The Resurgence of Nationalism: A Social Science Perspective


 The most well-known definition of nationalism was proposed by Professor Anthony Smith (2001) who defined it as “an ideological movement for attaining and maintaining autonomy, unity, and identity for a population which some of its members deem to constitute an actual or potential ‘nation’.” Nationalism, such defined, is gaining momentum globally in the form of populist leaders, independence movements, and communal identities. A critical analysis of nationalism from the lenses of social science— sociology, psychology, and anthropology— lends a unique perspective.

The basic insight of sociology is that human behavior is shaped by the groups to which people belong and by the social interaction that takes place within those groups (Robertson, 1984). Moreover, agents of socialization conduct an individual in the process of internalizing the norms and ideologies of society (Clausen, 1968). As a result, from the perspective of a sociologist, nationalism is best analyzed by observing the social agents that contribute to the emergence and continuity of nationalist movements.

Considered the most fundamental agent of socialization, an individual’s family plays an extensive role in establishing overarching beliefs and values. Families are faced with the responsibility of raising individuals with an appropriate understanding of race, ethnicity and national identity. Often, biases and bigoted beliefs of parents engender nationalist attitudes in children. According to a study, “Parents with higher levels of private regard or pride…and nationalist ideology are more likely to give racial socialization messages [to children].(Thomas, Speight and Witherspoon, 2010)”

 Racial socialization is defined as “the developmental processes by which children acquire the behaviors, perceptions, values, and attitudes of an ethnic group and come to see themselves and others as members of the group” (Rotherman and Phiney, 1987). Focused on ethnicity, such an upbringing highlights nationalist views and encourages a skeptical outlook towards foreign cultures. Racial socialization also gives rise to individuals identifying themselves by their membership in a particular group. This concept is explained by Henri Tajfel’s social identity theory. The theory hypothesizes that individuals enhance the status of the groups they belong to in order to increase self-worth. This is in line with nationalist ideology which propagates a particular culture as superior to others.  

Rising nationalist sentiments are also exacerbated by mass media, another key agent of socialization. Mass media and nationalism have been intertwined for as long as they have existed (Roosvall, 2015). During World War 2, the introduction of propaganda to recruit young soldiers was especially effective at proliferating a sense of national unity. To this day, the use of mass media and propaganda to incite nationalism is used routinely by authoritarian states such as Turkey, Venezuela, and North Korea.

Image result for north korea soldiers

Propounded by Karl Marx, conflict theory argues that disputes in society originate because of competition for limited resources. Many emerging nationalist movements function according to this theory. For example, a critical reason the nationalist movement of Catalonia originated is economic. According to Spanish economist Elisenda Paluzie, “Catalan residents represent about 16 percent of the country’s population. Yet these same residents contribute 20 percent of Spain’s taxes and then receive only 14 percent back for public expenses” (Benavides, 2017). If it operated independently, Catalonia would retain its wealth. Moreover, if it were to secede, “they [Spain] lose a territory that’s relatively rich and contributes a lot to taxes.” Therefore, as explained by conflict theory, a fierce competition for resources dictates Catalonia nationalist movement.

Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Since psychology is a science, it attempts to investigate the causes of behavior using objective procedures for analysis, backed-up by theoretical explanations (McLeod, 1970). From the perspective of a psychologist, nationalism should ideally be explained by addressing the cognitive factors that allow people to adopt nationalist ideologies.

A leading behavioral psychologist of his time, Abraham Maslow proposed his theory of the hierarchy of needs in his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation. His theory is often represented as a five-level pyramid with higher needs coming into focus only once lower, more basic needs are met. For many, the pursuit of nationalist ideologies attempts to satisfy the three intermediate levels (deficiency needs). Nationalist thinking often gives rise to secessionist movements. Notable examples include the Timorese, Catalonian and Kurdish Independence movement. For the individuals involved, a successful movement yields what Maslow classifies as “basic needs”: safety and security. For example, if successful, the Kurdish movement promises a stable homeland to refugees. Moreover, the pursuit of nationalism gives individuals a sense of belongingness. For instance, in the Catalonian independence movement, over 2 million people could unite behind a common cause to develop a sense of community and purpose (Sanz, 2017). Lastly, successful nationalist movements instill a feeling of prestige and accomplishment within individuals, as evident in the prosperity felt in Timor-Leste after its secession from Indonesia in 2002 (Stein, 2016).

Image result for hierarchy of needs

Modern psychologists agree that nationalism is a behavior which is learned and acquired. Moreover, nationalism is a conditioned behavior to authority (Norbu, 1992). Almost all states incite some extent of nationalist behavior. For example, the association of a flag and anthem to one’s identity is a common way of conditioning citizens to a general sense of national unity. Presently, totalitarian states such as North Korea have a deeply-rooted, systemic approach at conditioning citizens to adopt nationalist ideologies. In some cases, such as the aforementioned, the extent of conditioning is so extensive that individuals internalize these sentiments in their emotional subconscious. In these cases, domestic and foreign culture is perceived as dichotomous. The sharp contrast between the two is observed when people exhibit ingroup favoritism and outgroup derogation.

In-group favoritism refers to behavior that elicits preferential treatment among members of the same group. This benefits states as it promotes national unity and a sense of community. In-group favoritism played a crucial role during World War 2 when Allied states needed wartime attitude to be patriotic. In contrast, outgroup derogation refers to behavior that elicits discrimination of groups an individual does not belong to. For example, the Nazis persecuted millions of people for the sole reason that they did not belong to the “master race” of the Nazis. In a modern context, outgroup derogation is also the reason that countries with right-wing nationalist governments largely refuse to provide asylum to refugees and immigrants (Polakow-Suransky, 2017).

Image result for nazis

Anthropology is the study of various aspects of humans within past and present societies (Oxford, 2015). Cultural anthropologists use different facets of a society’s culture to explain trends in its behavior. From the perspective of an anthropologist, nationalism should be explained by analyzing the cultural and societal elements which lead people to adopt such an ideology.

Race plays a substantial role in defining nationalists agendas. Racial nationalism is the most ubiquitous of communal identities and is found all over the world. It is the belief that each country is associated with a race; that it is therefore threatened by the arrival or rise to power of different people; and that the country’s problems can be solved by preventing their arrival, ascent or empowerment (Saunders, 2016).
The rise of racial nationalism in the last decade has manifested itself in several xenophobic political actions. Most notably, racial nationalism was the guiding principle behind U.S President Donald Trump’s implementation of Executive Order 13769 titled “Protecting the Nation From Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals.” The policy banned immigrants and refugees from 7 Muslim countries to enter the United States. Moreover, it outlined that “Christians and others from minority religions be granted priority over Muslims” (Michael D. Shear and Helene Cooper, 2017). The decision was met with extensive condemnation from human rights groups all over the world who termed it as, “religious persecution.”

Image result for muslim ban

Ethnocentrism is defined as “judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture” (Omohundro, 2008).  Ethnocentric beliefs have become a large part of a nationalist worldview. Together, ethnocentric nationalism is a political and social construct that refers to the antagonistic and destructive actions as well as the mistrust between groups divided into ethnic lines (Dolo, n.d). According to Delmar (2016), a prominent example is “Quebec’s sovereignty movement, particularly within the Parti Québécois, [which has] promoted soft ethnocentric nationalism in recent years.”

Language is a fundamentally important element of human race and culture. Consequently, it has also become an overarching theme in nationalist movements. For example, language became a pivotal reason behind Catalonia’s nationalist movement.  Enric Ucelay-Da Cal, a Barcelona-based historian, and expert on the Catalan independence movement says “Basque nationalism is ethnicity. But this, it’s basically a language movement. We are Catalans because we speak Catalan.” (Frayer, 2017).

Cultural relativism is an anthropological theory that proposes that the values, knowledge, and behavior of people must be understood within their own cultural context. It is significant that The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought (2006) credits Johann Gottfried Herder, a German philosopher, with the development of both ‘cultural relativism’ and ‘modern nationalism’ (Spencer, n.d). The two concepts operate in parallel as they are “drawn on the same concepts of  culture as a totality of shared meaning to a delineated…population.” (Sterri, 2014) A culturally relativistic description of nationalism would acknowledge that nationalist movements and the rationale behind each should be considered relative to its culture- even if it seems bizarre from the viewpoint of the status quo. For example, the Taliban is an Islamic militant group in the Middle East that functions on the notion of Pashtun nationalism. They seek to impose strict sharia law and use force against those that disagree with their motives. While most Western institutions define their actions as “barbaric” and even “draconian,” a culturally relativistic explanation would differ (Johnson, n.d). Such an explanation would acknowledge the cultural norms and religious interpretations held by the Taliban they use to justify their behavior. Moreover, a culturally relativistic explanation would note that judging Taliban practices from Western standards would lead to an unfair comparison.

Image result for taliban

Throughout the next decade, nationalism will continue to grow at unprecedented rates. Ultimately, nationalism is an element in a broader geopolitical wave that encompasses the political rebuke of electorates who feel neglected. Understanding nationalism and the reasons that cause it gives policymakers an indispensable tool for understanding the political dynamics of a country.

Works Cited

Benavides, L. (n.d.). The big reason Catalonia wants to secede may be economic: it’s one of the richest regions in Spain. Retrieved December 30, 2017, from

Macionis, J. J. (2014). Sociology. Boston: Pearson College.

Clausen, J. A. (1968). Socialization and society. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

Dan Delmar, Special to Montreal Gazette. (2016, July 03). Dan Delmar: Brexit a warning for ‘Quexit’ on the perils of ethnocentric nationalism. Retrieved December 30, 2017, from

Dolo, E. T. (n.d.). Ethnic Tensions in Liberia’s National Identity Crisis: Problems and Possibilities.

Donald Trump proves racial nationalism is alive and well. (2017, March 24). Retrieved December 30, 2017, from

Frayer, L. (2017, September 29). For Catalonia’s Separatists, Language Is The Key To Identity. Retrieved January 01, 2018, from

Hornby, A. S., & Deuter, M. (2015). Oxford advanced learners dictionary of current English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, B. (n.d.). What is the History of the Taliban? Retrieved January 01, 2018, from

John T. Omohundro (2008). Thinking like an Anthropologist: A practical introduction to Cultural Anthropology. McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-07-319580-4.

Learn About Kurdish Nationalism. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2017, from

McLeod, S. (1970, January 01). Saul McLeod. Retrieved December 30, 2017, from

Media and Nationalism. (2014, March 06). Retrieved December 30, 2017, from

Michael D. Shear and Helene Cooper. (2017, January 27). Trump Bars Refugees and Citizens of 7 Muslim Countries. Retrieved December 30, 2017, from

Nationalism and family ideology: The case of Lithuania at the turn of the 20th century. (2006, August 09). Retrieved December 30, 2017, from

Norbu, D. (1992). Culture and the politics of third world nationalism. London: Routledge.

Polakow-Suransky, S. (2017, October 12). How Europe’s far right fell in love with Australia’s immigration policy. Retrieved January 01, 2018, from

Racial Socialization, Racial Identity, and Race-Related Stress of African American Parents. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2017, from

Roosvall, A. (2015, December 30). Media and Nationalism. Retrieved December 30, 2017, from

Rotherman, M., & Phinney, J. (1987). Introduction: Definitions and perspectives in the study of children’s ethnic socialization. In J. Phinney & M. Rotherman (Eds.), Children’s ethnic socialization: Pluralism and development (pp. 10-28). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Sanz;, I. (2017, October 01). Catalan government says 90 percent voted to leave Spain. Retrieved December 30, 2017, from

Smith, A. D. (1993). National identity. Reno: Univ. of Nevada Press.

Sociological Perspective | SUNY Geneseo. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2017, from

Spencer, V. A. (n.d.). Herder’s Political Thought: A Study of Language, Culture, and Community.

Stein, C. (2016, May 09). Successful Secessionist Movements and the Uncertainty of Post-Secession Quality of Life. Retrieved December 30, 2017, from

Sterri, A. B. (2014). Global Citizen – Challenges and Responsibility in an Interconnected World. Sense.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s