Jon Fox: Nationalism, social constructivism, modernists, ethno-symbolists

Introducing Jon Fox

Jon FoxDr Jon Fox is Lecturer in Sociology at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies of Bristol University.

He obtained a MA and PhD at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) and previously worked as Visiting Scholar at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies of the University of California in San Diego.

The main research interests of dr Fox are nationalism, ethnicity and international migration. He is particularly interested in how ordinary people reproduce ethnic, national, and racialised forms of collective belonging in their everyday lives.

This interview addresses topics such as definitions of the nation, social constructivism and the persepctives of modernists, ethno-symbolists and perennialists. The other part is Jon Fox: Nationalist elites, representations, reception theory, social media, sports.

Interview

Definition of nationalism: a process, not a thing

What do you think of Benedict Anderson’s claim that “[n]ation, nationality, nationalism – all have proved notoriously difficult to define, let alone analyse.”

Anderson’s observation is spot on in my view: attempts to define these terms, particularly nations and nationalities, have revealed more conceptual problems than they have yielded analytical insights.

The problem is that definitions of nations and nationalities are invariably attempting to identify these phenomena as ‘things’ in the world; intentionally or unintentionally, they thus contribute to their reification. Nationalism, as a process, is therefore somewhat easier to tackle, but of course definitions of nationalism are going to take us back to definitions of nations!

What are your working definitions of nation, nationalism and national identity?

I’ve always liked Hugh Seton Watson’s (1977: 5) definition of nations that features in his book, “Nations and Nationalism:” ‘All that I can find to say is that a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation.’

I like this definition not just for its self-defeatism, but more fundamentally because it correctly highlights the subjective basis of nations, a basis that Weber similarly highlights in his definition of ethnic groups (and indeed Anderson emphasises with his ‘imagined’ community definition of the nation).

In other words, we shouldn’t try to (objectively) pin down what nations are; to do so would not only fail to capture the sort of variation we find in subjective understandings of the nation, but it would also unwittingly contribute to the analytical reification of the concept.

Studying nationalism: social constructivism, modernists, ethno-symbolists, perennialists

How can discourse analysis methods help in analysing nationalism?

Discursive approaches to nations and nationalism are useful precisely because they don’t treat nations as things in the world but rather as discursive stances on the world.

Discourse analytical approaches to nationalism focus attention on the ways in which differently situated social actors discursively invoke ‘the nation’ to order difference and make sense of themselves and the world around them.

A more expansive reading of discourse (a la Craig Calhoun [1997], for instance) posits that the nation is not just a speech act but rather a cultural idiom that manifests itself in more varied ways.

Both narrow and expansive readings of discourse take us back to Seton-Watson: a nation is when people say it’s a nation.

Why do you argue that social constructivism should play a key role in studying nationalism?

To me, that the nation is a social construct is an obvious and fundamental point. The nation does not exist without the myriad social processes that will it into existence; it is therefore socially constructed.

To study it otherwise (as having some real, objective, or natural existence in the world) is in my view fundamentally flawed.

We may argue about the timing of when nations are made (see most importantly Anthony Smith’s work in this regard) but the fact remains that nations are made, whether in the modern era (the modernist perspective) or before that (the ethno-symbolist or perennialist perspective). I think there’s wide agreement on this: as far as I’m concerned we’re all social constructivists; it’s just stating the obvious.

The top-down/bottom-up debate in nation-making research

Why do you think that nationalism also needs to be studied as a bottom-up process?

The scholarship on nationalism has long been preoccupied with the very valid question of how nations are made.

Most definitions of nationalism will connect nation making processes to state making processes; in so doing, they typically adopt macro analytical perspectives that examine the ways in which various social structures contribute to nation-making. I take no issue with this.

But for me it leaves unanswered a different set of questions relating to the ways in which ordinary people imbibe and reproduce (or ignore and deflect as the case may be) the nation in their everyday lives. Nationalism claims to speak in the name of these people, yet we have comparatively little research on what these people do, if anything, with the nation in their day-to-day lives.

A bottom up approach thus offers a partial corrective to this top down bias in the scholarship.

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