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Nations and States

Key Terms


Key Terms, page 2

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In this section, we cover three of the most important terms in political science:

  1. Nation: a large group of people linked by a similar culture, language, and history
  2. State: a political unit that has sovereignty over a particular piece of land
  3. Nation-state: a state that rules over a single nation

Because the nation-state dominates so much political discourse, many political scientists specialize in understanding how nation-states work internally, as well as how they relate to one another.


A nation is a large group of people who are linked by a similar culture, language, and history. Members of some nations share an ethnicity (almost everyone in South Korea is Korean, for example), whereas other nations consist of ethnically diverse groups of people (the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and Singapore, for instance). However, the members of a nation see themselves as connected. Fellow members are often regarded as part of an extended family. Many members of a nation take pride in being a part of something bigger than themselves as individuals, and they celebrate their nation.

Example: In common speech, we use the term nation to describe a collection of people with something in common. For example, some people refer to the “Red Sox Nation,” consisting of all those who root for the Boston Red Sox. The term is used even more often as a synonym for country, which is technically incorrect.

People disagree about what counts as a nation. Nationhood sometimes transcends geographical boundaries. Some groups consider themselves to be nations, even though much of the world does not consider them that way. Kurds, for example, live in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, but many Kurds believe they belong to a Kurdish nation. Also, members of a nation frequently differ in a variety of ways, including speaking different languages and participating in different cultural practices.

Example: Native American tribes in the United States are often referred to as nations because members of a particular tribe share a common set of language, history, and culture that differs from that of other Native American tribes. The language, history, and culture of the Cherokee Nation, for example, differs greatly from that of the Sioux Nation, which is different from that of the Iroquois Nation. Although the United States government grants these tribes some political autonomy (in other words, they can make many of their own laws), their classification as distinct nations comes from their shared ancestry and has nothing to do with their legal or political status.

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