Understanding Nationalism : Studies in Icelandic Nationalism, 1800-2000

University dissertation from Stockholm : Statsvetenskapliga institutionen

Abstract: This dissertation is an attempt to understand nationalism, in a general sense, and Icelandic nationalism in particular. For this purpose the concepts of ideology, political culture, discourse and political language are pushed to the forefront as viable analytical tools to take on the difficult phenomena of nationalism. It is argued that this perspective is useful in conceptualizing and studying nationalism. Moreover, it serves both as a benchmark to evaluate the theoretical field as well as guiding the empirical study. There is no consensus on either the correct definition of nationalism or the proper theoretical approach to study it. This is a result of the highly contested nature of nationalism and the politically infused character of all attempts to define it. Both the subject (the scholar) and the object (nationalism) are part of changing historical circumstances, which make all attempts to objectify nationalism fruitless as well as making our understanding conditional. The problematic of the influential “modernist school,” namely state-formation, democratic rule and economic transformation, is accepted as crucial for our understanding of nationalism. Its understanding of culture and ideology is, however, shown to be too instrumental and elitists. Cultural production and reception must be given greater prominence. The role of external models and the problem of imitation are clearly important for the intellectual mobilization of nationalism. The desired model for imitation is not accepted unchanged, but must in some way be adapted to the prevailing traditions or conventions of the adapting country.The most important aspect of the Icelandic nationalistic discourse was to open up new discursive horizons by: (1) creating the language and aims of the independent struggle, (2) defining the nation, its history and place in the world; (3) making modernity Icelandic. As such nationalism was an ideological innovation, which marks a radical change in Icelandic political history. This ideology soon became hegemonic within the political discourse: a paradigm that defined the aims and substance of politics. Jón Sigurðsson’s historical language became the main justification for autonomy. This language grew out of the realities of the Danish Monarchy and argued for the status of Iceland as a free country in union with the King. If the dissolution of the Absolutist Monarchy was the political impetus for politics of this kind, the perceived backwardness of Iceland became a more general cause for intellectual mobilization. This discourse was caught between the ingrained “space of experience” that characterized the peasant society and the new “horizon of expectation” most clearly seen in emphasis on progress and change. Parallel to this development was a redefinition of history, which made the Commonwealth (930-1262) the Golden Age of Icelandic history, and had a profound impact on the collective memory of Icelanders and defined the identity of the state they created in 1944.

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