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The Media and European Nationalism

Date & time : Sunday, 3 December 2017

Abeer Khaled


Public and revolutionary disseminations could be argued to contain national symbols such as flags and anthems. These national symbols create a sense of belonging to a specified country and, could be claimed, to help maintain common ideologies among citizens. These ideas have been researched by Ernest Gellner who famously argues that media is responsible for reproducing nationalism in the context of Europe.
Others, like Anthony Smith concentrated upon the significance of the European history of nationalism reproduction.

This essay examines two different views, firstly, the notion that the media raise sense of nationalism among people, and secondly, the notion that nationalist values are mainly historical heritage formed upon pre-existing backgrounds. This will be followed by a discussion of the ‘Britishness’ studies by Andrew Gamble.

Nation can be defined as when a group of people share the same place, unification and culture. Benedict Anderson was one of the most popular figures in nationalism research. Although he claimed that nationalism cannot be defined scientifically he states that it could be described as an “imagined political community and is imagined both inherently [as] limited and sovereign” (Anderson, 2006, p6). He then clarifies his notion that Nationalism is an imagined concept because not all of its fellow-members know each other and a limited one because every nation has its boundaries. Moreover, nation is imagined as sovereign because it has been founded in the age of logical enlightenment and rejection of organized religions. Others claims that nationalism is imagined as sovereign because it became distinguishable through its own symbols like flags and clothes.

Our understanding of nationalism, Anderson claims, can be linked to religion and conservatism rather than liberalism “Nationalism belonged with ‘kinship’ rather than with ‘liberalism’ or ‘fascism’” (Anderson, 2006, p5). Maybe because religions have successfully united their believers. In addition to that, Anderson emphasized nationalisms significance when questioning his readers “What makes the shrunken imagining of recent history generate such colossal sacrifices?” (Anderson, 2006: p, 8). Media reinforcement of certain ideas and, more specifically, media rationalization of solidarity and wars are suggested answers by Anderson to this fateful question. Media can create awareness for nation’s citizens about their specific culture, life era, mother language and so forth which unite them.

Anderson suggests that nationalism is a recent notion supported fundamentally by the media e.g. printing and other dispensation methods. Nationalism according to Benedict Anderson has no social and cultural roots, as others claimed, which keep it ‘limited’ and ‘imagined’.

In his term ‘Imagined community’ Anderson discussed the existence of cultural, religious and social roots of nationalism. In terms of cultural and social sources he particularly concentrated upon the royal prestige. His argument was about the modernity of these socio-cultural statutes “It is characteristic that there has not been an ‘English’ dynasty ruling in London since the eleventh century” (Anderson, 2006, 21). Furthermore, when observing people’s unification it is often pointed at religions. Anderson suggests that although people within different cultures may share the same religion and unified by it, there could be cultural and linguistic obstacles. Additionally, he argues that this is recent affiliation created by the media.

He states that in Islam for example the divine book was not translated from Arabic to other languages until recently, although many Muslims were not Arabs “In the Islamic tradition, until quite recently, the Qura’an was literally untranslatable because Allah’s truth was accessible only through the substitutable true signs of written Arabic” (Anderson, 2006, pp: 14). It is commonly claimed that the first translation of the Qura’an took place in 1760s.

Simply, Anderson’s analysis encourages us to consider nationalism as an imagined, new and limited term that has no cultural nor religious roots in human history. like Anderson, it was argued by Ernest Gellner that people passively acquire their identities and awareness through mass education system. By education system Gellner means wide range of media and cultural platforms such as galleries, schools, and television etc. This, he claims, shape the citizens understanding of their nation. In other words, Gellner accused the modern media alongside high culture of their reproducing of nationalism “The mass education system binds state and culture together” (Edensor, 2002, p3).

The reproducing of nationalism, according to Ernest Gellner, was not based on the traditional heritage elements but based on the desires of the state and cultural elites. For example, although the church attendance has dropped in the UK recently it is still compulsory to study Christianity in the primary and secondary schools.

He criticizes linking the nation existence with historical sources pointing out the relation between state and nation is not deeply rooted in human history “the government is not therefore specifically linked with the concept of nation until 1884” (Gellner, 1990, p15). He also suggested that the age of the concept ‘nation’ could be far more recent than that as it has not been found in the final version of the Spanish Academy until 1925 (Gellner, 1990, p16). More crucially, Gellner states that nationalism is not a historical concept for logical reasons, firstly the historians themselves who barely can separate their own opinions and personal experiences from their historical writings. “The historians [must] leave his or her convictions behind when entering the library or the study. Some nationalist historians have been unable to do so” (Gellner, 1990, p12). Secondly, the words usage differentiation from one generation to another can make it hard to understand what exactly the old historians meant by certain concepts like ‘nation’.

In terms of geography, Gellner argue that there is no real connection between territory and nation considering, for instance, the Wends who lived in Germany for a long time however, they were not called Germans. His conceptualization of nationalism and territory is quite similar to Eduard Said’s term ‘Imagined Geography’. Eduard Said simply denied the relation between specific place and historical/cultural actualities “there is no real analogy for taking a fixed, more or less total geographical position towards a wide variety of social, linguistic, political and historical realities” (Said, 1978, p49). Therefore, Ernest Gellner and Eduard Said both accused the media of creating unjustified relation between specific locations and the socio-cultural realities of its residents.

On the other hand, another figure in the nationalism research Anthony Smith, claims that most of the media and cultural products support diversity and do not affiliate the united separate nations as Gellner said. Moreover, Smith articulates that nations are founded on the presence of pre-existing ethnicities and groups “Ethnic symbols provide evidence which distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’.” (Edensor, 2002: p8). Anthony Smith did not point at hegemonic elites nor the press in his explanation of nationalism yet alternatively pointed at the old and constantly used national symbols like the festivals, songs and flags.

In Smith’s argument about nationalism and modernity he created a conception of “common mass public culture” (1991, p4). Nowadays, Smith claims that people share a range of cultural elements like passports, trading system, dominant language etc. in the modern capitalist world. Accordingly, humans will maintain some common loyalties “however dominant the nation and its national identification, human beings retain a multiplicity of allegiances in the contemporary world” (Smith, 1991: p6). By this, Smith indicates that the modernity and new technology united the whole world together rather the separate its parts to different nations.

More profoundly, Anthony Smith discussed the entity of the European Union as an opposite to the existing nations “It is true that at the practical level of policy the claims of these competing identities-the European and the national-may come into conflict”(Smith. 1991, p56). His evidences were about the contradictions and dissimilarities in the European political attitudes. In other words, Smith’s idea is that we cannot call the European Union a union whilst Britain, for instance, had a different political opinion than France or any other European nation and so forth. Nowadays, Britain asked for votes to leave the European Union (EU) which support Smith’s point of view. The main reasons for England leaving the EU were the political sovereignty and economic independence. Smith’s research was mainly about the historical/economic significance in creating a sense of nationalism rather than songs and national ceremonies as others said.

Nevertheless, there are several weaknesses in Smith’s argument such as his total marginalization of the media. When concentrating upon his term ‘common mass public culture’. This contention could not be applied to modern life considering there are still ongoing wars caused or motivated by cultural-national elites. Take Britishness as an example of a national consciousness and how it has been fostered by the new and traditional media according to the Cambridge University’s Professor Andrew Gamble.

Britishness or British identity was considered differently from the past to present. It is argued that, British citizens were described by the Romans around 100 AD as “Britunculi” which means “wretched little Britons” (Gamble, 2009, p1). This is the exact opposite of how Roman and other nations look at Britains today. Nowadays, Britain is highly respected and valued in the world “The UK remains an economic and military power, with considerable political and cultural influence around the world” (BBC, 2016). Similarly, Britons themselves looked at their nation differently in the past compared to now. They, for instance, are used to looking at their location as an ‘Island’ however, due to the development of air transportation they do not call it an island anymore “the British now have no grasp of the fact that we are still an island nation as people come and go by air not sea” (Seaton, 2009: p73).

Some argue that media have contributed in shaping these contradictions locally and globally and, thus, redesign Britishness. England is usually described as the ‘Great Britain’ in the world printed press. English people are usually depicted in Films as rich, strong, beautiful, living in luxurious palaces and dressing in expensive clothes. Most of these elements are clearly seen in the 1990s English movies, for example ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. Although this movie is quite old, spectators remain able to notice the valuable mise-en-scène in it such as palaces, deluxe clothing and gold.

It is argued by Jean Seaton that the media has a certain impact with fostering people’s sense of nationalism “The ‘media’ play a special role in representing (and at times whipping up) national characteristics” (Seaton, 2009, p78). Moreover, she claims that, since the Thatcher government in the 1980s the representation of Britons changed in the media. The distinctiveness of Britishness nowadays could be its flexibility with a multitude of ethnicities and religions within the United Kingdom. However, Seaton argues that the media producers are limited to people’s prior knowledge of their nations in order to get their attention “The press tell us little about the wide world we find ourselves in and increasingly cash-strapped times is marked by a narrow provincialism” (Seaton, 2009, p: 77). Therefore, it could be claimed, the past images of nation will continue appearing in the media although they do not exist as dominantly as it was in the past. An example for this could be the Catholicism or Christianity in general, the white ethnicity and monarchy etc. These ideas about Britishness and its reinforcement by the media are identical to Benedict Anderson’s and Ernest Gellner’s previously discussed notions.

Nonetheless, sometimes, it is not only about making news, documentary and films about British people, but more importantly, featuring British people in them. As recent as the 1970s the BBC was staffed only by the protestant community and this was criticized by the minorities and the other elements of society. However, bit by bit the BBC became more diverse having presenters, actors and participants from different backgrounds and origins “slowly it became more responsive, its staff more representative [and] the voices it gave access to more varied (Seaton, 2009: p79). This year a young Black Muslim woman won the British bake off on BBC2. Although this level of diversity was not welcomed by some tabloid newspaper, it shows the impartiality of the BBC considering that her skin colour, religion and gender did not affect their judgment.

To conclude, this essay offered a detailed definition of nationalism based on Benedict Anderson studies. The concentration was on his term, which by he described nationalism, ‘imagined community’. Afterwards, Anderson’s contention that media can function as a shaper of people’s understanding of their sense of nationalism was discussed. His evaluation of media as more effective in this process than religions or socio-cultural realities was included. Besides that, similar argument about media role in reproducing nationalism made by Ernest Gellner was illustrated opposed to Anthony Smith’s notions. Anthony Smith emphasized the significance of Benedict history in building our beliefs and thoughts about our nations. Moreover, in order to assess these two different set of views the conception of Britishness was discussed with reference to examples from the contemporary British Television and recent political events. It could be suggested that both sides in this complex argument have some strength, therefore, the national symbols have already existed but the media has a major role in reproducing and popularize them.

Media and communication student, London



Gellner, E. (1990) Nation and nationalism since 1780. 2nd. Cambridge: Cambridge university press.

Smith, A. (1991) National identity and the idea of European Unity. International Affairs, 68(1), pp: 55-72.

Said, E. (1978) Orientalism Western Conceptions of the Orient. 3rd. England: Clays ltd.

Anderson, B. (2006) Imagined Communities. 3rd. London: Verso.

Gamble, A. and Wright, T. (2009) Introduction: The Britishness Question. Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Seaton, J. (2009) The BBC and Metabolising Britishness Critical Patriotism. In: Gamble, A. and Wright, T. (2009) Introduction: The Britishness Question. Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

BBC (2016) United Kingdom country profile. [Online] BBC. Available from:

United Kingdom country profile – BBC News
Provides an overview of the United Kingdom, including key events and facts about this European country