The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Science

Authors: Bogdanor
Summary: In just over 800 words, this entry sets forth three assumptions common to doctrines of nationalism, demonstrates how these assumptions are false, places nationalism in a modern context, and concludes with a discussion about the relationship between culture and nationalism.
Nationalism is a political doctrine that accepts as legitimate political units defined by their corresponding national units. According to this entry, nationalism rests on three important assumptions which, as a generalization about the human condition, are false. First is the assumption that humans live in politically centralized units. The second assumption follows from the first--that the politically centralized unit, which is an expression of nationality, is the only legitimate agent of coercion. Finally, nationalist doctrine assumes that all human beings are characterized by something we call nationalism. These assumptions are false because not all human beings live in politically centralized units, and not all humans identify with a nationality or even have a notion of nationalism. For example, some people may identify with their tribe or others who speak the same language, but there is no larger national collective or any kind of political linkage.
Although false as a generalization over time, nationalism is a close approximation of the truth in a particular historical period--our contemporary one. Most modern societies are in fact centralized; modern governing political institutions typically set up centralizing and nationalizing educational and cultural infrastructures. It is the capacity to read and write within a particular modern culture that confers genuine political citizenship on an individual. It is this fact that is really responsible for nationalism's strength in the modern world.