Ethnic Nationalism and Social Mobilisation in a Globalising World – Anthropology Research Paper

The rapid expansion of institutions of global capital, coupled with the spread of neoliberal democracy throughout the nations of the so-called Third World present a number of problems for discussion. The process of globalisation has resulted in massive

changes to social, economic and cultural norms in developing countries and has consequently encountered significant resistance from peoples increasingly concerned with the present and future ramifications of this form of globalisation. It is my contention that the rise or resurgence of nationalism in countries experiencing the effects of development programs and economic globalisation is directly linked to these factors. This essay will discuss how and why nationalism has become so prominent in “modernising” states, as well as the implications of increased nationalist identification on other forms of social mobilisation.

I will first outline the scope of this essay. Nationalism as a movement and ideology has been subject to considerable criticism – many have pointed to the justification that nationalism has historically provided for genocide, in Germany, Turkey and Israel for example. The history of the nation as an instrument of social organisation is in fact characterised by violent conflict, between and particularly within states. This essay will not, however, dedicate any substantial space to the ideological or moral problems that surround nationalism. The aim of this essay is not to point out the “folly” of developing countries adopting such a potentially problematic form of identity building, instead it is to discuss the role of culture in the creation of the nation and relate this to processes of globalisation. From a functional-analytical perspective then, we can avoid the potential problems inherent to rationalism and cross-cultural criticism, namely ethnocentricity and universalism.

One further difficulty in writing this essay involves the use of terminology. Though extremely prevalent in the discourse, “development”, “modernisation”, “third world” and variants of these terms create the implication that non- or partially industrialised countries of the South are backward, or inferior to the (post) industrial North. Indeed, these terms articulate an idea of historical and cultural linearity; i.e. that these backwards nations must inevitably undergo the same processes of industrial development experienced by the North in order to modernise their economic and social institutions. This idea is fundamentally refuted by the majority of anthropologists. To Franz Boas, for example, all cultures are equally developed according to their own priorities and values; none is better, more advanced, or less primitive than any other. Despite the importance of this notion of cultural relativism, I will persist with the (albeit cautious) use of these terms. When discussing “developing” or “modernising” nations, my usage will not be normative; instead I will simply be referring to the processes of top-down industrialisation that are being undertaken in a given country.

The rise of nationalism

Nationalism and the nation, as contested concepts prove difficult to define. As previously mentioned, nationalism can be viewed as the cause of hugely destructive wars, the justification for racial hatred – an intrinsically irrational movement that has created irrational, illiberal and oppressive political regimes. Yet the nation-state system; a conceptualisation of the world as divided geographically on the basis of national identity in order to bring about and maintain peace and democracy, is also a crucial fundament of liberal-rationalist thought. The origins of the nation are also contested, with nationalists and perennialists arguing that nationalism is a universal, naturally occurring, timeless human characteristic, while others posit the nation as a relatively recent, culturally constructed entity. Indeed, it has been suggested that there are different types of nationalisms; for example distinctions have been made between “Western” and “Eastern” , “good” and “evil” , “civic” and “ethnic” nationalisms, while others maintain that there is only one set of nationalist modular forms originating primarily in Western Europe, which have been appropriated by nationalist elites in Africa, Asia and Latin America. On top of this, there is debate between the modernist and post-modernist camps over how much analytical weight should be placed on ethnicity and primordial factors – i.e. the past – when looking at nation-building and nationalist movements.

An excellent starting point for any discussion of the nation is Benedict Anderson’s characterisation of “imagined political communit[ies]”. In this sense, the nation is not a historical given; instead it is the product of socio-historical processes. The very fact that though the vast majority of members of a nation will experience no direct – or even indirect – contact with one another, that they feel a consciousness of kinship with their national fellows highlights the imagined, constructed nature of national identity. This is not to say that the community of nation is false, or fabricated in comparison to other, “real” communities – indeed the notion of community can be seen as essentially imagined itself; that communal identity itself only exists in the mind. Despite its fundamentally imagined, constructed nature, the nation has proven to be a powerful force in constructing collective identity and social mobilisation. How, then, can we come to terms with the power that this constructed identity exerts over the citizens of a nation, such that they would be willing to die in order to protect their imagined community from an external threat?

A historical perspective will perhaps prove enlightening. If we are to accept that the nation and nationalism are the result of socio-historical circumstances, rather than part of the immutable human condition, then one must be able to trace the roots of this construction. Nationalism as an ideology, whereby the world is considered as already divided into independent nations; where an individual’s first loyalty is to the nation; where belonging to a nation is a prerequisite for freedom; and the autonomy of nations is the only path to peace, can be traced to eighteenth century Europe. The first modern mass nations formed later, in the nineteenth century. This sits comfortably with Gellner’s view, that nations are constructed from the top down, whereby elites manipulate mythic history in order to further their own interests – to him “it is nationalism that engenders nations, and not the other way round.” This modernist perspective suggests that nation building is purely a result of nationalist thought, which in turn stems from facets of modern industrial society (i.e. the creation of the nation-state system) and can be achieved independently of cultural or ethnic pasts. When looking at early Western nations, this view may hold true – the formation of Great Britain, as well as the French and American republics, it is argued, were achieved through a focus on civic structures, that is, the rule of law and shared political practices and values (i.e. neoliberal democracy). In this sense the ethnic and cultural heritage of these nations played only a peripheral role in their proactive construction.

This, however, does not explain later forms of nationalism which are undoubtedly ethnic in origin. It is difficult to suggest that the Mayan neo-nationalist movement for example results purely from an elitist manipulation of the masses – there is undoubtedly a preexisting communal worldview which is shared by the movement’s leaders and the Mayan people. Though this shared cultural connection is constructed, imaginary, it provides a definite framework upon which a nation can be constituted. According to Clifford Geertz, kin connection, being born into a particular religious community, speaking a particular language or dialect, and the following of particular social practices are primordial, or deep cultural meanings upon which nationalism is built. Furthermore, these meanings represent a more convincing basis for the creation of neo-nationalisms than the economic and social factors presented by modernists. Though these play a considerable role, the fact that the rise of “ethnic” nationalisms does not strongly correlate with economic trends suggests a deeper cultural basis. So too, the suggestion that early Western nationalisms were voluntarily adopted and civic in nature and transgressed ethnic or religious backgrounds is dubious at best – American nationalism for example began with a racially and religiously restricted core community of white Catholics, and then proceeded to expand to the civic structures now apparent.

Clearly the perennialist viewpoint, that nations are immutable entities that have existed forever in various forms is not particularly useful in understanding the formation of new nationalisms, particularly given the focus on “medieval” history as it informs the present. Nations, as cultural constructs are clearly able to be both manipulated, and to naturally change –just as history itself is capable. The modernist viewpoint, though it may (or may not) account for nationalisms of the nineteenth century, is also limited as it tends to ignore the cultural basis of new nationalisms and fails to adequately explain the resurgence of nationalism in developing nations. The postmodern explanation of nation building, where existing cultural (primordial) elements are used to construct collective identity is perhaps the best equipped to deal with neo-nationalisms, though it may tend to exaggerate the control that is exercised by elites in selecting and constructing history.

It would appear that there is a clear distinction between new nationalisms, which are primarily ethnic in origin, and old nationalisms which are based on civic and political structures. This idea has been articulated by many, including Kohn who equates “civic” with “Western” and later with “good” forms of nationalism, as opposed to its “ethnic”, “non-Western”, “evil” opposite. This ethnocentric conception of nationalism is flawed insofar as it ignores the history of modern civic states and ascribes normative values through othering non-Western forms; an idea which can be seen to stem from a “liberal-rationalist dilemma” whereby a fundamentally “good” idea (nationalism) can create illiberal movements and regimes. However from an analytical or functional perspective, it is clear that many of the new nationalist movements are primarily ethnic in nature, and in fact are more about creating identity than manufacturing a civic nation state. And even though it is arguable that Western nations do not solely exhibit the characteristics of purely civic nationalism, there is a clear emphasis on the state and its political apparatus in the loyalties of civic nationals. Thus, we may use this ethnic-civic opposition – not to criticise ethnic nationalisms or to celebrate civic nationalism – but to understand their creation.

Globalisation and the new nationalism

Having looked at the rise of nationalism, we will turn to the effects of globalisation in developing countries and how these effects have contributed to the new nationalist revival. In particular, I would like to focus on Latin America, the countries within which have experienced recent nationalist ascendancies. While it is well beyond the scope of this essay to explore globalisation or its impacts in any significant way, I will briefly address a few of the key concerns as they relate to the neo-nationalist movements.

As global capitalism spreads via supranational organisations like the Bretton Woods institutions (the neoliberal economic policies of which are adopted by national leaders in the South), the social, cultural and economic conventions of traditional societies are uprooted. The dislocation of peasant communities to urban areas as a result of increased competition requirements and susceptibility to fluctuations in the market, as well as reductions in peasant land rights has resulted in a changed social base in Latin America. On top of this, peasants are able to observe changing (Westernising) values in their communities. For example: kinsmen and neighbours may be less likely to extend help to one another; traditional behavioural practices may disappear; the rewards for traditional social participation may be discarded in favour of monetary reimbursement. This change in peasants’ identity and communal relationships contributes to a sense of helplessness, a lack of control of their own identity. Overall, globalisation – particularly in the rapidly expanding form that we have observed through the 1990s – has contributed substantially to the loss of cultural and social individual identity in peasant communities, which has been supplanted by nationalist communal identity.

Nationalism and social mobilisation

Given the fundamental importance of identity in affecting social mobilisation
Manuel Castells provides an excellent framework for interpreting identity. Of three types of collective identity creation, he locates ethnic nationalism (though he prefers the term “cultural nationalism”) as a resistance identity. In this sense identity is generated by people experiencing domination and lack of agency, where an oppositional paradigm is created to resist this domination. In the case of nationalism, and given what has been discussed prior, we can see that it is the rapidly changing cultural, as well as social and economic factors being imposed on these countries as they are dragged into “modernity” that are seen as repressive. As Western elites push for internationalisation and the expansion of global capitalism, and elites in developing nations (as per resource mobilisation theory ) create national identity based on – and often exaggerating – existing cultural traditions, Western capitalist hegemony is in a sense resisted. The creation of communes of homogenous resistance based on previously existing, though often latent cultural identities is, however, a defensive strategy that seeks to preserve a sense of the status quo by embellishing upon cultural and ethnic heritage, not an active resistance that seeks to affect systemic and political change.

The actual process of mobilisation is not as clear-cut as highlighted above, though this conception of it will suffice given the scope of this essay. As suggested earlier, the postmodern conception of nation building as elites “picking and choosing” from history to construct mass national identity is an oversimplification, and does not account for the variations between different nationalist movements in terms of elite-mass relationships and interaction, or for the “uneven ethno-histories” articulated by Anthony Smith. In terms of understanding the role of the nation and nationalism in social mobilisation, though, it affords us the ability to contrast this reactive, reactionary form of identity with the more progressive form described by Castell as “project identity”. Project identity involves a redefinition of a group’s position in society in order to achieve societal change – specifically through challenging the overarching systems of dominance (i.e. capitalism). To Castells, given the primacy of identification in social mobilisation, nationalist identity serves to diminish the potential for project identity creation, although this is not to say that a resistance identity like that created through cultural nationalism cannot transform into a positive project-based identity.


Though the nation is a culturally constructed phenomenon it provides its members with a powerful source of identity and as a result is a potent instrument of social mobilisation. The contemporary nationalist movements in developing nations are not the result of top-down elitist manipulation, nor are they simply appropriations of Western nationalisms. When analysing the causation and construction of new nationalisms, the distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism is a useful, though problematic one. Ethnic or cultural nationalism is a reactive form of collective identity-building, where the creation of cultural communities (trenches) is essentially a resistance to changing social, cultural and economic systems. These changes are a direct result of economic globalisation, particularly the development and modernisation processes imposed by elites upon peasants. Finally, the formation of national identity as a comfort zone for disenfranchised peasants can be seen to inhibit the creation of more progressive or proactive social movements which would seek to transform overall social structures, and therefore address the problems associated with the spread of global capitalism.


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