Causes and Mechanisms of the Spread of Nationalism

  • Dusan Kecmanovic
Part of the Path in Psychology book series (PATH)


Why and how does nationalism spread? This appears to be an unavoidable and key question in any consideration of nationalism. A host of mechanisms and factors plays a part in the spread of nationalism, and any effort to find out its algorithm sooner or later turns out to be futile. This has to be kept in mind in any attempt to trace the rationale for the spread of nationalism.


Personality Disorder Social Movement National Group Critical Subject Mass Behavior 
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  1. 1.
    There are a comparatively small number of authors who point out this, as we dubbed it, the polyvalency of nationalism in functional terms, or, as Hutchinson and Smith (1994:8) call it, “chameleon-like character of nationalism.” Thus Andersson (1988:19) states that nationalisms “exhibit great flexibility in being used by very different social groups and classes for different and often conflicting purposes,” and Mosse (1987:4) emphasizes that everywhere nationalism has many faces, “appropriating the hopes of men and women....—” Toch (1971:17), reasoning along the same lines, writes that social movements in search of mass following frequently follow a saturation method and “try to present a ‘cafeteria’ of appeals, catering to a diversity of needs.” Breuilly (1982:350-51), for his part, states that appeal of nationalism is that it enables the nationalist “to take a wide variety of practices and sentiments prevailing among the population of a particular territory and to turn them into political justifications. Be seeming to abolish the distinctions between culture and politics, society and state, private and public, the nationalist has access to a whole range of sentiments, idioms and practices which would hitherto have been regarded as irrelevant to politics but now turned into the values underlying political action.”.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    As a rule, ethnonationalist allegiances are evoked from above. Someone or a group of people must be interested in inciting such feelings. “The enormous violence of this century—the world wars, ethnic cleansing, and so on—was all violence from above, rather than violence from below” (Drucker, 1994).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    “Nationalism has become structurally embodied, in all parts of the world, as the basis of the modern state. The implication is not that the nation-state is an eternal category or that some less deadly basis of political organization and international solidarity may eventually emerge. It is that there is little sensible that we can say about these possibilities: on this issue, if no other, we lack a reliable guide to the future. The nation-state (or the would-be nation state) remains the basic political unit. It continues to define the primary space in which political argument takes place. The competing ideas, of a world market dominated by multi-national corporations to whom we owe loyalty, or international proletarian solidarity, are equally implausible. In relation to other states and peoples the nation-state also defines the context in which real, as opposed to fantastical, moral choices must be faced” (Mayall, 1990:152). Brown (1989) states that ethnicity is particularly attractive as a basis for political affiliation because it fulfills the following criteria: “(i) it replicates, in the public and adult world, the functions performed in the private and childhood environment by the family; (ii) the ethnic group is perceived as by its members as a pseudo-kinship group, which promises to provide the all-embracing emotional security offered by the family to the child; (iii) it offers practical support, in the form of nepotism, such as the family gives to its members when they interact with others; and (iv) since the ethnic group is based on the ubiquitous family and kinship ties, it is widely and easily available for utilization in politics”.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    “Rather than a primordial allegiance that springs up into an organized political movements, we believe that ethnic nationalisms are better explained as political movements that simply utilize a presumed shared ethnicity—as other political movements assume common economic class status—as their basis for recruitment” (Fox, Aull, Cimino, 1978:115).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Nationality is, according to Deutsch (1953:96), the ability to communicate effectively and over a wider range of subjects. Mutual influence of people of the same national group is, according to Lasswell (1935:37), performed through their mutual identification. “Of great political relevance is mutual identification, whose distinguishing mark is the inclusion of persons within the field of reference of the symbol who are beyond the face-to-face experience of any one person. The term ‘American’ includes persons who are dead and gone and those who are geographically remote, and thus beyond the primary experience of those identified with the word. Interloping identifications among persons in relation to this symbol make such mutual identifications possible.”.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    After reviewing many definitions of the nation Alter (1989:17) concludes that “a nation should be understood as a social group,” indicating by that notion “a people or a section of a people.” And Connor (1993) points out that the nation is the “largest group that can command a person’s loyalty because of felt kinship ties; it is from this perspective, the fully extended family.”.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Brown (1985:140) also states that the nation could be regarded as a group. “The concept of group may encompass anything from small face-to-face groups to large groups as a nation.” According to this author, “psychologically speaking, a group exists when people think of themselves as members and are affected in their experience or behavior by their membership.” The nationals largely meet such a criterion.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Some authors argue that nationalism has nothing to do with the specific tendencies of humans. Thus, for example, Fukuyama (1991:266-75) considers nationalism as a historical occurrence that has nothing to do with the human psyche, with anthropological properties. In the same way that “liberalism vanquished religion in Europe,” it will, according to Fukuyama, make nationalism (more) tolerant, transform it into a person’s private matter. However, nationalism ought not be only connected, associated with the nation, and be accounted for only by the nation (viewed as a historical phenomenon). Nationalism is deeply rooted in people’s mentality, in the group, which is a more general phenomenon than the nation as a historical group.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Can we solve the puzzle of the masses? asks Moscovici (1985:45-6). This puzzle is to be found, according to this author, “in the spiritual affinity of people when united, and an affinity which transforms them and makes them accept without thinking the opinions of their friends, neighbors, or party. More seriously, the people who constitute a crowd are capable—once the crowd has swallowed them up and immersed them in a shared emotion—of excesses of joy and panic, enthusiasm or cruelty. Deeds are done which the conscious mind condemns and which run counter to personal interests. Everything happens as if a collective soul had subjugated the individual soul by wholly transforming Man and making a different being of him.”.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    In fact self-deindividuation is in question. The person is losing the characteristics of an individual. The opposite is the deindividuation of the other person. The other person is being treated as a type rather than as a creature endowed with particular traits and features. Due to the fact that a person belongs to a group that is the object of stereotypes, every and each member of that group is treated in a stereotypical way, that is according to the dictates of the existing stereotype. Campbell and Heginbotham (1991:6) rightly assert that irrespective of the actual loss suffered in particular cases, discrimination is wrong because it manifests an insulating and degrading failure to treat its victims as individuals.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Discussing the mirror image magnified, the mechanism which contributes substantially to producing and maintaining serious distortions in the reciprocal images of the nations (the Soviet Union and the United States), Bronfenbrenner (1986:77) points out that the Asch phenomenon operates even more foefully outside the laboratory, where the game of social perceptions being played for keepers.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    As a matter of fact the personality traits do not have a high predictive validity as far as the kind of reaction (conformity or nonconformity) to group pressure is concerned. In other words, the role of other situational factors in shaping the individuals’ response to group pressure is to be taken into consideration. Thus Blumer (1957:148) points out mat social movements (and nationalism is, among other things, a social movement) rarely gain sympathizers or members through a mere combination of a preestablished appeal and a preestablished individual psychological bent on which it is brought to bear. “Instead, the prospective sympathizer or member has to be aroused, nurtured, and directed, and the so-called appeal has to be developed and adapted. This takes place through a process in which attention has to be gained, interests awakened, grievances exploited, ideas implanted, doubts dispelled, feelings aroused, new objects created, and new perspectives developed.”.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Greenstein’s (1975:113) opinion that dispositions toward conformity reduce the impact of the individual’s other psychological characteristics on his behavior only partly matches the reality. The fact is that the individual’s intense needs to take cues from others is determined by a great number (and not just one or two) of, mainly dynamically related, personal characteristics (traits and tendencies) and thus is not to be seen as reducing the impact of the individual’s many other psychological characteristics on his or her behavior.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Hoffer (1951:93) describes the consequences of the loss of personal responsibility through the renouncement of the self and becoming the part of a compact whole as follows: “There is not telling to what extremes of cruelty, and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts, and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgment. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom—freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame or remorse. Herein undoubtedly lies part of the attractiveness of a mass movement.”.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Braunthal (1946:42) observes that “war and bad faith are the inescapable consequences of nationalism.” And that what Wertham (1966:85) says for race discrimination (“not only may race discrimination lead to violence; it is in itself latent violence”) may be applied to ethnonational discrimination, too. Howard (1991:39), for his part, states that “from the very beginning the principle of nationalism was almost indissolubly linked, both in theory and practice, with the idea of war,” and Brown (1993:9) maintains that “the emergence of ethnic nationalism makes some form of ethnic conflict inevitable.” Shafer (1984) made the same point. Does nationalism lead to war? asks this author, and answers: “Not always or all the time, though in any case too often Almost everyone must agree that integral nationalism nearly always does sooner or later.”.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Williams (1947) distinguishes instrumental aggression, which is intended to help one party achieve the end for which the struggle is being waged, from expressive aggression, which serves the aggressor to relieve the internal apprehension. And Buss (1961) speaks about impulsive aggression, behavior in which the aggressor seeks satisfaction in the suffering of the victim, and instrumental aggression, behavior in which the aggressor seeks some other satisfaction, for which the suffering of the victim is only a means. Nationalists’ aggression has all these characteristics.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    There are a great number of studies and collections dealing with aggressiveness and aggression, for example, Scott 1957, Aggression; Buss 1968, Psychology of Aggression; Carthy and, Ebling, 1964, Natural History of Aggression; Montagu, 1968, Man and Aggression; Torch, 1980, Violent Men; Siann, 1985, Accounting for Aggression; Klama, 1989, Aggression; Archer and Browne, 1989, Human Aggression; Berkowitz, 1993, Aggression: its Causes, Consequences and Control, and others.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    In writing about human aggressiveness, Frank (1967:51) points out that the human power to symbolize may be a more important abolisher of inhibitions against killing our own kind than our relatively ineffective native attack equipment and the consequent lack of in-built inhibitions against massacring each other. This “uniquely human power to symbolize, which enables us to regard each other almost at will as conspecifics, prey or predator, and behave accordingly, with those whom we regard as like ourselves, we indulge only in ritualized non-lethal fighting as games and lawsuits; but like rats, once we define someone as an enemy, no holds are barred....” The mostly arbitrary definition of the enemy is at the core of nationalism. Thus the uniquely human capabilities, such as prediction ability and power to symbolize, are profusely used in protecting and promoting nationalist cause.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Voegelin (1940) uses the term Gegenidee to describe antisemitism in Germany. The idea of the Jew was built up from all the attributes that Germans unconsciously disliked in themselves. In attributing those features to Jews (the Jew as a Gegenidee) Germans articulated the idea (Idee) of themselves as superior beings (Ubermensch).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Noteworthy in this context is the distinction made by Holmes (1978) between the projection of undesirable traits onto desirable and undesirable persons. In the first case, “when persons realize that they have an undesirable trait and it is in conflict with their self-concept, they will project the trait onto desirable persons, allegedly so that they can reevaluate the trait as being less undesirable and thus reduce their concern over the possession of the trait.” In the second case, “seeing one’s own undesirable trait in undesirable persons would appear to reaffirm the trait’s undesirability and thus maintain and enhance the threat to self-esteem posed by possession of the trait.”.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    It is of note that the Nazi leaders, tried at Nuremberg, were tested by Rorschach inkblot patterns. No mental disorder was evident. The investigating psychiatrist at Nuremberg, D. Kelley, reported: “From our findings, we must conclude not only that such personalities are not unique or insane, but also that they could be duplicated in any country of the world today” (Borofsky and Brand, 1980:362).Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    In an earlier published text (1971:138-9) Sanford states that those who are predisposed will take the lead in any collective destructiveness. “People less disposed will join in later as excitement mounts and the stimulus of what the others are doing becomes intense.... The greater the disposition to collective destructiveness the less the stimuli necessary to evoke destructive action.”.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Platt (1980:82), the author of this metaphor (sense-making crisis), defines it in the following way: “The loss of familiar social orders and one’s place in them is potentially chaotic. People who cannot sustain a biographically achieved sense of personal identity, continuity, feelings of worthiness, self-esteem, membership in a community, and so on, are easily overwhelmed by affective experiences. When these conditions are widespread the society is undergoing a sense-making crisis.”.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    By the notion of organized insecurity Mannheim (1980:135) means those societal situations wherein, once the unorganized insecurity is more or less over, channels for economic and administrative activities have been established, government and industry are planned, and so on, but “the psychic disturbances and the general breakdown are deliberately guided for the benefit of those who still maintain their rational calculation and, because they stand more or less outside the focal points of the general collapse, are able to remain sober.” According to Neumann (1957:291), the institutionalization of anxiety is meant to perform the same goal. The institutionalization of anxiety through propaganda, terror, and commonly committed crimes is a means of preventing the extinction of the people’s need for protection through submitting to, and identifying with a supraindividual entity, such as political party, ethnic group, mass, nation, and so on.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Poole (1992) seems to be right when, in response to a J. Ree’s (1992) paper on internationality, he suggests that “the concept of identity plays a crucial role in our understanding of nationalism.” Halliday (1994:231) made the same point: “Most of work done on nationalism in recent years has been on its historical and sociological aspects; yet what has attracted much less attention are the normative claims underlying it. These are that we belong to a nation, that the nation, embodied in its leaders, has a claim over us, that it gives us an identity” (Italic by D.K.).Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Berlin (1983:351-2) considers “unhealed mental wounds” (social and emotional insecurity) to be at the core of nationalism. According to this author, “the destruction of the traditional hierarchies and orders of social life, in which men’s loyalties were deeply involved, by the centralisation and bureaucratic ‘rationalisation’ which industrial progress required and generated, deprived great numbers of men of social and emotional security, produced the notorious phenomena of alienation, spiritual homelessness and growing anomie, and needed the creation, by deliberate social policy, of psychological equivalents for the lost cultural, political, religious values on which the older order rested.... For the majority the vacuum was filled neither by professional associations, nor political parties, nor the revolutionary myths... but by the old, traditional bonds, language, the soil, historical memories real and imaginary, and by institutions of leaders which functioned as incarnations of men’s conceptions of themselves as a community, a Gemeinschaft—symbols and agencies which are far more powerful than either socialists or enlightened liberals wished to believe.”.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    “In times where the traditional distinctions between the normal and the abnormal, the permitted and the forbidden have been threatened to the point to be wiped out—nationalism promised to restore order and the respect for immutable values, and maintain clear distinctions between the accepted and the unacceptable—guidelines upon which men and women could model their life to escape confusion” (Mosse, 1987:1).Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    The truth is, as was stated in section “Nationalism and Conformity,” that in societies where ethnocentric prejudices run high, adherence to ethnonational prejudices may be conceived of as kind of social adaptation.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    The extent to which personal interests are involved in nationalist undertaking, and the attainment of territorial sovereignty is one of the major topics of any nationalist movement, cannot be overestimated. Hechter (1987) comments on the role played by people’s personal interests in nationalist strivings for the attainment of sovereignty in the following way. “Because it is a public good, the attainment of territorial sovereignty is only the ostensible goal of most of the members of nationalist parties. The bulk of any party’s members are motivated by the desire to consume private goods. This explains why most nationalist parties fail well before the attainment of territorial sovereignty” (italic by M.H.).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dusan Kecmanovic
    • 1
  1. 1.SydneyAustralia

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