Nationalism is a broad umbrella term, but all forms of nationalism see the nation as the natural basis for the organisation of a community. However, there are different ways of describing what a nation is.
Nations are above all cultural constructions, where collections of people are bound together by a shared idea of thier identity, values and traditions. The most common shared cultural characteristics are a common language, religion and history, and geographical area. From this point of view, the nation can be defined by ‘objective’ factors: people who satisfy a requisite set of cultural criteria can be said to belong to a nation; those who do not can be classified as non-nationals or members of foreign nations. However, to define a nation simply as a group of people bound together by a common culture and traditions raises some very difficult questions. Although these cultural features are commonly associated with belonging to a nation, there is a great variety in the significance given to each of these criteria. Also the cultural definition of a nation is not the same as a purely legalistic definition where a nation is simply made up of people who qualify for membership (citizenship)- although in practice this is what most modern states are.
Generally, a nation can be identified as a group of people who identify themselves as such - as long as people identify with the characteristics that they have in common, they can be considered as a nation.
Many political disputes, moreover, are really disputes about whether a particular group of people should be regarded as a nation, and should therefore enjoy the rights and status associated with nationhood. This applies, for instance, to the Tibetans, the Kurds, the Palestinians, the Basques, the Tamils
Confusion arises in part because different nations have different characteristics. So, the British may consider themselves a nation, but many Scots identify instead with the Scottish nation. People from most of Spain may identify with Spanish nationhood, while those from Barcelona may see themselves as Catalonian. The Swiss do not share a common language while the geographical boundaries of Poland are quite flexible. The French consider their language to be a key part of their nationhood, and it might be argued that the love of food is an important part of national identity, while religion is categorically not a part of France's nationhood (unlike, for example, Italy). There are peoples who share the same language without having any conception of a common national identity: Americans, Australians and New Zealanders may speak English as a first language, but certainly do not think of themselves as members of an 'English nation'. Other nations have enjoyed a substantial measure of national unity without possessing a national language, as is the case in Switzerland where, in the absence of a Swiss language, three major languages are spoken: French, German and Italian.
Islam has been a major factor in forming national consciousness in much of North Africa and the Middle East. On the other hand, religious beliefs do not always coincide with a sense of nationhood. Divisions between Catholics and Protestants in mainland UK do not inspire rival nationalisms, nor has the remarkable religious diversity found in the USA threatened to divide the country into a collection of distinct nations. In Northern Ireland, people who speak the same language have been divided along religious lines: most Protestants regard themselves as Unionists and wish to preserve their links with the UK, while many in the Catholic community favour a united Ireland. Islam has been a major factor in forming national consciousness in much of North Africa and the Middle East. On the other hand, religious beliefs do not always coincide with a sense of nationhood. Divisions between Catholics and Protestants in mainland UK do not inspire rival nationalisms, nor has the remarkable religious diversity found in the USA threatened to divide the country into a collection of distinct nations. At the same time, countries such as Poland, Italy, Brazil and the Philippines share a common Catholic faith but do not feel that they belong to a unified 'Catholic nation'.
Nations have also been based on a sense of ethnic or, in certain circumstances, racial unity. This was particularly evident in Germany during the Nazi period. However, nationalism usually has a cultural rather than a biological basis; it reflects an ethnic unity that may be based on race, but more usually draws on shared values and common cultural beliefs. Nations usually share a common history and traditions and is reinforced by recalling past glories, national independence, the birthdays of national leaders or important military victories. The USA celebrates Independence Day and Thanksgiving; Bastille Day is commemorated in France; in the UK, ceremonies continue to mark Armistice Day. However, nationalist feelings may be based more on future expectations than on shared memories. American nationhood has been forged on the idea of the 'American dream, which is the view that anyone, no matter what their background, can be successful if they work hard enough. The American nation is sometimes seen as a 'melting pot, where immigrants from other countries and other cultures came to America, and different cultures have merged to form a new culture. This is the opposite of the multiculturalist 'mosaic' or 'salad bowl' approach, which encourages different cultures to hold on to their unique cultures, but live alongside each other peacefully in one nation. In France it is illegal to gather data on ethic diversity since it is assumed everyone is French.
Difficulties such as the absence of land, a small population or lack of economic resources are of little significance if a group of people insists on demanding what it sees as 'national rights'. Latvia, for example, became an independent nation in 1991 despite having a population of only 2.6.million (barely half of whom are ethnic Lats) , no source of fuel and very few natural resources. Likewise, the Kurdish peoples of the Middle East have nationalist aspirations, even though the Kurds have never enjoyed formal political unity and are at present spread over parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Is the nation inclusive or exclusive?
Nations are formed through a combination of objective (language, birth) and subjective (traditions history) factors has given rise to rival concepts of the nation. While all nationalists agree that nations are a blend of cultural and psycho-political factors, they disagree strongly about where the balance between the two lies. On the one hand, ‘exclusive’ concepts of the nation stress the importance of ethnic unity and a shared history. A conservative or nationalist view sees the nation as, unchanging and unchangeable, this implies that nations are characterised by common descent and so blurs the distinction between nations and races. In this view nations are held together by ‘primordial bonds’, powerful and seemingly innate emotional attachments to a language, a religion, a traditional way of life and a homeland. To different degrees, conservatives and fascists adopt such a view of the nation. On the other hand, ‘inclusive’ concepts of the nation, as found in civic nationalism, highlight the importance of civic consciousness and patriotic loyalty. From this perspective, nations may be multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious.. This, in turn, tends to blur the distinction between the nation and the state, and thus between nationality and citizenship. Liberals and socialists tend to adopt an inclusive view of the nation