• Toby Irwin

Nationhood and Belonging

Human beings have a tendency to group together. This should hardly be a revelation given that we are social creatures. The smallest unit we identify with most would say is the family. Others might even stretch to say that the largest is the world itself, the idea that as human beings we have more in common than that which divides us, and thus we are invariably all part of a 'group'. While there is merit here, it falls short at a major hurdle. The barrier towards the formation of this global 'group' is the concept of nations.


A fundamental attack on the social sciences is that of its lack of positivism and empiricism. Critics are likely to look at analyses of things like nations and identity with a sceptic eye, and note that they often rely on trends that are, at face value, unmeasurable, non-quantifiable, and non-existent in the physical realm. This absence detracts from the seriousness of debate. Suppose, for instance, the distinctness of humanity. A truism is of course that human beings are animals, and that to a extent yet to be exactly determined, we are motivated by biology. While these assertions belong to science, one doubts this approach's qualifications for understanding phenomena that have allowed the elevation of man from animal. This does not mean to say that humans are better, though it does mean that humans are uniquely capable of thought inaccessible to 'lesser' animals. Consider the likes of rationality. Rationality is an extension of decision-making that demands a degree of positionality, where any problem is approached abstractly with reason and logic. Self-consciousness is another example. Animals possess the ability to think consciously, though they fail to think in a relational manner. Animals understand that they must feed by killing another, though cannot reflect on the relationship this produces between killer and killed. These examples of difference may be bluntly explained by the human possession of a more developed brain, but the consequences of these differences are at the mercy of factors beyond the domain of science. Rationality and self-consciousness, for instance, produce a 'natural' state wherein the human is uniquely positioned to experience and reflect upon social factors. Biology links humans globally, but the products of biology separate us.


Factors that the human might reflect upon include art, something truly outwith the remit of other animal thought. Another might be knowledge. And, indeed, another is identity. Humans are specially gifted in the ability to reflect on the nature of 'groups' beyond the pack mentality of animals. Nations are, one believes, the most beautiful manifestation of human groups. This is based on two intrinsically interconnected factors. The first is culture. Culture is the embodiment of particular norms, traditions and behaviours of a particular nation. They are, by their very sense of being and longevity, present in a nation because it is these norms, traditions and behaviours that a people deem most worthwhile protecting and replicating. Culture and its associated building blocks is a creation most unique to humanity. It is a reminder that humans have capacities and even needs beyond that of mere survival like that which governs other animals. Culture manifests itself in such a way that binds people together in what we call nations. And in doing so, one believes they satisfy a sense of belonging that is uniquely available to humans. This identity runs closely to what one might call humanity, and is, to return to the first paragraph, an example of something outwith the jurisdiction of positivism and science. Indeed, one might deign to say it is a spiritual longing; and not in a religious sense. Our sheer capacity to reflect on transcendental elements is indeed rooted in biology; and yet this very capacity within humanity produces a desire for identity, community: a home, even.


Nations of course have external 'barriers', they begin and end at points that one cannot empirically see and point to. It means that one can say to one person and say they are of one nation, and to another and say they belong to another without tangibly, physically explaining why. This is a reflection of pluralism, which is the second factor of note. Pluralism is a reminder that humans are not homogenous and the same. It is the presence of nations, and their accompanying cultures, that separates the claim to a common human community (which no doubt exists on some lower plain of understanding) from the reality of national distinctness. Quite unfortunately, it is a tendency of our time to look at national plurality with disdain, and to unfairly chastise it as the source of things like conflict and war. It it, however, the position of this article to say that the plurality of nations, and the differing manifestations of culture that humanity has produced, is a thing to be celebrated and not destroyed. They are not negative forces that others and marginalises, they are positive forces that provide senses of belonging. They are the remarkable outcome of the foundational human condition.

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.

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