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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: June 2012

12 - Nationalism in Comparative Perspective



The inclusion of a chapter on nationalism in a Handbook of Political Sociology, which introduces subjects fundamental to the profession in these early years of the twenty-first century, reflects the recognition, which has grown steadily in the past twenty-five years, of the political importance of nationalism. There has been considerable academic interest in nationalism before, but this interest wavered and at times seemed to disappear altogether. This faltering interest may be held responsible for the fact that our understanding of the phenomenon did not advance as much as one could have wished from the beginning of World War II, when its violent eruption took American social scientists by surprise, and even from the beginning of the twentieth century.

The work of Hans Kohn is among the most useful early efforts in attempting to come to terms with the development of nationalism in historical perspective. Kohn was particularly notable for constantly stressing that nationalism is fundamentally an idea, rather than a static, structural phenomenon, echoing the argument that the French sociologist Ernest Renan made three-quarters of a century earlier. However, Kohn (as well as Renan) can be criticized for being insufficiently rigorous in defining the idea of the nation. For him, the nation was fundamentally a sovereign community, but he failed to recognize the essentially secular quality of nationalism or the structural implications of national consciousness.

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