Walker Connor (1926–2017), pioneer in the study of nationalism

walker connor

The death of Professor Walker Connor (1926–2017), a prominent figure in
political science with a vast intellectual legacy, has left a huge vacuum among
scholars of nationalism.
I would first like to celebrate Walker, the man. Besides being a world-
recognised authority, Walker was a generous man, always ready to help
friends in difficulties, often involved in charitable activities, such as Médecins
Sans Frontières (MSF), and with a subtle and nuanced understanding of
human relationships. He was a lover of fine art and creative beauty. When
we spent time in Tuscany for a summer school in 2000, he demonstrated a
passionate knowledge for arts that surprised everyone. He was utterly
shattered after an earthquake struck the town of Assisi in 1997 and irreparably
damaged magnificent thirteenth-century frescoes and architectural
masterpieces (some of which have fortunately since been restored). He loved
music, particularly jazz, and really enjoyed living in his Vermont home,
immersed in a wild natural place, where he kept physically in good shape – true
to his name, as a good walker in such a unique natural setting. He travelled
extensively in many countries and we met, among other places, in Budapest,
Belgium, Tuscany, Santiago de Compostela, Fleinsburg, Germany, the USA
and, several times, in London, as well as at his house in Vermont.
Connor was a ground-breaking scholar in the study of nationalism. While
nationalism studies began to emerge in the 1980s as a distinct field of research,
Connor had already begun to write trend-setting articles by the late 1960s.
These contributed to establishing the conceptual grounding that is still
currently used and they are seen as landmarks for their accuracy and precision
(Connor 1978, 1994; Conversi 2004). Although he largely published within
political science, the roots of Connor’s approach reach deeply into human
and political geography.
Connor’s pioneering work methodically and thoroughly identified some of
the most significant issues and hurdles in the field, diagnosing its principal fault
lines. Besides his efforts at conceptual clarification, beginning by scrutinising
Nations and Nationalism 23 (3), 2017, 437–440.
DOI: 10.1111/nana.12331
© The author(s) 2017. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2017bs_bs_banner
multifaceted concepts like ‘self-determination’ (Connor 1967), his core
contributions include identification of the ‘economic fallacy’ approach that
dominates the field – that is, the notion that economic factors are central to
explaining the origin and cause of ethnic conflict (Connor 1984a) – the virtues
of autonomy vs. separation (Connor 2012), an emphasis on political and
emotional factors as an indirect attack on rational choice (Connor 1993), and
a powerful explanation linking the rise of nationalism to the decline of political
legitimacy (Connor 2004a) – some of these articles were included in his
Ethnonationalism: The quest for understanding (Connor 1994).
Most of all, Connor argued that national consciousness as a mass
phenomenon was hardly conceivable before the modern age. To this extent,
it is surprising to see him sometimes designated as a ‘primordialist’ author:
while he did not pander to trite forms of constructivism or instrumentalism,
he should be firmly placed in the ‘modernist’ field – at least according to
Anthony D. Smith’s acceptation of the term ‘modernist’ (Smith 1998). For this
purpose, readers of this journal may find it useful to follow Connor’s debate
with Smith on the ‘timelessness of nations’ (Connor 2004b).
One of Connor’s most pioneering works was The National Question in
Marxist – Leninist Theory and Strategy (1984), where he demonstrated an
unparalleled grasp of the intrinsic, below-the-surface, socio-political reality
of real Socialism – an absolutely uncommon achievement in an era
dominated by the now discredited discipline of Sovietology or Kremlinology
that churned up a flow of mainstream clichés for decades. He had visited a
few Communist countries and found himself confronted with the unofficial,
overlooked and unspoken reality of pervasive nationalism, well concealed
below the sanctioned façade of proletarian internationalism. In a rare
anticipation of things to come, the book identified the contours of coming
conflicts and the underlying potency of nationalism behind the
supranational pretence of the Soviet Union, as well as Yugoslavia, China
and other communist states. Through a wealth of primary and archival
sources, he cogently argued that nationalism was alive and kicking under
those very Communist regimes that had prematurely announced its
evaporation (Connor 1984b).
Although Connor’s articles should be required reading in nationalism and
ethnic studies, his approach genuinely spans disciplinary areas while providing
fundamental analytical tools for the study of an inherently interdisciplinary
and international field. Connor’s prescience in forecasting current
international developments is now widely accredited. He began writing in the
late 1960s, when the international scene was frozen by the Cold War and
nationalism was considered a phenomenon of the past. In the 1970s and early
1980s, when few dared to contemplate the underlying strength of nationalism
and secession, he noted how nationalism remained the underlying political
force and legitimating principle in the international system. Connor’s oeuvre
contrasted with that of his contemporaries, such as Elie Kedourie and Alfred
Cobban, who downplayed the importance of nationalism.
Daniele Conversi438
© The author(s) 2017. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2017
Connor’s approach was influenced by the eminent British historian Carlton
Hayes (1882–1964). Before the Second World War, Hayes’ Essays on
Nationalism (1926) had already articulated an insightful and unblemished view
of nationalism, whose prognosis endured the test of time, demonstrating a
cunning understanding of modern historic trends (Hayes 1926). The social
historian Eugen Weber (1925–2007), a contemporary of Connor, also came
to lend historical support to Connor’s long-term approach: his Peasants into
Frenchmen offered new evidence to support the view that broad-scale national
consciousness among the French masses emerged in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries (Weber 1976). Weber’s breakthroughs were
consonant with advances elsewhere on nationalism’s timeline, eventually
situating the diffusion of French consciousness even later than Connor had
hitherto assumed: while Connor and coeval authors had over-rated the impact
of the Napoleonic wars on nationalist feelings, Weber found that French
nationalism only permeated the entire body of l’Hexagone during and after
For Connor, nations were largely inconceivable before the modern age: one
can speak of ‘a nation’ from a purely subjective angle only when a majority, or
a sizable number, of its members faithfully identify themselves as such. And
this was impossible before modern social change, including urbanisation, the
spread of literacy, political centralisation, militarisation and war compelled
people to think in terms of an organic, homogeneous socio-political
Connor was a sharp critic of the use of loose terminology in academia,
particularly dedicating many of his writings to disentangling the widespread
confusion between ‘nation’ and ‘state’, epitomised by the ascent of the modern
‘nation-state’. Because modernisation theorists such as Karl Deutsch (1912–
1992) and several others tended to mix these up, the concept of nation-building
was intended to define a top-down project of ‘national’ construction almost
totally detached from socio-anthropological reality – at least until the 1970s.
Connor exposed this unjustified conceptual annexation of its ambiguous
meaning (Connor 1972, 1978), revealing that the term nation-building often
provided an ideological masquerade for state-building, often in its most
authoritarian forms. That is, ‘nation-building’ in pluri-national states
necessarily implies a parallel dose of ‘nation-destroying’ among minority or
non-dominant groups.
Since nationalism remains ethnic at its core, the notion of ‘civic nationalism’
is largely a nonstarter. Thus, Connor preferred the combined term
‘ethnonationalism’, which has since been widely incorporated in the
nationalism literature. Although a portmanteau term, it denotes loyalty to a
nation, either when embodied in a specific ‘nation-state’ or deprived of its
own state. In contrast, he identified loyalty to a state as ‘patriotism’. Conceived
in a broad sense, ethnonationalism may thus be used interchangeably with
nationalism, to refer simultaneously to state and non-state nationalism. The
distinction between the two forms of nationalism is blurred, and the unifying
Walker Connor (1926–2017), pioneer in the study of nationalism 439
© The author(s) 2017. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2017
factor is the political expression of an emotional attachment to lineage,
ancestry and continuity. This is shared both by those who wield political power
and by those who are deprived of it.
All the phenomena described above share a deep emotional thrust, and their
outcome is to privilege co-ethnics versus outsiders. The resulting upshot of
intense favouritism, expanded nepotism and potentially exclusionary practice
derive from the non-rational belief that all those who descend from common
ancestors form part of a sort of ‘extended family’. Ethnicity thus remains the
core element in the development of nationalism and the latter is in itself
I hope the above has made it clear to readers how important the work of
Walker Connor has been in the foundation and establishment of nationalism
studies as a distinctive field of research. Besides this, all those who met Connor,
or established academic contact with him, remember him as a uniquely warm
person with a distinctive human touch and a vibrant cultural consciousness –
these are uncommon in academia. He remained, after all, a rara avis.

Connor, W. 1967. ‘Self-determination: the new phase’, World Politics 20, 1: 30–53.
Connor, W. 1972. ‘Nation-building or nation-destroying?’ World Politics 24, 3: 319–355.
Connor, W. 1978. ‘A nation is a nation, is a state, is an ethnic group is a …’, Ethnic and Racial
Studies 1, 4: 377–400.
Connor, W. 1984a. ‘Eco- or ethno-nationalism?’ Ethnic and Racial Studies 7, 3: 342–359.
Connor, W. 1984b. The National Question in Marxist–Leninist Theory and Strategy. Princeton, N.
J: Princeton University Press.
Connor, W. 1993. ‘Beyond reason: the nature of the ethnonational bond’, Ethnic and Racial
Studies 16, 3: 373–389.
Connor, W. 1994. Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding. Princeton, N.J: Princeton
University Press.
Connor, W. 2004a. ‘Nationalism and political illegitimacy’ in D. Conversi (ed.), Ethnonationalism
in the Contemporary World: Walker Connor and the Study of Nationalism, 2nd edn. London/
New York: Routledge: 24–49.
Connor, W. 2004b. ‘The timelessness of nations’, Nations and Nationalism 10, 1–2: 35–47.
Connor, W. 2012. ‘Can autonomy stunt the self-determination impulse? Tensions arising from
ethnic and political borders’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language 2012, 213:
Conversi, D. 2004. ‘Conceptualizing nationalism: an introduction to Walker Connor’s work’ in D.
Conversi (ed.), Ethnonationalism in the Contemporary World: Walker Connor and the Study of
Nationalism, 2nd edn. London/New York: Routledge: 1–23.
Hayes, C. J. H. 1926. Essays on Nationalism. New York: The Macmillan Company.
Smith, A. D. 1998. Nationalism and Modernism: A Critical Survey of Recent Theories of Nations
and Nationalism. London: Routledge.
Weber, E. 1976. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914.
Stanford, C.A: Stanford University Press.
Daniele Conversi440
© The author(s) 2017. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2017  [Ver pdf]