lecture notes by Denis Bai
based on zkrmls Theories of Nationalism
What is Primordialism?
‘Primordialism’ is an umbrella term used to describe the belief
that nationality is a ‘natural’ part of human beings, as natural
as speech, sight or smell, and that nations have existed from
time immemorial. This is the view of nationalists themselves,
and was for some time the dominant paradigm among social
scientists, notably the historians. Primordialism also constitutes
the laymens view of nations and nationalism.
The term comes from the adjective ‘primordial’ which the
Oxford English Dictionary defines as ‘of, relating to, or existing from
the very beginning of time; earliest in time; primeval, primitive; (more
generally) ancient, distant in time’ and ‘that constitutes the origin or
starting point from which something else is derived or developed, or on
which something else depends; fundamental, basic; elemental.’
Approaches in Primordialism
All Nationalist believe that …
nationality is an inherent attribute of the human condition.
‘A man must have a nationality as he must have a nose and two
humanity is divided into distinct, objectively identifiable
human beings can only fulfill themselves and flourish if they
belong to a national community, the membership of which
overrides all other forms of belonging.
the nation is the sole depository of sovereignty and the only
source of political power and legitimacy this comes with a
host of temporal and spatial claims – to a unique history and
destiny, and a historic ‘homeland’.
promulgated by the political elites.
shaped the developing fields of history, folklore and
literature which acquired a veritable nation-building
mission in the course of the 19th century.
was, in return, promulgated by historians, folklorists, &
writers of nationalist orientation.
was particularly strengthened by historians who
busied themselves with excavating the ‘evidence’ that
would establish beyond doubt the eternal character of
Reoccurring Themes in
The Theme of the Antiquity of the (Particular)
The Theme of the Golden Age
The Theme of the Superiority of the National
The Theme of the Periods of Recess and
The Theme of the National Hero
The Theme of
the Antiquity of the Particular Nation
According to Tekin Alp (aka Moise Cohen), who was
reporting the proceedings of the Turkish History
Congress of 1932, it was time:
to make the whole world, and to begin with the Turks
themselves, understand that Turkish history does not begin
with Osman’s tribe, but in fact twelve thousand years before
Jesus Christ. It is not the history of a tribe of four hundred
tents, but that of a great nation, composed of hundreds of
millions of souls. The exploits of the Osmanli Turks constitute
merely one episode in the history of the Turkish nation which
has founded several other empires. (Kedourie 1971: 210)
The Theme of the Golden Age
There is the theme of golden age. For the Senegalese
historian Cheikh Anta Diop, the ‘modern pharoah’ of
it was first the Ethiopians and then the Egyptians who
created and developed to an extraordinary degree all
the elements of civilization at a time when all other
peoples – and the Eurasians in particular – were
plunged into barbarism .. . It is impossible to
exaggerate what the whole world – and in particular the
Hellenic world – owes to the Egyptian world.
The Theme of
the Superiority of the National Culture
There is the theme of the superiority of the national culture.
Choudhary Rahmat Ali, the founder of the Pakistan national
movement, claims that:
Pakistan is one of the most ancient and illustrious countries
of the Orient. Not only that. It is the only country in the world
which, in the antiquity of its legend and lore as in the character
of its history and hopes, compares with Iraq and Egypt – the
countries which are known as the cradle of the achievement of
mankind … Pakistan was the birthplace of human culture and
civilization … it is the first and the strongest citadel of Islam in
the Continent of Dinia and its Dependencies. (Ibid.: 245-6)
The Theme of
the Periods of Recess and Somnolence
There is the theme of periods of recess or ‘somnolence’, from which the
nation is destined to ‘awaken’. This is what Adamantios Korais, the
foremost figure of the Neohellenic Enlightenment, has to say of the
Greeks of his time:
In the middle of the last century, the Greeks constituted a miserable
nation who suffered the most horrible oppression and experienced the
nefarious effects of a long period of slavery .. . Following these two
developments [the opening of new channels for trade and the military
defeat of the Ottomans] the Greeks .. . raise their heads in proportion
as their oppressors’ arrogance abates .. . This is the veritable period of
Greek awakening .. . For the first time the nation surveys the hideous
spectacle of its ignorance and trembles in measuring with the eye the
distance separating it from its ancestors’ glory. (Ibid.: 183-4)
The Theme of
the National Hero
Finally, there is the theme of the national hero, who
comes and awakens the nation, ending this accidental
period of decadence:
He [Kemal Ataturk] could not tolerate therefore this
false conception of Turkish history which was current
among some of the Turkish intellectuals … He has
therefore taken it into his head to eliminate it by means
of a revolutionary outburst which would subject it to the
same fate as the other misconceptions from which the
Turki shpeople have suffered for centuries. (Ibid.: 211 )
Nationalists share a common language and a common
frame of reference to express their claims.
What remains constant and central in all these narratives
is the belief in, and representation of, the nation as
even transcendental entity.
Survival of the nation is more important than the survival
of its individual members at any given time.
The sociobioiogical theory of ethnicity,
race and nationalism’, writes van den
Berghe, the most outspoken
proponent of this approach in the
field of nationalism studies, ‘holds that
there is indeed an objective, external basis
to the existence of such groups’ without
denying that these groups are also
socially constructed and changeable.
‘In simplest terms, the sociobiological
view of these groups is that they are
fundamentally defined by common
descent and maintained by endogamy.
Ethnicity, thus, is simply kinship
Endogamy = the custom of marrying only
within the limits of a local community,
clan, or tribe.
Sociobiology: Why are animals social?
According to Pierre van den Berghe, the answer to this question
was long intuitively known: ‘animals are social to the extent that
cooperation is mutually beneficial’. What sociobiology does, van den
Berghe argues, is to supply the main genetic mechanism for animal
sociality, namely ‘kin selection’ to increase inclusive fitness. It
basically implies that :
an animal can duplicate its genes directly through its own
reproduction, or indirectly through the reproduction of relatives
with which it shares specific proportions of genes. Animals,
therefore, can be expected to behave cooperatively, and thereby
enhance each other’s fitness to the extent that they are genetically
related. This is what is meant by kin selection. (1978: 402)
Ethnicities, Races, & Nations as
Extensions of Kinship
Ethnic groups, races and nations ‘are super-families of (distant) relatives, real or
putative, who tend to intermarry, and who are knit together by vertical ties of descent
reinforced by horizontal ties of marriage’ (2001b: 274). That the extended kinship is
sometimes putative rather than real is not important. Just as in the smaller kin units,
the kinship is often real enough ‘to become the basis of these powerful sentiments we
call nationalism, tribalism, racism, and ethnocentrism’.
If that is the case, then how do we recognize our ‘kin’? According to van den Berghe,
‘only a few of the world’s societies use primarily morphological phenotypes to define
themselves’. It follows that cultural criteria of group membership are more salient
than physical ones, if the latter is used at all. In a way, this is inevitable because
neighbouring populations resemble each other in terms of their genetic composition.
The criteria for identifying kinsmen, on the other hand, should discriminate more
reliably between groups than within groups. In other words, ‘the criterion chosen
must show more intergroup than intra-group variance’. Cultural criteria, like
differences of accent, body adornment and the like, meet this requirement far more
reliably than physical ones. Language is particularly useful in this respect because,
van den Berghe maintains, ‘ethnic affiliation can be quickly ascertained through
speech and is not easily faked.’
Reciprocity & Coercion as
explanations for Human Sociality
Noting that kin selection does not explain all of human sociality, van den
Berghe identifies two additional mechanisms: reciprocity and coercion. ‘
Reciprocity is cooperation for mutual benefit, and with expectation of
return, and it can operate between kin or between non-kin.
Coercion is the use of force for one-sided benefit.
All human societies continue to be organized on the basis of all three
principles of sociality. But, van den Berghe adds, ‘the larger and the more
complex a society becomes, the greater the importance of reciprocity’.
Moreover, while kin selection, real or putative, is more dominant in
intra-group relations, coercion becomes the rule in interethnic (or
Ethnic groups may occasionally enter into a symbiotic, mutually
beneficial relationship (reciprocity), but this is usually short-lived:
relations between different groups are more often than not antagonistic
Criticism of Sociobiological
Van den Berghe states that:
Ethnic groups may occasionally enter into a symbiotic, mutually
beneficial relationship (reciprocity), but this is usually shortlived: relations between different groups are more often than not
How would you challenge this postulate based of Sociobiological
Didnt van den Berghe sthat that animals are social to the extent that
cooperation is mutually beneficial?
If the latter is true, then shouldnt we assume that human societies
would be more often than not cooperative, rather than antagonistic, if
their interaction is mutually beneficial.
Hence, the problem is not in human relations but in the type of
interactions which is a subject of choice.
Reciprocity & Coercion as
Explanations for Human Sociality
Van den Berghe concedes that ethnic groups appear and
disappear, coalesce or break up. But, he also adds that all this
construction, reconstruction and deconstruction remains firmly
anchored in the reality of ‘socially perceived, biological
This structure, ‘the biology of human mating and reproduction’,
is prior: ‘Ethnies have existed since the dawn of history’.
We may speak of nationalism, when a sense of belonging to an
ethnie is transformed into a demand for political autonomy or
A nation, in this sense, is simply ‘a politically conscious
Edward Shils & Clifford Geertz :
Cultural Primordialists themselves or just its
The culturalist primordialist approach is generally associated with
the works of Edward Shils and Clifford Geertz. However, while
some scholars (like Eller and Coughlan) ascribe the primordialist
views to Shils and Geertz themselves, others (like Smith and
Tilley) state that Shils and Geertz did not state themselves that
nation is primordial, but rather that people perceive it so.
zkrml states that the latter group seems to be right. Shils
indeed argues that the attachment family members feel for each other
stems from ‘significant relational’ qualities which can only be described
as ‘primordial’. It is not just a function of interaction; ‘ it is because
a certain ineffable significance is attributed to the tie of
blood.’ (Hence, people attribute it. Shils doesnt necessarily think
Edward Shils & Clifford Geertz :
Cultural Primordialists themselves or just its
Equally, Clifford Geertz cites the congruities of blood, language, religion
and particular social practices among the objects of primordial attachments.
However, like Shils, he also never suggests that these objects are themselves
‘given’ or primordial; rather, they are ‘assumed’ to be given by individuals.
One is bound to ones kinsman, ones neighbour, one’s fellow believer, ipso
facto; as the result not merely of personal affection, practical necessity,
common interest, or incurred obligation, but at least in great part by virtue of
some unaccountable absolute import attributed to the tie it self. The general
strength of such primordial bonds … differ from person to person, from
society to society, and from time to time. But for virtually every person, in
every society, at almost all times, some attachments seem to flow more from a
sense of natural … affinity than from social interaction.
However, Geertz does talk of natural affinity though he uses the verb seem
to, not being sure. But, insecure postulates do not make for a strong theory.
Criticism of Shils and Geertzs views
In the light of the previous misunderstanding, the culturalist approach
may be more properly described as one that focuses on the role of
‘perceptions’ in understanding ethnic and national attachments, or in
the words of Geerrz, on the webs of meaning spun.
Regardless whether Shils and Geertz themselves attribute that ineffable
significance (Shils) and natural affinity (Geertz) to the primordial
attachment or whether they are just stating what people imbued with
nationalism are doing, we are still left with the questions of
why people attribute that ineffable significance and natural
affinity to the primordial attachment?
if its a matter of misperception, what is causing it?
in whose interests is it that the misperception is maintained?
are we talking here about a misperception or a manipulation?
Who are Perennialists?
Anthony Smith introduces the term ‘perennialists’ to
those who believe in the historical antiquity of the
‘nation’, its immemorial and perennial character.
do not treat the nation as a ‘fact of nature’;
but they see it as a constant and fundamental
feature of human life throughout recorded
Two types of Perennialism
Continuous perennialism sees the roots of modern
nations stretching back several centuries – even millennia
in a few cases (the Persians, the Greeks, the Jews). This
version stresses ‘continuity pointing to cultural
continuities and identities over long time spans, which link
medieval or ancient nations to their modern counterparts.
Recurrent perennialism refers to those who regard the
nation as ‘a category of human association that can be
found everywhere throughout history. Particular nations
may come and go, but the nation itself is ubiquitous and,
as a form of association and collective identity, recurrent.
Continuous vs. Recurrent
According to Anthony Smith, the lines separating these two
versions are not clear. Still, he continues, recurrent perennialists,
such as the medieval historians Adrian Hastings, John Gillingham,
Colette Beaune and Bernard Guenee, are more ‘careful’ and
‘nuanced’ in their analyses than continuous perennialists.
Recurrent perennialists argue that there are sufficient documents
and chronicles which prove the existence of ‘nations’ and
‘national sentiment’ in Western Europe from the later medieval
epoch, but not of ‘nationalism’ as an ideology.
We can better understand the perennialist position by considering
the writings of the late Adrian Hastings, probably the most
commonly cited exponent of perennialist views in studies of
Adrian Hastings (1929-2001)
Hastings defines ethnicity as ‘a group of people with a shared
cultural identity and spoken language’.
The nation is a far more self-conscious community than ethnicity;
formed from one or more ethnicities and identified with a
literature of its own,’ it possesses or claims the right to political
identity and autonomy as a people, together with the control of
Nationalism, on the other hand, can be defined in two ways:
As a political theory, it claims that each nation should have
its own state, and dates only from the nineteenth century.
In practice, however, it derives from the belief that ones
own national tradition is particularly valuable and needs to
be defended at all costs through the establishment or
expansion of its own state. In that ‘practical’ sense, it
existed as a powerful reality in some places long before the
Hastings Central Thesis
According to Hastings, modern nations can only grow out of certain
ethnicities, under the impact of the development of a vernacular and
the pressures of the state. It is true that every ethnicity did not
become a nation, but many have done so .
The defining origin of the nation, Hastings argues, like that of every
other great reality of modern Western experience, needs to be located
in an age a good deal further back than most modernist historians
feel safe to handle, that of the shaping of medieval society.
Hastings contends that ethnicities naturally turn into nations at the
point when their specific vernacular moves from an oral to written
usage to the extent that it is being regularly employed for the
production of a literature, and particularly for the translation of the
England: the oldest nation-state
according to Hastings
According to Hastings suggests that England presents the prototype of both
the nation and the nation-state in its fullest sense. Its national development
precedes every other:
Despite the, often exaggerated, counter-action of the Norman Conquest, an
English nation-state survived 1066, grew fairly steadily in the strength of its
national consciousness through the later 12th and 13th centuries, but emerged
still more vociferously with its vernacular literary renaissance and the
pressures of the Hundred Years Wars by the end of the 14th. Nevertheless the
greatest intensity of its nationalist experience . .. must undoubtedly be located
in and after the late 16th century.
The evidence for this can be found in the history of the word “nation’ itself.
After a brief excursus into various historical documents and chronicles, Ha
stings concludes: “The frequency and consistency in usage of the word
[nation] from the early 14th century onward strongly suggest a basis in
experience: Englishmen felt themselves to be a nation.’
The Role of Religion in English
Nationalism per Hastings
What makes the English case so important, per
Hastings, is the role of religion in the birth of
English nationalism, and the precise impact of the
latter on its neighbours and colonies.
Religion is in fact an integral part of nationalism;
“the Bible provided, for the Christian world at least, the
original model of the nation’, writes Hastings.
Without it and its Christian interpretation, nations and
nationalism, as we know them, could have never
The Nature of Ethnic & National Ties
One common denominator of the primordialists, with the
exception of culturalists, is their tendency to take ethnic and
national identities as “given’, or as facts of nature. They are
transmitted from one generation to the next with their “essential’
characteristics unchanged; nations are thus fixed, or static. This
view has been undermined in the last couple of decades by an
ever-growing number of studies which stress the ‘socially
constructed’ nature of ethnic and national identities, pointing to
the role of individual choices, tactical decisions, political
opportunity structures and various contingencies in their
construction. Far from being fixed, nations boundaries and
contents are continuously negotiated and redefined in each
generation as groups react or adapt to changing circumstances.
The Origins of Ethnic & National
If ethnic and national attachments are ‘given’ , then they are also
‘underived’, prior to all social interaction, and ‘ineffable’ , that is
incapable of being expressed in words’ – thus unanalyzable.
This leads several commentators to dismiss primordialism,
especially its nationalist and sociobiological versions, as
unscientific and teleological.
Unscientific, because primordialism tends to see the identification
of primordial attachments as the successful end of analysis.
Teleological, because primordialists treat the history of modern
nations as an inexorable process which tends towards a
predetermined outcome – starting from their rudimentary
beginnings in the ancient or medieval epochs to present-day
The Date of Emergence of Nations
What primordialism does recognize is that, despite changes in
their structural form, ‘there have always been primordial
attachments’. This is the central idea behind perennialist
interpretations which can be considered as a milder version of
primordialism, for they reject the nationalist belief in the
‘naturalness’ of nations, while retaining a belief in their
According to Hastings, we can even talk about a
‘historiographical schism’ between modernist social scientists
and medieval historians who reject the ‘modernist’ orthodoxy.
This picture is not entirely accurate, however, since for every
medieval historian who argues for the antiquity of nations, there
are others who emphasize their novel and constructed nature.
The Question of Emotion and Affect
The most important contribution of primordialist approaches to our
understanding of nations and nationalism is their uncovering of
the intensity and passion that ethnicity and nationalism so often
evoke, and which modernists, even when they condemn it, so often
fail to address.’
Eller and Coughlan, while recognizing the important role emotions
play in human social life, object to their mystification. They argue
that the mystification of the primordial has led to a fallacy, namely
the desocializing of the phenomenon. It is suggested that these
emotional ties are not born in social interaction , but are just
there, ‘ implicit in the relation ship (kin or ethnic) itself’. Acco
rding to Eller and Coughlan, the source of this fallacy ‘ is the failure
of sociology and anthropology to deal intelligibly with emotion’.
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