Tuesday, 17 April 2012


This content is largely taken from a forthcoming paper entitled: ‘We Have Made Italy, Now We Must Make Italians’: On Anthony Smith’s ‘ethnic cores’ and New Institutionalist Theory

Almost all people think of nations as inevitable, hegemonic structures- permanent features of the cultural and political landscape. I want to tease out a different conception- that nations are instead tied to the fate of their constituent institutions and why this implies that a particular nationalism at least, is not destiny. Nationalism is often conceived as tied to an ethnicity in particular-, which is not a necessary feature.

 First off, it is worth considering what a nation is, precisely. The working definition of sociologists is generally that of a group of people who believe they belong to a particular territory who often claim a shared language, history or descent, however fictitious this may be. For example, Serbian and Croatian, which are mutually intelligible oral languages are subtitled in the respective other country to pretend that they are completely separate languages.

So then, why can’t nations be ancient, perhaps ethnically based entities? In medieval Europe, national consciences simply did not exist- the ordinary person might have been conscious of belonging to a town, language group, the great corporation of Christendom; but never the ‘nation’. Nations require a particular territorial consciousness, an attachment to a system, which passes itself off as a large family, basically. Nations are not natural entities- they appeal to our ‘tribal imagination’ but they are largely a product of a post-Renaissance emphasis on strengthening the state and constructing an ‘imagined community’ around them. Further, even the ethnic consciences that are allegedly inextricably tied to nations are very modern.

What does an institutional view look like then? I propose that nations should be analysed in terms of the structure and viability of their constituent social and political institutions. This allows for the national project to be an object in flux, rather than a fixed conception. I will illustrate this briefly with two examples- Basque nationalism and the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The Basque national project has spread through social institutions like the education system and an emphasis on the Basque language, in particular. Further, Basque nationalist groups like ETA have expertly used intimidation and propaganda to create a ‘spiral of silence’: where individuals feel less able to express their opinion if they feel like they are in the minority. However, Basque nationalism is still a contested space: Basque feminists have begun challenging the linguistic and social privileging of the Basque male in national spaces. It should also be noted that the idea of a unique Basque nationalism is in fact very recent, owing to institutions founded in the 19th century, not an ethnic consensus.

The post-conflict Yugoslav situation is often blamed on ‘ancient hatreds’, yet the actual religious milieu of the pre-modern Balkans was generally free of conflict and barely delimited. Two events doomed the Yugoslav project: first, the central government lost legitimacy as the state was unable to provide basic welfare and second, national elites like Tudjman and Milosevic played up ethnic tensions. They used the provincial apparatuses of Croatia and Serbia respectively to create artificially blame on the ethnic ‘others’ and the West.

The effect of this institutional view isn’t clear- perhaps it allows for the bettering of all national projects, perhaps it dooms them to manipulation. That much is unclear.

Dan Gibbons

Dan Gibbons is a 3rd year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.

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