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Do we need definitions of the “nation”?

January 8, 2010

Original Message
Received: Thu, 07 Jan 2010 10:12:52 PM GMT
From: “Alexander Maxwell” <…>
Date: Mon, January 4, 2010 5:32 pm

Dear List Serve Members,

Those of you interested in the recent query concerning definitions of nations and nationalism will find the below response offers much to think about. Many thanks to Alexander Maxwell for taking the time to write in. H-Nationalism welcomes email responses to either the original query or the thesis advanced below. For those interested in Brubaker’s approach, I might also recommend the following review of one of his most recent works:

Zsuzsa Csergo, “Review Essay: Do we need a language shift in the study of nationalism and ethnicity? Reflections on Rogers Brubaker’s critical scholarly agenda,” _Nations and Nationalism_ 14 (April 2008): 393-398

Alexander Maxwell’s Post:


My approach to Mark Teel’s query would be to question its premises. Rogers Brubaker, who in my sense of things currently constitutes the cutting edge of nationalism theory, dispenses entirely with the “nation” as an analytical term, effectively circumventing the endless debate over definitions. He writes:

“One does not have to take a category inherent in the practice of nationalism – the realist, reifying conception of nations as real communities – and make this category central to the theory of nationalism.”

Brubaker proposes instead that we study “appeals and claims made in the name of putative ‘nations’.” He specifically suggests research questions
such as:

“How does the nation work as a practical category, as classificatory scheme, as cognitive frame? What makes the use of that category by or against states more or less resonant or effective? What makes the nation-evoking, nation-invoking efforts of political entrepreneurs more or less likely to succeed?”

Rephrasing Brubaker’s insight specifically to address Mark Teel’s concerns: our goal is not to find the best definition of the “nation”, but to ask how historical or political actors define the nation, and why.

It may be helpful to make an analogy with religion. Understanding Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits would require an engagement with their understanding of Christianity. Understanding Martin Luther would similarly require an engagement with his version of Christianity. Yet there’d be no need to take a stance on whose definition of Christianity was correct, or indeed any need to discuss what “true christianity” would be. Readers with strong opinions about Christianity may substitute Islam, Hinduism, or other religions as appropriate: one need not be a Muslim to study religious conflicts in the Islamic world. Similarly, to study various nationalist movements, one must engage with various national concepts, but there’s no need to decide whose definitions are “correct.”

Alexander Maxwell, Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand)


Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 16.

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