Five Approaches to Nationalism

George P. Landow, Shaw Professor of English and Digital Culture, National University of Singapore; Professor of English and Art History, Brown University, USA

Drawing on the work of Kedourie, McLuhan, Gellner, Anderson, and Kemper, one can point to various scholarly explanations of nationalism:

Nationalism is borrowed from some other nation — Elie Kedourie

"Elie Kedourie first made the argument that nationalism was essentially a European phenomenon, carried around the world by colonial circumstances, and when Benedict Anderson treats nationalism as a transportable, 'modular' phenomenon, he follows in the tradition that sees nationalism as imitative" (Kemper, 3).

Nationalism is the inevitable result of the Gutenberg Revolution — Marshall McLuhan, Benedict Anderson

Marshall McLuhan, later followed by Elizabeth Eisenstein and Benedict Anderson, derive Nationalism from the introduction of printing technology into a society. In other words, these thinkers claim that it was not some vague "European" mode of thought but rather one particular aspect of European culture — the printing press and its associated social, economic, and cultural practices — produces nationalism. Acording to McLuhan and Eisenstein, the introduction of print-based information technologies, whose economies of scale demand homogeneous spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, inevitably produce a sense of nationhood. Italy and Germany, both of which were geographical areas that shared common languages before they became unified countries, began to conceive themselves as nations after printing standardized their languages. African postcolonial authors, one should note, often comment upon the intrusion of writing and printing into oral, preliterate societies.

Kemper summarizes Anderson's version of this argument in the following way:

Nations had to be 'imagined communities'. Their size an complexity made the possibility of citizens knowing one another in a face-to-face way quite ridiculous. The spread of print technology made it possible for enormous numbers of people to know of one another indirectly, for the printing press become the middleman to the imagination of the community. . . .The very existence and regularity of newspapers caused readers, and thus citizens-in-the-making, to imagine themselves residing in a common time and place, united by a print language with a league of anonymous equals. [Kemper 4]

According to Kemper, this emphasis upon "new technology and new forms of social organization gives the impression that nationalism was a 'big bang.' Before the bang there was no nation; after the bang, there was" (5). Is this criticism fair, or because Kemper has concentrated on Anderson's version of the argument, has he ignored the mechanisms of change provided by Eisenstein, McLuhan, and other students of information technology?

Nationalism derives from cultural necessities — Ernest Gellner

"Ernest Gellner points to a structural connection between nationalism and the needs of modern, industrial society: nationalism creates the common culture and social homogeneity needed for the complex and constantly changing division of labor in modern societies. But he also assumes the imitative character of many nationalist movements. In his words, nations do not so much create nationalism as nationalism creates nations" (Kemper, 4).

Nationalism is a recrudescence of local ideas and interests — Eric Hobsbawm

"Other scholars see nationalism as . . . the work of traditional elites, trying to protect their advantages and preserve customary practices. Hobsbawm speculates that nationalist movements derive from 'middle peasants' seeking to preserve a threatened way of life and their own advantage or that the state mass produced tradition for the sake of its own legitimacy" (Kemper, 4).

Nationalism is a local response, employing local cultural forms, to new circumstances — Steven Kemper

Kemper differentiates his own view of the subject by emphasizing, in supposed contradiction to others, the need to pay attention to culture, politics, and consciousness of individual societies. He thus claims that the problem with Anderson's and other conceptions of nationalism that

Kemper does not so much reject the work of his predecessors as require that one adds to it a much-finer grained local mechanism for individual cultures. "I think," Kemper argues, "that nationalism needs to be seen as a conversation that the present holds with the past. . . . We also need to recognize us that the conversation includes several voices in the present arguing about exactly what kind of past actually existed" (7),

The strength of nationalism as a political phenomenon is its ability to draw on sentiments -- language, religion, family, culture -- that appear to be natural and autochthonous. Their cultural expression required the emergence of a set of hew and hardly autochthonous circumstances. This is the paradox of nationalism. Its force depends on the capturing of primordial sentiments, even though the drawing together of language, religion, or culture with the polity is generally a modern phenomenon. . . . Nationalism builds the civil order by saying it was there all the while. Of course it was not, but the instruments of nationalist practice were there, . . . [such as] a political rhetoric of righteous, unifying leadership and cultural forms such as the keeping of chronicles. [224]


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1983.

Gellner, Ernest. Nation and Nationalism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1983.

Kedourie, Elie. Nationalism. London: Hutchinson: 1966.

Kemper, Steven. The Presence of the Past: Chronicles, Politics, and Culture in Sinhala Life. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.

Hobsbawm, Eric. "Some Reflections on Nationalism." Imagination and Precision in the Social Sciences. Ed. T. J. Nossiter, et al. London: Faber and Faber, 1972.

Postcolonial OV discourseov Nationalism Bibliography

Last modified: 14 December 2000