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Title: Nation  
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Subject: Nation state, Ethnic group, State (polity), List of mountain peaks of the Caribbean, Tribe
Collection: Ethnicity, Nationality, Political Geography, Political Science Terms
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Nation has various meanings, and the meaning has changed over time. The concept of "nation" is related to "ethnic community" or ethnie. An ethnic community has a myth of origins and descent, a common history, elements of distinctive culture, a common territorial association, and sense of group solidarity. A nation is, by comparison, much more impersonal, abstract, and overtly political than an ethnic group. It is a cultural-political community that has become conscious of its coherence, unity, and particular interests.[1]

The nation has been described by Benedict Anderson as an "imagined community"[2] and by Paul James as an "abstract community".[3] It is an imagined community in the sense that the material conditions exist for imagining extended and shared connections. It is an abstract community in the sense that it is objectively impersonal, even if each individual in the nation experiences him or herself as subjectively part of an embodied unity with others. For the most part, members of a nation remain strangers to each other and will never likely meet.[4] Hence the phrase, "a nation of strangers" used by such writers as Vance Packard.


  • Etymology and terminology 1
  • Ancient nations 2
  • Medieval nations 3
    • Use of term nationes by universities and other medieval institutions 3.1
  • Early modern nations 4
  • Social science 5
  • Black nationalism 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Notes 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External Links 11

Etymology and terminology

The word nation came to English from the Old French word nacion, which in turn originates from the Latin word (nātĭō) literally meaning "birth".[5]

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

  • State (polity) or sovereign state: a government which controls a specific territory, which may or may not be associated with any particular ethnic group
  • Country: a geographic territory, which may or may not have an affiliation with a government or ethnic group

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.

Ancient nations

Although some scholars [6] of nationalism argue that nations are a modern phenomenon arising around the time of the French Revolution, other scholars assert that nations are an old, or even an ancient, type of political formation. Political scientist Azar Gat argues that ancient Egypt was the world's "first national state," emerging "quite early as a unified state, congruent with a distinct people of shared ethnicity."[7]

Gat goes on to argue that the next group of national states to emerge were in the ancient Levant, citing Steven Grosby's book, Biblical Ideas of Nationality: Ancient and Modern, as an effective demonstration of the emergence of nations in Israel, Ammon, Moab, and Edom, a process of nation-formation provoked by the threat of conquest by the Assyrian Empire.[8] In particular, Gans cites Hans Kohn's The Idea of Nationalism: A Study in Its Origins and Background, 1944, pp. 27–30 as an early scholarly treatment of "the idea that ancient Israel was an example of a premodern nation."[9]

In his book, The Athenian Nation Edward E. Cohen, argues that ancient Athens met all modern definitions of nationhood,[10] and Aviel Roshwald makes a similar argument in The Endurance of Nationalism: Ancient Roots and Modern Dilemmas.[11]

Medieval nations

In her book Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300, Susan Reynolds argues 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.[12] In his book The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism, Adrian Hastings argues that England's Anglo Saxon kings mobilized mass nationalism in their struggle to repel Norse/Viking invasions. Hastings 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, arguing that English nationalism and the English nation have been continuous since that time.[13]

Azar Gat is among the scholars who argue that China, Korea and Japan were nations by the time of the European Middle Ages.[14]

Use of term nationes by universities and other medieval institutions

A significant early use of the term nation, as natio, occurred at mediaeval universities[15] 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 Silesian 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.[16]

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 was the Dutch Republic, created by a fully modern political nationalism rooted in the model of biblical nationalism.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19]

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".[20][21]

Social science

In the late 20th century, many social scientists argued that there were two types of nations, the civic nation of which France 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.[22] 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 centered in a willingness to "live together", this producing a nation that results from an act of affirmation.[23] This is the vision, among others, of Ernest Renan[22]

Present day analysis tend to be based in socio-historical studies about the building of national identity sentiments, trying to identify the individual and collective mechanisms, either conscient or non-conscient, intended or un-intended. According to some of these studies, it seems that the State often plays a significant role, and communications, particularly of economic content, also have a high significance.[22]

Black nationalism

The 18th century brought an alteration to the meaning of the term "nation", which became more narrowly referred to as a group with a recognizable and sovereign government with physical borders. This new definition aligns more with the concept of a nation-state.[24] The nation began to emerge in the late 18th century as the leading form of government and social organization.[25] The catalyst that brought about this change in meaning was the influence of the African diaspora and its people in other states, specifically in the United States. National identity brought rights to vote, to hold office, and independence for a growing number of black territories held under colonial rule.[26]

This change occurred in the New World as Africans were brought as enslaved peoples. The white population of the new world considered these aliens to be in one category of nation that was based entirely on color and continent of origin. The identity of the enslaved at the time was then shaped by their skin color rather than what nation or tribe they truly originated from. Prior to the 18th and 19th centuries, the term mainly referred to a group of people unified by language, region and cultural background; what is now considered to be one's ethnicity. It was through the process of emancipation and the end of the slave trade that the concept of nation began to change. As the previously enslaved began to fight for rights they had to discover what kind of rights they were searching for. It was in this process of emancipation that nationality began to take on a different meaning. Language and cultural background were no longer the only requirements of nation. Instead, now the idea of an established government and physical boundaries also shaped what it meant to be a nation.[27]

However, within the diaspora, particularly among groups that have been politicized, the term nation has been used to describe a more abstract national experience, one that transcends physical borders and language differences. This description of nation is pinned to the shared experience of being radicalized and termed as Black. The expansion of Black nationalism demonstrates that although some expanded the view that nation requires definable boundaries, those who shared the experience of the diaspora also found a nationality among themselves.

See also


  • Anderson, Benedict (1983). Imagined Communities. London: Verso Publications. 
  • Gellner, Ernest (1983). Nations and Nationalism. Cambridge: Blackwell. 
  • Smith, Anthony (1986). The Ethnic Origins of Nations. London: Blackwell. 


  1. ^ See, Anthony D. Smith, "Ethnie and Nation in the Modern World", Millennium, 14:2 (1983), 128-32; Peter Alter, Nationalism (London: Edward Arnold, 1989), 17.
  2. ^ Anderson, Benedict (1983). Imagined Communities. London: Verso Publications. 
  3. ^ James, Paul (1996). Nation Formation: Towards a Theory of Abstract Community. London: Sage Publications. p. 34 'A nation is at once an objectively abstract society of strangers, usually connected by a state, and a subjectively embodied community whose members experience themselves as an integrated group of compatriots.'.  
  4. ^  
  5. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Nation". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 5 June 2011. .
  6. ^ Earnest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, 1983.
  7. ^ Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2013, p. 85
  8. ^ Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2013, p. 89
  9. ^ Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2013, p. 90
  10. ^ Edward E. Cohen, The Athenian Nation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000
  11. ^ The Endurance of Nationalism: Ancient Roots and Modern Dilemmas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  12. ^ Susan Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300, Oxford, 1997.
  13. ^ Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997
  14. ^ Azar Gat, Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2013, China, p. 93 Korea, p. 104 and Japan p., 105.
  15. ^ see: nation (university)
  16. ^ Pedro Tafur, Andanças e viajes.
  17. ^ Philip S. Gorski, "The Mosaic Moment: An Early Modernist Critique of the Modernist Theory of Nationalism", American Journal of Sociology 105:5 (2000), pp. 1428–68.[1]
  18. ^ Diana Muir Appelbaum, Biblical nationalism and the sixteenth-century states, National Identities, 2013, [2]
  19. ^ Anthony D. Smith, Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity (Oxford University Press, 2003) and Myths and Memories of the Nation (Oxford University Press, 1999).
  20. ^ Steven Guilbert, The Making of English National Identity,
  21. ^ Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, Harvard University Press, 1992.
  22. ^ a b c Noiriel, Gérard (1992). Population, immigration et identité national en France:XIX-XX Siècle. Hachette.  
  23. ^ Rogers Brubaker, Citizenship and nationhood in France and Germany, Harvard University Press, 1992, ISBN 978-0-674-13178-1
  24. ^ Bauböck, Rainer, and Thomas Faist. Diaspora and Transnationalism: Concepts, Theories and Methods. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2010. Print.
  25. ^  
  26. ^  
  27. ^ Manning, Patrick. The African Diaspora: A History through Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 2009. Print.

Further reading

  • Manent, Pierre (2007). "What is a Nation?", The Intercollegiate Review, Vol. XLII, No. 2, pp. 23–31.
  • Renan, Ernest (1896). "What is a Nation?" In: The Poetry of the Celtic Races, and Other Essays. London: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., pp. 61–83.

External Links

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