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What is a Nation? Show more Show less

Are nations ancient or modern? Are they natural or artificial? Are they a tool of liberation or coercion? Despite many predicting globalisation would make them obsolete, nations are now back in fashion in a world where leaders tout America First, the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People, and Hindutva. Understanding the nation now seems more important than ever.

Nations are modern creations Show more Show less

Nations only came in to existence from the late 18th century onward due to massive political, social, and economic changes.
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Industrialisation created nations

The emergence of capitalism transformed society by promoting linguistic and cultural standardisation within distinct territorial spheres, ushering in the age of nations.

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Marxism predicted that nation-states would fade away as it triumphed. By the 1980s the opposite seemed to be happening and historians are trying to understand the enduring presence and appeal of nations by examining their origins.

The Argument

Ernest Gellner emphasises the movement from a feudal agrarian society to a modern industrial one as the driving force behind the emergence of nations. In pre-modern societies, elites sought to differentiate themselves culturally from those they ruled as a way to emphasise their social status. They had little interest in imposing any uniform culture on the various local cultures they ruled over. People in agricultural societies lived mainly in small relatively isolated communities and learned necessary skills from immediate kin. Industrial societies create new social circumstances. Workers are far more mobile, more likely to meet strangers, and are adaptable. They picked up many specialist skills which cannot be acquired from kin/family. Navigating these new demands requires a single widespread language that encompasses all aspects of life. This eases communication between strangers. It also provides a common idiom by which specialist information can be transmitted. This is usually done through synthesising a new version of the old literate high culture and inculcating in the general population via mass education. The social mobility also creates egalitarian impulses. As some groups are for various reasons more able to assimilate into the new dominant culture than others, this creates unequal outcomes at odds with this aspiration. While some of these groups go on to assimilate regardless, others resist cultural homogenisation and in doing so create their own standardised literate culture. The result is the conceptualisation of various separate nations where new cultural groups are disadvantaged by the new system and seek to secede to form their own political body.

Counter arguments

Arguments which centre nations around a created linguistic and cultural homogeneity fail to provide for nations which have no politically dominant lingua franca, such as Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland. There exists evidence of strong senses of national identities in a number of pre-industrial and pre-literate societies across history. Ideas of some sort of cohesive national identity identified territorially and separated from other equivalents seem to have been prevalent in pre-modern states such as England, Scotland, France, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam to name a few examples. Gellner's explanation also struggles to explain how in the 20th century strong nationalist movements also developed in countries such as India, Indonesia, and China . These countries had little industrial development and managed to cultivate substantial support from peasants with little exposure to industrial labour or mass education of the sort Gellner describes.


[P1] The transition from agricultural to industrial economies transforms society by increasing mobility and specialisation. [P2] New standardised forms of culture develop to cope with these changes by easing communication. [P3] These new means of communications reshape popular mentalities creating communities that identify themselves based on newly constructed linguistic and cultural homogeneity. [P4] Assimilation into these communities or resistance to assimilation by building rival cultures fuels the rise of nations.

Rejecting the premises

[P1] There are examples of nations with no dominant linguistic or cultural group. [P2] Nationalist movements developed in countries which had neither industrialised nor provided mass education.


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This page was last edited on Friday, 17 Jan 2020 at 10:56 UTC