Is it possible for nationalism to avoid being based on either race or ethnicity?

This essay was part of the course work for Sociology 2B 2016-17 University of Glasgow 

The contemporary public discourse appears to be saturated with nationalism. Day by day slogans like “Turkey is proud of you” , “Take back control over immigration”, or “Make America great again”,  (Gezer and Reimann, 2017; itv News, 2016; Bonadio, 2015) dominate the media and make the subject inescapable. As Anderson (2016: 3)  puts it,  “nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time.” It seems, on the surface at least, that for the most part nationalism has a strong focus on exclusion based on ethnicity or race by very often aiming to protect the nation from foreigners, with foreigners being mostly identified by the different biological appearance (race) or their different customs (ethnicity). Even positively framed ‘civic’ nationalisms get drawn into the ethnicity and racism nexus as the most recent row between the London Mayor Sadiq Khan and the Scottish nationalist movement has shown (The Guardian, 2017; Heuchan, 2017). However, to sociologically assess whether nationalism, race, and ethnicity are intrinsically linked we need to look beyond politics and analyse how the world arrived at its current order of nation-states and what the underlying social processes were. This can be done by assessing the underlying concepts, paradigms, ideologies, theories, and histories. The essay presents and assesses the primordialist approach in favour and modernist theories against ethnicity and race being the base of nationalism, and shows that neither ethnicity or race are the driving force behind nationalism but that nationalism and ethnicity are vulnerable to political exploitation and therefore often appear to go hand in hand.

In the broadest sense, theories of nationalism can be attributed to either being rooted in a  primordialist or a modernist approach (Gellner, 1995). Smith (1995) describes nationalism as “elusive, even protean, in its manifestations”. For him, nationalism is an ideological movement which aims at the attainment and maintenance of sovereignty, independence and unity of a human population who perceives itself as a ‘nation’ (Smith, 1995, 2010). Smith defines ‘nation’ as a named human population with a shared historic territory, common memories and myths, a common mass culture, a single economy and shared rights and duties for all its citizens (Smith, 1995, 2010). Similarly, Kellas (1998) defines a ‘nation’ as a “group of people who feel themselves to be a community bound together by ties of history, culture and common ancestry”. Davidson (1999) points out that these attributes of a ‘nation’ are hardly different from ‘ethnicity’ which is often defined by six main attributes: a collective proper name, shared historical memories, differentiating elements of culture, shared history, a sense of solidarity, and an association with a ‘homeland’. Additionally, he highlights that ‘ethnicity’ was originally used to distinguish groups within races; when the concept of ‘race’ lost its credibility it became common practice to refer to ‘ethnicity’ instead (Davidson, 1999). These views which present ‘nationalism’ and ‘ethnicity’ as overlapping and almost interchangeable concepts, use the primordial approach which sees ‘nationalism’ as originating in ‘ethnicity’, since it is the product of “pre-existing traditions and heritages which have coalesced over the generations” (Smith, 1995); also: (Smith, 2010; Gellner, 1995). Smith (1995) argues that it is impossible to assess nationalism without reference to ethnic ties and memories and that ethnic components are found in most nations (Smith, 1995). A prime example for his reasoning is the Scottish case. Scottish nationalism defines itself as ‘civic’ rather than ‘ethnic’ (Smith, 2010; Brubaker, 2006) in an attempt to be as inclusive as possible and yet the struggle for nationhood dates back as far as 1320 when the Declaration of Abroath declared independence of the Scottish nation (Lynch, 1992). Additionally, Scotland maintained a distinct education system, their own legal system, and a separate national church throughout history (Lynch, 1992).  It would be close to impossible to explain Scottish nationalism today without reference to its ethnic roots, hence proving Smith’s point.

The modernist approach accepts that ethnicity might be, as Gellner (1995) puts it, the “navel” of nationalism, however, it disavows it much importance. He defines nationalism primarily as the result of material conditions which shape social and political change. (Gellner, 2006). In his view, nationalism did not exist before modernity but rather is a necessity which developed along with modernisation. The secret to nationalism, he says, is in the “high culture” which pervades the whole society and which is highly functional to industrial societies which are built on a progress paradigm (Gellner, 2006). To him, nationalism is a ‘side-effect’ of the development from an agrarian-feudal society to an industrialised-capitalist society which required that literacy became a common skill rather than an exclusive privilege of the clergy and nobility (Gellner, 2006). For industrialisation to work it was essential that everyone could read and understand instructions quick, hence, a common education system and common language became a functional feature of modernity, as did bureaucracy to provide the necessary infrastructure (Gellner, 2006). The nation-state with a centralised government proved itself to be  the most efficient form of organisation and gradually replaced many local cultures, languages, or ethnicities (Gellner, 2006). As a system, industrial order also depends on expanding existing and exploring new markets. Subsequently, perpetual growth and increased mobility became a defining feature of society (Gellner, 2006). It is here where Gellner sees a potential for conflict; the perspective to improve one’s own situation is the “Danegeld” (Gellner, 2006: 890) whereby governments buy off social unrest. As soon as growth does not meet expectations over extended periods of time, the industrial order cannot function smoothly.

Gellner’s theory appears logical but it can be challenged on two grounds. For one it cannot explain how nation-states emerged in the ‘Global South’ where modernisation has not taken place yet or is in its early stages. Further, if lingual and cultural integration is the outcome of the everlasting hunger of capitalism for expansion and optimisation, then we would expect the integration of the European Union to be a ‘natural’ thing. However, the electoral success of nationalists in many European countries (Müller, 2017) indicates the opposite.

Gellner’s modernist approach gives a good insight to the context of the development of modern nationalism, but by omitting any importance of ethnicity and by treating high culture and nationalism as functions of modern society he limits himself to a materialist view which cannot account for the passions which are often observed in nationalist contexts. Anderson (2016) offers an interesting addition to Gellner’s thought. Firstly, he defines the ‘nation’ as an imagined community. It is imagined “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”  (Anderson, 2016: 6). This imagined community replaces the pre-modern face-to-face kinship based or local communities (Brown, 1998).  Hence, Anderson suggests to group ‘nationalism’ with ‘kinship’ and ‘religion’ rather than with ‘liberalism’ or ‘fascism’ (Anderson, 2016). He further aims to explore the psychological appeal of nationalism by asking what makes people love, die, and hate and kill in the name of their nation (Anderson, 2016; Kellas, 1998)? Like Gellner, he sees the root cause of nationalism in modernity, however, he emphasizes different aspects of it. Similar to Gellner he recognises the end of privileged ontological truth through sacred scripture as one important aspect but additionally he names the erosion of religion and the end of dynastic realms as important (Anderson, 2016). According to Anderson, religion was among the first imagined communities, when its power declined people sought other ways to create a sense of belonging. The decline of dynasties meant that social order shifted from being broadly defined by loyalty to a divine ruler towards loyalty with fellow citizens. The void left by the decline of religion and dynastic rule was then filled by the ‘nation’ (Anderson, 2016). The spread of the nation as the dominating imagined community was facilitated and strengthened by what Anderson calls “print-capitalism”. The invention of the book press allowed for previously unknown multiplication and subsequent spread of any type of writing. For example, the spread of Martin Luther’s ideas could have not taken place if it had not coincided with the early days of book printing. Not only did printing revolutionise the spread and conservation of knowledge, it also became the first capitalist endeavour. At the beginning, most works were written and printed in Latin but it only took a few decades for this market to be saturated. In an endeavour to access, or rather create, new markets, printers then started printing works in vernacular languages (Anderson, 2016). This fuelled nationalism as it gave different languages a previously unknown importance and allowed for different narratives about the imagined communities to be perpetuated.

For Anderson, nationalism has first and foremost psychological appeal and its attraction is in its ability to create solidarity in times of great social change. Given that change has been a perpetual feature of the industrial order it is not surprising then that nationalism became a core element of societal order up to today. It also might explain why nationalism seems to gain strength again especially in contemporary Western societies as many of them are on the edge of entering ‘post-modernity’ which is a move away from the industrial order with its paradigm of unlimited growth and which effects large scale social changes.

Nairn (1975) like Gellner gives a materialist view on nationalism and closely links it with capitalism. Being a Marxist theorist, he does not see it as a function of capitalism but rather as a symptom caused by the inherent inequalities in the capitalist system. Nationalism for him is an ideology driven by the ruling class which creates a ‘false consciousness’ among the working class. It is false from his view because it distracts the working class from gaining class consciousness (Nairn, 1975).  In economically weaker and less developed countries nationalism can be a way for people to free themselves from oppression but it can also be a tool for fascism (Nairn, 1975). Nationalism provides people with identity and yet it is not natural but closely linked with economic development. At the heart of nationalism, says Nairn (1975: 8), is “uneven development”.  In a capitalist order, there are ‘winners’ at the core who dominate ‘losers’ on the periphery (Nairn, 1975). Internationally, imperialism saw colonial powers at the core with their colonies taking the position on the periphery (Kellas, 1998), today a ‘new’ imperialism sees the ‘global North’ dominating the ‘global South’. Here nationalism arose as a response against oppression (Kellas, 1998). This theory then fills the gap left by Gellner, since it explains why pre-modern societies may turn nationalist. But uneven development does not only occur internationally, it can also occur within a state. This has sometimes been described as “internal colonialism” (Kellas, 1998). Rokkan explains that nationalism occurs in situations where there cultural, economic, and political roles are incongruent (Kellas, 1998). The biggest issue with uneven development is though that it creates uncertainties about who will be winners and who will be losers in the long run (Nairn, 1975). Nairn (1975: 15) says that in effect “uneven development” is a polite academic way of saying “war”, and as any kind of war, it creates an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. This then makes nationalism vulnerable to populism and even fascism (Nairn, 1975).

Gellner, Anderson, and Nairn offer a detailed sociological account of the emergence of nationalism without reference to ethnicity and yet it cannot be denied that Smith is right to point out that ethnicity plays a role in it. Partially, as Davidson pointed out, that is because ‘nation’ and ‘ethnicity’ appear to be overlapping concepts. A definition by Brown (1998: 12) echoes very much Anderson’s concept of imagined communities:

In actuality, a sense of ethnic community can develop amongst individuals who neither share significant common cultural attributes nor who are particularly distinctive from their neighbours; and it can refer to commonalities of circumstance which developed within living memory, and to attributes which clearly do not objectively derive from common ancestry. (Brown, 1998: 12)

This definition highlights two things. For one it appears possible to invoke a sense of ethnic community in a rather short time and without reference to actual common ancestry. Going by that logic, any nationalism is ethnic because creating a sense of community and belonging is at the heart of it (Anderson, 2016; Kellas, 1998; Smith, 2010). If we take ‘civic’ Scottish nationalism as an example, we quickly find, that it is defined by commonalities of circumstance and by a common narrative of a ‘good society’ (Hassan, 2017). Further, most nationalisms use symbolism, such as having a flag (take for example the saltire in Scotland, the Senyera in Catalonia or the The Stars and Stripes of the United States) and these symbols usually refer back to historic memory (Smith, 1995). The only case where we see an attempt to create a solely civic sense of national unity without special reference to any kind of ethnic sentiment is the European Union. As mentioned earlier, going by Gellner’s theory, European integration should just be a question of time rather than a struggle, and yet we observe frequent backlashes caused by nationalism in the member states. With reference to the Maastricht Treaty, which facilitated the freedom of movement and the currency union in Europe, Smith takes this as an argument for the importance of ethnicity as the rational act of agreeing a contract alone does not “wean away deeply felt national allegiances” (Smith, 1995).

The fact that ‘ethnicity’ is a broad and very ambiguous term (Davidson, 1999) which may include almost any kind of community, is one reason why nationalism can hardly avoid it. But the second, less obvious aspect of ethnicity is that if it is true that a sense of ethnic community can be easily imagined, it is also very likely that the same imagination can be invoked to create a sense of hostility against other communities. It is at this point where we return to the political aspect of nationalism which has been the start of this essay.

As the modernist theorists pointed out, nationalism is closely linked with economic development and social change. The downside of this is that these developments create a new set of uncertainties and fears. Nairn (1975) says the fears are created by the uncertainty over winning or losing in the capitalist order, Bauman (2000) more generally described this as societies having become liquid. In these times of uncertainty nationalism provides dignity, which is a precious good people easily get invested in (Greenfeld, 2011: 6). Derived from this, people also become invested in the collective dignity of the nation and it easy to use this sentiment to mobilise (Greenfeld, 2011: 6).

This is the breeding ground for populism and it makes nationalism, ethnicity, and race its tools at a time where perpetual growth seems to reach its limits and puts one of the core features for the function of the industrial order in question (Müller, 2017). This creates an atmosphere of general dissatisfaction with politics despite the fact that most people judge their personal situation rather positively (Müller, 2017). In this situation populism offers simple solutions to complex dilemmas. They appeal to the electorate by making the world smaller again by being against globalisation and evoking nationalist sentiment. Populism strengthens the ethnic character of nationalism by reinforcing a sense of community based on common culture and achievement. Additionally, they use ethnicity and race to create a sense of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ (Müller, 2017). The important part here is that they ascribe ethnicity to certain groups; it is not the community imagining itself which creates an ethnicity, but rather the imagination about an outside group. Hence, refugees, Muslims, Eastern Europeans and other ‘alien’ groups are seen as threatening ethnicities regardless of how they see themselves (Brubaker, 2006).  Occasionally, racism is employed in a similar manner as it is even easier to single out “them” by referring to prominent biological features such as skin colour, however, to appeal to as many voters as possible, populism mostly employs the ‘political correct’ term ‘ethnicity’ (Davidson, 1999).

Taken all together, there appears to be a theoretical sphere and a practical sphere of nationalism. As the modernist approaches of Gellner, Nairn, and Anderson have shown, it is well possible to theorise the emergence of nation-states while avoiding ethnicity or race, however, it is close to impossible to assess contemporary manifestations of nationalism without reference to ethnicity. The nation as we know it today is a phenomenon deeply rooted in modernity, but as the example of Scotland shows, the concept of a nation is much older. The example of the European Union has shown that a ‘new’ nationalism which avoids ethnicity is likely to be weak and unable to overcome existing national ties. Nationalism needs imagination just as much as ethnicity does, hence, they often complement each other. The impression that nationalism, race, and ethnicity are intrinsically linked is owed to the ambiguity and overlapping of these concepts which make them vulnerable to political exploitation. Nationalism and ethnicity provide easy access to imagination and mobilisation and are almost irresistible for populist movements which push for a dominating role of nationalism and ethnicity in the public discourse. Hence, theoretically nationalism can avoid ethnicity and bank on economic progress and appeal to civic values, however, in practice nationalism can only work if it creates a sense of community which almost inevitably leads to the inclusion of ethnic elements.



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