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 Ernest Gellner’s theory of nationalism and its Durkheimian flaws

 Opinion — Analysis 
  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


Ernest Gellner’s theory of nationalism and its Durkheimian flaws ‎ 13.6.2012 
By Saeed Kakeyi

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Saed Kakei, Ph.D. Student, Nova Southeastern University’s Department of Conflict Analysis & Resolution – PhD Program Read more by the Author
June 13, 2012

By: Saed Kakei, Ph.D. Student

Nova Southeastern University,
Department of Conflict Analysis & Resolution, Ph.D. Program


Unlike the far too many contemporary definitions for political terms, “Nationalism” is one that has yet to have a precise definition for a political phenomenon that has been causing unprecedented human sufferings, at least, in modern history. One reason for this lack of a coherent definition is the attached sentiment to the political wills of those who advocate nationalism, including members of organizations such as Zionism and its imitator the African-American Nation of Islam on the one hand, and those who oppose it on the other hand. As such, with the recurrence of nationalism as one of the major causes of violence, especially in the post-Cold War era, Ernest Gellner’s theory of nationalism has been receiving load applauses in many academic circles primarily by political scientists from western individualist cultures. In light on this, this short essay argues that because of its Durkheimian functionalist subjectivity and because of its contradictions with the nature of foreign policies of nations-states often violating the principles of international law, Gellner’s theory of nationalism is flawed.


In my earlier essay titled “Ernest Gellner's Nations and Nationalism: A Book Critique,” written while taking the elective graduate course of “History, memory, and conflict resolution” offered at the Nova Southeastern University’s Department of Conflict Analysis and Resolution – Ph.D. program, I provided some essential examinations of Gellner’s second edition of Nations and Nationalism ( See http://www.kurdishaspect.com/doc031412SK.html).

In this essay, however, a side from providing a brief summary of the book’s expression and its thesis development, I will briefly discuss the intellectual connection between Emile Durkheim and Gellner. Afterward, I will examine Durkheim’s economically functionalist influence on Gellner’s modernist theory of nationalism. In so doing, I will consider Gellner’s functionalist method of description, particularly his definition of nationalism in relation to a nation-state’s issues of national interests. Lastly, I will explore the possibilities of reformulating Gellner’s functionalist arguments in a non-functionalist mode by which reasons lead concerns in the process of understanding knowledge.

A brief summary of Gellner’s “Nations and Nationalism”

The central thesis of Gellner’s "Nations and Nationalism" argues that nationalism is a powerful sentiment that holds a key component of passage from an agrarian community to an industrial society in which the latter requires a politically defined state that can create and enable a belonging, knowledgeable and appreciated culture. Gellner expounds this discourse by sustaining that the only extraordinary change since the recorded history began has been the

transition from agrarian to industrial society. He maintains that this underpinning transition has holistically transformed humanity’s basic social relations to its overall political structure based on the goodness of industrialization. Like most modernist scholars, Gellner pays specific attention to human quest for knowledge; and, as knowledge peaks, he believes that it will be standardized as “high culture” and persistently becomes the most essential requirement of industrialism. Inaccurately, however, Gellner thinks that only a nation-state, as the “congruent” unit, has the legitimate authority and the ability to indoctrinate and maintain qualities of homogeneous high culture on an uprooted labour force. In furthering this argument, he asserts that modern industrial society is based on constant cognitive and complex economic progress. Such an assertion requires a theoretical reasoning. Therefore, Gellner selects Emile Durkheim’s functionalist theory of division of labour. After patching some of its flaws, Gellner provides that because of the division of labour in modern industrial society is more complex and constantly evolving and requires liberal and context-free communication between members of society, the progress of high culture necessitates a nationally homogeneous state.

By focusing on the importance of “will and culture” for the construction of a theory of nationalism, Gellner informs his reader that a “top-down homogenization” incites the reaction of the excluded ethnic minority to protect its own will and culture. Nonetheless, if this minority group needs to be transformed into a high culture, then it has to have a legitimate political authority.

Gellner goes on to tackle various typologies of nationalism. In so doing, he rejects four of the highly contested theories of nationalism. First, in concert with Elie Kedourie’s nationalist theory, he argues that a nationalist theory which claims to be a “natural and self-evident and self-generating” is false (Gellner, 1983, p. 129), because it “owes its plausibility and compelling nature only to a very special set of circumstances, which do indeed obtain now, but which were alien to most of humanity and history” (1983, p. 126). Second, this time Gellner disputes Kedourie’s theory by describing it as “an artificial consequence of ideas which did not need ever to be formulated” (1983, p. 129). Third, he ridicules Marxism for claiming that “the awakening message [of nationalism] was intended for classes, but by some terrible postal error was delivered to nations” (1983, p.129). Fourth, Gellner dismisses the “Dark Gods” theoretical claim that “nationalism is the re-emergence of the atavistic forces of blood or territory” on the bases that these dark forces are “neither nicer nor nastier” than the pre-nationalism ones (1983, p. 130).

Gellner speculates that when an industrial society is alleviated and stabilized, nationalism will be modified in one way or the other (1983, pp. 108-9). Then, he goes on to assume that an increase in international freedom and the shared limitations of industrial society may reduce the sharpness of international conflicts (1983, p. 116). Finally, Gellner believes that Immanuel Kant did not ideologically play a significant role in the development of nationalism; therefore, he was the source of all evil. Gellner maintains that “Kant is the very last person whose vision could be credited with having contributed to nationalism” (1983, p. 132).

Durkheim’s intellectual influence over Gellner

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), a modernist French sociologist, was the first theorist advocating institutionalization in social science. His main difficultly was that of legitimate modern order. By examining traditional societies formed by various pre-industrial institutions such as the family, religion, and segmental or clan-base communities, Durkheim argued that the formation of their social order was based on high integration. However, this did not solve his order dilemma. Rather, he wanted to understand the order that holds societies together in the modern industrial world. Therefore, Durkheim applied two sociological methodologies—structural and functional—to his positivist research design with which he was able to develop his social solidarity theory of division of labour. With this theory,
www.ekurd.net Durkheim argued that pre-agrarian societies were able to develop their subsequent agrarian civilizations because of unity they created by forming the family institution. Then, to achieve “social cohesion” between various family units, religion was recognized “to embrace a smaller and smaller portion of social life. Originally, it pervades everything; everything social is religious…” (Durkheim, 1933, p. 169). Durkheim categorized this method of social solidarity as “mechanical solidarity.” Mechanical, because “the cohesion which unites the elements of an inanimate body, as opposed to that which makes a unity out of the elements of a living body” (1933, p. 148). In other words, social solidarity is derived from like-mindedness and it is bound by “conscience collective” which means “the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to average members of the same society” (Thomson, 2002, p. 59). Gellner subjectively terms Durkheim’s “conscience collective” as “low culture.” He furthers that “[d]uring the early period of industrialization, of course, low cultures are also liable to be seized on and turned into diacritical markers of the disadvantaged ones, […] notably if they define large and territorially more or less compact populations” (1983, p. 74).

Back to Durkheim’s accounts, he believed that conscience collective and social cohesion cannot help to overcome the process of industrialization and its rapid urbanization that has created. He asserted that not only the family institution is incapable of keeping its unity, but also religion is constantly resisting the domination of modern atomization. Durkheim explained that “… little by little, political, economic, scientific functions free themselves from the religious function... God, who was at first present in all human relations, progressively withdraws from them; he abandons the world to men and their disputes” (1933, p. 169). Parallel to this gradual process, mechanical solidarity transforms to organic solidarity with which modern civilization become unstable in a constant crisis because of its egotistic individuals. Durkheim described organic solidarity to be like the 'organs' of a body which are functionally interdependent and constituted “by a system of different organs each of which has a special role, and which are themselves formed of differentiated parts” (1933, p. 181).

Inconsistently however, Durkheim related that as societies become modernized due to the industrialization advancements, their integration progressively increases; and, “'the unity of the organism increases as this individuation of the parts is more marked” (1933, p. 148). Consequently, the division of labour holds people together, because they need each other, especially as their population grow in volume, density and then in “moral density.” Paradoxically,

after arguing that Durkheim’s organic solidarity is problematic, Gellner modifies it asserting that industrialization and its urban civilization is a “high literate culture” and that “[a] high culture pervades the whole of society, defines it, and needs to be sustained by the polity. That is the secret of nationalism” (1983, p.18). Gellner concludes that “in the agrarian world, high culture co-exists with low cultures, and, needs a church […] to sustain it. In the industrial world high cultures prevail, but they need a state not a church, and they need a state each. That is one way of summing up the emergence of the nationalist age” (1983, pp. 72-3).

So, just as Durkheim structurally distinguished between three radically different societies: highly integrated pre-agrarian society, conscience collective agrarian society, and egotistic individualist modern society, Gellner embraces these ‘fundamentally different types’ of social structures in his materialist interpretation of history and, with minor terminological adjustments, he terms them as: hunter-gatherer society, agrarian society, and industrial society. However, unlike Durkheim who used social solidarity as a classification method, Gellner uses culture as social development measure considering: hunter-gatherer society as wild illiterate culture; agrarian society as low literate culture, and industrial society as the high literate culture. Yet, it is critically important to mention that Gellner is differing with Durkheim on some concepts of division of labour. In particular, on the formation of the modern industrial society where unlike Durkheim, Gellner considers its “labour market as uniform mass, rather than as individuals” because “the standardization of expression and comprehension" leads to the capacity for context-free communication” (Conversi, 2000, p. 102).

Another aspect of Durkheimian influence on Gellner’s theory of nationalism is functionalism. Durkheim used the functional approach to develop his theory of division of labour in society. He defines the term function as follows: "It expresses the relation existing between these [societal] movements and corresponding needs of the organism" (1933, p. 49). Generally, every social organism has multidimensional needs and at the centre of these needs are knowledge, economy, and power. It appears that Gellner uses Durkheim’s functional approach to emphasize on three categories of human activity: the economy, power, and knowledge. Nonetheless, Gellner’s functionalism is illustrated as follows:

“So the economy needs both the new type of central culture and the central state; the culture needs the state; and the state probably needs the homogeneous cultural branding of its flock […] In brief, the mutual relationship of a modern culture and state is something quite new, and springs, inevitably, from the requirements of a modern economy” (1983, p. 140).

What Gellner advocates here is in fact a homogenous state formation that needs a political response to a functional imperative: social mobility due to economic needs makes it necessary the creation of a collective identity on the newly populated territories. The creation of a “homogeneous” collective identity is not rapid as Gellner thinks. Rather, it is a gradual transformative process that requires a great deal of “assimilationism.” From a postmodernist perspective, which this paper follows, assimilationism is a sociopolitical policy-practice designed to assimilate politically inactive aboriginal communities and uprooted individuals into the dominant homogeneous state. The relative non-violent functionality of assimilationism achieves greater possibilities of cultural unity as well as communal-state congruency. As for nationalism, it is an aggressive offensive/defensive political philosophy intends to attain and maintain the national interests of the politically active nations in both state and non-state formations.

Nowhere in Gellner’s accounts have we seen any reference to national interests. In fact, his modernist definition of nationalism as it is “primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent” (1983, p. 1), has some serious constitutional flaws. If this Gellnerian definition is accepted as accurate, then a sovereign nation would have left with no choice but to violate its own, let alone other sovereign nations’ constitutional codes in pursuit of its vital national interests beyond its own legally defined and internationally legitimized borders. Admittedly, while nationalism asserts that humanity be divided into nation states, fundamentally however, it contradicts its own intentions to attain and maintain the national interests of the politically active unit, be it internationally recognised as a legitimate state or has yet to earn that identity to play games in club of nations.

The Gellnerian “nationalism” contradiction is deeply embedded within the elusive rules of international law. For example, the principle of “non-intervention” in contemporary international law has been repeatedly violated under the pretexts of national security and the defence of vital national interests. Therefore, Gellner’s theory of nationalism is far from the political legitimacy it claims to have. Also, its definition, as discussed, deeply offends the very nationalist sentiment which Gellner cautions not to violate “the nationalist principle of congruence of state and nation…” (1983, p. 134). Additionally, this statutory defect in Gellner’s nationalism adds more confusion to the complexity created by the modernists’ theories of nations and nationalism as attempts to substitute nationalism with Durkheim’s retreat of religion as assumed in his modernist notion of organic solidarity.


After providing a short summary for Gellner’s most celebrated book “Nations and Nationalism,” this paper discussed Durkheim’s intellectual influence on

Gellner’s theorization of nationalism. It has provided that Gellner benefited from Durkheim’s sociological structural methodology to differentiate between the three historical stages of social structure: hunter-gatherer society, agrarian society, and industrial society. Similarly, this paper provided that Gellner utilized the Durkheimian functional approach to emphasize on three categories of human activity: the economy; power; and knowledge to illustrate the congruent needs of a nation-state to achieve a homogeneous culture.

As a postmodernist graduate student, the author of this paper argued that Gellner’s theory of nationalism, aside from having a modernist statutory defect, does not match the needed congruence for a homogeneous state. Instead, as defined, assimilationism is suggested to fit Gellner’s theory of nationalism. Finally, as Gellner ridicule’s Marxism with the “Wrong Address Theory” (1983, p.129), this paper concludes that Gellner himself has fallen into the same trap for thinking that his version of nationalism may eventually replace the Durkheimian concern for the retreat of religion.

Conversi, D. (2000). Gellner, Ernest (1925-1995). In Smith, A. D. and Leoussi, A. (eds) Encyclopaedia of nationalism. Oxford: Transaction Books.
Durkheim, E. (1933). The Division of Labor in Society. Glencoe, III: Free Press.
Gellner, E. (1983). Nations and nationalism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Kakei, S. (2012). Ernest Gellner’s nations and nationalism: A book critique. Washington: Kurdish Aspect. Retrievable from: http://www.kurdishaspect.com/doc031412SK.html
Thomson, K. (2002). Emile Durkheim. (Rev. ed.). New York: Routledge.

Saeed Kakeyi, Ph.D. Student, Nova Southeastern University’s Department of Conflict Analysis & Resolution – PhD Program,
a longtime contributing writer and columnist for Ekurd.net

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  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


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