Nation, nationalism and state – Modernism, Ethno-Symbolism, Primordialism

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Article by: Leonhardt van Efferink (December 2011)

Tags: Nation Modernism Ethno-Symbolism Primordialism Perennialism Identity Ethnies Vernacular Languages Industrialisation

Leonhardt van Efferink

Leonhardt van Efferink

Leonhardt van Efferink is Editor of ExploringGeopolitics, Founding Director of GeoMeans Analytical Skills Development and PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London.

He holds Master’s degrees in Geopolitics, Territory and Security (King’s College London) and Financial Economics (Erasmus University Rotterdam).

This article attempts to answer the question ‘Which came first: nations, nationalism or states?’ Each concept is explored by elaborating on several definitions, in line with the view of Armstrong (2004) that “any social science approach to a historical problem demands careful development of definitions.”[1]

I further address the actual manifestation of the state, nationalism and nation. In addition, the three dominant academic approaches to nations and nationalism are discussed: modernism, ethno-symbolism and primordialism. In the conclusion, I explain why putting the emergence of the state, nation and nationalism in a chronological order is such a difficult endeavour.

Defining the state

Many academic discussions of the state commence with the interpretation of Max Weber[2]. Gellner phrases Weber’s definition of the state as “that agency within society that possesses the monopoly of legitimate violence.” [3] The agency has a clear position in terms of identity, centralisation and discipline and should be principally engaged in maintaining order.

According to Elden (2009), four factors play a crucial role in Weber’s view on the state: “community; legitimacy; violence; and territory.”[4] Weber considered the state as a specific group of people that asserts its right to rule over a bounded territory. In this area, the state possesses full authority in an undivided and unlimited fashion. This means that the state is the only power on its territory and does not bear any responsibility for its actions towards any other entity.

The full authority of a state is a key factor in the notion of sovereignty. The meaning of this concept has been actively discussed among intellectuals for centuries[5]. The debate on sovereignty has predominantly focused on its legal foundations and the sort of activities it should actually apply to.

According to Krasner (2001), four concepts dominate the contemporary debate on sovereignty. First, ‘domestic sovereignty’ reflects the control of the state over activity on its territory. Second, ‘Vatellian’ sovereignty’[6] indicates to what extent the state’s territory is subject to influence from other states. Third, ‘interdependence sovereignty’ points to the state’s control over cross-border activities. Fourth, ’international legal sovereignty’ relates to the recognition of the state by other states.

The United Nations Charter broadly endorses the sovereignty concept[7]. The notion of the sovereign state has become commonplace on a global scale as states rule over virtually all territories[8]. Anderson (2006) offers a thought-provoking, historical insight into sovereignty:

“In the modern conception, state sovereignty is fully, flatly, and evenly operative over each square centimetre of a legally demarcated territory. But in the older imagining, where states were defined by centres, borders were porous and indistinct, and sovereignties faded imperceptibly into one another. Hence, paradoxically enough, the ease with which pre-modern empires and kingdoms were able to sustain their rule over immensely heterogeneous and often not even contiguous, populations for long periods of time.”[9]

To illustrate the difficulty in defining the notion of a state, I conclude this section with the most extensive definition that I have come across. O’Leary (2001) comments that a modern state is:

(1) a differentiated and impersonal institution that is
(2) politically centralized though not necessarily unitary;
(3) that generally exercises an effective monopoly of publicly organized physical force and of
(4) authoritatively binding rule-making (or sovereignty) over persons, groups and property; and that
(5) is sufficiently recognized by a sufficient number of its subjects,
(6) and of other stats, that it can
(7) maintain its organizational and policy-making powers
(8) within a potentially variable territory.[10]

This definition derives its strength from its relative approach towards the power of a state by taking into account that most states do not have absolute powers regarding the use of organised violence or enjoy support of all of its residents. However, this interpretation of a state painfully reveals that extending a definition does not automatically make a concept easier to grasp. What is meant by ‘generally’ in the third line, and how to interpret ‘sufficiently’ in the fifth and sixth line? These adverbs are hard to interpret while analysing contemporary states. More importantly for this paper, this definition makes it very hard to determine when the first state was founded.

Dating the state

Elden (2009) comments that in the eighth century BC, city-states started to play a crucial role in Greek areas. The states included both a metropolitan centre, where power was concentrated, and rural areas where crops were grown.

East and Prescott (1975) note that Europe comprised many feudal states in the Middle Ages. These states were very unstable in terms of territory, power division and centralisation. The feudal states were based on a hierarchy of political and social entities, with contracts stipulating how the land was divided.

East and Prescott (1975) further mention that the Tudors ruled over the first absolutist state in England. In this state, the royal family shared political power with the Church and the aristocracy. By the end of sixteenth century, Queen Elisabeth I had managed to form an effective government in England.

Elden (2009) notes that the Peace of Westphalia (1648) marks the beginning of the ascendance of the modern state. The two related treaties[11] introduced formal sovereignty to the state by permitting the participating states the right to independently implement policies in fields such as defence, legislation and taxes. The treaties further formalised the relation between political authority and territory. Accordingly, statehood as we know it nowadays came to fruition in the seventeenth century if we assume that the establishment of formal sovereignty was the critical development.

Elden further comments that the European idea of linking state to territory was gradually spread across the world when some European countries colonised many non-European areas from the fifteenth until the twentieth century. When non-European areas became independent countries, they gained sovereignty and became modern states.

Three approaches to the nation and nationalism

A brief introduction to the three dominant academic approaches is indispensable before turning to nations and nationalism. Özkirimli (2000) describes these very concisely:

“The common denominator of the modernists is their conviction in the modernity of nations and nationalism; that of the ethno-symbolists is the stress they lay in their explanations on ethnic pasts and cultures; finally that of the primordialists is their belief in the antiquity and naturalness of nations.”[12]

The general view among modernists is that nations and nationalism emerged in Europe for the first time between the sixteenth and eighteenth century. A key driver of this development was the development of an industrial society that resulted in an unequal distribution of wealth. Moreover, the advent of the modern state brought legislation, regulations and citizenship. In addition, the gradual expansion of common languages and education, raising literacy levels, substantially facilitated the emergence of a mass culture and a common national consciousness[13].

Ethno-symbolists emphasise the importance of the exchange of ideas between elites and the people. Furthermore, their research into nations and nationalism focuses on centuries of social and cultural trends. As a result, ethno-symbolists attach much value to the cultural identities of human groups from the past. Particularly ‘ethnies’, human groups with a common ethnic background, play a prominent role. In this respect, the analysis of why people attach to their nation or ethnic group is important to ethno-symbolists[14].

According to Storey (2001), primordialists claim that nations have historical roots that go back centuries, strictly taken to the beginning of human civilisation. Hearn (2006) notes that primordialist approaches point to the organic development of ethnic groups into nations. Representations of national identities focus on the role of shared ancestry, territorial roots and common language.

It is important to note that the exact meanings of the three approaches are disputed. For example, some scholars consider Anthony Smith a perennialist, although he considers himself an adherent of ethno-symbolism[15]. Armstrong (2004) defines ‘perennialism’ as the idea that a small number of contemporary nations has revived after an earlier existence in the distant past or during the Middle Ages.

Defining the nation

The concept of ‘nation’ is the focus of a fierce debate among academics. Smith (2001) manages to put the complexity surrounding the ´nation´ into perspective:

“Definitions of the nation range from those that stress ‘objective’ factors, such as language, religion and customs, territory and institutions, to those that emphasize purely ‘subjective’ factors, such as attitudes, perceptions and sentiments”[16]

Smith defines a nation as:

“”a named human community occupying a homeland, and having common myths and a shared history, a common public culture, a single economy and common rights and duties for all members.”[17]

In the introduction of his widely acclaimed book, Hobsbawm (1992) is very critical towards both objective and subjective definitions of a nation as he deems them both inadequate and deceptive. He argues that it is impossible “to distinguish a nation from other entities a priori”[18] and that “the real ‘nation’ can only be recognized a posteriori.”[19] Accordingly, he deliberately does not provide a definition of nation.

Anderson (2006), a modernist, defines a nation as “imagined political community”. He contends that a member of a nation will never know all but a limited number of other members of his or her nation. In fact, every community has an imagined nature, apart from tiny villages. The spread of the printing press provided a basis for the creation of ‘imagined communities’, as companies started printing publications in vernacular language.[20]

Connor (1994), a primordialist, defines a nation as ‘a group of people who believe they are ancestrally related.’[21] Nonetheless, he notes that disagreement persists on whether some groups form a separate nation or belong to a larger nation (e.g. the Macedonians). Connor further remarks that the categorisation of human groups as nations is complicated by ethnic factors. Are the Dutch a separate nation or part of the larger Germanic nation? And could the label ‘nation’ be applied to English people, which have Celtic, Angle, Saxon and Jute ancestors?

Storey (2001) points to another weakness of nations, the supposed reasons for their occurrence:

“All nations require a past to justify their current existence and to provide a rationale for territorial claims. Fact, folklore and fiction combine to produce and reproduce a sense of nationhood; myths and legends are an important part of nation-building.”[22]

Brubaker (1996) advises against defining the ‘nation’ and instead argues that:

“[w]e should not ask ‘what is a nation?’ but rather: how is nationhood as a political and cultural form institutionalized within and among states? How does nation work as practical category, as classificatory scheme, as cognitive frame? What makes the use of that category by or against states more of less resonant or effective? What makes the nation-evoking, nation-invoking efforts of political entrepreneurs more or less likely to succeed?”[23]

Brubaker further stresses that nations are products of a “contingent event”[24] and should not be treated as large, perennial groups.

This section confirms the claim of Mayall (1999) that a universally applicable definition of ‘nation’ does not exist. Accordingly, the United Nations have not been able to agree on a common definition.

Dating the nation

As the previous sections showed, nations are widely believed to emerge for the first time either many centuries ago or during the industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The earliest specific example that I have come across was England. According to Adrian Hastings, an English writer considered this area a nation in the eighth century[25].

After studying some major publications of the vast literature on nations, I fully endorse Charles Tilly’s claim that the ‘nation’ is one of the most confusing concepts within political sciences[26]. In fact, I have become more convinced that the ‘nation’ is nothing but a social construct. Critical in light of this paper is the observation that key scholars have serious trouble or even advise against defining ‘nation’. Given the lack of a convincing definition of nation, I am unable to assert when the first nation manifested itself.

Defining nationalism

As with the nation, nationalism has been subject to an intense debate among academics on its definition and possible interpretations. Smith (2001) considers five usages essential in the modern academic debate:

(1) a process of formation, or growth, of nations;
(2) a sentiment of consciousness of belonging to the nation;
(3) a language and symbolism of the nation;
(4) a social and political movement on behalf of the nation;
(5) a doctrine and/or ideology of the nation, both general and particular.[27]

In line with Smith’s view, Hearn (2006) states that nationalism can take five forms: “feeling”, “identity”, “ideology;”, “social movement” and “historical process”[28]. He acknowledges that nationalism can take all these forms at once, but stresses that most approaches focus on some of these forms.

The definition of Connor (1994) for example revolves around the first two forms: “identification and loyalty to one’s nation”[29]

According to Gellner (2001), who was instrumental in the development of modernism, nationalism is first and foremost a doctrine that promotes the idea that the boundaries of the state should coincide with those of the nation[30]. He further argues that developments opposed to or in line with this doctrine evoke nationalist feelings. Gellner considers these feelings the key rationale behind nationalist movements.

Modernists and primordialists have different ideas about nationalism. The modernist version, ‘civic nationalism’, is “voluntaristic, rational and activist”[31]. ‘Ethnic nationalism’, on the other hand, means that people have no choice but belonging to the nation, as they share the same culture and past. Most cases of nationalism are a mixture of both versions[32].

Dating nationalism

Smith (2001) argues that the use of the term ‘nationalism’ with its current meanings became commonplace in the twentieth century. The concept was used for the first time in a socio-political context in France and Germany by the end of the eighteenth century. Essential for this paper is nevertheless that Smith asserts that nationalism (as ideology) manifested itself for the first time in the eighteenth century.

The following modernist views substantiate the uncertainty surrounding the moment when nationalism occurred for the first time. Breuilly (2008) claims that the general consensus is that nationalism became important around 1750. The war between Britain and France and the related emergence of a perception of an enemy fuelled the popularity of nationalism in both countries. However, Brubaker (1996) argues that nationalism saw the light by the end of the eighteenth century, while Kedouri (1985) claims that nationalism was created at the start of the nineteenth century.

These different viewpoints confirm findings of Connor (1991) on the widespread disagreement among historians about the time when nationalism took root in Europe. Connor mentions in this respect the viewpoints of Johan Huizinga, who claims that nationalism emerged in England and France by the 14th century, and Marc Bloch, who thinks that national consciousness was already present in England, France and Germany around 1100.

In this regard, it is important to recall Connor’s emphasis on identity and loyalty, explaining why he uses nationalism as synonym for national consciousness. He stresses that the promotion of national sentiments can only considered nationalism if the lion’s share of the population concerned develops a national consciousness.

This brief overview reveals the impossibility of -based on a literature review- claiming with a certain degree of certainty when nationalism emerged for the first-time. The broad variety in academic views not only stems from different interpretations of history, but also from the various meanings of nationalism.


This brief literature study has failed to find a crystal clear answer to its central question. A conclusive timeline for the first emergences of states, nations and nationalism turns out to be too ambitious.

Greek city-states in the eighth century BC and England by the end of the sixteenth century already had some of the features of the modern state. However, taking formal sovereignty as decisive factor, statehood came to fruition in the seventeenth century. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 was instrumental in this regard, giving the states of Sweden and France the right to independently set policies.

Adherents of the three dominant schools of thought regarding nationalism claim that nations manifested themselves for the first time either many centuries ago or during the industrial revolution between the eighteenth and nineteenth century. However, lack of a convincing definition and my belief that the ‘nation’ is nothing but a social construct makes me conclude that I am unable to tell when the first nation emerged.

Different interpretations of history and the variety in definitions of nationalism leave me with no other choice than to refrain from claiming when nationalism emerged for the first-time.

Realising how the enormous amount of angles regarding nations and nationalism complicates the dating of both concepts, I now understand what Armstrong (2004) means when he argues that:

“definitions will, to a great extent, determine the response scholars will bring to the issues posed. The examination of the phenomenon defined as nations is no exception, although at the start of many research projects students do not recognize this.”[33]


  • Anderson, Benedict (2006), Imagined Communities (London: Verso Books)
  • Armstrong, John A. (2004), ‘Definitions, periodization, and prospects for the longue duree’, Nations and Nationalism, 10 (1/2), pp. 9-18.
  • Biersteker, T.J. and Weber, C. (1996), ‘The social Construction of State Sovereignty’, in T.J. Biersteker and C. Weber, eds., State Sovereignty as Social Construct, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 1-21.
  • Breuilly, John (2001), ‘The State and Nationalism’, in Montserrat Guibernau and John Hutchinson, eds., Understanding Nationalism (Cambridge: Polity), pp. 32-52.
  • Breuilly, John (2008), ‘Nationalism’, in John Baylis, Steve Smith and Patricia Owens, eds., The Globalization of World Politics, fourth edition, pp. 402-417.
  • Brubaker, Rogers (1996), Nationalism Reframed, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
  • Connor, Walker (1991), ‘From Tribe to Nation?’, History of European Ideas, 13, no. 1/2, pp. 5-18.
  • Connor, Walker (1994), Ethnonationalism – The Quest for Understanding (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
  • Connor, Walker (2004), ‘The timelessness of nations’, Nations and Nationalism, 10 (1/2), pp. 35-47.
  • East, W. Gordon and Prescott, J.R.V., Our fragmented world: An Introduction to Political Geography (London: Macmillan)
  • Elden, Stuart (2009), ‘Why is the world divided territorially?’, in Jenny Edkins and Maja Zehfuss, eds., Global Politics: A new Introduction (London: Routledge), pp. 192-219.
  • Gellner, Ernest (2006), Nations and Nationalism, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing)
  • Hearn, Jonathan (2006) Rethinking Nationalism: A critical Introduction (Basingstoke: Palgrave)
  • Hobsbawm, E.J. (1992), Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
  • Jackson, R.H. (1990), Quasi-states: Sovereignty, International Relations and the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
  • Krasner, S.D. (2001), ‘Rethinking the Sovereign State Model’, Review of International Studies, 27, pp. 17-42.
  • Kedouri, Elie (1985), Nationalism, third edition reprinted with revisions (London: Hutchinson)
  • Mayall, James (1999), ‘Sovereignty, Nationalism, and Self-determination’, Political Studies, XLVII, pp. 474-502.
  • O’Leary, Brendan (2001), ‘Introduction’, in Brendan O’Leary, Ian S. Lustick and Thomas Callaghy, eds., Right-sizing the State: the politics of moving borders (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 1-14.
  • Özkirimli, Umut (2000), Theories of Nationalism: A critical Introduction (Basingstoke: Palgrave)
  • Smith, Anthony D. (2001), Nationalism (Cambridge: Polity)
  • Smith, Anthony D. (2006), ‘Ethnicity and Nationalism’, in Gerard Delanty and Krishan Kumar, eds., The SAGE Handbook of Nations and Nationalism (London: SAGE publications), pp. 169-181.
  • Storey, David (2001), Territory: The Claiming of Space (Harlow: Pearson Education)


[1] Jackson (2004), p. 9.

[2] Max Weber (1864-1920) conducted both historical and economic research. He has been instrumental in the foundation of sociology (Elden, 2009).

[3] Gellner (2006), p. 3.

[4] Elden (2009), p. 197.

[5] Biersteker and Weber (1996)

[6] Emmerich de Vattel was among the first who elaborated on the principle that states should not engage in internal matters of other states.

[7] Elden (2009)

[8] Jackson (1990)

[9] Anderson (2006), p. 19.

[10] O’Leary (2001). p. 6.

[11] The Treaties both involved the Holy Roman Empire. The Osnabrück Treaty was concluded with Sweden, the Münster Treaty with France.

[12] Özkirimli (2000), p. 64.

[13] This paragraph is entirely based on Hearn (2006).

[14] This paragraph is entirely based on Smith (2001).

[15] Özkirimli (2001)

[16] Smith (2001), p. 11.

[17] Ibid, p. 13.

[18] Hobsbawm (1992), p. 5, emphasis in original text.

[19] Ibid, p. 9, emphasis in original text.

[20] Mayall (1999)

[21] Connor (1994), p. xi.

[22] Storey (2001), p. 77

[23] Brubaker (1996), p. 16.

[24] Ibid, p. 21.

[25] Breuilly (2001), p. 33

[26] Smith (2001), p. 10

[27] Ibid (2001), pp. 5-6.

[28] Hearn (2006), p. 6.

[29] Connor (1994), p. xi.

[30] The resulting entity is called a nation-state (Connor, 2004)

[31] Smith (2006), p. 170.

[32] Smith (2006)

[33] Armstrong (2004), p. 9

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