Ethnic Nationalism: Definition, Theory & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Who gets to belong to the nation? This is a difficult question, and in this lesson we'll look at one way to answer this, as well as the historic consequences of that ideology.


Nationalism isn't patriotism. Don't confuse the two. Patriotism refers to a sense of civic pride and duty within a country, while nationalism is the elevation of a unified identity around the shared concept of the nation. Patriots love their country, nationalists are their country.

Nationalism is very closely connected to the concept of belonging, of being part of what we call the imagined community of the nation. So, how do we define belonging? Who gets to be part of the nation, and why? Scholars have grappled with this question for a long time. One response that's had a sizeable impact comes from Canadian researcher Michael Ignatieff. According to Ignatieff, nationalism can take one of two forms, each defined by different kinds of belonging. On one hand, you've got civic nationalism, in which national identity is defined by shared civic and political values (all citizens are part of the nation). On the other, you've got ethnic nationalism, where belonging is defined by ethnic identity, language, religion, and similar traits. It's a form of nationalism with some strong opinions about who does, and does not, belong.

Michael Ignatieff

Tenets of Ethnic Nationalism

A nation-state is comprised of two elements, the nation and the state. How did these two elements get together? According to ethnic nationalism, the nation (the community) exists first, and the state is created around it, and to serve it.

Okay, so what's that mean? We start with a group of people who speak the same language. Let's call this language...English. These English-speaking people practice the same cultural values, share customs and beliefs, and generally follow the same religion. They develop a sense of identity and see themselves as different from other groups of people who speak different languages or have different beliefs. Over time, these people of the English-speaking nation start to define a geographical region which becomes attached to their identity. This is their homeland. Let's call it England. Soon, they are creating formal government structures -- the state -- to rule over England and politically unite the English people.

See how that works? First came the nation, and then the state (the geopolitical realm) was developed in order to unite and serve the nation. The nation creates the state, so the state must always serve a single ethnic nation. Ethnic nationalism is defined by this shared belief in the relationship between nation and state. You belong to the nation if you share an ethnic identity with the nation, not just because you share a political heritage or citizenship status. Nationalism is inherited through ancestry, not granted to each individual upon the age of citizenship by their own merits.

So, is it possible to join an ethnic nation as an outsider? Yes, but it's difficult. To become part of the nation, an immigrant has to completely abandon all concept of their previous identity or nationhood. Even then, there's a chance that they will always been seen as an outsider, especially if their physical features don't match the ethnic profile of the nation. The best they can hope for may be to marry a local, and that their children or grandchildren will eventually be accepted as members of the national community.

Nazi antisemitic propaganda was often based in ethnic nationalism and the exclusion of Jews.

This exclusivity can be used to explain a lot of violence in European history, particularly against groups like the Jews. Jewish populations who refused to abandon their faith and customs were marginalized as outsiders. They did not belong within the nation, and this made them targets of prejudice and violence whenever the community needed someone to blame for economic, political, or social tension.

Historic Examples of Ethnic Nationalism

Within ethnic nationalism, the nation preceded the state and was built upon shared ethnic identification. However, Ignatieff builds upon this in examining how the concept of ethnic nationalism came to be formally recognized. It starts with the emergence of civic nationalism. For a long time, ethnic nationalism wasn't really a defined concept because it was simply the de facto mode of life. That's just how it was.

This began to change in the 18th century, after the American Revolution put a new, radical idea into practice: it was citizenship that mattered, not ethnicity. Everybody should have equal access to the state as long as they shared the same fundamental political values. This idea spread, notably inspiring the French Revolution by the end of the century.

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