I don’t normally get my history from the New Scientist, but there was an interesting article in the 6 September 2014 issue called “Imagine there’s no countries…” written by Debora MacKenzie. Her article incorporated some historical approaches (Benedict Anderson etc) but also highlighted findings from the social sciences related to nationhood. For example, here’s some rather disjointed observations from the article that attracted my attention:
Robert Dunbar of Oxford University has found that one individual can keep track of social interactions linking no more than about 150 people. He came up with this figure through studies of villages and army units throughout history and the average tally of Facebook friends (!!). Society transcended that number by the invention of hierarchy, which meant that leaders could coordinate large groups without anyone having to keep personal track of more than 150 people.
Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut notes that Eurasion empires grew largest where fighting was fiercest, suggesting that war was a major factor in political enlargement. Picking up on the idea that hierarchy facilitated larger groups than the 150 figure, Turchin suggests that in addition to their immediate circle, an individual interacted with one person from a higher level in the hierarchy, and typically eight people from lower levels.
These hierarchies, of course, are not nation states. A number of historians have concluded that states define nations, not the other way round. For example, in France in 1789, half its residents did not speak French; while in Italy in 1860 at reunification, only 2.5% only spoke standard Italian.
When nation-states fail, they break down into civil war. Civil wars are often blamed on ethnic or sectarian tensions, but there are other nation-states that combine multiple ethnicities and religions. What makes the difference, the article suggests, is bureaucracy. An interesting thought, especially given the rage that conservatives, in particular, direct towards ‘red tape’. While we might complain about lengthy processes, queues etc. a return to the alternative of patronage, bribery and ‘who you know’ being the basis of service provision is pretty unappealing.