Social and natural reality : prospects for a consilient theory of nationalism

Swerhun, Bryce (2008-03)

Thesis (MA (Political Science))--Stellenbosch University, 2008.


Nationalism is quite easy to understand, but somewhat difficult to explain. In terms of understanding nationalism, we do not need to know anything more about society and sentiment than what is taken for granted in everyday life. An individual who ‘drops’ into a foreign culture may know absolutely nothing about its people’s songs, rituals, amusements and traditions: why some customs evoke tears, and others, bravado. This person would feel no sense of collective awe or inspiration when touring historic battlefields and monuments of an unfamiliar country. Nevertheless, he or she would likely understand and appreciate that all of these things are steeped in meaning and identity. These instances of meaning and identity may not be felt, shared or even fully known, but their role as expressions of nationalism can be readily appreciated. The global spread of nations entails an array of mutually unfamiliar national identities, but the actual phenomenon nationalism is rarely foreign to anyone. From an outsider’s perspective we do not know how certain expressions are significant to a particular group, but we do understand that they are expressions of national belonging. Explaining nationalism is more difficult for the simple reason that experiencing and recognizing a phenomenon is not sufficient to account for its existence. Customs and rituals are two suggested properties of nationalism, but what is the causal relationship between such properties and the end phenomenon (how does custom actually lead to nationalism, if at all)? The answers to these questions are still a matter of debate. The situation is only made worse by the fact that most theories explaining nationalism seem to rest on a tower of abstractions. For instance, it may seem uncontroversial for some to argue that nationalism is an outgrowth of ethnic identity. However, this just begs the question. What is ethnicity? The potential for regress to abstraction is a major impediment to theory. This thesis will examine the problem of explanation: the reasons why theories of nationalism have struggled with explaining nationalism, and a discussion on how to overcome these difficulties. Specifically, this thesis will show that: 1) The problem of explaining nationalism is due in part to the ‘classical’ problem found in the literature: whether nationalism is an ‘ancient’ social phenomenon, or a ‘modern’ phenomenon which can be dated (roughly) to the late eighteenth century. 2) Debates regarding the classical problem are closely affected by philosophical issues in the social sciences. 3) The incorporation of a consilient methodology (i.e. a research program that unifies theories of social science with theories of natural science) can provide a new strategy for future theories of nationalism and work to solve the classical problem.

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