Nationalism is essentially a modern concept. While people have historically been attached to their families, local authorities and native land, nationalism gained recognition only in the late 18th century. From a political or sociological outlook, there are three main paradigms for understanding the origins and basis of nationalism. The first, known as primordialism or perennialism, sees nationalism as a natural phenomenon. It holds that, although the concept of nationhood may be recent, nations have always existed. The second paradigm is ethnosymbolism, which is a complex perspective seeking to explain nationalism by contextualizing it throughout history as a dynamic, evolutionary phenomenon and by further examining the strength of nationalism as a result of the nation's subjective ties to national symbols imbued with historical meaning. The third and most dominant paradigm is modernism, which sees nationalism as a recent phenomenon that needs the structural conditions of modern society to exist.
There are various definitions for what constitutes a nation, however, which leads to several different strands of nationalism. It can be a belief that citizenship in a state should be limited to one ethnic, cultural, religious, or identity group, or that multinationality in a single state should necessarily comprise the right to express and exercise national identity even by minorities. The adoption of national identity in terms of historical development has commonly been the result of a response by influential groups unsatisfied with traditional identities due to inconsistency between their defined social order and the experience of that social order by its members, resulting in a situation of anomie that nationalists seek to resolve. This anomie results in a society or societies reinterpreting identity, retaining elements that are deemed acceptable and removing elements deemed unacceptable, to create a unified community. This development may be the result of internal structural issues or the result of resentment by an existing group or groups towards other communities, especially foreign powers that are or are deemed to be controlling them. Nationalism means devotion for the nation. It is a sentiment that binds the people together. National symbols and flags, national anthems, national languages, national myths and other symbols of national identity are highly important in nationalism.
The word nation was used before 1800 in Europe to refer to the inhabitants of a country as well as to collective identities that could include shared history, law, language, political rights, religion and traditions, in a sense more akin to the modern conception.
Nationalism is a newer word; in English the term dates from 1844, although the concept is older. It became important in the 19th century. The term increasingly became negative in its connotations after 1914. Glenda Sluga notes that "The twentieth century, a time of profound disillusionment with nationalism, was also the great age of globalism."
Nationalism has been a recurring facet of civilizations since ancient times, though the modern sense of national political autonomy and self-determination was formalized in the late 18th century. Examples of nationalist movements can be found throughout history, from the Jewish revolts of the 2nd century, to the re-emergence of Persian culture during the Sasanid period of Persia, to the re-emergence of Latin culture in the Western Roman Empire during the 4th and 5th centuries, as well as many others. In modern times, examples can be seen in the emergence of German nationalism as a reaction against Napoleonic control of Germany as the Confederation of the Rhine around 1805–14. Linda Colley in Britons, Forging the Nation 1707–1837 (Yale University Press, 1992) explores how the role of nationalism emerged about 1700 and developed in Britain reaching full form in the 1830s. Typically historians of nationalism in Europe begin with the French Revolution (1789), not only for its impact on French nationalism but even more for its impact on Germans and Italians and on European intellectuals. Some historians see the American Revolution as an early form of modern nationalism.