Question of the Month: December

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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 ( 

Hello all,

As we move ever closer to the end of another semester and indeed another year, we are launching our last 'Question of the Month' of 2019. Many thanks to all of you who have contributed over the last 6 months, and we look forward to hearing more from you as we continue to tackle the big questions in nationalism studies throughout 2020. To round out the 2019 edition, we're asking:

In the academic literature on nationalism, what place have the Americas occupied? How has the question of nationalism in the Americas been dealt with at a scholarly level?

As always we look forward to hearing your insights on this question.

Best wishes, happy holidays and happy new year,

Simon Purdue

Editor, H-Nationalism's Question of the Month

Dear All, 

One angle to this is whether or not nationalism scholarship is predominantly, and perhaps disproportionately, focused on Europe. The flipside of that coin would be whether scholarship on the Americas has been sufficiently engaged with the theoretical literature on nationalism. At minimum, perhaps we can think of certain areas of interest within the nationalism literature--such as the Origins Debate--as having had little impact on scholarship about the Americas, while others--such as analyses of civic and ethnic nationalisms--have had roughly the same impact for scholarship focusing on the Americas as on Europe.

Given how vast the Americas are, and how complex their societies have been, we might also ask whether or not scholarship on nations and national identities across these two continents share powerful underlying points of interest, and whether these are distinctive relative to the interests of other fields. Has research on nations and national identities in the Americas made for a coherent and distinctive body of scholarship? Given these regions' common histories of immigration, slavery and the slave trade, abolition, and the expropriation of Native American lands--topics addressed in comparative studies going back decades and the more recent rise of Atlantic History--I would think so.

One last dimension to the question that I'll raise... In H-Nationalism's first QOTM in May, which addressed research trends in the field, several posts pointed to the growing scholarly emphasis on transnational connections. Such a concern has of course been present since at least the 1980s, perhaps most obviously in Benedict Anderson's emphasis on the origins of the national ideal of horizontal affiliation in the non-monarchical states that emerged in the revolutionary Americas. In recent years, however, the transnational currents shaping the history of nationalism have come into sharper focus, and with a greater emphasis on the continuous nature of the interchanges of people, ideas, movements, and texts from the revolutionary decades down to the 21st century. With the field I'm most familiar with, the United States Civil War Era, there are now several excellent studies that look at broader currents, often transatlantic, shaping notions of nationhood and national identity. 

Kind Regards, 

Dave Prior

There is a dearth of decent work on American nationalism. The "New Left" response to Cold War liberalism in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and the "Ethnic Revival" of the 1970s largely precluded the exploration of nationalism in the US context. Where liberals such as Boyd Shafer (and myriad policy makers) had reviled nationalism as a form of totalitarian fanaticism and celebrated a supposed American consensus about the values of liberty and equality, the ensuing turn to histories of racial and ethnic groups looked suspiciously on the nation as anything but an oppressive cultural and political form. The rise of whiteness studies in the 1990s only intensified such suspicions. As a result, American scholars seem to be reluctant to study American nationalism per se to focus far more intently on sub-national, solidary racial and ethnic groups. This reluctance has meant that historians have had trouble actually discerning why Americans developed two racial category sets (one based on color, the other based on national culture) at the turn of the twentieth century. It has led them too frequently to take those two category sets as the appropriate categories of analysis for all of US history and then to artificially separate them. Works on "race" exclude consideration of "ethnic groups" and vice versa. One well respected monograph, for example, closely examined the relations of black and white workers on the docks of New Orleans in the late nineteenth century, and completely ignored the significant presence of Sicilian immigrants among them.

The reluctance to study US nationalism has obscured essential questions in considering US peoplehood. For example, how can a people establish a solidary bounded nation on a liberal ideology that prizes individual independence?

Clearly such questions spill over into considering similar problems among other American nations and call for comparative analysis. Canada, the US, and Mexico have each faced similar issues in negotiating the formation of peoplehoods based on relations of indigenous and immigrant populations. But where Mexicans since at least the time of Manuel Gamio worked to create a synthesis of these populations into a single "race," Americans and Canadians followed significantly divergent paths, building on internal exclusions and myths of usurpation as opposed to integration.

The upshot of the reluctance to study American nationalism has been to cede the discussion of peoplehood and national community to illiberal, ideological claims of solidarity. An invigorated, rigorously analytical study of nationalism--one that does not simple accept the category sets of "race" and "ethnicity"--in the context of the Americas is thus necessary now more than ever. We have powerfully demonstrated the forms and practices of racialized oppression over the past half century. And this work should continue. But if we are to develop an egalitarian and inclusive future, we need also to understand the significant forms and practices of building equitable commonality throughout the Americas as well.

For those who are interested, I have written quite a bit on American nationalism. About a hundred pages are devoted to the nature and development of American nationalism in NATIONALISM: FIVE ROADS TO MODERNITY (Harvard UP, 1992), where it is one of the cases analysed, and there are two large chapters amounting to some 200 pp and dealing, specifically, with the development of economic nationalism in the USA and, more generally, the economic dimension in American national consciousness, in THE SPIRIT OF CAPITALISM: NATIONALISM AND ECONOMIC GROWTH (Harvard UP, 2001). There is also a large chapter on the USA in MIND, MODERNITY, MADNESS (Harvard UP, 2013), the third book in my nationalism trilogy, which focuses on nationalism's impact on modern existential experience. In general, American nationalism is a common subject in all my six or seven books on nationalism, as well as numerous articles (see, for instance, the 2018 and 2019 papers in AMERICAN AFFAIRS). Finally, there a number of excellent papers by other scholars on nationalism in various countries in North, Central, and South Americas in GLOBALIZATION OF NATIONALISM I edited for the European Consortium of Political Science (ECPR) in 2016 and, forthcoming, in RESEARCH HANDBOOK ON NATIONALISM, which I am currently editing for Edward Elgar. Some of these authors, such as Jonathan Eastwood or Leone Campos de Sousa, have published books on nationalisms in Venezuela and Brasil. I have never felt there was a dearth of literature on the subject of nationalism in the Americas, certainly not on nationalism in North America (both USA and Canada). The problem is that it is not seriously engaged with by scholars who work on nationalism in Europe and the rest of Eastern hemisphere. Do engage with us, read our work, we would be happy to have a conversation with you and answer your questions.

Dear All, 

I definitely see both Reynolds's and Liah's points, but wonder how these can be reconciled. Also, I certainly should have mentioned _Five Roads to Modernity_ as a rare text that places the United States squarely within the main body of nationalism theory (I'll admit I still need to get caught up on the more recent works).

I agree with Reynolds that US historians often treat "nationalism" as a bad word, but wonder if there isn't more going on with this than its negative connotations with the New Left. For example, if the New Left has been hesitant to embrace "America" as a central subject of analysis, choosing to focus on groups within the nation and across its borders instead, then this might very well have led to a scholarly focus on nationalist movements defined in opposition to the federal state and mainstream US identity. Indeed, a good case can be made that this is exactly what has happened. I'm thinking within my own field of the critical success of Steven Hahn's _A Nation under Our Feet_, which argues for the origins of a separatist Black nationalism in the quotidian struggles of rural southern African Americans following the abolition of slavery. No doubt those familiar with other fields of study can probably point to other works. One could also consider the rise of the transnational turn in historical scholarship--which also had a major impact on American Studies--as well as the deconstructionist leanings of the New Cultural History.

Still, my sense is that there is an underlying disconnect between the broader nationalism literature and that on the United States (I'm less well-suited to address the rest of the Americas). Perhaps Liah is right that the core problem is other scholars not reading work by Americanists. It seems to me that there is plenty of room for more engagement, including for an analysis, in line with the work of Rogers Brubaker, of when political movements in the US define themselves as nationalist and why they do so. 

I wonder if part of the disconnect doesn't stem from the political stances of recent historians focused on groups within the United States and the sometimes cynical tone of earlier, canonical studies of nationalism by scholars like Eric Hobsbawm. The notion of nationalism as an elite construction predicated on historical myth-making or as a symptom of industrial capitalism (I'm thinking of Gellner) doesn't strike me as aligning with the interpretive ends of scholars working on, say, Black Power. Perhaps for this reason one of the topics where scholarship has long embraced the European-centered theoretical literature is Confederate nationalism, which no one hesitates to see as constructed on myths. 

Best wishes, 


I am coming rather late to this discussion, but was prompted to respond by the important questions raised in the discussion. As a ‘European’ rather than a Europeanist, I welcome Liah Greenfeld's intervention and especially her call for those studying European nationalism to engage with the nationalist experience in the Americas. There are very good reasons for studying the United States experience in particular, but Canada, Mexico and Latin American experiences also offer important comparative insights. There is a considerable body of scholarship dealing with nationalism, nationality and national identity that is accessible but has not been incorporated into either comparative or interpretative discussions of nationalism. I found the volume edited by Don Doyle and Marco Pamplona Nationalism in the New World (2006) an exciting starting point for thinking about nationalism in the Americas. In respect of the United States, which is a focus for my research, the work of T. H. Breen and Jack P. Greene has been particularly influential in thinking about how national identity is formed and the debates underpinning questions of identity in the early Republic.
More recently, Jasper M. Trautsch, ‘The Origins and nature of American nationalism’, National Identities 18: 3 (2016) provides important insights into discussions on this question. One insight is the extent to which American nationalism (the US) in its early iteration engaged in establishing itself as distinct from other states and peoples. As Trautsch notes ‘How American nationalism emerged through an effort to set the USA apart from its ideological anti-poles in Europe, North Africa, and the New World, however, is a process yet to be systematically investigated’. This is not different from what other nationalisms engaged in (for example the British in the 18th century on Linda Colley’s reading). It suggests that comparing the US experience with that of other states offers important insights into the global appeal and nature of nationalism. One approach here might be to examine the extent to which there was already an American identity (if not a nationalism) before the war of independence and how or if this was transformed by the experience of war and independence.
Dave Prior is right to emphasise that scholarship is focussed on Europe. But that focus is often quite restricted. The theoretical and conceptual foundations for the study of nationalism are largely based on a limited number of European cases. This work disproportionately favours ‘Western’ Europe (Britain, France and Germany) and large imperial/colonial states (old states and nations). Furthermore the distinction drawn in much of the literature between ‘civic’ and ‘ethnic’ nationalism reinforces an east/west dichotomy (the US is uncritically included as a civic nationalism). Despite important contributions on nationalism in Russia, Poland, the Scandinavian states and Spain these cases have not been fully integrated into the comparative or interpretative literature. Nor have Ireland, Finland or other smaller states received the necessary attention they deserve. Scholarship on India, China and Japan (in similar fashion to that of the Americas) remains restricted to specialists and regional studies. Notable exceptions are Azar Gat with Alexander Yakobson, Nations: The Long History and Deep roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (2013) and John Breuilly (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of The History of Nationalism (2013) both of which are global in their reach.
It may be that the use of the European cases as a paradigm for research on nationalism is mistaken or that the cases used are atypical. I would endorse Dave Prior’s caution in respect of Hobsbawm’s and Gellner’s work here. In contrast, the United States and the Americas might offer a better model for understanding nationalism in the modern world. The old well established nations of Europe are unrepresentative of nationalism in the modern age, which prizes sovereignty, political independence and national culture. The US has been described as the ‘First New Nation’ by Lipset (1963) and this is an important insight. The number of independent states remained fairly limited at the end of the 18th century and was reduced further in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The US was the first modern state to achieve independence from imperial rule, a precedent that was followed in most of the Americas by the 1820s. The US not only consolidated the state but developed representative institutions well in advance of Europe. Its distinctiveness was the reason de Tocqueville travelled to the US to study democracy. These cases provide far more significant insights into the nature of mass nationalism, national identity and nation building than the European cases often cited.
For me there are a number of salient questions issues when thinking about the Americas. I will however limit this to the United States. The first is the nature of political independence in the modern world and how the American experience framed subsequent discussion and mobilisation (even in Europe – see Italy and Ireland in particular). Was American nationalism in place when the US became independent or was it developed over time? Did the character of its nationalism change in response to political and social developments in a rapidly changing society? The second issue concerns nation-building. The US may have become independent in 1783 but nation-building was a much longer process, as proved to be the case in other post-colonial/post-imperial states. What was the character of this nation-building in the US and how was it promoted? The US and other American states (later also Canada) provide important cases to document how national foundations can be secured by nation-building. A further issue is how a fairly homogeneous state managed the mass emigration that characterised the US after 1840 (and is an important feature of states such as Argentina). What strategies if any were pursued to secure national integration and maintain the existing political culture?
The US provides an important case study for the relationship between democracy and nationalism. Nation-building and democracy accompanied one another during the 19th century (especially in the early decades). In most European cases, democratic reform followed the emergence of nationalism (due in part to the imperial nature of the European system until 1918). I acknowledge that the relationship between democracy and nationalism is complex but the US provides an opportunity to evaluate this relationship. Such a discussion provides an opportunity to evaluate the significance of democracy in the secession of the confederate states and the civil war that followed. Many post-colonial states have experienced civil war and here again the US is not exceptional.
The US case also allows us to explore the tensions between civic and ethnic conceptions of nationalism. Many interpretations would place the US squarely in the civic zone, but others have highlighted ethnic aspects to US nationalism. The nativism of the 19th century is but one example but the political stance of the Trump presidency is closer to an ethnic than a civic version of nationalism.
I do not believe there is a definitive answer to these questions and others will offer alternative examples or readings. What is important however is to place the US and the Americas at the centre of discussions of the origins and nature of nationalism since the 18th century.

Many thanks to all of our contributors who once again have offered up some fascinating ideas on the history of nationalism and left us with some real food for thought as we enter a new decade. This month we have discussed the role that the Americas have historically played in Nationalism Studies, and have heard that the Americas have - by and large - been overshadowed by Europe in discussions of nationalism. The United States in particular has been largely absent in the historiography of the field, and our contributors have suggested that this might be the result of a number of factors, ranging from the ‘nation of nations’ idea through to the supremacy of personhood over national identity that has historically been emphasised in the US. It is clear however that the field is turning towards the Americas as we enter a new decade, particularly as we see political nationalism on the rise in South America and North America alike.

Due to the unique cultural and political landscape of the Americas, there are many directions that this field can take. We have heard some fascinating suggestions and it is clear that further study of American nationalism will bring up some very interesting questions and some fascinating ideas. Of particular interest to me personally is the intersection of indigenous history and the history of nationalism in the Americas, and it will be fascinating to see how this field develops in the years to come.

Thank you once again for your support this month, and I would like to wish all of the QOTM readers Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year. We are very excited to continue our series in 2020, and we look forward to your responses as we launch our first question of the new year in a few days time.

Best wishes,

Simon Purdue
Series Editor

Just as end of year reflection, I remember a book that analyses American nationalism in quite an original way: Anatol Lieven. America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism.

And here is my succinct attempt to compare American and European nationalisms (as part of a broader discussion). 

Both these approaches precede, and somehow anticipate, the advent of Trumpism. Have a great New Year, Daniele