What is Nationalism?



Nationalism is an essential unit of analysis in political studies, as the concept impacts governance to a great extent. In the past decade, cases of democratic backsliding, more often than not, have involved nationalism (Connor, 1978).  This growing trend is the root cause for ethnic unrest in many countries such as Belgium, Austria, Canada etc. This essay will seek to answer the following question: What is nationalism and how can cases of nationalism be classified?

Defining Elements

            The terms nation and state are often used interchangeably when in fact they have different meanings. The term state is an institutional and legal concept; essentially, a state must be recognized by International Law (Connor, 1978). The term nation is extremely hard to define, and no objective definitions of the concept exist. Hence definitions of nations are more subjective; every case is different and it is hard to precisely outline their characteristics. Many scholars have provided their own conceptualizations of the term, the most famous are as follows. For Ernest Renan, a nation is a daily referendum, those who are a part of it must wake up every day and make a rational choice to be part of the nation (Peloille, 1987). Benedict Anderson, states that a nation is an imagined community, in which people feel a bond without having a tangible relationship (Haas, 1986). Anthony Smith defines nationalism as an inherently ethnic phenomenon, which is not based on rational choice but on culture (Haas, 1986). Gellner believes it is always political and emerged post-industrial revolution; every aspect of modern societies lead back to politics (economics, education, morality) and identity is shaped by these, creating nationalism (1981). His theory claims that ethnic ties should not cross political ones. Nationalism reflects a sense of loyalty towards a nation, which is not necessarily a state.

            Works and public debate on nationalism falsely claim populism as a type of nationalism. The two are connected, and often appear together, yet the two cannot be reduced to the same definitions. The biggest distinction between the two is that nationalism is not always exclusionary, while populism always relies on “us” vs “them” rhetoric. Sometimes, nationalism is towards a nation state, and includes the entirety of a population (De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017).

Sub-State - State Nationalism

            To make sense of the nationalist phenomenon, scholars studying it created typologies. These included a distinction between state nationalism and sub-state nationalism. State nationalism is the easiest to understand. It refers to a nation that comprises the entirety of a nation and resembles patriotism in the context of the United States or republicanism in the context of France. This sense of community is promoted by the state, though national anthems, flags etc (Tierney, 2005). Sub-state nationalism is more complex, this type group represents nations that exist within a state, such as Québec, in Canada (Tierney, 2005). Sub-state nations can pose a threat to state sovereignty because they often seek independence, self-government, decentralization, confederal and power-sharing agreements or territorial allotments (Lecours, 2011).

Civic - Ethnic

In academia, nationalism is divided into two distinct categories: ethnic and civic nationalisms. Many scholars have presented these categories in their works, in their own terms. Meinecke was one of the first to differentiate ‘staatnations’ from ‘kulturnation’ (Brown, 2004). Kohn contributes to this conceptualization but claims the differences are territorial, and between Western and East-Central European nationalisms. Greenfeld reinforces the divide but claims nationalisms are either ‘individualistic-libertarian’ or ‘collectivist-authoritarian’ (Brown, 2004)

Ethnic nationalism, or “cultural nationalism” are seen as the “bad nationalism” for various reasons (Brown, 2004). Supposedly, they can be violent and a danger to good governance (Zubrzycki, 2002). They are not ruled by rational calculations, they are impulsive, unpredictable and therefore difficult to control. Membership is exclusive, only those born into the nation may be a part of it; one cannot join or leave at will. The nation, or shared community, is built upon cultural, or ethnic elements, these include: language, ancestry, religion and race (Brown, 2004). The existence of this type of nationalism was reinforced by the end of the Second World War as well as with the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe. Examples of ethnic nationalism include the Weimar Republic. 

Civic nations, or “liberal nationalisms” on the other hand, are those that have most frequently existed in the West. There is a connotation following this type of nationalism that they are “good”, as opposed to ethnic nationalism because they are modern, liberal and based on free will (Zubrzycki, 2002). These follow territorial or regional lines, and are not based on ancestry or culture. They are said to be intentionally crafted by the state. Liberal and republican institutions are essential to their existence. Membership is voluntary, anyone can join or leave the nation as they please. France is the most commonly used example of civic nationalism.


Nationalism is essentially a sense of community within a group of people. It can be towards a state of towards a sub-state group. Cases of nationalism can be civic and liberal or ethnic and violent. Hence, nationalism is not inherently bad for democracy. However, the right preconditions, both structural and agency based, can incite democratic backsliding or support authoritarian consolidation.



Brown, D. (2004). Are There Good and Bad Nationalisms? Nations and Nationalism, (5) pp.281-303

Connor, W. (1978).  A Nation is a Nation, is a State, is an Ethnic Group is a... Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol.1, no.4, 1978, pp.377-400.

De Cleen, B., & Stavrakakis, Y. (2017). Distinctions and articulations: A discourse theoretical framework for the study of populism and nationalism. Javnost - the Public, 24(4), 301-319. doi:10.1080/13183222.2017.1330083

Gellner, E. (1981). Nationalism. Theory and Society, 10(6), 753-776. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/657332

Haas, E. (1986). What is Nationalism and Why Should We Study it? International Organization, 40(3), 707-744. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/2706824 

Lecours, A. (2012) Sub-state Nationalism in the Western World: Explaining Continued Appeal, Ethnopolitics, 11:3, 268-286, DOI: 10.1080/17449057.2010.507114

Peloille, B. (1987). Un modèle subjectif rationnel de la nation : Renan. Revue Française De Science Politique,37(5), 639-658. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/43118721

Zubrzycki, G. (2002). The Classical Opposition Between Civic and Ethnic Models of Nationhood: Ideology, Empirical Reality and Social Scientific Analysis. Polish Sociological Review, (139), 275-295. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41274824