A critical evaluation of theories of nationalism

  • David Ashcroft

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis considers the main theoretical positions within the contemporary sociology of nationalism. These can be grouped into two basic types, primordialist theories which assert that nationalism is an inevitable aspect of all human societies, and modernist theories which assert that nationalism and the nation-state first developed within western Europe in recent centuries. With respect to primordialist approaches to nationalism, it is argued that the main common explanation offered is human biological propensity. Consideration is concentrated on the most recent and plausible of such theories, sociobiology. Sociobiological accounts root nationalism and racism in genetic programming which favours close kin, or rather to the redirection of this programming in complex societies, where the social group is not a kin group. It is argued that the stated assumptions of the sociobiologists do not entail the conclusions they draw as to the roots of nationalism, and that in order to arrive at such conclusions further and implausible assumptions have to be made. With respect to modernists, the first group of writers who are considered are those, represented by Carlton Hayes, Hans Kohn and Elie Kedourie, whose main thesis is that the nation-state and nationalism are recent phenomena. Next, the two major attempts to relate nationalism and the nation-state to imperatives specific either to capitalist societies (in the `orthodox' marxist theory elaborated about the turn of the twentieth century) or to the processes of modernisation and industrialisation (the `Weberian' account of Ernest Gellner) are discussed. It is argued that modernist accounts can only be sustained by starting from a definition of nationalism and the nation-state which conflates such phenomena with others which are specific to the modern world. The marxist and Gellner accounts form the necessary starting point for any explanation as to why the nation-state is apparently the sole viable form of polity in the modern world, but their assumption that no pre-modern society was national leaves them without an adequate account of the earliest origins of the nation-state and of nationalism. Finally, a case study from the history of England argues both the achievement of a national state form and the elucidation of crucial components of a nationalist ideology were attained at a period not consistent with any of the versions of the modernist thesis.
Date of Award1987
Original languageEnglish


  • critical evaluation
  • theories
  • nationalism

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