Richard Handler
Defining "Nationalism"


NOTE: Richard Handler is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia. He is an expert on nationalism and politics in Quebec. His book, Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec, is an excellent study of the interplay between politics, culture, and nationalism.


"Nationalism is an ideology about individuated being. It is an ideology concerned with boundedness, continuity, and homogeneity encompassing diversity. It is an ideology in which social reality, conceived in terms of nationhood, is endowed with the reality of natural things.

"In principle the individuated being of a nation—its life, its reality—is defined by boundedness, continuity, and homogeneity encompassing diversity. In principle a nation is bounded—that is, precisely delimited—in space and time: in space, by the inviolability of its borders and the exclusive allegiance of its members; in time, by its birth or beginning in history. In principle the national entity is continuous: in time, by virtue of the uninterruptedness of its history; in space, by the integrity of the national territory. In principle national being is defined by a homogeneity which encompasses diversity: however individual members of the nation may differ, they share essential attributes that constitute their national identity; sameness overrides difference.

"In principle an individuated actor manifests his life through the exercise of choice, and through the consistent action that follows therefrom. Consistent action is both characteristic and rational: the nation acts in accord with its essence, and according to its needs.

"In principle the life of an individuated actor is celebrated through creativity, which is the imposition of one's choices on the physical and social world, and in proprietorship, which is the establishment of permanent bonds between self and the products resulting from creative activity. Nationalism is an ideology of what C. B. Macpherson (1962) called possessive individualism.

"It is customary in the literature on nations and ethnic nationalism to distinguish between "nation" and "state." A nation, it is said, is a human group that may or may not control its own state; while a state is a political organization that may or may not correspond to all of one, and only one, nation. It is customary to point out that there are many more nations or potential nations than states; that most nations aspire to statehood yet many have not and will not attain it; and that many states, federal or unitary, encompass more than one nation. It is only slightly less customary to point out that states have created nations perhaps more frequently that nations states; in the classic nation-states of Western Europe state-building bred national identity rather than simply following from it.

"It is much less customary to observe that our notions of "nation" and "state" imply similar senses of boundedness, continuity, and homogeneity encompassing diversity. The state is viewed as a rational, instrumental, power-concentrating organization. The nation is imagined to represent less calculating, more sentimental aspects of collective reality. Yet both are, in principle, integrated: well-organized and precisely delimited social organisms. And, in principle, the two coincide.

"The nationalist desire for an integrated nation-state can be compared to the overriding concern of social scientists to speak about and privilege integrated social units of whatever level of complexity. Here I intentionally correlate actors'desires and observers' epistemology. The presuppositions concerning boundedness that dominate nationalist discourse equally dominate our social-scientific discourse, which takes discrete social entities, such as "societies" and "cultures," as the normal units of analysis, and the "integration" of such units as the normal and healthy state of social life.

"Of course, everyone knows that social life is not neatly integrated: the boundaries of nations, states, societies, and cultures are permeable and even vague. Yet to recognize (and then rationalize) "fuzzy boundaries" does not fundamentally question the epistemology of "entitivity" (Cohen 1978) upon which the notion of boundedness depends. In the study of nationalism and ethnicity the characteristic ploy used to get round the fuzzy-boundaries problem is to posit a distinction between objective and subjective groups. A human group, it is argued, can be bounded by attributes or characteristics that each of its members "possesses." This is objective boundedness, though what is objectively shared may be subjective states of mind of the group members -characteristic modes of thought and affect that lead to characteristic actions and social organizations. Objective boundedness means that the group actually exists as a group, and can be shown to exist by an external observer. Subjective boundedness is the sense that group members themselves have of forming a group; that is, national or ethnic self-consciousness. It is customary to point out that an objectively existent group may not be subjectively self-conscious, and that nations and nationalisms become possible only after the emergence of group self-consousness. It is only slightly less customary to point out that the actors' sense of group integration may be grounded in an illusion and that their perception of sameness may obscure important objective differences among group members. In the face of the continued emergence of evidence of such differences-and of mal- or dis-integration, permeableness, and vagueness of boundaries—many scholars of nationalism and ethnicity have de-emphasized the objective reality of groups and insisted instead on subjective boundedness as the sine qua non of collective existence. Proponents of this position argue that whatever the degree of objective boundedness, it is only the subjective perception (or delusion) of identity that launches a group on its career of collective action. The perception of group identity may even be sufficient to overcome large objective differences and bring a national entity into historical existence.

"This appeal to the subjective basis of group unity respects the entitivity assumptions-boundedness, continuity, homogeneity that both nationalists and social scientists presuppose in their discussions of the reality of nations. The reality that may be denied by a lack of shared objective traits is reestablished by the subjective sharing of a sense of identity, and the nation or ethnic group can again be proclaimed to exist. Once again we find a close congruence between actors' ideologies and observers' theories: the "common will to live together" that nationalists see as the necessary capstone to the list of objective traits which form a national entity becomes "group identity" in the jargon of social scientists."

Handler, Richard. Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec. New Directions in Antropoligical Writing: History, Poetics, Cultural Criticism, ed. George E.; Clifford Marcus, James. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1988, pp. 6-8.