Value-Laden Ideal Types? ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Nationalism in Academic Research

09 March 2020

Studying nationalism and national identity has become an academic discipline in its own right. That is no surprise. Nationalism and national identity remain among the most relevant categories for organising daily life and therefore lend themselves to being scrutinized by researchers everywhere. To explore this, I will be writing a series of posts for the IMISCOE PhD blog on some of the most salient issues of national identity and nationalism within academic research.

To start off, I will focus on an academic distinction that is frequently reflected in public discourse: that between ethnic and civic nationalism. This distinction is often made to analyse public discourse, public policy, and individual understandings of the nation-state. In these analyses, civic nationalism is often implicitly understood as the “better” nationalism. In this blog I demonstrate why this is a problematic assumption, and at the same time I explore the enduring value of these categories.

Ethnic nationalism is the blood and soil version of nationalism. Belonging to a particular national community means being born into that national community, and there is no way to join the community as an outsider, so to speak (Koning, 2011).

Civic nationalism, on the other hand, is based on the civic values that a national community purportedly shares. Being of a particular nationality is something that you can become as long as you adhere to certain rules, and most importantly, embrace the civic values of that national community (Koning, 2011).

As an interpretive framework, civic and ethnic nationalism are used to understand a range of behaviours related to the nation-state. Among other things, we can use this framework to analyse citizenship regimes across the world. For instance, Germany’s previous citizenship regime was largely based upon having German ancestry, making it very difficult for long term migrants to acquire German citizenship (Ersanilli & Koopmans, 2010). We could then say that Germany employed an ethnic understanding of the nation-state. In contrast, the Dutch citizenship regime (like many others in Western Europe) makes the acquisition of citizenship contingent on language acquisition and citizenship tests (Ersanilli & Koopmans, 2010). You can become Dutch if you learn Dutch and profess to know what Dutch culture is about. We can then say that the Netherlands employs a civic understanding of the nation-state. We could use this newly gained understanding to analyse the position of migrants vis-à-vis natives in these different nation-states.

Nonetheless, this interpretive framework comes with value-laden implications. Brubaker (1999) argues that civic and ethnic nationalism are implicitly treated as good and bad nationalism. Ethnic nationalism is the exclusionary one, and civic nationalism is the inclusionary one, the one which opens up a national society, making it accessible to newcomers. This would mean that, when analysing the German and the Dutch citizenship regimes in terms of ethnic and civic nationalism, we are essentially saying that the Dutch regime is better than the German one. But this is not a straightforward conclusion. Brubaker argues that civic nationalism is just as exclusionary as ethnic nationalism, since it still draws boundaries around the nation-state and makes accessing it conditional. We can easily see this in practice, as ultimately every form of civic nationalism contains ethnic nationalism. For instance, there is no country where children born from putatively ethnic native parents are given a citizenship contract at the age of 18 and asked to formally agree to this civic nation. This still only applies to migrants.

Returning to our illustration, we can then argue that the German approach to citizenship is not worse because it is ethnic. The Dutch approach also contains exclusion. Take language: you may learn Dutch and pass your test, but an accent will still mark you as an outsider.

It is only logical that civic nationalism is exclusionary – the nation-state is based upon the very idea of boundaries, of keeping some people in and some people out. That does not mean that the civic/ethnic distinction is no longer useful in understanding nationalism. Instead, perhaps we should be more wary of implicitly understanding civic nationalism as the ‘good’ type and suffice with using it to understand the consequences of the different types when employed in public discourse, public policy, or when embodied by citizens. The distinction between civic and ethnic is substantial, since the boundaries drawn around the nation-state are, at least theoretically, of different natures. Therefore, civic nationalism makes the multicultural state more possible.

Most importantly, civic and ethnic nationalism are useful frames because they can be used as ideal types to understand the organisation of, and the discourse taking place in, modern nation-states. However, some academics would argue that this last statement veers dangerously into the terrain of methodological nationalism. Stay tuned for blog 2 in this series for more on methodological nationalism and its implications.


Brubaker, R. (1999). The Manichean myth: Rethinking the distinction between ‘civic’and ‘ethnic’nationalism. Nation and national identity: The European experience in perspective, 55-71.

Ersanilli, E., & Koopmans, R. (2010). Rewarding integration? Citizenship regulations and the socio-cultural integration of immigrants in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 36(5), 773-791.

Koning, E. A. (2011). Ethnic and civic dealings with newcomers: Naturalization policies and practices in twenty-six immigration countries. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 34(11), 1974-1994.

Marina Lazëri  is an interdisciplinary social scientist and a PhD candidate at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her research interests concern national identity, societal positioning, and interethnic attitudes.

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