chapter
2 Pages

Introduction

The purpose of this book is to provide a concise statement of an ethno-symbolic approach to the study of nations and nationalism. It aims to set out the theoretical background of its emergence, its main assumptions and themes, and its analysis of the formation of nations, their persistence and change and the role of nationalism. At the same time, it embodies a general statement of my own contribution to this approach and its application to the central issues of nations and nationalism. ‘Ethno-symbolism’ does not pretend to be a scientific theory.

Rather, it should be seen as a particular perspective on, and research programme for, the study of nations and nationalism. In fact, the term itself is accidental, arising as it did out of conversations at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the late 1980s about the nature of ethnic groups and nations, and the need to consider their symbolic dimensions. If labels should not be taken too seriously, hopefully the perspective

may be found useful and salutary. As I aim to show, an ethno-symbolic approach provides an important supplement and corrective to past and present intellectual orthodoxies in the field. It is a supplement because it aims to ‘fill out’ the narrative of the ‘modernists’. It acts as a corrective because, in doing so, it necessarily disputes and seeks to amend several of their arguments, as it does those of their ‘perennialist’ opponents. While it offers an alternative paradigm of study, ethno-symbolism does not propose a novel theory. This is because, in a field so vast and complex as that of nations and nationalism, the chances of doing so in a convincing manner are necessarily limited.

Perhaps this accounts for the paucity of attempts, and the ease with which counter-cases can be adduced and hypotheses refuted. All we can hope to achieve with such a kaleidoscope of processes, ideologies and actors is to offer some conceptual frameworks and tools for their classification and investigation and, in the spirit of Max Weber, some suggestions about partial and probable causal relationships. While I have drawn from time to time on the works of others

in formulating this theoretical statement, notably those of John Armstrong and John Hutchinson, what follows must be regarded as my own account of the main elements of ethno-symbolism, and is based mainly on my own interests. Drawing together and developing earlier brief résumés of my approach, it represents a summary of the theoretical aspects of my work in the field since 1986. I offer this longer exposition in the hope that a fuller account of ethno-symbolism may be found to be useful to students and to all those who are interested in the issues raised by a study of ethnicity, nations and nationalism.