The Social Science Encyclopedia

Authors: Kuper & Kuper
Summary: In slightly more than 600 words, this entry defines nationalism, discusses its emergence as a political doctrine, and concludes by briefly analyzing its conceptual usage in political science.
Nationalism, according to this entry, is the belief that nations, both by duty and by right, can constitute themselves as states. Although it is difficult to define or describe what constitutes a nation, generally speaking a nation shares some common culture and shared language. Nationalist theory believes that global self-determination will eventually lead to world peace because most international conflict arises from cross-national oppression.
As a political doctrine, nationalism emerged from a hatred of cosmopolitanism and from the universalistic rationalism of the French Enlightenment. Opera and the novel were particularly important vehicles for the spread of nationalist sentiment in the 19th century, including from western to eastern Europe. The Treaty of Versailles (1919) represents a triumph of nationalism. Nationalist ideas were useful and popular in Asia and Africa because they fueled campaigns to replace colonial European rulers with local ones.
Nationalism is an attractive political doctrine for political scientists because it promises to explain some causes of conflict between different ethnic groups. As such, nationalism is not just a belief, but actually a force mediating between belief and action on the part of individuals and groups. Unfortunately, the promise of nationalism as a theoretical concept far exceeds its performance.