increasingly hybrid-identities as some people accept that it is possible to have multiple identities at the same time – to be simultaneously European, British and Scottish, for example.

A good example of this is Gordon Brown who once claimed that he believed Britain could be the first multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-national state. We see a similar mind-set in any group willing to celebrate hybrid-ethnic identities.


This material should be useful for anyone studying the culture and identity module as part of A-level sociology.

To return to the homepage –

Types of nationalism

There are many different types of nationalism in the world today: from old nation-state civic nationalism to postcolonial, post-communist and neonationalisms.

Nationalism remains one of the strongest sources of identity in the world today, but there are many different varieties of nationalism and national identities, so it might be useful to distinguish between different types to help understand this complex concept.

A starting point for this is to distinguish between civic and ethnic nationalisms

Civic and ethnic nationalism

Civic Nationalism is where nationalism is tied up with the idea of being a citizen of a particular nation state, rather than ethnicity.

An example of this is the United States where several different ethnic groups are united through citizenship to the same nation. This makes sense in modern America, as the State was formed out of a long history of migration, and America is often described as a ‘nation immigrants’ and something of a ‘melting pot’ for different ethnic groups.

Ethnic nationalism is where ethnicity is the principle form of belonging to the group rather than citizenship.

There are many examples of where ethnic national identity can come into conflict with civic national identity.

An example of this is the Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia. Their sense of ethnic nationalism (rather than a sense of civic nationalist belonging to the former Yugoslavian state) eventually led to conflict and the formation of two states for each ethnic group: Serbia and Croatia.

Even in Britain, supposedly one of the most tolerant and inclusive civic societies in the world, there is widespread racism between different ethnic groups, and even evidence of institutional level racism, as evidenced with the Windrush Scandal and more recently the Metropolitan Police have been found to be STILL racist.

Types of Nationalism

McCrone (1998) Mcrone (1998) argues that while the above distinctions might be a useful starting point, nationalisms today are more complex and he distinguishes between four types of nationalism in the world today:

  1. The ‘old’ modern nation state
  2. Postcolonial nationalism
  3. Neonationalism
  4. Post-Communist nationalism

The Modern Nation State

Most Western European nations and the United States of America emerged out of modernity, with the Enlightenment, and the decline of religious thinking.

Various historical factors in the 17th to 19th centuries contributed to the formation of these ‘old nations’ such as capitalism, industrialisation and economic growth and the breakup of the Ottoman and Russian Empires.

In many cases new civic nation states were formed along the lines of shared ethnic identities but these were never enough alone to establish a modern nation: it was a combination of ethnicity, and the social changes brought about with modernity.

Postcolonial nationalism

In colonies and postcolonial countries elites often appealed to national identity to try and gain support and unify populations around new nations, as was the case in many countries throughout Africa and Asia.

In many cases, however, this proved difficult as the populations of such countries were ethnically diverse and thus divisions and sometimes overt conflict was the result.

In some cases, such as India, the transition to a secular state unified (to an extent) around democracy was successful, in other cases, such as Iran, the secular state failed to deliver what people wanted a religious state unified around Islam emerged after the Iranian revolution of 1979.

McCrone refers to the ‘dialectic with the other’ to describe the process of nation-building in many postcolonial societies:

Early states would define themselves against the coloniser (the other), but then themselves become authoritarian like the original colonising power, in which case an opposition movement (or movements) would emerge along religious or ethnic lines defining themselves against that new state-power.


Neo-nationalism refers to nationalist independence movements in Western stateless societies such as those found in Scotland, Quebec or the Basque country.

This type of nationalism tends to emerge in societies with strong civic-states and can often be given a boost by strong economies, as with the case of Scottish nationalism and the discovery of North Sea oil.

They also tend to emerge in countries which are embedded within more global institutions such as the European Union or the North American Free Trade Association, and they may not want full independence, rather calls for more devolved powers so they have more political and economic freedom are just as likely.

This is a modern type of nationalism, more civic and pragmatic than being based on a shared sense of ethnic identity.

Post communist nationalism

Nationalism became the focus for the dissatisfaction felt by many living under Communist regimes in the mid to late 20th century and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, dozens of new nations were formed, although many of these witnessed tensions and in some cases over conflicts in the years and decades to come.

In some cases nations formed on the basis of shared ethnic identities which had been ‘suppressed’ under communism, and in other cases opportunist leaders sought to engineer a sense of national identity, and in most cases new nations formed out of a mixture of these two things.

Brubaker (1996) identifies three types of post-communist nationalism

  • The nationalising state – This is where a new nation state tries to persuade its new citizens to share a common identity based on citizenship
  • National minorities – these are groups which have a primary sense of identity with another, typically neighbouring state. For example, Hungarians in Romania.
  • National homelands – these are the territories which people who have a particular sense of nationalistic identity identify as their home. For example Romania is the national homeland for Romanians who live in Hungary.

There is not a perfect fit between all three of these which helps to explain the many conflicts around nationalism in this region since the collapse of the USSR.

map of new countries in former Yugoslavia
The formation of several nation-states out of the former Yugoslavia illustrates the complexity of post-communism nationalism.

The future of nationalism

Nationalism remains the strongest political identity. It is more important today to more people than socialism, for example and has not declined in importance like many commentators suggested it would.

Nationalism is a flexible ideology, and so possibly we can expect it to remain and become even stronger as one of the main responses to a globalising world where forces tend to undermine already existing identities.


This material should be of relevance to anyone studying the Culture and Identity module as part of A-level sociology

To return to the homepage –


McCrone (1998) The Sociology of Nationalism

Brubaker (1996) Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.