2.3 Factors That Shape Nationalism

Should nation be the foundation of identity?

Big Ideas:

  • Nationalism is shaped by historical, geographic, political, economic, and social factors.
  • Individuals or groups may have various perspectives about nationalism.

The development of nationalism is not new. Before the United States of America became a country, it was known as the Thirteen Colonies that belonged to Britain. In 1776, the United States declared its independence from Britain.

One person in the forefront of America's struggle for independence was Patrick Henry, a fiery revolutionary whose patriotism for his new country was strong.
Map of the Thirteen Colonies

In a speech before a convention of revolutionaries in Virginia, on March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry called for the raising of an army to defend against British forces.

Patrick Henry "Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"

Patrick Henry's impassioned line "...give me liberty or give me death!" reveals strong feelings of nationalism. In his speech, Henry calls for action from his fellow citizens in the name of liberty (freedom), not just for individuals, but for independence from Britain.

Henry is not the only one to have made such a nationalist speech about his country. Many such speeches have been given by many others in various countries. But what are the factors that promote feelings of nationalism among the citizens in a country?
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Factors that Shape Nationalism

The diagram below highlights several factors that contribute to the development of nationalism.

These factors play a role in shaping a nation-state's identity for its citizens. Click on each tab below to view an explanation of how each factor influences the development of nationalism.

A desire for power and independence can shape a group's nationalism because group members want to be able to have a say in what happens to their group. For example, at Confederation on July 1, 1867, Canadians wanted to have a say in their own affairs, separate from Britain's supervision. The desire for political power and independence helped shape Canadians' feelings of nationalism for their own country.

The relationship people have to their land or territory shapes their feelings of nationalism for the area in which they live. For example, Canada has various beautiful landscapes, such as mountains, plains, sea coasts, and forests that make Canadians take pride in their land (even our national anthem includes references to our geography).

A concern for group values, customs, and traditions helps shape nationalism for a group. Typically, people want to be equal with other members in their group. For example, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees Canadians are equal to each other, no matter their racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds. Since Canadians are used to having the Charter protect and support their values of equality, Canadians may also feel loyalty for a country in which no one is better than anyone else.

A concern for a stable standard of living and economic security shapes nationalism for a group. A group may want to raise its standard of living if the members feel the standard is low or unfair compared to another group. Members of such a group feel a loyalty to each other because they are all united in trying to improve their standard of living. For example, Canadians are concerned about the economy of Canada because Canada has many resources that help Canadians improve their standard of living.

Events shape nationalism by giving people a history with which they can identify. Historical events inspire people to have feelings of loyalty for their country. For example, Confederation in 1867 was an important event for Canadians because that was when Canada became a country. Canadians celebrate Confederation every July 1 (Canada Day). Canada Day represents an historical event that all Canadians can identify with as the birth of their country.

Differing Perspectives − Factors that Shape Nationalism

Various groups within a nation may prioritize the factors that shape nationalism. The collective identities and loyalties of people living in a country will most likely vary, even though they all live in the same country. View the example below that focuses on Québécois nationalism.


Historical Factors Social and Political Factors
One Canadian group's perspective may be that Quebec should be part of Canada. This is a perspective that may be rooted in historical factors, such as the fact New France is a key component of Canada's history, dating back to the Quebec Act of 1774. Canada has been united under one government since it became a country. Additionally, in the past two separatist referendums, the vote was for Quebec to remain part of Canada. Another Canadian group may have the perspective that Quebec should separate from Canada. This perspective may be rooted in social or political concerns. A social concern may be that the Québécois are French and have a distinct French culture. A political concern may be that the Québécois want to have control over their own affairs.

The development of nationalism is complex, especially with the differing perspectives on the factors that shape nationalism. Through our study of the French Revolution, we will examine the historical, political, social, economic, and geographic factors that shaped nationalism in France.