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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .

The State of the Nation: Ernest Gellner and the theory of Nationalism
John A Hall ed.

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
317pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: ISBN 0-521-63324-9. Pb.: ISBN 0-521-63366-4.

Ernest Gellner, who died in 1995, was a philosopher and social anthropologist who became very well-known as an authority on nationalism after the publication of his Nations and Nationalism in 1983. He was already a prestigious academic, so anything he said about nationalism was given close attention. This was unlike the writings of other experts on nationalism, such as Walker Connor, which were known only to specialists. However, students of ethnic conflict have more to gain in reading Connor than Gellner, for Gellner was more concerned with large historical matters rather than with contemporary conflicts, although his posthumous Nationalism (1997) did pay attention to the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

This collection of essays, running to 317 pages, is partly concerned with arguments over Gellner's theory, which links the emergence of nationalism to the coming of the modern industrial state, and is partly the opportunity for the authors to propound their own interpretations of national and ethnic conflict, with only a loose connection to Gellner's theory. For those interested in ethnic conflict, the latter are more rewarding, in particular the piece by Rogers Brubaker.

It is clear that on the whole the political scientists have more to offer in the field of conflict studies than the sociologists and philosophers. That is because, as Brendan O'Leary of the Department of Government at LSE notes, it is political more than social conflict which comes to the fore in contemporary nationalism and ethnicity. Unfortunately, according to O'Leary, Gellner's theory is 'apolitical', being largely concerned with economic and social matters.

A 'political' theory of nationalism and ethnicity would be more appropriate in explaining what is going in the world today, because Gellner's modernity theory is already out-of- date. 'Modernity' has been replaced by 'post-modernity', and the homogeneous nation-state is not as functional in the contemporary world as globalisation and multiculturalism.

Meanwhile, however, struggles for statehood, ethnic rights, etc. continue. Why? Because people are unhappy with 'rule by foreigners' who tend to humiliate them on a regular basis. Given the opportunity, they will break away to rule themselves. This can happen at any time, unpredicted by theories such as Gellner's. There are other, better, theories available, but they tend to come from psychologists, biologists, and obscure political scientists, not from sociologists and philosophers.

James G. Kellas
Department of Politics, University of Glasgow

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