‘Ethnic Nationalism’: Authenticity, Atavism and International Instability

  • Stephen Bowler
Part of the Explorations in Sociology book series (EIS)


In a TV documentary on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia the New York Times correspondent, John F. Burns, pointed to ‘the atavistic power of religion and blood that’s being acted out here’ which, he said, ‘could so easily rise up and strike at us’.1 Though proffered in a Balkan context, the impact of his observation rests ultimately upon its broader salience. It is the ubiquity of religion and blood as common elements of ethnic identity which constitute their ultimate political significance for Burns and others. For Michael Ignatieff (1994), for example, the willingness of Yugoslav peoples to ‘lay waste’ to their own country is only a particular example of the more general human ‘tendency to over-value our own identities’. Atavism could so easily smite us because of its proximity to our own restless search for authenticity. What is worse, this conundrum seems built into the foundations upon which the international society of states has been constructed over the course of the ‘short twentieth century’, from the Great War through to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Why this should now appear so is the topic of this chapter.


Political Legitimacy Ethnic Conflict Interwar Period International Instability Moral Precept 
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© British Sociological Association 1999

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  • Stephen Bowler

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