Atlantic History Nation, Nationhood, and Nationalism
Douglas Bradburn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0070


Nationalism reflects the desire of “nations” for a system of government that secures their interests and fundamental character. Nationalism has also come to mean an expression of identity that glorifies, or at least invokes, a deep and abiding connection between individuals of the “nation” that informs, complements, and often transcends other identities rooted in religious belief and affiliation, class imperatives, gender roles, and regional affinities. The real sticking point in much of the literature relates to how one defines a “nation” and how early “true” nationalism can be said to exist. Originally nations were assumed to be self-evident. Nations were a people sharing a common immutable ethnicity, which dated to the mists of time and could be seen by their shared language, history, bloodline, culture, character, habits, and manners. It was not necessary that these national peoples had an independent existence as a state, but there was a growing assumption that the nation was the people, the people were ultimately sovereign, and therefore nations should have their own state—a vision which had a certain efflorescence in the late 18th century in the Americas and Europe, a perspective that dominated the transformations of Europe after World War I, and an agenda that gave succor to numerous anti-imperial movements throughout the world in the 20th century. More recently, as the study of nationalism has exploded—it is a concept seriously studied by sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, historians, philosophers, and critical theorists—most theorists of nationalism have argued for the manufactured and “modern” quality of all national identity, that nations are “constructed” and “imagined” out of a very diverse collection of polities and that nationalism is a fairly recent phenomenon that dates to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, although debate continues on this historical narrative. While nationalism remains a major concern of contemporary politics in the world, and thus spawns a massive scholarly literature, this bibliography will confine itself (with the exception of some major theoretical approaches) to studies of nationalism in the history of the Atlantic world before the mid-19th century.

General Overviews

Selected here are works that represent the current dominant approach to the problem of nationalism, both as a historical phenomenon and as an ongoing dilemma. Until the late 1970s the assumptions of most sociologists and many historians about the character of nationalism in history reflected a view articulated by Kohn 1944, which asserted that nationalism had been important throughout Western history but its scope had changed over time. The spirit of community that once characterized a person’s relationship to a region or a city-state gradually came to be expressed over a larger territory. While Hobsbawm 1990, Kedourie 1993, Gellner 1983, Anderson 1991, and Breuilly 1985 associate the birth and rise of nationalism with the birth of “the modern” or modernization, their approaches are somewhat distinct. While Hobsbawm 1990 argues for the “invention” of the nation as a political program of an interested elite, or a middle class that sought to control development, Breuilly 1985 understands nationalism to be a political strategy that heals the crisis of community caused by the rise of the modern state. Gellner 1983 links an insistence on national uniformity with the demands of industrialization, and Anderson 1991 sees the “imagined community” as an impulse and an identity made possible by the modernization of communications, the spread of literacy, and print capitalisms. While this range of work has been extremely influential, it has also been criticized by other theorists, such as in Smith 1986 and Greenfeld 1992, which reject the idea that national identity and nationalism are necessarily modern.

  • Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

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    Argues that nationalism only arrived with the spread of print capitalism and the growth of vernacular literacy, which allowed people to imagine themselves to be part of a community in which one individual could never see all his or her fellow nationals face-to-face. Located the decisive emergence of nationalism on the periphery of the European world, in the United Sates and most importantly the Spanish Americas in the early 19th century.

  • Breuilly, John. Nationalism and the State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

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    Breuilly argues that nationalism is a political movement that only becomes important after the rise of the modern state. The modern state needs to mobilize resources on a grand scale and therefore requires a political rhetoric with broad reach that claims to represent the essential element—the nation. One of the historians in the debate.

  • Gellner, Ernest. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.

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    Classic account of nationalism as a phenomenon of the modern world. Geller focuses attention on the importance of the Industrial Revolution and the needs of capitalism for a common language. Not particularly applicable to the Atlantic world.

  • Greenfeld, Leah. Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

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    Argues that England, with the national takeover of the church, became the first modern nation and that nationalism essentially emerged as other polities competed with the original. The further from the ideal, Greenfeld argues, the more extreme the version of nationalism.

  • Hobsbawm, Eric J. Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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    One of the most aggressive proponents of the understanding of nations and nationalism as a modern phenomenon, Hobsbawm asserts that nationalism should be linked to the emergence of class consciousness and vernacular language, both necessary for the mass politics that characterizes nationalism.

  • Kedourie, Elie. Nationalism. 4th ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

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    Classic series of lectures from the 1950s in which Kedourie provided an intellectual history of nationalism, calling it an ideology and tracing its pedigree to the late 18th century. He understood nationalism to be the opposite of socialism, which allowed a new sense of national community to soften the impact of the breakdown of traditional society from industrialization.

  • Kohn, Hans. The Idea of Nationalism: A Study of Its Origins and Background. New York: Macmillan, 1944.

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    For much of the 20th century, what the scholarly community understood about nationalism reflected the perspective of Hans Kohn, who first articulated a distinction between civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism. Kohn used this analysis to argue for both a Western and an Eastern version of nationalism. A recent edition edited with a scholarly introduction by Craig Calhoun helps to orient the importance and influence of Kohn.

  • Smith, Anthony D. The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

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    Rejects the argument of modern theorists by emphasizing the long past of most nations and the common “ethnic” formed from a shared language, memory, and culture, which are the fundamental elements of any successful nation.

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