Research Post #5

I am proposing to research the use of symbols and their effects on nationalism within societies immediately following a revolution or in instances of nation building. I would like to find out what explains the decision of states to adopt differing types of symbols during periods of nation-building in order to help my reader understand the values placed on symbols by states as unitary actors. 

Previous Research

Observing unexplained differences and similarities between nation states and their symbols is what originally inspired me to pursue this field as a project. The effects of symbols on human behavior is well-documented, sociohistorical research into the field appears to begin with sociologist Leslie White’s article The Symbol published in 1944. White argues that symbols have  most often been used as heuristics, acting as a middleman between cognitive understanding and the outside world. [1] While academia continues to be conducted with the goal of establishing how a certain aspect of society actually acts as a symbol of a higher degree, fewer research projects have been conducted on the basis of examining the way symbols communicate with one another across the international space. The idea of intentional symbol use is also debated, as interpretivists argue that symbols are themselves a piece of the context that individual actors sit in, thereby each symbol is interpreted differently by every person, including the actors attempting to “use” the symbol. Studies similar in scope and means have recently been undertaken focusing on psycholinguistics, addressing how language affects the way we think about issues such as gender and race. [2] These types of studies made me optimistic for research into the field of symbols and nationalism, as language is comparable to nationalism in that both are immaterial facets of contemporary society that influence our thought. I will draw as much from the epistemology of linguistics as I can without entering the minutiae of the field, particularly focusing on transferable theories to nationalism from linguistic relativism, linguistic universalism, and cognitive linguistics. [3]


The role symbols play in the facilitation of nationalism in modern nation states have been examined in many case studies since White published his article. The onset of classical liberalism as theoretic status quo changed the narrative of nationalism to one of preservation instead of obligation. [4] Therefore, modern nation states with a vested interest in preserving or cultivating a concept of nationalism- and Gellner argues that all do- in their domain also have an interest in establishing and solidifying a set of national symbols that will inspire different thoughts than just their materiality. In Creating a Country through Currency and Stamps: State Symbols and Nation-Building in British-ruled Palestine, sociologist Yair Wallach argues that the importance of symbols in attempts at nation building is paramount to their eventual success, particularly in colonies or occupied territories. [5] According to many political scientists, reaping the fruits of a country-wide sense of nationalism is a goal to some degree of all states today. [6]  Though many Westerners look at the idea of nationalism with a skeptical eye, the concept is still desired and widely studied. The seemingly universal shift to the nation-state as the preferred policy of governance (in 1900, 70% of countries were not nation states, today the total sits at 6%) is indication enough that despite the reputation of nationalism as a tool for autocrats, it remains the primary tool of governments to build a civic nation within the borders of a state. [7]

The decision of modern nation states to adopt different types of symbols despite having apparent similar goals of nationalism (for example, England has never had a national anthem and Russia continues with the melody of a former Soviet anthem) begs further investigation. [8]  The primary puzzle of symbolic nationalism is the misunderstood weight that nationalism puts on literature and cultural legacies. Leith and Soule argue that the reason Scottish independence has not come to fruition in the face of similarly-popularized independence campaigns in democratic nations was that the Scottish Government failed to embrace the importance of Scottish national symbols (especially the Kailyard school of literature) in their movement, “limiting the scope of the devolution campaign to intellectuals and populists.”[9] Kwak argues, however, in Nationalism and Productivity that previous concepts of the positive impact nationalism has on national productivity, using South Korea as a case study, were misunderstood.  [10]  A similar study was undertaken in 2003 by Elena-Lorena Nedelku describing a documentary titled Who’s that Song with the intent of discovering the true nature of a nationalistic song she had known in her childhood in Bulgaria. She eventually discovers that the song is actually sung as a means of celebrating nationalism by Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Bulgaria. The song serves an example that, in a different context the song could have served as a symbol of Balkan unity but truly acted as an instrument of reciprocal conflict. The continued use of “God Save the Queen” across the United Kingdom despite regional campaigns of nationhood ). 

Potential Research Questions: 

General: What explains the societal adherence/nonobservance to certain symbols of nationalism as time progresses from the initial action of nation building/revolution?

Specific: What explains the global adoption of national anthems from 1765 to present regardless of nation-state regime type, and do national anthems serve the same purpose as they did then?


[1]  White, Leslie. “The Symbol: The Origin and Basis of Human Behavior (1944).” Et Cetera vol. 40 (January 1, 1983). Retrieved from: http://search.

[2] Pamela Jakiela, “Gendered Language,” Center for Global Development. Working Paper Series 55. (January 2011),  1-55

[3] Harley, Trevor, ed. Psycholinguistics Vol. 1. SAGE Library of Cognitive and Experimental Psychology. (London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2011). doi: 10.4135/9781446263013.

[4] Welch, Michael, and Bryan, Jennifer. “Flag Desecration in American Culture: Offenses Against Civil Religion and a Consecrated Symbol of Nationalism.” Crime, Law and Social Change 26, no. 1 (March 1996): 77–93.; also Doak, Kevin Michael. A History of Nationalism in Modern Japan Placing the People. (Leiden: Boston, 2007).; also Gellner, Ernest. Thought and Change. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964).

[5] Wallach, Yair. “Creating a Country through Currency and Stamps: State Symbols and Nation-Building in British-Ruled Palestine.” Nations & Nationalism. Volume 17, issue 1. (2011). 129–47. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8129.2010.00470.x.

[6] Andreas Wimmer, “Why Nationalism Works,” Foreign Affairs. February 13, 2019, Retrieved from: articles/world/2019-02-12/why-nationalism-works.

[7] Ibid

[8] Su Kwak, “Nationalism and Productivity,” Harvard Asia Pacific Review. Volume 6, Issue 1. Cambridge, (Spring 2002). 70-73

[9] Murray Stewart Leith et al., Political Discourse and National Identity in Scotland (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2011)

[10] Kwak, 71












Author: Price

I am a student at the American University School of International Service pursuing a degree in International Affairs.

2 thoughts on “Research Post #5”

  1. Hi Price!

    I find your study of symbols and overall semiotics quite fascinating, it was something I considered studying over the summer in secondary Balkan textbooks. Symbols allow us to perpetuate universal narratives beyond their use of origin, and allow themes of nationalism, patriotism, safety, danger, etc to be understood across quite a few borders, depending on what we are discussing. My fascination aside, I am curious as to what direction you will take and approach you will choose to take this from. I do advise that you look deeper into the cognitive and social psychology of symbols and their significance to people in developing narratives, as I believe that is one of the core foundations to establishing this idea of durability that you’re looking into. Even the study of memory and nostalgia itself might be good to look into, and how this type of nostalgia for the former nation-state-esque society might be driving this persistence as we enter into a more globalized world.

    I’m really excited to see what root you take, and looking forward to see what comes next, considering our topics are quite similar – as yours pertains to why these symbols remain so durable post-revolution/independence, while mine pertains to why core elements, such as reconciliation, break-down post conflict.

    Best of Luck!

  2. Price — you provide a good overview of the broad topic area and the conceptual puzzle here. The scholarship on nationalism and symbols that you discuss is clearly relevant to the topic area, and you’ve also received some noteworthy suggestions on scholarship and theoretical frameworks from Tristen as well. With this topic area in particular the terminology is important, and it is important to remember that there are critical differences between a nation, a state, and a nation-state (and few if any of the examples you discuss are actually nation-states). Make sure to remain attentive to this, especially as you continue researching the empirical side of this so that you can point to the specific instances of the phenomenon for analysis (building your equivalent of Edelstein’s list of cases). As you do this, I think that you can also work on being more precise in defining the outcomes or phenomenon that you want to explain as ideas like “the decision of states to adopt differing types of symbols” or “societal adherence/nonobservance to certain symbols” are still fairly vague. Being as specific as possible in describing the trends, events, outcomes, changes, etc., that you propose to explain will help make things more concrete.

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