Concept of Nationalism in Contemporary Political Geography

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To what extent is the concept of nationalism useful for understanding contemporary political geography? Use examples to illustrate your answer.

In order to analyse to what extent the concept of nationalism is useful for understating contemporary political geography, it is important to define what is meant by the concepts. Nationalism can be defined as an ‘identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests.’ (Dictionaries, 2018) However, the concept of nationalism is much more complexed and I intend to expand on this during the course of the essay.  When discussing political geography it refers to ‘the branch of geography that deals with the boundaries, divisions, and possessions of states.’ (Dictionaries, 2018) With the key concepts defined it allows us to examine the question in depth. In this essay I intend to demonstrate, using a variety of examples that the concept of nationalism forms a core foundation in several contemporary debates in political geography and thus it can be useful to understanding it.

One of the main reasons that nationalism has become present in contemporary political geography is due to geographical reasons.  It can be concluded that those countries with a stronger sense of national identity have a more isolationist approach and place the benefits of their own countries above that of everything else. It is evident that geographical location plays a large part in a countries sense of national identity. Britain has already acquired a strong sense of national identity, however, many argue that this sense of national identity has developed further due to its geographical location – they have no bordering nations. This concept is also visible in other countries with few bordering nations such as the USA. (Agnew, et al., 2003)This isolation means that they form more nationalist viewpoints which as I will demonstrate has a direct impact of contemporary political debates.

Nationalism has also come about in contemporary political geography due to historical reasons which have, again, led to nationalist viewpoint and approaches and thus impacted several contemporary political debates. Using the example of Europe, it becomes clear to see that certain countries overtime have become dominant through their military power and strong trade links. Countries have fought for authority and those that have come out on top such as Britain can see this reflected in their national identity, which is one of pride. Their dominance over Europe has led the country to have an isolationist approach to contemporary political geography issues.  In contrast, those countries in Europe such as France which has over history suffered greatly from its vulnerability and military weakness has led to them needed strong ties with its neighbouring countries in order to help protect themselves. This has meant that over time their sense of national identity has diminished. This is reflected in contemporary political geography issues as they are certainly more open to changes, such as further integration in Europe and the issues surrounding asylum seekers, than countries with a stronger sense of national identity such as Britain. (Agnew, et al., 2003) Britain’s political stability has remained similar over time and this is what has brought about such a strong sense of national identity.

In the context of nationalism and contemporary political geography the current issues faced in regards to integration in Europe are a prime example of an issue in which the two concepts are present.  The concept of nationalism is apparent here because while some are encouraging an improvement in integration, others are concerned that this will decrease individual state sovereignty.  It can be concluded that state sovereignty is one of the key aspects of nationalism. It has allowed each nation to govern itself and have its own authority, elections have made people feel part of the governance of their own nation and thus has allowed each nation to develop its own sense of national identity. For example, over history, Britain and its national sovereignty has allowed it to rule over its empire and colonies. This has led to a strong sense of national identity within the nation and a cautious view towards European integration. (Adler-Nissen, 2015) Political geography is present in this debate because it concerns the boundaries of states. In this example there are many who argue that a more integrated Europe should be one in which boundaries are broken down between nations, allowing the free movement of goods and labour. 

On a similar line to this, the current debate surrounding asylum seekers and the control of European Union borders is one in which nationalism forms a central basis. It occurs across almost every country in the world and has become a significant issue in current political geography debates. The movement of people across borders has always caused conflict due to the negative representations of asylum seekers. (Manara, 2018)These negative representations of asylum seekers are ultimately aimed at protecting individual state sovereignty. (Appendix 1) A prime example of this is in the UK, one of the main driving forces behind ensuring votes to ‘leave’ Brexit was to implement stricter criteria in relation to asylum and immigration. In 2016, 75% of potential ‘leave’ voters mentioned immigration as the most important issue, this was at a time in which asylum seekers were arriving to the UK at near-record levels. (Hirschler, 2017)  The concept of nationalism is evident here because the UK was more concerned about protecting its individual state sovereignty and economy rather than helping refugee’s during the crisis.

Environmental issues also play a key part in current political geographical debates, in particular global warming and destruction of rainforests.  Climate change has profound implications for the future of the planet. In relation to political geography the debate is whether those countries who are responsible for climate change should be obliged to contribute more into the Green Climate Fund. (Goodwin, 2014) This is because it has been proven that emissions produced by these countries are affecting not only the whole earth but in particular those countries within their borders. Since President Trump announced the United States withdraw from Paris Agreement in 2017, there have been several debates. The United States is responsible for almost a third of the excess carbon dioxide that is heating the planet. (Appendix 2) The nationalist view of President Trump here was that the contributions the country was making as part of the Paris Agreement was affecting the United States economy. However, the counter argument is that the large role the United States has played in causing climate change creates an outsize responsibility to help control the issue.

A further example of an environmental issue in contemporary political geography is the destruction of the rainforests. At the centre of this debate is South America, here most deforestation takes place because of their need for agricultural land. (Goodwin, 2014) In poor countries such as South America people very often turn to agriculture in order to make money to meet every day needs of living. The farmers migrate to agricultural settlement areas, and cut down several acres of land to use for farming. The stumps are burnt which releases the nutrients into the soil that are needed to grow crops. The nationalist view here is that it is a source of income and helps boost the nation’s economy and that the forests are within the nation’s border. However, the argument is that it is affecting the entire planet as it is adding to climate change and the greenhouse effect to the large scale destruction. Not only does it affect climate change but also wildlife.  ‘It is obvious that there is no clear solution to these problems, but the result of nationalism in this sense, on the world could be disastrous.’

Nationalism has been a concept which has appeared throughout the ongoing political issues linked to immigration in Europe. It was one of the main reasons behind the choice that Britain made to leave the European Union in 2017. The European Union allows people to have free movement between the countries, and although many people would see this as a benefit it can be argued that Britain did not. Perhaps this was because of the countries strong sense of nationalism and representations of asylum seekers in the British media which meant that citizens would see the arrival of immigrants as a hindrance on the British economy. Many British people believed that it was unfair that workers who were unskilled and unable to support themselves were moving to the country and being supported by the government. (Delanty & O’Mahony, 2002)  I believe that this sense of nationalism can, again, be contributed to Britain’s isolationist approach. Ex Tory Leader William Hague defined the British nationalist approach in one of his interviews. In which his response to the immigration dilemma was that ‘first we must learn to look after our own people, then we can look at helping others.’  This has been a statement which has symbolised many of Britain’s nationalistic tendencies.

One final example of where it is apparent that nationalism is at the core to a contemporary political geography issue is over world economy, in particular the subject of poverty. It becomes apparent from the previous examples that a countries national interests always dominate other factors to contemporary political geography issues and it is no different here. It is well known that over the past years, the world’s wealthiest countries have been exploiting third world countries for their own economic benefits. (Delanty & O’Mahony, 2002) For example, countries such as the United States and United Kingdom have benefited from the exploitation of labour forces in third world countries, such as Africa, as it allows them to increase profit on trade goods.  Nationalism is evident here as countries such as the US and UK are accepting the exploitation of third world countries in order to benefit their economies and increase profit maximisation. However, this in turn increases the amount of debt and poverty experienced in third world countries. The political debate surrounding this issue is that there are two standards. In the developing world, a minimum wage is required whereas in the underdeveloped world it can be said that they are being exploited in order to make more money. Perhaps this is one of the main reasons why disparity exists in the world and nationalism is the cause, which priorities its own economic benefits above that of equality.

In conclusion, from the examples discussed above it becomes clear to see that nationalism forms a core foundation in several current political geography issues. Whether it is environmental or social issues they all unanimously point to nationalism as the centre topic. Therefore from this it can be concluded that nationalism is extremely useful to understanding a wide range of contemporary political geography issues. Nationalism is both a symptom and a cause of contemporary political geography issues, due to countries prioritising their own interest above all else.  There are many contemporary political geography issues relating to nationalism which need to be addressed in order for them to be resolved.


Adler-Nissen, R., 2015. Opting out of the European Union: diplomacy, sovereignty and European integration.. International Affairs, 91(4), pp. 897-899.

Agnew, J. A., Toal, G. & Mitchell, K., 2003. A companion to Political Geography. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Delanty, G. & O’Mahony, P., 2002. Nationalism and Social Theory: Modernity and the Recalcitrance of the Nation. London: Sage Publications.

Dictionaries, O., 2018. Oxford Dictionaries. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 April 2018].

Dictionaries, O., 2018. Oxford Dictionaries. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 April 2018].

Goodwin, B., 2014. Using Political Ideas. 6th ed. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Hirschler, S., 2017. Brexit, immigration and expanded markets of social control. Safer Communities, 16(4), pp. 176-185.

Insitute, W. R., 2016. World Resoruces Insitute, London: World Resources Insitute.

Manara, M., 2018. The depoliticisation of asylum seekers. Political Geography, Volume 64, pp. 43-52.

Periwal, S., 1995. Notions of Nationalism. London: Central European University Press Book.

Stewart, H., 2016. The Guardian. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 19 April 2018].

Appendix 1

(Stewart, 2016)

Appendix 2

(Insitute, 2016)

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