Thursday, February 25, 2016

First book, Words and Things (1959), prompted a leader in The Times and a month-long correspondence on its letters page over his attack on *linguistic philosophy

Ernest AndrĂ© Gellner 

The Independent as a "one-man crusade for critical rationalism".[1] 

~ * linguistic philosophy

(9 December 1925 – 5 November 1995)

Gellner's theory of nationalism

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Gellner's theory of nationalism has been developed by Ernest Gellner over a number of publications during his lifetime, from around the early 1960s up to his death in 1995.[1][2] Gellner discusses this topic in a number of works, starting with Thought and Change (1964), and most notably develops it in Nations and Nationalism (1983).[2]


Gellner defined nationalism as "primarily a political principle that holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent".[3] In more detail, he also defined it as
the general imposition of a high culture on society, where previously low cultures had taken up the lives of the majority, and in some cases the totality, of the population. It means the general diffusion of a school-mediated, academy supervised idiom, codified for the requirements of a reasonably precise bureaucratic and technological communication. It is the establishment of an anonymous impersonal society, with mutually sustainable atomised individuals, held together above all by a shared culture of this kind, in place of the previous complex structure of local groups, sustained by folk cultures reproduced locally and idiosyncratically by the micro-groups themselves.[4]
Gellner analyzed nationalism through a historical perspective.[5] He saw the history of humanity culminating in the discovery of modernity, of which nationalism was a key functional element.[5] Modernity, through changes in political and economical system, is tied to the popularization of education, which in turn is tied to the unification of language.[5] However, as modernization spread around the world, it did so slowly, and in numerous places cultural elites were able to resist cultural assimilation and successfully defend their own culture and language.[5]
For Gellner, nationalism was a sociological condition,[5] a likely but not guaranteed (he himself noted exceptions in the form of Switzerland or multilingual states such as Belgiumand Canada[2]) result of modernization, the transition from agrarian to industrial society.[1][2] His theory focuses on the political and cultural aspects of that transition.[1] In particular, he focused on the unifying and culturally homogenizing roles of the educational systems, national labor markets, and improved communication and mobility (in the context of urbanization).[1] Thus he argued that nationalism was highly compatible with industrialization, and served the purpose of replacing the ideological void left by the disappearance of the prior agrarian society culture, and the political and economical system of feudalism, legitimizing the new system.[1][2]
Eriksen listed the following as "some of the central features of nationalism" in Gellner's theory:[1]
  • Shared, formal educational system
  • Cultural homogenization and "social entropy"
  • Central monitoring of the polity, extensive bureaucratic control
  • Linguistic standardization
  • National identification – the abstract community
  • Cultural similarity as a basis for political legitimacy
  • Anonymity, single-stranded social relationships
Gellner also provided a typology of "nationalism-inducing and nationalism-thwarting situations".[2]
Gellner criticized a number of other theoretical explanations of nationalism, including the "naturality theory" which states that it is "natural, self-evident and self-generating", a basic quality of human being, and a neutral or a positive quality; its dark version, the "Dark Gods theory", which sees nationalism as an inevitable expression of basic human atavistic, irrational passions; Elie Kedourie's idealist argument that it was an accidental development, an intellectual error of disseminating unhelpful ideas, and not related to industrialization; and the Marxist theory that nations appropriated the leading role of social classes.[2]


Gellner is considered one of the leading theoreticians on the issue of nationalism. Eriksen noted that "nobody contests Ernest Gellner's central place in the research on nationalism over the last few decades",[1] and O'Leary referred to his theory as "the best-known modernist explanatory theory of nationalism".[2]


Gellner's theory has been subject to various criticisms:[2]
  • It is too functionalist. Critics charge that Gellner explains the phenomenon with reference to the eventual historical outcome: industrial society could not 'function' without nationalism.[6]
  • It misreads the relationship between nationalism and industrialisation.[7]
  • It accounts poorly for national movements of ancient Rome and Greece, since it insists that nationalism is tied to 'modernity' and cannot exist without a clearly defined modern industrialisation.[5][8]
  • It fails to account for nationalism in non-industrial society and resurgences of nationalism in post-industrial societies.[7]
  • It fails to account for nationalism in sixteenth-century Europe.[9]
  • It cannot explain the passions generated by nationalism: why should anyone fight and die for his country?[10]
  • It fails to take into account the role of war and the military in fostering both cultural homogenisation and nationalism, ignoring in particular the relationship between militarismand compulsory education.[11]
  • It has been compared to technological determinism, as it disregards the views of individuals.[5]