CFP - The Nation and the Not-Quite-Nation: Empirically-Based Definitions in Nationalism Studies

Alexander Maxwell's picture
Call for Papers
April 30, 2019
New Zealand
Subject Fields: 
African History / Studies, Asian History / Studies, Islamic History / Studies, Nationalism History / Studies, World History / Studies

Many scholars have discussed the notorious difficulty of defining the words “nation” and “nationalism.” Many schools of thought exist; overviews of the various approaches themselves form a significant scholarly literature. Some approaches rely on terminological differentiation: both scholars and historical actors have suggested distinguishing the “nation” from e.g. a “nationality,” an “ethnic group” (or ethnie), a “race,” a “people,” and so forth. Both scholars and historical actors have also proposed distinguishing “nationalism” from “patriotism,” “regionalism,” etc. 


Advocates of terminological differentiation typically justify their preferred definitions with an appeal to unambiguity. To prevent confusion, advocates call for clear and precise usage, state their preferred definition, and, typically, provide examples of what they think counts as a nation, an ethnic group, and so on, according to the specifics of their theory. Some such authors also pose as terminological authority figures, denouncing alternate usages as “incorrect,” or as the conscious “misuse of terminology.”


For anglophone scholars with global interests, an emphasis on terminological exactitude raises problems of translation. The voluminous nationalism theory written in English contains several outstanding studies, but scholars may struggle to apply terminological distinctions originally expressed in English in a different linguistic context. English and German are closely related languages, yet the German word Volk, famously, has no true English equivalent. How then do the terminological distinctions of Anglophone nationalism theorists apply in wholly alien linguistic contexts, e.g. in sub-Saharan Africa or South-East Asia? Dictionaries and similar reference works, furthermore, provide no real guidance: the finer nuances of nationalism theory require scholars of nationalism to justify their terminological choices with something more than an appeal to lexicographers.


This project approaches both the problem of definition and the problem of translation, with an empirical strategy: it analyzes denials and affirmations of nationhood. Following Rogers Brubaker’s advice to study “appeals and claims made in the name of putative ‘nations’,” it treats the “nation” primarily as a rhetorical device used to legitimate political demands. Nationalists typically invoke the nation, or claim to speak in its name, so the historical record contains several instances where intellectuals and politicians deny the status of “nation” to their opponents. Such denials of nationhood seem typically to acknowledge the existence only of what we might theorize and generalize as “not-quite-nations”: “peoples,” “ethnicities,” and so forth. Nationalists, in turn, insist that their preferred community qualifies as a “nation.” Such struggles show how the “nation” is imagined in any particular context.


A concrete example may illustrate the phenomenon. The relatively liberal 1978 Spanish constitution acknowledged the (plural) “pueblos of Spain” and granted autonomy to the “nacionalidades,” but proclaimed an indivisible Spanish “natión.” In response to the Catalan parliament’s 2006 passed a law proclaiming a Catalan natió, furthermore, the Spanish supreme court declared in 2010 that Catalonia is “not a nación in the sense that Spain is, but a nacionalidad.” Clearly, the status of natión / natió possesses some singular importance as a fount of legitimacy and authority that no mere pueblo or nacionalidad can rival. In the Spanish / Catalan case, of course, etymological similarity already suggested natión / natió as the equivalent terms for “nation,” but etymology may mislead. Conflict over the right to apply the term, I argue, provides empirical evidence.


This empirical technique perhaps shows its value when applied to a linguistic context without congnates. Nationalists in nineteenth-century Hungary, for example, repeatedly denied that the Kingdom’s Slovak or Romanian minority qualified as a nemzet. Hungarian patriots variously admitted that Slovaks, say, qualified as a nép, a nemzetiség, a faj, or a népfaj, but insisted on restricting the nemzet, because they viewed the nemzet as a locus of sovereignty capable of posing legitimate demands. Therefore, nemzet is the Hungarian word “nation,” and the nép, nemzetiség, and faj are “not-quite-nations,” much like the nacionalidad and the pueblo. Romanian and Slovak intellectuals, for their part, vigorously claimed the status of naţiune and národ, respectively.


In general, therefore, studying nationalism in a new linguistic context should look for the word that political leaders insist applies to their group, or that their enemies insist does not apply. Scholars will probably find that intellectuals or politicians in any given society use several terms that denote groups of people, possibly analogous to nation, people, ethnicity, race, or possibly with connotations that would appear idiosyncratic when measured against possible English equivalents. These terms might be generalized as word1, word2, word3, and so forth. But if historical or political actors say “our country has contains many word3s, but only one word2,” or of some minority community “the are a word1, not a word2,” it seems that word2 deserves scholarly attention: whichever word people are fighting over, this project suggests, is the key term for thinking about nationalism in any particular linguistic or socio-political context.


Examining further case studies might alter or invalidate the model proposed above. How well does the model fit the Middle East, where some relevant terms have confessional resonances (e.g. umma, millet, goy)? In those colonial societies where loanwords from colonizing powers transformed the political lexicon, might terminological struggles have special characteristics? Do terminologies in English pidgins differ from Anglo-American terminology? Are there cases where patriots seek to deny or affirm more than one word at once? As for those cases consistent with the model, what do they tell us in aggregate?


The project seeks to bring together several studies using this empirical approach into a single book. Contributions should consider the variety of possible terms current in some particular historical context, analyze historical actors who deny or insist upon particular words, and draw conclusions about the nature of “nationalism” in their particular context. Focus on a particular case study. The title should have the structure “The [word for ‘nation’] in [place], [date range],” e.g. “The nació in Catalonia, 2005-2010,” or “The nemzet in Hungary, 1825-1867.” If your objects of study mention any “not-quite-nations,” discuss the relevant terms. Please send a single paragraph of c. 100 words about your case study, and a one-line biography listing your affiliation. Final contributions should be around 5,000 words in length, though the length might be negotiable for a scholar proposing a comparative chapter (e.g. “The Umma in Kuwait and Bahrain,” “The taifa in Kenya and Tanzania”).  Interested contributors should approach the editor about potential case studies as sooner rather than later to make sure their case study has not already been taken.


I have explored several publication venues, but publishers need a list of abstracts before they can respond. The number and diversity of submissions will determine whether this project would work better as a book, or as a themed issue of a journal. If published as a book, the contributions should have a global scope, for which I am particularly seeking contributions from lesser-studied linguistic contexts. I am interested in European case studies, but contributions from lesser-studied cases in Africa, the Islamic World, South Asia, or South-East Asia, or from lesser-studied indigenous communities would be particularly welcome.


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Contact Info: 

Alexander Maxwell
Victoria University of Wellington - History