"A nation simply is"
Step outside the nation to study nation: Andrew Ross points out
the potentially radical act of studying nation and nationalism:
Hobsbawm points to the need to step outside, so much as possible, the ideology one studies (teaches), which should prevent the historian from directly contributing discursively to nationalist ideology.
Andrew's comments, however, reminded me of others by Friedrich Meinecke about his more famous mentor:
The 'nation' belongs to the basic concepts that [Leopold von] Ranke's overall view of history employs, concepts that are so remarkably fruitful because he never demands too much of them, never misuses them for an overly simple classification of historical material, and because he knows that they have no absolutely clear limits of application. When he uses them, he always hints at their origins, which keep blending continually into the infinite. Only a talent as unusual as his, only a mode of thinking simultaneously empirical, philosophical, and artistic could dispense with sharp, clear limits and firm categories without becoming blurred and unclear. A study undertaken with ordinary scholarly means cannot do without them and must make use of concepts such as 'cultural nation,' 'political nation,' 'liberal idea of the national state,' 'conservative idea of the national state,' and so forth--concepts that Ranke would probably never have used, although his historical writings lead to them often enough and are rich in observations that can easily be fitted into such categories.
One of the problems that I have with studies of nationalism is that they cannot often escape, though they strive to, basic assumptions about the legitimacy and primacy of nation. Ranke's outlook reveals how completely infused history is with nationalism, especially one in which pre-determination outweighs self-determination and culture is treated as nearly identical to nation, and the ease with which such studies can legitimize what they seek to historicize.