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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home  > Tamilnation Library  > Nations & Nationalism > History and National Destiny: Ethnosymbolism and its Critics - Montserrat Guibernau and John Hutchinson

Nations & Nationalism

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'For ethno-symbolists, what gives nationalism its power are the myths, memories, traditions, and symbols of ethnic heritages and the ways in which a popular living past has been, and can be, rediscovered and reinterpreted by modern nationalist intelligentsias. It is from these elements of myth, memory, symbol and tradition that modern national identities are reconstituted in each generation, as the nation becomes more inclusive and as its members cope with new challenges'

 From the Introduction

This volume celebrates Anthony D. Smith's path-breaking contribution to the study of nations and nationalism. Its objective is to assess and debate various issues concerning the ethno-symbolic approach propounded by him.

Ethnosymbolism stands in opposition to the modernist approach underpinning constructivist and instrumentalist theories of nations and nationalism. It argues that such theories fail 'to accord any weight to the pre-existing cultures and ethnic ties of the nations that emerged in the modern epoch' (Smith 1999: 9). In Smith's words: 'For ethno-symbolists, what gives nationalism its power are the myths, memories, traditions, and symbols of ethnic heritages and the ways in which a popular living past has been, and can be, rediscovered and reinterpreted by modern nationalist intelligentsias. It is from these elements of myth, memory, symbol and tradition that modern national identities are reconstituted in each generation, as the nation becomes more inclusive and as its members cope with new challenges' (Smith 1999: 9).

According to Anthony D. Smith, the basic themes or motifs derived from the claims made by ethno-symbolism are:

1. La longue duree. The origins and formation of nations as well as their possible future course should be traced over long periods of time, and we should not 'tie their existence and formation to a particular period of history or to the processes of modernization' (Smith 1999: 10). Nations are historical phenomena.

2. National past, present, and future. This is a major theme examined under three headings: recurrence, continuity, and reappropriation. Smith argues that the majority of nations and nationalism emerged in the modern world while admitting that some nations pre-dated modernity. In his view, 'the rubric of continuity points to the persistence of cultural components of particular nations' (Smith 1999: 11), while reappropriation represents a `reaching back into the ethnic past to obtain the authentic materials, and ethos for a distinct modern nation' (Smith 1999: 12).

3. The ethnic basis of nations. Most nations, modern and pre-modern, were based on ethnic ties and sentiments and on popular ethnic traditions, which have provided the cultural sources for later nation-formation (Smith 1999: 13).

ethno-history, various symbols of identity, etc.) has become an important focus for illuminating the origins and persistence of nations.

These manifold debates have created several clearly discernible 'positions' on the basic issues in the field. Thus we can speak of a modernist, a primordialist, a perennialist and an ethnosymbolic approach � as well as a variety of less well defined 'post-modern' (not necessarily 'post-modernise) approaches. This is not to say that all scholars subscribe to one or other of these approaches; various combinations are possible, and have been effected. But as a heuristic tool (and pedagogic aid), these approaches serve as a useful point of departure for further research and analysis.

Out of these conflicting paradigmatic approaches, a number of more specific debates and issues have engaged, and divided, the scholarly community. They include:

1. Problems of definition and nomenclature: more specifically. how we are to distinguish 'nations' from ethnic communities (or ethnies) and national states, and how the phenomena described by these concepts are related, historically and sociologically;

2. The problem of 'pre-modern nations': in what sense, and to what degree, we may legitimately speak of 'nations' (if not 'nationalism') in pre-modern epochs in different parts of the world; and how far back in time we can trace the components of modern nations;

3. The problem of participation: whether we can speak of 'elite nations' and 'middle class nations', or only of nations that in which the majority of the population participates, i.e. 'mass nations'; and if the latter, what proportion of the designated population counts for this purpose;

4. The related problem of 'citizenship': whether nationhood always requires 'citizenship' in a polity, or how far non-political membership (e.g. of a religious community) may act as a functional equivalent; and hence whether the concepts of both 'nation' and 'nationalism' are predominantly political or mainly cultural;

5. The problem of 'ideology': to what extent we should regard 'nationalism' as a political ideology on a par with other such ideologies, or as a form of culture and a secular or political 'religion';

6. The question of 'typology': whether there can he a single 'core doctrine' of nationalism, or, whether the term 'nationalism' is a shorthand for a variety of discourses and ideologies, some of them more 'voluntarist' and others more `organic':

7. The issue of `chosenness': the relationship between earlier concepts of ethnic election and modern nationalism, and the degree to which a sense of national identity is continuous with, influenced by or radically different from religious beliefs in chosen people;

8. The problem of 'memory': how far ethnic history should be regarded as a construct of present (nationalist) elites or whether, as shared memories of 'golden ages', it can exert an inspirational influence on the creation of modern national cultures and a sense of national destiny;

9. The problem of 'homelands': how far popular attachments to 'historic homelands' are the product of modern states and elites strategies, or are grounded in primordial cultural beliefs, ethnic history and memories of wars and sacrifice;

4. The cultural components of ethnies. The pre-existing components and longterm continuities of ethnic communities and nations are cultural and symbolic rather than demographic.

5. Ethnic myths and symbols. Myths of ethnic origin and election, and symbols of territory and community are key components of ethnicity.

6. Ethno-history. This denotes the ethnic members' memories and understanding of their communal past or pasts, rather than more objective and

dispassionate analysis by professional historians (Smith 1999: 16).

7. Routes to nationhood. It refers to the various processes leading to the construction of modern nations.

8. The longevity of nationalism. It concerns the power and durability of nations and nationalism encompassing 'nationalism as a modern ideological movement, but also the expression of aspirations by various social groups to create, defend or maintain nations � their autonomy, unity and identity-by drawing on the cultural resources of pre-existing ethnic communities and categories' (Smith 1999: 18).

This volume aims to explore the implications of this framework by bringing together scholars from different perspectives to address some of the major issues in the field. Anthony Smith in setting out a prospectus for the contributors laid down a challenge which he framed in these terms:

Of the many issues that have engrossed, and divided, scholars in the study of nationalism, none has been so critical as the problem of the origins of nations. All other issues have in the end revolved around this question: should we regard nations as perennial in history, perhaps even primordial to the human condition, or are they a product of very specific, modern conditions, and hence qualitatively novel? Unlike the fashionable question as to whether nations are 'real' or `constructed' (since in a sense all human categories and associations are 'constructed', but for the participants they are all too `rear), this seems to me to be a genuine problem, and one which has a strong bearing on the persistence or erosion of a sense of national identity in a 'post-modern' world.

Of course, the question of the modernity or antiquity of nations depends in part on our definitions of the concept of `nation'; but it also reflects a view about the relations between nations and `nationalism'. Broadly speaking, those who believe that nationalism (the movement and ideology) was instrumental in creating nations also subscribe to a modernist belief in the post-Revolutionary advent of nations. Conversely, those who hold that the rise of a nationalism depends on the prior existence of a corresponding nation (or ethnie) tend to regard nations as neither so recent nor so novel, but rather as phenomena that reflect continuity and recurrence across the pre-modern/ modern divide.

A further perspective argues that, even if nations and nationalism are temporally and qualitatively modern, they draw much of their content and strength from pre-existing ethnies. Though most nations have been created out of ethnically heterogenous populations, those that can point to a dominant ethnie as the fulcrum of their community and state, have been historically among the most influential and sociologically among the most `successful' in terms of longevity, consciousness and distinctiveness, if not always of power. Hence, the study of the components of ethnies (myths of descent and election, attachment to homelands, shared memories of

10. The problem of popular 'resonance': how far elites can mobilise populations by creating and channelling mass sentiments through rituals and traditions, or are constrained by pre-existing popular myths, symbols and traditions;

11. The problem of 'representation': how far images of the nation disseminated in literature and art should be regarded as cultural artefacts of elites in the creation and diffusion of the national idea, or, whether they can be seen as expressions and crystallisations of a pre-existing ethnicity or sense of national identity, with artists and writers articulating the 'voice' of the nation, or its major myths, memories and symbols;

12. The problem of 'passion' or 'mass sacrifice': how far nationalist fervour and sacrifice can be understood as strategic choice and calculation, or more in terms of familial bond and religious commitment;

13. The problem of 'ethnicity': the extent to which modern nations and nationalism are still permeated by ethnic attachments and exclusiveness, and how far the 'ethnic-civic' dichotomy of nations and nationalisms is a valid distinction and a useful heuristic tool;

14. The problem of `transcendence': how far nations, as well as nationalism, as products of modernity, are likely to be superseded by `post-modern' continental networks or global associations, or whether nations and their members' sense of national destiny, if not nationalism, are in a sense transhistorical, or are reinvigorated by globalism, and hence likely to persist.





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