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The Modernists

The opposite position to those who describe nation as perennial is that nations as they are understood now have developed within a particularly modern context and are invented or imagined rather than naturally existing. This is the position of Benedict Anderson, who defines nations as "imagined political communities." This imagination does not imply "falsity" but only that the reality of national cultural characteristics lies in the perception of them by both the members and those outside of the nation, rather than in an underlying "fact" of their existence independent of any consciousness of them. Further to this idea is the notion that much of the culture defined as national is made up of what Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger have described as "invented" traditions: rituals or symbols that imply continuity with the past and seek, through repetition, to encourage certain patterns of behavior or thinking. According to this position, when examining questions about the nation it is more profitable to begin with nationalism and the nation than with the reality they represent. It is the differing concepts of the nation that eventually, through time, inscribe themselves into the very society that they claim to portray. Ernest Gellner writes that the high culture which characterizes nations is not something that is natural but that must be learned, and nationalism's roots must be found in the pervading social order rather than in human nature, instinct, or the human psyche. The defined national culture gradually infuses the rest of the population with the image(s) it has formed of itself.

According to this theory, the modern state is central in this endeavor as a framework within which nationalist movements can operate. It is also necessary as a mechanism to encourage the people's identification with national history and other images, as well as the extension of the national high culture that is at the center of the nation's identity. John Breuilly stresses this role of the modern state and its institutions in the growth of nationalism and argues indeed that the modern state is the most important feature of the political context in which a nationalist movement can arise. This does not imply that nationalism is a direct product of the modern state, only that within the context of such a state nationalism has much greater potential as a political force. Nationalism, seen as a form of political opposition to absolutism within the newly emerging type of state, leads directly to a conflict over organization and sovereignty. The increasing significance of the state, its institutions and administrative structure, as well as its ability to control and manipulate images in the modern period also contribute to the extension of both national ideologies or traditions and the literate culture to the masses once one group of nationalists has gained control.

The development of technology that enables mass communication, rapid travel, and sophisticated record keeping provided nation-states with enhanced resources to preserve the loyalty of populations and also to encourage what Michael Billig has termed Banal Nationalism (not "banal" in the sense of unimportant). He refers to the phenomenon of the reinforcement of national identity through numerous unconscious reminders of the nation in all of the small habits of social life, via expanding material culture and through the media. From "national" forms such as income tax or social security to the shape and color of mailboxes, lettering on license plates, vocabulary developed to describe diplomas, jobs, laws or customs, and national weather and news reports, everywhere there are subtle and subconscious reminders of the nation, in such a way as to make that which is national seem natural and given.

Permeating societies at a variety of conscious and subconscious levels, capable of application to any number of combinations of group characteristics, and compatible with a wide range of other political ideologies, nationalism is not yet a political idea that has inspired consensus among those analyzing it. Nevertheless, over two hundred years after its emergence as a political theory, it is still one of the most powerful political forces in the world.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 2nd ed. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

Baycroft, Timothy. Nationalism in Europe, 1789–1945. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Berger, Stefan, Mark Donovan, and Kevin Passmore, eds. Writing National Histories: Western Europe since 1800. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Billig, Michael. Banal Nationalism. London and Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1995.

Breuilly, John. Nationalism and the State. 2nd ed. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1993.

Gellner, Ernest. Nations and Nationalism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.

Greenfeld, Liah. Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Guibernau, Montserrat. Nationalisms: The Nation-State and Nationalism in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1996.

Hastings, Adrian. The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Hobsbawm, E. J. Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Smith, Anthony D. Nationalism and Modernism: A Critical Curvey of Recent Theories of Nations and Nationalism. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

Woolf, Stuart, ed. Nationalism in Europe, 1815 to the Present: A Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. Collection of important primary texts.

Timothy Baycroft

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mysticism to Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotideNationalism - Historical Manifestations, Theories Of Nationalism, Civic And Ethnic Nations, The Perennialists, The Modernists