Theories of Nationalism


Nationalism can be defined as social, political and economic doctrine defined by supporting the interests of a particular nation, with the aim of gaining and maintaining the nation’s sovereignty. Nationalism holds that every government should be self-determined to govern itself without external interferences (Carlson-Rainer, 2018).  Once a group of people who are collectively united by self-reflected force such as identity and can mobilize resources, then the nation becomes the only legitimate source of political sovereignty (Gellner, & Breuilly). Nationality also aims at building a single identity which is based on social attributes such as culture, distinctive traditions, language and also politics which are shared in a single setting.

Generally, nationality seeks to support the nation’s traditions and all cultural revivals associated with its movements. It is connected to patriotism and encourages a nation to have pride in its achievements as ideology nationalism is considered modern. In the entire history people had always had an attachment to their traditions, regional groups and also their homeland but, nationalism was never recognized until in the eighteenth century. There are three ways to understand the origins and purposes of nationalism. Primordialism which suggests that since nations exists naturally then nationalism is a natural phenomenon (Ozkirimli, 2017). Ethno symbolism insists on the importance of symbols, traditions and myths in any nation’s development, it describes nationality as a dynamic evolutionary phenomenon. Modernism on the other hand suggests that, nationalism is a recent phenomenon and it needs socio-economic structures of modern society to exist. (Greenfeld, 2012) Different definitions of a nation lead to different strands of nationalism. It can either mean that citizenship in a state should be one ethnic group, cultural, religious or identity group or that multinationality in a state should mean that everyone has a right to exercise their right of national identity.

Theories in Nationalism

There are two main theories of nationalism which are primordial and constructivists. Nationalism is solely defined in reference to the two theories. Primordialism defines nationalism as an embedded national identity. It holds that nations are ancient phenomena. Philosophically, primordial can be traced to the ideas German Romanticism, particularly in the works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Johann Gottfried Herder. (Carlson-Rainer, 2018) Herder argues that since language was closely related with thought and that language was learnt in the community, then each community should think differently. Primordial’s faced an extensive criticism after the second world war where many scholars came about to treat nations as a community that is built by technologies and modern politics (Coakley, 2017). Concerning ethnicity, it argues that the main reason why nationality and ethnic groups exist is that there is a heritage of belief and actions towards a primordial object such as biological factors and especially territorial location (Hearn, 2006). This argument lies in kinship concept whereby, members of a particular ethnic group feel that they share specific characteristics, origins and in some cases blood relation. An excellent example of primordialism would be the 1994 genocide experienced in Rwanda which was led by the rivalry between two ethnic groups known as Hutu and Tutsi.

The constructivist’s theory, on the other hand, states that national identity is established in reference to historical occurrences and whereby nationalism is a method of finding replacements as a result of cultural concepts losses (Mass, 2017). Constructivism can be equated to three significant themes which state that a state plays a major and vital role in creating a sense of identity to its citizens, and this is what makes a nation. Also, that national contribution is as a result of loads of people being educated and gaining literacy. Lastly, the last theme is that new social tensions were created as a result of the emergence of industrial economies and they broke social tradition bonds which called for a need for national identity.

Types of Nationalism

Different scholars argue that there is more than one type of nationalism. Nationalism can present itself as part of state doctrine and may be expressed in the line of ethnic, cultural or religious path (Foster & Murphy, 2016). These individual definitions are the ones used to classify types on nationalism. The national movements can alternatively be classified in regards to their location and their scale. One thing that is evident is that in all kinds of nationalism, there is a common culture. This has led to some theorists arguing that any distinction between forms of nationalism is false. They believe that such topology attempts to bend the relatively simple concept of nationalism to understand its many interpretations. To argue this, all types of nationalism direct too many non-identical academics throughout the years the discussion on nationalism has been.

Ethnic Nationalism

Just like the word itself, ethnic nationalism refers to a nation by ethnicity; it includes an element of ancestry from previous generations. It contains their ancestral language and all cultural ideas shared among these members of the group. Membership of such a nation is hereditary, and the political legitimacy is derived from the state’s status as a homeland of this ethnic group.



Civic Nationalism

It’s a kind of nationalism where the state derives its political legitimacy from the active participation of its citizens. To an extent, it represents the will of the people. Civic nationalism lies within the basis of traditions of rationalism and, but it is contrasted to the ethnic nationalism. (Kohn, 2017) Contrary to ethnic nationalism, public membership is considered voluntary, and its civic-national ideals affect the growth of representative democracy in advance countries such as France and the US. This nationalism entails that the nation is a community to those who are a part of maintaining and strengthening the state and that every individual exists to contribute to this objective.

Expansionism Nationalism

Expansionism nationalism is a dynamic and radical form of nationalism that consolidates autonomous, patriotic sentiments, with a belief of expansionism. The difference between expansionist nationalism and liberal nationalism is that expansionist accepts chauvinism which is a belief in superiority. These nations are therefore not thought to have a right to self-determination; instead some countries are believed to have qualities that make them superior to others. Expansionist nationalism hence, advocates for the state’s rights to increase its borders at the expense of the neighboring countries (Hechter, 2001).

Cultural Nationalism

As the name suggests, cultural nationalism defines a nation that is shared by culture. Membership in this nationalism is neither voluntary nor hereditary, yet a traditional culture can easily be incorporated into the lives of individuals especially if independent people are allowed to learn skills at an early age. Cultural nationalism is neither ethnic nor civic.

Revolutionary Nationalism

Revolutionary nationalism is an ideological theory that calls for a national community united by a shared purpose of destiny. It was initially attributed to advocates of the revolutionary syndicalism and was heavily publicized by Benito Mussolini. Revolutionary nationalism can sometimes be identified with proletarian nationalism.

Postcolonial Nationalism

As a result of World War 2, there has been an increase in third world nationalism. These nationalisms commonly occur in those nations that were colonized and exploited. These nations are built at a furnace that requires the resistance of colonial determination as a survival tactic.

Diaspora nationalism

This type of nationalism is for long distance nationalism. Diaspora originated from dispersal of people from their imagined ethnicity homeland as a result of war or famine. It can be referred to as a feeling among a diaspora such as the Irish in the United States. The difference between pan nationalism and diaspora nationalism is the fact that those in diaspora are no longer residents in their ethnic homeland. People in diaspora often yearn to go back to their lost ethnic homelands even though that may never occur in the foreseeable future. That shared determination to return to their roots is the one that becomes their identity.


It is a combination of ethnic and cultural nationalism, but the nation itself is a collection of related ethnic groups and cultures. Pan-nationalism is usually applied when the national group is dispersed over a wide area of several states.

Religious nationalism

Religious nationalism is a type of nationalism that is directly related to a particular religion or affiliation. It can be classified into the politicization of religion and the converse influence of religion on politics.

Liberal Nationalism

It is a form of nationalism compatible with the liberal values of freedom, tolerance, and individual rights; Liberal nationalists are said to defend the importance of national identity to lead to meaningful lives. (Willet, 2013)

Liberation Nationalism

This type of nationalism is dedicated to nations who feel that other nations are prosecuting their nations and for that reason, they are self-determined to liberate themselves from the accused liberators.

Left-wing nationalism

Left-wing nationalism refers to any political movement that combines socialism with nationalism.

Relevant Issues to the study of Nationalism

While nationalism has been a topic of discussion since the eighteenth century, it received clear recognition in the nineteen century (Mass, 2017). The study of nationalism is becoming harder by the day, and different universities are determined to study nationalism. There has been no conclusive evidence produced in the last 50years in regards to nationalism (Hearn, 2006). All this time, this field has been stuck between contemporary scientific facts and common sense theories. Defining issues related to nationalism has been done countless times leaving an array of different approaches with a lack of consensus (Smith, 1969). The question of whether it is possible to build a universal theory of nationalism remains. According to Michal Luczewski, it is crucial for scholars to create greater awareness in addressing the critical questions on nationalism studies. The scholars should also produce great dealing. It is also imperative for scholars to ignore subjective experience and instead deal with reality. This can be achieved by using empirical evidence. He also recommends starting small – “consecutively from the micro level through more and more general steps to the macro one.”


Nationality can be an exhaustive discussion; however one may look at it. Different debates continue to evolve in regards to the nationalism debate. More attention should be incorporated in the daily to day activities of a nation to determine a clear definition of this field.






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