Question of the Month: July

Simon Purdue's picture

H-Nationalism’s Question of the Month series offers a forum for discussing the big questions surrounding research, pedagogy, and practice in the field of nationalism studies and the history of nationalism. Use the reply feature to join the conversation! Email Simon Purdue ( of Northeastern University if you’d like to propose a question of you own. If you need technical assistance with logging in and posting comments, please contact H-Net’s Help Desk ( 


Dear subscribers,

Thanks to all who have helped to get the Question of the Month series off the ground over the last two months. So far we have discussed the trajectory of research in the field of nationalism studies, and the challenges presented by teaching the the history of nationalism, and we have recieved some really interesting comments. For our third installment in the series we are hoping to explore the role that academics can play outside of the academy by asking:

How can historians of nationalism make their work ‘public’? How can we reach a wider audience, outside of the academy? What responsibility, if any, do scholars of nationalism have in this age of rising jingoism and xenophobia?

We look forward to reading your insights!




In the context of India, where the Hindu right has effectively deployed social media to disseminate false narratives, I'd say we have to look at our relationship and use of such media and other contemporary channels of communication. But it is also to be noted that a whitewashed, anti-muslim, and Hinduised nationalist history is also taught to anyone between 5 and 70 through RSS "shakhas" and other NGO-like organisations of the Sangh Parivar in villages and towns throughout the country. Given the failure of the schooling system in a country as vast as India, this poses an infrastructural as well as resource problem.

I am really happy to see this question. I work on gender and nationalism and have thought really hard over the years how to make my work (and the similar works of others) more accessible to the public, resonating to a wider audience. I struggled for years on how to step away from my work and think about the big "so what"? Giving guest talks in various social and academic spaces (e.g., local community center, retirement homes) has forced me to tweak the ways in which I deliver and share my research with a non-academic audience. I found that connecting my work to similar global events (e.g., secessionist movement in Scotland, Canada, China) has prompted audience members to better understand the significance of my work. In other words, audience members walk away thinking why research on gender and nationalism in Cameroon, a west-central Anglophone/Francophone African country, might matter to them in Texas, in New York, in Belgium, or in Canada.

Penning articles for various online journals and blogs are also a great way for historians of nationalism to make their work ‘public'. I particularly like writing for the blog, Africa is a Country. It's a challenging but rewarding endeavor because the editors are always quick to give reminders that the work needs to be accessible to a non-specialist audience. Conducting such exercises has naturally started to change the way I write articles and even my second book. I now approach the work with the predominant thought that it must be accessible to a non-specialist audience. For the first time since graduate school, I've thought about writing an academic book that the everyday person--in this case Cameroonians-- can pick up, read and easily understand.

Thanks Simon for this useful question.

I think that contributing to blogs and newspapers, as well as taking part in conferences and round tables intended for a non-specialist public, are a very good (and old) way to try to reach a wider audience. Collaborating with journalists and artists in the preparation of documentaries, exhibitions and plays can also be an important (and possibly more innovative and effective) channel. Yet, unfortunately, especially for young researchers, this dissemination effort is not valued enough in career advancement. In the last few years, I've organised two blog post series about different topics on H-Nationalism precisely with the purpose of reaching a wider audience (and still it remains an academic platform, although it is accessible by everybody on the internet). Finding scholars willing to participate has been very challenging and often the reason is not that they don't want to be on board, but simply that this kind of endeavours doesn't count on their CV. Hence, although they would often like to talk to a wider public, they have to prioritise other activities.

Dear All, 

These comments point to a number of important issues in when and how academics can engage with publics, which themselves can be quite diverse in their scope, motivations, and composition. A few years back when I moderated a discussion for the Journal of the Civil War Era about the memory and public history concerning America's Reconstruction (conventionally 1865-1877), currently in its sesquicentennial, the discussants grappled some with how to both find audiences that would be interested in the subject, which is oddly unfamiliar to many Amernicans, and what, if anything, to do about racial conservatives hostile to the cause of equality that was very much integral to Reconstruction's politics. Every topic represents its own challenges, but in that case I was struck by how clearly divided potential audiences in the United States would be. 

Emmanuel is certainly correct that the institutional deck is often stacked against scholars who want a broader audience—and I’ll also give a word of thanks to him to his excellent series from the past few years. My impression is that a disconnect between the administrative imperative to measure productivity, which typically privileges peer-reviewed publication to the exclusion of all else, and the need for scholarly dialogue with current events and issues is one of the defining features of academia today. On the other hand, the rise of web-based publications like The Conversation as well as the evolution of many older print-based media have led to an increase in opportunities to connect research with wider discussions, as Jacqueline-Bethel’s comment suggests. Ever since Justin Collier began running our Weekend Reading series, I’ve been impressed by just how much commentary there is about nationalism around the globe (and in Justin's ability to keep us up to date on it). I find myself wondering at times what exactly this commentary adds up to, what trade-offs we face with public engagement, and whether we don’t need some expansive assessments of global discourse about nationalism and the place of scholars and teachers within it. Perhaps these already exist? Of course, these opportunities co-exist with some very powerful currents working against informed and open discussion about nationalism, as Oeendrila’s comment illustrates in one context.  It’s also worth noting that, at least in some cases, there are opportunities to publish trade books with commercial presses that target what is a fairly large market of educated readers. I’ve even had colleagues complain to me about the ubiquity of such works and the declining importance of original archival research (among historians). 

Kind Regards, 

David Prior
Assistant Professor of History, UNM
Advisory Board Member, H-Nationalism