Social Theory and Nationalism

  • Pierre Birnbaum
Part of the The CERI series in Comparative Politics and International Studies book series (CERI)


Social sciences, which remained mute and indifferent for a long time, now come up against a major difficulty, the issue of nationalism. As a matter of fact they were born in the second half of nineteenth century, at a time when people’s attention was mainly focused on social struggles and, more generally, on the problems raised by industrialisation and urbanisation. Moreover, they were linked to an evolutionist point of view. Social sciences thus tended to ignore—or, at least, to largely underestimate—the weight of politics. Hence they only drew little attention to the role played by the state or to the nature of citizenship; they equally disregarded the foundations of national sentiment and the sudden looming of nationalist passions. The death of nationalism was being simultaneously announced by liberals and by socialists, by supporters of utilitarianism and by prophets of humanism. As a consequence, no major thinker of nationalism emerged at that time; Herder’s writings had no heirs.1 Amazingly, the nationalist acts of violence which were already breaking down the unity of the social body only had little echo in the main sociological theories. Durkheim and Tönnies, Simmel and Pareto, and even Max Weber only attached little importance to such an issue in their own work. Following them, the best European and American sociologists kept ignoring such a way of acting in the social field, which they regard as infrequent in contemporary Western societies.


Collective Action Social Theory Political Society Nationalist Movement National Question 
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© Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Paris 2005

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  • Pierre Birnbaum

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