The Civic-Ethnic Distinction: A review of Phillip Spencer and Howard Woolman’s “Good and Bad Nationalisms”

The focus of this reading, written by Phillip Spencer and Howard Woolman, is the distinction between healthy and unhealthy varieties of nationalism that have developed over the course of the last few centuries.  The very concept of ‘nation’ is a modern one, having found meaningful expression within the last two hundred years of world history.  The founding principle of modern nationalism, the authors argue, has been its offer of equal political rights for all constituent groups and communities, irrespective of their social class, gender, economic background, etc.  An empirical study of global political history over the recent past would suggest that nationalist movements broadly fall under two categories – civic and ethnic.  The civic variety is perceived by commentators and scholars as a more progressive arrangement, whereas ethnic nationalism is seen to possess potential for misuse.  The authors further point out that there is no straightforward method for classifying nationalist movements into these varieties, as more often than not in every society one witnesses the coexistence of several varieties.  Added to this, there is also an element of subjective judgment involved in this process, which makes the task of labelling nationalist movements into strict categories.

Within the duality presented by civic and ethnic nationalisms, we find other dualities in the form of individualistic versus collectivistic, constitutional versus authoritarian, woman-emancipated versus patriarchal, etc.  In effect, all these complexities make the task of analyzing and studying nationalism and separating the healthy varieties from the rest nearly impossible.  But, the reading does offer some key insights into societies of the past and provides the context for further deliberations about forms of nationalism.


Spencer (P) and Wollman (H), “Good and Bad Nationalisms” in Nations and Nationalism (2005) Edinburgh University Press)