The Relevance of Nationalism Today

Some might argue that the wave of scholarship on nationalism stimulated by decolonisation and subsequently the collapse of the USSR has run its course.  Many leading scholars of this era have departed this world—Gellner, Smith, Hobsbawm, Anderson, and Connor.   On the other hand, it is easy to point to current developments—Trump, Brexit, Windrush, Syria, North Korea, China—and argue that nationalism is implicated and still highly relevant, perhaps even resurgent.  But there are deeper reasons for believing this.  Nationalism isn’t just persistently topical, it’s deeply structural.  Let me suggest several reasons why nationalism and the need to study it are not going away anytime soon.

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Trump’s Inaugural Address: Power, Identity, Narrative

(Jan. 2017)

Presidential inaugural addresses tend to be broad vision statements with gestures towards national unity and purpose. A few policy directions may be outlined, but that is not their main purpose. Donald Trump’s address on 20 January 2017, sits strangely in this genre, stylistically nodding in this general direction, but primarily addressed to his already convinced supporters, more concerned to connect with them, than to intimate policy aims, or include his opposition.

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Whither Scotland Post-Referendum

(October 2014)

When I was a graduate student studying anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was conventional to divide anthropological theory between ‘idealist’ and ‘materialist’ approaches.  Most students found this distinction meaningful, but at the same time too stark.  Today this distinction comes back to haunt me.  Having lived in Edinburgh since the late 1990s, working in sociology, and specialising in Scotland and nationalism among other things, our recent referendum on Scottish independence has forced me to think again about this distinction.  Not in the sense of having to choose between materialist and idealist modes of analysis, but in terms of witnessing manifest tensions between materialist and idealist types of arguments in the debates that surrounded the referendum.  Repeatedly I was struck by how, when confronted by the sheer incalculability of material realities and future economic prospects, hope, aspiration, and enthusiasm seemed to rush in to fill the void.  Imponderable, and frankly tedious questions about how much North Sea oil is left, what will become of the Euro, and so on, would run into the ground, to be supplanted by affirmations of sheer will.  Before I say more about this, let me back up a bit, and present the general situation.

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Referendum Reservations

(Sept. 2014)

So far I have been relatively quiet about my personal views in regard to the Scottish referendum on independence on 18 September.  But some close to me have wished that I would join the conversation.  There are two things to say at the outset.  First, although I have been resident in Scotland for about sixteen years, I am still only a US citizen, and thus not eligible to vote in this referendum, or any UK election.  So what I have to say about how I might vote if I could is, as they say ‘academic’.  I am not really compelled to make a decision.  Second, I have no doubt that Scotland could be viable as a small, independent European country.  Scotland’s natural and cultural endowments are at least on a par with the rest of Europe, and its people have as much talent and wisdom as any other five million randomly selected Europeans.  So it’s by no means impossible.  I have always liked the idea of Scotland as a culturally vibrant social democracy. Neither do I have any particular attachment to the United Kingdom.  It has good points and bad points, but it is not sacrosanct, and in due course all things must pass. 

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On Nationalism and Freedom

(From: ISRF Bulletin, Sept. 2014)

As I write this Scotland, where I live, is about a week away from an historic referendum on the question of whether or not to become independent from the UK.  The polls have narrowed—at the moment it is neck and neck between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ options.  In this context (combined with the start of the teaching semester) it is difficult to put one’s mind to much else.  But I think I can make a virtue of a necessity, because what people think and feel about freedom has quite a lot to do with this issue.  So let me try.

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