Political Science Nationalism
Umut Özkırımlı
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0283


Nationalism is the belief that the interests and values of a particular nation are prior to, and often superior to, those of others. Etymologically, the origins of the term can be traced back to the Latin word natio, or “something born,” which was used by Romans to refer to a community of foreigners. It is commonly believed that in its modern sense of “love for a particular nation,” the term was first used in 1798. Nationalism refers to both an ideology and a political movement. In the context of the French Revolution, nationalism has come to be associated with the more inclusive idea of popular sovereignty based on shared and equal citizenship. Later, under the impact of German Romantic thought, it has also been connected to exclusivist notions of ethnic and cultural distinctiveness. As a political movement, nationalism has often entailed the fusion of these two ideals, presupposing a world composed of “nation-states” in which, at least in theory, each nation has a right to a state of its own, later called the principle of national self-determination. Nationalism has outlived the expectations of a great many thinkers, both on the right and the left, who predicted its imminent demise, and reasserted itself as a powerful tool for mobilization in the wake of the end of the Cold War, inspiring or energizing a vast array of political projects, from independentism and isolationism to authoritarianism and populism. Despite attempts to pool sovereignty in supranational or transnational bodies, mostly to counter the corrosive and uneven impact of globalization, nationalism remains the fundamental organizing principle of interstate order and the ultimate source of political legitimacy. For many, it is also the taken-for-granted context of everyday life and a readily available cognitive and discursive frame to make sense of the world that surrounds them.

General Overviews

With the notable exception of the pioneering works of a handful of historians and the fragmented writings of 19th-century philosophers and early-20th-century social theorists, it was only in the 1960s and 1970s that nationalism became a central concern of the social sciences and humanities, under the impact of decolonization and the formation of new states in Asia and Africa. The academic debate on nationalism was given a new lease of life in the early 1980s with the publication of canonical texts by Benedict Anderson, John Breuilly, Ernest Gellner, Eric J. Hobsbawm, and Anthony D. Smith, among others, laying the groundwork for a rich, interdisciplinary field called nationalism studies. An overview of the various debates on nationalism can be found in Smith 1998, Smith 2010, Özkırımlı 2017, Özkırımlı 2005, Lawrence 2005, Ichijo and Uzelac 2005, Greenfeld 2019, and Berger and Storm 2019.

  • Berger, Stefan, and Eric Storm, eds. Writing the History of Nationalism. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

    Provides a comprehensive overview of different approaches to nationalism. Bringing together an impressive cast of scholars, the book stands apart from its competitors with its broad thematic scope, and would work well as an undergraduate and graduate textbook.

  • Greenfeld, Liah. Nationalism: A Short History. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2019.

    Written by one of the foremost historians of nationalism, this timely book offers a brief introduction to the history of nationalism, from its emergence (according to the author) in 16th-century England to its widespread dissemination across the world. It rehearses some of the arguments the author developed in her earlier work, such as the role ressentiment played in the spread of nationalism beyond its birthplace, but is useful for all that.

  • Ichijo, Atsuko, and Gordana Uzelac, eds. When Is the Nation? Towards an Understanding of Theories of Nationalism. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

    Based on the proceedings of the Fourteenth Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN), this collection of essays brings together some of the most prominent protagonists of the debate on nationalism. Almost all major theoretical approaches are represented in dialogue with each other, alongside a few select case studies. The Question and Answer sections at the end of the thematic chapters are particularly interesting for students of ethnicity and nationalism.

  • Lawrence, Paul. Nationalism: History and Theory. Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman, 2005.

    A detailed and balanced historiography of contemporary theories of nationalism. Written in an accessible style, the book is particularly commendable for its coverage of early modern historians’ legacy for the debates on nationalism.

  • Özkırımlı, Umut. Contemporary Debates on Nationalism: A Critical Engagement. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

    A general discussion of the theoretical and the normative challenges posed by and to nationalism. The book includes brief overviews of the literatures on multiculturalism, globalization, and cosmopolitanism in relation to the debates on nationalism. As such, it is a helpful guide for a broader, nonspecialist audience.

  • Özkırımlı, Umut. Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction. 3d ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

    A comprehensive overview of the theoretical debate on nationalism. First published in 2000, and updated and substantially extended in later years, the book devotes a long chapter to early modern philosophical and historical discussions of nationalism. It also makes a case for the expansion of the field of nationalism studies, which remains overly focused on the question of the origins of nations and nationalism. More appropriate as a textbook for undergraduate and graduate courses, and for nonspecialist academics.

  • Smith, Anthony D. Nationalism and Modernism: A Critical Survey of Recent Theories of Nations and Nationalism. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

    The first systematic survey of modernist approaches to nationalism and its detractors. Smith himself is an active participant in the theoretical debate on nationalism and a critic of the modernist paradigm (see also Contemporary Debates of Nationalism). Despite its theoretical biases and jargon-laden style, the book is an important reference work for anyone interested in the question of the origins of nations and nationalism.

  • Smith, Anthony D. Nationalism: Theory, Ideology, History. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2010.

    Part of a series on Key Concepts, this is a more focused discussion of nationalism. Its broader thematic scope and accessible language make it a suitable point of entry to the study of nationalism for both students and non-academic readers.

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