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The nation and nationalism

Henry Charles Theriault, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The recent surge in academic theorizing of the nation and nationalism has made it difficult to isolate the actual phenomena from their constructions as objects of theory. This is all the more difficult because most contemporary theories are grounded in unacknowledged political agendas that to a significant extent generate the theories independently of the phenomena. Chapter 1 focuses on “antinational-ist” theories of the nation—theories that deny the reality of nations or fundamentally delegitimate them as retrogressive or inherently oppressive political forms. Such a theory rejects the nation primarily because it is inconsistent with the theorist's uncritically assumed political ideology. In Chapter 2, I examine theories that do not reject the nation, but rather control its form—again in line with a particular political agenda or ideology. Such a theory allows the reality and/or legitimacy of nations, but only (1) after theoretically misconstruing them as consistent with (and possibly servants of) the theorist's specific ideology or (2) by limiting approval to only those nations that are in line with this ideology. I stress the important practical consequences of this: when backed by powerful institutions and forces, such a theory of the nation supports the coerced transformation of minor or post-colonial nations to fit it. These critiques expose the complexities of nations and nationalisms that most theories fail to register, due to their limiting assumptions. In Chapter 3, I develop an account of the nation sufficiently comprehensive to capture this complexity. Perhaps most importantly, my account does not reduce the nation to just one type of social force, political relation, identity characteristic, narrative structure, or “false consciousness”—which virtually all other theories do. All “unity” associated with the nation is partial: any presumed universal unity is always cut by gaps or discontinuities. A nation exists where the discontinuities are bridged by some alternate connector, by another type of relation. I then consider the relationship of nation to race, gender, and sexuality, as well as to state and ethnicity. Finally, I develop a novel concept of national “self-determination” as conceptual self- definition, not territorial control.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Political science|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Theriault, Henry Charles, "The nation and nationalism" (1999). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9920659.