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A nation is a group of people who share culture, ethnic origin and language, often possessing or seeking its own independent government.[1] The development and conceptualization of a nation is closely related to the development of modern industrial states and nationalist movements in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,[2] although nationalists would trace nations into the past along uninterrupted lines of historical narrative. Though the idea of nationality and race are often connected, the two are separate concepts, race dealing more with genotypic and phenotypic similarity and clustering, and nationality with the sense of belonging to a culture.

A nation is different from a country in that a country is the land that belongs to a nation, and from a state in that a state is the government of the nation and country.

Benedict Anderson argued that nations were "imagined communities" because "the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion", and traced their origins back to vernacular print journalism, which by its very nature was limited with linguistic zones and addressed a common audience.[3] Although "nation" is also commonly used in informal discourse as a synonym for state or country, a nation is not identical to a state. Countries where the social concept of "nation" coincides with the political concept of "state" are called nation states.

Ambiguity in usage[]

In the strict sense, terms such as "nation," "ethnos," and "people" (as in "the Danish people") denote a group of human beings. The concepts of nation and nationality have much in common with ethnic group and ethnicity, but have a more political connotation, since they imply the possibility of a nation-state.

Country denominates a geographical territory,[4] whereas state expresses a legitimized administrative and decision-making institution. Confusingly, the terms national and international are used as technical terms applying to states. International law, for instance, applies to relations between states, and occasionally between states on the one side, and individuals or legal persons on the other. Likewise, the United Nations represents selected sovereign states, while nations that are free, per se, are not admitted as members.[5]


Etymology and early use[]

From natio (Latin: to be born) (Template:Unicode, stem Template:Unicode) and related to gnasci (Old Latin; see genus[6]), nation[7] stands in contrast to the obligations of citizenship suggested by the civitas [8].

The English word "nation" comes from the French word "nation":[9]

  • The action of being born; birth; or and
  • The goddess personifying birth; or
  • A breed (like a dog), stock, kind, species, race; or
  • A tribe, or (rhetorically, any) set of people (contemptuous); or
  • A nation or people.

As an example of how the word natio was employed in classical Latin, consider the following quote from Cicero's Philippics Against Mark Antony in 44 BC. Cicero contrasts the external, inferior nationes ("races of people") with the Roman civitas ("community").:

"Omnes nationes servitutem ferre possunt: nostra civitas non potest."

("All races are able to bear enslavement, but our community cannot.")[10]

St. Jerome used this "genealogical-historical term ... in his Latin translation of New Testament to denote non-Christians — that is, 'others.'"[11] An early example of the use of the word "nation" in conjunction with language and territory is provided in 968 by Liutprand, bishop of Cremona, who, while confronting Nicephorus II, the Byzantine emperor on behalf of his patron Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor, declared:

"The land...which you say belongs to your empire belongs, as the nationality and language of the people proves, to the kingdom of Italy.'" (Emphasis added.)[12]

Although Liutprand was writing in Latin, his native tongue was Lombard, a Germanic language.

A significant early use of the term nation, as natio, was at mediaeval universities (see: nation (university)), to describe the colleagues in a college or students, above all at the University of Paris, who were all born within a pays, spoke the same language and expected to be ruled by their own familiar law. In 1383 and 1384, while studying theology at Paris, Jean Gerson was twice elected procurator for the French natio (i.e. the French-born Francophone students at the University). The division of students into a natio was also adopted at the University of Prague, where from its opening in 1349 the studium generale was divided among Bohemian, Bavarian, Saxon and Polish nations.

Political nation and the constitution of the state[]

In the domain of political sciences, the political nation is the holder of the sovereignty which shapes the fundamental norms governing the functioning of the state.

From the French Revolution up to today, the differences and similarities between the concepts of "political nation" and "people" have been object of heated debates. A related debate concerns the concepts of national sovereignty and popular sovereignty.

A classical distinction exemplifies "national sovereignty" in the French Constitution of 1791. In this system, sovereignty is held by a parliament elected by census suffrage. This contrasts with the Constitution of 1793, in which the population is understood as a conjunct of individuals. This idea would eventually lead to direct democracy and universal suffrage. Nevertheless, these senses already started to get blurred in the very same revolutionary period. Many authors employed the words with divergent meanings. Following Guillaume Bacot,[13] the differences started to become merely a matter of terminology, and between 1789 and 1794 the unified revolutionary concept of sovereignty was used.

"Nation" and "people" were used In 1789 by the abbot Sieyès as synonyms, with a socio-economic meaning. But only shortly thereafter, he changed the meaning of his words, establishing a fundamental difference for his ideas of sovereignty and the constitutional state. He defined the nation then as emanating from natural law, prior to the state. "People" was determined as following from the concept of nation after the creation of the State. For Sieyès, the nation is the holder of sovereignty, which it exerces through the pouvoir constituant. After the establishment of a constitution, "people" is defined as the holder of the pouvoir constitué. In short, the people is defined by Seyès as a nation organized by a constitution.

Nicolas de Condorcet only uses the word "people", but he agrees with Seyès in emphasizing the dinstinction between pouvoir constituent and pouvoir constitué as the basis for the functioning of a liberal and democratic state.

For those two authors, the role of holder of sovereignty ("nation" or "people", as the case may be) is exhausted after the use of the pouvoir constituent". What remains is only a reminder of the foundation of the State, which could only become manifest in exceptional case, e.g. rebellion against a tyrant.

The ideas of Sieyès and Condorcet lay the foundation for a basic idea of a constitutional state, still common today: this kind of state has no sovereign (cf. Martin Kriele, Ignacio de Otto)

In international relations, the nation is not a subject in international law, but the State is.

Cultural nation[]

The concept of cultural nation poses one of the major problems in the humanities since there is no consensus how to define it. A base line would be to say that the members of a cultural nation are aware of constituting an ethical-political body together, which is differentiated from others by the members sharing a number of defining cultural features. Those features can include language, religion, tradition, or shared history. All this can be taken as a sign of a historically evolved distinct culture. The question whether a nation needs to have an associated territory is subject of debate.

The concept of cultural nation is normally coupled with a historical doctrine taking as a principle that all humans can be divided into groups called nations. In this sense, we are dealing with an ethical and philosophical doctrine which is at the basis of the ideology of nationalism. The members of a nation are distinguished by a common identity and generally by a shared origin and the sense of common ancestry.

National identity specially refers to the distinction of specific features of a group. A vast array of different criteria are used, with a range of different applications. Like this, small differences in pronunciation or different dialects can be sufficient to categorize someone as a member of a different nation. On the other hand, some persons can have diverging personalities and beliefs, live in different places and speak different languages and still see each other as members of the same nation. Furthermore, there are cases in which a group of persons defines itself as a nation not based on the features they have, but for the features they lack or dislike. The feeling of belonging to a nation is then used as a defense against other groups, even if these other groups would appear to be closer in matters of ideology cultural practices. Finally, members of a nation can emphasize their common history despite ethnic and linguistic differences, as is the case of Switzerland, which sees itself as a "Willensnation" (nation by will). The United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia all display national pride based on their common history rather than on a common geographical origin.

The cultural nation and the state[]

  • Main article: The cultural nation and the state

A state which identifies itself explicitly as the home of a cultural nation is a nation-state. Many of the modern states are in this category or try to legitimize their existence in this way, although there might be disputes and contradictions as to the appropriateness of this. Because so many of the states are nation-states, the words "nation", "country", and "state" are often used synonymously.

If the cultural nation is conceptualized as exclusively ethnic, and not as requiring a territory, a number of nations without land can be found. A prominent example would be the "gypsy nation"-- a cultural nation can exist without having an independent state, and not all independent states are cultural nations. Many independent states are simply administrative unions of different cultural nations or peoples.

Other examples of cultural nations without states are the Jews before the creation of the state of Israel. On the other hand, states like Belgium consist of several cultural nations, most prominently Flemish and Walloons. The question of whether the state of Canada harbours one cultural nation or two (British Canadian and Québécois) has been object of political debate as well. It could also be said that the nations of the English, Scottish and Welsh are also nations without states as they exists as a larger sovereign state known as the United Kingdom.

Liberalism and the nation[]

Liberalism, starting in the 17th century with authors like John Locke was the main philosophical current which alimented systematic theories of nationhood and its political implementations. Opposing the theoretical principles of the Ancien Régime, the 17th century liberals called into question the bases of absolute monarchism, and especially the sovereignty of the monarch. They introduced the concept of "citizen", to replace the older notion of "subject". Furthermore, the sovereignty passed from the hands of the absolute monarch into the hands of the nation. The criteria for nationhood were based on rationalism, individual liberty and equality before the law, largely ignoring ethnical or cultural considerations. Thus, the concept of nation employed was the political nation, and not the cultural nation.

In the American Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of Human Rights, the requirements for nation formation were the same for everybody. The will of the individuals to constitute a political community was sufficient to form a nation.

Romanticism and the nation[]

The military victories of Napoleon Bonaparte, who in theory pretended to extend the values inherited from the French Revolution, led to a surge of nationalist reactions against the invader. German nationalism stood out and rejected American and French liberalism, leading to a different conceptualization of nation, the cultural nation.

The principal proponents of German nationalism were intellectuals and writers following idealism and romanticism, such as Herder or Fichte. This current defined essentially in opposition to the values of aforementioned Revolutions. Against rational change towards progress and justice it put the weight of history and traditions; against cosmopolitism, the particularity of each people; against reason, instinct.

The nation as defined by these theorists has an inalienable right to give itself its own political organization, i.e. constitute a state. But in distinction to the liberal model of the United States or France, this type of nation is thought to be beyond the sum of individuals with the will to form a nation. Every people thus has its own traits which define it and serve to distinguish it from other peoples. This cultural personality (Volkgeist (Herder)) allows the people to identify who is the political subject that can legitimately constitute the state. But this identity cannot be seen by the mere expression of the will of a group of individuals at a given moment. It is something more transcendent, given that the people at the base of the romanticist nation are seen as a living and persisting organism, and a moral entity greater than the sum of its parts. For German romanticist nationalist, the Volksgeist was objective, while universal suffrage was subjective. That is to say, the conception of romanticists was the exact opposite of the ideas earlier brought forward by the liberals.

The socialist nation[]

Marx and Engels considered nation states as a product of "bourgeois revolution" and a further step within the logic of their theory of historical materialism. Given their importance, they considered nation states a better starting point for the subsequent gradual evolution towards socialism than the former "nations without history" because the nation states had a higher number of proletarians.

In 1917, after the Russian Revolution. the Bolsheviks under Lenin seized power. Inspired by internationalism, they put terms to the Russian nationalism, up to then very influential. Nevertheless, national interests continued to be important in practice afterwards, and the soviet leadership of the Communist International frequently covered up national interests.

In 1924, Stalin took a further step in that direction and promulgated this doctrine of Socialism in one country.

The nation under fascism and national-socialism[]

After World War I, political movements with radical approaches to nationalist ideology emerged, especially in Italy and Germany. They created stereotypes to establish nations, frequently based on ethnicity. Although the idea of "ethnically homogeneous" nation states had been formulated earlier, it found its climax in the 20th century with eugenics[14] and ethnic cleansing, with the Nazi Holocaust being the most important example.

The two most representative politicians of the fascist ideology are Benito Mussolini of fascist Italy and Adolf Hitler of national-socialist Germany. During their rules they tied the idea of the nation, and the path they had to follow, to their personal will. As a consequence, the nation was embodied by the leaders themselves.

The nation in Africa and Asia[]

Main article: Decolonization

Nationalism appeared in Africa and Asia after World War I. But only after World War II did its influence really become apparent in political processes, especially in the formation of states as a result of decolonization.

In 1945, when the United Nations were founded, eight of its members were Asian states, and four, African. Forty years later, more than 100 new countries had been accepted in the organization, nearly all of them from Asia or Africa.

In a certain sense, the creation of democratic states in Africa and Asia is a return to the Franco-American concept of the political nation from the end of the 18th century. This is because the majority of the new states have their origin in territorial demarcations drawn by the European colonial powers.following geostrategical considerations, and regardless of the ethnicity of the people in the territories. Under this ethnic heterogeneity, the new states had to build a base of political cohesion among all of their new inhabitants, putting aside racial, cultural and religious considerations, which was not always successful and often led to genocide between tribes.

Other usage[]

Besides the two scientific meanings explicated above, "nation" is used in other sense as well, and some of them are very frequent in colloquial language or journalism. It is common to use the term "nation" for "state" even if the state is not a democratic one. For instance, the United Nations Organization, despite its name, has states as its members, and not nations. "Nation" is also used for "territory", "country" and "conjunct of all inhabitants of a country rules by the same government."

"Nation" can also be found as a synonym of "ethnic group", "cultural group" or "linguistic group" without implication of the ethic-political sense of the cultural nation.

Defining nation[]

The concept of a national identity refers both to the distinguishing features of the group, and to the individual's sense of belonging to it. A very wide range of criteria is used, with very different applications.[15] Small differences in pronunciation may be enough to categorize someone as a member of another nation.[16] On the other hand, two people may be separated by difference in personalities, belief systems, geographical locations, time and even spoken language; yet regard themselves, and be seen by others, as members of the same nation: —

"A nation may be said to consist of its territory, its people, and its laws." ——from Abraham Lincoln's Second Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862."

Primordial or perennial definition[]

Main article: Primordialism

The first requirement for the definition is that the characteristics should be shared—a group of people with nothing in common cannot be a nation. Because they are shared, the national population also has a degree of uniformity and homogeneity. And finally, at least some of the characteristics must be exclusive—to distinguish the nation from neighbouring nations. All of the characteristics can be disputed, and opposition to secessionist nationalism often includes the denial that a separate nation exists.

Primordialism argues that those shared characteristics have an ancient root, and nations are natural phenomena over different historical eras.

Common descent[]

Almost all nationalist movements make some claim to shared origins and descent, and it is a component of the national identity in most nations. The fact that the ancestry is shared among the members of the nation unites them, and sets them apart from other nations, which do not share that ancestry.

The question is: descent from whom? Often, the answer is simply: from previous generations of the same nation. More specifically:

  • the nation may be defined as the descendants of the past inhabitants of the national homeland
  • the nation may be defined as the descendants of past speakers of the national language, or past groups which shared the national culture.

Usually, these factors are assumed to coincide. The well-defined Icelandic nation is assumed to consist of the descendants of the island of Iceland in, say, 1850. Those people also spoke the Icelandic language, were known as Icelanders at that time, and had a recognised culture of their own. However, the present population of Iceland cannot coincide exactly with their descendants: that would imply complete endogamy, meaning that no Icelander since 1850 ever had children by a non-Icelander. Most European nations experienced border changes and, migration over the last few centuries, and intermarried with other national groups. Statistically, their current national population can not coincide exactly with the descendants of the nation in 1700 or 1500, even if was then known by the same name. The shared ancestry is more of a national myth in some cases than a genetic reality—but still sufficient for a national identity nevertheless. This national myth concept becomes even more complicated for nations whose populations are largely relatively recent immigrants and their descendants, such as the United States.

Common language[]

A language is the primary ingredient in the making of a nation. Without a common language a nation cannot evolve. A common culture, a common history is dependent on language. Also to deal with everyday affairs within a group of people living in a specified boundary need a common mean of communication to trade and socialize. Thus even if a group of people sharing common Language, Culture and History may live in different countries but would still consider themselves attached to their respective nations as long as they share the same language.

Common culture[]

Many nations are constructed around the idea of a shared culture, the national culture. The national culture can be assumed to be shared with previous generations, and includes a cultural heritage from these generations. As with the common ancestry, this identification of past culture with present culture may be largely symbolic. The archaeological site of Stonehenge for instance is owned and managed by English Heritage, although no 'English' people or state existed when it was constructed, 4 000 to 5 000 years ago. Other nations have similarly appropriated ancient archaeological sites, literature, art, and even entire civilizations as 'national heritage'.

Common history[]

A nation can be constructed around a common history i.e. a chronologically recorded events in the past, their ancestors have gone through.

Common religion[]

Religion is sometimes used as a defining factor for a nation, although some nationalist movements de-emphasize it as a divisive factor, such as in Ireland where The Republic of Ireland has a majority of Catholics and Northern Ireland holding a majority of Protestants, de-emphasising religion as a factor of National Identity in Ireland is largely unsuccessful. Again it is the fact that the religion is shared, that makes it national. It may not be exclusive: several nations define themselves partly as Catholic although the religion itself is universalist. Some religions are specific to one ethnic group, notably Judaism. Nevertheless, the Zionist movement generally avoided a religious definition of the 'Jewish people', preferring an ethnic and cultural definition. Since Judaism is a religion, people can become a Jew by religious conversion, which in turn can facilitate their obtaining Israeli citizenship. Jews in Israel who convert to other religions do not thereby lose Israeli citizenship, although their national identity might then be questioned by others.

Definition by social constructionism[]

Main article: Social constructionism

Primordialism encountered enormous criticism after World War II, and scholars turn their eye on how nations are constructed by the process of nationalism, which is driven by technology and modernization. Nation is not defined by what common characteristic is shared, but by how it is constructed.

Voluntary definitions (will)[]

Some ideas of a nation emphasise not shared characteristics, but rather on the shared choice for membership. In practice, this has always been applied to a group of people, who are also a nation by other definitions. The most famous voluntarist definition is that of Ernest Renan. In a lecture at the Sorbonne in 1882, "Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?" he rhetorically asked "What is a Nation?", and answered that it is a 'daily plebiscite'. Renan meant that the members of the nation, by their daily participation in the life of the nation, show their consent to its existence and to their own continued membership. Renan spoke in the context of the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by the German Empire. At the time, the region was ethnically more German than French, and the Alsatian language is a west German language: Renan opposed such 'objective' criteria for a nation. Like Renan, most voluntarist definitions appeal to consent for existing nations, rather than promote explicit decisions to found new ones. Renan saw the nation as a group "having done great things together and wishing to do more" ("avoir fait de grandes choses ensemble, vouloir en faire encore").

Nations as imagined or invented[]

Main article: Imagined communities

Benedict Anderson argues nation are imagined communities that are imagined as limited and sovereign. The imagination is made possible by extensive use of printing press, mass media and capitalism. Nations are therefore defined by how the communities are imagined.

On the other hand, Eric Hobsbawm argues nations are invented tradition, include invention of education, public ceremonies and mass production of public monuments. The nations are defined by those invented traditions.

Ernest Gellner similarly argues there is strong tie between nationalism and modernization. His words "It is nationalism which engenders nations, and not the other way round." is often quoted.[17]

English author, Anglican priest and Cambridge professor William Ralph Inge famously said "A nation is a society that nourishes a common delusion about its ancestry and shares a common hatred for its neighbors."

See also[]

  • Citizenship
  • Civilization
  • Club
  • Constituent countries
  • Country
  • Culture
  • Ethnic group
  • Ethnicity
  • First Nation
  • Government
  • Home Nations
  • Identity
  • Identity politics
  • Imagined Community
  • Intercultural competence
  • List of countries
  • List of ethnic groups
  • List of international rankings
  • List of people by nationality
  • Meta-ethnicity
  • Micronation
  • Multinational state
  • National emblem
  • National symbol
  • Nationalism
  • Nationality
  • Nation state
  • Nation (university corporation)
  • Race (classification of human beings)
  • Society
  • Sovereign state
  • Territory
  • Tribe


  1. "Nation", The New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edn., Erin McKean (editor), 2051 pages, May 2005, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-517077-6.
  2. Dictionary of the Historyhumza of Ideas: s.v. "Nationalism"
  3. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities, p. 6-7. ISBN 0-86091-329-5
  4. See, for example, Bernard DeVoto (1952) The Course of Empire: "What makes a country? — The land, the people, and the laws", which is DeVoto's paraphrase of the answer given by Abraham Lincoln in his 2nd Message to Congress
  5. Only those entities recognized as sovereign states may become members. See Articles 3 and 4 of the UN Charter. Nation-states, on the other hand, may become members.
  8. http://
  9. Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, (1879). A Latin Dictionary. Entry for natio. Online at
  10. M. Tullius Cicero, Orationes: Pro Milone, Pro Marcello, Pro Ligario, Pro rege Deiotaro, Philippicae I-XIV (ed. Albert Clark, Oxford 1918.) Online at
  11. Amos Elon: The Pity of It All: A History of the Jews in Germany, 1743-1933 (Metropolitan Books, 2002) p.23. ISBN 0805059644
  12. Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana ad Nicephorum Phocam. Online translation at
  13. Guillaume Bacot: Carré de Malberg et l'origine de la distinction entre souveraineté du peuple et souveraineté nationale, Paris, 1985, ISBN 978-2-271-05858-4.
  14. See, for example, the Nuremberg Laws (September 1935) signed by Adolf Hitler, found by the soldiers of the armies of occupation after World War II
  15. Usage and custom serve to define this identity, as a matter of culture. Thus the US defined a national identity in a very different way and a very different time from the peoples mentioned in the Bible.
  16. These differences, say between the Scots and the English, were a subject of the writings of George Bernard Shaw
  17. WikiQuote - Ernest Gellner
Further reading
  • Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities. ISBN 0-86091-329-5 .
  • Brubaker, Rogers. 1996. Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-57224-X .
  • Canovan, Margaret. 1996. Nationhood and Political Theory. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar. ISBN 1-85278-852-6 .
  • Delanty, Gerard and Krishan Kumar (eds) Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. London: Sage Publications, 2005.
  • Geary, Patrick J. 2002. The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-11481-1 .
  • Gellner, Ernest. 1983. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-1662-0 .
  • Malesevic, Sinisa. 2006. Identity as Ideology: Undestanding Ethnicity and Nationalism. New York: Palgrave.
  • Ozkirimli, Umut. 2010. Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction. New York: Palgrave.
  • Petrovto, John. 2006. Producing National Identity:Museums, Memory and Collective Thought in Israel. State of Nature Journal
  • Renan, Ernest. 1882. "Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?"
  • Smith, Anthony D. 1986. The Ethnic Origins of Nations London: Basil Blackwell. pp 6–18. ISBN 0-631-15205-9 .
  • Weber, Max. 1978 [1922]. Economy and Society, eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Hobsbawm, Eric J. 1992. Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43961-2 .

External links[]