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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 1 .


Nationhood and Political Theory
Margaret Canovan.

(Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar, 1996).
168pp. Bibl. 39.95;
ISBN 1-85278-852-6.


Is it possible to think systematically about justice, democracy, political development and related phenomena without assuming the existence of national communities and nationhood? No, says the author and leads the reader through a penetrating discussion of some of the basic explicit and implicit presumptions of modern political theory. Chapter by chapter she discusses the role of nationhood in contemporary theoretical discourses on nationalism, democracy, social justice and liberal universalism.

She demonstrates that there is a lack of critical awareness in this literature about the normative foundations of political entities. The political community is taken for granted with the implication that important questions are not being asked, or that questions are asked without sufficient considerations of the tacit assumptions which follow. For example, you cannot have a meaningful discussion of democratic politics without a clear definition of who constitutes the people, who are entitled to take part in the decision-making processes. Such 'what makes a society possible'-questions have resurfaced after the Cold War as we have experienced the parallel processes of ethnic fragmentation and globalisation. A number of scholars (and politicians) have predicted the disintegration of the nation-state - that the overlap of state and nation was but a stage in the historical process and that a liberal universalist political system is possible without being based on nationhood. Dr. Canovan gives us good reasons to think otherwise.


Nils Butenschon, University of Oslo



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