Nationalism's healthy state

March 24, 1995

"Ten years ago, everyone wanted to study Marxism. Today, it is nationalism and ethnicity." So said Brendan O'Leary, lecturer at the London School of Economics, at the fifth annual conference of the LSE-based Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism. ASEN has just launched a new journal, Nations and Nationalism, and next year, the LSE launches an MSc in nationalism.

It is ironic that this resurgence of academic interest in nation-alism has arrived at a time when nationalism as a catalyst of global conflict is fast disappearing. Fred Halliday, an LSE professor, said that Sarajevo 1995 is less explosive than Sarajevo 1914 because "major states aren't interested in nationalism". Other speakers, endorsing this observation, pointed to the fact that nationalism is a source of local rather than global tension.

Ralph Premdas, a University of the West Indies professor, highlighted the "fiction" of a united Caribbean identity by detailing the many nationalisms of the Caribbean, from the imaginative nationalism of emigrants "cut off from the nourishing source of the motherland" to the regional nationalism of peoples separated by "a language-delineated boundary". These nationalisms caused tensions, like separatist tendencies in Tobago and African-Indian squabbles in Trinidad, but did not threaten international security.

Duke University professor Edward Tiryakian went even further. Far from arguing that nationalism represented a danger to security, he boldly asserted that nationalism was a force for good, singling out the fall of the Soviet empire as proof positive.

If the ideas were strange, so were the words. Sociologists and students traded terms like hybridity, indigenousism and McDonaldisation. Some of this was too much, even for the specialists. At one point, Professor Halliday admitted: "Spectrality? I'm not quite into spectrality. But I'll get there."

But it took a brave anthropologist, Richard Fardon, to question the notion of ethnicity as a category for describing social difference. For most others, ethnicity was a given.

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