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Is National Identity a Social Construct?

Eoin is an Undergraduate student studying Geography in the National University of Ireland Galway.

The Nation as an Imagined Community

There are two differing viewpoints when it comes to establishing the origin of national identity:

Perennialist theorists assert that national identity, along with the nation, is socially constructed. They view the nation as a product of modernity and therefore national identity as something which is not inherently linked to us but rather owing its origins to pre-modern ethnic groups.

Primordialist theorists, on the other hand, believe that the nation is intrinsic to us and that those living in the nation-state all share a common national heritage as well as genealogical linkage.

Benedict Anderson's book, Imagined Communities, provided compelling insight as to which of the two theories were the stronger. Judging by the title, it is evident that Anderson himself fell on the side of perennialist theorists. Anderson identified several interesting anomalies to support the assertion that nationhood is not genealogically linked to us.

Anderson outlined how Nations view themselves as having ancient origins, yet their formation has been a somewhat relatively recent development in society. This conclusion does not support the premordialist theorist's perspectives of the nation as always having existed and being naturally a part of us.

The earliest emergence of anything like the nation state was in the 16th century. However, most nations in Europe did not form until as late as the 19th century, and some formed even later again with the Republic of Ireland not forming until the 20th century. That highlights how recent the development of the nation is.

Anderson further went on to state that nations are imagined communities wherein the people believe that there are other members of the nation who share in their beliefs and hold the same vested interests in the nation despite having never met each other or know of the existence of each other.

These people imagine that other members of the nation carry out the same day to day tasks as them, for example, they read the same national newspaper, watch the same national news on the television, support the same national sports teams and celebrate the same national holidays.

Anderson postulated that in doing all those things, members of a nation imagined themselves to be part of a community. Anderson also believed that the rise of capitalism along with increased public awareness of political affairs and the invention of print languages were all crucial if the nation was to imagine itself.

Why National Identity is a Social Construct

Here are two reasons to think that national identity is, in fact, a social construct:

  • It did not always exist: National identity did not always exist; therefore, at some point, it was constructed. Neanderthals were not carrying around the Stars and Stripes in our species' primal stages. They were hunter-gatherers trying to survive and find a partner to procreate. Issues of sovereignty and patriotism were not high on their agendas. They did not view themselves as having a specific nationality because they had none to possess. The idea of the Nation or anything of such nature was not constructed until much later.
  • It is a performance: National identity has to be continuously represented, performed and maintained using social and political constructs. This process requires the creation of shared heritage between all members of a nation. Politics, economics and culture are all crucial when it comes to constructing this shared heritage, and therefore they are crucial to creating national identity.

Understanding Nationalism, National Identity and the State Through The Words of Ernest Gellner

To speak about nationalism and not mention Ernest Gellner would be in poor taste. Gellner was a true philosopher and social anthropologist, having made one of the most exceptional contributions towards understanding nationalism in history. Gellner spent much of his life creating the book Nations and Nationalism.

In his book, Gellner stated:

In fact, nations, like states, are a contingency, and not a universal necessity. Neither nations nor states exist at all times and in all circumstances. Moreover, nations and states are not the same contingency. Nationalism holds that they were destined for each other; that either without the other is incomplete, and constitutes a tragedy. But before they could become intended for each other, each of them had to emerge, and their emergence was independent and contingent. The state has certainly emerged without the help of the nation. Some nations have certainly emerged without the blessings of their own state. It is more debatable whether the normative idea of the nation, in its modern sense, did not presuppose the prior existence of the state.

What then is this contingent, but in our age seemingly universal and normative, idea of the nation? Discussion of two very makeshift, temporary definitions will help to pinpoint this elusive concept.

  1. Two men are of the same nation if and only if they share the same culture, where culture in turn means a system of ideas and signs and associations and ways of behaving and communicating.
  2. Two men are of the same nation if and only if they recognize each other as belonging to the same nation. In other words, nations maketh man; nations are the artefacts of men's convictions and loyalties and solidarities. A mere category of persons (say, occupants of a given territory, or speakers of a given language, for example) becomes a nation if and when the members of the category firmly recognize certain mutual rights and duties to each other in virtue of their shared membership of it. It is their recognition of each other as fellows of this kind which turns them into a nation, and not the other shared attributes, whatever they might be, which separate that category from non-members.

Each of these provisional definitions, the cultural and the voluntaristic, has some merit. Each of them singles out an element which is of real importance in the understanding of nationalism. But neither is adequate. Definitions of culture, presupposed by the first definition, in the anthropological rather than the normative sense, are notoriously difficult and unsatisfactory. It is probably best to approach this problem by using this term without attempting too much in the way of formal definition, and looking at what culture does.

Banal Nationalism

Michael Billig's book Banal Nationalism focuses on the ways we create a national identity through the performance of everyday life. Michael Billig believed that a sense of national identity mirrored "society’s need for cultural belonging."

There are a number of ways we can derive meaning from Billig's words. For example, it could be interpreted that human beings may be merely social creatures who rely on social bonds for survival—a pack mentality which advocates safety in numbers. Alternatively, social belonging may be a medium through which people gratify themselves and promote their self-interests over others, as they feel they belong and are therefore more human than others who do not meet the same cultural criteria. Such a medium provides perfect conditions in which the process of "othering" can take place.

Regardless of how you want to engage with Billig's statement, the fundamental idea to understand about banal bationalism is that it promotes nationalism as ever-present. It does this in less obvious everyday ways, for example through symbols which you find on notes and coins and flags and which symbolise the sovereignty of the nation and the people who identify with it.

National Identity and Othering

Simone de Beauvoir invented the concept of "othering" to aid in the explanation of gender relations. Othering is a social problem which generates parameters which will allow or not allow people to belong. National identity plays a critical role in this process, as it is how members of the nation perceive the nation, and what enables them to access the benefits of cultural belonging. This perception relies on the creation of criteria.

As mentioned above, the failure to meet the criteria of a nation leads to people not being able to identify with the nation. An inability to identify with the nation leads to society singling individuals out as being different or "other". People who are perceived as "other" are part of what is known as a minority. Their physical, political or religious traits mean that they do not fit in with the majority, forcing them to endure living conditions inferior to that of the majority.

For example, migrants living in a foreign nation will be at a disadvantage when competing for employment positions within that nation with nationals. Experience and qualifications count for little in such instances. Othering leads to the formation of a "Us vs. Them" culture where the majority will always blame the minority or minorities for the shortcomings of society and their lives. Racism and discrimination are examples of the ill effects of othering.

Who Benefits From the Construction of a National Identity?

The sole beneficiary of creating a sense of national identity is the nation itself. The most significant use of creating a national identity is to defend the concept of nationhood.

Nationhood refers to being a nation and the independence which that title brings. A national identity preserves the idea of nationhood by creating a sense of belonging. A sense of belonging is generated by emphasising tropes such as a shared religion, ethnicity, race and history. This sense of belonging would be of the utmost importance if the nation were to come under attack as it serves as inspiration for members of the nation to defend that which they belong by appealing to their sense of patriotism. This sense of patriotism was used a countless number of times during the World Wars to encourage young men to fight for their nations.

The nation also benefits from having a national identity because it binds members of the nation together. The nation-state cannot exist unless there is a demographic to govern, and the only way to create a demographic is by uniting people through their national identity. The nation-state would possess no legitimacy if the masses did not respect and acknowledge its existence.


The Nationalism Project, "Ernest Gellner Definining 'Nation.'"

Gellner, Ernest. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983, pp. 6-7.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.