Methodological Nationalism and Its Critique

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

The theoretical, historical, cultural and indeed geographical diversity to which this Handbook bears witness reflects at least some of the complications faced by the social sciences when trying to come to terms with the nation-state. During the past century-and-a-half, the nation-state has been treated as a god and a demon; been declared born and dead many times; been regarded as a modern as well as a primordial form of social and political community; been conceived of as both a rational structure and an imagined/imaginary community; created as much welfare as misery; been equally a source for political democracy, cosmopolitanism and ethnic cleansing; co-existed with empires, colonies, blocs, protectorates, city-states and other forms of socio-political organization; gone through experiences of unification, totalitarian terror, occupation, division and then re-unification; and been legitimized around ethnic, racial, republican, monarchic, liberal, multicultural, federal and even class principles. Yet, despite—or more possibly owing to—all this variation, the nation-state has somehow managed to present itself as a solid, stable and ultimately the necessary form of social and political organization in modernity. Again in this case, the sources of this alleged solidity have proved difficult to identify: increase in the state’s control over ‘its’ population through nationalization policies such as literacy campaigns, schooling, taxation and military recruitment; the use and abuse of sentiments of belonging to emphasize cultural and/or ethnic differences; the rise of a ‘system of nation-states’ composed of a growing number of at least formally equally sovereign members; the development of a capitalist class structure at the national level and the expansion of capitalism at the global level; the ‘universalistic’ appeal of popular sovereignty and democracy. The nation-state is, in all certainty, one of modernity’s most complicated themes.

On the face of this obscurity, then, it is puzzling that the most common argument on how social theory has tried to account for the main features of the nation-state in modernity emphasizes precisely all that is opposite to these doubts and uncertainties. This argument, which has become known as methodological nationalism, can be defined as the all-pervasive equation within the social sciences between the concept of ‘society’ and the nation-state. Methodological nationalism presupposes that the nation-state is the natural and necessary form of society in modernity and that the nation-state becomes the organizing principle around which the whole project of modernity coheres.

My own view is that methodological nationalism must be rejected because it is unable to grasp the ambiguities that were presented in the introductory paragraph and also because it distorts and misrepresents the history of social theory in relation to the nation-state. This chapter aims to contribute to our understanding of what methodological nationalism actually is and how it can be overcome, so it begins by briefly revisiting some key arguments in the debate on methodological nationalism. It then unfolds some of social theory’s arguments on the history, main features and legacy of the nation-state in order to outline what may be called a ‘social theory of the nation-state beyond methodological nationalism.’ My thesis, set out in the three sections that follow, is that, in modernity, the nation-state has been historically opaque, sociologically uncertain and normatively ambivalent. For all these three cases I will deploy my arguments with examples taken from classical as well as contemporary social theory and conclude that social theory has not portrayed the nation-state as the necessary final stage of modernity but rather has struggled throughout with trying to grasp the ambivalent position of the nation-state in modernity.

Methodological Nationalism: A Debate in Two Waves

A first wave of discussion on methodological nationalism commenced in the 1970s. Its main claim was that the social sciences at large would have regarded the nation-state as the necessary container of modern social relations (Martins 1974), conceived the nation-state as the natural representation of the modern ‘society’ (Giddens 1973, 1985) and neglected the role of nationalism as a political force (Smith 1983). The key feature of this early debate was that the historical record seemed to buttress a certain view of a modern world as increasingly organized around nation-states. These writers were not preoccupied with whether or not the nation-state was a determining feature of the modern word—it seemed clear to them that it was—but they were concerned with the ways in which the nation-state was being conceptualized at the time. They saw a problem with the tendency to theorize the nation-state as though it were a monad that evolved and behaved autonomously and, because of that, to regard the international system of nation-states as a mere reflection of the behaviour of its individual members. In fact, the key point of these early critiques of methodological nationalism was the dissatisfaction with a certain internalist emphasis in the explanation of those social forces which contributed to the creation of individual nation-states and, in the long run, of a worldwide nation-state system.

A second wave of scholarly discussion on methodological nationalism has started at the turn of the new century (Beck 2002, 2004; Wimmer and Schiller 2002). Usually, the reasons given to explain this re-emergence are two-fold. On the one hand, there is the historical thesis that the nation-state can no longer be regarded as though it is the final representation of society in modernity. Indeed, a key historical argument in recent debates on the rise of globalization is precisely that the nation-state was the most relevant actor of previous historical constellations within modernity but that now its time is over. It would be precisely this change in historical circumstances that would create a critical space for realizing the problems involved in the equation between society and the nation-state—the view that the nation-state was the natural representation of society in modernity. On the other hand, this new wave of discussion on methodological nationalism has been linked with a particularly sociological reaction to the postmodern debate in other social sciences (Shaw 2000: 2-14; Wagner 2001: 75). In this second, more theoretical, argument the key theme is an increasing scepticism towards the permanence of the project of modernity and the use of general or universalist concepts in the social sciences—the idea of society crucially being one of such concepts. There is then a mixture of historical arguments—the rise of globalization and fall of the nation-state—and theoretical arguments—the exhaustion of modernity and futility of universalist concepts such as society—which ends up configuring a new scenario of radical epochal and conceptual change. The claim is that the historical references and the theoretical coordinates with which we used to comprehend the world are quickly becoming obsolete.

The understanding of the implications of this new debate on methodological nationalism needs to focus on three sets of issues (Chernilo 2006). First, there is the widely shared argument that methodological nationalism must be rejected and transcended. Twenty-first-century social science cannot regard the nation-state as the natural and necessary representation of society in modernity so it needs to move beyond methodological nationalism. Secondly, there is the assessment of the extent to which methodological nationalism is in fact a defining feature of the history of the social sciences in general and social theory in particular. The new orthodoxy’s claim here is that these disciplines are so fully impregnated with methodological nationalism that social theory’s methodological nationalism would be responsible for its inability to capture the radical epochal change supposedly brought about by the current globalization process. There is, however, a third proposition in this debate—and this is the one to which I feel closer. The argument here is to accept that methodological nationalism must be rejected and transcended but to argue this from two different standpoints. In relation to social theory, I argue that the thesis of social theory’s immanent methodological nationalism says more about the deficiencies of those who make the claim than it tells us from the canon of social theory itself. More broadly, it is maintained that the use of concepts with a universalist intent, such as ‘society,’ does not have to be given up (Archer 2005; Chernilo 2007; Fine 2003; Outhwaite 2006; Smelser 1997; Wagner 2001). In relation to the nation-state, it is claimed that methodological nationalism has never been able to account for its history and main features—neither in previous constellations of modernity nor nowadays (Calhoun 2002; Rosenberg 2000; Webster 2002)7 In other words, even if the claim of a radical epochal change were true, the consequence of social theory’s inability to come to terms with this epochal change would still be rejected. In order to substantiate this position, I would now like to introduce the key arguments which I think constitute the outline for a social theory of the nation-state beyond methodological nationalism.

The Historical Opacity of the Nation-State

The question of a concise periodization of the development of the nation-state in modernity has remained elusive for the social sciences at large. A certain historical opacity of the nation-state has consistently accompanied scholars interested in the field—both within and outside social theory. Take, for instance, the case of Karl Marx’s—certainly sketchy—conceptualization of the nation-state. His reflections on the subject are framed within his thesis that, in capitalism, all forms of social relations ‘become antiquated before they can ossify’: nation-states are being constituted and pulled apart, formed and dissolved, as part of the contradictory dynamic of capitalism (Marx and Engels 1976: 487). In Marx’s analysis, the nation-state is dissolved in the tension between empires, nations and communes, between world capitalism and the internationalism of the proletariat. Marx’s idea of the nation-state is that of a type of social and political organization that emerges from, but cannot deal with, the contradictory character of capitalist social relations. Marx (1973: 172-228) realized well that nation-states are always under immense pressures that they can handle only just: the global accumulation of capital, colonialism, internationalist movements are all forces at work that create contradictions that escape from the nation-state’s control. Yet, even if Marx clearly appreciated that the nation-state was not such a solid and stable form of socio-political organization as methodological nationalism would have it, he equally exaggerated the extent and speed of its possible disintegration.

A social theory of the nation-state does not ask for the birth certificate of the nation-state as a modern form of socio-political organization. For instance, Hannah Arendt (1994 [1958]: 267-302), still under the shock of the events of the Holocaust, could declare the breakdown of the nation-state system by the end of World War I. She understood the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe in the following decades as a rejection of the nation-state Weltanschauung; totalitarianism represented the empirical and normative collapse of a whole set of social relations which tried to cohere around the nation-state. Empirically, the principle of national self-determination proved unable to check the advancement of overseas imperialism, first, and the rise of totalitarianism, later on. Normatively Arendt regarded the rise of totalitarian regimes as evidence of the dramatic futility of trying to found political democracy and the rule of law on the basis of belonging to a national group. She witnessed and indeed suffered personally with the collapse of the faith in the nation-state’s ability to control and conduct modernization processes peacefully. From a different standpoint, then, Arendt not only advanced further Marx’s thesis of the somewhat ‘premature’ dissolution of the nation-state but equally pioneered, though in soberer fashion, current arguments on the ‘decline of the nation-state.’ The fact that Arendt was neither the first nor has been the last commentator to declare the obsolescence of the nation-state is not meant as a criticism of her assessment of the destiny of the European nation-state. Rather, the point is that the nation-state remains elusive when it comes to the question of its decline: we shall not look for death certificates of the nation-state.

A certain form of methodological nationalism seems to be inscribed, however, into social theory’s typological constructions such as Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society). At least some of the difficulties in grasping the historicity of the nation-state may be explained via this type of dichotomous reasoning, which is found throughout the history of social theory. As we know it, in some classical sociology the concept of Gemeinschaft was used to describe those forms of communal life that would not be mediated by abstract forms of social coordination. The market and monetary exchanges via money, conversely, were taken as the paradigmatic representations of Gesellschaft; a fully developed nation-state, as both a national market and a national political community, was the closest we could get to that version of Gesellschaft. This mode of thinking is perpetuated in modernist social science in the form of the transition from ‘tradition’ to ‘modernity.’ Indeed, these dichotomies have not disappeared from our intellectual landscape although there have been for a long time serious criticisms raised against them (Gusfield 1967). In its newest version, the Gemeinschaft-Gesellschaft antinomy takes the nation-state, which would be in its final crisis, as the new representation of Gemeinschaft, whereas the new Gesellschaft is now presented with the different names given to the sociopolitical formations that allegedly are coming to replace nation-states: global society, network society, world risk society, among others. The new Gesellschaft is thought to be radically different from the nation-state community, so radical as to make obsolete all previous forms of social theorizing (Fine and Chernilo 2004: 36-7). The difficulty here lies in the thesis that the radical historical break we now seem to experience is presented as something new, whereas in fact that type of claim is at the very core of all types of Gemeinschaft—Gesellschaft formulations. The problem is that of a ‘fallacy of presentism’ (Webster 2002: 275): there is nothing less radical and novel than claiming the ‘newness’ and ‘radicalness’ of social change. The same naivety with which previous social theory looked at Gemeinschaf—E. Gellner’s (1996) ‘romantic fallacy’ of previous types of communal life which allegedly were free of conflict—is now found in the assessment of the nation-state’s current crisis. In paraphrasing Reinhardt Bendix (1967: 320), if classical as well as modernist social theory reconstructed historical transitions ‘by contrasting the liabilities of the present with the assets of the past,’ we can now say that the current mainstream echoes this by contrasting the liabilities of past and present—the nation-state—with the assets the future should, hopefully, provide—the new global society.

Instead of yet another version of this antinomy, I propose we try a different path. I would hold that there are multiple concepts of the nation-state and that this constitutes a key feature of the historical opacity of the nation-state on which this section focuses. The historical record lends supports for the thesis that the meaning of what constitutes a nation-state has proved historically unstable (Cobban 1969). Instead of discussing the historical formation of the nation-states in terms of beginnings and endings—between old communities and new societies—I propose we think on the relationships between the prevailing conceptualization of the nation-state at particular moments in history so that we trace major shifts in the concept of the nation-state from its early Enlightenment formulations, through experiences of imperialism, anti-imperialism, welfare state, to current multicultural, post-national or cosmopolitan formulations. Instead of methodological nationalism, that is, a fixed relationship between social theory, the concept of society and the historical formation of the nation-state, I propose that there is a changing relationship between the nation-state’s self-understanding and social theory’s conceptualization of the nation-state. By acknowledging the existence of different conceptualizations of the nation-state we already start disentangling the equation between the nation-state and society and therefore the nation-state stops being the natural and rational form of society in modernity. The first of social theory’s antidotes against methodological nationalism, the recognition of its historical opacity, points in the direction that the nation-state is a modern form of socio-political organization but is not the necessary product of modernity.

The Sociological Uncertainty of the Nation-State

The main argument for this section is that there is permanently an important level of uncertainty with regard to the nation-state’s capacity to deal with its continuous crises. The question of the nation-state’s ability to sort out these crises creates, for those living traumatic events in the present, a level of anxiety that is usually lost when the crises are normalized as just (more or less important) episodes of the national history. Despite its crises, however, the nation-state has proved particularly successful in presenting its solidity and stability as something as transparent as it is self-evident. The canon of social theory may help us transcend methodological nationalism at this sociological plane as long as we recognize the importance of this ambivalence between solidity and instability in the nation-state’s self-presentation.

To take an example from classical sociology, we may remember how Max Weber tried to come to terms with the problems of defining the nation. For Weber (1978: 395), the nation is ‘one of the most vexing, since emotionally charged concepts’ to be found in the sociological lexicon and he was sceptical as to whether the nation could be truly formalized as a concept. He understood well that ‘the people,’ language, ethnicity, class and culture all can and have been taken as the nation’s true core and yet none of them was really so. ‘If the concept of “nation” can in any way be defined unambiguously,’ he says, it can just refer to ‘a specific sentiment of solidarity’ of a certain group of people ‘in the face of other groups’ (Weber 1970: 172). He was at pains in trying to find an appropriate definition of what a nation is. Weber was aware of the fact that nations and states hardly ever coincide in historical reality so the idea of the nation-state was hardly the natural form of politics in modernity. When powerful and strong, states expand beyond the nation’s limits and become multinational Empires. When states are weak and ‘forsake power,’ peoples living within these states cannot be conceived of as nations at all (Weber 1978: 395-7).

Scholars working within the field of historical sociology have proved that there is an ‘elective affinity’ between class and national politics. According to Michael Mann, both classes and nations were equally able to convey an abstract sense of community in analogously universalistic ways: ‘if the nation was an imagined community, its main ideological competitor, class consciousness, might seem to have been even more metaphorical, an “imaginary community” … we shall see that the two imagined or imaginary communities arose together, conjoined, in the same process of modernisation … over matters of political representation and state reform, class and national consciousness developed and fused’ (Mann 1992: 141-2). A nation-state is thus formed when all classes find a way of attaching their identity and interests to the idea of the nation. The core of this ‘co-originality’ between class and nation argument is that it allows us to keep in mind that far from a harmonious and free-of-conflict form of socio-political organization, the nation-state is a conflictive form of socio-political organization whose social, political and symbolic structure is constantly an object of struggle (Fine and Chernilo 2003). For our purposes here, the thesis of the co-originality is important on three different grounds. First, because it demonstrates that the rise of the nation was accompanied with the rise of classes—the nation did not emerge unchallenged as the key form of political or cultural identity in modernity. Secondly, because it sets the tone for the more general argument that the nation is in permanent competition with alternative forms of identity. Thirdly, because it reinforces the argument we introduced at the beginning of this section. The degree of urgency with which the nation felt threatened by class politics at the time of the widening of the franchise is lost when that particular challenge to the nation’s unity is lost. Yet, the nation-state constantly faces new threats.

A good example of this is found in Talcott Parsons’s investigation on the rise of Fascism. To Parsons, the idea of the Western society as a ‘democratic nation-state’ was set in negative contrast with the regressive utopia represented by Fascism and totalitarianism (Gerhardt 2002). Parsons compared the nation-state with totalitarian regimes and saw the two as radically different, but equally real, types of society. He did not have to look very far to realize that nation-states shared the world with alternative forms of socio-political organization that have all arisen from within Western civilization. Writing in 1942, Parsons (1993: 203) regarded Fascism as ‘deeply rooted in the structure of Western society as a whole.’ Fascism arose from within the Western society and Parsons (1993: 215) saw its development as a particular combination of institutional structures (rapid urbanization and economic change), ideological definitions (nationalism and mass politics) and patterns of psychological reaction (growing individualism and consumerism). He equally realized that there was no peaceful co-existence between nation-states and totalitarian regimes; in the case of Nazi Germany nation-states had to engage in a total war against it. Parsons was well aware of the uncertainty of the nation-states. His view was that the nation-state could be dissolved from within (Weimar Germany being turned into Nazi Germany), or as a result of war defeat (the Nazis taking over Europe) and he could of course have no certainty on whether the nation-state would at the end prevail. In the same way as he did not see the nation-state as the natural or necessary representation of society in modernity during World War II, by the time of the Cold War period Parsons’s view was that the Western and Communist blocs were as ‘sovereign’ units as individual nation-states. Despite problems and shortcomings in his sociology, Parsons’s portrayal of modernity is closer to a critique than to an example of methodological nationalism.

More recently, we experienced or at least witnessed all sorts of different reactions on the threats that so-called global terrorism poses to Western life as it is known so far. Indeed, strong reactions on this were found not only among the general public and politicians but they were equally present among some critical intellectuals. The point I am trying to make here is not to diminish how strongly people feel about the dangers posed by these threats nor, for that matter, to assess how accurately or insightfully these intellectuals are interpreting the threats to our world and age. Rather, this section on the sociological uncertainty of the nation-state tries to demonstrate that challenges and threats of this sort are a common occurrence throughout the history of the nation-state in modernity.

A constitutive part of the rhetoric of the nation-state is that of its strength and stability—its ability to impose order and provide welfare. At the same time, however, we have briefly reviewed that the nation-state faces constant crises which threaten to divide the nation and weaken the state. The nation-state is an unfinished project which paradoxically presents itself as an already established form of socio-political organization. The question of why and how this strong image has become so prevalent seems to be related to the fact that nation-states themselves are interested in being portrayed in this solid way and the important extent to which they have succeeded in doing that. If the first of social theory’s antidotes against methodological nationalism was the recognition of its historical opacity, the second is to acknowledge this sociological uncertainty as another of the nation-state’s permanent features. I have hinted in this section that, at all times, the nation-state faces its current crisis as the most urgent threat—almost a death-threat. Yet, it was also noted that these death-threats are only felt as such in the present and it is by no means certain or necessary that the following generations will remember these threats so dramatically. This is why the question is one of sociological uncertainty: we neither surrender to the image of solidity, historical continuity and social-cultural homogeneity of the nation-state nor underestimate the strength and capacity with which the nation-state resolves its crises and finds ways of recreating itself.

The Normative Ambivalence of the Nation-State

I have already introduced the historical and sociological dimensions on which a social theory of the nation-state beyond methodological nationalism needs to concentrate. In this section I shall add a thirdnormative element to these two and hold that the ambivalent normative legacy of the nation-state in modernity results, to a great extent, from the opacity and uncertainty that were described in the previous sections. As the opening paragraph of this chapter makes apparent, the internal normative basis of the nation-state can be and has been based on many different sources. Equally, externally, the understanding of the connections between the nation-state, internationalism and cosmopolitanism remains largely an open question.

In continuing our references to classical sociologists, some of Emile Durkheim’s reflections on the state and politics are an interesting case in point here. Durkheim supported throughout all his life a substantive idea of humanity although he was convinced that the French Third Republic had become an incarnation of that idea of humanity. Durkheim (1915) considered that Germany’s ‘bellicose spirit’ was the main cause of the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 and this made France’s role quite unique; Durkheim took the defence of France’s national identity as a ‘moral duty’ precisely because he regarded it as universal as well as national. The normative tension between both sides is apparent in Durkheim’s (1992: 72) conceptualization that national patriotism and ‘world patriotism’ were ‘equally high-minded kind of sentiments.’ He understood that abstract moral ideals such as world patriotism have to be anchored in ‘real’ communities and states—national patriotism. Durkheim’s greatest insight is the seriousness of his attempt to combine normative and sociological arguments. Despite all the shortcomings of his anti-German chauvinism and a certain naiveté in his ideas of humanity and moral individualism, Durkheim did not surrender in his effort to make normative and sociological arguments work together. A sound idea of the nation-state requires the firmest possible moral ground, which only cosmopolitanism can provide.

The normative ambivalence in which I am interested here is subtly captured by the differences—at least in tone—of some of Jürgen Habermas’s public interventions about recent international events: his cautious but decided defence of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and his open condemnation of the war in Iraq in 2003. For the former Habermas argues that, despite the fact of the legal gaps in the justification for an international military action in a sovereign state’s internal affairs, the intervention was right; on the one hand, empirically, owing to the urgency of stopping genocide and, on the other, owing to its normative basis, the ‘leap from the classical international law of states to a cosmopolitan law of a global civil society’ (Habermas 1999: 264). Habermas was seriously concerned, however, with the lack of an explicit UN Security Council resolution to back the use of military force but he none the less regarded the situation in Kosovo as so grave that the intervention was justified as an exception: ‘NATO’s self-authorization should not be allowed to become the general rule’ (Habermas 1999: 271). The ambivalent relationships between international law based on the principle of national self-determination and an emerging cosmopolitan legal order led Habermas to the conclusion that the risks of waging a morally justified war on grounds that are not fully legalized were tremendous at all levels. He thus put, hypothetically, the following question ‘What do we say when one day the military alliance of another region—for example, in Asia—pursues the politics of human rights with military means in accordance with a very different interpretation of international law or the UN Charter?’ (Habermas 1999: 270). The problem the world faced in 2003 with the war in Iraq confirmed Habermas’s worst fears. This ‘very different interpretation of international law’ has indeed arisen but from within the West: ‘normative dissent has divided the West itself (Habermas 2003: 366). The war in Iraq marks a change because: ‘For half a century the United States could count as the pacemaker for progress on this cosmopolitan path. With the war in Iraq … the normative authority of the United States of America lies in ruins’ (Habermas 2003: 365).

Habermas’s argument is that the novelty in this most recent Anglo-Saxon military campaign lies in its claim that ‘if the regime of international law fails, then the hegemonic imposition of a global liberal order is justified, even by means that are hostile to international law’ (Habermas 2003: 365). In his view, this signals the reappearance in a new context of deep-seated legal and political traditions in the UK and the US in which the tensions between national and cosmopolitan interests and values are resolved in the form of national liberalism. Habermas (2003: 366) is therefore forced to face the upsetting fact that ‘in hindsight,’ even during the Kosovo crisis, Britain and the US ‘satisfied themselves with the normative goal of promulgating their own liberal order, through violence if necessary,’ so that what in 1999 could be counted as ‘the undisputed democratic and rule-of-law character of all the members of the acting military coalition,’ even if it remains true, it certainly adopts a much less cosmopolitan flavour.

More than an assessment of Habermas’s arguments, I am interested here in how the normative ambivalence which is expressed in these two pieces helps us think beyond methodological nationalism. The kind of ‘normative optimism’ that is found in his Kosovo paper seems to have been widely shared at the time and yet, less than five years later, this optimism is severely weakened. Habermas’s normative claims have indeed remained the same but their relationship with historical and sociological facts is now less apparent: his own view of the institutionalization of an embryonic cosmopolitan legal order seems, if anything, more distant in 2003 than it looked in 1999. Had Habermas (1969) applied more consistently some key lessons of his own view of the history of sociology on this particular problem—the progressive and conservative forces that shape modernity are deeply rooted in the history of social theory—he would have realized that neither the principle of national self-determination nor cosmopolitan ideals are naturally or automatically attached to any particular politics. The illusion of methodological nationalism is here that of a nation-state which successfully manages its own affairs internally whilst at the same time it unproblematically finds its place in a neatly divided world composed only of formally equivalent nation-states. There is no clear-cut solution to the question of the autonomy and self-determination of the nation-state, on the one hand, and its position within the global and/or cosmopolitan context, on the other. The question for this section, the third antidote against methodological nationalism, is that of normative ambivalence: the problematic internal and external legitimacy on which the idea of the nation-state rests.

Conclusion: The Ambivalent Position of the Nation-State in Modernity

In his reconstruction of political thought, philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1955) convincingly demonstrated that there is a certain mythical element in all political doctrines. In modernity, these myths do not disappear but rather find in the state a privileged place to hide and re-emerge. Cassirer discusses how natural rights, social contract, popular sovereignty and race, among others, are all sources on which a claim to the state can be made; he reconstructs how these different doctrines were held predominantly at different moments in modern history and demonstrates that these myths are an immanent feature of modern politics. If we see things this way, methodological nationalism becomes the highest—or just another one, if you prefer—of the modern state’s myths. Methodological nationalism must then be rejected because the history and main features of the nation-state are made artificially to coincide with the history and main features of modernity itself. Methodological nationalism needs to be transcended because, rather than allowing us to capture the actual complications of the history of the nation-state in modernity, it turns the nation-state into the natural organizing principle of modernity.

As a contribution to moving beyond methodological nationalism, this chapter has attempted to reconstruct some of the main arguments in this debate and then advanced three claims on which a social theory of the nation-state can develop further. Each of these arguments pointed in the direction of one particular aspect of the historical, sociological and normative features of the nation-state in modernity. Historically, the opacity of the nation-state shows us that its alleged ‘rise and fall’ is a normal occurrence within modernity. Sociologically, the opacity of the nation-state becomes apparent in the way in which situations of alert or crises seem as much the norm as its alleged normality, solidity and stability. Normatively, the key issue remains—for us as well as in the past—finding the ways to connect the nation-state with cosmopolitan ideals. The tension between internal and external sources of legitimization for the nation-state will surely not fade away. This chapter has thus tried to refute the thesis that the whole edifice of social theory is so contaminated with methodological nationalism that it is this very feature which incapacitates it to make sense of the nation-state beyond methodological nationalism. Social theory’s strengths and weaknesses in understanding the nation-state seem, above all, to reflect the nation-state’s own ambivalent position in modernity.