Personal Nationalism and the Question of Agency

How people participate in “doing the nation” is a fundamental question for the study of nationalism. This is especially important for the histories of experiences and emotions, which are interested in the ways the nation is “lived” and how these experiences and emotions are a part of the nation-making process (Kivimäki, Suodenjoki & Vahtikari, forthcoming). It is therefore crucial to analyze how individuals and social groups deal with the nation in actual encounters and everyday practices.

Social anthropologist Anthony P. Cohen’s concept “personal nationalism” (1996) is one useful approach in this respect. The term helps to understand the ways people use nationalism and nationhood to formulate their sense of self. Cohen’s idea has been to see members of a nation as active participants in personalizing nationalism, in attributing their own meanings to it:

the arguments for nationalism must be cogent within the experience and circumstances of the individuals who interpret it as being appropriate to themselves. Nationalism becomes at once a compelling means of both locating and depicting their selves. Through their ownership of their selves, they “own” the nation, or the manner of its representation, just as they “own” culture. (Cohen 1996, 808).

Developing Cohen’s concept further, historian Raúl Moreno Almendral has called for a study of “microhistorical acts of nation-making.” By reading people’s personal accounts, it is possible to see how they experience, memorize and customize nationhood and how they use the nation as “a meaningful way of framing and making sense of specific life experiences.” Nationalism serves the purpose of codifying personal experiences and memories in collective terms. (Moreno Almendral 2018; see also Hearn 2007).

In contrast to totalitarian and strictly hierarchical nation-states, Cohen’s concept was originally developed to explain the attraction of cultural nationalism in liberal, modern-day Scotland. Cohen is aware that there are great differences between nations in how much freedom they allow their members in interpreting nationalism for their personal use and to what extent the nation itself can be constructed through such personal narratives. So while we recognize the great potential in applying personal nationalism as a concept of analysis in historical studies (see Eiranen, forthcoming; Stynen, Van Ginderachter & Núñez Seixas 2020), we also think that it is necessary to discuss (the limits of) personal nationalism in relation to (the critique of) agency, which is the theme of the HEX Conference 2021, “The History of Experience and Agency: A Critical Intervention.”

Possible questions to be addressed are, for example: How much agency there is to personalize nationalism in different historical contexts? How does this differ according to, e.g., social class, gender, age and ethnicity? Where are power and conflict situated in the study of personal nationalism? How does historically and culturally changing understanding of the self and its expressions affect the applicability of the concept? How does personal nationalism relate to structural explanations of nationalism? What limits do sources set for studying how people of the past appropriate nationalism and how can we access the personal nationalism of those people who have not left behind any conventional ego-documents (see Van Ginderachter 2019)?


Cohen, Anthony P. (1996), “Personal Nationalism: A Scottish View of Some Rites, Rights, and Wrongs,” American Ethnologist 23:4, 802–815.

Eiranen, Reetta (forthcoming), “Personal Nationalism in a Marital Relationship: Emotive and Gendering Construction of National Experience in Romantic Correspondence,” in Ville Kivimäki, Sami Suodenjoki & Tanja Vahtikari, eds, Lived Nation as the History of Experiences and Emotions in Finland, 1800–2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave, manuscript submitted for peer-review.

Hearn, Jonathan (2007), “National Identity: Banal, Personal and Embedded,” Nations and Nationalism 13:4, 657–674.

Kivimäki, Ville, Suodenjoki, Sami & Vahtikari, Tanja (forthcoming), “Lived Nation: Histories of Experience and Emotion in Understanding Nationalism,” in Ville Kivimäki, Sami Suodenjoki & Tanja Vahtikari, eds, Lived Nation as the History of Experiences and Emotions in Finland, 1800–2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave, manuscript submitted for peer-review.

Moreno Almendral, Raúl (2018), “Reconstructing the History of Nationalist Cognition and Everyday Nationhood from Personal Accounts,” Nations and Nationalism 24:3, 648–668.

Stynen, Andreas, Van Ginderachter, Maarten & Núñez Seixas, Xosé M. (2020), “Introduction: Emotions and Everyday Nationalism in Modern European History,” in Andreas Stynen, Maarten Van Ginderachter & Xosé M. Núñez Seixas, eds, Emotions and Everyday Nationalism in Modern European History. London: Routledge 2020, 1–15.

Van Ginderachter, Maarten (2019), The Everyday Nationalism of Workers: A Social History of Modern Belgium. Stanford: Stanford University Press.