Eras Journal – Barrer, P: Review of “History and National Destiny: Ethnosymbolism and its Critics”, Montserrat Guibernau and John Hutchinson (eds)
Montserrat Guibernau and John Hutchinson (eds), History and National Destiny: Ethnosymbolism and its Critics,
Blackwell, Oxford, 2004
Since the so-called ‘Age of Nationalism’ in Europe, the ‘nation’ has become one of the primary bases of social structure, political mobilisation and identity formation in the contemporary world. Yet the term is a polemical one for academic purposes and a universally accepted definition remains elusive. Students of nationalism are presented with contrasting approaches claiming validity and relevance in the era of globalisation. National identity certainly no longer lends itself to the rigid labelling of the past: a British-born, French-speaking Indian or an American-educated Russian-born New Zealander, may after all feel a part of multiple national communities, or indeed of none. A scholarly approach to contemporary national identity thus requires flexibility within its definitions and the acknowledgment that the ‘nation’, however one wishes to define it, is an abstract and mutable form of identity.
As presented in the seminal works of Anthony D. Smith, ethnosymbolism is an approach attempting to bridge past and present by arguing that modern nations have a social and cultural core centred upon the myths, memories, symbols and traditions of pre-national ethnies : “named human populations with shared ancestry, myths, histories and cultures, having an association with a specific territory and a sense of solidarity” (p.125). This approach places itself in the middle of preceding the debate between starkly opposed modernist and perennialist paradigms. The book under review,History and National Destiny: Ethnosymbolism and its Critics, edited by Monserrat Guibernau and John Hutchinson, examines ethnosymbolism in a collection of thirteen articles which tackle the theoretical considerations and ramifications of ethnosymbolism within applied contexts, submitting the approach to both praise and open criticism in the process.
The profuse usage of flattering adjectives, such as:”groundbreaking”, “path-breaking”, “enlightening”, “illuminating”,”thought-provoking” and “extraordinary” illustrate quite clearly the esteem in which Smith is held by his peers. Yet despite all this academic back slapping, there is plenty of criticism. One of the most critical assessments of Smith’s approach unsurprisingly comes from his long-standing opponent, Walker Connor, who, in his chapter entitled “The Timelessness of Nations “ , takes issue with Smith’s definition of the nation as “a named human population occupying an historic territory, and sharing myths, memories, a single public culture and common rights and duties for all members” (p.37). For Connor, Smith’s nation is too supple – a criticism which also forms the centrepiece of Monserrat Guibernau’s contribution. Yet Connor’s own essentialist definition of the nation as “a group of people sharing a myth of common ancestry and the largest grouping that can be mobilised by appeals to a common blood” (p.39), is surely far too rigid for the present day and is entirely dismissive of the symbolic bonds, common allegiances and collective cultural practices that members of a non-homogenous society (such as Australia) collectively engage in. In short, Connor is unconvincing.
While recognising the ethnie as an antecedent of the nation, John Armstrong’s contribution “Definitions, Periodization, and Prospects for the longue durée“, questions whether the ethnie is necessary to nation formation. One cogent argument he offers highlights the ‘new-world’ nations of Australia, Canada and Brazil as cases where political nations were formed prior to the ethnies which now form these nations’ overarching cultural identity. Engaging in a theme touched upon by Armstrong, Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s ” Place, Kinship and the Case for Non-ethnic Nations” examines the potential for ‘non-ethnic’ nations and builds upon Smith’s six dimensions of ethnie (a collective name, a common myth of descent, a shared history, a distinctive shared culture, an association with a specific territory and a sense of solidarity), by adding two more -interpersonal networks and contrast - in an effort to make Smith’s approach less reliant upon historical phenomena and more inclusive of contemporary imagined communities.
Bruce Cauthen’s “Covenant and Continuity: Ethnosymbolism and the Myth of Divine Election” focuses on the aspects of myth within the ethnosymbolic model and places great weight upon the role of religion within contemporary nationalisms. Through a lucid case study of American political rhetoric and foreign policy, Cauthen enforces the point that religion is a significant part of the contemporary ideological nation. Given the current global political climate, this article is one of acute relevance.
Joshua A. Fishman’s “Ethnicity and Supra-ethnicity in Corpus Planning: The Hidden Status Agenda in Corpus Planning” is an examination of the ideological nation within language and is one of the less accessible contributions due to its theoretical complexity. Nonetheless, Fishman skilfully displays the linguistic dimensions of contemporary nationalism through the manipulation of status language planning by cultural and political elites in times of crisis and change. Particularly interesting are the Einbau and Ausbau processes – the latter referring to the intentional ‘building away’ of one language from a dominant Other, such as in the cases of Urdu from Hindi and Croatian from Serbian, as a means of legitimising a contested nationhood.
Central Europe is a favourite stomping ground of ethnosymbolism and Miroslav Hroch’s “From Ethnic Group toward the Modern Nation: The Czech Case”, which outlines the Czech national movement’s expansion from intellectual circles to political agitation in the 19th century, would read more or less the same for other national contexts in the region. John Hutchinson similarly tackles the movement towards political agitation in “Myth against Myth: The Nation as Ethnic Overlay” and illustrates how mythmaking processes are overlaid with existing ethnic identities within contested terrains to create reinforced, combative and potentially explosive perceptions of ‘national’ difference. Hutchinson effectively argues for the currency of ethnosymbolism in the present day and stresses that while contemporary nationalism draws significantly from the past, it is not necessarily stuck there.
Mary Kaldor (“Nationalism and Globalisation”) and Stein Tønneson (“Globalising National States”) both consider ethnosymbolism within the context of globalisation. Kaldor vigorously defends the modernist paradigm (as represented by Ernest Gellner’s functionalist perception of the nation as a purely political project) and raises doubts about the historical dimensions of ethnosymbolism (la longue durée). Kaldor effectively inverts Smith’s assertion of there being a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the nation because of affiliation to a ‘sacred community’ and suggests instead that it is war itself which constructs nationalism – a point demonstrated most effectively through her brief analyses of post-Cold War developments in the former Yugoslavia, Palestine, India and the United States. Tønneson’s article looks at the emergence of ‘market nationalism’ as a contemporary survival strategy for national identity, whereby myths of nationhood are made into something resembling the ‘brand essences’ of commercial advertising. In the concluding “History and National Destiny: Responses and Clarifications”, Smith reaffirms his own stance before dealing with the various criticisms, especially those of Connor and Guibernau.
Being the first book dedicated to a critical evaluation of the ethnosymbolic approach, History and National Destiny: Ethnosymbolism and its Critics is useful reading for students interested in the theories of nationalism. However, the increasingly complicated attempts by contributors to develop universally acceptable definitions does little more than betray the hidden complexity of such a task. While the nations of Europe are easily explained through the ethnosymbolic approach, African and South Asian notions of national identity are perhaps better served by the modernist paradigm. There really is no ‘one size fits all’ definition of the nation – human society is far too complex for that. Who would have thought one little word could cause so much chatter. The debates will no doubt continue.