‘The Missing Ink’: Re-evaluating Socialisation and Nationalism in the Work of Ernest Gellner

‘The Missing Ink’: Re-evaluating Socialisation and Nationalism in the Work of Ernest Gellner

Judith O’Connell

(Faculty of Arts, School of Political Science and Sociology, National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland, 2015)

Advisers: Sinisa Malesevic and Kevin Ryan


Having returned to academia after working in the private sector, Judith O’Connell completed both her Ph.D. and B.A. at the National University of Ireland in Galway, and is currently an assistant head of first year on the B.A. in political science and sociology at the same university.




Dissertation abstract

This thesis expands on Ernest Gellner’s theory of nationalism. Gellner provides an analysis in the ‘why’ of nationalism—why nations and nationalism develop—but neglects to elaborate on the details of how this takes place or by what method the nation is reproduced. This is the ‘missing ink’ in the title of the thesis, or the ‘how’ of nationalism. In considering Gellner’s theoretical position, thie thesis employs the concept of the socialisation of nationalism, which is an application of a theory of socialisation to nationalism as a social construct. By taking Gellner’s modernist approach to the study of nations, I examine how the nation is reproduced through a complex process of socialisation that crosses between a centralised state education system and social learning. This is synthesised with Bourdieu’s theory of socialisation and adapted by shifting the focus of analysis from social class to what is presented as ‘national doxa’.

This is not to say that Gellner was entirely wrong in prioritising mass-compulsory education; however, I examine socialisation through a textual analysis of history text books, using Ireland as a case study. These findings are used to modify Gellner’s theory by emphasising the mutable nature of nationalism, i.e. in contrast to the linear view of development found in Gellner’s work—nationalism is a more complex process whereby the past is reconstructed in accordance with present concerns.

Three time frames are identified as being pivotal eras during Ireland’s history. The first period is 1831 until 1922 when Ireland was still under British rule. The second period covered is from the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 until 1971. This was the first time that the content of Irish text books was under the control of an Irish State. The third and final period examines textbooks from 1971 onwards and the advent of what was termed the ‘new curriculum’. These contrasting social and political epochs enable us to observe that the substance of what is taught in schools reflects adjusting national priorities.  Under these periods the subject matter is presented as follows: firstly the educational material is discussed under the headings Ancient Origins of the Irish, Empire/Colonialism, and the Famine.

These findings substantiate the thesis that education acts as a tool of the socialisation of nationalism; this is only possible due to a centralised state education system maintained by a national government. Nationalism and the modern state work in tandem with one another, the socialisation of nationalism ensures their existence.


Inspiration to undertake this research

Having read Bourdieu as an undergraduate, I felt his analysis of class formation was comprehensive and insightful yet surprisingly under utilised in relation to wider aspects of society. Whilst studying Gellner, I felt Bourdieu’s frame analysis would provide the means by which to gain a deeper understanding of Gellner’s core theory. This provides us with the ‘socialisation of nationalism’, and the ‘missing ink’ of the title.

Having been born with the gift of dual nationality my personal relationship with both identities is somewhat ambivalent. This is mainly due to the contentiousness of these almost opposing nationalities (Irish and English). From an early age it was apparent that both had contrasting points of view regarding historical and political events (one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter). The drives and motivations behind these nationalisms fascinated me. Why are some people fervent nationalists and others less engaged?  Though Gellner verbalized some of what I had ruminated on, his theory did not entirely clarify the how of nationalism: how does nationalism come into being. I felt Gellner provided a ‘why’ of nationalism but not the ‘how’.


An in-depth look into one aspect of the dissertation

That nationalism is socialised is substantiated by the analysis of text books. It is further reinforced by the chapter entitled ‘national habitus’, which could be referred to as ‘observable manifestations of national habitus’. This provides a supporting body of evidence to support the claim that nationalism is socialized and identifies a variety of ways in which the nation is embodied and performed or enacted in the context of everyday social life.

Bourdieu employed the concepts of doxa, habitus, and hexis to reveal the dynamics of social construction in society. I demonstrate how these ideas can be applied to the reproduction of nationhood. In Bourdieu’s terminology doxa refers to that what is taken for granted in any particular society. When applied to nationalism, national doxa denotes culturally specific behaviours, attitudes, traditions, customs and norms which remain more or less unquestioned within that societal group.

A national doxa is more or less culturally specific, imbued through a subject’s surroundings, reinforcing the national identity of the bearer. It is in the unconscious embodiment of belonging to a social group. The national hexis is the actual physical incarnation of a national doxa. The examples discussed in this chapter illustrate clearly that these bland and innocuous instances both fortify and reinforce the nation, binding together the collective community. The examples discussed in this chapter cover aspects of behaviour such as differing national cutlery usage and greeting customs. Also discussed are aspects of society which in themselves reinforce national socialisation such as time zones, maps and stamps.

The origins of these behaviours can be reconstructed. Specifically, how they operate as subliminal markers of national identity, which become tacit and taken for granted actions. We could refer to these as nation-centric behaviours, beliefs, or values. Such qualities are imbued through the process of socialisation and have been clearly imparted through the channels of society. This could be described as either the process of nationalist socialisation or nation-centric socialisation. Normative behaviours which are the accepted codes of conduct we use to identify with co-nationals and distinguish us from ‘others’.


Perspective on the fields of nationalism, ethnicity, and race

The study of nationalism, ethnicity and race is pivotal to the human experience as they have become markers by which we initially define ourselves and others. Thus their attendant potency if unexamined could feasibly make them the most dangerous of influences. By examining such fields, we defuse the possibility of the misuse of these cultural signifiers.


Reflections on the job market

As we live in an era in which neo-liberal market economics have infiltrated many aspects of life including academia we are witnessing a rapidly changing job market which appears to offer less and less security or space for the creative process. If everything is to be boiled down to its pure economic value, the future does not look bright for the humanities. I think as a whole the field must learn somehow to fight back or we will observe its slow and steady decline. The role the humanities plays in deepening the human experience and its contemporary relevance must somehow be made apparent.


If you recently defended a Ph.D. in the fields of nationalism, ethnicity, identity, and/or race and would like to be featured on our blog, please visit here for more information on how to submit your dissertation abstract.

About Junpeng Li 11 Articles
Junpeng Li is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Columbia University in NYC, USA. His areas of research are contentious politics and ethnic politics, with a geographical focus on China.

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