Nations and nationalism from the margins. A research agenda

Since the paradigmatic shift towards constructivism and modernism in the 1980s and 1990s, research on nations and nationalism has been undeniably innovated, but at the same time it has lost much of its original drive. Conceptual debates, like those on the constructedness and antiquity of nations, mimic older polemics, while many case studies tend to be repetitive. This collaborative project wants to innovate nations and nationalism research ‘from three margins’:

  1. Thematically
    studying groups that are not part of national(ist) movements, have resisted national integration and/or have been neglected by scholars.
  2. Methodologically and heuristically
    reframing nations and nationalism from outside nationalism studies (e.g. urban history, ethnomethodology), bringing together scholars from diverse fields (e.g. history, political science, sociology, anthropology, literary studies, etc.), using original or underused sources.
  3. Geographically
    integrating and comparing ‘marginal’ cases that are often neglected because most research focuses on the well-known larger cases.

In order to further this research agenda, we are organising four intensive workshops from 2016 through 2018 resulting in four edited volumes or themed issues of journals. The following themes will be dealt with:

  1. Breaching banal nationalism
  2. National indifference
  3. Emotions and everyday nationhood
  4. Rethinking civic vs. ethnic nationalism

The first three of these workshops are on the crucial issue of what might be called the ‘nationalisation of the world’ in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, or the general spread of feelings of national distinctiveness across ever broader reaches of society. How ‘ordinary people’ have come to identify with the nation remains one of the most elusive issues in nations and nationalism research.

The first two workshops are in a sense different sides of the same coin. Michael Billig’s theory of banal nationalism holds that the self-evident and almost unnoticed omnipresence of nationalist discourses and practices in the public realm signals a broad society-wide interiorisation of nationalist premises. The concept of ‘national indifference’, however, implies the opposite. Very strong nationalist discourses and practices may in fact cause counterproductive reactions of ‘national indifference’ among the populace. The impact of banal nationalism on ‘ordinary people’ needs to be examined more thoroughly. This is not only the aim of the first two workshops, but also of the third, which will focus on the personal and individual dimension of collective national identifications. The last workshop tackles the crucial distinction of civic vs. ethnic forms of nations and nationalism.

This project is coordinated by the POHIS-Centre for political history of Antwerp University and funded by the ‘International Scientific Research’ program of the Research Foundation of Flanders.