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Study notes

Cultural nationalism

  • Levels: AS, A Level, IB
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, IB

Cultural nationalism reflects national identity defined by a shared sense of cultural traditions.

Cultural nationalism is most clearly identified via symbols of national pride. This may be contrasted with the ascribed characteristics surrounding race and ethnicity. In ideological terms, cultural nationalism thereby adopts a moderate stance. It is more inclusive in tone and character than the belligerent approach of ethnic nationalism. That said, cultural nationalism is of a more traditional and homogenous character than the diversity and choice inherent within the ideology of liberal nationalism. Cultural nationalists such as Johann Gottfried von Herder take up an intermediate position between ethnic nationalism and liberal nationalism. 

Cultural nationalism is more common within those societies characterised by a degree of ethnic diversity alongside a common set of cultural beliefs and language. These societies therefore possess a shared culture even when they lack the ethnic and racial characteristics of a nation. Cultural nationalism may be expressed within a shared cultural ideal and its political ideology as opposed to a common ethnicity. Although it is a nation of immigrants, the United States adopts a strong sense of cultural pride and a common set of beliefs commonly referred to as the American Dream. In ideological terms, the American historian Richard Hofstadter once perceptively observed that “it has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.”

In terms of language, a nation may well hold a native language from a previous historical era. A spirit of nationalist feeling may therefore reassert itself after gaining independence from an outside force (as in the case of the Baltic states after liberation from the Soviet Union). Such is the intricate link between language and nationhood, nations have often faced persecution in regards to national symbols and the use of their own language. As the Finnish nationalist Adolf Arvidsson once said; “when the language of its forefathers is lost, a nation, too, is lost and perishes.”

Cultural nationalism in more depth

A useful case study to consider is that of cultural nationalism within Scotland and Wales. After centuries of rule imposed by the Westminster parliament, the cultural identity of the Celtic nations has been enhanced via two inter-related developments. Firstly, the process of devolution has enabled the smaller nations within the United Kingdom to more fully express their cultural identity. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have implemented various schemes that celebrate the distinct culture (and to some extent linguistic traditions) of their respective nations. Secondly, the process of European integration and its focus upon a ‘Europe of the Regions’ has also played a positive role. This process has also been welcomed by nationalist movements within Catalonia and the Basque region of Spain.

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