Cultural Approaches to Nationalism

Daniel Segal & Richard Handler. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

Broadly speaking, one can identify two distinct, even antithetical, ‘cultural approaches’ to nationalism. The first is the more established of the two and can be identified as ‘the study of national cultures’ or (in an older phrasing) ‘the study of national character’; the second might best be termed ‘the cultural analysis of nationalism.’

The study of national cultures takes the idea of ‘nations,’ understood as fundamental groupings within humanity, to be self-evident. Starting from this conceptual foundation, it proceeds to catalog the distinctive properties of each grouping recognized as a ‘nation’ or ‘people.’ It is a study of what is French about ‘the French, Chinese about ‘the Chinese,’ Aussie about ‘the Aussies,’ Tswana about ‘the Tswana,’ and so on.

The analysis of the culture of nationalism, by contrast, takes ‘nations’ to be a distinctive cultural form, and it seeks to recognize the contingent principles of this cultural form and to trace their various uses in history. On this second approach, both the parsing of humanity into national units, and the differentiation of those units, are results of what social actors have done with those principles. To study nations and their differences without reference to this—as occurs in the study of national cultures—is to accord nations and their distinctive qualities a misplaced stability and concreteness. The obverse is also true. To foreground the contingent principles of nationalism requires that our inquiry not be restricted to some specific manifestation of these principles in a particular sort of grouping or institution, as if that grouping or institution were a permanent type within a finite and transhistorical set of human possibilities. We thus cannot limit our inquiry to examples that pass some ‘authenticity’ test for nations, nor even to the larger set of phenomena that have, by various criteria, been designated as a ‘nation’ in various contexts. An important concomitant of the recognition of the contingency of nations is thus the difficult notion that we cannot bound off, or delimit, ‘the nation’ as a discrete social form, but must grapple instead with an untidy range of variants—including some designated as ‘races’ and ‘ethnic’ groups—that are found within a selected swath of human history.

As a matter of convenience, one might speak of this larger range of variants as so many forms of ‘identity groupings.’ It is important to keep in mind, however, that this larger set is an analytic contrivance, albeit a motivated one, that has been set up to foreground and illumine the contingency of the phenomena within it. Identity groupings should not, in other words, themselves be mistaken for a universal aspect of social life, any more than nations. Indeed, the very concept of ‘identity,’ as it is used in both sociology and psychology, is peculiar to modern Western ideology (Gleason 1983; Handler 1994). So too, it is valuable to emphasize that the swath of history from which we draw a given set of variants is not something dictated or given to us by the phenomena, but is something that must be selected.

Nationalism and the Principle of Similitude

The contingent principles of nationalism (and of various related phenomena) can be seen as a special case of commonsense tenets, prevalent in modernity, about what constitutes an individual thing or unit. By these commonsense tenets, each thing of any sort is (i) bounded and (ii) defined by a distinct trait, or trait-bundle, that is shared by any and all of the components of that thing. On this view, an individual thing does not blur into other things and it has no components that lack a core of sameness with its other components and, ultimately, with the thing itself. That is, each thing ‘has’ an identity; or, in other terms, it is ‘identical to’ itself and distinct from all other things. That ‘all the cells of our body share the same DNA’ fits quite facilely into this everyday philosophy of things. Yet this fit, however canny, should not be taken as proof of this general ontological orientation, for not every formation ‘in nature’ conforms so neatly or readily to it. The mitochondria in our cells, for instance, have their own DNA, distinct from the DNA (we speak of as being) ‘of our body.’ Were we to apply the general rule of thing-ness rigorously then, we might even conclude that biological organisms are loci of hybridity, rather than individuated entities.

Yet whatever the relationship of the everyday philosophy of things to biology (or other ‘natural’ phenomena), what is important for our purposes is that the cultural principles of nationalism can be recognized as transpositions of these same tenets to the domain of social collectivities. In nationalist thought and practice, each nation is at once bounded and different from other nations (and from any ‘people’ not accorded the status of a nation) by virtue of a trait, or trait-bundle, possessed by all persons within the nation and yet none outside itself. This is to say, each nation is constituted on the basis of a principle of similitude of its components. It is the (purported) fact of being alike—of ‘sharing’ identity, culture, values, or whatever—that constitutes both membership in and the boundary of the national group or collectivity.

From this perspective, ‘like persons’ objectively and self-evidently ‘go together’ and, by virtue of this, constitute a discrete collectivity that is distinguished from all other collectivities in some essential way. In the phrasing of Louis Dumont—who in many ways pioneered the cultural analysis of nationalism—nationalists imagine each nation as both a collection of like individuals and as an individual collectivity (1970). The collectivity is understood to be composed of the individual persons, and all of those persons are understood to partake, without exception, in the identity of the latter. Put otherwise, the collective individual is figured as ‘possessing’ distinct features or traits—variously termed its ‘identity,’ ‘culture,’ or ‘character’—and those features are imagined to inhere in and mark each human individual who ‘belongs to’ the collectivity.

Something closely akin to this principle of similitude is also a commonplace of social science models of collectivities or groups. True, there are prominent social scientific theories that foreground conflict instead of consensus, hybridity instead of homogeneity. But in most of these theories, the terms contrasting with sameness are nonetheless marked, in the sense that they are seen as challenges to, rather than as the basis of, group formation and even sociality. The primary exception to this generalization is arguably work in the French structuralist tradition that identifies reciprocity or exchange—between two or more differentiated parties—as the very core of sociality (Lévi-Strauss 1969: ch. 5; Mauss 1967), and it was from the perspective of this paradigmatic tradition that Dumont fashioned his insights into the contingency of the nation as a social form. But most social science and historical studies of nationalism have instead operated from, and thereby offered, a nationalist perspective—as we have already indicated for the study of national cultures. In other words, most scholarship on nationalism has taken up, if in highly formalized terms, very much the same questions that nationalists themselves address and has failed to ask questions about the presuppositions, or givens, of nationalism.

The Discursive Challenge of National Individuality

Both nationalist proponents and their scholarly brethren know that the persons of a given nationality differ in various ways. For one thing, a prevalent view in modernity holds that there is a basic, even an essential, difference between male and female persons, cutting across all national kinds. Yet as a rule, similitude in this particular dimension of personal differentiation (‘sex,’ let us call it) is seen as providing a basis only for recurring sociality, and not for functional wholes or social collectivities. Indeed, in modernity, it is sex complementarity, rather than similitude, that is normativized as the proper foundation for ‘the family,’ while ‘the family,’ in turn, is construed as essential for the moral health of the nation (as evidenced most strikingly by the stubborn persistence of discomfort with ‘gay marriage’). Sex differentiation is thus made so as to fit into, rather than be in tension with, groupings designated as nations.

By contrast, what is consistently unsettling to the designation of a social grouping as ‘a nation’ is that modern ideology fetishizes the uniqueness of each individual person, at once in parallel and tension with the nationalist view that each nation is a unique collectivity. Nationalists thus face the discursive challenge of showing just how a particular grouping of persons, replete with their distinctive selves, are nonetheless alike such that they constitute one and only one nation. In general, responses to this challenge take the form of a claim that the individuals of each nation share some ‘common denominator’ of similitude. Such proclamations at once recognize individual differences among co-nationals and posit a core set of features that establish the unity and boundedness of the nation, however limited that set may be.

What is striking for our purposes is that even when the existence of a nation is least contested, neither outside observers nor the nation’s most patriotic proponents are ever able to reach closure in their attempts to identify what trait, or trait-bundle, defines the shared national identity, or character, of the nation. Nationalist movements are instead engaged in a ceaseless politics of culture—an ongoing effort to identify, create, and maintain the purported common denominator of their national identity (Handler 1988).

The approaches taken by nationalist movements to this open-ended project fit two broad types. The common denominator of similitude is identified as either an objective or a subjective phenomenon. When nationalists make objectivist claims, they define national identity in terms of social and cultural traits that, they claim, members of a nation possess regardless of any sentiment, belief, or consciousness of those persons. When nationalists make subjectivist claims, they define national identity in terms of the consciousness of those within a nation, which is said to provide the similitude necessary for collective existence, even if the consciousness has no grounding outside or beyond itself, that is, outside of or beyond the very belief in national unity. In the flow of social life, moreover, we find nationalists both alternating between and combining these two strategies.

Proceeding in concert with nationalist discourse, scholarship on nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century spilled endless ink in attempts to trace the objective features that united various sets of persons as a nation. Time and again, however, such attempts foundered in the face of contrary evidence. If one scholar argued that such-and-such a nation was united by the possession of shared political ideals, folkways, religious beliefs, or whatever, then another scholar would point to the existence of socially significant persons within the same grouping who rejected those ideals, or did not participate in the specified cultural practices, or whatever, but who asserted their right to belong. So too, when scholars made general claims about the genre, or type, of features that defined nations—claiming that, say, ‘language,’ ‘race,’ or something else was crucial for the division of humanity into nations—some other scholar would point to some visibly contrary case, in which that same feature (or bundle of features) was either common to many nations or exhibited diversity within a given nation. Yet these scholarly revelations notwithstanding, the objectivist vision persisted, and indeed persists to this day, in scholarship on nationalism, as well as in nationalist ideologies and much everyday thought in our nationalized world.

In the second half of the twentieth century, as the study of ‘the new nations’ of the decolonizing world came to the fore, scholars gave ever-greater weight to the importance of subjective sources of national unity. Again and again, they perceived the political boundaries that emerged in the wake of decolonization to be ‘artificial’ relative to indigenous social categories and boundaries. This artificiality was understood to be a result either of a hypertrophe of heterogeneity in the non-West (‘tribalism’) or of ‘mistakes’ made by colonial functionaries in setting political boundaries. What was unrecognized—because it would have required stepping outside of nationalist discourse—was that the sole reason that the (marginally) older nations of Europe were not also seen to be artificial was because of the success of their nationalist movements in displacing and masking difference, and not because these nations were intrinsically any less artificial or socially fabricated than nations elsewhere (Segal 1988; Handler and Segal 1992). In his highly influential work, for instance, Clifford Geertz promoted an ‘integrative revolution’ for the new nations, that is, he advocated the forging of subjective national sentiments in post-colonial societies in the face of supposedly ‘primordial’ ethnic, religious and cultural diversity (1973: 255-310). Thus, rather than recognizing the inescapable contingency of nations per se, Geertz saw a need for postcolonial states to create—by artifice—the unity and similitude he presumed had preceded, rather than resulted from, nationalist movements in European history.

It was, moreover, Geertz’s fellow Indonesianist, Benedict Anderson (1983), who coined the phrase that has most defined the study of nationalism in the last two decades of the twentieth century: ‘imagined communities.’ Anderson’s focus on the ways in which societies could imagine themselves as united decisively moved the debate (at least among scholars) from objectivist to subjectivist conceptions of national unity. Scholars no longer expected to be able to define the objective cultural features that all members of a given nation shared; but they understood that the subjective ‘sense of belonging’ that nation-states fostered in their citizens, coupled with a state-promoted national imaginary (symbols and stories with which people learned to identify), was enough to create and maintain nations. Indeed, in this perspective, there was no other means to do it. We should not, however, draw the boundary too neatly between an earlier scholarship, in which objectivist conceptions of nationhood were expected, and later work more focused on subjective factors. On the one hand, many scholars from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries notably, Ernest Renan (1947 [1882]), wrote about the subjective underpin nings of national identity. And there was plenty of visible ‘nation-building’ in Europe leading up to, and then following, World War I—social tur moil on a grand scale, in which scholars of nationalism saw national cultures, languages and identities forged before their eyes. On the other hand, in the most recent scholarship, Anderson’s notion of the imagined community has all too often been unwittingly subsumed within an objectivist framework. With all the recent enthusiasm for ‘interpretive social science,’ ‘symbolic anthropology’ and ‘the sociology of culture,’ it has been easy for scholars to celebrate Anderson’s notion of the imagined community, while going on to treat such communities in epistemologically traditional ways—that is, as people who, because they have come to share (subjectively, or intersubjectively) a national imaginary, have constituted themselves (objectively) as a bounded, homogeneous group. Thus, even recent interpretive or symbolic approaches to nationalism, inspired in particular by Anderson, have not broken decisively with nationalist epistemology to attain the kind of cultural approach we sketch and advocate here.

Nationalism Revealed by Comparisons within Modernity

The most reliable key to recognizing what is otherwise taken for granted—and for seeing the contingency of what is absolutized by virtue of being presuppposed—is comparison (Bakhtin 1981; Sahlins 2004: 4-5; Segal 1999; Todorov 1984). Such comparison can take a variety of forms. Dumont, as we have suggested, gained an important sense of the contingency of nations by seeing their distinctiveness as a social form relative to the idea that the foundation of human sociality was not similitude but exchange between differentiated parties (‘Self and ‘Other’). This view had emerged in French social thought in response to studies of such distant ethnographic cases as the potlatch of Northwest North America and the kula trade of the Western Pacific (Mauss 1967). Radical incommensurability thus served to make visible the contingency of the familiar—in this case, of the nation. Taking this social theoretical achievement as a ‘way in,’ we can deepen our understanding of ‘the nation’ as a cultural form with additional comparisons. More specifically, situating the nation in relation to other manifestations of the principle of similitude in social life can provide a finer-grained picture of nations and their contingencies.

Broadly speaking, the principle of similitude has been used to generate a range of social forms, which have been given such names as ‘races,’ ‘ethnic groups,’ ‘peoples’ and ‘nations.’ These terms have never been used with formal rigor; rather, each term has been used for more than one of these variant forms, just as different ones of these terms have been used in interchangeable and overlapping ways at times. To give a concrete example, there are instances when a given grouping has been called, say, ‘a nation’ but in a fashion that has figured the grouping as ‘a race,’ in the sense that the grouping’s core of sameness has been figured as biological and inherited. In addition, the very range of such forms has changed over time, as with shifts in notions of inheritability in the wake of the Darwinian revolution, as well as the subsequent emergence of knowledge of ‘genes.’ Finally, it is not uncommon that a given grouping has been accorded different forms in different contexts. ‘Jews,’ for instance, were often positioned as a distinct race in the first half of the twentieth century, with Germany being only the most remembered instance of this. Yet in the wake of the Third Reich and its horrors, Jews have more often been designated as a distinct ethnic group within a larger ‘white race’ (Brodkin 1998; Jacobson 1998; Segal 2002; and for a comparable discussion of the Irish, see Ignatiev 1995).

These three dimensions of complexity mean that there is no stable or objective fact about whether a given grouping really is or is not a nation, a race, an ethnic kind, or yet some other form. Nonetheless, a great deal of social-scientific analysis has lost itself in the mistaken task of making definitive pronouncements about such matters. The correct approach, on our view, is to focus instead on the range of social forms produced by social actors using and transposing the underlying principle of similitude. The more general lesson here is that cultural analysis loses its footing when it seeks to take terms from social life—such as ‘nation’ and ‘race’—and establish rigorous and fixed definitions for them, in effect treating them as analytic concepts, rather than as terms from social life that must be mapped and analyzed. The job of the cultural analyst is to probe the contingent meanings and uses of such terms, not to fix their meaning. In other words, rather than seeking to adjudicate what a nation or a race or an ethnic kind really is, the cultural analyst should instead ask: what is it that social actors have done when they have constructed a grouping as a nation, rather than a race or an ethnic kind or something else? In addressing such questions, however, we must keep in mind that they are irreducibly historical, which is to say that the meaning of nationness at a given historical moment is at once rooted in, but never simply determined by, precedents. Thus, the answers we provide can never pin down the truth or essential core of nation-making, race-making, or ethnogenesis (the making of an ethnic kind); rather, we can do no more or less than analyze the precedential uses of these terms, as they inform the present.

If we look backward from the present to the late eighteenth century, for instance, we can observe that throughout this period, designations of nationhood have been used to further ‘political independence’ for a given grouping, and more specifically, to further political independence in the form of ‘statehood.’ At the same time, the obverse has also been true: designations of the existing population of a state (exclusive of any internal ‘minority’) as ‘a nation’ have been used to further the legitimation of states and their institutions.

Statehood, in turn, has entailed a prominent (though never a singular) linkage with the project of ‘development’ or ‘modernization.’ This transitive articulation of nationhood with development—through statehood—can be observed as early as the first decades of the eighteenth century, notably in the nationalism of Peter the Great, but it grew in prominence in the second half of the nineteenth century and, even more so, in the second half of the twentieth century, with global decolonization.

One marker of the rise in prominence of development as an aspect of the fulfillment of nationhood can be found in another collateral idiom—that of ‘civilization.’ Through the end of the nineteenth century, ‘Christian’ was the most common adjective preceding, and thereby identifying the proper form of, civilization; this understanding of civilization did not give prominence to science, technology, or economic growth. By contrast, the early twentieth-century shift to ‘Western’ as the default adjective before civilization registered a vision of civilization defined in terms of technological innovations, scientific progress and sustained economic expansion—which is to say, in terms of development. It also defined the propensity to initiate and pioneer development as a distinctive trait of the societies and peoples of ‘the West.’

The constellation of articulations has had at least two important effects. First, the identification of the propensity for development as Western, combined with the identification of development as an ideal of nationhood, produced judgments that various non-Western peoples were not national in stature—and hence could not be expected to govern themselves. In other words, the ostensible absence of development outside the West has been used to distinguish between national and less than national peoples. This played a particularly important role in legitimating colonialism in the first half of the twentieth century.

Second, and consistent with this first effect, for all peoples identified as non-Western, claims to nationhood have entailed a contradiction, since their pursuit of development is seen as precisely contrary to the ideal of living in accord with their distinct national character (that is, to being true to one’s own national Self). Japanese modernity, for instance, is often figured as imitative and soulless—as something it borrowed from the West—while the modernity of the United States is registered as a self-evident manifestation of ‘the American spirit,’ itself construed as a specific instance of a distinctively Western spirit or tradition. Indeed, the very success of the pursuit of development in Japan since the Meiji era has meant that a talent for ‘mimicry’ has come to be recognized as fundamental to Japanese national character.

One does not find, however, a parallel perception that industrialization’s ‘spread’ from England to America was due to an American propensity for mimicry. Precisely because the United States is identified as a component of Western civilization, and for no other reason, industrialization in late nineteenth-century America is registered as American’ and hence authentic, rather than as something borrowed. To note one more illustration of this point, Nobel laureate Vidia Naipaul has famously disparaged postcolonial leaders in Africa and the Caribbean as ‘mimic men’ whose policies of modernization failed precisely because they ‘aped,’ without having internalized, the institutions and values of the West (Naipaul 1967). For our purposes, what is significant is that in Naipaul’s formulation, the propensity for development and modernity is figured as the distinctive cultural property of the West and, by extension, its nations.

Over this same historical span, designations of various groupings as ‘a race’ have diverged, in their meanings and uses, from designations of nationhood in at least two important ways. First, racial designations have much more consistently figured the core of sameness of a given grouping as something biological and inherited. In this regard, it is important to keep in mind, however, that notions of biology and heritability have undergone significant revision and alteration over time, as a result of semi-autonomous processes of change in the history of science. Many nineteenth-century designations of racial status, for instance, did not presume a sharp division of nature and nurture, inherited and acquired traits. Instead, such designations treated racial traits as inherited and subject to alteration by the environment, including by learning, though at some unspecified, if presumably quite slow, rate (Stocking 2001).

It is also important to remember that this key dimension of racial designations—that the core of sameness is construed as biological and inherited—was also present in many national designations during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. National designations over this span of time exhibit greater variety in terms of how similitude is accounted for than do racial designations, but they include the recourse to biology and inheritability that is characteristic of the latter.

Where there has been much greater, though not complete, divergence between national designations and racial designations has been in their social uses, that is, in the projects that they have been made to serve. In the case of national designations, as we noted, the most characteristic project has been to further claims to political independence, and concomitantly, the building of states and the pursuit of development. In the case of racial designations, the most characteristic project has been to place persons into the system of production or, in simple terms, into class positions. Racialized and specifically ‘Africanized’ slavery in the plantation system of the Americas is only the most obvious instance of this. But it is important to recognize that basing the assignment of class positions on racial designations has meant doing something more than distributing a given population of persons into a set of pre-existing or autonomous class positions. Rather, filling such positions by racial designations has played a profound role in the making of those positions and, in consequence, in shaping the overall system they compose—that is, in shaping the very system of production itself. Most generally, filling positions in the system of production by racial designations has produced class positions that are naturalized, and this in turn has supported greater stratification, differentiation and separation of class positions than would otherwise be the case (Holt 2000; Segal 1993,1998).

Yet that racialization has amplified class stratification and differentiation—or even that it has amplified class domination—does not mean that racialization is functional for class domination or, say, for the extraction of surplus value by dominant classes. Rather, as the history of slave plantations makes dramatically clear, the amplification of class stratification is often anything but functional, precisely because amplified domination often fuels resistance. In other words, while there are certainly historical moments when racial designations have served class domination, it is also the case that at other moments the very articulation of racial designations with class differentiation has made class domination more, not less, contested—less, not more, stable.

So too, it would be a mistake to think that racialized designations are a necessary feature of extreme class stratification and differentiation. Instead, and quite sadly, it appears as if beliefs in natural differences between individuals—in, say, ‘intelligence’—can well replace racialized designations in supporting quite fantastic degrees of class stratification and differentiation.

A close variant of the use of racial designations to assign persons class positions has been their use to keep various social groupings subordinate in status and/or political power. In the context of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonialisms, for instance, racial designations (typically linked to claims about a grouping’s propensity for development) were used to distinguish between peoples who did and did not have a legitimate claim to nationhood and, thus, political independence. In this usage, ‘race’ did not so much differentiate among ‘nations’ as it differentiated between fully ‘national’ peoples and those who were ‘backward’ or merely ‘tribal.’

We turn, finally, to ‘ethnicity’ as a designation of a form of collectivity. That ethnicity emerged as a distinct designation for social groupings (that is, in contrastive distribution with ‘race’ and ‘nation’) only in the twentieth century is itself an indication that its distinct meanings and uses crystallized in response to prior uses of race and nation.

For example, whereas racial designations have most often been used to affix stigmatized groupings to subordinated class and status positions, designations of ethnicity have often been used in attempts to valorize and reposition these very social groupings (Urciuoli 1996: 15-40). At the same time, designations of ethnicity typically differ from those of nationality in that the former are often used to fit diversity into an encompassing nation, rather than to designate a group meriting ‘independence.’ The terms in such hyphenated phrases as Irish-American and African-American cannot be interchanged, for the first term specifies a type of the second. In short, a key element of the uses and meaning of ethnicity is that it sub-cedes nationality, thereby providing an important means for nations to contain ‘diversity.’ Notwithstanding the distinct meanings and uses of some ethnic designations, many ethnic designations overlap in their meanings and uses with racial and/or national designations. The term ‘ethnic’ operates much like a racial designation when social actors speak of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ meaning mass killing; and it operates much like nationalist designations in ‘ethnic separatist movements.’ Put otherwise, not everything ‘ethnic’ is a festival.

‘Ethnicity’ is, in sum, the most multivocal and chameleon-like of these three related designations of groupings. It is, in a sense, the repository of the capacious range of variants that, to date, have emerged from uses of the principle of similitude applied to social groupings. Were there no element of tragedy in the meanings and uses accumulated in this term—were there not so many atrocities in the name of ‘ethnic kinds’—one might even say that the term’s fantastic polysemy was Borges-esque (see, for instance, Borges 1966, famously cited in Foucault 1970).

Along with noting the range of variation represented by national, racial and ethnic designations, it is also fruitful to recognize what these designations have in common, given that all are structured by the principle of similitude. One important effect of all three designations, for instance, is that they have served to allot portions of the past differentially to the living. This in turn has meant that earlier conflicts have become, in retrospect, precedents for highly refractory cycles of violence (Naimark 2001). What is responsible for this outcome is not that the past is remembered, but the particular manner in which it is remembered. More specifically, the linking of subject positions in past traumas to present-day identities typically makes those traumas charters for continued social divisions and struggles, rather than cautionary tales about how easily any of us could become either a victimizer or a victim.

A related though more subtle ramification of the propensity of identity designations to allot the past differentially to the living is that representations of the past, when they are organized in terms of contemporary identity terms, serve to differentiate, and project social divisions into, their audiences—as, for example, with representations of African-American slavery at Colonial Williamsburg (Handler and Gable 1997) or public commemorations of Nazi atrocities (Koss 2004). The other side of this same coin is that when the past is not figured in these terms, it is typically received as if it is mere history and not something contiguous with the present. For American undergraduates, for example, a lecture about an early modern massacre of peasants is generally taken as dry fact, until and unless an ethnic or national or racial designation takes the place of ‘peasant’ in the narrative, however anachronistically


Our analysis of ‘national’ designations has located them in a messy and open-ended field of variants, variants that have been constructed by social actors working with and transposing the contingent principle of constituting collectivities on the basis of similitude. Our approach has, in effect, dissolved ‘nationalism’ as a distinct phenomenon, very much as Lévi-Strauss at an earlier moment dissolved ‘totemism’ as a distinct phenomenon (1963). We have proceeded in this way to resist the widespread practice of trying to refine and clarify the concept of nation for analytic or social scientific uses. That practice, we have argued, masks the contingency of nations and thereby makes it impossible to go beyond the nationalist misrecognition of nations as objective, rather than socially forged, groupings of persons. The best way to understand nations and nationalism, in our view, is to abandon the practice of using these terms to delimit a discrete subject of social scientific inquiry. The analysis of the culture of nationalism thus displaces its very subject matter.