Question of the Month - February

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 Scholars,

We hope the new year has started positively and productively for you all. We started 2020 with a great conversation on the role of emotion and affect in the study of nationalism, and we hope to follow it up with another fascinating discussion. This month we are tackling a difficult and controversial question about ideology, essentially asking what nationalism means and what it’s limits are, assessing whether certain movements that identify as nationalist can in fact accurately use that label. To that end this month we are asking:

How do ideologies that package together ideas of transnational racial exclusivity with the language of nationalism (i.e. white nationalism, black nationalism, pan-Asianism, etc) fit into our understanding of how nationalism operates? Can we accurately describe these ideologies as 'nationalisms' or are they something different? What scholarship would you recommend that deals with the question of racial nationalisms?

As always we look forward to hearing your comment and ideas on another interesting Question of the Month.

Kind Regards,

Simon Purdue, series editor

Dear All, 

The question of the relationship between notions of national identity and racial discourses is a good one. It makes me think in particular of our earlier discussion in this series of the current scholarly emphasis on the transnational nature of nationalism--of how it spreads across borders and takes shape from international developments and contexts.

Along these lines... To the extent that the first nationalisms emerged in western European states that were also transatlantic empires with slaveholding colonies built on the expropriation of indigenous lands, I think there is a good case that the social imaginaries of the nation have always been entwined with those of race.  There is of course an important set of debates about how exactly to define race as a historical concept and whether racial discourse necessarily implies a fully-fledged theory of inherited and immutable biological difference. If one accepts that latter definition, it's difficult, I think, to write of "race" as being a powerful idea before the mid 19th century. But it is clear, certainly in the case of North America, that prejudices grounded in notions of bodily difference well preceded the more elaborate theories associated with, say, the polygenists or Darwin.  

So all that is to say that many of the current movements and forms of explicit political consciousness that reference transnational groups associated with putative races represent a much longer history of racial and national discourses being mutually constitutive. In that sense, I think the broader field of nationalism studies has to engage with the history of race. Certainly in the case of this history of the United States, one can see how the modern "white nationalists" and are part of a much longer history running back to the origins of the country in which "American" and "white" were often used interchangeably.  

I am currently teaching a graduate readings course on race and region in colonial North America and the United States, and so have been pondering these issues for the last several weeks. One strategy I have opted in the course is to pair readings on recent history, say Kathleen Belew's Bring the War Home on the white power movement or Peniel Joseph's Waiting 'til the Midnight Hour on black power with articles focusing on the 16th-18th centuries. That makes the coures an exercise in part in thinking about racism's long history, including its imbrication with notions of nationality. 

Kind Regards, 

Dave Prior

Hi David, you mention "the current scholarly emphasis on the transnational nature of nationalism". I would appreciate it very much if you could list some titles of that scholarship. Thank you. Sincerely, L. Ben Rejeb, University of Ottawa.

Dear Lotfi, 

The original discussion on this theme is available interspersed in the comments here:

That doesn't offer a comprehensive bibliography, but might offer some helpful leads. In terms of my own area of research (The Civil War-era U.S.), I could point you to works such as: 

Don Doyle's The Cause of All Nations

Paul Quigley's essay “Secessionists in an Age of Secession: The Slave South in Transatlantic Perspective,” in Secession as an International Phenomenon, ed. Don H. Doyle (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010), 151-173.

Enrico Dal Lago's The Age of Lincoln and Cavour

Timothy Mason Robert's Distant Revolutions

Andre Fleche's The Revolution of 1861

And, with humility, my own Reconstruction in a Globalizing World ( Between Freedom and Progress ( 

I'm not sure those will line up with your own interests, but they are the works that come most readily to my mind. 

Kind Regards, 




Thank you, Dave. Much appreciated.