Book Review: The Psychology of Nationalism


In many ways, it is surprising that psychologists have contributed relatively little to the study of nationalism. After all, the human mind creates national identity and has made it to a central component of the modern sense of self. Fortunately, Joshua Searle-White’s Psychology of Nationalism goes a long way to filling this void by offering a concise, clearly written and lucid theory explaining why nationalism is such a powerful force in the modern world. While the book is not without short-comings, it deserves the attention of anybody interested in developing an understanding of contemporary national identity.

From the outset, Searle-White sets forth an aggressive agenda: to understand nationalist conflict and the "human side" of nationalism. To accomplish this, he draws on field work conducted on both sides of conflicts in Armenia/Azerbaijan and Sri Lanka. These interviews are rounded out by published accounts, previous psychological research, related research projects, and anecdotes gathered while teaching a psychology of nationalism course at Allegheny College. He argues that these various settings "provide concrete illustrations of the universal processes" described in the text. Indeed, he is generally very effective in making use of his sources, though at times references to his nationalism course, although entertaining and inspirational from a teaching perspective, have the effect of diverting attention from more substantial evidence. The author clearly states that he is not generalizing from the course to the world at large, but this only further leads one to question the relevance of the class to his larger project.

Searle-White suggests that there are certain components of the human experience that are universal. These include the need to categorize the world around us, the tendency to view other groups as less important than our own, and a tendency to formulate stereotypes about others. Stereotypes, in turn, magnify differences and intensify conflict, as well as providing fodder for propaganda campaigns. When taken together, these universal tendencies create perceptions of the surrounding world and these perceptions are ultimately far more important than reality.

Having formed impressions of the world around them, groups are apt to believe negative stories and rumors about opposing communities. Searle-White offers the example of Armenians who are willing to believe horrendous stories about Azerbaijanis without questioning the feasibility of the stories. The worse the stories are, the easier it becomes to justify increasingly violent and brutal responses.

Even as this argument begins to explain group violence at an individual and social level, Searle-White argues that we are only part way to understanding the various factors at work in nationalist conflict. He suggests that "we need some way of beginning to understand the more primitive emotional aspects of conflict and how they tie in to the nationalist identity." This goal can be accomplished, he argues, by giving primacy to the concept of identity. Indeed, "a lack of attention to identity issues can significantly impede attempts at understanding and resolving such conflicts." Furthermore, he suggests that these identities attain further salience by the social situations in which we live. He writes that "no social identity is inherently any more important than any other, but the social circumstances in which we live serve to reinforce certain identities."

This is partly the case because national identity allows us to provide our lives with a purpose and a sense of value. Because we spend our lives looking for "any way to value ourselves more positively" we reach "even unconsciously, for the social identity that will give us the best chance to do so." Nationalism frequently fills this need— a need made more salient by an omnipresent fear of fragility and an unwillingness to accept those things about ourselves of which we are ashamed. Just as personal identities are fragile and ever-changing with circumstances, so too are national identities. Unsurprisingly, we feel this sense of fragility and therefore are driven to tenaciously defend our national identity. Fear of psychological "annihilation can be as real a fear as physical annihilation" even in cases where the national culture is well-established and vibrant.

Given such a situation, victim-hood is a very powerful status. By constantly feeling threatened and so defining ourselves as victims, we attain substantial moral legitimacy and this, in turn, allows us to continue our struggle. A cycle of violence quickly results. One killing leads to a revenge killing. The revenge killing leads to still more revenge with each subsequent attack adding to the fear of destruction, the sense of victim-hood increases and the struggle escalates.

The author concludes by suggesting that the theory presented here is directly relevant to real-world negotiations. He argues that all too often those involved show one another little respect creating a sense of threat. If disrespect can be exchanged for polite recognition, however, the potential for real progress mushrooms.

There are a variety of criticisms that might be waged against this argument. First, as presented, the author relies primarily on two major examples and then generalizes to the universal. As any historian will point out, this is a risky strategy. After all, every culture, every historical situation, every case study is unique. While biology may have blessed us with the same number of chromosomes, environment molds us into vastly different forms. This is undoubtedly true in an academic sense, however, cultural relativism can be taken so far that we ignore common humanity. Rather than dismissing the argument out of hand, Searle-White’s contribution should push scholars toward investigating additional case studies.

Second, and related to the above, Searle-White has relied on interviews and previously published accounts—not on detailed ethnographic study. The basis of modern ethnography rests on the idea of participant observation, not isolated interviews that can easily be misinterpreted by a researcher not intimately connected to the community under investigation. Of course, Searle-White is not an ethnographer, but the importance of such extensive and detailed research cannot be ignored. Once more, however, the book should be viewed as a useful starting point for young ethnographers searching for research topics.

Finally, it could be suggested that Searle-White’s argument constitutes little more than common sense. Of course people want to feel good about themselves. Of course we all want to feel part of a community and, in turn, to protect that community and our place in it. Obviously categorization is a fact of life and there is certainly a tendency to view other groups as lesser than our own. Yet, piecing these facts together in order to explain the power of nationalism has not, to the reviewer’s knowledge, been done before and the result is an important contribution to our understanding of the nation. Indeed, the very intuitiveness of the argument offers a powerful indication of just how useful this book is. After all, the best theories are usually the simplest.

In conclusion, Searle-White’s text represents a compelling first step toward understanding the psychology of nationalism. Although not noted above, the author not only provides his own theory, but offers an accessible survey of existing literature on nationalism and national identity. As such, this book should be of keen interest to students and scholars from a range of disciplines and at a number of levels from undergraduates to advanced researchers. One hopes it will provide a building block for numerous future studies and that it marks the entry of psychology as a discipline into debates surrounding national identity and nationalism.