H-Nationalism Flash Interview with Luc Boeva and Louis Vos of NISE

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Flash Interview with Luc Boeva and Louis Vos of NISE, February 2015

H-Nationalism recently corresponded with Luc Boeva and Louis Vos about National movements & Intermediary Structures in Europe (NISE). NISE is supported by the ADVN, a government funded archival and research center in Antwerp, Belgium. The project includes a large, searchable database that is in development and a forthcoming searchable bibliography; a detailed description is available here. David Prior (DP), an Advisory Board Member at H-Nationalism, conducted the interview via email with Luc Boeva (LB), the Coordinator of NISE, and Louis Vos (LV), the Chairman of NISE and Emeritus Professor at the University of Leuven, from Tuesday, February 17 to Thursday, February 19, 2015.


DP: How did you become interested in developing NISE? 


LB & LV: In spite of numerous local conditions and historical variables, there are many parallels between national and regional movements. National symbols, discourses, and practices migrated across borders and were adapted to and appropriated in local contexts. Discourses of national uniqueness were forged through intense international exchanges and a common matrix of difference-making: transnational discourses shaped and legitimated nations across Europe and established their supposed differences. National ideologies cannot be understood but through their dialectical relationships with one another.

That was the reason the ADVN (archives and research centre for Flemish nationalism) recognized that the national movement in Flanders had to be studied in the context of other national movements. But the fact that national movements are pre-eminently transnational had so far been insufficiently reflected in the vast flood of publications, and there are relatively few studies about transnational influences and few empirically based comparisons. Comparative studies tend to be complicated, with language barriers and the unavailability of controlled and systematically presented data all contributing to the problem. Even contributions within the same volume rarely engage in straightforward comparative enquiries, but at best usually build only an inherent dialogue. Additionally, there has not been any coordinated effort on a European level to collect information on this subject. Moreover, because of the specific history of the origin and context of the sources, the preservation of those sources is exposed to a host of dangers.

We therefore decided to find researchers as well as research and heritage institutes to develop together a platform to facilitate internationally the comparative study of national movements: this is how NISE came about.


DP: How long has it taken to develop it? 


LB & LV: NISE was started in 2008, with the aim of building a database framework by 2012 – to compare controlled and structured data on national and regional movements and to stand at the center of all other activities – as well as an organizational and operational structure.

Building the database frame proved to take longer than anticipated: it will become available in September 2015. That allowed for more attention to other activities, all contributing to the main objective. This included events, projects, publications, and services (all documented on the NISE website). Events include: conferences (for instance on Heroes and Protagonists), NISELectures (so far by John Breuilly and Peter Aronsson), workshops (on choral societies and on the matica), and debates (for instance with Miroslav Hroch on the asynchronicity of national movements). The unavailability of a database frame, however, restricted projects so far to archival matters (resulting in for instance a guide to and a management manual for party archives). We collaborated to develop four kinds of publications: the series Proceedings, with the results of NISE events; Monographs and Essays, publishing research performed within the NISE framework and/or by NISE members (Anne-Marie Thiesse on the transnationality of Arts & Crafts and Joep Leerssen on Romantic Nationalism); an electronic newsletter, NISELetter; and the English language online scholarly journal Studies on National Movements or SNM, using the Open Journal Systems (OJS), with special attention for non-English-language work as well as heuristic and archival matters. Linked to it there is the new bibliographical instrument, developed in cooperation with the University of East London, called The State of Nationalism (SoN), under the direction of Eric Taylor Woods. It aims to provide a comprehensive guide to the study of nationalism, with critical reviews of key themes linked to a database of annotated bibliographies. All material published with SoN will be written by experts, peer-reviewed and open-source, and will also be regularly updated (SoN will launch in April 2015 at the ASEN Conference). Finally, there are the services NISE provides to organizations and people involved with national or regional movements: they pertain to record management and archival heritage (for instance the prospecting and retrieval of Kurdish archives) as well as information processing and historiographical output.

The interest among researchers in the association as well as systematic prospecting of institutes resulted in a rapidly increasing participation from all over Europe. This necessitated an organizational structure consisting of a Scientific Council of academics from different disciplines (history, sociology, political science, and cultural studies), the Network (of institutes, projects, and networks), a Coordination Centre (at and sustained by the ADVN in Antwerp), as well as Associated Members and Partners (organizations working ad-hoc with NISE). They gather once a year, with one of the Network-institutes acting as host, for an update on the development of NISE, as well as meetings, debates, lectures, conferences, and ‘networking’. The establishment in 2013 of a non-profit association under the same name provided NISE’s legal framework.


DP: What do you see as its core goals?


LB & LV: While continuing with the existing activities, with the database frame becoming operational this year, the focus can now be on NISE’s raison d’être: providing data for the comparative historiography of national and regional movements. Data input, as a result of links with other datasets and through unilateral activities, should take off, with a critical threshold of data reached in a few years for at least three separate subjects (one will be Hrochean stage B-periodicals). This will allow research on these topics, mapping personal and institutional relations among movements, and enabling researchers to study transfers of concepts, ideas, discourses, practices, strategies, symbols, etc. It will, moreover, facilitate more empirically-based theorizing.

Although NISE has organized all activities in cooperation with member-institutes, this next stage will better show NISE’s DNA. NISE is not a centrally led organization, nor a temporary project, but an association of scholars and research and heritage institutes, pooling their means whilst relying on a permanent coordination center and thus providing a scientific, professional environment to work in. To render the broadest possible comparative basis, ideally NISE membership should cover all national and regional movements in Europe. Also, symbiotic relations with initiatives like H-Nationalism have to be explored to arrive at a more internationally concerted or even integrated research landscape.


DP: Could you tell us a bit more about the range of variables that will be available for comparative studies once the database is fully operational? How many are there and what sort of factors do they address?


LB & LV: The database centers on intermediary structures (political parties, organizations, societies, etc., including the people involved) of national and regional movements. The data are structured into two interconnected entities: Organisations and Persons. Each entity contains twenty plus repeatable, authorized or free text fields. For instance, for Organisations this includes more than twenty different fields, from factual (for instance the names, now and historically, quantitative data, structure, legal status, etc.), to descriptive fields (profile, history) and through to the relational fields laying bare the contacts with persons. All this information can be linked with four other kinds of data (each of them also with approximately twenty repeatable, authorized or free text fields): archival (Archival Guide), bibliographical (Bibliography), institutional (Directory) and contextual (Compendium). The database will have encyclopedic, heuristic, and analytical uses, with the variables relating to political, social, economic, cultural, and all other issues connected to national and regional movements. The framework could also be used just to store data (and even for your eyes only), in anticipation of future research.


DP: Above you allude to the potential for the NISE database to reshape theoretical scholarship on nationalism. Could you expand on that point? You mention Miroslav Hroch’s work. Do you anticipate that the NISE database will enrich a specific set of debates? 


LB & LV: With the database, subsequent research should see theoretical advances based more than before on controlled and structured facts and figures, compared for a large area and over a long time period. For instance, you mentioned Miroslav Hroch. The research into what causes national movements from non-dominant ethnic groups to develop differently and at a pace different from each other, i.e. the study of their political and social dynamics, calls for sustained empirical research on their historical evolution. For instance one of the subjects selected for input is the role of patriotic periodicals during the ‘Hrochean’ stage B, about which many questions remain unanswered (such as the social stratification of the editors and the history of appropriation of national propaganda, myths, and hero worship).

The Scientific Council will increasingly provide the platform for setting out the data input strategy and contributing to the research agenda, as well as for shaping the theoretical framework for processing the gathered information. A project called Where to with nationalism research?, directed in close cooperation with NISE by professor Maarten Van Ginderachter from the University of Antwerp, will look at possible new avenues for theory formation. In the meantime, a number of subjects for the first multilateral input, i.e. research, are being considered. Proposals from your readers will of course be taken on board for evaluation. If nothing else, the database should enrich debates!


DP: This is a highly ambitious and innovative project. If one looks even further down the road, say ten years, does NISE have plans to further expand its activities?


LB & LV: Over the next ten years the emphasis will be on developing the data framework, as well as the recurring activities – the publication series, etc. – that have been in place since the start. So it will be about deepening rather than expanding. For the database the crux will lie with attaining coherent datasets, doing research with the help of them, and drawing conclusions at the end of the process. The auxiliary tools, for instance the SoN, will also develop their full potential.

Nevertheless, there indeed will be a need for some form of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ expansion. The former pertains to the consolidation of funding besides that for the Coordination Centre, as well as an increasingly pro-active participation by all member-institutes. The latter not only concerns coordinating coverage of all national and regional movements in Europe, but also a more integrated cooperation with websites, journals, programs, etc. on nationalism. Here, NISE would be happy to play a catalyzing role. In the meantime, any researcher or research and/or heritage institute interested in cooperation is of course welcome to contact the coordinator (luc.boeva@nise.eu).