Globalization and nationalism: the missing link

The world's national flags

For the past ten years the Abkhaz authorities have aggressively solicited the assistance of the Diaspora, the majority of which are currently residing in Turkey and the West. The Diaspora responded by demonstrating an unwavering financial and economic commitment for its ethnic homeland. Our five hundred thousand member exile community will always defend the interests of the Abkhaz people wherever they may reside by donating their time, money, food, clothing, and technical commercial assistance”.

With these words published on its website, an Abkhaz opposition party called for political reform inside the break-away republic. While this would appear a matter strictly pertaining to researchers interested in South Caucasian politics, it represents in fact a prime example of a new dynamic that appears to be emerging between globalisation and nationalism. For a number of analysts, variously described as globalisation theorists, globalists or cosmopolitans, nationalism is directly linked in a causal fashion to globalisation. For others, instead, connecting the two phenomena represents a conceptual and empirical mistake.

In order to unravel the nature of their relationship, I will first look at the theoretical debate underpinning both the concepts. Secondly, I will outline the causal nexus that globalisation theorists have identified between the two, and critique the extent to which they have a case when they argue that the rise of these ‘new’ forms of nationalism can be explained as a response and reaction to globalisation forces. Finally, I will try to offer a different perspective of how the interplay between these two phenomena can have a profound impact on the concepts of identity, territory and space.

A glance at the theory

There are two distinct theoretical debates taking place, one on the process of globalisation and another one on the contemporary re-emergence and transformation of nationalism. In a rather simplistic manner, I would argue first of all that the debate on globalisation can be summarised as follows. First of all, a number of analysts – such as Hirst, Thomson or Negri – are simply sceptical of the concept in the first place, seeing it as a conceptual cover-up for what is simply hegemonic, realist US domination. From their perspective, globalisation ‘is primarily an ideological construction; a convenient myth which … helps justify and legitimise the neoliberal global project’ [Held & McGrew: 2003]. A second group – led by economists such as Rodrik and Dicken and generally favoured in the public discourse – takes a more focused view and sees globalisation primarily as an economic process. Given the abundant evidence of the increasing reach of global capital, the debate is not so much about whether globalisation is taking place in the first place, but more about where, how, at what speed and in whose interest.

The third group, which counts in its ranks the likes of Giddens, Held, Castells and Scholte, sees instead globalisation as a more nuanced and multilayered social process, variously described as ‘action at a distance … time-space compression, accelerating interdependence or a shrinking world’ [Held & McGrew: 2003]. For them, as well as an economic process, globalisation is first and foremost a ‘real structural change in the scale of modern social organisation’. Clearly, depending on which side of the globalisation debate we take, we could argue that it is bound to have a profound impact on the way a social phenomena like nationalism develops; that it will only have a marginal effect, primarily in those areas where globalisation is more ‘dense’; or that it will have no impact at all. For the purpose of this debate, I think the sociological/cultural approach of the third grouping is the one that best helps us understand how globalisation might behaving an impact on nationalism.

Defining nationalism is equally difficult, although the debate is of a very different nature. No one denies the empirical existence of nationalism – a simple glance at a political world map testifies to its truly global reach. The debate is more about the causes of its first appearance, its subsequent success story, and most importantly its recent, somewhat counter-intuitive resurgence. On the one hand, there are modernist analysts – like Hobsbawm, Gellner or Breuilly – who see nationalism primarily as an elite-driven political project prompted by the rise of modernity and the need to manage the social transformations that accompanied industrialisation. One of the most renowned proponents of this reading was Elie Kedourie, who went as far as famously defining nationalism simply a ‘doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century’ [Kedourie: 1993].

Contesting this position is the perennialist school of thought, championed by Anthony Smith, who – while not underplaying economic factors to explain the rise of nationalism in Europe – argues instead that ‘to understand modern nations and nationalism, we have to explore not only the processes and requirements of modernity, but also the genealogies of nations, … the impact of these processes on those genealogies and the way in which they give rise to selections and transformations by each generation of pre-existing … ties and traditions’ [Smith: 1996]. In other words, perennialists argue that the emergence of nationalism cannot be fully understood unless we relate it to deeper ethnic identities, which transcend the socio-economic impact of industrial modernity, itself being more concerned with the formation of classes than that of nations.

The flaws of causality

A number of globalisation theorists, including Kaldor and Muro, have jumped into this debate, arguing that a third causal explanation can be put forward to understand the recent wave of nationalism: globalisation. They ascribe this resurgence to the decline in secular left-wing ideologies after the collapse of Communism; increased global insecurity, including economic insecurity deriving from ‘declines in state provision and public employment, rapid urbanisation, … and large scale migration’ [Kaldor & Muro: 2003]; and the rise in ‘global interconnectedness and the sense of impotence that arises when crucial decisions that affect everyday life are taken further and further away’ [ibid.]. This process represents a rejection of modernity, a reaction to outside forces not fully understood, perceived as threatening, and which prompt an irrational, often violent response. People would turn to this form of nationalism for fear, ignorance or desperation, while political elites would stir these feelings for their own opportunistic goals. To prove this, globalisation theorists point to the interaction between militant nationalist groups, Diaspora communities and the ‘new media’ – especially the Internet. Citing examples ranging form the Rwandan genocide to the post-Yugoslav conflicts in the Balkans, they argue that we are witnessing the emergence of a new type of nationalism, rooted in the deep social, economic and cultural transformations brought by globalisation.

In my view, there is a fundamental flaw in this causal logic, which is well encompassed in Justin Rosenberg’s critique of globalisation theory more in general, but which fits very well this specific case: ‘By asserting that the emergence of a single global space as the arena of social action increasingly outweighs in its consequences other kinds of causality which have traditionally been invoked to explain social phenomena, globalisation theorists invert the explanandum with the explanans’ [Held & McGrew: 2003]. In other words, Kaldor and Muro are elevating structure – increasing spatial interconnectivity, new information technologies, disparate Diaspora networks, uneven patterns of economic transformation – to the level of agency, and in so doing, they are inverting the causal logic of nationalism. The Internet, after all, has been used during the Bosnian War as a tool by both nationalist forces and human rights activists besieged in Sarajevo, and its use is hardly an explanation for why the nationalist conflict emerged in the first place. Equally unhelpful is the example of the Diasporas, which does not help us understand why do these networks feel so strongly about their national status in the first place? It would appear, in the words of Anthony Smith, that a deeper causal logic has to be used, one that reconnects nationalism to the feelings of people ‘sharing an historic territory, common myths and historical memories’ [Smith: 1991]. In this sense, globalisation as explanans conflicts with the broader understanding of globalisation as a process, which helps us frame social change, but not necessarily understand its causes.

There is a second, more conceptual problem with Kaldor and Muro’s argument, which is shared by a number of theoretical approaches that try to understand nationalism: its generalist approach. As Breuilly points out, ‘most general theories seem to have little idea about how nationalist politics actually work. Most of them seem to be generalisations from specific sorts of nationalism or, at worst, seem to have some view of nationalism which is either untestable or quite unlike the reality which is disclosed by the study of particular nationalist groups’ [Breuilly: 1993]. This is quite evident in the writings of Gellner, who avoided the traps of selective memory by ironically adopting Anthony Hope’s fictitious nation of Ruritania as his central case study of nationalism in Eastern Europe. While conceptually ingenious, this stratagem still fails to shed light to the hundreds of particular forms of nationalism that have risen over the last 200 years. Unfortunately, like in the case of many generalisations, they might help us frame the political angle by which we choose to see the world, but they don’t necessarily help us understand the specific causes and consequences of social processes.

Identity, territory and space

While there might not be a direct causal relationship between globalisation and nationalism, the two phenomena are still related, but their interplay is mediated by the field of identity-construction, and only indirectly affects the way individuals operate in relation to their social environment. For Castells, identity is ‘the process of construction of meaning on the basis of a cultural attribute, or a related set of cultural attributes, that is given priority over other sources of meaning. For a given individual, or for a collective actor, there may be a plurality of identities, … [but these are] a source of stress and contradiction in both self-representation and social action’ [Castells: 2004]. He further distinguishes three categories of identity – legitimizing, resistance and project identity – before questioning many modernists’ approaches to identity construction in the global era: ‘the rise of the network society calls into question the processes of the construction of identity … because [it] is based on the systemic disjunction between the local and the global for most individuals and social groups’ [ibid.]. This need not be in opposition to the perennialist perspective, for which the self is ‘composed of multiple identities and roles – familial, territorial, class, religious, ethnic and gender’ [Smith: 1991] – which overlap with national identity. Since – according to Castells – globalisation triggers forms of resistance identity at different levels, these can be nationalist in some contexts, but needn’t be so in a deterministic manner. In this sense, globalisation does not cause nationalism per se, but it changes the way people relate to their own national identity by redefining, for example, their relationship with territory and space.

The role of territory and space in the formation of national identity has been a central theme of social science dialogue during the past decade. … Space means not only the traditional geographical notions of fixed territories and boundaries, but also symbolic and abstract notions of space, at local, national and global levels’ [Schnell: 2001]’. There are at least two dimensions to this debate. The first one is geographical, and is best encapsulated by Paul Virilio, who argued in 1983 that the ‘acceleration of communication had led to a replacing of geographical space with time, and … suggested that deterritorialisation was the question for the end of this century’ [Elden: 2004] . This idea was subsequently picked up by Scholte, who introduced the concept of supraterritorialisation as ‘a reconfiguration of geography, so that social space is no longer wholly mapped in terms of territorial places, territorial distances and territorial borders’ [Scholte: 2000]. This is important for our understanding of nationalism, because it has bearings for the way it relates to its spatial aims. In Gellner’s words, if ‘nationalism is primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent’ [Gellner: 1983], a redefinition of the ideational territorialisation of the nation has huge implications for the way it will behave politically. The Jewish Diaspora is a case in point: for centuries deprived of its own territory, it retained (and retains) its strong national identity across time and space, but this was not a derivative of the territorial existence of the state of Israel, although its establishment remained of course a crucial goal.

The second, derived, dimension is political. As globalisation redefines our relationship with territory and space, it remoulds the way we act politically to reinforce our national identity. This helps explain for example why certain nations – like Castell’s Catalonia – shape their identity in relation to the broader European political space, a Europe of the Regions where nation-building does not coincide with state-building. But it also helps explain why in an island state like Britain, the relationship with the loss of territorial control – due to migration, the process of European integration, etc. – gives rise to profound nationalist anxieties that aim to re-establish direct control over space, by declining to join for example the Schengen Agreement. Territory and space, like shared myths and memories, are founding blocks of nationalism, and as globalisation transforms the way we relate to them, it transforms the way we make sense of our political togetherness.


I have tried to give a brief overview of the debate over nationalism and globalisation, and I have tried to sketch the way these two might interplay. Rather than a direct causal link, I believe globalisation to have a mediated effect on nationalism, through the processes of identity construction and spatial redefinition. The deterritorialisation produced by globalisation, in particular, could have two distinct political effects on nationalism: on the one hand, like in the case of the Jewish Diaspora, it could reinforce those shared myths and memories which kept it alive in the re-shaping of the ideational space; on the other, like in the case of Britain, it could strengthen those ties between national and territorial identity. What seems to me unlikely, however, is that globalisation will erode the psychological foundations of nationalism inside those societies most exposed to it, replacing it instead with what has been variedly called ‘a global identity’ and ‘a cosmopolitan culture’. At best, the two will be able to coexist, just like regional and national identity have coexisted in Italy for centuries.


  • Breuilly, John, Nationalism and the state, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993;
  • Castells, Manuel, The Power of Identity, Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1997;
  • Elden, Stuart, Missing the point: globalization, deterritorialization and the space of the world, Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2005;
  • Gellner, Ernest, Nations and Nationalism, Blackwell, 1983;
  • Gellner, Ernest, Ernest Gellner’s reply: Do nations have navels?, Nations and Nationalism, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1996.
  • Giddens, Anthony, Tradition, Chapter 3 in Runaway world: how globalisation is reshaping our lives, London: Profile, 2002.
  • Held, David and McGrew, Anthony (eds.), The global transformations reader: an introduction to the globalization debate, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2003;
  • Kaldor, Mary, Nationalism and globalisation, Nations and Nationalism, Vol. 10, Issue 1-2, 2004;
  • Kaldor, Mary and Muro, Diego (2003) Nationalist and Religious Militant Networks, in Kaldor, Mary, Helmut Anheier and Marlies Glasius eds. Global Civil Society 2003 (Oxford: Oxford University Press);
  • Kedourie, Elie, Nationalism, 3rd ed / Repr. with revisions and afterword, London: Hutchinson, 1985;
  • Schnell, Izhak, Introduction: Changing territorial concepts in Israel, GeoJournal 53: 213–217, 2001.
  • Smith, Anthony D. Memory and modernity: reflections on Ernest Gellner’s theory of nationalism, Nations and Nationalism, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1996;
  • Smith, Anthony D. National Identity, London: Penguin Books, 1991;
  • Smith, Anthony D. Nationalism and modernism : a critical survey of recent theories of nations and nationalism, New York: Routledge, 1998;
  • Smith, Anthony D. An Ethno-National Revival? Chapter 3 in Nations and Nationalism in a Global Era, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995;
  • Smith, Anthony D. Theories of Nationalism, New York: Holmes & Meier, 1983;

2 responses to “Globalization and nationalism: the missing link

  1. Very thorough and informative. Was this prepared for a class or for publication, or is it just a blog post?

  2. Thanks!

    It’s for a course, like the other essays I post here occasionally. I thought: why not, given they are unassessed and could be useful in the wider web to people who are looking for information on the topic?

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