Book Summary: Ethnicity and Nationalism: Theory and Comparison


    Brass, Paul R. Ethnicity and Nationalism: Theory and Comparison. New Delhi: Sage, 1991.

Paul Brass explicitly frames this influential collection of essays as an assault on the theories of Anthony Smith, arguably the leader of the primordialist/perennialist camp of nationalism studies. Brass declares up front that “two central arguments run through the volume. The first is that ethnicity and nationalism are not ‘givens,’ but are social and political constructions. They are creations of elites, who draw upon, distort, and sometimes fabricate materials from the cultures of the groups they wish to represent in order to protect their well-being or existence or to gain political and economic advantage for their groups as well as for themselves. The second argument is that ethnicity and nationalism are modern phenomena inseparably connected with the activities of the modern centralizing state” (8).

So there we have it. According to Brass, ethnicity and nationality are (i) socially constructed by (ii) elites for (iii) instrumental and materialist reasons, and are (iv) ineluctably implicated in the modern state.

Brass’s theoretical reflections grew out of his research in India, and several of the later essays provide empirical substantiation for the more theoretical arguments made in the earlier chapters.

Brass defines ethnicity as “a sense of ethnic identity…consisting of the subjective, symbolic or emblematic use by a group of people…of any aspect of culture…in order to create internal cohesion and differentiate themselves from other groups” (19).

Perhaps the most interesting thing Brass has to say about nationalism as such is under what conditions it is most likely to arise (towards the end, he seems to be echoing Ernest Gellner):

Nationalism is most likely to develop when new elites arise to challenge a system of ethnic stratification in the cities or an existing pattern of distribution of economic resources and political power between ethnically distinct urban and rural groups or ethnically diverse regions. One moment at which such challenges tend to arise most forcefully is when industrial development and political centralization have led to concentrations of job opportunities in key urban centers and to the need for trained personnel to fill the new positions. It is at this point also in pluralistic societies that the issue of language becomes critical because the choice of the official language and the medium of education determines which groups have favored access to the best jobs” (43-4).

This is an important book, not least for its intriguing theoretical alloy of social constructionism and materialism.