In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nationalism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Electronic Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Nationalism under Construction
  • Nationalisms in Conflict
  • Defending the Status Quo
  • Emergent Nationalisms
  • Archaeology and National Culture
  • Folklore and National Culture
  • Language and Discourse
  • Heritage
  • Performance
  • Eugenics, Genetics, Genealogy

Anthropology Nationalism
Michael Herzfeld
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0017


The erstwhile concentration of anthropologists on small, bounded communities often appeared to occlude such encompassing phenomena as nationalism. The anthropological predilection for marginality, however, underscores and reaffirms the utility of ethnographically grounded perspectives for a critical purchase on the role of the ideologically centralizing nation-state in citizens’ lives. Ethnographic approaches offer not only a necessary corrective to the top-down generalizations of other social science disciplines, but they also reveal the crucial significance to nationalistic projects of attitudes and dispositions that superficially contradict the ideological claims of nationalist leaders and intellectuals but that, at the same time, secure citizen solidarity and loyalty. Moreover, all nationalistic ideologies rely heavily on metaphors of kinship and blood, and thus they engage a reciprocal relationship with everyday social organization. Ethnography explores this complex articulation, illuminating the attraction of an ideology that, viewed locally, often appears extremely abstract, predominantly bourgeois, and historically Eurocentric, yet that appears, globally, to exercise an almost universally irresistible appeal. The anthropological perspective dissects assumptions of primordial “essences” shared by all citizens. Studying such diverse topics as refugee migration, the emergence of new ethnic movements through performance, the revival of folklore as a national treasure and the celebration of heritage as a shared validation of collective identity, and the complex dynamics of linguistic nationalism reveals the mechanics of nationalistic truth construction, which appear with particular clarity in models of “repatriation” (a suggestively gendered and familial term) in the case of self-identified Jews “returning” to Israel, German-language speakers “returning home,” and Greeks “returning to the fatherland.” More broadly, essentialism attributes a set of immutable characteristics, and irredentism an equally immutable geographical location, to a particular people, grounding a social ontology in claims to timeless antiquity and rewriting historical teleology as irrevocably leading to the emergence of common cultural origins. Even nationalisms that celebrate a duality (e.g., France, Greece) or a plurality (e.g., the United States) of origins emphasize transcendent unity. Rare indeed are countries—Italy stands out as one in Europe—in which national integration remains suspect or even the object of humor. More commonly, the monumentalization of “unity in diversity” —from China’s “fifty-six ethnic groups” to the “Ancient City” park in Thailand (a collection of replicas of ancient temples mapping the entire territory claimed by the Thai state) to Indonesia’s self-miniaturization as a park displaying its various constituent ethnicities to the United States motto E pluribus unum— both acknowledges processes of mythical construction and thereby seeks to control and naturalize them. Museums of “national” culture startle by their transnational similarity, suggesting that global power dynamics have leveled differences among those nationalisms that have proved successful in leading to the actual creation of nation-states.

General Overviews

Although Ernest Gellner was perhaps the first anthropologist to broach the topic of nationalism in a systematic way (Gellner 1983), his Eurocentric universalism has discouraged imitation, although it also fails to explain key aspects of European nationalism (see Brubaker 2005); the account in Chatterjee 1993 offers a healthy counterargument to such Eurocentrism. A similarly Eurocentric streak is found in the otherwise far more influential work of political scientist Benedict Anderson (Anderson 1991), who asked why people so willingly followed and even sacrificed their lives for so extraneous and abstract an ideal. Billig 1995, through the use of common objects, and Herzfeld 2005, through the model of cultural intimacy (see also Shryock 2004), approach this conundrum more from the perspective of everyday social experience. One key problem concerns the relationship between ethnicity, long studied at the local level by field anthropologists, and the larger project of nation-building (see Eriksen 1993). Greenfeld 1992 follows Gellner’s European focus and emphasis on the reactive character of nationalism but distinguishes divergences in type and direction among its European variants.

  • Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. 1991. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

    Anderson, a political scientist, here exercises a major influence on anthropological thinking. Arguing that individuals achieve immortality through their self-sacrifice for a shared community whose members share diagnostic characteristics that distinguish them from outsiders, he associates nationalism’s rapid development and diffusion to the dissemination of news media and novels (“print capitalism”). Originally published in 1983.

  • Billig, Michael. Banal nationalism. 1995. London: SAGE.

    Billig, although not an anthropologist, brings an ethnographic sensibility to the topic by emphasizing how small but common objects that signal national identity, such as flags, serve as constant and subliminal reminders of the sense of solidarity.

  • Brubaker, Rogers. 2005. Nationalism reframed: Nationhood and the national question in the new Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Another nonanthropological work influential in the discipline, this sociological study emphasizes the shifting grounds of nationalistic ontology and specifically the impact of post–Cold War reorganization on the emergence of new, often violent nationalisms in Europe.

  • Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. The nation and its fragments: Colonial and postcolonial histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    This study argues for distinctively non-Western, although often, especially in India, bourgeois, sources of colonialism. While the idea of a distinctively spiritual as opposed to material modality may reflect and respond to Western political and philosophical models, Chatterjee’s argument offers an important antidote to those accounts that treat nationalism as an exclusively Western-derived ideology.

  • Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 1993. Ethnicity and nationalism: Anthropological perspectives. London: Pluto.

    This comprehensive but compact volume aims to provide an overview of the relationship between ethnicity and nationalism. Eriksen is careful to maintain a sense of the liability of both terms, especially ethnicity, which, he argues in the final chapter, should be jettisoned at the point at which it becomes a conceptual straightjacket.

  • Gellner, Ernest. 1983. Nations and nationalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    Arguing that nationalisms undifferentiatedly follow a European, bourgeois model, Gellner treats them as constructions that occlude the more flexible identities underlying their claims. While thus paradoxically reproducing the false consciousness argument of the Marxism he abjured as well as some of the essentialism that he correctly attributes to nationalistic ideologies, he usefully shows that nationalism translates contingent face-to-face social relationships into shared cultural identities.

  • Greenfeld, Liah. 1992. Nationalism: Five roads to modernity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Arguing that the earliest type of nationalism (English and Tudor) was both civic and individualistic, and that the French version was more collectivist, Greenfeld then adds a further three varieties marking divergent paths to modernity. She particularly attributes Romantic nationalism to the collective ressentiment —a concept also invoked in Gellner 1983—induced by preceding collective repression.

  • Herzfeld, Michael. 2005. Cultural intimacy: Social poetics in the nation-state. New York: Routledge.

    Nation-states secure citizen loyalty by tolerating practices and attitudes that contradict official ideology. Working beyond collective self-display (official nationalism), ethnographic analysis offers unique access to the rueful self-recognition, or cultural intimacy, that marshals this counterintuitive social support for nationalist projects (especially in crypto-colonial states). Individual performances reshape collective resemblance (“iconicity”), thereby creatively exploring and creating synergy between personal attitudes and national identity. Originally published in 1997.

  • Shryock, Andrew, ed. 2004. Off stage/on display: Intimacy and ethnography in the age of public culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    In the age of mass communication and vibrant public culture, even highly authoritarian regimes cannot easily conceal the embarrassments of cultural traits that defy official values. In this collection, the several authors address the theme of cultural intimacy (see Herzfeld 2005) and its implications for understanding nationalism and its tactics in spaces where media representation encounters the skepticism of knowing local audiences.

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