Ethnic Nationalism Essay

September 21, 2021 by Essay Writer


Many people in the world base their national identity on race, language, kinship, and the general culture of their respective countries. Basing national identity along these lines is what is known as ethnonationalism. Every country has had its experiences with ethnonationalism.

Americans for instance, hate the idea of ethnic nationalism because it has people of varying ethnic origins. It has gone through generations of immigrations, cultural assimilations and intermarriages that have reduced the strength of ethnic identities. Many countries are still grappling with the issue of ethnic enclaves. This paper will explore in detail the issue of ethnonationalism in the world today, its consequences and possible solutions.

Origin of Ethnic Nationalism

Many social scientists have tried to show that ethnic nationalism is a product that is deliberately formed by culture; they argue that it is not a natural phenomenon as many people would think. Value systems that are found on narrow identities of groups have also been scorned by ethicists.

All these efforts have not and apparently, will not erase ethnonationalism from people’s way of life. Many people who immigrate to new countries are always prepared to fit and reshape their specific identities into the new order. However, many of those who remain in their ancestral lands have resorted to political identities based on ethnic forms. These identities have, on many occasions, resulted in groups competing for political power based on communal grounds.

This has always ended in violent processes of ethnic separation to solve the issue. This has led to the common belief that countries that enjoy political stability are mostly made up of citizens from a common ancestry. A narrative from the European history alluded to this belief by saying that the two world wars were caused by nationalism, a phenomenon that Europeans saw as a danger and consequently abandoned it (Muller, 2008, p. 1).

Is Ethnic Nationalism Bad?

This notion that nationalism was dangerous saw Europeans embark on the formation of transnational institutions such as the European Union after the war. The fall of the Soviet Union allowed this idea to spread to the whole of Europe. Many people saw this as a good example to the rest of the world, but the dreadful experiences that immigrants especially those of the African and Asian decent go through at European boarders show that the menace of ethnonationalism is not yet completely erased in Europe.

Surveys have shown that by the start of the 20th century, there were many countries that had no single ethnic majority in Europe, but by 2007, two countries, Switzerland and Belgium have single ethnic groups. Ethnic balance of power in these countries is protected by stringent citizenship laws (Muller, 2008, 1).

Therefore, it still remains that ethnonationalism is a major cause of the plight of minority groups and the increase of refugees in the world today. Many ethnic intellectuals form ethnic nations by vernacular mobilization of the people. They do this by redefining, reeducating and finally, regenerating their ethnic roots.

They then politicize their cultures after which they embark on ridding their countries of Aliens by expelling or even exterminating minority groups who are seen as outsiders within their boundaries. As already mentioned above, the close of the 20th century saw nationalism become a powerful political and social force in the world. This force has not only fostered good relationships between states, but has also spread all over the world as a strong tool for collective protest against power distribution in and among states.

This has often turned out to be a very dangerous and unpredictable scare to the order that the world enjoys today, although it also guarantees the shaping of the order by the majority. It has also been argued that nationalism accomplishes two things at the same time; it makes sure that people are secure from imperial tyrannies, and it also paves way for local tyrannies to be formed (Smith, 1994, p. 186).

Many refugee camps are filled every year as a result of ethnic conflicts within countries and among states. This flow of refugees has often been met with resistance as ethnic groups in host countries seek to assert themselves. This has seen countries place tight restrictions on entry into their countries for fear of reigniting ethnic tensions in their countries, or for fear of conflicts with the home countries of asylum seekers.

This does not mean that ethnic conflicts are entirely to blame for the rise in refugees, but it has contributed to some extent. Fear, suspicion and resentment are all products of ethnonationalism that have seen countries, especially in the developed world erect entry barriers to immigrants, in particular, economic migrants who are the majority of non-nationals in those countries (Smith, 1994, p. 187).

What Ethnic Nationalism and Governance

In ethnonationalism, a nation or a country is understood as a cultural and historical community that is linked in solidarity with a bond just like the familial bond. In this case, common ancestry qualifies an individual to reside in a nation that is not defined territory, but by descent.

People in such nations value vernacular cultures and popular mobilizations rather than legal equality and citizenship. Native history as well as ethnic culture is encouraged in the communities. This is why many nations in the world today are just socially constructed units that have been created by ethnic nationalist where they never existed before.

This is why the world today has many new nations that were formed by ethnic groups that sought to govern themselves. It is also true that those countries with stable and durable solidarities and unique cultural heritage were founded on strong ethnic ties. In other words, nations with strong ethnic histories have high probabilities of becoming viable political units (Smith, 1994, p. 187). There are many reasons for this assumption, but three of these are seen to strongly justify it.

The first reason is from a historical point of view. Many nations have come into being because of the ethnic ties and state activities that occur on the ground. Secondly, a nation and an ethnic community are sociological related. The nation just modifies the features of the ethnic community to place it on the territorial, social and legal map.

The third reason is political, where nations are seen in ethnic terms, or ethnic models are used in the formation of new nations. This has often been the major cause of all conflicts within and between states. It is expected that the formation of a nation based entirely on the model of an older ethnic community will bring problems. In the world today, modern nations cannot be expected to be exactly like the ancient ethnic communities. Today nations are more compact and demarcated along territorial lines.

They portray a single public culture, a single division of labor that is strength by freedom of movement, and members adhere to a single code of laws that protect their common rights and duties. Changing all these to fit into an ethnic model creates ethnic conflicts that are usually experienced in many countries (Smith, 1994, p. 188)

Territorial Nationalisms and Ethnic Nationalisms

This is what brings out the difference between territorial nationalisms and ethnic nationalisms. Territorial nationalisms only strive to give a nation a common history and culture that will allow everyone to participate in it. Ethnic nationalisms on the other hand, are not content with a common history and culture, but go ahead to specify that a nation should have a common ancestry. That means that ethnic nationalism requires that only those with a common descent are allowed in an ethnic nation.

This view has been held by many countries including the US. For many years in the history of the US, people believed that only those of an English origin, or those from Northern Europe and Protestants, were true Americans. Asians had been excluded and immigration from eastern and southern Europe was restricted for many years by the system of national-origin quotas that was abolished by the 1965 immigration law amendment (Muller, 2008, 1).

Sociologists have argued that ethnic nationalism did not just happen by mistake, but was gradually developed by the changes that were brought about by modernity. States started competing on the military level, this created demand for state resources and eventual economic growth. However, all these depended on literacy and easy communication among the masses. This created the need to for education and hence a common language.

Conflicts over what language should be used and communal opportunities ensued, leading to ethnic groups splitting into their own territories.

As different ethnic groups moved into cities, they discovered through education that all important positions in government and in the economic sphere had been occupied by the majority ethnic groups. This saw groups sharing a similar language come together to define their groups and later own demanded their own nation state in which they would have a chance to manage their own affairs (Muller, 2008, p. 1).

Ethnic Nationalism and World War I

World War I also contributed to the growth of ethnic nationalism. In Europe the war led to the breaking of the three famous empires. Mass murders and deportations of the minorities were witnessed in the Ottoman Empire in the name of ethnic cleansing. The Romanov and the Hapsburg empires broke up into small countries where the dominant group was protected. Governments discriminated against the minority.

They carried out government obligations in the majorities’ language, which meant that only those who spoke the language could work in civil positions. Ethnonationalism was also exhibited by the Germans when they discriminated against the Jews. In fact, during the World War II, they went to the extent of trying to eliminate all Jews from Europe by killing them. This was the most severe effect of ethnonationalism that has ever been felt in the history of the world (Muller, 2008, p. 1).

World leaders saw that the only solution to the Germany menace was to remove Germans from non-Germany nations. They believed that to end conflicts, there should be no more mixing of ethnic groups. As much as this was a solution to the ethnic problem posed by the Nazis, it was in fact, ethnic nationalism in practice. Germans were separated from the other ethnic groups.

The few Jews who survived found it hard to stay in Europe; this explains why most of them left Central and Eastern Europe for good to settle in America and Israel. It was this ethnic mixing that led to the idea of ethnonationalism in Europe. That is why many European countries are made up of almost one ethnic nationality. The disintegration of Yugoslavia was just the last effect of Ethnonationalism in Europe.

Ethnonationalism has also been felt else where in the world. When European occupation of other countries in the world ended, people started grouping into ethnic community and expelling those they felt did not belong to their groups. For instance, the creation of India and Pakistan occurred after the end of the British Raj along ethnic lines. In Africa, Algerians forced out Algerians of European origin, postcolonial Uganda expelled the ethnic minorities of Asian origin (Muller, 2008, p. 1).

Ethnic Nationalism and the Future

Ethnic nationalism is bound to be experienced for generations in the future particularly in newly created states. In such states, borders may cut across ethnic boundaries leading to communal conflict and ethnic disaggregation.

To solve this problem has always been hard. It is not easy to keep peace between groups that hate and fear each other. This calls for permanent solutions. Returning expelled groups to their former land will not help but stages the ground for future conflicts. Separation or partition is therefore the only best solution in such cases.

However, if there is a possibility a permanent reconciliation, then formation of a culturally cohesive community with different ethnic groups is better. This has been possible in some countries; of particular success has been the US (Muller, 2008, p. 1). It is worth noting that the post election violence in Kenya in 2007 can best be explained from the ethnic point of view. The newest state on earth, Republic of South Sudan which is less than two months old is a result of ethnic nationalism.

Ethnic nationalism and Stability

So far we have seen that ethnonationalism has always been the cause of tension and conflicts in the world. However, it has also brought about cohesion and stability. Countries in Europe have enjoyed harmony since the end of WW II because ethnic nationalism succeeded in removing any possible source of conflict in and outside state boundaries. Thanks to ethnonationalism, these countries now enjoy internal solidarity that has facilitated smooth running of government functions.

The negative effects of ethnonationalism are only felt in the early stages when ethnic groups seek to assert their dominance, once this is achieved, a period of tranquility follows for generations to come. This does not mean that ethnonationalism should be encouraged especially in the modern world today. Instead, nations should move towards states that are more inclusive in the cultural, territorial and political spheres of life (Muller, 2008, p. 1).


This essay has shown that ethnonationalism has come along way in the social political and economic history of states in the world. There are those nations that refrain at the mention of ethnonationalism like the United States, but there are those that appreciate and have successful used ethnonationalism such the European nations.

We have seen that European stability after WW II and during the Cold War era owes its success on ethnic nationalism. Ethnic nationalism has continued to shape the borders of many nations in the world and apparently it is here to stay. For instance ethnic nationalism is also tied to the creation of the newest country in Africa and the world, Southern Sudan, which will be granted its independence in July.


Muller, J, 2008, The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism. Retrieved from:

Smith, A 1994, Ethnic Nationalism and the Plight of Minorities. Retrieved from:

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