What is a nation? We are no closer to a parsimonious answer than was Ernest Renan in 1882 – but the nation has not weakened for lack of verbal concision. If anything, its power has grown, measured by the sheer number of nations and national claims that now swell our world.
One might expect the nation's hold to wane in our changed global landscape, one characterized by rapid increases in the circulation of people, images, and information across national boundaries. For even if we do not know quite what a nation is, we do know what it does: the nation, after all, claims and organizes political sovereignty – statehood – over discrete territory. Yet the erosion of sovereignty, the dramatic growth of migration, and the increasing ability of individuals to communicate across wide spaces on a scale never previously experienced has not dampened the appeal of the nation in any measurable way. In spite of globalization – some argue as a result of it – we find that the local impulses inherent to nationalism perdure.
The growth and spread of nationalism, as many scholars have explicated, operates through a political logic of cultural difference, one which at its endpoint posits that different peoples have a right to rule themselves. During the twentieth century, this basic assumption structured the emergence of new nation-states resulting from the decolonization wave, the boundaries of which – often created artificially – contained dizzying cultural diversity.