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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 285-287

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Book Review

Containing Nationalism

Containing Nationalism. By Michael Hechter (New York, Oxford University Press, 2000) 256pp. $29.95

Hechter's statement in the introduction that "prior to all athletic andmany cultural events, audiences in the United States stand to sing 'The Stars and Stripes Forever'" exemplifies his approach to historical [End Page 285] details (4). Hechter is disturbed by his sense that the literature on nationalism "is dominated by detailed and subtle case studies." He wants to correct this alleged problem by offering more general conclusions about the "small set of fundamental mechanisms" that govern all manifestations of nationalism (158). Trivial mistakes are inevitable and entirely excusable in such a grand undertaking, but more noteworthy is Hechter's tendency to treat selected interpretations from secondary sources (regarding, for example, the causes of Italian unification or Yugoslavia's break-up) as "evidence" for a conclusion like "state institutions and policies can be more or less responsive to the distinctive values of peripheral nations. The less responsive they are, the greater the demand for sovereignty will be" (132). Those who find such arguments provocative and satisfying will find this book equally so.

Hechter's basic premise is that nationalism should be defined as "collective action designed to render the boundaries of the nation congruent with those of its governance unit" (7). This starting point leads to some surprising conclusions. For example, he claims that nationalism is unlikely among Armenians, Irish, and Jews, because these groups "already control an existing state" (32). Those who study the nonpolitical, cultural activities of national activists may have thought that they were studying nationalism, but apparently they were not. For Hechter, "nationalism requires the existence of organizations dedicated to pursuing national sovereignty" (125). He even downplays or denies any close bond between cultural work and politics. He argues that in early nineteenth-century Germany and Italy, "nationalist support was generally confined to gymnastic societies, student fraternities, and to a variety of groups devoted to singing and other cultural and literary pursuits. Unification did not result from the activities of these groups"(88-89).

Even if we accept his political definition of nationalism, his de- emphasis of culture leads to significant theoretical problems. In an important section of the book, he addresses the fundamental question of why certain characteristics (language, skin color, religion, etc.) are considered important by nationalists, and others are not. Hechter's answer reveals much about his methodology: "Groups crystallize around markers that have systematic implications for individual welfare. ... We doubt that having red hair systematically affects peoples' welfare, but we know that having a black skin often does" (98). Since Hechter has defined away the obvious question-- why do we "know" that black skin is a cultural marker?--he is limited to these nearly tautological conclusions.

Hechter's definitions permit some insightful observations. The most important is his move away from statehood to "governance unit" as the object of nationalist desire. As he points out, the relevant unit of authority in any given situation may, or may not be, the state. This observation helps him explain why nationalism was lacking prior to the modern era: Only the expansion of "direct rule" by centralized states disaggregated the nation from its "governance unit" (that is, its own local elites). Since this book was explicitly written in order to generate [End Page 286] policy recommendations, Hechter concludes that nationalism could be contained if indirect rule once again became the norm.


Brian Porter
University of Michigan



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