GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

5.4 Nationalism


Our purpose in distinguishing between nation, state, and ethnicity in the previous section stems from our interest here in nationalism. As you will likely have already suspected, there is no single, clear definition of nationalism (we’re certain you’re shaking your head at the recurring theme; we should have just provided this as a blanket statement on day one, as this is a consequence of the nature of messy and constantly evolving disciplines like geography), though we can offer several dovetailing descriptions.

Defining Nationalism

At its most basic, we can think of nationalism as a strong sense of identification with one’s nation — strong enough that it goes beyond the chest-swelling pride of patriotism in its ability to mobilize individuals to risk their lives for the perceived (or constructed) good of the nation (though often this is done at the behest of the state). Place and identity are intertwined in nationalism, as Gregory and company point out when they define it as

the modern social and political formations that draw together feelings of belonging, solidarity and identification between national citizens and the territory imagined as their collective national homeland. (2009, p. 488)

Storey’s conceptualization underscores the connection between nationalism and place, in the form of territory. He describes it thus:

a territorial ideology reflecting an affinity to a particular space and one which, in its more ‘active’ form, seeks to maintain or to attain political independence (and in some cases dominance) for the nation and, hence, for its territory. (Storey, 2012, p. 88)

Knight gets at an important scalar aspect of nationalism when he describes it as “a whole complex of ideas, attitudes, events, and political movements” the main function of which is “the transference of loyalty from kinship groups or local and regional levels to the larger national group” (1982, p. 521). That is, nationalism is the means by which people’s loyalties are scaled upward from the family to Anderson’s (1991) imagined community of the nation.

The Work of Nationalism

We often associate nationalism with conflict — with territorial aggression, border disputes, ideological wars (e.g., the Cold War) and so on. And while this association between nationalism and conflict is accurate, it is not the only function that nationalism performs. In fact, one might argue that the kind of “hot” nationalism that accompanies conflict is an extreme form that can only come about as the result of more generalized forms of nationalism.

Nationalism in its less violent form serves to reproduce the identity — that is, the traits, values, desires, and so on that people collectively imagine as characteristic of the nation — to reinforce people’s sense of belonging within it. Nationalism can also be deployed to smooth over political differences within the nation. This is particularly true of democratic states, as Calhoun argues:

nationalism is integral to much of modern democracy. Nationalist discourse is integral to constructions of “we the people.” A sense of common national membership is integral to acceptances of different opinions and even electoral losses. And beyond democracy, a sense of belonging to a common nation has underwritten many modern projects of economic redistribution and social welfare. The National Health Service has its name for a reason. (2017, p. 26)

Likewise, several authors (including Calhoun, 2017 and Pamir, 1997) note that some multi-ethnic states have used nationalism to unify diverse populations. In fact, this use of nationalism has a relatively long history that parallels the emergence of the modern state:

Eighteenth and nineteenth century European nationalism was a unifying force which brought together people of diverse backgrounds at the price of subordinating their ethnic identities to the larger territorial unit dominated by the secular state. (Pamir, 1997, p. 4)

This was also the case for the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires, all of which were multi-ethnic (Pamir, 1997). However, it is important to note that this approach does not always bode well for ethnic minorities; in an effort to promote the existence of a ‘single’ nation, states sometimes force ethnic minorities to assimilate — and while this may diminish differences among groups before the state, it does so at the cost of ethnic identity and cultural practices (see, e.g., Pokalova, 2010).

However, states are not the sole parties that deploy nationalism to their own ends. Ethnic minorities within states (and particularly those who have ancestral ties to the territory occupied by the state) sometimes use nationalism to oppose the state, often in response to “factors such as denial of cultural identity, political discrimination, repression, or economic deprivation” (Pamir, 1997, p. 3). 

Ethnic and Civic Nationalism

Traditionally, scholars have distinguished between two forms of nationalism — ethnic and civic that reflect different actors and interests. Ethnic nationalism, as we suggested above, often exists in opposition to the state. With ancestral claims to territory and shared ethnicity as its justification, it may use cultural heritage or tradition to appeal to those who identify with the nation. By contrast, civic nationalism, often deployed by the state, relies on a shared belief in the state’s political and legal structures. The distinction between these two modes of nationalism is not always clear; as Antonsich points out, state nationalism typically combines both of these to some degree.

Banal Nationalism

As we noted above, nationalism isn’t always aggressive or violent. It shows up not only in fiery rhetoric justifying actions on the world stage, but also in national holidays, the presence or use of visual symbols, mottos, and flags. Likewise, just as nationalism is not necessarily aggressive, it is not necessarily overt. Social psychologist Michael Billig (1995) undertook a close study of these less obvious forms of nationalism in his landmark book Banal Nationalism. In it, he introduced the concept of banal nationalism — everyday forms of nationalism that we take for granted and barely notice. These reproduce a sense of nationalism in subliminal ways, reinforcing the existence of the nation in people’s minds. Calhoun (2017) argues that for Billig, banal nationalism is what makes “hot” nationalism possible.

Banal nationalism appears not only in material forms such as flags or coins, but also in linguistic conventions. For example, the use of “my” or “our” soccer team to refer to a national team competing for the World Cup reinforces a multiple sense of belonging between the individual, the team, and the broader, imagined community of the nation itself. As you may have suspected, state institutions habitually use banal nationalism — but so do individuals, again, often in unconscious ways. Banal nationalism is often so subtle that we fail to recognize it when we encounter it — but it may be more visible when visiting other countries. 


Think of three examples of banal nationalism that you’ve encountered in the last week. In what contexts did they appear? What form did they take? Who produced them? Did you notice at the time? Why or why not?


Pamir, P. (1997). Nationalism, ethnicity and democracy: Contemporary manifestations. International Journal of Peace Studies, 2(2), 3-19.

Additional References:

Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. (2nd ed). Verso.

Billig, M. (1995). Banal nationalism. Sage.

Calhoun, C. (2017). The rhetoric of nationalism. In M. Skey and M. Antonsich (Eds.), Everyday nationhood: Theorising culture, identity and belonging after banal nationalism (pp. 17-30). Palgrave Macmillan.

Knight, D. B. (1982). Identity and territory: Geographical perspectives on nationalism and regionalism. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 72(4), 514-431.

Pokalova, E. (2010). Framing separatism as terrorism: Lessons from Kosovo. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33(5), 429-447.

Storey, D. (2012). Territories: The claiming of space. Routledge.