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Andreas Pickel

Entity or Idea, Property or Process? Rethinking the Nation under Globalization


Mechanisms-Based Explanation

A social mechanism is a process in a social system.  The difference between a process and a mechanism is that the mechanism explains how a particular process works.[1]  In other words, a mechanism is a process that is well understood.  The macro processes examined in the study of world politics are usually highly complex and result from a combination of mechanisms.  Thus postcommunist transformation, globalization, marketization, democratization, etc. are large-scale processes that contain a number of mechanisms. 

Each concrete case of social change is likely to have its own particular combination of change mechanisms.  Examples of general social mechanisms are cooperation, competition, diffusion, assimilation, emulation, market (decentralized) coordination and hierarchical (centralized) coordination.  McAdam et al. (2001) identify, among others, brokerage, opportunity/threat spirals, and category formation.  The concept of mechanism in general usage often refers to specific institutional arrangements or policies (e.g. privatization as a mechanism of transformation).  These are designed mechanisms, a special case of mechanism that is perhaps less confusingly called social technology.  Social technologies such as economic policies are normative mechanisms that may or may not work the way they were intended.  This will depend on how they perform as empirical mechanisms in combination with other mechanisms in a specific context.  The challenge for those using a mechanismic approach to explanation (and a fortiori for those developing and implementing social technologies) is to identify significant mechanisms and combinations of mechanisms that advance and deepen our understanding of specific processes. 

The Nationalizing Mechanism

I propose that there is a central mechanism that can help us make sense of a great variety of phenomena and processes discussed in the globalization debate.  This is the nationalizing mechanism (NM).  As explained earlier, a mechanism is a process in a concrete system.  “Nationalizing mechanism” is the generic name for the actually existing, different NMs in the international society of states.  Individual states and societies have their own specific NMs.  The NM is a process that occurs at global, regional, national and subnational levels, and is therefore a linkage between social systems at various levels.  In addition to linking systems operating at global and national levels, the NM occurs in political, cultural, economic, and biosocial systems and organizations of all sorts.  The NM works in systems and processes as diverse as the state and political system, economic growth, industrial organizations, identity construction, and the family – subjects traditionally under the jurisdiction of different disciplines and subfields.  The fact that a particular mechanism occurs in so many different systems does not necessarily mean that identifying it in general terms constitutes a major contribution to the explanation of particular processes.  Think, for example, of cooperation and competition, basic mechanisms that work in almost all social systems, but on their own can rarely provide deep explanations of basic processes in concrete systems.  Much the same is true for the NM.  Few scholars would call into question either that nationalism has some significance in world affairs or that it plays some role in various spheres of social life.  Clearly, in order to make a strong explanatory claim for the NM, much more has to be argued for.  At the same time, however,  it is important to remember that any claim for the explanatory significance of a particular mechanism in macrosocial processes is necessarily limited since such processes are the result of combinations of mechanisms (see above). 

The nationalism literature is of great value for the study of NMs, but it also has some distinct limitations.  The most important of these is that this literature treats nationalism above all as the explanatory problem (explanandum).  Why is there nationalism, what kind of nationalism is it, how does it manifest itself, what are its prospects?  These are the primary questions addressed in this literature.  The potential contribution of the NM lies in its largely unrecognized explanatory function (explanans).  True, nationalism is invoked to account for a variety of phenomena from anti-neoliberalism to parochialism but such accounts usually rest on questionable, highly normative conceptions of nationalism and are not very deep.  If a noun were to be associated with the NM, nation, nationality, national identity or nationness might be less misleading than nationalism.  The NM is at the intersection of nation, state, and society.  Some clarification of these fundamental concepts is therefore in order.

While general public discourse often conflates the meaning of nation, state, society and country, social scientists are usually clear on the distinction between nation and state.  Unfortunately, the same is not true for the distinction between nation and society.  The two are often used interchangeably, and even if they are kept separate, there is no agreed-upon set of definitions for them.  The globalization debate has further confused things as nations, societies, and states are described as being in various states of decomposition, transnationalization, etc.  This forces us to remain a little longer on the conceptual and definitional terrain.

A thin, realist and materialist conception of state and society

Mechanisms are processes in systems.  Nationalizing mechanisms are processes in social systems.  In my conception state and society are not simply analytical categories like the levels discussed above but are real social systems.  The globalization debate has contributed further to the ambiguity of major social science concepts such as state and society.  Weakened by the postmodern assault on their material reality, their very existence has been further called into question by allegedly new, global realities.  Contrary to these fashionable trends, I propose a simple realist and materialist conception of state and society.

A social system is composed of people and their artefacts.  A society is a social system physically bounded by a territorial state. All residents of the territorial state are members of society. This does not prejudge the nature or extent of the ties that various components, both systems and individuals within that society, have with each other and with "external" systems or individuals.  Nor does it prejudge whether a society is globalizing, transnationalizing, fragmenting, renationalizing, or whatever.  In fact, the thin conception of society as a social system is designed to assist us in explaining those very processes.  A society is composed of political, economic, cultural, and biological subsystems to which the same caveats apply.

How does the state fit into this conceptualization?  Social scientists have debated the state-society problematic long and hard.  Waves of “bringing the state back in” to the analysis have alternated with waves of “bringing society back in.”  “Bringing the nation back in,” and bringing it back as a process, gives us a different way of dealing with the state-society problematic.  As with respect to society, I propose a thin conception of state, avoiding questions about its autonomy, coherence, etc.  Michael Mann’s (1993: 55) definition is useful here:

  1. The state is a differentiated set of institutions and personnel embodying centrality, in the sense that political relations radiate to and from the center, to cover a
  2. territorially demarcated area over which it exercises
  3. some degree of authoritative, binding rule making, backed up by some organized physical force.

 State institutions and personnel represent a society externally vis-à-vis other states and govern a society internally.  The theory of sovereignty is the modern state’s normative foundation.  In this sense, all modern states are variations on the Western model.  They share basic formal institutions that, normatively, have common functions in the exercise of external and internal sovereignty.  States “cage” their societies to varying degrees, and are “polymorphous” rather than unitary and coherent.  Thus whether, how, and to what effect particular state institutions discharge those functions, and which other functions besides, depends upon the society in which these state institutions operate, the historical evolution of state institutions, as well as the state’s regional and global environment.  Nationalizing processes are at the centre of these interactions.

Nation as entity or system 

Like societies and states, nations too appear to be real entities.  That is, while qua symbolic systems (social representations) nations are real, they do not have any social existence.  If nations were social systems, they would be social systems of a peculiar kind since they act only through the medium of other social systems – formal institutions of state and economy, informal institutions such as social movements or social networks.  This is decidedly not the case with respect to other social systems in society which are capable of collective action on their own.  For their social existence nations are in this sense “forced into symbiosis” with (real) social systems.  In a more realist and materialist turn of phrase, a variety of social systems “act through the nation” by constructing and reproducing the nation through discourse and practice, and not the other way round.  This is what I refer to as the nationalizing process.  The nation as an imagined entity is an emergent property of this process in each of those social systems.

Nation as a property of social systems

A nation can be defined as a collective composed of individuals and groups who see and experience themselves as members of a nation and who are so recognized by others.[2] In this sense, a nation is “only” an imagined community, as such a social fact, but not a real (material, concrete) social system. To illustrate: the gradual, halting, and incomplete inclusion of African Americans into the American nation represents an ongoing change in the boundaries of the imagined community (i.e. in terms of individual experience and recognition), but not in the boundaries of U.S. society as a social system.  A state-cum-society is usually dominated by one nation[3] which claims to represent society as a whole and which has "cultural hegemony" in the definition and reproduction of societal identity.   Every state also contains subordinate nations, defined ethnically (most common), racially (e.g. US; South Africa), or culturally (e.g. Auslandsdeutsche).  Subordinate nations are politically, economically, and culturally integrated into society in different forms and to varying degrees, as mediated by the society’s concrete nationalizing processes.[4]  Other examples of subordinate nations are aboriginal populations and migrant workers.  Regardless of nationality, however, all members of a society partake of its nationness –  whether as insiders or outsiders, dominant or dominated groups.  Thus politically, economically, and culturally, a particular society's nationness may be inclusive or exclusive, egalitarian or inegalitarian with respect to resident members of other nations. 

Nation as process: the basic elements of nationalizing mechanisms

The previous section has portrayed the nation as a property of social systems. This is what makes it possible to imagine social systems as being nations, or parts thereof.  The decisive step in the conceptualization proposed here is to view the nation as process.  The “nation as process” is in fact a complex set of processes that occur in and between societies and states.  Since nationalizing processes often have considerable constancy over time, and since the discourse of nation reinforces the appearance of constancy, it certainly makes sense to speak of the nationness (a property) of a society (e.g. typical practices seen as part of its “national character”) as a social fact.  Describing nationness, especially as contained in the self-descriptions of a national discourse, is an important contribution to mapping nationalizing processes.  But conceptualizing nation as process opens up the whole range of social processes in which the national is in one way or another involved – from political legitimation to economic action.  Rather than just explain nationalism, this allows us to explain with nationalism.

Many scholars outside the field of nationalism studies consider the social things to which terms and phrases such as nation, national culture, and national identity refer as sufficiently significant for the particular aspects of social life they study, to incorporate them in their explanations.  In contrast to the mechanismic conception adopted here, the national in those studies is usually presented as an independent variable, frequently operationalized in terms of specific values such as individualism, collectivism, etc.  Such conceptions can be illuminating but are ultimately unsatisfactory since they cannot explain how values produce the effects for which they are held responsible.  Thus empirical studies can show that certain values are prominently held in some cultures but not others, and theoretical models can produce correlations between such values and different social outcomes.  But values are abstracted from their larger symbolic and social contexts at considerable cost, and values in any case don’t act.  As a result, the relationships between the national and other social phenomena remain obscure.

My conception of the national comprises the cognitive systems, social systems, and social actions that together “make” a national process.  The major constituents of nation as process shall be briefly mentioned here.  These are the production and reproduction of: common cultural knowledge (shared epistemic and moral orders), national discourse, collective identity, and characteristic social practices and forms of collective action. 

Bunge, Mario. 1997. Mechanism and Explanation. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 27 (4): 410-465.
McAdam, Doug, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly (eds),. 2001. Dynamics of Contention Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mann, Michael. 1993. The Sources of Social Power. The Rise of Classes and Nation-States 1760-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
See also: Andreas Pickel,
"Explaining, and Explaining With, Economic Nationalism," Nations and Nationalism Vol. 9, No. 1 (2003), 105-127.  Also available at www.trentu.ca/tipec

[1] "A description of process, without reference to the underlying mechanism(s), may be said to be kinematical.  Kinematical accounts are devoid of explanatory power.  Any study of mechanisms of some kind may be said to be dynamical. (Regrettably, nearly all of the so-called dynamical models of social change are actually kinematical)" (Bunge 1997: 425-26).
This definition attempts to incorporate the subjective, intersubjective and objective dimensions of nation.  The statement itself is objective (it reports a widely held social representation), recognition is intersubjective, and experience is subjective.
In states with more than one numerically and politically strong nation, cultural hegemony may to some extent be shared (cf. Canadian case).  In all other states, the dominant nation's cultural hegemony may be more or less openly contested, both from within the dominant nation and by the subordinate nations.
To take the case of Germany, Auslandsdeutsche are politically fully integrated as citizens, yet culturally barely integrated (therefore "subordinate nations").  Second and third-generations Turks, on the other hand, may be fully integrated culturally but not politically if they don’t have German citizenship.