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Book Review


Grosby, Steven. Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). 142 pp., $9.95.

     A simple, but compelling idea—to publish a series of very short introductions (VSI) written by specialists and covering a wide variety of topics: biographies (from Aristotle and Gandhi to Machiavelli and Wittgenstein); disciplines (from Archaeology and History to Political Science and Sociology); "isms" (from Anarchism and Existentialism to Postmodernism and Terrorism); issues/themes (from Animal Rights and Cold War to Intelligence and World Music); myth and science (from Cosmology and Egyptian Myth to Galileo and Quantum Theory); religions (from Buddhism and Hinduism to Judaism and Sikhism); and religious and secular literature (from the Bible and the Koran to Russian Literature and Shakespeare). Thank you, Oxford University Press!1

     Steven Grosby, in Chapter 1 of his Very Short Introduction to nationalism, presents the "problem" of nationalism as the "tendency of humans to separate themselves from one another into those distinct societies that we call nations," and he states that the primary goal of his book is to examine this tendency. (4) In succeeding chapters, he defines "nation" and "nationalism" (7-26); explains the nation as a "social relation" (27-42); discusses the importance of territory (motherland, fatherland, and homeland) to nations and nationalism (43-56); explores the appearance of the nation in history (57-79); presents the "conceptually complicated" relationship between the nation and religion (80-97); and, in the penultimate chapter, returns to the human "tendency" toward divisiveness (98-115). Grosby also provides a wrap-up chapter with his main conclusion (116-120).

     Grosby reduces the theoretical disputes related to the idea of the nation to two main issues: (1) identity—"the problem of the degree to which a national culture . . . is a factor in the formation of the character of an individual" and (2) origins—"the extent to which the appearance of nations is to be viewed as historically recent" (117-118). Regarding the latter issue, Grosby takes a strong stance against the argument that the formation of nations is historically novel. He acknowledges the important relationship between the modern nation and the relatively recent developments of democratic conceptions of political participation, the social mobility made possible by industrial capitalism, and the impact of technological advancements on transportation and communication. (57) However, he argues that scholars who base their analyses of the origin of the nation on these factors alone are guilty of being selective in their evidence and of disregarding important earlier developments, such as "the emergence of a national law of the land in medieval England." (58)

     Grosby observes that expressions of the historical nation are varied, that the nation's appearance and continuation over time is "not an [sic] historically uniform process that can be attributed to one cause." (58) He then proceeds to "complicate" the understanding of the nation in history by examining evidence related to four societies from different periods and different places: Sri Lanka from 161 BCE to 718 CE; ancient Israel before 586 BCE; Japan from the late-seventh to the ninth centuries CE (Nara Period); and medieval Poland. (58-59) Relevant to these societies, Grosby offers four "formative factors" important to distinguishing them as "pre-modern nations." The first factor was law, important in the "formation of an extensive, relatively uniform territory." The second and third factors—religion and war—were significant to the development of a "distinctive culture" in each of these societies. Finally, the fourth factor was a common language. (66-70)

     With these four case studies in place, Grosby considers arguments both for and against his position. For example, he discusses the fact that war required "a mass mobilization of the population" that, in the case of medieval Poland, saw a "significant participation of peasants." (69) The involvement of peasants, who were peripheral to the center of socio-political elite control, implies the possibility that they had some self-understanding as belonging to a larger entity, a nation, beyond their immediate rural communities. However, Grosby concedes that little or no evidence exists to help historians understand how these peasants experienced and understood the wars in which they fought. And herein lies the rub: How, then, can we know for certain that they viewed conflicts as wars between "nations"? Grosby gives his answer to this objection:

     It is difficult to avoid suspecting that, given developments such as a territorially unifying religion and law propagated by the ruling centre, found in varying degrees in all these societies [i.e., the four mentioned above], there must have been some degree of recognition by the peasantry that the centre of their respective society was precisely that, and accordingly was due their respect." (69, emphasis mine)

     To sum up his discussion, Grosby provides six reasons justifying his classification of these four pre-modern societies as nations, because all possessed:

    1. self-designating names;
    2. written histories;
    3. degrees of cultural uniformity usually tied to a religion;
    4. legal codes;
    5. "authoritative centre[s]";
    6. a conception of bounded territories. (72)

     One qualm I have with Grosby regarding this part of his book is that he seems to take the narrative of ancient Israel too much at face value. Although the religious-nationalist narrative of ancient Israel (bequeathed to us in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) may have formed an important foundation for some modern Jewish nationalists/Zionists in helping create the sense of Jewish nationhood that contributed to the birth of the state of Israel in 1948, higher criticism of the Bible has at least opened for debate whether that narrative can be used as evidence for substantiating the formation of a "pre-modern nation" called Israel (at least before 586 BCE).

     One particularly provocative question Grosby's poses concerns the relationship between religion and nation. "Does the nation today," he asks, "represent the continuation of paganism within the civilizations of our time to which monotheism has accommodated itself?" In his lead up to this question, he draws on the same four cases mentioned above. For example, Grosby highlights the importance of the development among the ancient Israelites of henotheism—the belief in one family or tribal god, in this case Yahweh, without denying the existence of other gods—as a theological step toward becoming full-fledged monotheists. The development of henotheism, with the focus on Yahweh, was significant for the formation of the Israelite nation, Grosby argues, because Yahweh was associated with a specific territory, thus unifying the "promised land" and the Israelites "into the culturally relatively uniform territorial community of the nation." (82)

     The development of the Israelite religion into full-fledged monotheism potentially complicated the relationship between nation and religion because "the belief in one, universal god asserts the unity of humanity, and not the distinctiveness of the nation." However, Israelite, and later Jewish, monotheism retained the ideas of a chosen people, a promised land, and the assumed Abraham-Isaac-and Jacob lineage, all of which "distinguished these monotheists, as a nation, from the other children of the one and only god." (82-83) Thus, these distinguishing features qualified the universality of Israelite/Jewish monotheism.

     Grosby, in pursuing this "qualification of monotheism," points out that monotheistic Roman Catholicism and Buddhism, viewed from the perspective of the histories of Poland and Sri Lanka (considered earlier in the book), are also examples of intertwining monotheistic beliefs with the nation. Moreover, he introduces to his discussion the Eastern Orthodox tradition that during the siege of Constantinople by the Avars and Persians (6th to early 7th centuries), the Virgin Mary helped defend the city and, thereafter, became its "protectress." Equally, according to Polish tradition, in 1655 the Virgin Mary helped defeat Swedish invaders and became, among Polish believers, the "protectress of the territorial integrity of Poland." (84)

     Finally, as to the focus on the human tendency toward divisiveness, Grosby considers past and current sociological-historical-biological debates over race, culture, and the biology of "us" versus "them" (i.e., both the distinguishing factors—economic, religious, etc.—that contribute to a given society defining itself against the "other" and, interestingly, the biological factors that distinguish humans from the animal kingdom). (98-115) Grosby's conclusion is that "humans are preoccupied with vitality, above all its origins." (119, emphasis mine) This preoccupation with origins, he argues, induces the formation of kinship relations, the most obvious being the family. The concept of the nation complicates the formation of kinship structures because it "introduces an extensive, yet bounded territory as a further element in this preoccupation with vitality." But Grosby argues for the importance of pondering the significance of birth; for in the same way that parents place the well-being of their children before their own well being, "members of a nation may sacrifice their lives for the well-being of their nation; and it is such self-sacrifice, so frequent throughout the 20th century, which requires acknowledgement." (120) Some argue that the mind-broadening dynamics of globalization are overcoming the myopic significance attributed to one's birthplace, but, as Grosby states, "it has not happened yet" and the consequent "division of humanity into nations continues." (115)

     This book (and the whole VSI series) is intended for a wide audience of educators and students (from secondary to higher education) and of other persons with inquiring minds who want to expand their general knowledge of the world—in all its variety. In the field of world history, the importance of the concept of nationalism needs no explanation. I envision using this book in my general world history courses from 1500 AD/CE to the present. In a more specialized course on nationalism and the Middle East (upper-division undergraduate or graduate), I might also couple this book with an introduction by Anthony Smith (for example) as a lead-in to books on how nationalism has played out in the Middle East. If teachers of world history choose not to use this book in class, I highly recommend they at least read it for background information to expand their understanding of nationalism as a theme in modern world history.

1 OUP has set up a VSI homepage:


Eric Engel Tuten
Slippery Rock University


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