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A nation is a community of people composed of one or more ethnicities and possessing a more or less defined territory and government, usually formed on the basis of a combination of shared features such as language, history, ethnicity, culture and/or society. Some nations are equated with ethnic groups (see ethnic nationalism) and some are equated with affiliation to a social and political constitution (see civic nationalism and multiculturalism). [1] A nation is generally more overtly political than an ethnic group. [2] [3] A nation has also been defined as a cultural-political community that has become conscious of its autonomy, unity and particular interests. [4]


The consensus among scholars is that nations are socially constructed and historically contingent. [5] Throughout history, people have had an attachment to their kin group and traditions, territorial authorities and their homeland, but nationalism – the belief that state and nation should align as a nation state – did not become a prominent ideology until the end of the 18th century. [6] There are three notable perspectives on how nations developed. Primordialism (perennialism), which reflects popular conceptions of nationalism but has largely fallen out of favour among academics, [7] proposes that there have always been nations and that nationalism is a natural phenomenon. Ethnosymbolism explains nationalism as a dynamic, evolving phenomenon and stresses the importance of symbols, myths and traditions in the development of nations and nationalism. Modernization theory, which has superseded primordialism as the dominant explanation of nationalism, [8] adopts a constructivist approach and proposes that nationalism emerged due to processes of modernization, such as industrialization, urbanization, and mass education, which made national consciousness possible. [5] [9]

Proponents of modernization theory describe nations as "imagined communities", a term coined by Benedict Anderson. [10] A nation is an imagined community in the sense that the material conditions exist for imagining extended and shared connections and that it is objectively impersonal, even if each individual in the nation experiences themselves as subjectively part of an embodied unity with others. For the most part, members of a nation remain strangers to each other and will likely never meet. [11] Nationalism is consequently seen an "invented tradition" in which shared sentiment provides a form of collective identity and binds individuals together in political solidarity. A nation's foundational "story" may be built around a combination of ethnic attributes, values and principles, and may be closely connected to narratives of belonging. [5] [12] [13]

Etymology and terminology

The English word nation came from the Latin natio, supine of verb nascar « to birth » (supine  : natum), through French. In Latin, natio represents the children of the same birth and also a human group of same origin. [14] By Cicero, natio is used for "people". [15] Old French word nacion – meaning "birth" (naissance), "place of origin" –, which in turn originates from the Latin word natio (nātĭō) literally meaning "birth". [16]

Black's Law Dictionary defines a nation as follows:

nation, n. (14c) 1. A large group of people having a common origin, language, and tradition and usu. constituting a political entity. • When a nation is coincident with a state, the term nation-state is often used....


2. A community of people inhabiting a defined territory and organized under an independent government; a sovereign political state.... [2]

The word "nation" is sometimes used as synonym for:

Thus the phrase "nations of the world" could be referring to the top-level governments (as in the name for the United Nations), various large geographical territories, or various large ethnic groups of the planet.

Depending on the meaning of "nation" used, the term "nation state" could be used to distinguish larger states from small city states, or could be used to distinguish multinational states from those with a single ethnic group.

Medieval nations

Susan Reynolds has argued that many European medieval kingdoms were nations in the modern sense except that political participation in nationalism was available only to a limited prosperous and literate class. [17]

Adrian Hastings has claimed that England's Anglo-Saxon kings mobilized mass nationalism in their struggle to repel Norse invasions. He argues that Alfred the Great, in particular, drew on biblical nationalism, using biblical language in his law code and that during his reign selected books of the Bible were translated into Old English to inspire Englishmen to fight to turn back the Norse invaders. Hastings argues for a strong renewal of English nationalism (following a hiatus after the Norman conquest) beginning with the translation of the complete bible into English by the Wycliffe circle in the 1380s, positing that English nationalism and the English nation have been continuous since that time. [18]

The Medieval Bulgarian nation is another possible example. Danubian Bulgaria was founded in 680-681 as a continuation of Great Bulgaria. After the adoption of Orthodox Christianity in 864 it became one of the cultural centres of Slavic Europe. Its leading cultural position was consolidated with the invention of the Cyrillic script in its capital Preslav at the eve of the 10th century. [19] The development of Old Church Slavonic literacy in the country had the effect of preventing the assimilation of the South Slavs into neighbouring cultures and it also stimulated the development of a distinct ethnic identity. [20] A symbiosis was carried out between the numerically weak Bulgars and the numerous Slavic tribes in that broad area from the Danube to the north, to the Aegean Sea to the south, and from the Adriatic Sea to the west, to the Black Sea to the east, who accepted the common ethnonym "Bulgarians". [21] During the 10th century the Bulgarians established a form of national identity that was far from modern nationalism but helped them to survive as a distinct entity through the centuries. [22] [23]

Another example of Medieval nationalism is the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), a document produced by Scottish nobles and clergy during the Scottish Wars of Independence. The purpose of the document was to demonstrate to the Pope that Scotland was indeed a nation of its own, with its own unique culture, history and language and that it was indeed an older nation than England. The document went on to justify the actions of Robert the Bruce and his forces in resisting the occupation and to chastise the English for having violated Scottish sovereignty without justification. The propaganda campaign supplemented a military campaign on the part of the Bruce, which after the Battle of Bannockburn was successful and eventually resulted in the end of England's occupation and recognition of Scottish independence on the part of the English crown. The document is widely seen as an early example of both Scottish nationalism and popular sovereignty.

Anthony Kaldellis asserts in Hellenism in Byzantium (2008) that what is called the Byzantine Empire was the Roman Empire transformed into a nation-state in the Middle Ages.[ page needed ]

Azar Gat is among the scholars who argue that China, Korea and Japan were nations by the time of the European Middle Ages. [24]

Use of term nationes by medieval universities and other medieval institutions

A significant early use of the term nation, as natio, occurred at Medieval universities [25] 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 elected twice as a procurator for the French natio. The University of Prague adopted the division of students into nationes: from its opening in 1349 the studium generale which consisted of Bohemian, Bavarian, Saxon and Polish nations.

In a similar way, the nationes were segregated by the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, who maintained at Rhodes the hostels from which they took their name "where foreigners eat and have their places of meeting, each nation apart from the others, and a Knight has charge of each one of these hostels, and provides for the necessities of the inmates according to their religion", as the Spanish traveller Pedro Tafur noted in 1436. [26]

Early modern nations

In his article, "The Mosaic Moment: An Early Modernist Critique of the Modernist Theory of Nationalism", Philip S. Gorski argues that the first modern nation-state was the Dutch Republic, created by a fully modern political nationalism rooted in the model of biblical nationalism. [27] In a 2013 article "Biblical nationalism and the sixteenth-century states", Diana Muir Appelbaum expands Gorski's argument to apply to a series of new, Protestant, sixteenth-century nation states. [28] A similar, albeit broader, argument was made by Anthony D. Smith in his books, Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity and Myths and Memories of the Nation. [29]

In her book Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, Liah Greenfeld argued that nationalism was invented in England by 1600. According to Greenfeld, England was “the first nation in the world". [30] [31]

Social science

Scholars in the 19th and early 20th century offered constructivist criticisms of primordial theories about nations. [32] A prominent lecture by Ernest Renan, "What is a Nation?", argues that a nation is "a daily referendum", and that nations are based as much on what the people jointly forget as on what they remember. Carl Darling Buck argued in a 1916 study, "Nationality is essentially subjective, an active sentiment of unity, within a fairly extensive group, a sentiment based upon real but diverse factors, political, geographical, physical, and social, any or all of which may be present in this or that case, but no one of which must be present in all cases." [32]

In the late 20th century, many social scientists argued that there were two types of nations, the civic nation of which French republican society was the principal example and the ethnic nation exemplified by the German peoples. The German tradition was conceptualized as originating with early 19th-century philosophers, like Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and referred to people sharing a common language, religion, culture, history, and ethnic origins, that differentiate them from people of other nations. [33] On the other hand, the civic nation was traced to the French Revolution and ideas deriving from 18th-century French philosophers. It was understood as being centred in a willingness to "live together", this producing a nation that results from an act of affirmation. [34] This is the vision, among others, of Ernest Renan. [33]

Debate about a potential future of nations

There is an ongoing debate about the future of nations − about whether this framework will persist as is and whether there are viable or developing alternatives. [35]

The theory of the clash of civilizations lies in direct contrast to cosmopolitan theories about an ever more-connected world that no longer requires nation states. According to political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, people's cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post–Cold War world.

The theory was originally formulated in a 1992 lecture [36] at the American Enterprise Institute, which was then developed in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article titled "The Clash of Civilizations?", [37] in response to Francis Fukuyama's 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man . Huntington later expanded his thesis in a 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

Huntington began his thinking by surveying the diverse theories about the nature of global politics in the post–Cold War period. Some theorists and writers argued that human rights, liberal democracy and capitalist free market economics had become the only remaining ideological alternative for nations in the post–Cold War world. Specifically, Francis Fukuyama, in The End of History and the Last Man , argued that the world had reached a Hegelian "end of history".

Huntington believed that while the age of ideology had ended, the world had reverted only to a normal state of affairs characterized by cultural conflict. In his thesis, he argued that the primary axis of conflict in the future will be along cultural and religious lines. Postnationalism is the process or trend by which nation states and national identities lose their importance relative to supranational and global entities. Several factors contribute to its aspects including economic globalization, a rise in importance of multinational corporations, the internationalization of financial markets, the transfer of socio-political power from national authorities to supranational entities, such as multinational corporations, the United Nations and the European Union and the advent of new information and culture technologies such as the Internet. However attachment to citizenship and national identities often remains important. [38] [39] [40]

Jan Zielonka of the University of Oxford states that "the future structure and exercise of political power will resemble the medieval model more than the Westphalian one" with the latter being about "concentration of power, sovereignty and clear-cut identity" and neo-medievalism meaning "overlapping authorities, divided sovereignty, multiple identities and governing institutions, and fuzzy borders". [35]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nation state</span> Political term for a state that is based around a nation

A nation-state is a political unit where the state and nation are congruent. It is a more precise concept than "country", since a country does not need to have a predominant ethnic group.

Nationalism is an idea and movement that holds that the nation should be congruent with the state. As a movement, it tends to promote the interests of a particular nation, especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining the nation's sovereignty (self-governance) over its homeland to create a nation-state. It holds that each nation should govern itself, free from outside interference (self-determination), that a nation is a natural and ideal basis for a polity, and that the nation is the only rightful source of political power. It further aims to build and maintain a single national identity, based on a combination of shared social characteristics such as culture, ethnicity, geographic location, language, politics, religion, traditions and belief in a shared singular history, and to promote national unity or solidarity. Nationalism, therefore, seeks to preserve and foster a nation's traditional culture. There are various definitions of a "nation", which leads to different types of nationalism. The two main divergent forms are ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism. Historically, the civic type of nationalism was determinant factor in the development of modern constitutional and democratic value system since the beginnings, however the ethnic nationalism has a tendency to prefer authoritarian rule or even dictature.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Patriotism</span> Love and attachment to ones country

Patriotism is the feeling of love, devotion, and sense of attachment to one's country. This attachment can be a combination of many different feelings, language relating to one's own homeland, including ethnic, cultural, political or historical aspects. It encompasses a set of concepts closely related to nationalism, mostly civic nationalism and sometimes cultural nationalism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">National myth</span> Inspiring narrative about a nations past

A national myth is an inspiring narrative or anecdote about a nation's past. Such myths often serve as important national symbols and affirm a set of national values. A national myth may sometimes take the form of a national epic or be incorporated into a civil religion. A group of related myths about a nation may be referred to as the national mythos, from μῦθος, the original Greek word for "myth".

An ethnicity or ethnic group is a grouping of people who identify with each other on the basis of shared attributes that distinguish them from other groups. Those attributes can include common sets of traditions, ancestry, race, language, history, society, nation, religion, or social treatment within their residing area. The term ethnicity is often used interchangeably with the term nation, particularly in cases of ethnic nationalism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">National identity</span> Identity or sense of belonging to one state or to one nation

National identity is a person's identity or sense of belonging to one or more states or to one or more nations. It is the sense of "a nation as a cohesive whole, as represented by distinctive traditions, culture, and language". National identity may refer to the subjective feeling one shares with a group of people about a nation, regardless of one's legal citizenship status. National identity is viewed in psychological terms as "an awareness of difference", a "feeling and recognition of 'we' and 'they'". National identity also includes the general population and diaspora of multi-ethnic states and societies that have a shared sense of common identity identical to that of a nation while being made up of several component ethnic groups. Hyphenated ethnicities are an example of the confluence of multiple ethnic and national identities within a single person or entity.

Historiography is the study of how history is written. One pervasive influence upon the writing of history has been nationalism, a set of beliefs about political legitimacy and cultural identity. Nationalism has provided a significant framework for historical writing in Europe and in those former colonies influenced by Europe since the nineteenth century. Typically official school textbooks are based on the nationalist model and focus on the emergence, trials and successes of the forces of nationalism.

<i>Imagined Communities</i> Book by Benedict Anderson

Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism is a book by Benedict Anderson about the development of national feeling in different eras and throughout different geographies across the world. It introduced the term "imagined communities" as a descriptor of a social group—specifically nations—and the term has since entered standard usage in myriad political and social science fields. The book was first published in 1983 and was reissued with additional chapters in 1991 and a further revised version in 2006.

Anthony David Stephen Smith was a British historical sociologist who, at the time of his death, was Professor Emeritus of Nationalism and Ethnicity at the London School of Economics. He is considered one of the founders of the interdisciplinary field of nationalism studies.

Civic nationalism, also known as democratic nationalism and liberal nationalism, is a form of nationalism that adheres to traditional liberal values of freedom, tolerance, equality, individual rights and is not based on ethnocentrism. Civic nationalists often defend the value of national identity by saying that individuals need it as an upper identity in order to lead meaningful, autonomous lives and that democratic polities need national identity to function properly.

Walker F. Connor was Distinguished Visiting Professor of Political Science at Middlebury College. Connor is best known for his work on nationalism, and is considered one of the founders of the interdisciplinary field of nationalism studies.

Postnationalism or non-nationalism is the process or trend by which nation states and national identities lose their importance relative to cross-nation and self-organized or supranational and global entities as well as local entities. Although postnationalism is not strictly considered the antonym of nationalism, the two terms and their associated assumptions are antithetic as postnationalism is an internationalistic process. There are several factors that contribute to aspects of postnationalism, including economic, political, and cultural elements. Increasing globalization of economic factors have shifted emphasis from national economies to global ones.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nationalism studies</span> Interdisciplinary academic field

Nationalism studies is an interdisciplinary academic field devoted to the study of nationalism and related issues. While nationalism has been the subject of scholarly discussion since at least the late eighteenth century, it is only since the early 1990s that it has received enough attention for a distinct field to emerge.

Among scholars of nationalism, a number of types of nationalism have been presented. Nationalism may manifest itself as part of official state ideology or as a popular non-state movement and may be expressed along civic, ethnic, cultural, language, religious or ideological lines. These self-definitions of the nation are used to classify types of nationalism. However, such categories are not mutually exclusive and many nationalist movements combine some or all of these elements to varying degrees. Nationalist movements can also be classified by other criteria, such as scale and location.

John Hutchinson is a British academic. He is a reader in nationalism at the London School of Economics (LSE), in the Department of Government.

Ethnosymbolism is a school of thought in the study of nationalism that stresses the importance of symbols, myths, values and traditions in the formation and persistence of the modern nation state.

Ethnic nationalism, also known as ethnonationalism, is a form of nationalism wherein the nation and nationality are defined in terms of ethnicity, with emphasis on an ethnocentric approach to various political issues related to national affirmation of a particular ethnic group.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bulgarian Millet</span>

Bulgarian Millet was an ethno-religious and linguistic community within the Ottoman Empire from the mid-19th to early 20th century. The semi-official term Bulgarian millet, was used by the Sultan for the first time in 1847, and was his tacit consent to a more ethno-linguistic definition of the Bulgarians as a nation. Officially as a separate Millet in 1860 were recognized the Bulgarian Uniates, and then in 1870 the Bulgarian Orthodox Christians. At that time the classical Ottoman Millet-system began to degrade with the continuous identification of the religious creed with ethnic identity and the term millet was used as a synonym of nation. In this way, in the struggle for recognition of a separate Church, the modern Bulgarian nation was created. The establishment of the Bulgarian Exarchate in 1870, meant in practice official recognition of a separate Bulgarian nationality, and in this case the religious affiliation became a consequence of national allegiance. The founding of an independent church, along with the revival of Bulgarian language and education, were the crucial factors that strengthened the national consciousness and revolutionary struggle, that led to the creation of an independent nation-state in 1878.

Gellner's theory of nationalism was developed by Ernest Gellner over a number of publications from around the early 1960s to his 1995 death. Gellner discussed nationalism in a number of works, starting with Thought and Change (1964), and he most notably developed it in Nations and Nationalism (1983). His theory is modernist.

Several scholars of nationalism support the existence of nationalism in the Middle Ages. This school of thought differs from modernism, which suggests that nationalism developed after the late 18th century and the French Revolution. Theories on the existence of nationalism in the Middle Ages may belong to the general paradigms of ethnosymbolism and primordialism (perennialism).


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Further reading