Patriotism, Nationalism And Social Identity – Do the Dangers of ‘Isms’ Outweigh Their Positives In Society

This weekend I watched a rugby international game between South Africa and Argentina (and one between Wales and Ireland – a busy weekend as an armchair sports fan!), and when the players of each team lined up prior to the start of the game and the national anthems of each team played, I was struck by the passion that was evident both in the players and spectators, with a lot of folk reverently placing their hands over their national badges on their jerseys, and a number of both players and spectators in tears as the anthems were played. Last week I read about an incident at a local rugby derby between two schools, where all of players, teachers and parents had become involved in a mass brawl pitting the folk identifying with each School against the other. A few weeks ago the family and I visited Cape Town, and visited an outdoor restaurant high up on beautiful Table Mountain, and noted that a colonial era statue next to looked like it had recently had something flammable poured on it and it had been burnt by someone or some group of individuals. All of these got me thinking of the issues of patriotism, nationalism and social identify, and why folk felt the need to ‘believe’ in their national or local rugby sides, or why folk felt agitated enough about a statue that they felt the need to deface it, or indeed why such statues and flags were put up in the first place. This got me wondering whether patriotism, and its twin concept, nationalism, are really beneficial, or are perhaps a sign of identity issues either in individual folk, or of groups of folks, or indeed of nations and / or their leaders.

Patriotism is generally defined as a cultural attachment to one’s homeland and devotion to one’s country. It is thought that the term patriot was generated from an ensemble of the Greek words ‘patriotes’, which describes ‘countrymen’, and ‘patris’, which describes the concept of the ‘fatherland’. Nationalism is defined as a belief or political ideology that involves an individual identifying with and becoming attached to their nation. Nationalism is thought to be associated with national identity, in contrast to patriotism, which is suggested to involve social conditioning and personal behaviour that supports a ‘Nation’s’ decisions and actions. Symbolism is important in national identity, with national flags, anthems and monuments being used by national leaders and communities to both generate and enhance national identity and feelings of patriotism.

Two general theories (amongst many) of how Nationalism and Patriotism developed are the primordial and modernistic theories. In the primordial theory, nationalism is thought to be a caused by the ancient evolutionary tendency or ‘desire’ of humans, wherever this in the human psyche originates from, to organize into distinct groupings based on affinity from birth, or learnt from family and relatives, which create positive psychological ‘triggers’ in the minds of folk living in a particular nation that result in positive responses to patriotic or nationalistic cues. In contrast, in the modernistic theory, nationalism is thought to be a more recent phenomenon that requires structural conditions of modern society in order to exist, and perhaps also manipulation by or encouragement of the nations leaders for it to be able to develop. It has also been suggested that three levels of common requirements exist that are needed for the development of national identity: 1) At an inter-group level, in response to potential competition or conflict, folk organize into groups to either attack other groups or defend their group from hostile ‘other’ groups; 2) At the intra-group level, folk as individuals gain advantage through cooperation with others in securing resources that are not available through individual effort; and 3) on the individual level, self-interest concerns of folk related to their own perceived personal fitness levels either consciously or unconsciously motivate the need for and creation of a group formation as a means of security. All of these different levels of ‘need’ result in the development of first group and then national identity, and the development of ‘boundaries’ between one’s own group or nation and those ‘outside’ of the group or nation, and in essence the development of such national (or group, ethnic or religious) boundaries become both protective of and problematical for the group that uses and defines them.

At the heart of both Nationalism and Patriotism is of course one’s own personal and social identity. Identity is defined as the distinctive characteristics belonging to any given individual, or shared by all members of a particular social category or group. An individuals’ self-identity develops through identification with ‘significant others’, primarily parents and other individuals during one’s formative years, but also with the ‘groups’ that one associates with in particular during one’s early stages of development in life. The relationship between one’s self identity and social identity is complex, and obviously societies do not exist without the individuals that collectively make them up, so social identity constructs and individual identity are fairly certainly closely linked. A neat way of looking at one’s self and social identity is that it is grounded in the past, and defines one’s future behaviour and how one acts to others around one, depending on the boundaries generated by the particular environment one’s identity develops in. There is a bell-shaped curve of levels of identity in different people, with the majority of folk having moderate ‘levels’ of personal and social identity, but with some folk having ‘high diffuse’ social identity who do not relate to any particular personal or social identity, and other’s having ‘low diffuse’ social identity who relate highly to a particular social identity and are defensive of it. Some folk (likely the ‘low diffuse’ group) appear to gain a sense of positive self-esteem from their social identity groups, whether it is their local rugby or soccer team fan club (some great work has been done looking at this by my old colleagues Dr Matt Lewis, Dr Melissa Anderson and Dr Sandy Wolfson, amongst others), the school they attend, their work community, their ethnic or religious group or national boundary, or indeed these days with enhanced communication capacity, their international work or social structures.

Patriotism and Nationalism can be forces for ‘good’ in benign societies, but unfortunately they can also be problematic and indeed frankly dangerous to those not in the ‘circle of trust’ of the group of folk that define themselves as a particular nation. Both Patriotism and Nationalism can be used by ruling elites to advance their own agenda, and ‘manufacture consent’ in the folk they rule, for their own gain rather than that of the general good of the society as a whole that make up a particular Nation. Nationalism as a concept is inherently divisive, as it highlights perceived differences between groups and people as an inherent requirement of its definition. Nations, or indeed any particular social identity, creates boundaries, with those outside this identity being by necessity external to the national group. It has been suggested that to be successful a nation should coincide with a single / uniform cultural, ethnic or religious group within its boundaries, as this would allow the nation to most easily create its specific identity and ‘nationhood’, but this would then create the spectre of potential antagonism of a state towards those not associated with the predominant social culture within its boundaries, whether other external nations or states, or minorities within the nation or state that are ‘different’ to the culture of the nation or state. History abounds with examples of aggressive actions by ‘nations’ against those even inside their own boundaries which are ‘different’ to the self-identity propagated by leaders, and indeed the citizens / followers of the leaders of those nations which profess or propose to have a homogenous self-identity and do not tolerate ‘otherness’ in that self-identity. Because of its propensity to encourage divisions in society and between nations, the 18th century American statesmen, Samuel Johnson, suggested that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’, and the writer George Orwell, while viewing patriotism in a relatively positive light as a devotion to a particular place, described nationalism as ‘power-hunger tempered by self-deception’.

Clearly, there are potential benefits to both a degree of nationalism and patriotism from the perception of generating a positive ethos amongst the citizens of a particular nation or state towards accepting the norms, standards and beliefs of that particular state, particularly if it has a benign world view and leadership. However, there are is also the potential for negative outcomes when the levels of patriotism or nationalism become too ‘high’, to both those folk outside of a nation’s boundaries, or to minorities within the nation’s boundaries who are ‘different’ to the majority of its citizens. As a leader, one would like to engender a sense of pride and belonging in those who one leads. But it is a fine line between engendering these positive collective attributes, and creating a group of individuals whose self-identity is too tightly linked to that of the institution or state which one leads, and who become resistant either to change, or diversity of opinion, or external influence. Symbols such as flags, statues or anthems can be useful in engendering pride, but as in the example of an old symbol being burnt in Cape Town, they can also be hated symbols of oppression in those who these symbols were previously used against, or are currently used, to manufacture antipathy towards and boundaries against. It is uplifting to see young folk before a rugby game being proud to represent their country in their chosen sport, but it’s unedifying to see participants, coaches and families feel such strong ties to their chosen team that they resort to violence to ‘protect’ their social, and perhaps self, identities. Patriotism helps retain bonds and family ties, but can be exclusive to those not originating from a particular geographic or social environment. On a personal level, I have noted that after living for extended periods on three different continents, my personal sense of patriotism has been attenuated (but this may just be associated with increased age and a perhaps wider life perspective which age often, but not always, engenders), and this is a negative from the sense that one feels to a degree ‘rootless’ if one has lived in many different places for long periods of time, but it is also a positive in that one does not ‘ally’ closely with any group or social infrastructure, which allows one to often ‘walk the middle path’ in both social and national disputes and debates.

An old Russian colleague, Dr Mikhael Lomarev, whom I worked with at a Research Centre in Washington DC in the USA in 2002 and 2003, not long after the attacks on both New York and Washington DC which occurred in 2001, when noticing how many Americans had flags on their houses, office buildings and cars, and who had lived through years of communism and socialism in his own country in his life, shook his head and said that he believed that the biggest danger in life are the ‘isms’ – from Fascism, to Communism, to in this case as he termed it American Patriotism, to Nationalism – and the world events of the decade following this discussion may have justified his concerns about the high level of ‘American Patriotism’ evident then, in some ways. Each ‘ism’ created a particular world-view and social structure that was perhaps meant initially to both protect and maintain the folk who lived in and through them, but in the end all became restrictive and damaging either to their own citizens or those around or ‘opposed’ to them. So while I enjoyed seeing the young sports folk holding the badge over the left pocket of their blazer at the start of that rugby game, I worried also where such symbolism and national pride leads to, and that the jackboot of authoritarianism, dressed up as nationalism, or even patriotism, lurks not far behind that simple gesture and the tear-stained patriotic faces which resulted from the singing of the national anthems. As much as belong to a society or a nation, we also are all one and the same living under the same blues skies and the same green hills and valleys, that existed long before we created nations and states, and will exist long after they are changed or gone. Perhaps this – a perception of ‘all-worldism’ – should be the ultimate ‘ism’ we should believe in and adhere to, as a first principle above all others!


About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Deputy Dean (Research), Faculty of Science and Health, University of Essex, Colchester, United Kingdom View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

2 responses to “Patriotism, Nationalism And Social Identity – Do the Dangers of ‘Isms’ Outweigh Their Positives In Society

  • Laurie Rauch

    Love your notion of all-worldism as the ultimate ‘ism’ we should believe in and adhere to, Zig! As much as I would like to see greater trust, cooperation and compassion amongst the people of the world, you and I both know that that this is just pie in the sky. I believe the dangers of Patriotism and Nationalism are far less of a threat than that of a rootless, Godless all-worldism. The more nations, peoples and ideas you have the less chance you have of the establisment of a global goverment hell bent on removing all individual freedoms in the name of security.

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