Alex J. Bellamy
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National identity and the ‘great divide’

According to Tom Nairn, ‘the reason why the dispute between modernists and primordialists is not resolved is because it is irresolvable’. Nairn described the so-called ‘Warwick debate’, between Anthony Smith and Ernest Gellner, as a ‘courteous difference of emphasis’. The ‘great debate’ in nationalism studies, captured at Warwick, is one between so-called ‘primordialists’ and ‘modernists’. Put simply, primordialists argue that the nation derives directly from a priori ethnic groups and is based on kinship ties and ancient heritage. For their part, modernists insist that the nation is an entirely novel form of identity and political organisation, which owes nothing to ethnic heritage and everything to the modern dynamics of industrial capitalism. This chapter provides a brief overview of the two positions but concludes that primordialism and modernism, and the scope of the debate between them, fail to offer a satisfactory account of the formation of national identity. It also explores the central problem with accounts that emerge from the ‘great divide’.

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