Global Policy Forum

A Comparative Analysis of Nationalism,


By Cenap Cakmak

Journal of Turkish Weekly
May 16, 2005

"Nationalism" has long been regarded as one of the most controversial phenomena among scholars. In addition, it has attracted many from various disciplines, including, but not limited to, political science, history, sociology, theology, and so forth. The questions such as "what is nationalism?", "when did it first emerge?", "what impacts has it had up until now?" can be somehow answered, even though there would be no consensus on the answers. However, when it comes to the questions such as "why do people feel that they belong to a certain nation?", "how does a nation emerge and evolve?", "what does constitute a nation?", and "what are the precise differences between a nation and a gathering of people?", it is hard, -and even one may claim impossible- to give satisfactory answers.

As a matter of fact, there have been a few attempts to deal with the latter ones, whereas a large number of studies have been introduced with regard to first set of questions. Those who have chosen to perform the hard task have come up with different solutions and paradigms. One of the reasons behind the differentiation among the outcomes of studies concerned is, of course, differences among the approaches and methods of scholars and of their views. But another reason that deserves to be included is that almost every pattern of nation building has had its own unique aspects. Some were largely based on religion, some on common cultural heritage, and some on ethnic identity. The British case is perhaps more sophisticated than the rest. Almost every factor has had a greater impact than the others, while the British identity was being created. Religion has had an impact on the process, and so has ethnic identity. What all these imply is that the British case is worth being examined thoroughly and carefully.

The main focus of this paper is English and British nationalism; and therefore, an attempt will be made to explore the underlying dynamics of English/British nation-building process. In doing so, first, Benedict Anderson's highly regarded analysis, "imagined communities", concerning the emergence of a nation will be introduced; then, whether the British case could be explained by this formulation will be investigated. However, it should be noted that the British case harbors many challenges in some respects. For some, there was a core nation, which is the English, in the process, and the others have integrated to the center. On the other hand, some argue each unit has made an equal contribution, and therefore, the British nation is a combination of all, without the dominance of a certain "sub-nation". As an extreme suggestion, some may even claim that there has never been a British nation.

The British (or English) case is quite significant in one more respect: if there is a British nation, is it quite possible to imagine that an English nation exists within the British nation as well? And if it exists, then, is it possible to claim the existence of a British nation?

Through the paper, Anderson's study, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, will be serving as a basis for analytical purposes. Two major studies, one on British nation building, and one on English cultural nationalism, will be examined with regard to the consistency of arguments defended with those of Anderson: Linda Colley's Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, and Gerald Newman's The Rise of English Nationalism: A Cultural History 1740-1830.

Anderson attempts to explain how and why a nation is built, whereas Colley and Newman are much more inclined to explore the basic characteristics of how British/English nation is evolved. In addition to three books mentioned above, Collin Kidd's article, "Integration: Patriotism and Nationalism", is of great interest, since he offers some supplemental arguments.

Anderson, in the book under review, tries to explain how nationalism as an ideology, and national identity embedded in that ideology, have arisen and evolved all around the world and kept their importance in global politics for centuries. His analysis is mainly socio-cultural. In his view, explaining "the sense of nationality, the personal and cultural feeling of belonging to a nation" is more important than examining nationalism as a political movement. In this respect, he does not very much rely on explanations based on ethnicity, historical commonalities and, to some extent, religion. He suggests that a nation is "an imagined political community -and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign". It is imagined in the sense that individuals, who regard themselves as members of a certain nation, somehow know that other members belonging to the community exist; however, they do not, and perhaps, will never know who they are and what they look like. Therefore, "the nation" exists in the minds of its members as an "image". But, it should be noted that existing as an image does not necessarily mean that it is an illusion. Anderson believes that "the nation" is a genuine entity rather than a gathering. It is limited because its existence is confined to certain boundaries.

From Anderson's perspective, nations have neither existed potentially, nor been created by industrial societies. To the contrary, he presents nationalism as a project designated by groups, which have been differentiated by different experiences. Those differentiations have been generated by socio-economic conditions. Because of this, the features of each nation have been different from those of the rest. This implies that it is very difficult to identify every nation in the same way, although some certain commonalities among nation building processes can be mentioned.

As stated earlier, in Anderson's analysis, socio-cultural aspects have a central place to explain the origins of nationalism and nation-ness. He traces the "cultural roots" of nationalism back to the emergence of capitalism. But, the role of capitalism is not ideological. In other words, capitalism, being an ideology, did not influence the outbreak of nationalism. Its role is related to the spread of print. According to Anderson, the rise of capitalism affected the emergence of nationalism as follows: with the rapid spread of print capitalism, the literacy rate among ordinary people has increased. The number of printed books proliferated dramatically, and those printed materials became increasingly affordable to the public, who, at earlier times, had depended on the church for getting information. This new era also brought the spread of newspapers. As a consequence, people have become aware of the fact that the other members of the community they believe they belong to, really exists. This has helped them imagine the nation and the feeling of being a nation.

Anderson contends that nationalism emerged at a time when religion as a cultural conception was declining in importance. The process was heavily correlated to the Reformation. It has heavily injured the image of church as the supreme authority in every aspects of life. While the religious perceptions were all the same and unified before the Reformation, in the new era, the homogenous structure was fragmented into several major parts. Therefore, the Christian world has fragmented and Protestantism has increasingly become popular. In Anderson's analysis, the fragmentation in religious identities led to the emergence of national identities. Furthermore, the rise of languages other than Latin, which had long been the monopoly of the Church as a sacred language, diminished the importance of religion in general, and the church in particular. The void was filled up by national identity.

Linda Colley, in her influential book, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, investigates how British national identity has developed. Her analysis covers the period from 1707, when Act of Union between the Scotts and the English was signed, to 1837, when Victorian era started. The period under review is of significance because the process of the British identity formation has been completed during that period, she contends. Therefore, those two points, namely 1707 and 1837, were deliberately chosen by Colley. Colley's approach to the issue of national identity is quite interesting and impressive as well. She argues that three distinguished nations, namely, the English, the Scots and the Welsh, developed a British identity, which is, in many respects, different from its constituents. Those mentioned "sub-identities" formed the new identity; however, it does not very much reflect their impacts. It should be indicated that Colley does not offer a satisfactory explanation about what happened to the former identities, after the sense of being British was explored. She does not necessarily claim that the new identity abolished the old ones; nor does she clearly acknowledge their existence. What she does not explain include how it is possible to imagine that the individuals, who feel they belong to a particular group, can also hold another national identity. Moreover, she seems to have neglected the primacy and dominance of Englishness within the British-ness. As the English population is much more than even the sum of the rest, -Scots and the Welsh, it does not seem reasonable to suggest that the new identity does not contain the dominant character of the English.

"Otherness" takes a central place in Colley's attempt to find out the motives behind the formation of a comprehensive British identity. According to her, those who constituted the British nation focused on what they were not, rather than what they were. Even though they had differences among them, "the Others" played a determinative role in the accomplishment of a united British nation. In this respect, Colley says, "the sense of a common identity here did not come into being then, because of an integration and homogenization of disparate cultures. Instead, Britishness was superimposed over an array of internal differences in response to contact with the Other, and above all in response to conflict with the Other".

Religious differentiations as a source of otherness are the main factor for the English, Scots and the Welsh to create a common identity. Although different in many respects, the majority of the English and Scots were Protestant. In the meantime, it is worth noting that Colley does not very much talk about how the Welsh were integrated into the nation, as if assuming that the Welsh were already an indispensable part of the British nation. Her main concern is Scots' integration with the English. Being Protestant was so significant that the English and Scots used it as basis to create a new national identity, despite the huge differences between those two communities. As Protestants, they stood against the Catholic other, the French nation, the long-standing prominent threat to the British Isles during 18th and 19th centuries. Being proximate geographically and isolated from Continental Europe also helped the English and Scots deepen the integration process. In addition, the pragmatic approach of Scots was another motive in the evolution of British identity. In order to benefit from the trade opportunities, which were made available by the effects of capitalism, Scots became aware that they needed to remain integrated with the English.

Gerald Newman's book, The Rise of English Nationalism, deals with a much narrower subject. Even though the existence of English nationalism, -more or less-, has been sensed and acknowledged among scholars, it has never precisely been verified. He tries to prove that English nationalism has existed. In so doing, he uses cultural elements, such as pictorial art, literature and history, a lot. In that respect, it can be said he uses a cultural approach to explain the nationalism he is concerned with. He argues that this nationalism began to develop in 1740s. But it has not been clearly defined in a political sense until 1780 and 1790s. Before that, nationalism was seen as an almost politically radical tendency. After the revolution in France, even the elite opposed France and identified themselves with nationalism, and discarded the cosmopolitan culture.

His thesis mainly consists of the following: Nationalism in England was based on an attack against feudalism on the one hand, against the former social order, in which the cosmopolitan culture of the Francophile aristocracy was encouraged and appreciated. Those who were eager to adhere to French culture aimed to exclude the lower classes, and this caused a resistance against that cosmopolitan culture among the masses. Patriotism was the apparatus through which the lower classes showed their attachment to the local culture they created as an alternative to cosmopolitan culture. But, the resistance would never have been successful, if artists, intellectuals and writers, who encouraged and applauded the worth of English culture, had not made contributions. Their role was of great significance, because they informed and enlightened the citizens about national values. In so doing, they mobilized the nation against cultural invasion of the outsiders.

Newman draws a sketch of the English elite, which is a sharp contrast of the mass public during the course of early 18th century, then, transformed itself into a nationalistic group, and thus, converged to the lower classes. The transformation was led by the French revolution, which caused the rise of nationalist ideology first in France, and then in the other parts of Europe. The English aristocracy, which used to be Francophile prior to the revolution, then sought to identify itself; as French identity would have certainly been inapplicable to its members. As a consequence, they determined that they in fact belonged to the English nation. In Newman's view, the intellectuals, the artists and the like played a paramount role in the process, in which a comprehensive cultural identity of the English was developed. Their role was twofold: first, they criticized and sometimes protested the attitudes of aristocrats, for adhering eagerly and roughly to cosmopolitan culture. This contributed to the attitudinal transformation among the elite. Alienated after French Revolution, the elite became much more unattached. Secondly, the middle-class writers, who had borne concerns about the loss of English character tended to find out readers, whom they believed they could educate. Their ordinary readers then learned from that they, namely "non-quality" and lower class individuals were genuinely representing the English character.

Colin Kidd's article "Integration: Patriotism and Nationalism" argues that little attention has been paid to how the British nation was formed, and adds that "Britain was a given of political life". In his opinion, Colley's work is an attempt to unveil the Britons. Even very soon after the Act of Union 1707, there were many attempts from both sides to end the unification. Kidd claims that the Union survived because Scots realized that staying within the Union would be beneficial for them in terms of trade opportunities. He also acknowledges the role of warfare in the process of British nation building. "News of British actions" was carried through newspapers and magazines, and this also helped the process.

The comparison among the approaches discussed in this paper will lead us to several conclusions. It is quite obvious that the issue of nationalism is very hard to examine. It is so complex that no comprehensive analysis has the capacity to cover all aspects of it. Anderson's study tries to explain the issue, by creating a template and a generalization that would be valid for every pattern of nationalism. However, Colley's study harbors precise contradictions, when compared to Anderson's suggestion. While, according to Anderson, the rise of nationalism could be attributed to religion's relative decline in importance, Colley argues that religious identity and attachment is the very base of British nationalism. However, Anderson's explanation on fragmentation of religions into different sects is helpful to understand Colley's eagerness to consider the religious identity as a basis for nation building process of the British. As Anderson argues, the Reformation in Europe created new understandings in Christianity. This caused a clear division in the Church, which used to be unified and the sole authority. However, the newly emerged movement, namely, Protestantism, challenged that authority. Eventually, clashes between those segments were initiated. Being predominantly Protestant, Scots and the English unified against their enemy, which was Catholic France. Therefore, Anderson's approach and Colley's historical survey have one thing in common: both use the division in religious loyalties as a tool to explain how the national identity is formed. However, the ways they use that tool is different. Anderson's explanation is much more based on the decline of religion in daily life. He suggests that the fragmentation in religious identity should be interpreted as the way that religion is not important anymore. Colley's argument relies on religious fragmentation. She claims that it was the division that led Protestant English and Scottish to regard the Catholic French as "the Other" and to develop British identity.

Likewise, the role of capitalism in nation-building was interpreted in different fashions by Colley and Anderson. While Colley views the role of capitalism as significant because of the opportunities it created, and consequently, the eagerness of Scots to unite with England, in order to be able to benefit from those opportunities, Anderson stresses the spread of print, one of the by-products of capitalism. Kidd supports Colley's argument, stating that Scots became aware of the future benefits and remained united with England, even though initially they were not entirely willing to sustain this unification.

As far as the comparison between Anderson's approach to the nation-building process and Newman's analysis is concerned, interestingly enough, Newman's cultural approach is quite appropriate to the formulation Anderson proposes. Anderson places the salience of cultural elements into the center of discussion concerning nationalism. Language is of particular significance. In his opinion, language was spread by printing materials. Therefore, such publications as newspapers, magazines and books very much helped the people develop a national identity. Likewise, Newman emphasizes the role of intellectuals, writers and artists in the formation of English nation. However, what is different in Newman's approach is that he does not mention a correlation between the rise of capitalism and the role sensitive intellectuals and the like played. For him, their efforts were a resistance against the attitudes of a cosmopolitan elite.

More Information on Nations & States
More Information on What Is a "Nation"?


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.