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Nations and Nationalism, Second Edition Paperback – Feb 10 2009

4.3 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 2 edition (Feb. 10 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801475007
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801475009
  • Product Dimensions: 1.3 x 14.6 x 21.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 272 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #176,428 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


"Breuilly's new introduction provides an excellent critical overview of Gellner's writings on nationalism, judiciously evaluating his ideas while also providing insights into their place and continuing significance within the wider historiography of nationalism studies."—Paul Lawrence, Open University

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.

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Format: Paperback
A densely-written and concise book, as befitting Gellner's style, which is not usual in English writing. There is for example, a paucity in examples, unlike (say) Benedict Anderson's "The Imagined Community", another modern work on nationalism.
As an Irishman, I can see that parts of Gellner's thesis does fit Ireland. I can see how Irish Nationalism developed in the last century from the aspirations of working-class and middle-class townsmen adopting a metropolitan culture, and shifting away from their former communal and rural bonds. However, I am less sure that some historical memory did not play any part in this, the struggles of post-Reformation Ireland to maintain some independence from the English crown in the 17th century must have had its own influence. However, the arrival of French Revolutionary ideology at the end of the 18th century set the stage definitely for Nationalism, which at the time allied itself with democracy/ republicanism, possibly because as national communities were majorities in their own territories, these ideologies lent themselves to the nationalist case.
This is a facinating subject, and this book is a major contribution.
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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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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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The importance of this book stretches beyond academic theorizing: it should be re-marketed for mass consumption. Gellner's gifts are easy access and aptness. In a globalized world advancing toward force-fed monoculture, never before have the issues of defining and understanding nationalism demanded such focus. Nations and Nationalism, first published in 1983, forms part of a provocative, important overview of the human condition (to be found in Plough, Sword & Book, 1988) that essentially argues for a no-choice cultural pluralism and (key concept) de-fetishization of land. In Gellner's last work (Nationalism, London, 1997) published posthumously, he accepts the cage of existential anguish that dictates nationalism but insists on scientific optimism: "Better to try and deal with the conditions which engender nationalism than to preach at its victims and beg them to refrain from feeling what, in their circumstances, it is only too natural to feel." There is, beyond academe, compassion and prescience in Nations and Nationalism, and urgency in its follow-up. Faced with the biophysical issues of global survival, the virulence of modern weaponry, the accelerator of IT, we are commanded - at firesides, as well as campuses - to think again of the dangers of ethnic conflict and misunderstandings among nations and men.
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