The term nation-state is frequently used but less often carefully defined or theorized, and conceptual confusion is exacerbated by the fact that social scientists use the word in quite varied ways. Agreement is limited to general observations such as that it describes at least some modern states that claim to represent a distinct people called a nation. Indeed, it is possible to identify at least three more or less distinct meanings of the term, the first of which is associated with long-dominant theories of international relations (IR) where it typically denotes any sovereign state. A narrower view of the nation-state as a particular type of sovereign state characterizes the other two uses of the term, one of which focuses on the historical processes by which this type of polity is created and maintained and a second that emphasizes the distinct ethnonational composition of its population.
A widespread assumption that the terms nation and state are practically synonymous underlies much of the popular discourse about the nation-state in world politics and interstate relations. Names of intergovernmental organizations like the League of Nations and the United Nations suggest that their member states are all nations, and phenomena like terrorism or environmental pollution are labeled transnational because they cut across state borders. Not even the academic study of relations between states has been immune to this conceptual ambiguity, as the very name of the discipline international relations reveals. This may in part be explained by the influence of IR scholars in the realist tradition, who often used the terms nation and state interchangeably, to set the research agenda for the U.S. leg of the discipline in particular.
Despite the title of Hans J. Morgenthau’s canonical realist text, Politics among Nations (1948) primarily discussed politics among states, not nations. While acknowledging that the two are distinct, Morgenthau justified the practice of treating them as synonyms with the observation that in modern international relations “a nation pursues foreign policies as a legal organization called a state” (p. 116). By implication, the term nation-state simply describes the coincidence of nations and states as actors in modern world politics. Accordingly, later realists would frequently use the term synonymously with words like state, nation, and—colloquially—country. Indeed, neorealist or structural realist writers like Kenneth Waltz were even less inclined to use terms such as nation-state to differentiate between types of state, given the neorealist assumption that the anarchical structure of the international system—that is, the lack of a world government— socializes sovereign states into becoming functionally similar units.
A dramatic resurgence of substate separatist nationalism and intra-state ethnic conflict in the decade after the end of the cold war prompted some neorealists to revisit the question of the relationship between nation and state. Few ultimately severed the ties between the two, as illustrated by John Mearsheimer’s analysis of what he called hypernationalism, which echoed Morgenthau’s argument that nationalism primarily functions to strengthen citizens’ identification with and support for the state. These reconsiderations thus generally did not result in any major changes in how the term nation-state is used in neorealist writing.
Much of the work in IR since Morgenthau can be seen as contributing to an enduring debate about core realist and neorealist assumptions regarding the primacy of the sovereign state and the inadmissibility of its domestic characteristics in explanations of interstate conflicts. Nevertheless, even realism’s opponents usually accept the basic connotation of the term nation-state as it is used in the realist tradition. David Held and other scholars have argued that the increasing interdependence brought on by globalization may be causing the decline or even death of the nation-state, a development that would be incompatible with the key realist assumption of the sovereign state as the primary actor in world politics. In these debates, however, critics of realist theory usually accept their opponents’ use of the term nation-state to denote all modern sovereign states, and like Held primarily focus their critique on the supposition that the latter is actually sovereign.
However, the preoccupation with the state as nation-state in IR has come under fire by the growing number of IR scholars who—like the contributors in Yosef Lapid and Friedrich Kratochwil’s appropriately titled edited volume—advocate The Return of Culture and Identity in IR Theory (1996). Lapid and Kratochwil insist that “a serious reengagement with the ‘national’ is imperative” considering “how costly the failure of a clear analytical distinction between ‘nation’ and ‘state’ is for studies of contemporary world politics” (pp. 105, 123). In National Collective Identity (1999), Rodney Bruce Hall agrees and asserts that “a more coherent theory of international politics must be predicated, in part, on an adequate theory of the nation-state.” Hall’s historical examination of the emergence of nation-states represents one of two major alternatives to the traditional view of the nation-state in IR.
Historical studies of nationalism and the formation of modern states typically distinguish nation-states from other contemporary types of state and from premodern forms of sociopolitical organizations such as empires, medieval fiefdoms, dynastic states, and the territorial-sovereign states in Europe after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). Rodney Bruce Hall focuses on the unique legitimizing principles of earlier types of polities as their defining and distinctive features. Hall’s account of the emergence of what he called “national-sovereign states” in nineteenth-century Europe reflects a view common among students of nationalism, according to which enlightenment ideas championing the people as the only legitimate source of a state’s power gradually replaced earlier dynastic legitimizing principles. Unable to adapt in the face of the popular and nationalist revolts that followed the French and American revolutions, the autocratic European states were ultimately transformed into states whose regimes appealed to the new legitimizing concept of popular sovereignty.
However, the notion that rulers were legitimate only to the extent that they represented the people raised an explosive question: Who were the people? Traditional practices of defining the people from above—for example, as the ruler’s subjects—were clearly incompatible with the idea that the power of the ruler emanated from below, from the people. Popular sovereignty was based on the assumption that the people were prior to the ruler, not the other way around. In the end, nationalism provided the definitive answer to the question: The people—as a single, unified entity—was the nation. Popular sovereignty thus implied national self-determination, most famously championed in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. There are many variations of this historical narrative but to most students of the history of nationalism and state formation, the emergence of nation-states is intimately associated with the spread of nationalist ideas of self-determination across Europe and the Americas from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth centuries and across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia during the anticolonial movements of the twentieth century.
The definitions of the terms nationalism and nation are also hotly contested, but a common view among experts holds that the former is an ideology premised on the belief that, as Johan Gottfried Herder put it in Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, “[t]he most natural state … is one nation, with one national character,” which sees national self-rule as the only legitimate form of governance (1966, p. 249). A nation is often described as a politically mobilized people whose members are conscious of their unity as a nation and of their distinctiveness from other nations on the basis of cultural, historical/mythical, linguistic, and/or ethnic criteria. Whereas nationalists aim to create the complete concordance between state and nation boundaries, most students of nationalism and state formation heed the advice of scholars like Hugh Seton-Watson and Walker Conner to clearly distinguish between the two entities, understanding a state as the legal, territorial polities in which nations reside. Only by keeping the two concepts analytically separate, they argue, can we properly understand the dynamics of nationalism and its most important institutional manifestation: the nation-state.
In The Nation-State and Nationalism in the Twentieth Century (1996), Montserrat Guibernau defined the nation-state by situating it in its historical context as:
a modern phenomenon, characterized by the formation of a kind of state which … seeks to unite the people subjected to its rule by means of homogenization, creating a common culture, symbols, values, reviving traditions and myths of origin, and sometimes inventing them. (p. 47)
On this historicized view, the nation-state is a nation-building state—one pursuing the nationalist and therefore necessarily modern goal of creating a nation that coincides with its borders. An important additional element of such nation-building projects is captured in Hall’s criteria that a “national-sovereign” state seeks legitimacy by claiming to represent a single nation that is presumed to include the people living within its territory. Considering Guibernau’s processual definition, such a project does not have to be fully and successfully completed—it seldom is—or the claim entirely justified for the state to qualify as a nation-state. In the eyes of most students of nationalism and state formation, however, the existence and persistence of sizeable or numerous minority groups that resist and loudly contest such nation-building policies may so undermine a regime’s claim to represent the nation that it can no longer legitimately portray itself as a nation-state.
In a variation on this view, the term nation-state denotes any state that with some success promotes a common national identity among its citizens, even if the latter is based only on solidarity toward shared political symbols, institutions, or ideals. This use potentially defines most if not all modern states as nation-states, including many culturally and ethnically diverse states that are said to have created a unified civic or contractual—as opposed to ethnic or cultural—nation, a distinction inspired by Hans Kohl’s analysis of differences in the historical development of Western and Eastern nationalisms. This view is embraced by proponents of liberal nationalism, such as Ross Poole, who in his article “The Nation-State and Aboriginal Self-Determination” advocates the creation of what he calls “multination nation-states” (Seymour 2004, p. 95). Poole reconciles the seemingly contradictory elements of this notion with the presumption that a multicultural/multiethnic state can forge a stable, unified civic nation while respecting the diversity and integrity of its cultural or ethnic nations.
Scholars like Bernard Yack have criticized this distinction on the basis that, as Rogers Smith argued in Stories of Peoplehood (2003), “[m]ost if not all senses of nationhood or peoplehood invoke an account of unchosen, inherited, usually quasiethnic identity” (p. 65). Even someone as sympathetic to the broader aspirations of liberal nationalists as Will Kymlicka has pointed out that many states pursuing supposedly civic nation-building projects are in fact imposing a dominant culture on national minorities in the manner described by Guibernau. Hence, while they may be (actual or aspiring) nation-states, they are seldom civic nation-states. On the other hand, these critics argue, if states like Switzerland do explicitly recognize and respect different cultural/ethnic nations within its borders, they ought not to be described as nation-states. Leaders of such multinational states may speak of the “national interest” or “national unity” and refer to the state rather than any one of its nations when doing so, but the pervasive terminological confusion of state with nation is merely evidence of the extraordinary success of nationalist rhetoric portraying the nation-state as the ideal form of political organization. It does not mean that all states are nation-states.
In fact, students of ethnic conflict maintain that an underlying source of many violent conflicts in modern history is the fact that, despite the power and prevalence of the one nation—one state ideal, few nations are in reality coterminous with state borders. This suggests a third major view of the nation-state that is also evident among nationalism scholars who, like Anthony D. Smith, emphasize the durable quality of nations and the ethnic and cultural ties that underlie them. Smith prefers to call the type of nation-building state described by Guibernau’s processual criteria national state, and his own definition of a nation-state in Nations and Nationalism in a Global Era (1996) focuses on the actual concordance of boundaries between given entities:
Strictly speaking, we may term a state a ‘nation-state’ only if and when a single ethnic and cultural population inhabits the boundaries of a state, and the boundaries of that state are coextensive with the boundaries of that ethnic and cultural population. (p. 86)
The most important element in Smith’s definition is the first criteria, which demands that nation-states are ethnically and culturally homogenous internally. (Not all writers in this third group embrace the second criteria as it would exclude internally homogenous states like the two Koreas, given that the Korean nation is dispersed over two states.) The nation-state is here distinguished not from premodern forms of state, but from contemporary states populated either by multiple nations or by a single nation that also extends into other states. Studies of ethnic conflict typically focus on the latter two types of states because they tend to be more unstable than the ethnically homogenous nation-states, which therefore often figure in these studies mainly as part of a typology of states or as the exception that proves the rule of its more numerous and potentially volatile multinational counterparts.
Research by students of ethnic conflict like Ted Gurr suggests that conflict in multinational states is often associated with an erosion of the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of marginalized nations, which may have been precipitated by a dominant nation’s use of state institutions to impose its culture on all citizens. Members of nations who do not perceive that the state represents the interests of their nation are likely to make demands for greater autonomy or even secession, and sometimes take up arms to achieve such goals. In light of the fact that so many of the world’s national groups straddle state boundaries, these kinds of international dynamics within states often cause neighboring states to get involved and are therefore important for a proper understanding of world politics as interstate relations.
The reverse is also true: Interstate politics may affect intra-state relations between national groups, and rules and norms of the world state-system such as a sovereign state’s right to freedom from outside interference in domestic affairs, define the conditions under which, for example, secessionist movements have to operate. In light of these observations, a natural conclusion suggests itself: A more complete understanding of the nation-state would combine insights from theories of interstate relations with knowledge from studies of intra-state ethnic relations, and the tendencies of both to reify either state or nation could be mitigated by adopting the processual focus of historical approaches to nationalism and state formation.
SEE ALSO Nation; Nationalism and Nationality; Sovereignty; State, The
Breuilly, John. 1994. Nationalism and the State. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Connor, Walker. 1978. A Nation Is a Nation, Is a State, Is an Ethnic Group Is a … Ethnic and Racial Studies 1 (4): 378–400.
Guibernau, Montserrat. 1996. The Nation-State and Nationalism in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
Hall, Rodney Bruce. 1999. National Collective Identity: Social Constructs and International Systems. New York: Columbia University Press.
Herder, Johann Gottfried. 1966. Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man. Trans. T. Churchill. New York: Bergman Publishers.
Lapid, Yosef and Friedrich Kratochwil. 1996. The Return of Culture and Identity in IR Theory. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
Morgenthau, Hans J. 1948. Politics among Nations: Struggle for Power and Peace. Boston: McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2006.
Seymour, Michael, ed. 2004. The Fate of the Nation-State. Ithaca, NY: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Smith, Rogers M. 2003. Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Membership. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Paul T. Levin
"Nation-State." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/nation-state
"Nation-State." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved September 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/nation-state
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.