The Role of Race and Culture in the Conceptualization of Nationality

Prevailing thought on the aims, as well as the potential benefits, or downsides of nationality differ largely among historical scholars. Several scholar’s arguments fundamentally support the notion of nationality and bring forth definitions and benefits of the concept. However, scholars such as Lord Acton have brought forth the notion that cultivating nationality has adverse effects. In this essay, I seek to establish the idea that nationality is an ill-informed notion that has regressive influences in historical development. I will proceed in this argument by explicating an idea of nationality’s pernicious practice explicated by Lord Acton, contrasting it with the ideas of Mazzini, Hitler and Jules Ferry, who identify benefits of nationality to their respective countries. I will then apply nationality’s principle points with the arguments of Ruth Benedict, Harriet Martineau, and Franz Boas. 

The concept of nationality is essentially the feeling of belonging to a nation. This conceptualization reflects the idea that the “nation” to which you belong to represents a composite whole (encompassing the entire “nation”). Often, the nation being conceptualized, is more representative of the State, rather than the general will of a given population. Lord Acton supports this notion, stating that, “Nationality does not aim either at liberty or prosperity, both of which it sacrifices to the imperative necessity of making the nation the mold (…) of the state” (Lord Acton, p. 80). A State that does not seek to incorporate the presence of different races fails the role of preserving democracy. Nationality, being a concept based in the categorization and entitlement of a particular race, is inherently converse to democracy. Since a movement towards democracy has been observed amongst the modern world amid industrialization, the historically regressive effect of nationality, described by Acton as, “a confutation of democracy” (Action, p. 80), can be understood.

The historical benefits of nationality for a state or race’s prevalence has been discussed by several authors. Jules Ferry, the former Prime Minister of France brought forward both a political and economic justification for France’s policy of colonial expansion. The policy effectively justifies acts of exploitation through the means of appealing to the concept of a French “nation” and its needs. Ferry spoke of a need for greater economic outlets for exports in order to compete with great foreign powers such as America. This attribute reflects the use of nationalism to unite the French people in resisting external influence. Furthermore, this appeal to nationality reflects the concept of which Acton spoke of, in which nationality serves to benefit the state of France rather than reflect the general will of the French population. 

The political justification given by Ferry for french colonial expansion additionally reflects the inherent connection between nationality and race. Ferry stated that it was the French’s right to exploit others through colonial expansion as it was a part of their duty as the superior race to educate the inferior. In this instance, belonging to the French nation is tethered to assigning a hierarchy of races amongst the world. Furthermore, Ferry’s political justification appeals to attributes of patriotism, justifying France’s colonial occupation as a requirement for France’s navy. Ferry’s justification of colonial expansion reflects the utilization of nationality as a vehicle for the desires of the State, additionally supporting the notion that adherence to one race is inherent in the concept.  

An additional example of the idea of nationality being used to justify inhumane means, explicating the nugatory nature of nationality can be found in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Within Hitler’s writings, he sought to justify the concept of racial purity, providing both natural and moral reasonings. Hitler states that basic laws of innumerable forms in nature dictate that every animal mates only with members of its species. Hitler equates this natural occurrence as a reflection of strength and prosperity in nature. It is Hitler’s expressed belief that intermingling within species (equated to human races) reflects an intermingling of strength and weakness, one that can only produce an offspring less strong than the “higher” level of race of parents involved. Hitler extends this argument in stating, “You will never find a fox who in his inner attitude might (…) show humanitarian tendencies towards geese” (Adolf Hitler, p. 5). This theory supposes that biological form dictates behaviour, purporting that natural proclivities of special sexual behaviour suggests pronounced differences in strength when applied to human races. The argument is hinged on the preconception that the German Aryan race is distinct and superior to “lower level” races, suggesting that not only are varied races intermingling representative of regression in strength, but against the will of nature. 

Furthermore, Hitler presents the argument of all science, art and technology of the day being the products of one race, and that if that race were not to remain present and “untainted” in bloodline, then the attributes of their culture would disappear. Hitler supposes that all great cultures that are not distinctively eminent today have perished from bloodline “poisoning”. This argument speaks on the way in which culture hinges on the existence of men as it was conceived by them. Remembering the origins of culture is of utmost importance to his argument, however, Hitler suggests that culture can only emerge, and be maintained, under the helm of an individual race. As such, his argument can be explicated as nationality providing innate benefits as it maintains the power of the racial group at the helm of “their” culture, which allows for human progress at the stake of racial diversity. 

A distinction between the aims of the State and the people is reflected in Mazzini’s writings on nationality. Mazzini discusses the fact that superiority through strength, purely through fear of nations in proximity that pose a threat is the will of nationality for aristocracies, rather than that of the people. Alternatively, he suggests that the nationality of the peoples can only arise out of a central movement, and that sympathy and alliance will be the result. Central to this argument is the distinction between classes, suggesting that these empathetic notions develop out of similarity in the workforce. This argument presents valid benefits of nationality in distinguishing nationality by means of economic class rather than by the means of race. 

Franz Boas’ arguments in Race, Language and Culture develop an understanding of the ways in which people observe culture, which works to support a rejection of several of the assertions of those with evidence against Acton’s assessment of nationality. The assumption that cultures are at relative points in evolution, with Western culture being the most developed form, is widely prevalent and actively affects notions of nationality. This idea largely stems from a lack of awareness of varied systems and cultures, the notion no longer holds weight once several cultures can be observed as co-existing with varied systems. Furthermore, the prevalent contrasting view to the evolutionary hypothesis is of diffusion being the sole explanation of similarities between cultures. Ultimately, Boas suggests that both of these methods are flawed in the ways they develop notions of culture which ultimately dictates conceptualizations of nationality. Furthermore, Boaz observes that neither of these forms contain justification for their interpreted historical significance among different cultures. This notion would suggest that many of the ideas brought forth supporting nationality as a positive way of maintaining culture, are predicated on bias notions of what has been given historical significance in a given society. 

The importance of the way in which individuals approach and observe culture being crucial to a developed notion of nationality is additionally developed through Harriet Martineau’s arguments present in How to Observe Morals and Manners. Martineau suggests that the wisest traveller would actively attempt to reject prejudice (both philosophical and national) in the observation and consideration of different customs such as methods of food consumption and ideas around marriage. At the forefront of Martineau’s argument is the notion that other cultures can not be judged off of the standards of one’s own culture. This aspect directly relates to Ferry’s assessment of those exploited by France’s colonialism as “inferior races” as being races of which Ferry’s culture held the least apparent similarities to. 

In speaking on observations of similarities between cultures being subject to bias, Martineau suggests that every human being has the similarity of having a conscience they will attend to, desiring all to agree on sin and virtue. Martineau reflects the inherent flaw in nationality in this however through the notion that there are large differences in these agreements of right and wrong. Furthemore, any doctrine put forth that attempts to mitigate these interests proves to exhibit bias towards one race. This attribute further suggests that nationality is inherently tethered to the conceptualization of one race. Additionally, it is not certain that there is an objective right and wrong that could be obtained amongst all people, and if it were, concepts of right and wrong on moral issues have been easily subject to change throughout history. 

Ruth Benedict’s arguments present in Patterns of Culture support Acton’s assessment of nationality, and reject several notions presented in the conversing arguments. The central point to Benedict’s argument that refutes those that support the contrary of Acton’s assessment is that culture should only be observed in consideration of the wide selection of possible cultural forms. Benedict suggests that race prejudice has a cultural basis, stating that historically, mixed race marriages, even in nobility, have not affected the prominent rhetoric of racial purity in many cultures. Benedict responds to racial purity through the idea of the nature of culture, and the nature of inheritance. 

Benedict suggests that early association with humankind is what develops and sharpens human facilities. The example of feral children adapting to the behaviour of wild canine’s, having not had social development alongside humans, develops an understanding of how biological form does not dictate behaviour. Furthermore, the notion of an adopted child of a different race fully adopting the cultural traits of a society (assuming the society contains a dominance of one race) additionally suggests that human cultural adaptations develop out of material aspects, not biological ones. An argument supporting this point is the human adaptation of sewing clothing allowing for preservation of the species, rather than requiring the development of more hair (such as the polar bear). This argument of human cultural development from adaptation of material rather than biological form refutes Hitler’s assertion of cultural carriers being required as the aspects of a given  culture did not derive from its most dominant race’s biological form, but their process of material adaptation. This argument would suggest that Hitler’s, and Ferry’s, applications of nationality are based on isolated observation of cultures, and an idea of biological superiority towards other races. 

What is instinctive within a culture can not become clear through singular observation. Benedict suggests then that the most important material for discussing cultural forms is through historical observation of societies in relation. This notion would support Acton’s assessment of nationality being a retrograde step in historical progress, as in order for development to take place, a consideration of all various cultural forms must take place, not one based in the role of one nation, let alone one race. 

The observed effect of nationality from Benedict is based in pride of “our” achievements or “our” institutions, eliciting a notion of “us versus them” in an attempt to protect what has developed in one culture. The inherent flaw with this notion is the association of what has developed in one culture, with the idea that culture must be passed on among one race. Central to this flaw is Western civilization’s fortuitous historical circumstances that allowed for it to extend widely across the globe. The observed result has been nationalism developing from a lack of awareness of cultural traits, as it is easy for a member of Western civilization to identify solely with western characteristics (which can now be found prominently throughout the globe). As such, nationalism comes as a psychological consequence of knowing very little of other’s lives and a strong leaning into the protection of one’s own civilization. 

Lord Acton states that nationality aims to mold the state more so than reflect the general will of the population. This aspect is largely reflected by a state practicing nationality failing to incorporate the presence of different races. Jules Ferry’s justification for colonial expansion reflects the application of nationalism being state-serving and biased towards one race. Furthemore, Hitler’s natural and moral justifications for nationalism expose the ill-informed nature of cultural understandings, which are developed through the arguments of Ruth Benedict.  Furthemore, Benedict, Boas and Martineau’s arguments support the notion that nationality is based in misleading cultural understandings, dictating the importance of widespread consideration in the interpretation of culture and race’s place in relation to the State, ultimately developing the notion that nationality is an ill-informed notion that has regressive influences in historical development.

Works Cited

Ferry, Jules Francois Camille. Speech Before the French Chamber of Deputies. Discours et Opinions de Jules Ferry, ed. Paul Robiquet, 1897

Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Extract from Chapter XI : Nation and Race, Franz Eher Nachfolger, 1925

Mazzini, Giuseppe. On Nationality. Modern History Sourcebook, 1852

Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005

Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture, University of Chicago Press, 1982

Martineau, Harriet. How to Observe Morals and Manners. Chapter 1: Philosophical Requisites, 1838

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