Global Policy Forum

What Is a "Nation"?


Picture Credit: Identity Networks

A nation is a large group of people with strong bonds of identity - an "imagined community," a tribe on a grand scale. The nation may have a claim to statehood or self-rule, but it does not necessarily enjoy a state of its own. National identity is typically based on shared culture, religion, history, language or ethnicity, though disputes arise as to who is truly a member of the national community or even whether the "nation" exists at all (do you have to speak French to be Québécois? are Wales and Tibet nations?). Nations seem so compelling, so "real," and so much a part of the political and cultural landscape, that people think they have lasted forever. In reality, they come into being and dissolve with changing historical circumstances - sometimes over a relatively short period of time, like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Why, then, does national identity give rise to such extremely strong feelings? And why would so many be ready to "die for the nation" in time of war? Because of migration, most modern states include within their borders diverse communities that challenge the idea of national homogeneity and give rise to the community of citizenship, rather than membership in the nation. In the age of global transportation and communication, new identities arise to challenge the "nation," but the pull of nationalism remains a powerful force to be reckoned with - and a glue that binds states together and helps many people (for better and for worse) make sense out of a confusing reality.

Articles and Documents


What Is a Nation? (1882)

Ernest Renan, a late nineteenth century French scholar and ardent nationalist, argues that historical events uniquely fuse together the population of a given territory into a nation. These nations share "a soul" and memories of "endeavors, sacrifice, and devotion." Theorizing further about nations, Renan says they reinforce themselves in a "daily plebiscite" of a common will to live together. (Cooper Union)

Civic Nationalism in Turkey: A Study on the Political Profile of Celal Bayar (Fall & Winter 2007)

This article analyzes the definition of nationalism by Celal Bayar, a former President of Turkey. Belal advocated "civic nationalism," where all people living in Turkey were "Turks" who share legal duties, common rights, and welfare benefits. Belal believed all citizens were equal and he invested heavily in economic development in poorer regions. But, by focusing on economic development and the rural-urban divide, Balal overlooked social and cultural differences between groups within Turkey, notably the Kurdish question. (Alternatives: Turkish Journal of International Relations)

Nationalism and Identities in Europe (January - March 2007)

In this SHIFT Mag edition, several authors analyze the nature of nationalism in Europe. One article argues that after Italy's experience with fascism in the mid 20th century, the country avoids the term "nationalism" and is trying to navigate its identity between pro-US and pro-Europe tendencies. Another article looks at Montenegro's independence from Serbia in 2006, showing how citizens shifted their loyalty from Serbia to Montenegro. The magazine goes on to describe how sport builds national identity, and argues that the Ryder Cup in golf can be a starting point for creating a pan-European identity.

Nationalism (September 24, 2005)

This excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a comprehensive introduction to the debate surrounding the definitions of "nation" and "nationalism." It explores the concept of a nation as an ethno-cultural group or a form of political organization to which members hold civic loyalties. Further, the article discusses the different theories of nationalism, as well as the positive and negative consequences of such ties of attachment. For example, while nationalism can provide a feeling of community and definite identity to its members, it can also lead to extremes of violence and genocide, as the example of Nazi Germany during World War Two illustrates.

A Comparative Analysis of Nationalism, National Identity and Britishness/Englishness (May 16, 2005)

Scholars have struggled to answer questions on how nations emerge and evolve, and what constitutes a nation. Benedict Anderson argues that a nation is an "imagined community" emerging from changing socio-economic conditions such as the spread of printing, the decline of religion, and the rise of vernacular languages. This article looks at the creation of British identity and compares the theories of two British nationalism scholars - Linda Colley and Gerald Newman - to Anderson's arguments. (Journal of Turkish Weekly)

"Nations" or "States" an Attempt at Definition (July 20, 2001)

Although some thinkers argue that a nation is "immutable and original," this article points out that nations constantly change. The author argues that a nation rarely consists of ancestral blood ties. Instead, nations build on a shared culture, language and identity. Further, this Scholiast article rejects the idea of a one state for each nation, because of the complex and evolving nature of national identity.

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