Wednesday 19 December 2012

Nationalism: modern, or primeval?

Discuss. Well, only if you want to. I ask the question because it is the topic that has taken me away from this blog for longer than I would have liked, along with getting back into the swing of things post-Liberia and of course the approach of Christmas. Back now though.

I am completing an M.S.c. at BirkbeckCollege, University of London, at the moment, and have been studying a fascinating set of debates around nationalism and ethnic identity. What makes a nation, and do we all have the same idea of what that means? Where do our ethnic and other identities come from and how do they shape what we do?

Big philosophical debates but the question I have been researching this month has been the extent to which nationalism can be understood using different analytical lenses. Specifically, the lenses adopted by 'ethno-symbolists', such as Anthony Smith, or 'modernists' such as Birkbeck's own Eric Hobsbawm, who sadly died recently.

I am not about to repeat the depth of the research here, save to say that ethno-symbolist perspectives view nationalism as being the latest expression of a set of factors that have roots going back many centuries, drawing primarily on religious and cultural developments for each social group. Modernists, on the other hand, take their starting point as more related to the growth of the modern nation state emerging out of the period of industrialisation in the 1700 and 1800s. 

They both have a valid perspective, of course. Without nations, or the idea of what that would mean, you can't by definition have nationalism. But to discount all historic factors which have moulded societies simply because they occurred under a different governance system, generally monarchies drawing their legitimacy from religion, seems to me dangerously close to trying to fit a complex situation into the straightjacket of a pre-cooked theory.

Either way, the collection of thoughts and research on these questions are not simply academic hot air. They have very real relevance to how we can understand the world we are in, and nowhere is this more pressing than in regions of armed conflict, where the narrative on both sides is usually framed in nationalist or quasi-nationalist terms. Yet what struck me recently was a comment by the person leading this course, a newly qualified PhD who clearly has huge enthusiasm for the subject, which was that until recently these questions had largely been neglected by the mainstream of academic debate.

I would add to that the mainstream of policy making, which at best has limited the likelihood of success for peacebuilding efforts in some of the most intractable conflicts in the world. At worse it may have resulted in real harm, as projects have been set up and implemented in ignorance of the subtle nuances of the situation they were intended to improve.

How do we effectively connect the reflective academic with the time pressured policy maker and make it work? Now there's a question.  

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