The Institute’s research focus is on modern culture and nationalism with the understanding that nationalism is modern culture.
At the core of this culture lies a secular image of the world, consisting of societies whose populations are sovereign and which are conceived of as communities of equals. Such societies from the emergence of this image (in early 16th century England) were referred to as nations, thus Nationalism.
This image of the world represents the cultural foundation of modern social structure, modern politics, modern economy, and modern existential experience in general.
The structural effects of nationalism are enormous. In the first place, the egalitarian image of social reality that it implies dramatically changes the nature of social stratification, replacing the rigid hierarchy of legal, religiously sanctioned, and in principle mutually impermeable estates by an open system of classes through which people of different backgrounds pass (as through classes in school, only both on their way up and down) on the basis of their individual achievement. Considered fundamentally equal, people in a nation become interchangeable; this makes social mobility legitimate and normal, and status, instead of being determined by nontransferable – or ascriptive – distinction (or stigma) of birth, comes to depend on acquisitions of education or wealth, which in principle everyone has the chance to gain or lose. This systemic invitation to status aggrandizement in turn changes every aspect of social life, from the relations in the family, between the sexes and between parents and children, to the nature of the characteristic passions (ambition and envy) and the emotional tenor of human association in general.
The effects of the principle of popular sovereignty (as central in nationalism’s image of political reality as the fundamental equality of membership is in its image of social relations) are equally profound. The idea that sovereignty is in the deepest sense a property of the people and, therefore, can only be delegated to somebody else presupposes a representative, namely, impersonal, government. This necessitates that the government assume the form of the state (distinguished from other – i.e., patrimonial, absolutist – forms by its impersonality). The emergence of the state, in turn, changes the whole nature of the political process.
The modern economy owes to nationalism at least as much as do modern society and politics. Like the class system (the open system of stratification) and the state, in fact, the modern economy is a product of nationalism, for it is this vision of social reality which provided economic activity with the motivation which reoriented it from subsistence to sustained growth. The economic effects of nationalism are mainly the result of the egalitarian principle at its core. To begin with, the definition of the entire population, the people, as a nation, that is, as an elite (given the previous meaning of the word “nation” in its ecclesiastical context) symbolically elevates the lower classes and ennobles their activities. Economic activities in general, engaging the overwhelming majority of the people and traditionally denigrated in pre-national societies precisely for this reason, gain status and, with it, a hold on the talented people who, under different circumstances, reaching a certain level of financial independence, would choose to leave productive activity. Arguably of even greater moment is the fact that the symbolic ennoblement of the populace in nationalism makes membership in the nation, i.e., nationality itself, an honorable elevated status, thereby tying one’s sense of dignity and self-respect to one’s national identity. This ensures one’s commitment to the national community and, in particular, one’s investment in the nation’s collective dignity, or prestige. Prestige is a relative good: one nation having more of it implies that another has less. Therefore, investment in national prestige necessarily gives rise to an endless international competition, for no matter how much prestige one may have gained at a certain moment, one can be outdone in the next. Unlike other types of societies, then, nations are inherently competitive. This competition goes on in all the spheres of collective endeavor: moral (the nation’s record on human rights, for instance), pertaining to cultural creativity (scientific, literary, musical, etc.), military, political. Any particular nation chooses those spheres of competition where it has a chance to end on, or near, the top, and disregards those in which it is likely to be shamefully outcompeted. For instance, Russia has always chosen to compete in the cultural and military arenas, and has never been interested in economic competition. Where economic competition is included among the areas of national engagement, however, the inherent competitiveness of nationalism gives rise to economies of sustained, endless, growth – i.e., to what are recognized as modern economies.
In the article “Nationalism and the Mind” (in Nationalism and the Mind: Essays on Modern Culture, Oxford: Oneworld, 2006, pp. 203-223), Professor Greenfeld showed the way nationalism conditions the process of identity formation in modern societies, and thus explored the intricate connection between nationalism and many of today’s mental diseases.