The Idea of Nation and Nationalism: Michael Hechter

Nation and nationalism are contested ideas yet inseparable from our lives. Every time, debates, discussions, controversies and even wars arise because of these powerful ideas.

In this particular post, I do not write anything new. This post simply tries to provide a helpful introduction to the scholarly views of nations and nationalism. These are sourced from The Nationalism Project. I hope you find it useful not only as a student of Political Science or Sociology, but as a conscious human being willing to understand the world better.

This is PART 8 in the series: NATION & NATIONALISM


Types of Nationalism: Michael Hechter

michael hechter
Michael Hechter

Michael Hechter is one of the world’s foremost sociologists of nationalism. He currently teaches at the University of Washington and serves on The Nationalism Project’s advisory committee. His book, Containing Nationalism, offers a unified explanation of the dynamics of nationalism across the broad sweep of time and space. Among other things, it explains why nationalism is largely confined to modern history, why it is supported by specific forms of inequality between cultural groups, and why it is inclusive at some times and exclusive at others. The section quoted here offers a typology of nationalisms.

“It is widely appreciated that there are important differences between nationalist movements. Much effort has been made to create typologies that aim to capture some of the relevant distinctions (see, for example, Hall 1993). Most of these distinguish the liberal, culturally inclusive (Sleeping Beauty) nationalisms characteristic of Western Europe from the illiberal, culturally exclusive (Frankenstein’s monster) nationalisms more often found elsewhere. Whereas these normative differences between nationalist movements have been enormously important in history, it is doubtful that they can be explained if the dimensions of nationalism are chosen on normative grounds. To explain why nationalism has taken such different forms in different societies, it is better to seek a typology that is derived from analytical considerations.

“If nationalism is collective action designed to render the boundaries of the nation congruent with those of its governance unit, then a simple analytic typology of nationalism flows directly out of this definition. Further, this typology helps account for the normative differences between types of nationalism.

State-building nationalism is the nationalism that is embodied in the attempt to assimilate or incorporate culturally distinctive territories in a given state. It is the result of the conscious efforts of central rulers to make a multicultural population culturally homogeneous. Thus, beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing into the twentieth, the rulers of England and France attempted fitfully perhaps, and with more or less success-to foster homogeneity in their realms by inducing culturally distinctive populations in each country’s Celtic regions to assimilate to their own culture. Since the rationale for state-building nationalism is often geopolitical – to secure borders from real or potential rivals – this kind of nationalism tends to be culturally inclusive. However, much less liberal means of skinning a culturally homogeneous cat have been resorted to in history, as well. Central rulers of a given culture also can unify their country by expelling culturally alien populations (as in the Spanish Reconquista), or by exterminating them (often the fate of the indigenous peoples of North America).

Peripheral nationalism occurs when a culturally distinctive territory resists incorporation into an expanding state, or attempts to secede and set up its own government (as in Quebec, Scotland and Catalonia). Often this type of nationalism is spurred by the the very efforts of state-building nationalism described above.

Irredentist nationalism occurs with the attempt to extend the existing boundaries of a state by incorporating territories of an adjacent state occupied principally by co-nationals (as in the case of the Sudeten Germans).

“Finally, unification nationalism involves the merger of a politically divided but culturally homogeneous territory into one state, as famously occurred in nineteenth-century Germany and Italy. In this case, the effort to render cultural and governance boundaries congruent requires the establishment of a new state encompassing the members of the nation. Whereas state-building nationalism tends to be culturally inclusive, unification nationalism is often culturally exclusive.

“Although patriotism – the desire to raise the prestige and power of one’s own nation state relative to rivals in the international system – is often considered to be nationalistic, the present definition rules this usage out. Patriotism is no form of nationalism at all, for here the boundaries of the nation and governance unit are already congruent. This limitation is not, however, very damaging. Since few states, if any, qualify as nation states, patriotism (as defined in this book) hardly exists. Most of what passes as patriotism in common parlance implicitly advances the interests of one nation at the expense of others in multinational states. In the present framework, such activities are instances of state-building nationalism.

“The preceding typology is not exhaustive. It has no place for nationalist movements – like Zionism and Mormonism – that resulted from the migration of religious groups to distant promised lands. Such movements have been exceedingly rare, however…”


*Hechter, Michael. Containing Nationalism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. See pages 15-17.


Except necessary changes, all the contents of this post are sourced from The Nationalist Project. You can read more about the project HERE.

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Heigrujam Premkumar

I love to read. I love to write. On all things I am passionate about. Tweet me at @heigrujampk

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