The Social Psychology of Nationalism: To Die for the Sake of Strangers

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

There are many reasons why elites initiate wars: for wealth, power, glory, or perhaps as Homer tells us, for the love of a beautiful woman. But how and why do ‘ordinary’ citizens passionately lend support to revolutions against kings or national wars against ‘hated’ enemies for reasons they may little understand and about whom they often know very little—save what they hear from leaders. Nationalism allows modern nations to willingly send, indeed sacrifice, their young in battle, while these young eagerly and proudly kill or die for unknown members of their communities and causes that may be contrary to their class interests, if not their very lives. The power of nationalism comes from its power to create an identity based on emotion and the irrational; it is the ruling passion of our age (Guibernau 1996; Kecmanovic 1996). Nationalism, as a loyalty to other members of one’s nation, has been intertwined with subjective factors of self, desire and intense passions that have led citizens to perform noble deeds of self-sacrifice as well as brutal torture and murder of ‘enemies.’ Nationalism, as a political sentiment seeking to establish self-determined nation-states, as social mobilizations to realize or defend nations, and as passionate loyalty and devotion to one’s nation, as an identity granting cultural community, may have been the most important determinant of social and personal life in recent history. It has led to a vast expansion of civil and human rights, democracy, brotherhood, freedom and creativity. But the other side of its Janus face has been bloody civil, revolutionary and world wars and mass devastation. Technologies of death production annihilated millions of civilians in London, Auschwitz, Warsaw, Nanking, Dresden and Hiroshima. Nationalist follies in Algeria, Vietnam, Cambodia and recently Iraq added more millions. Most social or cultural explanations depend on or allude to social-psychological factors ranging from conceptions of self, identity and Other, to primordial needs for communities, unconscious desires and attachments, passions and emotions. But in most such cases, while the structural, economic, or political ‘determinants’ are evident, the implicit social psychology is more often assumed or invoked than carefully theorized.

Most ‘explanations’ for the rise of the modern nation-state as an ‘imagined community’ consider the importance of printing, the rise of a bourgeois class, Enlightenment ideas of popular sovereignty, imagined peace between republican nations and/or industrialization (cf. Gellner 1983; Anderson 1991). These factors inspired bourgeois challenges to the legitimacy of dynastic elites; they claimed to ‘represent’ heretofore suppressed ‘people’ with inalienable political rights who now clamored for self-determination and control of the state to realize the cultural; the ‘national principle’ held that the ‘people’ would now control the political (Gellner 1983).

The central claims of nationalism are that: first the ‘people’ in politics are best understood as a defined and bounded group with a common history, language and tradition; and, second, that a ‘nation’ has a unique claim to be considered a legitimate political basis for sovereignty—greater than older bases such as ‘empire,’ ‘dynastic right,’ ‘theocracy.’

The triumphant bourgeoisie would rule in the name of the ‘people,’ even as they created that ‘people’ whose heretofore ‘submerged’ history, culture, traditions and unique identity now demanded articulation and celebration. The subsequent economic and political power of bourgeois nations inspired fear, ressentiment and subsequent emulation by various aristocrats, colonial elites, Greek students, Finnish scholars and Turkish and Japanese warriors etc. Their nationalisms were not always so benign.

To understand why people first yearned for the realization of nations, then internalized national citizenship as an identity and subsequently showed passionate loyalty and devotion to their national community, requires considerations of the national subject, understood as a constellation of self-identity, values, motives, desires and feelings typical of members of ‘imagined’ political communities as they are shaped by and in turn impact inter-group relations and political life. A national identity that becomes seen and experienced as an immutable essence within the modern subject, links him/her to the history and destiny of his/her ‘imagined political community.’ How and why did that subject emerge and nationalism become its moral imperative (Poole 1999)?

Psychoanalytic Theory

Freud (1961 [1930]) wrote on civilization, not nationalism per se. Yet he provided a starting point for considering character, underlying desires, emotions and defenses that often kept motives from awareness. The most important desires, sex and aggression, prompted attachments to some people, desires to hurt or destroy Others. Civilization demanded that such sexual or aggressive desires be held in check; people needed internalized controls so that they might get along with each other, sublimate desires into work and build civilization. This occurred through identification, the basic process of character development. Caretakers, as role models, were internalized as templates within the ego and super-ego. The ego was the more conscious, reflexive moment of character that dealt with reality. Such identification was a defense against separation anxiety and primordial fears of abandonment when infants were helpless and powerless to control the world. The self, the reflexive moment of the ego, has its own desires for recognition and esteem, narcissism. The super-ego, internalized social dictates, conscience, emerged as a defense against fear of harm and annihilation (castration). Deeds, or even wishes for the forbidden, evoked guilt—the basis of misery and often self-destructive behavior. While we are motivated by sexual and aggressive desires, we also seek to avoid harm and danger, to allay fear and anxiety and to avoid shame so as to secure pride and self-esteem.

Freud offered suggestive insights on internalization and identification, group dynamics, and the lure of charismatic leaders as unconscious parent figures who embodied group values and secured the bonds that held people together. As Freud argued, human desire could attach itself to symbols and enable attachments to abstract entities like nations. Identification with groups like nations provides gratifications and assuages fears. People often exaggerated slight differences with Others to enhance self-esteem through disdain of the Other. Freud did not really concern himself with nationalism per se, save the unlikelihood that socialism would allay aggression and war that he saw were biologically based and inevitable. Yet his insights influenced others, especially with the rise of Fascism when leaders manipulated fear and hatreds to mobilize support for their policies.

Wilhelm Reich’s (1946) analysis of the ‘mass psychology of fascism’ argued ideology, once internalized, acted as a material force. Capitalism required passive workers, rendered compliant through early sexual repression that fostered a punitive super-ego; and hence an ‘authoritarian personality,’ subservient to authorities above, dominating those below, and hatred to ‘Others’ who were different. Such character types, frequent in the lower middle classes, embraced reactionary nationalisms led by ‘powerful men.’ Such dynamics led many, including segments of the working classes, to embrace Hitler.

The Frankfurt School, incorporating Freud into the ‘immanent critique’ of domination, illuminated the characterological factors that led people to embrace Hitler and National Socialism. Freudian theory offered important insights on character, repression, authoritarianism, leadership, mass media, propaganda and ‘rabble rousers’ disposing fascism. Fromm (1941) suggested that in face of major social changes, when social ties were attenuated and individuals set ‘free,’ they faced anxiety, powerlessness and meaninglessness. They sought to ‘escape from freedom’ through social movements demanding submission to powerful, charismatic leaders who promised love in exchange for obedience and compliance. Following the defeat of World War I, burdens of reparations and a depression with millions of people facing unemployment, Hitler’s charismatic demagoguery enthralled vast numbers of Germans. National Socialism, demanding total loyalty and subjugation to the state, promised pride, prosperity, renewed greatness and retribution to those responsible for duress—especially the hated Jews and communists.

Fromm suggested that nationalism depended on needs to belong to a group that provided community, pride in membership and a framework of meaning. Positive evaluations of one’s group, ‘social narcissism,’ can be benevolent or benign. In face of stress and conflict, it can lead to certain pathologies—depression, anxiety, a collective lack of judgment and reason, and hatred to dehumanized, ‘evil’ Others that justify whatever heinous acts are undertaken. Given the enfeeblement of the modern ego, people found narcissistic compensations through identifications with valorized and powerful nation-states that were often personified in a particular leader who offered utopian promises for the future and passion contra the rational state that is the dialectal partner of nationalism.

These concerns with subjective, emotional, often unconscious aspects of nationalism, suggested how and why modern subjects were constituted and motivated to embrace the most odious forms of nationalism and genocide. Koenigsberg (1977) offered some psychoanalytic insights on the subjective aspects of the nation, in terms of attachments to Father/Motherlands, narcissism, aggression and self-defeating behavior such as national death wishes and so on. For Bloom (1990), identification was the critical process linking the individual to the nation. These legacies informed the recent integrations of Kecmanovic (1996), who, like Finlayson (1998), argued that psychoanalytic perspectives still provide valuable insights. Yet there have been very few systematic attempts to develop a social psychology of nationalism that considers the historical and politically based constitution of the subject, for example, self, identity, desire, the role of unconscious motivation and conflict as well as cognitive processes like imagination, categorization and so forth. As will be shown, the historically situated ideological constructions of nations and national identities, seemingly essential and primordial, colonize the individual self to willingly assent to and find emotional gratifications in nationalism from its everyday banalities to its episodic wars.

Toward a General Social Psychology of Nationalism

The early nationalisms, culminating in democratic nation-states, served the economic, political and cultural interests of the bourgeoisie. Their new authority to rule enhanced their profits, celebrated their ‘modern’ culture and enabled them to disseminate their worldviews. But nations and nationalism served psychological interests of elites as well as masses. The very emergence of nationalism rested on social-psychological factors, the emergence of new kinds of selfhood, national identities and desires.

The rise of political subjectivity

Cultures, as values, meanings and ways of life of a community, provide members with an identity, a reflexive sense of self, an interpretation of who one is, a basis for choices and relationships with others. In feudal societies, cultural identity, as a sense of common origins, continuity over time, shared values and difference from others, was fairly fixed by lineage within a class or occupation (Baumeister 1986). Ingemeinschaft societies, behavior, manner and demeanor, dress and even selfhood, showed little variation between people of the same status. But in the eleventh century, with the institutionalization of confession, the person was held responsible for his/her own sins or virtues and thus the roots of individualism were planted. At about this time the institutionalization of formal legal training to administer Church property revived debates over ‘natural law’ and inalienable rights. This established the groundwork for juridical individualism and, eventually, the ‘rights of man.’ Within a short time, students at then new universities were sorting themselves on the basis of ‘nations.’ Further, we can note the early emergence of a sense of territorial bound communities beyond the manor that while not polities, were surely ‘publics.’

As trade with the Levant began to flourish in Italy, the emergent market encouraged a more individualized subject among the merchant classes. Cities and commercial centers, with greater division of labor further encouraged a more individualistic orientation to the world (Durkheim 1984 [1897]; Simmel 1950). Identity, individually or collectively, became problematic. The more successful merchants wished to establish a unique identity to clearly distinguish themselves from the landed nobles or peasants. They would ‘find’ that ‘identity’ as ‘descendants of Rome’ based on the recovery and rebirth of Greco-Roman culture. Renaissance art and culture provided them with ‘cultural capital’ that differentiated them from others. Individual artists were recognized and perspectivism (attempts to indicate depth) individualized the viewer. Secular portraiture attempted to valorize the uniqueness of the newly affluent bourgeoisie. This era led to humanism casting the person an as autonomous subject. Moreover, we also began to see the emergence of armed militias of burgher notables loyal to the city, maintaining social order (see Rembrandt’s Night Watch). This was hardly nationalism, but it was a step. As the bourgeoisie grew, the rise of printing encouraged literacy, the explosion of knowledge and multiple perspectives of truth. Some people began to question the teachings and practices of the Church. Eventually, merchant classes found an ‘elective affinity’ with rational, individualistic Protestantism.

Meanwhile, as the social structure demanded a more autonomous, self-controlled person, bourgeois childhood eventually became recognized as a clearly demarcated stage in the life cycle, apart from, yet preparatory for adulthood (Ariès 1962). The bourgeoisie, living in more spacious houses with separate bedrooms, fostered a separation of public and private spheres that in turn engendered a private, individuated self (Zaretsky 1976). For Elias (1978), this ‘invention of childhood’ and systematic child-rearing were part of a long drawn out ‘civilizing process’ in which manners and etiquette led to progressively greater repression and control over bodily desires and impulsivity. Internalized controls of shame and guilt over ‘dangerous impulses’ were essential factors in fostering the individualized, self-controlled subjectivity and behavior demanded by a ‘civilized modernity.’ Child-rearing became a systematic activity to foster a self-controlled, individualistic subject who would ‘defer gratification’ to prepare for an education and subsequent trading career. While elites had been educated by clerics, tutors or in the few universities, with industrialization, public schools educated wide segments of the people. This character pattern, in which impulse control came from within, a growing market economy without, and waning aristocracy, facilitated the rise of nations of self-regulating, self-governing citizens with some formal education.

The Rise of Nations

The growth of Protestantism led to the bloody Eighty and Thirty Years wars that ended with the Westphalia treaty in 1648, recognizing the end of the Holy Roman Empire, territorial sovereignty within fixed borders, and equal rights to Protestants and Catholics. With the growing market economy coupled with demands of the psyche from within, bourgeois merchants became more and more resentful and critical of the often mediocre talents of dynastic rulers and their squandering state fortunes. Given the changing nature of the political economy, changing class relationships, and subjective changes in character, identity and desire, the existing feudal political arrangements did not serve the class interests, nor the political goals, nor the ideological values, nor the emotional interests of the bourgeoisie as the vanguard class of modernization. Political and economic pressures for changes grew; so too did the emergent forms of subjectivities experience increasing emotional frustrations and anger with dynastic rule and hopes for a new kind of polity. As the growing rational market society became more and more incongruent with the existing state of affairs, so too did these existing social relationships frustrate new longings and desires and hence warranted discarding.

The bourgeoisie became a receptive audience for the emancipatory ideas of the Enlightenment, its critiques of aristocracy and notions of human rights. Republican ideas were discussed and debated in the newly emergent ‘public spheres’ of civil society, ‘ideal speech situations, where shared grievances were aired, alternative imaginaries articulated, agendas formulated and leaders emerged that would lead social movements to realize a new political imaginary, the nation (cf. Habermas 1989 [1968]). The progressive ideas of popular sovereignty, democratic nationhood, and even universalism and tolerance envisioned by intellectuals like Kant, Fichte and Herder, became aspects of a shared vision and inspiration promising a peaceful, diverse world encouraging human freedom. The realization of the ‘spirit of the people,’ the ‘volk,’ a community based on blood ties with an identity granting common culture, required physical, intellectual and political freedom. Soon the ideas of popular sovereignty joined objective political grievances from taxation to poverty to inform the American and French Revolutions with subjective discontents.

The image of the political nation as a ‘people,’ as citizens with a shared culture, language and in turn identity, served mobilizing functions for the rising bourgeoisie, enlisting allies against dynastic crowns and subsequently securing assent to their rule. The bourgeoisie spearheaded the ‘nationalist principle’; they would be the ‘democratically’ elected representatives of the ‘people’ who would control the state to realize the culture. Citizens, sharing a political identity based on national membership, as ‘equals’ in political crowds, ‘equals’ before the law, would ‘equally’ serve in national armies where the ruling classes of citizens would send ruled classes of conscripted citizens to war in order to increase national wealth. Further, citizen identities obscured class-based identities at a time when industrialization fostered class conflicts and challenges from growing populations of urban proletariat led by various socialist and communist parties. When ‘workers’ challenged their conditions, they often faced strikebreakers, police and armies. When however ‘citizens’ accepted membership in the nation, national identities and bourgeois leadership, they received various material benefits, entitlements (unemployment insurance, health care, retirement etc.). And imperialism often meant jobs. Nationalist passions dulled revolutionary fervor.

Whether we start with the English Civil War or the American and French revolutions, forces were set in motion that would foster various kinds of nationalisms, bourgeois, military and imperial. The Napoleonic wars attempted to create an integrated, rational, bourgeois French dominated European market, but reactionary forces of God and Throne joined to defeat Napoleon. Nevertheless, the nationalist genie was loose and indeed marshalling armies to fight him fostered the feared secular nationalisms. Once triumphant, the economic, political and indeed military superiority of (industrial) nation states led to fears, envy and ressentiment among various sub-elites in traditional states, such as intellectuals, military classes, landed nobles or independence-oriented colonial officials who then initiated their own nationalisms (Calhoun 1997). There was no single course from dynastic states to modern nations. The kinds and directions of nationalist movements were prefigured by objective factors such as the pre-modern class and property relations, contractual relations, the power of agrarian elites and limits, if any, on their power (cf. Moore 1966). Early bourgeois, civic nationalisms were based on inclusion, hope and promises of individual freedom. Subsequent nation-states varied by democratic-authoritarian rule, inclusion based on language and culture, or exclusion based on blood. Many of these later integral, nationalisms, especially those led by traditional military classes, were more typically impelled by ressentiment and/or fear. For example, German and Japanese aristocratic militarists embraced exclusionary, authoritarian ethnonationalisms extolling the state, demanding subjugation of the people.

Among the underlying factors shaping the goals and directions of nationalist movements were emotional considerations, often reactions to social circumstances. The Frankfurt School had suggested that strict, indeed punitive socialization disposed authoritarianism, submission to superiors, while demanding submission from those below. This in turn led to preferences for strong leaders with unambiguous policies, who were comfortable with power, harsh on subordinates or deviants, and punitive to out-groups. Lakoff (2002) suggested that families varied along a ‘strict father,’ ‘nurturant mother’ polarity that becomes internalized as aspects of political selfhood and identity disposing affinity for either ‘tough leaders’ or nurturant ones. In times of fear, people prefer strong, assertive, if not aggressive leaders to defend them and press for their rights. In times of peace and calm, people prefer more nurturant and caring kinds of generous, tolerant leadership. Feshbach (1987), using attachment theory, suggested that early ties to caretakers influenced a person’s later political ideology and the parameters of his/her nationalism and patriotism. Patriotism, as love of one’s nation, tends to be correlated with positive attachments to parents, while nationalism seemed more associated with asserting power and control. Caretakers who valued allocations of social resources to children’s needs, tend to support disarmament and negotiation. Anxious and insecure attachments seemed to foster bullying behavior in childhood and support for the use of force in asserting national rights.

National Identities

With the emergence of bourgeois modernity, collective identities became problematic, local family-based identities became fragmented; religion was far too general to provide relevant identities. While elites spearheaded nations, once established, it was not only necessary for the nation to foster the realization of the ‘suppressed culture’ of the ‘people,’ but to fashion that culture, create its ‘people,’ its narratives of identity, spread their ‘common tongue’ and a universal idiom and ‘high culture’; these converged in the creation of a national identity (cf. Gellner 1983). National elites, with allied intellectuals, created educational institutions to foster mass literacy through common texts teaching the intentionally constructed ‘proper’ form of the national tongue; dialects and argots had limited communication to nearby people (cf. E. Weber 1976). The Israelis resurrected Hebrew as their national language to overcome diverse European roots and create linguistic unity with Jews from the Middle East to Ethiopia. National tongues enable national identities.

But how did national identities move from the imaginations of economic and intellectual elites to the banalities of the masses. This has been termed nation-building, fostering identification with and loyalty to the nation. Schooling teaches the ‘invented’ histories, ersatz continuities, legends and traditions of a ‘people’ that inscribe a distinct, national identity linked to a common history, a shared culture, common fate and destiny that valorizes uniqueness (cf. Hobsbawn and Ranger 1983). Students learn pledges of allegiance, patriotic songs, anthems and rituals of commemoration that celebrate heroes, leaders, patriots and martyrs whose iconic characteristics exemplify, celebrate and shape the ‘national character.’ This involves visits to capitals, ‘hallowed grounds,’ tombs, cemeteries and museums. Further, schools teach the nation’s cultural or scientific attainments and appreciation of the distinct art, music, dance and literature of a ‘people.’ The well-studied student will not only know his/her nation’s history and geography, but how his/her nation is a little different, and perhaps a lot better than Others, especially those on the border.

Nationalism, like a religion, is a set of beliefs of common origins, specialness and destiny, and rituals, patriotic pledges, songs, anthems and celebrations that unite a ‘people’ into an identity granting ‘imagined [political] community’ that creates ‘citizens.’ Flags and anthems, much like totems, celebrate identities, prompt reverence and awe to a national community, inspire pride in national identities, and loyalty to the nation. Indeed, celebrations and rituals create identities and unite heretofore disparate masses (Spillman 1997). National solidarity means fellow nationals feel good around those like themselves, with whom they can see aspects of themselves, and who confirm and ratify each other’s views. Finally, people learn about the rights, rewards and obligations of civil, political and social citizenship. As a result of socialization, schooling and mass media, national identities become an internalized part of the self and are experienced as fundamental means of self-expression and communication (Poole 1999).

Following Poole (1999), identities exist in frameworks of interpretation and meaning provided by language, cultural symbols and values through which we become aware of ourselves and others. A national identity, as part of the new moral order, accepts certain values and commitments to underline and inform all other identities, and in case of conflict, takes priority over class, gender, race, religion or occupation. Durkheim argued that society as a moral order could demand the sacrifice of one’s very life—altruistic suicide. Nations too, can and often do demand such sacrifices of their people. Since nations provide meanings, pleasures and rewards beyond those found in individual lives, by dint of socialized character, attachments to brethren citizens and felt moral obligations, people willingly comply with such demands.

While ‘print-capitalism’ enabled modern nationalism, today, mass media now plays an extensive role in celebrating national holidays and commemorations. Mass media, often in collusion with political elites, can be used for propaganda purposes. Highly charged negative images and portrayals of impure, dangerous Others with evil intents evoke fear, hatred, loathing and/or anger, mobilize nationalist sentiments and support for elite policies that demand national sacrifice such as war. Governments often justify planned aggression through an ‘invented’ casus belli like the Reichstag fire, the Tonkin Gulf attacks, imminent hardship to medical students in Grenada, or claims of WMD in Iraq.

Self, Identity, Desire, and Emotion

The development and structuring of the individual self, an aspect of the ego, as the locus of reflexivity, marks the intersection between underlying, socialized motivation and consciousness and behavior. The self is initially shaped in the family through both direct socialization and internalization of the parental role model. Identification, as both attachment and internalization, links self to group, whether family or community. In order to find certain emotional gratifications and/or allay suffering, the self assumes a number of identities and locations that link subjectivity and self-awareness to the patterned routines of everyday social life in late modernity (Giddens 1991). With the internalization of a national self-identity, we can talk about a national ‘collective consciousness.’ A national self-identity is impelled to seek or avoid certain kinds of outcomes and resulting emotional experiences by virtue of citizenship. Moreover, as noted, class location and family experiences impact character to dispose political stances regarding nationalism.

Desire as impelling action

What motives and feelings foster the embrace of nationalist movements, loyalties to the nation, or the emergence of reactionary nationalisms? Freudian theory was suggestive but not definitive, nor did it consider historical factors and group struggles over the contested terrains of political and cultural power that gave rise to nations in general and particularities of each. Recent sociological approaches to emotion suggest a sociological model of desire based an biologically rooted affects that become subjected to social cues and controls and in turn foster certain social behaviors (Hochschild 1986). If people are universally capable of certain basic affective responses, so too do they have capacities for consciousness, which, as a social product, becomes the means through which affects become socialized, beginning with their evocation through symbolic as well as physical cues. Tompkins (1962) suggested that there are certain universal affective responses, joy, love/acceptance, fear/anxiety/distress, shame, sadness, disgust, contempt, anger, and interest/anticipation. These basic affects, like primary colors, can be shaded or joined together through socialization. Affects once socialized, nuanced and controlled become a vast array of ‘emotions’ that may or may not be experienced as feelings and/or expressed directly or in actions.

Desire can be theorized as what impels seeking certain positive emotional states, or avoiding unpleasant emotions. To understand the longing for and/or devotion to a nation and the emotional basis of a national self-identity we need to consider how certain desires are linked to emotions; people embrace identities and choose to enact behaviors to gain certain experiences and avoid others. Thus self-identities are not simply conceptions, but are means through which social behavior and interaction from work to play to political participation provide or evade emotional experiences. But no matter how we approach individual motivation, it must be institutionally channeled into social behavior. Nationalism is a shared motive, embraced by groups, but for individuals, a collective motive may provide various emotional gratifications. National goals cannot be reduced to individual motivation per se. Thus the pleasures of aggression may explain why individuals disdain, hate or fight each other. But collective interests from national self-determination to geopolitical influence or even war cannot be reduced to individual desires. Individual desires for aggressive responses must be mobilized, channeled and directed by nationalist leaders to gain popular support for collective responses to avenge real or imagined insults. Nationalist leaders intuitively understand their followers and know how to use the language of emotions to mobilize people to willingly bring death, destruction and human misery in the name of a higher principle—the national good.

Positive Emotions

Community and engagement vs. loneliness

For Aristotle, people as political animals, zoon politicon, sought friendships, connections, relationships and communities. People generally find comfort in being with those who are similar; group membership becomes an antidote to loneliness, nothingness and anxiety, which is ultimately based on fear of death (Becker 1973; Kecmanovic 1996). There is a fundamental need for attachment that is part of normal psychological functioning, starting with ‘attachment behavior’ (Bowlby 1969–73). As feudal society waned, individualism attenuated social bonds while Reason undermined religious-based meanings and understandings. Yet people need ties and meanings. The ground was fertile for the emergence of new forms of community and values. Romanticism promised an ‘authentic’ life and small communities where genuine self-realization stood apart from urban life dominated by the rational market. But that response was only available for an elite few. The broader nation-state enabled an integration of romantic resistance to fragmentation and meaninglessness with the rationalization of governance of a ‘national community’ with a shared history, ‘authentic’ identity and ‘special mission’ that linked ‘chosen people’ together and provided ‘ultimate meanings’ in a secular world (cf. A. Smith 2003). Nations thus provided community, identity and meaning. However ‘imaginary’ that community or mediated the ties, nations, as forms of comradeship, served solidarity functions that assuaged anxiety, much as had the Church (cf. Anderson 1991). Other kinds of belonging, such as Church, family or work, do not provide feelings of security, unless these institutions are themselves protected by the nation. Loyalty and belonging to a nation, as a sentiment rather than a rational calculation, provides the safety and security (Ignatieff 1993). This loyalty to one nation makes it possible to hate and brutally kill Others who might threaten its interests.

Recognition/dignity vs. shame

For Hegel, the quest for recognition by the Other [Slave] was a fundamental moment for the emergence of self-consciousness. More recent considerations of recognition, in such varied forms as respect, honor, distinction or self-esteem, self-worth, pride or dignity, have informed a variety of sociological discussions (cf. Honneth 1995; Sennett 2002). In a modern society, where status is problematic and ephemeral, especially for those in the lower echelons, membership in and identification with a valued national community, even if ‘imagined,’ brings a person enduring pride and dignity through identification with the nation and national qualities or accomplishments—one reason for the ‘narcissism of petty differences.’

Agency vs. passivity

Humans, able to anticipate consequences of their actions, seek to impact their environments, to have power and control over their lives. This is evident in the earliest moments of infancy when children explore and manipulate their environments. Piaget called these actions ‘intentionality.’ With literacy and the empowering values of modernity, people sought to transform the world, yet between ‘estranged labor,’ if not rationalized work in ‘iron cages’ and the ‘disciplining of docile bodies,’ most people had few spaces for the joys of agency. Thus a national self-identity, linked to a valorized and idealized nation-state, provided the person with a sense of agency and empowerment in realms apart from work, rather than powerlessness and submission. People feel empowered, if not emboldened in crowds, and especially so in patriotic rallies (Kecmanovic 1996). Indeed, as noted, for Fromm (1941), powerlessness, vulnerability to pain, hurt and perhaps exposure to danger, prompted authoritarian submission to powerful leaders and/or nationalist causes that would seemingly overcome powerlessness.

Meaning vs. anomie

Most people need goals, purposes and values to make their lives meaningful—as well as assuage the fears and anxieties of everyday life. Value systems give life meaning that often extends beyond mortal life. One of the main consequences of modernity qua disenchantment was the erosion of myths, yet people needs myths to give their lives meaning, direction and purpose. For Durkheim, religion was an indirect self-celebration of the social; nationalism, without gods or spirits, made this celebration direct. As Fromm (1973) put it, people have a fundamental need for a framework of ‘ultimate concerns,’ meanings and devotion, to integrate their energy in a single direction and elevate themselves beyond an isolated existence with its doubts and insecurities. Devotion to national goals beyond the isolated ego allows transcendence from egocentricity Thus the crafting of a national history, replete with mythologies and hagiographies, may well be a lie, as Renan put it. But as noted, a national identity is located in a moral order that is ultimately based on myths of origin, history and destiny.

People fear death and yearn for immortality. For Becker (1973) human beings create individual character structures and collective meaning systems to deny the ultimate reality of death—the most fundamental human fear. Nationalism, sacralizing the nation that endures beyond the individual’s life, grants a transcendental meaning to the nation whose ‘permanence’ makes it immortal. Indeed, some of its prophets, when speaking of the ‘volk’ as the spirit of the ‘people,’ gave it a ‘transcendental’ quality. Baumeister (1992) suggested that in order to find life meaningful, people need feelings of efficacy (agency), self-worth (dignity), and value and purpose. From what has been argued, a national self-identity not only provides such gratifications, but further, for many people in modern societies, for whom work is often alienating, religion less salient and social relationships more transient, national identity becomes the primary basis of finding life meaningful and with a purpose that transcends mortality and comforts our awareness of our personal finitude.

Avoiding adverse emotions

The nation became an identity granting community of meaning that provided its ‘citizens’ with a number of emotional gratifications. But given how certain events and conditions impact nationhood, members of national communities can experience adverse feelings: (i) fear and anxiety, as responses to impending loss of life, self or community; (ii) ressentiment, envy, shame and humiliation via attacks on the national self that typically evoke anger and rage; and (iii) anger and hatred to those who have or will cause harm or humiliation. Individuals may respond with aggression, but for the polity, aggression has different meanings, asserting a collective interest. More often than not, elite policies that serve geopolitical ends depend on fostering collective emotions to secure legitimacy. The anger, and perhaps shame, following the 9/11 attack was used by the Bush administration to justify a long-planned invasion of Iraq to secure American control over oil and foster ‘democratic governance’ in the Middle East.

Fear, anxiety, and powerlessness

Fear, a response to a clear threat, and anxiety, a response to a threat not clearly evident, among the most archaic and powerful emotions, are rooted in the fear of annihilation, death. Thus threats or attacks from within or without typically evoke fear and uncertainty that in turn usually foster greater loyalty and support for the nation. ‘When two groups are in conflict, identification with one’s own nation or group enhances negative feelings to the other group, especially if it is perceived as a source of frustration or as an enemy. Preservation of the group’s resources, or the integrity of its territory, as well as fear for one’s own safety, may be seen as reasons for defense—with attack seen as the best means of defense’ (Hinde, n.d.). While early nationalisms emphasized the politics of belonging and hopes for a better future, today, reactionary nationalisms are more often based on politics of exclusion and fears of demise from without, for example, enemies or immigrants. Thus, for example, many ultra-nationalist movements in Europe tend toward xenophobia, especially when the immigration of clearly different Others takes place at times of other major social changes.

Ressentiment, envy, shame, and humiliation

Self-esteem is often fragile; political or economic defeats, reversals or comparisons may evoke intense passions. For Greenfeld (1992), the superior power of nations, fostered ressentiment and compensatory efforts at emulation. Scheff (1994) argued that humiliation, individually or collectively, as a denial of recognition of one’s self and severing social bonds, fosters an unacknowledged alienation and shame which prompts an intense, destructive anger that loathes and denigrates the Other and protects one from facing one’s own shame, inadequacies and insecurities. ‘Hatred is the commonly used word for hidden shame/rage sequences, humiliated fury.’ Following national defeats or insults, people experience national shame and humiliation as personal attacks on their self that demand revenge or retribution. This dynamic fosters some of the bloodiest national conflicts. Elites in control of ‘information’ can find, if not create, threats and challenges that mobilize national sentiments and feelings to secure assent to economic or political agendas. German humiliation at Versailles was said to inspire a collective desire for retribution to ‘settle accounts.’ Much evidence suggests that the British fire bombings of Dresden and US nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki were more inspired by revenge rather than military necessity. The US humiliation in Vietnam was an element in mobilizing massive support for Gulf Wars I and II.

Anger, hatred, and disgust

When a person’s goals are blocked or denied, the typical response is anger as the initial stage of aggressive reaction. So too with nations, when national goals are frustrated, or imagined threatened either from within or without, people respond with anger that is often transformed by elites into hatred of the Other who is then constructed as vile and disgusting in character as in deed. As noted, insults to dignity and self-esteem evoke irrational rage and hatred that leads people to wish to hurt or destroy those responsible for current adversities and/or future intents. And leaders often manipulate real or imagined fears and humiliations to mobilize anger and popular support for their agendas.

Social Psychological Theories

Early discussions of national social psychology focused on motivation and emotion, legacies of Freudian psychology and attempts to understand reactionary nationalism. But people think, evaluate and communicate through symbols, and they can have powerful emotional attachments to symbolic representations. Therefore we should also consider cognitive functions such as perception, judgment, abstraction and imagination in more general theorization. An ‘imagined community’ is a cognitive representation (Anderson 1991), yet at the same time implies normative judgments. Moscovici (1993) has argued that ‘social representations,’ including ‘collective memories,’ are legitimate objects of study for social psychology, recognizing that concern with the nation, as a representation of the ‘people’ and a historically specific form of governance, is a place where sociological and social psychological concerns intersect. For Tajfel and Turner (1986), ‘social identity,’ that part of an individual’s self-conception based on group membership, whether gang or nation, mediating social change, as an aspect of group process, has depended on categorization, identification with a group (for both collective and personal identity) and comparison with others. They suggest that people gain a sense of worth and esteem through belonging to a group and favorably comparing their group to Others, especially when that Other is more likely known through derogatory stereotypes. Reicher and Hopkins (2001) have drawn upon this tradition to suggest a cognitively oriented social psychology of an ideologically constructed national selfhood, itself a process in flux, mediating changing structural and contextual factors with individual thoughts, feeling and action.


For Kant, categorization was an a priori dimension of understanding; all people differentiate themselves as an ‘us’ different from ‘them,’ Others, whose languages, values, customs and ways of life were different. For Durkheim, categorization began when membership of a clan, a descent group, was designated by a totemic identity linked to a common progenitor that differentiated them from others. Moreover, this self-reflexive narrative of collective identity was celebrated in rituals that dramatized common roots and identities and reaffirmed their social bonds. Durkheim’s analysis yet provides a useful framework for a religion or a nation. Modern nations yet differentiate themselves from others in terms of an often-mythical common past or ancestry, whether of Rome, a Teutonic Valhalla or a ‘lost tribe’ of Israel.

Attempts to delineate the ‘typical features’ of a category of people can be traced to Herodotus. This categorization and comparison (below) led to ‘national character’ studies, rooted in the ‘culture and personality’ tradition in anthropology. This research attempted to delineate, if not ‘naturalize,’ the modal character patterns found among the adults of a society (Inkeles and Levinson 1969). These studies included Americans, Russians, Germans and Japanese. This research ran into many problems, not the least of which were recreating stereotypes, ignoring the distribution of types, changes over time and attempts to link political action to ‘underlying character’ while ignoring cultural processes through which self and identity are shaped and/or mediating processes. Yet it did encourage useful research into how peoples perceive each other.

Categorization is essential for defining and policing boundaries of self, parties, movements, as different from Others; the audience of ‘we’ is the core of national politics. For Reicher and Hopkins (2001), national identities, as aspects of categorization, are systematically constructed and make collective behavior possible. Categorization itself depends on context, the kind of audience fosters certain self-presentations. Identities are constantly in flux in relationship to changing circumstances; they are in the process of becoming rather than being, and as such, vary in intensity, saliency and form at different moments. For E. Smith (1993), self-categorization as a group member means the information relevant to that group has emotional and motivational impact on the individual; differentiation of ‘us’ from ‘them’ becomes a basis for in-group solidarity, for example, strong bonds between members are usually associated with the positive and negative feelings.


People identify with the groups to which they belong that constitute the self-defined category of ‘we,’ those whom they feel are more or less similar to themselves, and thus feel loyalty and devotion to them. Identity is the fundamental link of nation and self (Bloom 1990). The noted changes in identity, together with growing mass literacy, were crucial aspects of the transformation of selfhood and consciousness that enabled people to envision and identify with a social representation such as a nation, an ‘abstract imaginary’ as a ‘people’ with a history and destiny divorced from the concrete. The magic of the nation has been the capacity of people to identify with a symbolic construct, an idealized ‘imaginary group’ that exists only in their minds, yet that membership provides the person with a variety of gratifications and demands. Members of nations can bask in the ‘reflected glory of the attainments of other group members’ (Tesser 1988). Nevertheless, the existence of the national group was a systematic product of national education systems. But it is also a result of the colonization of the life world by nation-specific objects and qualities (see discussion of ‘banal nationalism,’ in the facticity section below).


People in groups compare themselves to others; they typically valorize differences, they see themselves in positive terms and take pride in their group, its qualities and accomplishments, real or mythic, that become the basis of comparison and status competition (Greenfeld 1992; M. Weber 1958 [1946]) Membership in ‘valued’ groups gives a sense of well-being and narcissistic gratification by being superior to similar Others. Disdain to a neighbor serves compensatory functions for an enfeebled ego under threat. How nations construct, regard and compare to the Other is rooted in emotional considerations, beginning with the extent to which self-esteem is based on belonging to a valorized, dignity-granting community, but the corollary is often denigration of the Other.

Perceptions of out-group Others, shaped by one’s ingroup, vary by the extent to which the parties have similar backgrounds and compatible or conflicting goals and values. The Americans and British see each other as ‘good buddies’ or ‘jolly chaps.’ Conflicts over material or social resources or political goals adversely impact the ways the people see each other. The enemy is always seen as vile, despicable and devoid of all humanity deserving only a swift, painful death. And given the behavior of soldiers in war, in which rape, looting and murder have long been ‘perks,’ such perceptions have a grain of truth, but on the other hand, such perceptions ignore the humanity of the Other and the wide variations found in any group.

The perceptions of out-group ‘stereotypes’ have been studied in terms of how belief systems distort images and filter information of the Other in ways that confirm the constructed images to elevate the status of the prejudiced. Most of this research has been concerned with racial, ethnic and religious prejudices, but the same logic applies to how nations perceive each other. The negative qualities of the Other are emphasized, while ‘admirable’ qualities become either transformed into negatives and/or sources of ressentiment. An important corollary to stereotypy is ‘groupthink (Janis 1982), the tendency of cohesive groups to have rigid, shared perceptions of the world that may be inaccurate and systematically exclude dissenting views. No one could tell Hitler that with Jewish soldiers and scientists he would have won the war. Kennedy was under considerable pressure by most of his advisers to attack Cuba and likely start World War III. Nothing could deter George W Bush from invading Iraq.


Nationalism is not simply an episodic moment of identity at times of celebratory rituals, or a momentary response to a geopolitical event. It is a ‘daily referendum,’ part and parcel of the lived environment experienced in everyday life that Billig (1995) has called everyday ‘flagging’ of ‘banal nationalism,’ which can be seen as the ideological habits evident in linguistic practices and/or markers such as dress styles, food preferences and even such things as the daily weather map that uses the contours of the nation. These serve as everyday reminders of a homeland-based national identity found in the embodied habits of everyday life. Leaders and citizens alike often use ‘national’ dress as a marker and link to a national identity, for example, bowlers, berets, sombreros or ten-gallons, lederhosen or chaps, Doc Marten’s or cowboy boots. This secures a ‘latent’ national identity that can be quickly mobilized by leaders when Others identified as vile and heinous commit acts like claiming unimportant islands in the South Atlantic (Falklands/Malvinas) or possess WMD with nefarious intents.

Nationalism Turns Dangerous

The early theorists of the nation envisioned progressive, benign civic nationalisms; emancipated ‘peoples’ would create a better, more democratic world. Bourgeois nationalists were the carriers of the emancipatory project of modernity, extolling human rights, liberty, fraternity and equality. They did not envision the irrational, integral populist, reactionary nationalisms and ethnonationalisms of ‘brotherhood within—warlike without,’ with ‘justifiable’ hatred of a dehumanized Other whose heinous acts, often many generations ago, demanded revenge and retribution. This can render genocide banal. Adverse social conditions such as economic crises, social displacements, dislocations, competing nationalisms, or military defeats and the like, foster uncertainty and emotional reactions, fears, anxieties and humiliations. Following the military defeats of Imperial Germany, or Tokugawa Japan, militarists embraced integral ethnonationalisms. Such nationalisms were often born of the ressentiment of the greater power of industrial nations after either defeats or fears they might be conquered and humiliated. But so too do character patterns matter; authoritarians, already disposed to anger, hatred and xenophobia, typically embrace reactionary nationalisms. Self-serving leaders valorize and mobilize essentialist national identities and promise ‘restoration’ of community, dignity, agency or meaning, and/or assuaging shame and fear through nationalist political agendas of assertion, if not retaliation, that benefit the nation, to the detriment of most ‘supporters.’ When typically joined with ‘groupthink,’ nationalism becomes impermeable to reason.

When former Yugoslavia faced severe fiscal crises, a few years after the death of Tito and the demise of communism, fear, uncertainty, humiliation and anger disposed to compensatory reactionary ethno-religious nationalisms led by charismatic leaders like Tudjman or Milosevic. As noted, in many other parts of Europe—France, Holland, Austria, Italy—between rapid social changes and the twin impacts of neoliberal globalization, economic stagnation and job losses and retrenchments of government mandate welfare state programs, for example, have coincided with immigration of darker visible Others deemed responsible for both job losses and high crime. Irrational fears, if not hatred of scapegoated (Muslim) immigrants, allowed nationalists like Le Pen, Berlusconi or Haider to thrive (Delanty and O’Mahony 2002). Such nationalisms provide stable, valorized identities within cohesive groups with clear-cut values in an unstable, changing world.

Similarly, throughout the Islamic world, rapid urbanization has attenuated social cohesion, while economic stagnation and poverty, in contrast to affluent Western nations, have fostered ressentiment to those deemed responsible for that stagnation and support of despots. Such accusations often have foundation. While the West provides little in the way of job-creating economic investments, its hedonistic, narcissistic, erotic popular culture is experienced as an affront to more traditional moralities. These factors dispose to fundamentalisms, much like reactionary nationalisms, and provide cohesive communities and stable identities with virtue-based dignity and a meaningful ideology. Thus radical mosques assuage the pains of modernity. Some groups, often with legitimate grievances toward the West for its support of Israel and the recent invasion of Iraq, embrace unrealistic goals to re-establish the Caliphate through resort to terrorism and martyrdom as techniques (see Langman and Morris 2002.)

Finally, given the nationalist principle, that the state, the nation and ‘people’ are one, nations, as groups, are often personalized and imbued with individual qualities, the US and the UK are friends, Israel and Iran distrust each other (Bloom 1990). The same ‘psychology’ that we would use to understand nationalism is itself often employed to judgmentally categorize and thereby psychologically denigrate the Other as psychotic, paranoid, sadistic, impulsive or immature. Thus nationalism can falsify, misrepresent the real relationships of groups, distort the intentions of Others and promote a valorized ‘us’ vs. dehumanized, psy-chopathically dangerous ‘them’ mentality that promotes cohesion and support for leaders. Leaders, especially in control of mass media, often garner support for policies based on such misrepresentations that suggest that the Other is an ‘imminent danger’ to the ‘people,’ their well-being, honor and dignity. Such Others deserve death. As has been argued, given the foundational power of national identities and their moral justifications, we have seen centuries of bloody warfare. Today, when many nations have nuclear weapons, nationalism is even more dangerous.


Nations, as communities, consist of agents who are not simply amorphous masses of ‘cultural dopes,’ passive vessels of social structure through which social processes operate. But how do we explain the mediating processes between national communities and the thoughts, feelings and actions of individuals and/or their impact on social structures. All too often, explanations of nationalism invoke the social psychological as causal or consequential, but with little concern for carefully defining terms, locating concepts within actual research and/or theoretical frameworks of self, identity, motives, desires, and/or cognition. The Frankfurt School initiated social psychological studies of nationalism, especially reactionary forms. They called attention to the dangers of ‘one-dimensional thought’ that would ignore the emotional and irrational aspects of subjectivity—especially tendencies for blind compliance to leaders. More recent social psychological theorizing has focused on identities, cognitive processes and inter-group perceptions and relations. These positions are complementary and suggest a synthesis. Nations consist of political communities of meaning in which historically and structurally constituted reflexive citizen subjects are endowed with cognition, consciousness and imagination, as well as desires, feelings and emotions. The contexts and ways in which citizens are socialized, the social conditions they emotionally experience and the interpretations they make and/or receive from their leaders, can direct nationalism to the loftiest goals of freedom and democracy. But nationalism can also foster death, destruction and devastation. Studies of nationalism that attend to its emotional underpinnings may play some role in the directions it takes.

Epilogue: Wither Nationalism?

With globalization, integrated world markets, deterritorialized flexible capital, regulation by supranational organizations such as the WTO and IMF, universalized Western (American) mass media and proliferation of ideologies of consumption, many have argued that nation-states no longer play significant roles (see Ohmae 1995; Sklair 2001). National identities have been challenged by consumer-based ‘branded’ identities, cosmopolitanism, fan-doms of popular culture ‘stars’ and retreats to ‘lifestyle enclaves’ within gated communities. More recently, various Web-based ‘virtual communities’ provide alternative identities ranging from online game players to sex chat lines and social movements devoted to Global Justice (Langman and Morris 2005). Each represents an alternative to nation-based communities and identities. In the case of cosmopolitanism, perhaps most advanced in Europe, the integration of the EU, common currency and ease of travel enabled the emergence of an identity based on the kinds of ‘cultural capital’ available to the higher educated, often multilingual classes. Certain groups of cultural specialists (performing artists, journalists) capitalist elites, and often academics with memberships in international scientific communities, may participate in ‘art worlds’ or leisure activities (skiing, sailing, cuisine). Professional identities, aesthetic tastes and leisure activities may not only provide them with greater saliency and pride than citizenship, but become ways of differentiating themselves from less sophisticated, often more nationalistic classes such as British soccer hooligans or Yankee cowboys.

But this is only half of the story. In many places of the world, nationalism remains a potent force. National identities ameliorate the doubt, uncertainty and fragmentation of rapid social change in the global age (Guibernau 1996). Many former republics of the USSR, Georgia, Ukraine and Chechnya have seen flourishing nationalisms demanding autonomy and self-determination, and a willingness for some to die for their causes. In China, with the demise of Communist internationalism, nationalism emerged as the inclusive ideology. At the time of this writing, the US, fearful, apprehensive and angry after 9/11, supported George W Bush and a reactionary nationalist agenda that has discarded international agreements and backed a unilateral peremptory invasion of Iraq. While globalization has in some cases attenuated national self-determination and has offered alternatives to citizenship-based identities, in other cases these same conditions have fostered or revived the vilest integral nationalisms. The death of the nation-state and demise of nationalism thus seem a bit premature. Until that happens, there remain many challenges for scholars. A comprehensive social psychology of nationalism remains wanting. Perhaps this chapter can be seen as an invitation for such examinations and suggestions for future research directions.