Ethnonationalism (or ethnic nationalism) connotes identity with and loyalty to a nation in the sense of a human grouping predicated upon a myth of common ancestry. Seldom will the myth find support in scientific evidence. DNA analyses of the patrilineally bequeathed Y chromosome attest that nations tend to be neither genetically homogeneous nor hermetical, and  analyses of  the  matrilineally bequeathed mitochrondrial DNA customarily attest to still greater heterogeneity and transnational genetic sharing. However, the popularly held conviction that one’s nation is ethnically pure  and  distinct  is intuitive rather  than rational in its wellsprings and, as such, is cap able of defying scientific and historic evidence to the contrary.

Ethnonationalism is often contrasted with a so called civic nationalism, by which is meant identity with and loyalty to the state. (Untilquite recently the latter was conventionally referred to as patriotism.) The practice of refer ring to civic consciousness and civic loyalty as a form of nationalism has spawned great confusion in the literature. Rather than representing variations of the same phenomenon, the two loyalties are of two different orders of things (ethnic versus civic), and while in the case of a people clearly dominant within a state (such as the ethnically Turkish or Castilian peoples) the two loyalties may reinforce each other, in the case of  ethnonational minorities  (such  as the Kurds of Turkey or the Basques of Spain) the two identities may clash. World political history since the Napoleonic Wars has been increasingly a tale of tension between the two loyalties, each possessing its own irrefragable and exclusive claim to political legitimacy.

The concept of political legitimacy inherent in ethnonationalism rests upon the tendency of people living within their homeland to resent and resist rule by those perceived as aliens. Evolutionary biologists classify xenophobia as a universal which has been detected on the part of all societies studied thus far (Brown 1991). Buttressing this finding of universality are the histories of multi ethnic empires – both ancient and modern – which are sprinkled with ethnically inspired insurrections. The modern state system has proven even more vulnerable. In the 130 year period  separating the  Napoleonic Wars from the end of World War II, all but three of Europe’s states had either lost extensive territory and population because of ethnonational movements or were themselves the product of such a movement. Ethnonationalism’s challenge to the multinational state continued to accelerate during the late twentieth century, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

During the course of its development, the equating of alien rule with illegitimate rule came to be called national self determination, a phrase probably coined by Karl Marx and subsequently frequently employed by the First and Second Internationals. Two points are worth noting. (1) The phrase only gave name to a force present throughout history; it did not create it. Marx was no proponent of national self determination, but he had come to recognize its influence and the wisdom of appearing to ally with it as a means of fostering the proletarian revolution. (2) Although national self-determination is often described as a principle or a doctrine, the impulse underlying it is far more universal and deeply felt than either term conveys.

National self determination holds that any group of people, simply because it considers itself to be a separate nation (in the pristine sense of a people who believe themselves to be ancestrally related), has an inalienable right to determine its political affiliations, including, if it so desires, the right to its own state. If it so desires is a key consideration. The essence of self determination is choice, not result. The Soviet Union on the eve of its decomposition offers a number of illustrations of ethnonational groups opting for separation: a poll conducted in October 1990, for example, indicated that 91 percent of the Baltic nations (Estonians, Letts, and Lithuanians) and 92 percent of all Georgians  favored secession. Similarly, in September 1999, 78.5 percent of those East Timorese who risked death to vote, voted for independence from Indonesia. On the other hand, in the overwhelming number of cases for which there are attitudinal polling data, a majority – usually a substantial majority – of homeland dwelling people are prepared to settle for something less than independence. However, the attitudinal data also show that a substantial majority of each of these same homeland dwelling people do desire alterations in their state’s power structure, alterations which would result  in  greater autonomy. The  minimal changes that  will satisfy the ethnonational aspirations of those individuals desiring greater autonomy can vary across a broad spectrum from homeland primacy in policymaking over matters involving education and language to everything short of full independence. But when aspirations for greater autonomy are denied, the appeal of separate statehood strengthens.

The  willingness of  nationally conscious homeland dwelling people to remain within a state in which they are a minority if they are granted sufficient autonomy should not be viewed as a renunciation of their right of self determination. Autonomy has the potential for satisfying the principal aspirations of the group. Devolution – the decentralization of political decision making – has the potential for elevating a national group to the status of master in their own homeland. As reflected in their chief slogan – Maitre Chez Nous – the Quebecois feel that within the homeland of Quebec they must have ultimate power of decision making over those matters most affecting ethnonational sensibilities and nation maintenance. Such power within the homeland may be quite enough to appease the self determination impulse. Ethnonational aspirations, by their very nature, are driven more by the dream of freedom from – freedom from domination by outsiders – than by freedom to – freedom to conduct relations with states. Ethnocracy need not presume political independence, but it must minimally presume meaningful autonomy.

Growing acknowledgment by the central governments that the national self determination impulse can perhaps be accommodated within a sufficiently decentralized multinational structure is becoming increasingly manifest. Whereas the tendency prior to the very late twentieth century was toward the ever greater concentration of decision making power in the center, evidence of a possible countertrend is now present. Belgium, Canada, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom are examples of well established states with a tradition of centralized control that have transferred significant powers from the center to ethnic homelands in order to assuage ethnonational resentments. But while perhaps portentous, such cases are still exceptional. The central authorities of most multi homeland states have tended to perceive any significant increase in autonomy as tantamount to, or an important step toward, secession. As a result, the challenge of ethnonationalism to the territorial integrity of states continues to spread.


  1. Brown, (1991) Human Universals. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
  2. Conversi, (Ed.) (2002) Ethnonationalism in the Contemporary World. Routledge, London.
  3. Hayes, (1926) Essays on Nationalism. Macmillan, New York.
  4. Poliakov, (1974) The Aryan Myth. Basic Books, New York.
  5. Ranum, (Ed.) (1975) National Consciousness, History, and Political Culture in Early Modern Europe. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

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