Comparative Studies in Society and History

Research Article

The Fate of Nationalism in the New States: Southeast Asia in Comparative Historical Perspective

John T. Sidela1 c1

a1 London School of Economics

In two landmark essays published in 1973, the eminent anthropologist Clifford Geertz offered an early assessment of what he termed “The Fate of Nationalism in the New States,” referring to the newly independent nation-states of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Ranging with characteristic ease and flair across Burma, India, Indonesia, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, and Nigeria, Geertz argued that an “Integrative Revolution” was under way, but one complicated and compromised by the inherent tension between “essentialism” and “epochalism,” between “Primordial Sentiments and Civil Politics in the New States.” Geertz argued:

The peoples of the new states are simultaneously animated by two powerful, thoroughly interdependent, yet distinct and often actually opposed motives—the desire to be recognized as responsible agents whose wishes, acts, hopes, and opinions “matter,” and the desire to build an efficient, dynamic modern state. The one aim is to be noticed: it is a search for identity, and a demand that the identity be publicly acknowledged as having import, a social assertion of the self as “being somebody in the world.” The other aim is practical: it is a demand for progress, for a rising standard of living, more effective political order, greater social justice, and beyond that of “playing a part in the larger arena of world politics,” of “exercising influence among the nations.”

(Online publication January 05 2012)




Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank Andrew Shryock and the journal's readers for their extremely perceptive comments and constructive criticisms of successive drafts of this essay. Needless to say, time and space constraints have made it impossible to address all of the concerns raised by these readers, and the remaining inadequacies of the essay are the responsibility of the author alone.

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