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Nations and States

Key Terms


The Rise of the Nation-State

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.

In the end, determining what constitutes a nation is somewhat subjective. People may identify themselves as members of myriad nations, but even those identifications may change over time. And the strength of the identification also varies. The division between an ethnic group and a nation is a tricky one to make. To put it crudely, the moment that an ethnic group starts to view itself as a nation, it becomes a nation. The Kurdish people, for example, became a nation when they started thinking of themselves as an ethnic group with a common language, history, and culture that set them apart from the neighboring Turks, Arabs, and Persians.

Example: Nations and their attendant nationalism in many ways caused World War I. In the decades leading up to the war, several European nations struggled to assert themselves on the global stage. These conflicts ratcheted up the tension. The event that directly precipitated the war—the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914—was also the result of nationalism: The assassin was a Serbian nationalist trying to free his nation from Austrian control.


A state is a political unit that has sovereignty over a particular piece of land. Sovereignty is the ultimate power within a territory. So the state has the power to make laws, defend its borders, and enact policies. The state also exercises a monopoly on the legitimate use of force: No group within its borders can use force legally without the permission of the state. In the United States, we use the word state to mean something more akin to the word province (the difference being that American states have more political autonomy and power than provinces in most other countries). But political scientists use the word state as a synonym for sovereign governments.


Political scientists use the term nation-state to refer to modern countries and their political apparatuses. A nation-state is a state that rules over a single nation. France, for example, is a nation-state, as is Japan. The people in both countries overwhelmingly share a common language, history, and culture. The term nation-state reflects the situation in which the boundaries of a state coincide with the geographical area occupied by a nation. There are also states that are not nations—such as Switzerland, whose citizens speak four different languages and have varied cultures. And there are nations that are not states, such as Kurdistan, a region in the Middle East lacking firm borders that is occupied by Kurds, but it is not considered to be an independent state by its neighboring nations of Syria and Turkey.

One sign of the nation-state’s prevalence in global politics is that nearly all states refer to themselves as nation-states, regardless of their national makeup. Every government works to build a sense of national identity among its citizens, and sometimes governments even carefully create or craft that identity. For this reason, some scholars argue that the concepts of “nation” and “nation-state” are more about perception and feelings of identity than concrete facts. Most nation-states have citizens of more than one nationality. For example, the small groups of Catalonians in Spain, Bretons in France, and Ainu in Japan differ in nationality from the majority of people in those nation-states. Usually, the minority groups are very small.


In many nation-states, the government actively promotes the idea of common nationality. Children learn the same language and history in state-sponsored schools, and public events frequently invoke cultural heroes and icons. Citizens are often encouraged to work for the betterment of the nation. These practices, among others, are known collectively as nation-building.

Foreign governments also participate in nation-building. Sometimes a government will give money and advice to another country to help nation-building. At other times, a country will engage in nation-building after it militarily occupies another country. Before leaving, the occupying power seeks to build a nation that can govern itself. In the early years of the twenty-first century, the United States intervened militarily and participated in nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nation-States Around the World

Today, most of Europe consists of nation-states. But in Africa and the Middle East, states frequently do not coincide with nations, largely as a result of European colonialism. In the nineteenth century, during what is now known as “the Scramble for Africa,” the Europeans divided up the continent without regard to indigenous national boundaries. When the Europeans left and the former colonies became independent states, they mostly kept the borders established by the Europeans.

Example: In 1947, the British government withdrew from what was then known as Palestine. Shortly thereafter, the United Nations established the state of Israel, unevenly splitting the land between the Jews and the Arabs and giving the state of Israel sovereign domain over such Palestinian areas as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The resulting tensions and violence among Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians continue to this day.

The Struggle for the Nation-State

Throughout modern history, many groups have worked very hard to create nation-states. Sometimes, these efforts succeed, as with the unification of Italy in the late nineteenth century; the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I into the discrete nation-states of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Yugoslavia; and the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia in the late twentieth century. In some cases, however, people have failed thus far in their attempts to create a distinct nation-state. Groups that continue to agitate for a nation-state include the Basques in Spain, as well as the Palestinians and the Kurds in the Middle East.


An empire is a state that governs more than one national group, usually as a result of conquest. One national group frequently dominates, giving members of that group a special place in the regime. Empires have existed in every era of human history, from the ancient empires of Egypt, China, Ghana, and Rome to the modern British Empire.

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