Book Summary: Nationalism: A Critical Introduction

    Spencer, Philip and Howard Wollman. Nationalism: A Critical Introduction. London: Sage, 2002.

Yet another introduction to nationalism! This one makes its claim to our attention by means of its avowedly critical lens. Our authors inform us that they had expected, upon beginning to think seriously about the subject, “to find a literature that was highly critical of nationalism. Instead we felt increasingly that much of the literature in its claims to ‘take nationalism seriously’ had become oddly uncritical. The relatively small number of writers who were critical of nationalism were often specifically attacked on the grounds that a critical stance would somehow get in the way of a real understanding of the phenomenon” (1). Though they find nationalism studies as such seriously lacking in critical rigor, Spencer and Wollman find much to praise in studies of “ethnicity, racism, idenity and cosmopolitanism,” which do not treat “the nation or national identity as a fixed, necessary and wholly positive feature of human society” (1). Their aim, then, is to use these latter studies to “illuminate, contextualize and problematize the nation,” and the sovereign principle of their book is that “a profound scepticism about nationalist claims is indispensable for a clear understanding of nationalism and national identity” (1-2).

Some readers may be tempted to sniff out the dust of straw men in all this. But if the book makes sweeping claims for the superior criticality of its stance in relation to the key texts in nationalism studies, it does live up to its avowed commitment to the critical approach.

In Chapter 1, “Ambivalent Legacies: Nationalism, Political Ideology and Social Theory,” Spencer and Wollman take us on a quick tour of the classical “theories” of nationalism formulated by liberals, Marxists, conservatives, and Durkheim and Weber. They try to point out the ways in which opportunities for an out-and-out critique of nationality were missed by these proto-theories.

“Contemporary Approaches to Nationalism” surveys the leading present-day theoretical constellations, from primordialism to perennialism to ethno-symbolism to pre-modernism to industrial modernism to Marxist modernism to postmodernism and finally feminism. Each constellation is allotted an average of about 2.5 pages.

“Nationalism, Culture and the Politics of the Imagined” examines the bricks that go into the construction of national identities: race, ethnicity, culture, religion, language, memory, and territory.

“Good and Bad Nationalisms” subjects what Spencer and Wollman see as dualistic approaches to nationalism (“civic”/“ethnic,” “Western/Eastern”) to critical scrutiny, arguing that the differences between the terms in each of these dualisms are usually those of degree rather than those of kind.

“Nationalism and Democracy” lays out and then challenges the view that the nation-state has been the vehicle for democracy, arguing that democratic struggles and nationalist struggles are fundamentally different.

“Nationalism in a Global World” scrutinizes globalization’s effects on nationalism and nationality, and considers the argument that globalization is undermining nationalism as such.

The concluding chapter, with the almost de rigueur title “Beyond Nationalism?”, looks at alternatives to nationalism, such as consociationalism and federalism, supranationalism and cosmopolitanism, transnationalism and anti-nationalist patriotism. Spencer and Wollman argue that we need to go beyond political concepts that are grounded in the nation and national identity.

Each chapter includes a sidebar with a helpful guide to further reading.