Identity, Ethnicity and Nationhood before Modernity: A Geographer among Historians

Identity_ImageConference: Identity, Ethnicity and Nationhood before Modernity: Old Debates and New Perspectives

Organized by TORCH Researchers Ilya Afanasyev, Nicholas Matheou, and Seth Hindin.

Oxford University, April 24-26 2015

Is our understanding  of ‘nation’ to continue to be defined by ‘a club of historians who gather occasionally to celebrate their unique contribution to heritage?’ The conference Identity, Ethnicity and Nationhood before Modernity attracted academics (mostly historians) from across the globe to transcend a modern vs. medieval divide to challenge the long-standing assertion that ‘nation’ is a modern phenomenon. This may well have been the moment that a rigidly modernist interpretation lost its monopoly on the concept.

That somewhat petulant opening statement about ‘the club’ was one of the more entertaining gems I noted during the conference – a meeting that came at a particularly fortunate time for my research. Susan Reynolds‘ opening remarks diplomatically and firmly reminded participants that there is no ‘right use’ of the term ‘nation’ and the importance of differentiating between the idea, the concept and the phenomena we are attempting to understand.  Perhaps the other unifying thread in the event was general acceptance of the contemporary social science approach to social phenomena as processes. The multi-disciplinary study of border creation and bordering processes are one example in which political geographers are active contributors.

It is possible that I was the only political geographer attending, but the topic has everything to do with place and with politics. My discomfort level was just about right – the historians’ grasp of minutia, Latin and Greek, (even Old Norse) was sometimes overwhelming, yet I was able to extract useful examples that illustrate that the genealogy of the phenomena ‘nation’ pre-exists modernity.  The programme was extensive, covering a broad range of topics from Tatar vs. Mongol: The Construction of Political Identities Under the Western Chinggisids to Crynogaea: the Mapping of Iceland within a Danish Context. Most of the papers were focused on Western Europe – which was a source of irritation for those whose research was sited elsewhere, especially for academics who focused on the central and eastern reaches of Europe. Tomasz Hen-Konarski’s solution is to ‘provincialize the history of Europe from within’. But that is insufficient in scope – the breadth of geographical coverage was problematic beyond the confined of European concern.

There were a just few papers that focused on Africa and the Middle East, and one on China. But it was striking that major geographies were invisible – discussions of North America, South America, India and Australia were entirely absent. I have to wonder if their absence is rooted in the source of the idea of ‘nation’. Whether approached as phenomena, a concept or idea of nation, however loosely formed  ‘nation’ is a western creation and is dissonant with respect to the reality of places outside of Europe. The hyphenated nation-state is understood to be the only legitimized/recognized form of polity in the international sphere, yet we are continuously confronted with evidence of how inadequate and perhaps inappropriate that construct is when translated into the realities of life elsewhere. Consider, for example, the ‘First Nations‘ of indigenous people of Canada  and the United States – as Azar Gat asserted in his talk, ‘ethnicity is profoundly political’.

My own research project will include three distinct places, as well as maritime mobilities, none of which were addressed at the conference. But researchers need a frame with which to think about polities and identities, and the conference helped advance my thinking about these concepts, and introduced me to important critiques of foundational texts. Core arguments in texts which directly address ideas of ‘nation’, ‘identity’ and ‘nationalism’ (Geller, Smith, Anderson) were addressed and some of their assumptions challenged. I found Azar Gat‘s ‘The Modernist Fallacy’ critique of Geller and Anderson particularly useful.  Furthermore, any aspiration to arrive at a singular cohesive definition for ‘nation’ was challenged on both practical terms and desirability. It seems hard enough to agree on the words within one language that indicate pre-modern national consciousness (commonwealth? Realm?),  identified words were used  inconsistently, and relevant phenomena without the presence of those terms. Add in the complexity of comparative research, and it becomes practically impossible.

I judge the usefulness of a conference by the number of impactful ideas and sources that I walk away with. The impactful ideas form this one are these: We can (broadly) agree that the ‘nation’ is a process, something I intuitively believed to be true, and historians have come up with some interesting and detailed examples of pre-modern political community to support this argument.  ‘Nation’ is a concept that will remain fluid – there is no universal formula that defines ‘nation’. Rather, it is the phenomena of ‘nation’ that is essential to locate and understand.

Elizabeth Alexander is a PhD Researcher focusing on the intersection of political identity and material culture. 

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