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.

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Nationalism and Modernity

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.

Map of europe late 18th century
Nations emerged with modernity and the industrial revolution in Europe.

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

Nations without States

Many national identities do not have formal nation states with full autonomy: examples include the Welsh, the Basques, the Kurds and the Palestinians.

Nations without states consist of well-defined ethnic groups who identify together as a nation but lack an independent political community and autonomous self-governing body.

Nations without states exist within existing nation states, and sometimes across more than one already existing state. Examples include separatist movements in Israel/ Palestine and the Basque country in France and Spain.

Guibernau (1999) identifies two basic types of nations without states depending on the relationship the ethnic group has with the state or states in which it exists.

Map of Kurdish people in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran.
The Kurdish People are one of the larges stateless nations.

‘Nations’ recognised by nation states

An established nation state may accept the cultural differences of its ethnic minority populations and allow them some freedom to manage these. For example Scotland and Wales within Britain have the freedom to manage some of their own institutions.

Scotland has its own parliament and independent legal and education system. It also has the power to set a different rate of Income tax to England. Wales also has its own parliament and education system, and the welsh language is prominent in public institutions (formal documents are published in both English and Welsh), although Wales is not quite as devolved as Scotland.

Similarly the Basque country and Catalonia are both recognised as ‘autonomous communities’ within Spain and they have their own parliaments with some degree of autonomy.

But in both the cases of Britain and Spain most of the political power is located in the main national governments in London and Madrid: military power is controlled by these, for example, and not devolved!

Other nations without states have higher degrees of autonomy with regional bodies which have the power to make major political decisions without being fully independent. Examples here include Quebec in Canada and Flanders in Belgium.

In all of the above cases, these ‘nations without states’ have nationalist movements which advocate for full autonomy.

There is a possibility that Scotland will become fully independent in the future: there is a lot of support for the Scottish National Party who campaign for full independence, and although they lost their referendum on independence in 2014 they may well win another one in the future.

Nations not recognised by nation states

There are other examples where ‘nations’ are not formally recognised and the formal nation state in which they exist may use force to suppress the minority group.

Examples such situations include:

  • Palestinians in Israel
  • Tibetans in China
  • Kurds in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

The capacity for these groups to build their own formal nation states depends on many factors, but mainly the relative power of the nation state(s) within which they exist and any other nation states elsewhere in the world they may form alliances with.

The Kurds for example have a ‘Parliament in Exile’ in Brussels, and also a ‘safe haven’ in Northern Iraq which was established after the Gulf War of 1990-91 and consolidated after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, so you might say they are on their way to establishing nationhood.

The Dalai Lama is the center of the movement for Tibetan Independence from China, based in Dharamshala in India, but the Tibetans have much less chance of having their autonomy recognised given the immense power of China, even though Tibet was once a distinct country before China took it over in 1951.


This material should be relevant to anyone studying the nationalism and identity aspect of the culture and identity module, taught as part of most A-level sociology specifications.


Giddens and Sutton (2021) Sociology 9th edition

Montserrat Guibernau (1999) Nations Without States: Political Communities in a Global Age.

Where are the Kurds? Map