On October 24th, 1995, two of the best-known scholars of nationalism participated in what has now become known as the “Warwick Debate on Nationalism” under the host of Edward Mortimer at the Warwick University. Each respected speaker presented thoughts and approaches to the study of nationalism that have laid the foundation for two separate, yet prevalent suppositions toward nationalism: Anthony Smith’s primordial approach and Ernest Gellner’s modernist theory.
When reviewing the discussions of intellectual masters, it is important to establish the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments before determining a superior concept. Without having any previous knowledge of nationalism, one could easily understand Anthony Smith’s well-organized and cleanly explained argument as he begins with clear definitions of nationalism, nation, and state. Each definition is important as they highlight the fundamental difference between primordialism and modernism: when nationalism began. Smith’s definition of nationalism is an ideological movement that achieves and maintains sovereignty, unity, and the identity of a human population. His definition of a nation is a named population that shares a territory, myths, culture, memories, and offers an economy, common rights, and duties for its population. And his definition of a state is a legal and political concept that is a public institution of coercion and extraction within a territory. Smith’s definitions are essential to his argument of primordial origins of nationalism because the nation represents a fulfillment of the needs presented in a nationalist movement. According to these definitions, a nationalist movement, or nationalism, would be seeking the autonomy, unity, and identity of its community. Thus, this ‘need’ could be fulfilled in Smith’s definition of a nation being a community that shares a historic territory, single economy, common rights, and duties for all members. These definitions take away the political agenda that is often associated with nationalism in the modern period. Another strength of Smith’s case is in his acknowledgment of a form of modern nationalism that began from the need to fulfill the demand that changes in the modern world brought forth. This is where his definition of a state is likewise essential because it then becomes the fulfillment of this new ‘need’ of the people. Smith intently adds that a state is not a community. Herein lies the single most important concept that Smith implies, which is that modern nationalism is a continuation of the heritages, cultures, and territory that are found in pre-modern national communities.
Smith refers to this concept as the “ethno-symbolic approach.” Staying true to his politician technique of covering his footprints, Smith quickly notes that this is not a theory, simply an approach. This gives his approach the flexibility to cover a lot of ground, both chronologically and non-chronologically, without being subject to concentrated scrutiny. Smith terms the ethno-symbolic approach by stating that many, not all, modern political nationalisms cannot be understood without understanding their connection to their ethnic ties and memories, and in some cases, to their pre-modern communities. Smith asserts that the ethno-symbolic approach offers a slight guide as to which populations nationalism will grow among and in what direction such movements may go. Smith notes that the importance of the role of memories, values, myths, and symbols can be seen in the common actions of nationalism by adding that nationalism “often involves the pursuit of ‘symbolic’ goals – education in a language, … the preservation of ancient sacred sites, the right to worship in one’s own way, have one’s own courts, schools and press, wear particular costume, and so on….” Smith concludes his explanation of the ethno-symbolic approach to nationalism by stating that nations and nationals are necessary in the world, and that because people...
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