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Nations and Nationalism (New Perspectives on the Past)

18 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0801492631
ISBN-10: 0801492637
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Editorial Reviews


"Brilliant, provocative ... a great book." New Statesman

<!--end-->"An important book ... a new starting line from which all subsequent discussions of nationalism will have to begin." New Society

"A better explanation than anyone has yet offered of why nationalism is such a prominent principle of political legitimacy today ... a terse and forceful work ... the product of great intellectual energy and an impressive range of knowledge." Times Literary Supplement

"Gellner's short book is an incisive, penetrating and persuasive discussion of how the nation-states of the modern industrial world differ from earlier states ... Gellner uses this analysis to explain the force of nationalism in the modern world." International Security

"Gellner's range is wide, covering the ideas of some modern thinkers from Marx, Malinowski and Carr to heideggar, Hroch, Havel and Said." Race and Class

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From the Back Cover

Nationalism is one of the most powerful forces in the modern world, yet it is surprisingly little studied and only imperfectly understood, either by its adherents or its opponents. Its irruption into the modern world is often explained as a resurgence of primitive, atavistic instincts, or as a delusion fostered by a few theoreticians, politicians or propagandists.

The present volume interprets nationalism in terms of its social roots, which it locates in industrial social organization. A society that aims for affluence and economic growth, Professor Gellner argues, depends on innovation, occupational mobility, mass media, universal literacy, and education in a shared, standard idiom. Taken together these transform the relationship between culture and the state. The functioning of the society depends on an all-embracing educational system, tied to one culture and protected by a state identified with that culture. The principle one state, one culture makes itself felt, and political units which do not conform to it feel the strain in the form of nationalist activity.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Series: New Perspectives on the Past
  • Paperback: 150 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press (November 1983)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801492637
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801492631
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.6 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,876,642 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

57 of 58 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 16, 2000
Format: Paperback
Truly one of the most important books ever written about nationalism, this is also one of the few modernist accounts of nationalism that ages well. While this book was published in 1983, it is basically an expanded version of a chapter from Gellner's earlier _Thought and Change_ (1964) with some alterations. However, even 36 years later his thesis is still as strong as ever: nationalism is a result of the transformation from agrarianism to industrialization. I'll try to summarize his thesis briefly.
Gellner describes the agrarian society as one where power is concentrated at the top with a complex division of labor and an emphasis on informality and intimacy. Basically each group lives in their own happy little world cut off from the rest.
But then things begin to change. The transformation to modernity involves a huge number of changes in society: the peasants have to pick up and move to the city for work. There mobility, formality (the 'Diploma Disease') and a universalised high culture replace intimacy, informality and various low cultures, and the peasants feel alienated (a touch of Marx?). The intelligentsia of the peasant group then decide to save their low culture by turning it into a high culture, which can only survive through state-supported education. Thus the peasant people decide to return home, seceed to form a new state and - presto - they've become a nation. This part of the story is obviously the violent part: Gellner claims that things will get better in late industrialism, where we'll have 'muted nationalism' after all those secessions have taken place.
While simplistic, there is a lot of truth to this story, which is well documented in the large number of nations which emerged in this way, especially in eastern Europe.
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44 of 49 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 6, 1999
Format: Paperback
As one of the most widely-cited works on nationalism, Gellner's book is certainly worth reading just for the sheer reference value. However, as a scholarly work, it fails to answer the question it seeks to demystify. Basically, it says that nationalism rose in industrial societies where people "needed" a new standardized form of identity -- which the "high culture" of the nation happily provided. It is a great macro-theory, but when put to the test of historical evidence, it falls short. Why do people love and die for particular national identities? If they just needed some modern standardized form of identity, most any form that enables dynamic communication and interchangability in society would do. In short, Gellner fails to take into account the specific historical cases where group identity, rooted in previous historical experiences, has acquired a national character that has withstood enormous historical changes.
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Charles J. Paver on February 2, 2005
Format: Paperback
First, a few words on nationalism itself. Nationalism is important to study because during the 20th century, it has been one of the most despicable forces to ever hit this world and as such, needs to be understood. (And yes, I consider fascism a form of nationalism).

The twin founding fathers of nationalism, Hans Kohn and Carleton Hayes, construct the skeleton on which other authors (Gellner, Smith, Hobsbawm, Hutchinson, Breuilly, Armstrong, Anderson, etc.) try to fill in the gaps by narrowing one component, and exploring that area in extreme detail. Breuilly looks at solely the political aspects, Hutchinson and Anderson look at the cultural, etc. Gellner looks at the political tied to the cultural. In short, culture for Gellner is everything.

As Mel Brooks says in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, "the short, short version..." Gellner thinks that industrialization homogenized cultures, which in turn was bound to state-led educational facilities (schools, etc.). Teaching everyone the same thing, having them dress the same way, in short, nurturing a single identity created nationalism. Once culture bound with politics, nations emerged. Then nationalism came (independently).

Now for the more detailed review:

Gellner asserts the following explanation for the rise of nations and nationalism (two distinct things):

Nations are self-defined by the inhabitants within them. All nations share a culture.

Nationalism is a modern force which holds that politics and nations are congruent and inseparable.

Without one, you cannot have the other.
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25 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on June 4, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
At first I thought this was going to be an enjoyable, positive reading exercise since Chapter 1 was clear and thought provoking. But by the sixth chapter I literally wanted to tear the book to pieces. Gellner's book is considered "a classic" in the literature on nationalism, but I contend that its weaknesses equal or outweigh its contributions. I found Gellner's theory extremely Euro-centric and remarkably exasperating. Moreover, Gellner's style of writing was excessively repetitive, "tedious and pedantic" (something he claimed in his conclusion to have avoided), besides being overly assertive.
Gellner's typology, in my opinion, is based on the faulty idea that there are only two types of societies: agrarian and industrial, and that the modern state is omnipotent vis a vis the society. While agrarian Europe was stagnating, other areas of the world had flourishing cultures based on trade *and* agriculture *and* small-scale industry. Some even had local identities (early ersatz nationalisms) that set them apart from the other localities with which they had regular contact through trade, diplomacy, wars and exploration. And while modern European societies are fully industrialized, with omnipotent states, many modern "third-world" societies are mixed agrarian/industrial, and the state vies with other groups in society for loyalty.
I do agree with Gellner's appraisal that nationalism and nationalities are not inevitable aspects of the human condition. But I disagree with his theory that industrial society led to the homogenization of cultures and appearance of nationalism. Much of my disagreement lies in his a priori assumption that the state is "only too conspicuously present" and that power is highly centralized in the state of the industrial era.
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