The Nation-State: Sociological and Philosophical Perspectives

Posted on: 17-02-2018

By Magnus Marsden

The origins of the nation-state and the sources of nationalism have been a source of profound interest to historians, sociologists, philosophers and anthropologists. A key reason for the scholarly interest in the origins of nation-states and nationalism in modern times was the importance of movements of anti-colonial nationalism in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Such movements and the emergence of the independent nation-states of the postcolonial world led to a first wave of analytical work. More recently, the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the subsequent emergence of ethnic conflict in its former territories, led scholars ask a related though different set of questions about the relationship of ethnicity to the nation-state. In more recent times, the rise to prominence of various religious fundamentalist movements that position themselves as opposing the nation-state system because they see it as a culturally Western mode of organising human society that was imposed during decades of colonial domination has once again excited scholarly interest in the origins and future of the nation-state.

I’m going to organise my discussion around four main themes in relationship to which scholars have sought to understand the nation-state. Firstly, I will explore theories of the nation-state that interpret this mode of organising political life as the product of modernity. These theories argue that the nation-state and nationalists are modern constructs. Secondly, I will turn attention to theories that depict nationalism as something that builds of historic identity formations. Scholars who make this argument are often labelled primordialists. Third, I will address theories of the nation-state that emphasise the role of power, authority and control in explaining the rise to prominence of this mode of organising political life. By way of conclusion I want to address in a very brief manner the way in which sociologists and philosophers have addressed the relationship of Islam to the nation-state.

Before I begin to explore these different ways of explaining the nation-state and its history, let us pause for a moment and think a little about what, actually, the notion of the nation-state refers to. A broad definition of the nation-state idea might be as follows: ‘The idea of the nation as a significant group occupying a bounded territory which does or should enjoy political autonomy and with a common identity across the ‘whole’ society’ (Breuilly 2006). 

While this mode of organising life now appears to be so self-evident, even natural, the nation-state is, of course, a new feature of political life in much of the world. Until the mid-nineteenth century a variety of widely different modes of organising territory, political authority, and culture existed across the earth’s surface: these ranged from expansive empires, to small city states, and ephemeral fiefdoms. It was only from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, especially in the context of Italy’s risorgimento, during which Italian leaders overthrew the rulers of the multiple Kingdoms that had formed the Italian peninsula and established a unified Italian state, when political forms approximating what we refer to as nation-states emerged.

The leaders, however, of early national movements were well aware that unifying Italy’s territories politically was but the first step in a long process: ‘We have made Italy’, remarked Massimo D’Azeglio, ‘now we must make Italians’. D’Azeglio’s remark raise a fundamental question that many theories of the nation-state have sought to address: is nationalism and national identity created by the state or other sociological processes, or does the idea of nationalism and national identity itself result in the creation of the nation-state?

The Nation-State and Modernity:

The constructivist approach to the study of nationalism builds on Marx’s thinking in Das Capital. Marx understands nationalism and national identity in class terms: nationalism is a tool that the bourgeoisie use to divide the proletariat (working classes) and thus maintain their control over society and wealth. For Marx, national identity is a historical stage that all societies must past through on their natural development. Following Marx, many scholars argued that bourgeois elites use ideas of national identity in their own attempts to secure power and influence. The British Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, and his colleague, Terrance Ranger, for example, in an important book titled The Invention of Tradition argued that political elites in the nineteenth century invented fictive traditions with the aim of creating distinct national identities. Scholars have also showed how Western imperial powers used ideas about national identity to weaken empires, notably the Ottoman Empire

 Perhaps the most prominent modern theorist of nationalism is the anthropologists-philosopher, Ernest Gellner. Ernest Gellner was born in Paris in 1925 and brought up in Prague, a city he fled with his family in 1939. He studied anthropology at the LSE and was eventually appointed Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Despite his first-hand experiences of nationalism as a boy fleeing Nazi Germany’s expansion, Gellner developed a highly objective approach to understanding nationalism’s origins. Gellner argued that the nation-state was a product of the emergence of industrialism. According to Gellner, the transition from traditional societies to industrial societies was one of the great ruptures of human history. The transition, Gellner argued, comprised a shift from simple societies to complex societies.

In traditional societies social structures were stable and the role that each person played in society (the priest, or baker, or scribe for example) was the most important aspect of their identity. By contrast, industrial societies are complex and large scale: people have encounters with one another (rather than establish enduring relationships as in traditional societies ) and also move between roles and positions, migrating from place to place and changing jobs (rather than inhabiting a fixed role for their entire life).

What did this sociological change have to do with the emergence of the nation-state? Gellner argued that for people to be equipped with the skills to move between roles in an industrialised society they needed to be able to engage in ‘context-free communication’. As a result, systems of mass education needed to be developed. Developing such systems required the emergence of standardised written vernaculars that could be used by all in society to communicate. The development of mass education systems and standardised vernaculars themselves required the emergence of a powerful and interventionist state.

Gellner argues that industrialisation takes place in different communities at different rates: as different groups find themselves more or less disadvantaged by the development of industrialisation, they become divided on the basis of ‘diacrtiical marks’ (such as those of skin colour, language and religion). On the basis of such differences and the forms of conflict over resources and development on which the recognition of these are based, movements of national independence and autonomy arise.

Gellner’s argues, then, that the nation-state and national sentiment are created by industrialisation; nationalism is not an identity or sentiment expressed by pre-existing nations: nationalism creates nations where they did not exist.

Another well-known scholar who also regards nationalism as being a modern phenomenon that arose from social and economic changes is the American social theorist Benedict Anderson. Benedict Anderson argues that they key point about the nation is that it is always imagined: ‘It is imagined’ writes Anderson ‘because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion’. Anderson argues that modernity created the possibility of particular groups forming ‘imagined communities’. He argues that the rise of print capitalism, especially the newspaper, made it possible for people from diverse backgrounds to imagine themselves as belonging to a single, shared group, even though they had never met one another. For Anderson, like Gellner, this mode of imagining community was a distinctly modern phenomenon: prior to to print capitalism and the newspaper, people’s sense of belongings either resulted from being part of face-to-face communities or, alternatively, to expansive religious traditions. 

Primordialists: Gellner’s argument that nations are brought into being by nationalism and have no presence in the past themselves has been criticised by other scholars of nationalism and this led to a debate between the primordialists and the instrumentalist..

A prominent primodialist is Anthony D. Smith, himself a former student of Gellner at the London School of Economics. Smith takes Gellner to task for arguing that it is impossible to detect nationalist sentiment before the emergence of industrialisation and the subsequent rise of the nation-state. Smith argues that nationalism builds off the history of pre-modern groups, which he calls ‘ethnies’. He argues that the histories of such ethnies provide modern nationalists with the symbols that they can deploy in order to develop bounded national identities. Importantly, Smith is not saying that nationalists produce accurate histories of ethnies.  He argues the opposite: nationalists manipulate the past to fashion a golden age around which people in the present rally. Yet Smith is of the opinion that there is a connection between modern nationalist identity and historic ethnies.

The nation-state: power, control and authority: A third set of arguments about the emergence of the nation-state that I wish to consider goes beyond the questions of modernity and cultural history raised by scholars such as Gellner, Anderson and Smith. This set of theories emphasise, instead, the importance of power and authority in the emergence of the modern nation-state and in the subsequent expansion of the nation-state system globally. The German sociologist Max Weber laid the ground for the focus on power and authority. Weber’s definition of the state - the ‘monopoly of the legitimate use of force over a given territory’- identifies violence and legitimacy as the key criteria that distinguish states from other political institutions.  Marx’s close friend, Friedrich Engels, in his 1848 book, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, argues that the state emerges in history alongside the emergence of private property: the ruling class uses the state to maintain control over private property.

More recently scholars, have also emphasised the extent to which the nation state needs to be analysed in relation to the control by political entrepreneurs and landed elites over access to extractable resources. The sociologist, Charles Tilly. Tilly challenges Hobessian approaches that treat the emergence of the state as a mode of preventing ‘warre of all against all’ that arose from the natural inclinations of humans. Instead, he argues that the rise of the state in early modern Europe is best understood in relationship to coercion and extraction. Tilly argues, ‘the major forms of political participation that westerners now complacently refer to as ‘modern’ are for the most part unintended outcomes of the efforts of European state-makers to build their armies, keep taxes coming in, form effective coalitions against their rivals, hold their nominal subordinates and allies in line, and fend of the threat of rebellion from ordinary people’. Tilly also describes the phases through which the worldwide state system expanded globally: starting with the formation of nation-states in Europe, and eventually extending to the wider world through both processes of rebellion and international agreement with the creation of client states and colonies. The famous Indian political scientists Partha Chaterjee argues that post-colonial nationalism was in many ways derivative of European ideas about the nation-state.

The Nation-state and Islam

It would be impossible to discuss western sociological debates about the nation-state without briefly considering the role that scholars have attributed Islam as playing in this process.

In simplistic terms, scholars have addresses the role played by Islam in the formation of nation-states in two major ways.

On the one hand, there are scholars who argue that Islam is unique from other world religious traditions and this has meant that  the form taken by the nation-state in Muslim-majority contexts is different from the rest of the world. Gellner argued that Islam was distinct from other religious traditions because of the extent to which the law (shari’a) was an essential component of Muslim societies in a manner that was not the case for the Christian world. For Gellner, this had important implications for the emergence of the nation-state in Muslim lands: rather than needing to create vernacular languages of communication and legal administration these contexts were already the possessors of such cultures: the Islamic tradition. Gellner argued that doctrinal Islam contained many of the components of what we now think of as modernity: law, literacy, and systems of education. Gellner argues, however, that a consequence of this was that adherence to national identity came less easily in Muslim societies than in those in which different religious traditions predominated.

Another scholar who has argued forcefully for Islam playing a critical role in the manner in which nation identity has developed in both Muslim-majority and -minority contexts is the British historian of South Asian Islam, Professor Francis Robinson.  Francis Robinson was critical of scholarship that emphasised the way in which elite politicians used religious symbols in order to advance their political goals. He argues, instead, that Muslims in South Asia share an idea of an ‘ideal religio-political community’ (based on the notions of shari’a, the brotherhood of the umma, and the authority of the Sultan). Robinson argues that this ideal has a direct influence on the forms of identity and political mobilisation advanced by Muslims in both minority and majority settings.

More recently, scholarship on the relationship between Islam and the nation state has grown increasingly nuanced. A new wave of scholarship has challenged the notion that Islam has shaped the political thinking of Muslims regarding the nation-state in a singular way that is exceptional to that of the modern West. As the American Turkish scholar, Cemil Aydin, writes in his recent book The Idea of the Muslim World, ‘for devoted and learned Muslims, text and tradition did not demand any one sort of politics. It was possible, depending on circumstance, to support a variety of political projects while retaining strong religious commitment’.

**The contents of this piece were presented at the Herat Security Dialogue – VI (13-14 October 2017).**

Magnus Marsden is Professor of Social Anthropology, Director of the Sussex Asia Centre School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.

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