Book Review of Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780

Nations and Nationalism since 1780 explores how humans naturally divide themselves into groups, particularly nationality and the variety of definitions this term carries. Hobsbawm questions whether language and ethnicity can truly be features of nationalism, and whether these ideals conform with how society perceives national identity verses the individual’s perception of national identity.

Hobsbawm begins the book by stating dictionary definitions for the term nationalism, in which there is an emphasis on ethnic origin, language and putting one’s country first at the expense of another’s, supporting primordialism. This is supported by examples of colour and racial discrimination from the Holocaust against the Jews and America’s apartheid. Conversely, whilst acknowledging that language creates a barrier between foreigners, Hobsbawm argues there is an advantage of bilingualism if people are willing to learn a second language, which is becoming more frequent with urbanisation, industrialisation and migration, which undermines the national assumption that all citizens of a country must speak a uniform language. To support this, he refers to French nationalism being based upon citizenship rather than the need for French roots. I agree that this view of nationalism is more accurately applied to the modern day, given mass migration and inter-ethnic marriage; this modern view of nationalism eradicates the question of how far back does one’s nationality need to be checked, for example if a child is brought up on a country’s policies and learns to speak their language rather than that of their foreign speaking parent or grandparent and so on.

With regards to sources, Hobsbawm doesn’t provide a clear bibliography at the end of his book, despite the references he makes to several historians such as Benedict Anderson; despite he does citing some in the footnotes of his work. Therefore, it is difficult as the reader, to locate these sources effectively, and evaluate their credibility as the year and publishing company are often absent. Likewise, Hobsbawm’s book could have been used more effectively had he referred to the maps located at the back, as the reader may not realise that these are provided until they have finished reading – in which case they are useless; perhaps it could have been beneficial for Hobsbawm to indicate when he would like the reader to acknowledge these. Regarding his methodology, I would argue that Hobsbaum is not at first clear which side of the argument he takes, stating first examples of primordialism before disputing them with modernist arguments of nationalism. However, in a literary sense, this gives the impression of his arguments’ superiority at having the last word rather than arguing his modernist views, only to criticise them with primordialism.

Overall, Hobsbaum rejects the primordialism view of nationalism whilst acknowledging the existence of the argument, suggesting that nationalism is what the individual believes it to be, creating and changing it accordingly. Whilst the authority wish it to be a uniform state of the same ethnicity and language, this is not necessarily how the individual perceives it, as a sense of belonging which humans crave for.

Bibliography

Hobsbawm, Eric, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, 1992, Cambridge University Press,


 

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