Nationalist movements seeking to make commensurate the boundaries of state and nation have in many cases employed or induced violence. Algeria, Basque Country (in Spain), Nazi Germany, Northern Ireland, Serbia, Somalia and Vietnam are gruesome examples. Yet the aims of comparable movements, similar in goals and apparently similar in context, have been resolved by relatively peaceful means. Quebec, Andhra Pradesh, Flanders, Italy and Catalonia are shining exemplars. This paper will employ the tools of game theory and the comparative method in political science (Lijphart 1971; Skocpol and Somers 1980; Collier 1991) to address the question: why are some nationalist movements peaceful in strategy and outcome while others create carnage? The answer is not to be found in the great forces of history, having to do with capitalism, state formation and inequality. Rather, the conditions that lead to violence require a microfoundation based upon social organization in rural and small-town life, tipping phenomena in political recruitment, and spiraling effects of fortuitous events.
Predominant approaches to the study of nationalism and violence have relied upon the identification of broad social processes that help to place nationalism in deep historical context (Kohn 1944). These approaches have pointed to the fact that nationalism is a modern social formation that emerged in the wake of industrial capitalism and concomitant modernization (Gellner 1983; Hobsbawm 1990). Capitalism in seventeenth-century Europe unleashed productive energies in a number of core zones, and these zones drew migrants from relatively depressed localities. This process, called “social mobilization” (Deutsch 1954), unhooked people from loyalties to tribe, village, and region.