Book Summary: Nationalism


This thoughtful and often provocative introductory text provides a general account of nationalism as both an empirical phenomenon and a political and social concept. Craig Calhoun, a critical sociologist, argues that nationalism is primarily a discursive formation; he generally sides with Benedict Anderson in emphasizing the constructedness of national identity, while rejecting Eric Hobsbawm’s assertion that nationality is an invalid illusion. He also agrees with Ernest Gellner that modernity is a necessary condition for the creation of nations and nationalism. But this text is not a rehash of the classics—Calhoun goes on to draw valuable and (to my knowledge) original distinctions between nationality, ethnicity, and kinship that help clear up some of the confusions that have sterilized the primordialist-constructivist debates. He devotes a considerable amount of his discussion of empirical cases to extra-European nationalisms such as those of Eritrea and China—an emphasis that is particularly welcome.

In Chapter 1, "The Modernity and Diversity of Nationalisms," Calhoun argues that it is impossible to "define the commonalities of [the] diverse forms of nationalism by a single explanatory variable" (22). What is universal is simply (i) the constitutive ingredient of nationalist discourse, which can only arise in (ii) modernity.

In Chapter 2, "Kinship, Ethnicity and Categorical Identities," Calhoun makes two important distinctions in order to clearly conceptualize kinship, ethnicity, and nationalism as different forms of solidarity. The first distinction highlights the difference between, on the one hand, networks of social relationships and, on the other, categories of similar individuals. The second distinction points out the difference between reproduction of identity groups through interpersonal interactions and reproduction through standardized mediating agencies. Kinship, Calhoun argues, is characterized by networks of relationships that are reproduced through interpersonal interaction; nationality, by contrast, is a categorical identity that is reproduced through standardized mediating agencies. The question is largely one of scale, and ethnicity therefore falls somewhere between these two extremes.

Chapter 3, "Nationalist Claims to History," draws attention to the contradictions created by nationalist appropriations of history. On the one hand, nationalism gains its normative force from an appeal to primordial traditions, but on the other hand, in order to successfully build nations nationalism must emphasize the potential for change and progress that is latent in nation-building.

In Chapter 4, "State, Nation and Legitimacy," Calhoun examines how the rise and transformation of states has influenced nationalisms and has helped determine which nationalisms would be "successful" and which not.

Chapter 5, "Universalism and Parochialism," further problematizes the distinction between "Good civic" (and historically West European) nationalisms and "Bad ethnic" (Central and East European) nationalisms; it challenges the idea that some nationalisms are more "real" than others.

In Chapter 6, "Imperialism, Colonialism, and the World-System of Nation-States," Calhoun makes some very standard arguments about nationalism arising from (i) colonialists’ misrecognition of the colonized and (ii) the ensuing ressentiment of the colonized; but he also comes to the provocative conclusion that capitalism is in large part responsible for nationalism because it fosters the creation of large-scale categorical identities (e.g., classes of workers or abstract consumers). Nationality, thus, is a large-scale, solidaristic categorical identity that provides people with the feeling that they have some autonomy in the face of capitalism’s vast impersonal forces.