Book Reviews - Athena S. Leoussi and Steven Grosby eds., Nationalism and Ethnosymbolism: History, Culture and Ethnicity in the Formation of Nations

Book Reviews

Athena S. Leoussi and Steven Grosby eds., Nationalism and Ethnosymbolism: History, Culture and Ethnicity in the Formation of Nations

Yves Laberge
Université Laval
Leoussi, Athena S., and Grosby, Steven eds. Nationalism and Ethnosymbolism: History, Culture and Ethnicity in the Formation of Nations. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

1 This important collection of 20 new essays on ethnosymbolism brings together some very strong studies from various theoretical, national, and comparative perspectives. According to the editors of this interdisciplinary and collective effort, the core concept of “Ethnosymbolism” in itself had been coined by Anthony D. Smith in his numerous books, including The Ethnic Origins of Nations (1986), National Identity (1991), and Nationalism in a Global Era (1996). (And Professor Smith has written a welcome afterword here.) In their Introduction, in order to articulate the concept of ethnosymbolism in terms of time, space, and culture, both editors argue that: “For a nation to exist, there must be a symbolic representation of a territory such that, when acknowledged and thereby incorporated as part of the understanding of the self, a territorial relation, a territorial kinship, is posited over time.” (p. 6) Obviously, these shared symbols of a nation located in a given place have to be defined, negotiated, and accepted by a group or nation.

2 The first half of the book is more conceptual, theoretical, and interdisciplinary, while the second half gathers twelve case studies related to a specific country or nation, with examples coming from all continents, including (among many themes) post-Apartheid South Africa, the Taiwan/China dilemma, Aboriginals in Ecuador, the Middle East, and Israel. In the first section, two authors try to link national culture with national identity and nationalism in a given country, in this case with the classical music of Vaughan Williams in England.

3 In the first chapter, following Anthony Smith, Danielle Conversi situates and conceptualizes ethnosymbolism in her own terms: “Ethnosymbolism underlines the continuity between premodern and modern forms of social cohesion, without overlooking the changes brought about by modernity. The persisting features in the formation and continuity of national identities are myths, memories, values, traditions and symbols.” (p. 21)

4 Further on, Conversi's opening chapter also explains that ethnosymbolism relies on what she identifies as “two streams of thought,” understood as oppositions: “instrumentalism as opposed to primordialism, and modernism as opposed to perennialism.” (p. 15) When trying to define more precisely the contents of ethnosymbolism, she indicates that in order to understand this concept, “Myths of ethnic descent, particularly myths of ‘ethnic chosenness’ lie at its core.” (p. 21) Moreover, after providing a critique of this concept, Conversi concludes her overview of ethnosymbolism by stating that among its key elements, the “myth of a ‘golden age’ of past splendor is perhaps the most important.” (p. 22)

5 Among the most rewarding chapters is Athena Leoussi's (chapter 11) which focuses on the national symbols of seven post-communist countries, including Poland, the Hungarian and Czech Republics, and Slovakia, plus the Baltic states, using Smith's concept of a “dominant ethnie” or “dominant nation.” (p. 161) In fact, the end of the Soviet era was for these countries a unique opportunity to reformulate and redefine their own national identities through their new constitutional preambles and a brand new culture of state. Here, Leoussi presents and discusses each country's renewed identity, highlighting how the “official” past can be reconstructed and reinterpreted. In many ways her solid conceptual framework on the renewed state symbols could be adapted and reused as well for other cases studies (other countries, other nations). (p. 163)

6 Titled “The Power of ethnic traditions in the modern world,” Anthony Smith's epilogue is timely. Without commenting on every chapter where Smith is generously quoted, this portion focuses on concepts like nationhood, landscape, religion, and ethno-history. The author revisits and re-conceptualizes the book's main ideas.

7 Overall, I liked this salient book for many reasons but mainly because it concentrates on a fundamental aspect that is too often overlooked nowadays, especially in political science and international relations: the symbolic dimensions or simply the symbols. (p. 6) For readers who are already familiar with ethnosymbolism, Nationalism and Ethnosymbolism will surely be an important addition for two reasons: for its excellent conceptual articulation of ideas but also for the diverse applications in the many societies offered here. For the newcomer in either the social sciences or history, this overlooked book is clear enough to give an efficient and useful introduction to ethnosymbolism.

Yves Laberge is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Université Laval.