The Modern Political Concept of Nationalism

Nationalism is as much an issue of identity as it is a political movement.
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Nationalism, one of the most visible political forces of the 19th century, is as much an issue of identity as it is of civic action. The political concept of nationalism can be organized into various categories such as liberal, civic, ethnic or cultural, as the definition of nationalism varies. Although civilization has always had a tendency to organize itself around a shared identity, nationalism is generally identified as a modern movement.

1 Emergence and Origins

Nationalism came into political focus in the 1990s as a consequence of the emergence of striking nationalist movements such as those in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The conflict that emerges from differing ethic and cultural communities residing under the same political entity has become one of the most pressing issues of modern politics. The notion that nationalism is a recent phenomenon is part of the modernist perspective, while the primordialist perspective recognizes that nationalism has always been a part of human civilization’s need to organize based on shared origin.

2 State vs. Nation

Central to the discussion of the various definitions of nationalism is the difference between the concept of state and the concept of a nation. Because the boundaries of a nation are not drawn by state lines, but rather by various factors that form human identity -- culture, language, religion, common origin and ethnicity -- a nation can be defined as a cultural community. This differs from a state that is simply a political entity. In many circumstances, nations are spread over various states as in the example of the Jews, Kurds and Sioux Indians.

3 Meanings of Nationalism

Although the concept of nationalism can encompass a range of meanings, the modern political concept of nationalism addresses some fixed notions. Nationalism is as much a process of formation of a nation as it is a sense of belonging to the nation. In addition, it is often a social and political movement as well as a doctrine or creed. Ultimately, nationalism is an ideology that places the nation at the crux of concern for the individual who subscribes to it. Although nationalism cannot be linked only to movements seeking independence, in many cases nationalism is tied to some kind of movement or call to action by the members of the community.

4 Negative and Positive Nationalism

Due to the nature of nationalism, conflict is inevitable, particularly when it comes to nationalism as a political movement. Within the bounds of a nation there are people who are insiders and those who are outsiders. The way in which a nation portrays "the other" is crucial in determining whether the nationalism is positive or negative. Nazi Germany and the outcomes of Hitler’s campaign against the Jews during World War II is an example of the dangers of nationalism. The Indian rebellion against colonial rule by the British and subsequent independence is an example of positive nationalism.

Rachel Alexander is a cultural and political area specialist of South Asia and the Middle East. She received the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship in 2011, and again in 2012, to live in northern India and study advanced Hindi. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from Loyola University of Chicago.