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Chapter 02

POLA01H3 Chapter 02: POLA01 - Week 2 - Wimmer-Glick Schiller Methodological Nationalism

Political Science
Course Code
Phil Triadafilopoulos

of 34
Global Networks 2, 4 (2002) 301–334. ISSN 1470–2266
© 2002 Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller 301
Methodological nationalism and beyond:
nation-state building, migration and the
social sciences
Abstract Methodological nationalism is understood as the assumption that the
nation/state/society is the natural social and political form of the modern world. We
distinguish three modes of methodological nationalism that have characterized main-
stream social science, and then show how these have influenced research on migra-
tion. We discover parallels between nationalist thinking and the conceptualization of
migration in postwar social sciences. In a historical tour d’horizon, we show that this
mainstream concept has developed in close interaction with nation-state building pro-
cesses in the West and the role that immigration and integration policies have played
within them. The shift towards a study of ‘transnational communities’ – the last phase
in this process – was more a consequence of an epistemic move away from methodo-
logical nationalism than of the appearance of new objects of observation. The article
concludes by recommending new concepts for analysis that, on the one hand, are not
coloured by methodological nationalism and, on the other hand, go beyond the
fluidism of much contemporary social theory.
After the first flurry of confusion about the nature and extent of contemporary pro-
cesses of globalization, social scientists moved beyond rhetorical generalities about
the decline of the nation-state and began to examine the ways in which nation-states
are currently being reconfigured rather than demolished. That nation-states and
nationalism are compatible with globalization was made all too obvious. We wit-
nessed the flouring of nationalism and the restructuring of a whole range of new states
in Eastern Europe along national lines in the midst of growing global interconnec-
tions. The concomitance of these processes provides us with an intellectual opening to
think about the limitations of our conceptual apparatus. It has become easier to under-
stand that it is because we have come to take for granted a world divided into discrete
and autonomous nation-states that we see nation-state building and global inter-
connections as contradictory. The next step is to analyse how the concept of the
nation-state has and still does influence past and current thinking in the social
sciences, including our thinking about transnational migration.
It is our aim in this article to move in this direction by exploring the intellectual
potential of two hypotheses. We demonstrate that nation-state building processes have
fundamentally shaped the ways immigration has been perceived and received. These
perceptions have in turn influenced, though not completely determined, social science
Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller
theory and methodology and, more specifically, its discourse on immigration and inte-
gration. We are designating as methodological nationalism the assumption that the
nation/state/society is the natural social and political form of the modern world.1
The article is organized into four sections. The first discusses four modes of
methodological nationalism and shows their importance in social science thinking.
We then demonstrate how the study of transnational migration was influenced and
limited by the constraints of methodological nationalism. Third, we sketch out a his-
torical perspective that allows us to see how nation building, the control and res-
triction of immigration and the rise of a social science preoccupation with migration
are interlinked processes developing in a transnational field of social forces. The
fourth section focuses on the last phase in this process and describes the recent waves
of research on globalization and transnational migration.
Only now that nation-states have lost some of their power to transnational cor-
porations and supranational organizations can we see, looking backward, what shape
modernity has taken during the last 200 years. It was cast in the iron cage of national-
ized states that confined and limited our own analytical capacities. Reflecting the
current conceptual liberation, the influence of methodological nationalism has begun
to be examined in history (Bender 2001; Rodgers 1998), geography (Taylor 1996),
sociology (Beck 2000) and anthropology (Glick Schiller 2000; Glick Schiller et al.
1992, 1995; Wimmer 1996a). Perhaps it was more difficult to see the world in three
dimensions when the sun stood at its zenith. In the evening, shadows grow and allow
us to perceive the environment in clearer contours.
What we discover in this twilight is how transnational the modern world has
always been, even in the high days when the nation-state bounded and bundled most
social processes. Rather than a recent offspring of globalization, transnationalism
appears as a constant of modern life, hidden from a view that was captured by metho-
dological nationalism. Thus, the value of studying transnational communities and
migration is not to discover ‘something new’ – though this represents a highly
rewarding strategy of research in our contemporary intellectual environment – but to
have contributed to this shift of perspective away from methodological nationalism. A
thorough reflection on the history of transnational social relations and their recent
‘discovery’ may thus be an appropriate starting point for rethinking the history of the
social sciences in general. It may help us develop the perspective of an ‘observer of
second order’, as Niklas Luhmann once said, from which we can observe both the
social scientists observing the social world as well as the effects that this has on this
world and how, at the same time, the forces of the social world shape the outlook of
the social scientists.
Three modes of methodological nationalism
Our argument focuses on what we perceive as the major, dominant trends in social
science thinking of the past century. We do not discuss coterminous currents that con-
tradicted the hegemonic discourse. Especially in times of intensified global inter-
connections, theories reflecting these developments appeared and provided tools for
analysis not coloured by methodological nationalism. The most obvious of these
currents was political economy in the Marxian tradition, always devoting attention to
capitalism as a global system rather than to its specific national manifestations, and
Methodological nationalism and beyond
especially the studies of imperialism by Rosa Luxemburg and others before the First
World War, when transnational movements of commodities, capital and labour
reached a first peak. Wallerstein’s world system theory belongs to a second wave of
theorizing developing in the 1970s, when transnational connections were again inten-
sifying and multiplying. A second and equally important line of development not
included in our discussion is methodological individualism in its various forms where
the analysis does not rely on explicit reference to larger social entities (such as the
school of marginal utility and rational choice in economics and political science or
interactionism in sociology).
These views remained heterodox, however, and did not shape the social science
programme in the same way as the currents discussed in this article did. The epistemic
structures and programmes of mainstream social sciences have been closely attached
to, and shaped by, the experience of modern nation-state formation. The global forces
of transnational capitalism and imperialism, that reached their apogee precisely in the
period when social sciences formed as independent disciplines, left only few traces in
the basic paradigmatic assumptions of these disciplines and were scarcely reflected
upon systematically.
Our starting point is the classical social theory that has marked the sociological
tradition especially. As a host of scholars have repeatedly argued, the classic theory of
modernity has a blind spot when it comes to understanding the rise of nation-states as
well as of nationalism and ethnicity (Esser 1988; Guiberneau 1997; Imhof 1997;
A. D. Smith 1983; Thompson and Fevre 2001). In the eyes of Marx, Durkheim,
Weber and Parsons, the growing differentiation, rationalization and modernization of
society gradually reduced the importance of ethnic and national sentiments. Most
classic grand theory was constructed as a series of socio-structural types (from
feudalism through capitalism to communism, from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft,
organic to mechanic solidarity, traditional to modern society, and so forth).
Nationalism was attributed to earlier stages in the continuum of social evolution. As a
traditional, communitarian, ascriptive, bourgeois or pre-rational phenomenon,
nationalism was thought to be a transitory stage on the way to the modern,
rationalized and individualized class society based on achievement. Nationalism and
patriotism were soon to be wiped out by proletarian internationalism (Marx and
Engels) or by a post-patriotic ‘idéal humaine’ (Durkheim) (see A. D. Smith 1983;
Guiberneau 1997; on Max Weber’s rather more differentiated later view A. D. Smith
1983: 31–3).
These schemes were shielded from the overwhelming and obvious fact that
nationalist politics and conflicts have shaped the history of the nineteenth and twen-
tieth centuries. Grand theory was immunized thanks to a hierarchical division of
labour between academic disciplines. The study of the rise of nationalism and the
nation-state, of ethno-national wars of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe
was delegated to history – with few exceptions such as a short essay Durkheim wrote
immediately after the First Word War. Communal identities and nation-building pro-
cesses outside Europe and the United States were made the domains of anthropology
and later of political science. The much-deplored failure of social theory until the
1980s to address the significance and sources of nationalism in the modern world can
in part be attributed to this disciplinary division of labour that was established at the
beginning of twentieth century (Wimmer 1999).