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Capsule Review

Containing Nationalism

In This Review

Containing Nationalism

Containing Nationalism
By Michael Hechter
Oxford University Press, 2000, 240 pp. $29.95 Purchase

An elegant and sweeping account of modern nationalism. Hechter shares the view of most scholars today that nationalism is a political construction -- a response to modernization and the evolution of the state rather than to deep-rooted characteristics of a society. Advancing this instrumental understanding in an innovative framework, he identifies the factors that make certain groups become agents of nationalism. Peoples have shared a sense of nationhood across the centuries, but only when their self-governance is threatened and the nation seeks the protection of its own sovereignty does nationalism rear its head. Centralized states seek to consolidate territorial rule by promoting nationalism, while threatened nations try to protect themselves from such encroachments. For Hechter, this explains why nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Only with the rise of centralized states in the nineteenth century -- made possible by industrialization and direct rule -- did nationalism become necessary. To the extent that nationalist violence is based on instrumental calculations, Hechter concludes, institutions can be arranged to contain its worst excesses. The key is to decrease the demand for sovereignty among national groups by resorting to decentralized and just decision-making institutions.

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