The distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism was introduced by Hans Kohn (1891-1971) in order to analyse and describe different types of nationalism. Despite being fairly recent categories, they are based on perspectives which have a long history extending back to the eighteenth century. Furthermore, despite being categories introduced for analytical purposes, they also have a strong normative element – in the sense that Kohn tends to associate the civic with that which is ‘good’ and the ethnic with that which is ‘bad’. He suggested that civic nationalism is based on open, more liberal and tolerant aspects, whilst ethnic nationalism is more closed, narrow and intolerant.

  • The crux of the distinction lies in the nation’s origins, and specifically that which denotes membership of the national community and brings people together, providing the foundation for their collective identity. Civic nationalism is mainly associated with the Breton philosopher, Ernest Renan (1823-1892). Renan acknowledged that a range of elements contributed towards creating an awareness of nationhood, but he asserted that the most significant ultimately is the longing among group members to think of themselves as a nation – that is, their willingness to will the notion of nationhood. However, despite the significance of Renen in relation to civic nationalism, it’s possible to step back even further to the ideas of the Welsh philosopher Richard Price (1723-1791), and his prominent discussion of the nature of patriotism in 1789, shortly before the French Revolution. In his view, neither land nor place of birth is important in defining nationhood, but rather the community of people who choose to live together, and specifically, the government, law and constitution which form the framework for living in that community. It is these civic institutions which bind and sustain us a nation, not our territory or identity.

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    Richard Price
  • This civic tradition is very different to ethnic nationalism, which is associated with the belief that a person’s identity forms the basis for belonging to a particular nation. Furthermore, there is a tendency to assume that ethnic nationalism treats these elements as ones which are wholly indispensable in order to ensure the survival of the nation and the unity of its members. By today however, there is a tendency to assume that factors such as race or pedigree are the ones which ethnic nationalists would choose to emphasise in denoting membership of the nation. However, this tradition is associated with the ideas of the eighteenth-century German philosopher, Joseph Herder (1744-1803); he also emphasised cultural aspects, such as folklore, traditions and arts, but mostly language, and the unique viewpoint of the world which it represents, and which forms the premise for the nation.

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  • The civic and ethnic categories have developed to be very popular among scholars who have studied nationalism. However, there is a danger of placing too much emphasis on this division as nationalists often espouse arguments which possess a complex combination of civic and ethnic aspects. It’s possible to look at some of these tensions by considering the arguments of the English philosopher, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Mill is recognised as an advocate for the civic form of nationalism, due to his emphasis on the need to respect the choice of a group of people to form a nation, and also his emphasis on the nation’s political history (that is, an awareness of the development of its governing establishments). At the same time, Mill argued that creating the conditions to allow the nation’s political establishments to work effectively meant ensuring that all the members shared common cultural traits, and in particular that they shared a common language. Indeed, Mill provides a well-known quotation in which he warns the Welsh that it would be wise of them to sacrifice aspects of their cultural identity in order to facilitate the process of becoming full member of the British ‘nation’:

    • 'Nobody can suppose that it is not more beneficial for a Breton or a Basque of French Navarre ... to be a member of the French nationality... than to sulk on his own rocks, the half-savage relic of past times ...The same remark applies to the Welshman or the Scottish highlander as members of the British nation' (J. S. Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, 1861).

    It is therefore evident that the arguments of so-called ‘civic nationalists’ such as Mill cannot always be fully differentiated from the more ethnic viewpoints which emphasise the need for individuals to possess specific cultural features before they can become full members of the nation. Indeed, this is not an exception. Recent research has highlighted the fact that there has been a consistent tendency among many of the West’s big nation-states – for example France, Britain and the United States of America, namely the arch examples of civic nations according to Kohn – to espouse interpretations of national identity which emphasise ethnic elements. This is mainly seen in relation to these countries’ immigrations policies, in which being able to speak a particular language (French or English) is a precondition for gaining citizenship. As a result, there is no denying that the division between civic and ethnic nationalism is worthy of analysis, but care should be taken not to overly rely on these categories. In truth, rarely do examples of nationalism fall neatly into one category or the other. More often than not, nationalism is a complex combination of both elements.