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Cartographies of Differences

Interdisciplinary Perspectives


Edited By Ulrike M. Vieten and Gill Valentine

This volume investigates the process of learning how to live with individual and group differences in the twenty-first century and examines the ambivalences of contemporary cosmopolitanism. Engaging with the concept of ‘critical cartography’, it emphasizes the structural impact of localities on the experiences of those living with difference, while trying to develop an account of the counter-mappings that follow spatial and social transformations in today’s world. The contributors focus on visual, normative and cultural embodiments of difference, examining dynamic conflicts at local sites that are connected by the processes of Europeanization and globalization.
The collection explores a wide range of topics, including conflicting claims of sexual minorities and conservative Christians, the relationship between national identity and cosmopolitanism, and the ways that cross-cultural communication and bilingualism can help us to understand the complex nature of belonging. The authors come from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and all contribute to a vernacular reading of cosmopolitanism and transnationalism, aimed at opening up new avenues of research into living with difference.
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National Belonging in Cosmopolitan Times

← 84 | 85 →NICHOLA WOOD

National Belonging in Cosmopolitan Times

ABSTRACT: The role of the nation in the contemporary cosmopolitan era is hotly contested. In some quarters the nation is perceived to be a divisive relic which needs to be replaced by a more inclusive cosmopolitan alternative. Elsewhere the nation is assumed to have taken-for-granted cohesive qualities which can be used to address the challenges of living in an era of super-mobility and super-diversity. I argue that neither of these polarised positions is helpful and that a more nuanced and emotionally attentive understanding of nation is required. I begin by arguing that current engagements with the nature and contemporary significance of nations are curiously narrow. Then, drawing on my work on the emotional geographies of ‘Scottishness’, I demonstrate why we need a more meaningful engagement with the nation and suggest one possible route – an engagement with the practices and emotional experiences of nation – through which this might be achieved.


Academic literature on nation, nationalism and national identity has traditionally been a minefield of competing and contradictory opinion. Ongoing debates around fundamental questions including, for example, the age and origins of nation (in both abstract and specific terms) and the relationships between ‘banal’ and ‘hot’ forms of nationalism (Jones and Merriman 2009) are, in part, what makes this area of scholarship so vibrant and engaging. Over the past two decades or so, in light of the increasing impact of globalisation, debates have broadened to consider the role and significance of the nation and national affiliations in a world which is increasingly interconnected and where identity and belonging are increasingly informed ← 85 | 86 →by transnational and cosmopolitan connections. However, what I want to argue in this chapter is that whilst in some academic quarters the nature and power of nation is keenly studied and explored, in other related areas of academic and public life there appears to be a curiously narrow engagement with what nations are, how they ‘work’ and their significance in contemporary life. In particular, as I will go on to argue, such narrow engagements tend to down-play or ignore the emotional dimension of the ways in which nations are understood and experienced.

There are, of course, some good examples of works that explore people’s emotional engagements with national identity (Edensor 2004). But what I want to argue here is that all too often, in both academic and public life, debates around the contemporary role and significance of nation can become incredibly polarised because of a lack of engagement with emotional experiences of the nation, and that this is potentially dangerous, both socially and politically. This is perhaps most noticeable at both extremes of a political and intellectual spectrum where, at one end, there is a disdain for nations and a belief that we live in a world where nations are a diminishing (and increasingly insignificant) inheritance from a bygone age which should be replaced by a ‘post-national’ political order based on cosmopolitan principals. Whilst at the other end of the spectrum, the nation is perceived to have (often taken-for-granted) cohesive qualities that are assumed to be inherently beneficial for states that are trying to address the challenges of living with difference in an era of super-mobility and super-diversity. The aim of this chapter is to argue that neither of these polarised positions is useful and that within some academic and public debates there needs to be more nuanced and emotionally attentive engagements with the nation in order to fully understand its role and significance in the contemporary cosmopolitan world.

Given the abundance of competing theories of nation, I begin by briefly defining the nation and sketching out its conceptual and etymological history which, as I will argue later, is significant for the ways in which nations are academically researched and instrumentally used in social policies. Building on this work, I then move on to explore three contrasting factors that I argue have negatively influenced the extent and nature of engagements with nation in the academic and policy worlds. The first two ← 86 | 87 →of these factors emerge out of disagreements in understandings of the role and significance of the nation that exist both within and between various academic literatures. The third factor takes the form of a ‘blind faith’ that exists in some areas of public policy. This arises where policies reflect an assumed belief that national belonging can produce a common and unshakeable ground between the diverse ethnic and religious communities that exist within many state borders. By way of an example, I explore the way in which the UK’s New Labour government instrumentally used ideas of ‘Britishness’ in an attempt to promote social cohesion and question the extent to which national belonging is an appropriate ‘tool’ with which to achieve this policy objective.

Drawing on my own previous research on the emotional geographies of ‘Scottishness’ (Wood 2007) the final section of this paper will demonstrate why we need a more meaningful engagement with the nation in the contemporary era. It will also suggest one possible route – an engagement with the practices and emotional experiences of nation – through which this might be achieved.

Defining the Nation

Whilst today the nation may be defined as ‘a named human population which shares myths and memories, a mass public culture, a designated homeland, economic unity and equal rights and duties for all members’ (A.D. Smith 1995, 56–57), the meaning of the word nation has shifted significantly over time (Connor 1978; Williams 1983). Originally referring to a blood-related group, by the early seventeenth century nation was also being used to describe the inhabitants of the state regardless of their ethno-national composition. Nation became a proxy for less specific human categories such as the people or the citizenry. By the end of the seventeenth century the nation began to be used as a substitute for the state itself. According to Connor (1978) confusion of terminology was precipitated by the writings of scholars such as John Locke who, in espousing the ← 87 | 88 →doctrine of popular sovereignty, identified the people as the source of all political power.

Conceptions of nation and state were further blurred by ideas of nationalism. As Graham Smith (2000) highlights nationalism refers to two ideas. The first is the idea of belonging to a nation, and the second is the corresponding political ideology which holds that the territorial borders of a state and a nation should be coincidental, producing a nation-state (Seton-Watson 1977). With these distinctions in mind, it is popularly thought that there are two forms of nationalism (Brown 1999; Spencer and Wollman 2002): one that is expressed along ethnic and/or cultural lines, and another that rests on a civic-territorial conception of the nation. However, as I will discuss later in this chapter, the perceived mutual exclusivity of civic and ethnic nationalism has received significant critique (see Calhoun 1997; Connor 1993; Guibernau 1996; A.D. Smith 1986).

Nationalism began to significantly alter the prevailing political system in eighteenth-century Europe (Penrose 1997) as the ideology of nationalism adopted Romanticist conceptions of the nation as the ‘natural’ units of population that the state should serve. Penrose argues that nationalist rhetoric invests the nation-state with a ‘natural, and hence inviolable, right to power’ (1997, 18), as nation-states are perceived to be the only political units that allow the needs of the people or, more accurately, the nation to be served by the state.

There are many ways in which this etymological and conceptual history of nation and nationalism is significant for the ways in which nations are understood and studied. However, for the purposes of this chapter I want to draw out three strands that are significant for the development of my argument. The first is perhaps the rather obvious point that the geopolitical system is dynamic and is the product of considerable conceptual shifts; over time the structure of the geopolitical world has changed significantly with, for example, the development of modern nations and states and there is no reason to believe that the world’s geopolitical structure will not change significantly in the future.

The second strand that I want to pick up here is that the ambiguity between understandings of nation as an ethnic group and civic conceptions of nation as the people or the citizenry lies at the heart of questions over ← 88 | 89 →whether national belonging is an appropriate tool for promoting social cohesion in states which, demographically, are often multi-national and/or multi-ethnic. I will explore this point in further depth in the following section of this chapter. Finally, the third strand that I wish to draw out is that nationalism is not just a political ideology; rather it is also a route to belonging. As such, nationalism relies on personal affiliations and attachments that are perceived to be essential and it is through this perceived essentiality that the nation gains its emotional power and political tenacity (Calhoun 1997; Tamir 1993; Wood 2007). For me, understanding the personal emotional attachments that people have to nation is crucial to understanding its present (and future) role and significance in the geopolitical world. It is for this reason that I argue that in order to fully understand the emotional dimension of nation we need to have a more meaningful engagement with this phenomenon. However, before developing this argument I need to firstly explain how and why I think that engagements with the nation are becoming increasingly limited.

Limits to meaningful engagement

For me, a meaningful engagement with the nation is one which takes the nation seriously; which engages with this phenomenon – and its social, cultural, political and emotional dimensions – in an open-minded and critical fashion. My intention here is not to attempt to provide some kind of blue-print for how academics, policy makers and others should engage with the nation, rather I want to demonstrate that current engagements with the nation are, at times, unhelpfully limited. There are a number of factors that contribute to limited engagements with the nation but, crudely speaking, the arguments that I will shortly outline can be summarised into limitations in the conceptual engagement with nation and limited engagements with the ‘doings’ of nation (those practices and emotional experiences of nation-building, national belonging and national identity). In this section I want to explore why these limited engagements occur.

← 89 | 90 →Cosmopolitanism and nationalism: opposing ideologies?

It has become commonplace to argue that the pressures of global forces in the contemporary world are undermining the foundations on which the nation and, by extension, the nation-state is traditionally based such as, for example, national sovereignty, economic autonomy and social identity. Mark Juergensmeyer (2002) suggests that civic (or secular) nationalism reached the widest extent of worldwide acceptance in the mid-twentieth century. By the second half of the twentieth century, Juergensmeyer (1993; 2002) argues, the nation-state was becoming an increasingly fragile entity, especially in those nation-states created by retreating colonial powers in Africa, Latin America, South and Southeast Asia and Eurasia. Here it is argued that factors including, border disputes between neighbouring states, threats to economic sovereignty by multinational corporations, and secessionist aspirations by minority ethnic groups began to dissolve the ‘ideological glue’ that held nation-states together and raised questions about the very idea of the nation as a basis for politics.

Undoubtedly the nation-state (underpinned by the ideology of nationalism) has the capacity to induce internal and external conflicts that can be discriminatory, divisive and violent. As Calhoun argues, the hyphen that ties together nation and state binds the notion of ‘a historically or naturally unified people who intrinsically belong together to that of a modern polity with unprecedented military power and capacity for effective internal administration’ (2007, 3). This, as the history of the twentieth century tells us, is potentially a recipe for disaster with the nation-state being the source of many social and political evils including, to name but a few, ethnic cleansing, war, enforced migration, and the discrimination of ethnic minorities by dominant national groups. Such atrocities have led not only to the criticism of particular political regimes, but also to critiques of the concept of nation, and a desire to find an alternative and more socially desirable basis for politics. Perhaps the most popular of these alternative forms of politics has been cosmopolitanism (Kymlicka 2001; Yeĝenoĝlu 2005).

← 90 | 91 →According to Kymlicka, cosmopolitans in the current era are ‘almost by definition, people who regret the privileging of national identities in political life, and who reject the principle that political arrangements should be ordered in such a way as to reflect and protect national identities’ (2001, 204). Whilst at present cosmopolitanism is almost always defined in contrast to nationalism, this has not always been the case (Bowden 2003; Calhoun 2008; and Kymlicka 2001). Indeed, as Conversi reminds us the term cosmopolitan has its roots in ancient Greece where it described someone ‘who considered the entire humankind as more meaningful than his or her own city, group, region or state’ (2001, 34). Cosmopolitanism received renewed attention during the Enlightenment when it was argued that the emancipation of individuals from ascribed roles and identities was central to social progress. Modernity liberates people from traditional identities and fixed social roles and ‘fosters an ideal of autonomous individuality that encourages individuals to choose for themselves what sort of life they want to lead’ (Kymlicka 2001, 203). For one of these Enlightenment thinkers – the Marquis de Condorcet – cosmopolitanism was the ‘natural’ and inevitable outcome of this process of individualisation. Thus people might be born into particular ethnic, linguistic and religious communities but individuals emancipated from fixed social roles would not see their options as limited or defined by membership of their inherited cultural group (Moore 2001).

Condorcet believed that as membership of cultural groups became optional voluntary ethno-cultural identities would gradually lose their political importance and a single cosmopolitan society, based on a universal language, would emerge. Writing before the age of nationalism, Condorcet could not have foreseen the obstacle that nationalism would present to the fruition of a cosmopolitan society. From the late eighteenth century nationalism became a primary geopolitical force based on (and promoting) the kinds of ‘backward’ ethno-cultural groups that the Enlightenment cosmopolitans were trying to move beyond. It is perhaps because of the severity of the impact that nationalism has had on cosmopolitan ambitions that cosmopolitanism tends to be commonly perceived as being in opposition to nationalism. This perception has undoubtedly, ← 91 | 92 →in part, been strengthened by some of the exchanges that have occurred between cosmopolitans and nationalists. For example, Ulrich Beck (2002) referred to nationalism as an enemy of cosmopolitan societies arguing that, in the wake of the collapse of communism, nationalism was ‘the remaining real danger to the culture of political freedom at the beginning of the 21st century’ (2002, 38). Although Beck’s thesis has been refined in the post 9/11 era to consider a plural conception of cosmopolitanisms that consider non-Western visions of cosmopolitanism (see Beck and Grande 2010; for a feminist critique see Vieten 2012) his work is still grounded in the notion that the nation is not fit for purpose in a world where social, economic and environmental processes, risks and challenges are global rather than national in scale.

Equally, nationalists have often viewed cosmopolitanism with deep suspicion. Ernest Gellner suggests that nationalists have been hostile ‘not merely to rival cultures, but also, and perhaps with special venom, to bloodless cosmopolitanism, probably because they perceive it an ally of political centralism’ (cited in Conversi 2001, 37). Whilst there is an emerging critique that a false opposition is being perpetuated in the academic literature between cosmopolitanism and nationalism (see, for example, Bowden 2003; Conversi 2001 and Kymlicka 2001), what is important in the context of this chapter is how the opposition between nationalism and cosmopolitanism (whether ‘false’ or not) influences academics’ and policy makers’ engagements with the nation.

Beck (2006) argues that there is often a taken-for-granted assumption that the nation and the state are the only social and political forms of the modern world that can organise societies. Where agents subscribe to this belief Beck (2006, 24) calls this a national outlook whereby individuals use conceptualisations of nationalism to frame their understandings of society and the geopolitical organisation of the world. Where this belief influences the perspective of academics, Beck (2006) states that this is methodological nationalism and, as such, influences the ways in which research questions are conceptualised and the language that is used to understand and describe the empirical world. Beck argues that the world which is currently ‘being shaken to its foundations by the problems produced by the triumph of its civilization cannot be adequately grasped, investigated or explained within ← 92 | 93 →the national outlook (of agents) or within the framework of methodological nationalism (the perspective of the scientific observer)’ (2006, 24, see also Beck and Grande 2010). To this end, Beck (2006) argues that there needs to be an epistemological turn in the social and political sciences whereby there is firstly a critique of methodological nationalism and, secondly, there is the development of a new paradigm of methodological cosmopolitanism and with it a new cosmopolitan imagination.

Cosmopolitanism is a heterogeneous ideology. However, according to Kleingeld and Brown the ‘nebulous core shared by all cosmopolitan views is the idea that all human beings, regardless of their political affiliation, do (or at least can) belong to a single community, and that this community should be cultivated’ (2009: online). Thus cosmopolitans seek to challenge commonly recognised emotional attachments to, for example, fellow-citizens, the local state, and cultural groups in order to create ‘citizens of the world’ (Benhabib 2008, Nussbaum 2002 [1996]). As with the Enlightenment cosmopolitans, different articulations of contemporary cosmopolitanism envision this community in different ways some focusing on global political institutions, others on universal moral norms or relationships. Different perspectives also exist regarding the extent to which cosmopolitanism can (or should) engage with, or move beyond, traditional social allegiances. At the extreme end of the scale Nussbaum (2002 [1996]) recognises that attachments to other individuals or social groups exist (for example, to family, neighbours and fellow city-dwellers) however, she only recognises and values these attachments because of their instrumental use in achieving universal good (cf. Calhoun 2003). For Nussbaum, attachments to individuals or social groups can (and in some instances should) exist, but the strongest obligation of each person should be to humanity as a whole, not to particular social groups.

According to Calhoun (2003) a more moderate alternative to the ‘extreme’ cosmopolitanism outlined above is one that recognises that allegiances are multiple and overlapping so that in addition to relationships and affiliations with particular individuals and social groups, ‘one also stands in an ethically significant relationship to other human beings in general’ (Scheffler 2001, 115, cited in Calhoun 2003, 539). One of the key proponents of this more moderate articulation of cosmopolitanism is David Held ← 93 | 94 →(2010 and 1995) who argues that one of the main appeals of cosmopolitan democracy is that people can gain from the benefit of multiple citizenships, occurring across a range of spatial scales that inform their everyday lives. Calhoun (2003) argues that Held’s (1995) approach is moderate because he does not privilege the universal ahead of the particular in all cases and nor does he argue that cosmopolitanism is free from ethnic and cultural particularity (see also Yeoh 2004).

As this more moderate approach suggests cosmopolitanism and nationalism need not necessarily be mutually exclusive. Indeed, as Bowden (2003) argues there may be mutual benefit in some kind of practical mediation between cosmopolitanism (which is often critiqued for being too abstract a concept to attract popular support and loyalty) and nationalism (which is often critiqued for being too introverted and exclusionary). However, all too often cosmopolitanism and nationalism are conceptualised as opposing ideologies and, for me, there has yet to be any sustained meaningful discussion between the two camps, which might usefully address some of the deficiencies (and dangers) of nationalism and some of the emotive and experiential weaknesses of cosmopolitanism. This lack of exchange may, in some part, be explained by concerns by scholars of cosmopolitanism over the reification of the nation and nationalism through methodological nationalism (Beck 2006) and also a desire by cosmopolitans to promote an alternative epistemological framework through methodological cosmopolitanism (cf. Vieten’s 2012 discussion of Beck’s ‘situated’ discourse as a member of the German post-Holocaust generation). However, as some cosmopolitan theorists have argued, the emotional and political power of nation and nationalism is not diminishing despite the attempts of cosmopolitans to create an alternative modernity (Cheah 2006; Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2002). It seems to me then that there needs to be a greater understanding of the potential compatibility of cosmopolitanism and nationalism, which requires more rather than less meaningful engagements with the nation. It is one thing to argue that cosmopolitanism may offer a morally and politically more attractive alternative to nationalism, but it is another to hope that by ignoring or down-playing the significance of the emotional power of the nation that it will go away. However, as the next section demonstrates, it is not just cosmopolitans who have limited engagements with the nation.

← 94 | 95 →Conceptual differences in theories of nation and nationalism

The second reason for why there have been limited meaningful engagements with the nation comes from within academic studies of nation and nationalism. Just as scholars of cosmopolitanism have attempted to distance themselves from the insidious and divisive qualities of nation, some scholars of nation have tried to diffuse the emotional power of nation by exposing its modern and socially constructed nature. Whilst most theories of nation and nationalism presuppose the existence of an emotional bond between members of a nation (Anderson 1983; Calhoun 1997; Connor 1993) and the territory or homeland that they occupy (Connor 2001; Penrose 2002), the extent to which the emotional dimension of nationhood is engaged with varies between several different theoretical standpoints. Primordialist theories of nation assume that nations are ‘natural’ divisions of humanity and that people’s loyalty and emotional connections to these phenomena are inbred through primordial ties such as blood, speech, and customs (A.D. Smith 1999).

In recent decades, primordialist theories of nation have received heavy criticism from modern constructionist scholars for their essentialist outlook and have been blamed for triggering the dark and dangerous consequences of nationalism (see, for example, Yuval-Davis et al. 2006). However, as Tilley (1997) demonstrates, critics can sometimes miss the subtlety of primordialist arguments. For example, Geertz presents a far more complex argument in his (1973) book The Interpretation of Cultures to the one described in Eller and Coughlan’s (1993) critique as he does not argue that primordial ties are ‘natural’ per se, rather he argues that such ties are assumed to be ‘natural’. The work of primordialists has been maligned and caricatured to such an extent that Horowitz (2004) suggests that there is reason to suspect that many scholars no longer read works that engage with primordialism.

Modern constructionist theorists have, in many ways, attempted to diffuse the dangerous, emotive, primordial elements of nation by demonstrating their relatively recent and socially constructed nature (Anderson 1983; Hobsbawm 1992; Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). In detaching concepts of nation and nationalism from ideas of essentialism, ‘naturalness’ ← 95 | 96 →and perenniality, modernists have implicitly attempted to withdraw some of the grounds on which people legitimise their often violent and divisive claims to nationhood and the need to protect their national identity. However, as some critics have argued, modern constructionists present a dispassionate and often unrealistic, ‘rational’ account of ideas of nationhood (Hoben and Hefner 1991; Hutchinson 1994), that often bear little relation to people’s lived experiences of nation. Despite significant attempts by some modernist scholars, people’s emotional attachments to nation and national identity cannot be ‘explained away’ through ‘rational’ explanations because, as Walker Connor convincingly argues, ‘people do not die voluntarily for things that are rational’ (1993, 206).

Connor (1993, see also Conversi 2002) is one of a small but growing number of ethno-symbolist scholars who have argued that dispassionate modern constructionist theories of nationhood are not useful because a ‘rational’ belief in the modern origins of nation does not necessarily negate the emotional experience of nation as something that is much older, enduring and ‘natural’ (A.D. Smith 1986, 1997, 2009; Guibernau and Hutchinson 2004). This idea is significant because it suggests that there is a difference between the ‘facts’ of nationhood and people’s emotional experiences of nationhood. Indeed, as Connor argues it is ‘not what is, but what people perceive as is’ (1993, 197) that is important in people’s experience of national identity.

What I want to argue here is that modern constructionist theories of nation, whilst being useful for explaining the origins of nation and revealing the ways in which nations are instrumentally ‘used’ by national elites for their own political, economic and social ends have hindered meaningful engagements with nation; our understandings of how nations ‘work’ as emotive phenomena and how national belonging is (re)produced and experienced (Wood 2007). This is significant, because if it is agreed that nations can be divisive and dangerous, then it is important that we understand how they gain their emotional power and what kinds of emotional needs and desires need to be met by any future political alternative to the nation (or how current emotional attachments might be tempered). Therefore, there needs to be a more meaningful engagement with the ← 96 | 97 →nation so that we understand not only how these phenomena are produced but also how they are lived and emotionally experienced in everyday life (Antonsich et al. 2014).

The assumed power of national belonging

The final reason for why in some quarters there have been limited meaningful engagements with nation differs significantly from those that I have proposed so far. Here I argue that meaningful engagements with nation by scholars and policy makers have been limited by an almost ‘blind faith’ that nations possess certain characteristics that can be positively ‘used’ by state policy makers to achieve particular social aims including, for example: loyalty to the state and its endeavours; an emotional investment in a common good; socially cohesive communities and behaviours that are deemed to be morally and publicly desirable. One example that is illustrative of this phenomenon is the former UK New Labour government’s instrumental use of ‘Britishness’, which was largely continued after 2010 by the Coalition Government.

In recent years events like the (2001) urban riots in Oldham and Bradford, and the (2005) 7/7 London bombings have raised serious questions about the challenges of living with and managing diversity and difference (see Amin 2002, 2003; Parekh 2000; Valentine 2008; Yuval-Davis, Anthias and Kofman 2005; Vieten 2013). For example, the key conclusion of the Cantle Report on the 2001 urban riots was that people from different ethnic and faith groups were not mixing and were leading ‘parallel lives’ (Home Office 2001). Similarly, in the wake of the (2005) London bombings Trevor Phillips, the then head of the Campaign for Racial Equality argued that Britain was ‘sleepwalking towards segregation’ (Phillips 2005). In an attempt to address these issues the New Labour government developed a number of policy initiatives grounded in a concept of ‘meaningful citizenship’ (Home Office 2001) that attempted to promote social cohesion across Britain’s diverse ethnic and faith communities. These policy initiatives included mandatory citizenship education for 11–16 year olds, ← 97 | 98 →which was introduced to the English school curriculum in 2002, and the introduction of citizenship tests and ceremonies for those seeking to acquire British citizenship (Home Office 2002).

Although these policies utilised conceptions of citizenship to promote social cohesion, the kind of ‘active citizenship’ (Blunkett 2003) that the New Labour government proposed was grounded in a shared national identity. Rejuvenating and promoting ‘Britishness’ as a positive and useful political resource was a cornerstone of several policy initiatives that were put into place during the Blair administration and continued to play a central role in the thinking of Gordon Brown’s government (Brown 2009). One example of this at work is in the policy literature that discusses the development of citizenship education in schools.

According to the Blair administration’s Advisory Group on Citizenship, citizenship education aims to bring about a change in the political culture of Britain, both nationally and locally, so that people understand themselves to be active citizens who are ‘willing, able and equipped to have an influence in public life’ (Advisory Group on Citizenship 1998, 7; see also Kearns 1995; Osler and Starkey 2001). Citizenship education is understood to create a ‘common ground between different ethnic groups and religious identities’ that will promote greater social cohesion (Advisory Group 1998, 17). Indeed, it is hoped that citizenship education will help communities to ‘find or restore a sense of common citizenship, including a national identity that is secure enough to find a place for the plurality of nations, cultures, ethnic identities and religions long found in the United Kingdom’ (Advisory Group 1998, 17, emphasis added).

Similarly, in a (2007) report by the Commission on Integration and Cohesion entitled Our Shared Futures it is recommended that the Government’s policy on integration and cohesion should include a national shared futures programme that reflects positively on the diversity of experience in Britain. According to the Commission:

The starting point for this must be the traditions and heritage of the country and its regions stretching back over hundreds of years – with a recognition of the important role dissent and non-conformism have played in the past, alongside a binding national narrative. (Commission on Integration and Cohesion 2007, 49)

← 98 | 99 →There are a number of potential problems with assuming that the nation is a route to social cohesion. Firstly, the academic literature on citizenship raises a number of questions regarding the utility of a ‘brand’ of citizenship that attempts to draw on both a shared national identity and a plurality of cultures (such as that promoted by the New Labour government). Kymlicka (2001) argues that liberal accounts of citizenship, that implicitly assume that citizens will share not only a set of political principles, but also a common language and sense of membership in a national community, do not understand the nature of social unity in multiethnic and multination states like the UK. Moreover, I would argue that such accounts also use the unhelpfully ambiguous sense of nation explained earlier which contains the seeds of potential tensions between those who conceive of nation as an ethnic group and those who regard it in more civic terms as the citizenry.

Secondly, there is little engagement with how (in practical terms) a shared national identity and culture might be used as an instrumental route to social cohesion. Beyond the rather vague rhetoric embedded in the policy literature there tends to be little detail on the precise nature of those national narratives that might bind the nation together and little acknowledgement of how these may potentially differ between social communities (based on, for example, ethnicity, faith, gender, sexuality, and age) that are located across a diverse range of spatial locations. In many ways this lack of detail is unsurprising due to the fact that nations are ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson 1983) that ‘work’, in part, because their imprecise nature allows its members to imagine their own place and role within that community. This is not a problem per se, but this vagueness does allow for a geography of Britishness to be produced which may contain potentially competing national narratives that divide, rather than unify, a national community.

Hence, it cannot be taken for granted that a shared national identity and culture is a route to social cohesion, rather more research needs to be conducted into the ways in which people experience the nation and understand their role within and relationship to the nation. In particular, a greater understanding of the geographies of national identity and belonging is required before any firm statements can be made regarding its utility as a unifying force at the national scale.

← 99 | 100 →In this section I have made a number of cases for why I think there have been limited meaningful engagements with the nation drawing on the influence of cosmopolitanism, disagreements within the nations and nationalism literature and the ‘blind faith’ in nations and nationalism that can be perpetuated by some states. In the final section of my chapter I want to demonstrate what a more meaningful engagement with the nation might look like. The following work is not intended to provide some kind of blue-print for future research. Rather it is hoped that it will inspire a dialogue about how nations are empirically researched and offer one potential route (a starting point) to a more meaningful engagement with the nation.

Towards more meaningful engagements with the nation

What interests me in many of the discussions of nation, nationalism and cosmopolitanism that I have outlined above is the curious absence of people’s (everyday) experiences, desires and interests. Works on vernacular and visceral cosmopolitanism (see Nava 2007 and Werbner 2011) partially address this gap; these feminist works take into account the voices of everyday people, e.g. in London (Nava 2007). However, cosmopolitanism literature at large also tends to ignore the increasing power of nation and nationalism in the current era. Cosmopolitan scholars may call for a shift to methodological cosmopolitanism but there is still, in many parts of the world, a clear desire for national autonomy. For example, ongoing calls for national secession in the Basque and Catalan regions of Spain (see also the theme of language provisions, in the chapter by Naomi Wells in this book), the recent electoral success by the New Flemish Alliance in Belgium and the rise of the Scottish National Party and substantial support (45 per cent) for independence in the recent (2014) Scottish referendum, as well as the success of the SNP in the 2015 Westminster election, demonstrate that nationalism and the desire for national autonomy is staging something of a comeback at the beginning of the twenty-first century (Gillespie 2015). Whilst various theories have been suggested for this upsurge in nationalism including a backlash against those global institutions that are held ← 100 | 101 →responsible for the 2008 financial crisis (Roubini 2014), what is not clear in these analyses is why it is nationalism (rather than an alternative political response) that has been so popular. What is it about nationalism that is so attractive? What is nationalism perceived to offer people that other political ideologies do not?

Angharad Closs Stephens’ (2013) book The Persistence of Nationalism partially answers these questions by demonstrating the power of the national imaginary and the difficulties of escaping this. What is missing from this account though (and many others) is an engagement with the experiential and emotional dimension of nations and nationalism. Most theories of nation and nationalism acknowledge the emotional power of these phenomena however, as I explained earlier, many works on nation and nationalism are limited with regards to exploring how nations and nationalism ‘work’ as emotional doings.

Several years ago I conducted research on the role and significance of emotions in the (re)production of Scottish national identities (Wood 2007). Part of this work was based on a study of T in the Park a weekend, outdoor rock and pop festival (sometimes referred to as Scotland’s Glastonbury) that takes place annually and which forms part of the summer music festival circuit. Part of the research that I conducted at this event involved conducting short on-the-spot interviews with audience members as close to the moment of performance as possible (usually at the end of the act) (Wood et al. 2007). What was really revealing about the responses that I obtained was that people (both Scots and non-Scots) often said that they experienced an intimacy between themselves and other members of the audience during the musical performances. Participants were not initially told that my research was exploring experiences of national identity; however Scottishness was frequently used (by Scots and non-Scots) as an explanation for why people were experiencing the performances in the way that they were (Wood 2007). In the absence of any other explanation, membership of a Scottish community and the experience of a shared sense of belonging and national identity was used to explain the feelings of intimacy that Scots experienced and which they perceived other Scots to experience too through their facial gestures and bodily behaviours. What-is-more people often drew on notions of primordial attachments (e.g. shared blood) to explain why this phenomenon was occurring. For example Scots talked ← 101 | 102 →about how other Scots knew ‘in their guts’ how they themselves were feeling; what it felt like to experience Scottishness and talked of their shared Scottishness as being ‘like an instant bond’ (Wood 2007, 206). Conversely some respondents also stated that non-Scots couldn’t possibly experience the performance in the same way and that they might find the intense atmosphere in the crowd to be intimidating. This research demonstrates not only the strength of attachment that people have to their national identities but it also gives some insight into how national identities ‘work’ and when they occur. I argue that to ignore or downplay the sense of national belonging that people feel and experience in their everyday lives (as many scholars of cosmopolitanism do) is potentially dangerous as it ignores the emotional power of nations and the ‘triggers’ to people experiencing their national belonging in intensive and emotive ways. Equally to think that national belonging is always a productive and benign force (as it tends to be when used as an instrument of community cohesion) is equally dangerous as it ignores the ways in which national identity is often experienced as a primordial entity even though people may normally consider their national identity to be more civic and inclusive in nature. It is for this reason that I argue that there needs to be a greater understanding of people’s emotional experiences of nation, national identity and national belonging. Of course not all experiences of national belonging are dangerous or divisive, but the way that this phenomenon works emotionally means that the ‘triggers’ of national belonging have the potential to be used for dangerous and divisive ends. Something that politicians and world leaders know only too well.


In this chapter I have attempted to make a case for why there needs to be a more meaningful engagement with the nation in some academic and policy quarters. In recent years engagements with the nation have been limited by, amongst other things, the political aspirations of some cosmopolitan scholars, wholesale rejections of primordialism by modernist scholars of ← 102 | 103 →nation and nationalism, and a ‘blind faith’ in the cohesive power of national belonging. This, I have argued, has led to a curious lack of meaningful engagement with what nations are and how they ‘work’.

Whilst there may be good reasons for wanting to diminish the emotional power of nation (and to lessen its often violent and divisive nature), what I hope this chapter has demonstrated is that this cannot be achieved by ignoring the ways in which nations are emotionally experienced, or through writing the nation out of the political lexicon. Neither is it useful to blindly believe that – at the opposite end of the spectrum – the nation is a benign force that can unite ethnically and socially diverse peoples in an unproblematic manner. What I hope the final section of this paper demonstrates is that the nation is enduring (at least in the medium term) and that in order to properly understand its role and significance in the present (and future) geopolitical system it needs to be engaged with in a more meaningful manner.

I have suggested one possible route to achieving this goal, through a study of the practices and emotional experiences of nation. My research builds on previous works that unsettle many of the binaries that surround conceptualisations of the nation and highlights the fact that people’s emotional experiences of nation can belie the facts of its creation (A.D. Smith 1995; Connor 1993). This means that experiences of nation cannot be taken for granted and there needs to be a greater and more meaningful understanding of how the nation ‘works’ across space and across different social and cultural landscapes, in order to properly assess its nature, role and possible utility in the current (and future) geopolitical system.

This call for a more meaningful focus on the nation is not to suggest that nations are the only or the best way of organising the geopolitical system. We live in a time when serious political and moral questions are being asked about the role of nations (through, for example, the works of cosmopolitan scholars) and the challenges of living with difference. Undoubtedly the role and significance of the nation has, and is continuing to, change and there is nothing to suggest that, in time, significant changes will not occur in the ways in which the geopolitical system is structured and organised. Indeed, it is precisely because there is the potential for political change that we need to have a more meaningful engagement with the ← 103 | 104 →nation. In doing so, we might better understand the nation’s tenacity, its emotional power, and the kinds of needs and desires that any political alternative to the nation will need to fulfil.


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