It’s a little unfair to ask people to comment on the viability of this endeavor with only one post*–or even two, really–so I thought I’d add another to give it some more flavor. Still kinda on a DC high–went to Old Town Alexandria today (pictures to follow, if I feel like it).
On the metro ride down there I started reading Imagined Communities, a book about nationalism that I’ve been meaning to read for about two years. Since part of the purpose of this blog is to familiarize any potential readership with important (to me at least) concepts in political science, I thought I would take this as an opportunity to briefly describe nationalism.
As Anderson puts it, “nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time.” To show just how thoroughly nationalism has permeated political discourse in our time, think through this series of examples with me. When you refer to the country in which I (and probably you) live in everyday conversation, what do you call it? Probably “America,” right? But of course everyone knows that the formal name of our country is “the United States of America.” Everyone from Canada on down to Argentina and Chile technically lives in “America.” We choose this term not because of geographical accuracy, but because it describes how we think of this country: as “one nation under God” rather than a loose coalition of separate states, as it was under the articles of confederation.
The point becomes a bit more clear when we consider states that do not refer to themselves in nationalistic ways. Both the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United Kingdom (which unites England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland) long resisted the tendency to refer to themselves as a nation in that way. Alternately, most of the revolutions of the twentieth century (and, for different reasons, our own in the 19th) were national ones: “Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” “Islamic Republic of Iran,” and so on. These revolutions presumed a common identity among a nation of people.
This may seem trivial, or perhaps obvious, but that last bit gets at the meat of the matter: the idea of the “nation” is a powerful metaphor that motivates people to make important choices, including but not limited to the kinds of choices that risk (and often take or lose) lives. The idea of the nation really began in the 18th century in the Americas and Europe, and gained a lot of ground in the Napoleonic era through its amalgamation as the “nation-state.”
Again we often think of these two terms as synonymous with “country,” but they have important connotations of their own. A state refers to a group of people who share a common land. An ethnicity is a group of people who share a common past. A nation is a group of people who share a common future; this is why it is a powerful motivator for things like revolutions. One common, but not uncontroversial, example is Jews and Israel. For much of the latter half of the second millenium AD, Jews in Europe shared a common ethnicity (obviously), but many of them saw their future as assimilation in various other countries. It wasn’t until the tragedies of the pogroms and the holocaust that they became a nation, needing a unified response against those threats. And in 1948 they became a state.
The two most important things to draw from all this is that 1) definitions carry weight in political science and 2) we define most political terms in a way that refers to people and their beliefs and behaviors. Though Anderson also admits in his introduction that “nation, nationality, nationalism — all have proved notoriously difficult to define, let alone analyse.”
I plan to reflect on these matters in a more personal way tomorrow morning, when I take the opportunity to visit Arlington National Cemetery. For now, see Regina Spektor’s “Uh-Merica.”
* In social science we call this “small sample size bias” and it can be a real problem for empirical research.