WE ARE A NATION AND WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO DECIDE! Catalonian Independence Protest. Photo by Paco Rivière, Flickr CC

Recent events in Burma, the United States, and Spain have shown how appeals to nationalism can initiate or heighten violence. Nationalist ideologies, however, look quite different in each of these countries, and many countries with strong national identities do not experience these types of conflict at all. Sociological research helps explain how nationalism develops differently from one country to the next and the consequences that result.

Nationalism is a particularly strong form of identification, as it can surpass personal connections and reinforce a shared bond throughout the borders of a nation. Social identity can help people define their place in the world, and nationalism can provide a positive way through which to do so. It can also be used to advocate for national-scale interests on a global level, promoting diverse perspectives in international institutions. This is especially true when a country was created through a more spontaneous process, where national identity develops simultaneously with the broader identity formation of groups already living in a particular area.
But the path to nationhood isn’t always so organic. Many nations were originally created through decades or centuries of violence and oppression. In other words, national identity works differently when it interacts with different kinds of state power. A majority of countries in the Global South began with ambiguously drawn borders created with the intent of domination. In such states, nationalism stems from (oftentimes violent) renegotiations of identity following foreign rule.
These different pathways to nationhood result in dramatically different forms of nationalism across the globe. Civic nationalism, for example, is based on citizenship as the root of belonging, while ethnic nationalism is grounded in ethnic identity. Ethnic nationalism tends to be more prominent in nations that have experienced more conflict over time. It can also be more exclusionary, with some studies finding lower tolerance for immigrants in more ethnically-nationalist societies. These two forms can also blend together, as civic nationalism can express quieter assumptions about ethnic belonging.