Nationalism and Its Impact on Society

Alfred Einstein said that nationalism is the measles of mankind, an infantile disease. However, why do we develop this strong identity toward our own people or culture? And, does it have any benefit?
Nationalism and Its Impact on Society
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 01 May, 2024

Figures like Sigmund Freud and Abraham Maslow taught us that one of our strongest motivations is to satisfy the need to belong. In the process of socialization, we move from the egocentric to the socio-centric. During that step, some of us develop a strong national attachment. In other words, an emotional, attitudinal, and identity connection toward our own people. This is nationalism.

Nationalism has a complex history. Viewing it from a sociopsychological perspective allows us to understand its anatomy. It’s a concept in which the ‘us against them’ idea outlines deep conflicts and geostrategic problems. For example, those currently taking place in countries like North Korea.

“Nationalism is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself, but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

-George Orwell-

man with mechanism to represent nationalism
The nationalist mind develops strong attitudes and beliefs about its own people, differentiating them from other cultures.


In recent years, nationalism has once again established itself in our societies. For instance, Donald Trump promoted its resurgence with his America First policy. Then, there was Brexit and the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. This demonstrated their desire, as a country, to define their identity. But, what does nationalism really mean? And, how is it defined?

The psychologist, Joshua Searle-White, from Clark University (USA), explained nationalism in his book, The Psychology of Nationalism (2001). He defined it as the development of a strong identity and attachment to a nation. In effect, the country satisfies all the individual’s emotional, cultural, and socioeconomic needs. However, this intense belonging often means that they see their own nation as superior to others.

This is precisely where the danger of nationalism lies. There’s an exacerbated loyalty toward the individual’s own territory and the people of the ingroup. Indeed, members mark distinct differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Although this isn’t intrinsically bad, there are certain factors that, throughout history have led to more than one conflict. As a matter of fact, the social psychologist, Erich Fromm, feared nationalism. He saw it as a form of incest and insanity (The Sane Society, 1955).

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The characteristics of nationalism

Where does nationalism come from? Why do human beings sometimes organize themselves into identity groups and come into conflict with others? Firstly, we must understand that it’s a socially and psychologically constructed complex phenomenon.

Research conducted by the Indira Gandhi National University (India) claims that nationalism flourished in 18th-century Europe with the French Revolution. To a certain extent, this shaped the modern world. Later, the Napoleonic wars, added to 19th-century revolutions and anti-colonial movements, established the concept of nation, nationalism, and also social identity.

These are some of the theories surrounding nationalism.

1. Primordial and psychobiological theories

The primordial conception of nationalism was coined by the anthropologist, Clifford James Geertz, in the 1970s. According to this model, such behavior may be rooted in any culture. It stems from emotions and is transmitted within families.

This theory also claims that nationalism is linked to culture and religion. In fact, it’s inherent in many mentalities because it involves the ideas we grow up with and what’s transmitted to us. Pierre van den Berghe included the psychobiological factor in his book, The Ethnic Phenomenon (1981). He claimed that nationalism is a form of social evolution in which a form of group self-awareness develops.

2. Modernist theory

Modernist theories arose throughout the 19th century. They defined nationalism as a way of modernizing society and its economy. The identity of a place promoted its unity in the search for common improvement. However, over time, this phenomenon led to unethical movements.

According to Anthony D. Smith, the conditions for the emergence of nationalism are as follows:

  • A history of war.
  • A defined homeland.
  • Historical and/or religious legacies.
  • A hostile social situation or environment in crisis.
  • Particular customs, as well as a specific language or culture.

3. Instrumentalist theories

Instrumentalism believes that nationalism is the result of a series of triggering political, social, and economic events. It’s seen as a dynamic phenomenon that varies and adapts. That said, its goal is always to achieve something, such as change or to express discontent. The most prominent proponent of this model was Fredrik Barth.

4. Economist theories

The economist model proposes that nationalism, instead of starting from an awareness or affection toward our own culture, language, and history, has its roots in economic interests. Therefore, patriotism is an attempt to promote mechanisms with which to obtain direct or indirect economic gains.

Nationalism has a complex history that originated in Modern Europe. It was from there that it evolved. But, it often led to hostile and problematic manifestations at all levels.

Angry and screaming man representing nationalism
Nationalism often uses violence as an instrument.

Types of nationalism

There are many experts in the field of psychosociology who insist that it’s not possible to speak of different types of nationalism. They believe that it always manifests in the same way and has similar roots.

However, others propose that there are possible differentiations. Furthermore, they claim that people often combine several categories of nationalism. Therefore, none of them are exclusive.

These are the different kinds of nationalism that have been identified.

1. Civic

The state obtains power thanks to its citizens. The will of the people configures the identity base of a country. Examples of this are the United States and France after the revolution.

2. Ethnic

This defines countries that identify with unique and particular ethnicities. They have an inheritance that they all share. For instance, their own language and common ancestry. Moreover, they occasionally use these to justify their supposed right to self-determination.

3. Religious

These are the classic theocracies. In a theocracy, the whole nation shares the same religion and doctrines. Based on them, the state is created.

4. Cultural

These include cultural traditions, beliefs, and a shared history. Cultural nationalism outlines social phenomena in which a country or its institutions are defined and identified by the same shared culture. Zionism is one example.

5. Status

Fascism is a clear example of this kind of nationalism. This is a context in which the individual exists to contribute to the common goal of maintaining the strength and identity of their country.

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The pros and cons of nationalism

Martin Luther King said that nationalism must give way to internationalism, to broader and, above all, inclusive perspectives. Indeed, this figure who dreamed of a better world was not, as you might expect, a supporter of the nationalistic way of thinking.

George Washington University (USA) conducted a review that claims the emergence of nationalism today is evident with leaders like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, and Vladimir Putin. We know that these movements divide populations and create social conflicts of varying severity. Yet, nationalism hasn’t always sought to destroy democracies and start wars. For example, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela both defined themselves as nationalists. So, where does the balance lie?

Positive aspects

The great European movements for freedom and justice in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries served to overthrow absolute monarchies. This gave rise to a new flowering of social rights, moral understanding, and identity. Today, Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, proposes a nationalist form based on shared values and not so much on ethnic, religious, or historical aspects.

Of course, the problem is that not all nationalism favors these prosocial behaviors.

Negative aspects

It isn’t difficult to deduce the effects of nationalist-based thought and practices. In fact, those who defend and exhort a unique identity sometimes justify violence as an instrumental act to impose their ideals, radicalized thoughts, and own version of the truth. Indeed, many of our great human tragedies have been due to nationalism.

“Nationalism is always a source of tension, confrontation, and violence, and that does not exclude nationalism that plays at democracy at the same time as exclusion. It is and continues to be, a great challenge.”

-Mario Vargas Llosa-

Hands pointing to the sky symbolizing the types of humility
Beyond our identities, we must remember we’re human beings all living on the same planet.

Final reflection

Muslims, Christians, or Jews. British, Lebanese, Portuguese, Turkish, or American. Regardless of our religions or nationalities, we’re all human beings inhabiting a fragile planet. However, if we’re too engrossed in our particular differences and disputes, we might neglect more global problems.

Indeed, today, we’re faced with many challenges. For instance, social and economic crises as well as those related to climate change. Therefore, we could say the time has come to take on the concept of transnationalism. This consists of viewing reality beyond our own nationalist identities and starting to conceive of ourselves globally.

Carl Sagan once said that every one of us that’s ever lived inhabited the same earth which he saw as “a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark… a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. So, who’s to say that any one of us is more important than another?

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.