Book Review: Ethnonationalism in the Contemporary World: Walker Connor and the Study of Nationalism

    Conversi, Daniele (ed.), Ethnonationalism in the Contemporary World: Walker Connor and the Study of Nationalism. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

Few scholars have contributed as much to the study of ethnicity and nationalism as Walker Connor. From the late 1960s to the present, Connor has made important contributions to many of the central debates within the area of nationalism studies while pushing for more precise definitions of key terms along the way. The present volume was conceived as a Festschrift honoring Connor’s contribution to the field and subsequently developed into a very useful collection of essays, including perhaps the most accessible discussion of “primordialism” currently available in the literature.

Ethnonationalism in the Contemporary World begins with a lucid introductory chapter by Daniele Conversi which expertly sets up the four following sections by giving those unfamiliar with Connor’s extensive output a firm foothold on his contribution. While those familiar with Connor’s work can skip this chapter, advanced undergraduates and graduate students should find Conversi’s summary invaluable.

Younger scholars benefit from the inclusion of Connor’s “Nationalism and Political Illegitimacy” which initially appeared as a journal article in 1980. The chapter provides a concise introduction to Connor’s distinction between “patriotism” and “ethnonationalism”—a classification that rests at the very heart of much of his work. Connor explores the development of modern nationalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when medieval notions of popular sovereignty were combined with a growing belief in the importance of national self-determination. Connor concludes by suggesting three levels of legitimacy (regime-, government-, and state-) that account for the persistence of multinational states in a national era. The chapter represents an excellent addition to the collection because it offers those unfamiliar with Connor’s work a valuable insight to his use of terminology, historical understanding of nations, and the significance of these topics for more contemporary issues like relations between minority and majority nationalist groups.

When combined, the two introductory chapters supply an ideal preamble to the four sections that follow. The first of these sections offers three assessments of the primordialist interpretation of the development of nations and nationalism, providing one of the most comprehensive treatments of this school of thought yet published. The three articles are each very solid and the sections by Anthony D. Smith and Joshua A. Fishman are especially strong and accessible. Those familiar with Smith’s extensive contribution to the nationalism literature will find little new in his article, however he does provide an insightful critique of Connor’s emphasis on the importance of psychology in the formation of nations, claiming that concrete symbols and institutions (what Smith has called ethnie) are more important than Connor’s emphasis in the significance of what nationalists “feel” a nation to be allows. The second chapter, written by Donald L. Horowitz, provides a defense of the primordialist position, which the author believes is, at the very least, worth exploring in greater detail. Unfortunately this chapter contains more jargon than is suitable for an undergraduate audience, limiting access to more advanced students. Joshua Fishman’s contribution contrasts constructivist and primordialist interpretations of the role of language in the formation of national identity; while his points about the future of minority languages are interesting, by structuring the piece in the manner that he does, Fishman is able to provide readers with a very comprehensible discussion of the primordialist-constructivist debate—a valuable addition which raises the utility of this article far beyond much of the previous scholarship on language policy and national identity.

Although most of this volume is theoretical in tone, the second section provides interesting case studies of nationalism in the Basque country, South Africa, and Canada. Of these three chapters, John Edward’s discussion about political discourse in Canada stands out for its extensive use of recent primary source material and it should be useful both to those interested specifically in the Canadian/Quebecois case as well as those whose concerns extend to the relationship between nations and stateless-nations more broadly. Both John Stone’s discussion of the gradual transition from apartheid to integration in South Africa and William Douglass’s treatment of racism in nineteenth century Basque nationalism are interesting and well written, however I suspect they will be more valuable to those not versed in these topics than to specialists.

The third section contains three articles that attempt to apply Connorian perspectives to the durability of federal political systems (Brendan O’Leary), the failure of third parties to successfully mediate ethnic conflicts (William Safran), and the relationship between religion and nationalism in first world countries. All three articles are well argued, though the O’Leary chapter is surprisingly poorly edited given the otherwise high standards of this collection. Of these three chapters, O’Leary’s is the most methodologically intriguing, though I believe unconvincing. According to O’Leary, “a stable democratic majoritarian federation or multi-national, must have a Staatsvolk, a national or ethnic people, who are demographically and electorially dominant—though not necessarily an absolute majority of the population—and who must be the co-founders of the federation” (166, italics original) if the federation is to succeed. Based on this thesis, O’Leary proceeds to offer a list of federations, the name of the Staatsvolk present in each, and the percentage of the population represented. O’Leary then claims that a convenient algebraic equation can be used to predict the stability of any given national federation. While I can certainly appreciate the desire to inject a modicum of predictability and mathematical precision into the study of state stability, ethnicity, and nationalism, it seems far fetched to suggest that ethnic identity is in any way quantifiable, especially given that previous chapters in this volume (especially Smith’s) make it very clear that scholars do not agree about the importance of ethnic markers versus belief in the first place. Making matters worse, identities are fluid and represent a moving target, not a simple numeric variable. No simple equation or scholarly attempt at quantification can realistically make sense of a fundamentally qualitative phenomenon. Even so, the chapter will undoubtedly spark discussion in any upper-level undergraduate or graduate seminar into which it is introduced.

The final section of this collection addresses the “wider implications” of Connor’s work and contains three fascinating articles, including especially strong contributions by Robert J. Kaiser and Daniele Conversi, as well as a very useful exploration of the differences between ethnicity and nationality (Thomas Spira) that should prove very useful to students of these important topics. Kaiser’s article provides a very helpful discussion of the construction of homelands and national territories—an area of scholarship that is only just beginning to draw the attention which it deserves given that nations only “truly belong” to a finite geographic space. Using a variety of secondary sources as well as his own research on homeland making in Russia and surrounding former-Soviet territories, Kaiser both summarizes current thinking about the geography of nationalism and extends the discussion to show that as “actual places and localities become ever more blurred and indeterminate, ideas of culturally and ethnically distinct places become perhaps even more salient” (243, italics original). Conversi’s chapter offers an appropriate conclusion to this collection by flagging several obstacles facing future study of nations and nationalism: a fitting way to wrap up this volume because one of Walker Connor’s main contributions has been to push scholars to define terms—no easy task given the multiplicity of definitions of “nation” currently in circulation. Even if we now generally acknowledge the need to explain what we are talking about when mentioning the nation, we still lack a functional and agreed upon taxonomy of terms. Scholarly work, to say nothing of national identities, seldom fit easily into one category or another, but the provision of a coherent way to order our disciplinary knowledge, such as Conversi tries to provide, should allow us to more easily converse about complicated questions.

In conclusion, this collection offers a series of articles by some of the most important voices in the field of nationalism studies, and provides enough material to be useful to a range of audiences—including advanced undergraduates if readings are selectively chosen. The three major treatments about primordialism alone make this a valuable addition to any nationalism library. My one major complaint is that the hardcover edition of this book retails for over $100 US and is therefore out of the reach of many of those scholars who might benefit most from owning it.

Note: A revised paperback version of this text is scheduled to appear in March 2004. The list price is $31.95 ($47.95 Canadian).