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Development of the concept

Elements of nationhood

The growth of nations


The nation has come to be accepted as the central political concept of recent times. In prevailing usage in English and other languages, a “nation” is either synonymous with a state or its inhabitants, or else it denotes a human group bound together by common solidarity—a group whose members place loyalty to the group as a whole over any conflicting loyalties. This latter definition was first proposed by John Stuart Mill, except that he called the concept “nationality.’ “A portion of mankind may be said to constitute a Nationality,” Mill wrote, “if they are united among themselves by common sympathies, which do not exist between them and any others—which make them co-operate with each other more willingly than with other people, desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be government by themselves, or a portion of themselves, exclusively” (1861, chapter 16).

The national ideal owes its universality to two historic movements: first, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, which spread this ideal from France to other European countries, notably Germany, Italy, Spain, and Russia; second, the anticolonial movement of the twentieth century, which extended it to Asia, Africa, and other continents. Because of the wide currency of the term “nation,” its meaning has become blurred, much as has that of the equally ubiquitous term “democracy.” In the nineteenth century some theorists (e.g., Mazzini, Mill, Renan) espoused the national ideal, and others (e.g., Acton) rejected it. In the twentieth century there have been fewer consistent critics (e.g., Toynbee, Kedourie) and advocates of supranational organization; most writers have taken the national ideal for granted while debating the “true” definition of the nation or the “real” meaning of nationalism. In short, the nation has become not only a key concept of political theory but also a favorite weapon of political polemics.

Development of the concept

The word “nation” stems from the Latin verb nasci, “to be born,” and originally meant a group of people born in the same place, whether that place was thought of as a few dozen or many thousands of square miles. In the European universities of the late Middle Ages, “nations” were groups of students who came from the same region or country. Somewhat later, a primary and a secondary meaning evolved, political usage adopting the former and legal usage the latter. To French radical writers in the eighteenth century a nation meant the people of a given country, without distinction of rank and often in contrast to the ruling monarch. In 1789-1793 the three French estates merged in the National Assembly, abolished the economic and political prerogatives of noblemen and clergy, transformed the monarchy into a republic, and replaced the historic mosaic of regions and provinces with arbitrarily drawn départements. Nation was the slogan of champions of constitutionalism, secularism, equality, and centralization —of those who wished to modernize society and to rationalize its administrative structure. Whatever the word “nation” had meant to earlier generations, its future meaning was profoundly affected by these revolutionary policies. In twentieth-century Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as we shall see, this link between the ideals of modernization and of nationhood is even closer.

In its secondary usage, “nation” meant a strange people. The King James Bible distinguished between the “people” of Israel and the “nations” of gentiles. English colonists in North America spoke of the Sioux, Cherokee, and other indigenous groups as “nations” of Indians, whereas Europeans of a later era (when nation had become associated with the modern nation-state) called corresponding African groups “tribes.” Similarly, sixteenth-century English lawyers translated the Latin phrase ius gentium as “law of nations,” for which Jeremy Bentham in 1780 substituted “international law.”

The two meanings at first remained distinct enough. When political orators of the late eighteenth century invoked the nation, they meant the people as supporters of popular government, whether in a sovereign state or in one of its subdivisions. Palmer (1959-1964, vol. 1, p. 472) quotes such an appeal to the “nation” of Artois. To lawyers and diplomats, by contrast, a nation was any sovereign state, whatever its form of government. The victory of popular government in Europe in the period from 1789 to 1918 led to a blending of the two meanings, for nations now were proclaimed sovereign. But what if the boundaries or indeed the existence of a state did not conform to the people’s wishes? This was the judgment expressed by Fichte when he appealed to a “German nation” over the heads of several dozen princes, by Mazzini when he advocated Italian unity, and by eastern European nationalists who plotted the downfall of the multilingual Ottoman, Hapsburg, and Romanov empires.

Popular, or national, government thus threatened the legitimacy not only of monarchs but of their very realms. Mazzini, generalizing from the Italian example and steeped in the optimistic liberalism of the mid-nineteenth century, thought the answer to the question “Who are members of what nation?” obvious in all cases, and he remained confident that the nations of Europe could live in divinely ordained harmony once that answer was acknowledged. A similar optimism was implicit in Wilson’s proclamation of the principle of national self-determination. The peacemakers of 1919 tried to apply this Mazzinian-Wilsonian doctrine to eastern Europe; yet by 1941 all the newly created states had succumbed to Nazi German or Soviet Russian conquest. Clearly the redrawing of boundaries along national lines had held out no panacea for the ills of world politics. Where Mazzini and his contemporaries had blamed wars on the suppression of nationality, Western liberals a century later were more likely to blame them on an excess of nationalism.

The League of Nations, including such countries as China, Thailand, Ethiopia, Liberia, the Soviet Union, and Iraq, officially extended the term “nation” to all sovereign states inside and outside of Europe regardless of their form of government or the character of their social development. Meanwhile, communist theorists and political leaders in non-European countries contributed to the same expansion of usage. Marx had rejected the nation as a bourgeois ideal likely to imperil the international solidarity of the proletariat. But later Marxists, such as Otto Bauer and Lenin, who witnessed the force of nationalism in Austria-Hungary and in the Russian Empire, accepted the idea. The formation of the Soviet Union in 1921 as a federation of national republics, each dominated by its Bolshevik party, demonstrates this acceptance. Moreover, beginning with the Congress of the Peoples of the East at Baku in 1920, Russian communists tried to effect an alliance with the nationalist movements in colonial countries—an effort that led a generation later to the labeling of communist-supported guerrilla movements as “wars of national liberation.”

Formation of the National Congress in India in 1885 and proclamation of the “National Pact” in Turkey in 1920 and of the National Revolutionary Party in Mexico in 1929 were landmarks in the spread of the national ideal to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In India the aim was the modification and later the end of colonial rule. In Turkey it was preservation of sovereignty for the rump of the defeated Ottoman Empire. In Mexico the goals were political unity after two decades of civil war and exclusion of United States political and economic influences. But far more than political goals were implied: the fostering of cottage industries and the lowering of caste barriers in India, the adoption of secular law codes and a Latin script in Turkey, redistribution of land and a new pride in the Aztec heritage in Mexico. All three movements were examples of “comprehensive-nationalist parties,” that is, of political organizations dedicated to external independence, internal unity, mass education, economic development, and secularization—to “a hastening of the process of modernization of which the rise of national consciousness itself is but one facet” (Rustow 1960, p. 400).

The ideals of modernity and of nationhood are embodied today in many proclamations of the United Nations, an organization that has come close to achieving the universality already implicit in the League of Nations. By virtue of its membership in the United Nations, a sovereign country as large as India or as small as the Maldive Islands may be considered a nation. Such usage does not simply represent a victory of the secondary-legal over the primary-political meaning; it also expresses the assumption (or the hope or pretense) that all member states are, or eventually will be, ruled according to popular principles, that nations in the legal sense will also be “nationalities” as defined by Mill.

Elements of nationhood

Nationalist writers have done little to clarify what they mean by nation or to explain how nations have come into existence. They have generated more heat than light, and talk about the nation has been most emphatic where the sense of nationality was least developed, for example, among nineteenth-century Germans and Italians and twentieth-century Arabs and Africans, rather than among Englishmen, Frenchmen, or Japanese.

Definition versus explanation

Scholars have added further ambiguities, notably by distinguishing “objective characteristics” of nationhood (e.g., geography, history, economic structure) from “subjective characteristics” (e.g., consciousness, loyalty, will)—a distinction that carries echoes both from German metaphysics and Marxist sociology. (See, for example, Wright 1942, vol. 2, p. 992.) In fact, the so-called subjective formulations are usually genuine attempts at definition, whereas the “objective definitions” are generally more or less adequate attempts at explanation. For common language, common history, prolonged self-government, and other circumstances are likely to promote feelings of nationality, but they are not among the defining characteristics of a nation. The Swiss are a nation although they speak three or four different languages; Israel is a nation even though Jewish communities had very distinctive histories in two millennia of the Diaspora; and the Poles remained a nation through a century and a half of partition.

Nationhood as a variable

Even when definition and explanation are separated, several difficulties remain. One is that nationhood, like any form of loyalty, is a matter of degree—a given people at a given time may be more or less a nation, while none fully approximates the ideal type. Moreover, a state’s boundaries may not coincide with the limits of national self-consciousness: the state may include ethnic minorities that do not feel the same national allegiance and exclude national groups beyond the borders (i.e., irredentas) that do. Taking both variables into account, it may be easy enough to agree intuitively that Malaysia today is less of a nation-state than Algeria, Algeria less than Turkey, and Turkey less than Sweden. Such assessments ultimately imply a series of predictions that under certain conditions loyalty will prevail, under others break down; hence many different measures might be devised, their accuracy depending on our foresight. Yet once nationality is acknowledged to be matter of degree, there is little profit in drawing a rigid line across the continuous spectrum and insisting that all peoples above that line are nations and those below are not.

The leaders of a new nation quite naturally tend to assign to their people a higher rank on such a scale of nationhood than it may in fact merit; indeed they often assume the existence of a nation that is still to be created—as did Jinnah after 1940 in his campaign for a Pakistan or Fichte in his Addresses to the German Nation (1808). Nationalism (i.e., the desire to form or maintain a nation-state) has thus often preceded the emergence of a nation—or rather its ascent toward more perfect nationhood; yet the early nationalist will in all sincerity see in his program an effect rather than a cause of the existence of his nation.

Like any other loyalty, national loyalty once formed may change its point of attachment, or it may dissipate; and several loyalties may conflict at a given time. Loyalty to the German and Italian nations began to supersede other, narrower loyalties in the nineteenth century. In Britain today no serious conflict is generally felt between a wider British and a more particular English, Welsh, or Scottish nationality; in Ireland the conflict became irreconcilable between 1846 and 1921. Since World War n, common European loyalties have begun to compete with the national allegiances of the past, and to that extent the European countries are losing their character as nations; if the process should continue, our descendants may one day be able to speak of a European nation. Outside of Europe allegiances, in the absence of traditions of self-government, are often even more fluid. In 1919 an Egyptian leader at the Paris Peace Conference curtly told a Syrian delegation that he could not be troubled about their “Arab” problems; but to Nasser’s generation the Egyptian problem itself has become an Arab problem. On the other hand, in Syria today contemporary nationalists are caught in an intense and, as it were, concentric conflict of loyalties: to Syria in her present borders; to a Greater Syria including Lebanon, Jordan, and hopefully Palestine; to a Fertile Crescent community including Iraq as well; and to an Arab linguistic nationality from Morocco to Oman. [SeeLoyalty.]

Territorial identity

The modern nation-state is one particular form of the territorial state. The size of the territory must reconcile the imperatives of unity, which impose upper limits, with the requirements of a modern division of labor, which impose lower limits. But even within such a middle range there are innumerable ways in which boundaries may be drawn, and it is in this context that the factors invoked by politicians as warrants of nationality or by scholars as “objective” characteristics of a nation may be examined. Geography, history, language, popular will, all these are significant in the formation of national identity, though not in the way it has often been assumed.

Geography. The “natural frontier” clearly is a polemic rather than a scientific concept. The Pyrenees have long divided Frenchmen from Spaniards, but the Alps have helped make the Swiss into a nation; portions of the Rhine Valley have at times marked off Frenchmen from Germans, but the Nile is the basis of Egypt’s unity; and whereas insularity has helped preserve Japan’s distinctiveness it did not protect Britons from Anglo-Saxon, Danish, and Norman invasions—each of which made its contribution to British nationality. It is not mountains, valleys, or islands that constitute nations, it is their human inhabitants. [SeeGeography, article onpolitical geography.]

History. History is no less equivocal. In Europe there are few areas that have not changed political control many times over the centuries and to which three or four “historic claims” could not be readily contrived. In any case, nationalist attitudes to history should not be taken at face value. History often serves as a reservoir of symbols from which nationalists instinctively select what suits their particular purpose. For all their historical romanticism, they are usually straining for a break with their society’s immediate past of dynastic fragmentation or foreign subjection. Hence the glories of a remote past (real or mythical) become their allies against the recent past in the struggle for a better future. “To forget and—I will venture to say—to get one’s history wrong, are essential factors in the making of a nation” (Renan [1882] 1939, p. 190). They generally will find those symbols most suitable that are respected among modern nations, that unite rather than divide their nation within the boundaries they propose, and to which their followers have a better claim than their rivals or antagonists. The Pharaohs, the Phoenicians, and the Assyrians held a natural appeal for Egyptian, Lebanese, and Iraqi nationalists; Pan-Arabs, however, felt drawn to the early Caliphate; and promoters of the Egyptian-Syrian union of 1958-1961 were attracted to Saladin (who ruled the same two countries). Turkish secular nationalists could not glorify Ottoman history while deposing the sultan, nor could they acknowledge their Byzantine legacy while battling Greek armies; central Asian motifs would have encouraged a politically futile Pan-Turkism; but the Hittites in Anatolia seemed an ideal symbol as long as they could be alleged to be of Turkish ancestry (Lewis 1961, pp. 362 ff.).

Language. No less a scholar than Toynbee has denounced the attempt to find “the criterion of Nationality in the shibboleth of Language” (19341961, vol. 8, p. 536); yet in the heyday of European nationalism language was more frequently invoked than any other criterion. Unlike geography, language is a human phenomenon; unlike history, which is continuous and may mean many things to many men, language does divide human beings into distinct groups. Language, moreover, is closely related to modernization: modernity means interdependence, and in modern societies more people talk and write to more others than ever before. Still, language is not an adequate criterion for nationality for several reasons. Language is not fixed, and politics shapes language as much as language shapes politics. European linguistic lines, for example, largely reflect the dynastic borders of the tenth to the fifteenth centuries. In many other parts of the world, language areas are either too small (tropical Africa) or too large (Latin America, the Arab Middle East) to provide a suitable setting for modern nation-states. If the linguistic map of the world were compared with political boundaries of the 1960s, it would turn out that the two coincide even roughly in only two dozen countries, the majority of them in Europe. In nearly half the countries of the world less than 70 per cent of the population speak the same language, and in one out of four there is no linguistic majority. Throughout most of the world, if present states are to become nations, either linguistic identity will have to be consciously fostered or else some different basis of nationality must be found.

Popular will. The last traditional determinant of nationality may be called the plebiscitary principle; it is suggested by Renan’s well-known metaphor of the existence of a nation being “un plebiscite de tous les jours.” As a practical expedient, however, plebiscites can determine national boundaries only in marginal situations, and even then the choice needs to be defined, and the result enforced, either by the common consent of pre-existing neighboring states or else by a predominant concert of outside powers. As Sir Ivor Jennings has written, “On the surface it seemed reasonable: let the people decide. It was in fact ridiculous because the people cannot decide until somebody decides who are the people” (1956, p. 56; cf. Kedourie 1960, pp. 125 ff.).

The growth of nations

The conventional search for determinants of nationality in history, geography, language, and popular will has posed as many logical problems as it has resolved. A more hopeful approach is represented by recent theories which connect the phenomenon of the nation with such processes as “modernization” and “social communication.”


Modernization may be defined as “expanding control over nature through closer interaction among men” (for similar formulations cf. Black 1966, pp. 1-9). As a sustained historical process, modernization began in Renaissance Europe and spread to other continents mainly as a result of the European impact upon them. Although the nation and modernization have separate historical origins, their subsequent asspciation is more than accidental.

The term “nation” has been most commonly applied to European peoples since the end of the Middle Ages and to others that came under their influence, but national consciousness as defined by Mill has existed in all parts of the world and in all eras—among peoples long subject to foreign rule, such as Poles, Finns, and Irishmen, among the conquering Arab tribes of the seventh century a.d., among many African ethnic groups before the European conquest. Modernization began in Europe, in the Romanov and Ottoman empires, and in many of the colonial realms long before the advent of national consciousness; but continued modernization almost everywhere produced a wholesale realignment of borders and loyalties. Traditional feudal systems proved too cumbersome, dynastic and colonial empires too heterogeneous, and traditional tribes, principalities, towns, and villages too small. By contrast, nation-states of intermediate size provided a political framework for equality of opportunity, for comprehensive division of labor, and hence for modern science and industry. Conversely, premodern nations that made contact with an outside modernizing world could retain the loyalty of their members only by adopting policies of modernization. Where nations had been rather the exception in traditional times, they became the universal ideal of the present era. In Europe itself, and more especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, nationalism and the drive for modernity are today two facets of the same social, cultural, and political revolution. [SeeModernization.]

Social communication

The term “social communication” is elaborated primarily in the works of Karl Deutsch (1953; Deutsch et al. 1957), whose major premise would be obvious if it had not been so consistently ignored by the classic nationalist writers. Nationality is not an inborn characteristic but the result of a process of social learning and habit forming. Such learning in Europe and North America typically came about through the growth of an intense and continuous network of social communication (that is, of trade, travel, correspondence, and the like)—a network linking a number of nearby cities, each with its rural hinterland. In short, a new style of life resulted from a process that Deutsch calls “social mobilization,” which is nothing but the social aspect of modernization. An outside challenge to that new way of life and the advent of a new generation then acted as catalysts in shaping a political consciousness of nationality.

The process of political integration, according to Deutsch, usually began in the prenationalist or the nationalist era with the emergence of a core area—an area where administrative and economic capabilities exceeded the load of political demands. If a durable nation-state is to form around a core area (such as the lle-de-France, Prussia, or Piedmont), there must be a compensating flow of advantages and sacrifices linking the various regions, and rival plans of integration must be eliminated, often by force. The formation of political coalitions cutting across both classes and regions and the prospect of mutual economic advantages are helpful in securing the final result.

The nation and political tradition

Deutsch’s analysis here converges with the findings of Kohn (1944) and other, earlier students of nationalism. The sense of nationality in western and northern Europe that emerged in the eighteenth century was securely based on a continuity of political rule by dynasties and governing elites going back to the Middle Ages. Where nationality was not thus anchored in political tradition, as in most of central and eastern Europe, the sense of nationality has been precarious, and hence, by a familiar dialectic, more aggressive. [SeeNationalism.]

The same distinction applies outside of Europe. Generally, in postcolonial states the degree of political integration has been roughly proportionate to the number of indigenous administrators and politicians trained under the colonial regime. Not only the political elites, but the very boundaries of the new states—that is, their prospective national identities—are a colonial legacy. The British in India yielded to demands for a separate Pakistan but did not effectively support any separatist claims of the princely states. The French, eager to keep Africans within a French overseas community in the 1950s, divided West and Equatorial Africa into 14 separate territories and confirmed their decision when they gave them independence in 1960. The British, by contrast, worked out a plan of federation for independent Nigeria. The Belgians conferred independence on the Congo as a whole, but on Rwanda and Burundi separately. Except for the formation of Tanzania, the African boundaries established at the time of independence have remained virtually intact. The reason is not love for the former colonial rulers or the linguistic, geographic, or economic logic of the boundaries themselves; rather, in a continent poor in political tradition, these boundaries represent what little tradition there is.

In western Europe it was mainly the monarchs of a prenational era who decided who their subjects were to be; in Africa and Asia that decision, by default and necessity, has been left to the excolonial powers. If the Latin American experience has any relevance, these postcolonial boundaries may be expected to endure well into the future. For whatever the periodic spells of anarchy within individual Latin American countries, the boundaries between them have undergone few changes in the last century and a half. Broadly, they still reflect those of the territorial divisions under Spanish colonial rule.

Only within a stable framework of geographic identity can the other elements of a modern nationstate be assembled. These include the development of a body of public servants recruited from, and responsive to, all major social and regional groups; the growth of a pattern of political organization, such as political parties, and functional associations, such as trade unions and professional societies; and a widespread habit of political participation through voting in elections, the reading of newspapers, and the like. These political accomplishments, in turn, are closely linked to other aspects of modernization, such as growing social equality, social and geographic mobility, the expansion of a secular and public system of education, an increase in economic productivity, and (under certain conditions) the formation of a national language. [SeePoliticalCulture.]

Nation building

Many of the developments just listed can be encouraged or accelerated by suitable measures of public policy. Recent writers, particularly in the United States (Bendix 1964; Deutsch & Foltz 1963; Pye 1962), have given currency to the concept of “nation building,” which may be thought of as the sum total of such policies. It is true that there are times when the founders of states are highly conscious of their architectonic task; and our own era, when so many newly proclaimed states are eager to ascend to the foremost ranks of modernity, is one of those periods. But even a Washington, a Bismarck, an Atatürk, and a Nehru must build on foundations laid long before; nor is the structure likely to settle within their lifetime. The founder of a commonwealth, as Rousseau suggested, must work in one century to reap his reward in another. It seems therefore more appropriate to speak of the growth of nations or of the search for nationhood than of nation building or of crises of nationhood; the organic and patient metaphors, on balance, seem more accurate than the mechanical, voluntaristic, or dramatic ones.

The disparity between the claims to nationhood and the political realities in many of sixty-odd “new nations” is one of the most visible problems of the mid-twentieth century. Political instability, military coups, sporadic guerrilla warfare, and subversion from outside may be considered so many facets or consequences of that central problem. Viewed from a perspective of the domestic politics of any given country, the nation appears as the unifying, integrating ideal. But the proclamation of new nations has also given rise to new types of international tension. The transition from colonialism to independence has in fact often merely transformed the internal violence within a dissolving empire into better-organized violence among new states, as in Israel, Kashmir, Cyprus, and Vietnam. Within a perspective of world politics, therefore, the nation-state may rightly be considered a disruptive element. Unless the growth of nations is accompanied by a growth of a system of inter national order, the new nation-states of the 1950s and 1960s may prove no more viable than did the Baltic or Danubian states in 1939-1941. In the words of Leopold Senghor, the first president of Senegal, “Nation is the first reality of the twentieth century... the second reality... is the interdependence of races, continents, and nations” (1959, p. 45).

Dankwart A. Rustow

[See alsoGovernment; International politics; Nationalism; State. Directly related are the entriesCommunism, article onnational communism; Modernization; Pan Movements; Political culture; Trusteeship. Other relevant material may be found in the articles underInternational relations.]


Akzin, Benjamin 1964 State and Nation. London: Hutchinson.

Almond, Gabriel A.; and Coleman, James S. (editors) 1960 The Politics of the Developing Areas. Princeton Univ. Press.

Bendix, Reinhard 1964 Nation-building and Citizenship: Studies of Our Changing Social Order. New York: Wiley.

Black, Cyril E. 1966 The Dynamics of Modernization: A Study in Comparative History. New York: Harper.

Carr, Edward H. 1945 Nationalism and After. London: Macmillan.

Deutsch, Karl W. 1953 Nationalism and Social Communication: An Inquiry Into the Foundations of Nationality. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press; New York: Wiley.

Deutsch, Karl W. 1956 Interdisciplinary Bibliography on Nationalism. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press.

Deutsch, Karl W.; and Foltz, William J. (editors) 1963 Nation-building. New York: Atherton.

Deutsch, Karl W. et al. 1957 Political Community and the North Atlantic Area: International Organization in the Light of Historical Experience. Princeton Univ. Press.

Emerson, Rupert 1960 From Empire to Nation: The Rise to Self-assertion of Asian and African Peoples. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Beacon.

Fichte, Johann Gottlieb (1808) 1922 Addresses to the German Nation. Chicago and London: Open Court. → First published as Reden an die deutsche Nation. A German edition was published by Meiner in 1955.

Hodgkin, Thomas L. (1956) 1957 Nationalism in Colonial Africa. London: Muller; New York Univ. Press.

Jennings, William Ivor 1956 The Approach to Selfgovernment. Cambridge Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published by Beacon in 1963.

Kedourie, Elie (1960) 1961 Nationalism. 2d ed., rev. New York: Praeger.

Kohn, Hans 1944 The Idea of Nationalism: A Study of Its Origins and Background. New York: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1961.

Lewis, Bernard 1961 The Emergence of Modern Turkey. Issued under the auspices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Oxford Univ. Press.

Mill, John Stuart (1861) 1958 Considerations on Representative Government. New York: Liberal Arts.

Nationalism: A Report by a Study Group of Members of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. (1939) 1963 London: Cass.

Palmer, Robert R. 1959-1964 The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800. 2 vols. Princeton Univ. Press.

Pinson, Koppel S. 1935 A Bibliographical Introduction to Nationalism. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Pye, Lucian W. 1962 Politics, Personality, and Nation Building: Burma’s Search for Identity. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Renan, Ernest (1882) 1939 What Is a Nation? Pages 186-205 in Alfred Zimmern (editor), Modern Political Doctrines. Oxford Univ. Press.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1762) 1954 The Social Contract. New York: Hafner. → First published in French.

Rustow, Dankwart A. 1960 The Politics of the Near East. Pages 369-455 in Gabriel A. Almond and James S. Coleman (editors), The Politics of the Developing Areas. Princeton Univ. Press.

Senghor, LÉopold SÉdar 1959 African Socialism: A Report to the Constitutive Congress of the Party of African Federation. New York: American Society of African Culture.

Snyder, Louis L. (editor) 1964 The Dynamics of Nationalism: Readings in Its Meaning and Development.Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.

Toynbee, Arnold J. 1934-1961 A Study of History. 12 vols. Oxford Univ. Press.

Von Grunebaum, Gustave E. (1962) 1964 Modern Islam: The Search for Cultural Identity. New York: Vintage. → See especially chapters 9 and 10.

Wright, Quincy (1942) 1965 A Study of War. 2d ed. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Zimmern, Alfred E. (editor) 1939 Modern Political Doctrines. Oxford Univ. Press. → See especially pages 164-263, “Nationality, Nationalism and Racialism.”


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Natio derives from the Latin verb to be born (nasci ) and refers to societies constituted by (assumed) common birth or descent, a meaning akin to the English word race.

Prepolitical Usages

In late Roman and early medieval texts, natio was less frequently used than gens, which also meant groups of common descent, though emphasizing kinship and family rather than race. Another group noun, populus, referred to the assembled citizens of a city-state. (Plebs referred to people in the negative sense of the masses.) This meaning translated from Greek city-states to the Roman Republic and then to the Roman Empire. Romans used gens and natio to describe other peoples perceived as extended kinship groups or subjects of quasi-religious dynasts.

Such groups were given specific names. Tacitus (c. 55c. 117) in Germania (98 c.e.) named the people (gens ) of "Germania," differentiating distinct nations and subnations. However, there was no consistency in relating general labels to specific names. This ethnography was taken over by the late Roman Latin-writing intellectual elite and continued by their successors, the Roman Catholic clergy. The names given to certain territories (England, France, Germany) derive from Latin labels.

The Nation and Political Authority, 10001500

The Venerable Bede (673?735), in the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation chose the name Anglii or gens Anglorum for the subjects of Christian kings. As Roman Christianity expanded and the number of kingdoms contracted, clerics following Bede fixed the name to one kingdom and its people. Something similar happened with Franks, France, and the French. Why names like French and English survived, others disappeared (Goth, Lombard, Norman), and others attached themselves to the same group (German, Deutsch) is unclear.

Name that prevailed were detached from original connotations of race and kinship. Even before the Norman conquest in 1066, "English" rulers and elites were drawn, and were conscious of being drawn, from beyond the ranks of the Anglo-Saxons. The conquest of 1066 introduced a new ruling class with a clear sense of ethnic identity. Yet the names England and English quickly reasserted themselves. Possible explanations include the facts that Anglo-Saxon institutions were taken over by the new rulers; they married English-speaking women; later rulers identified with the land of their conquest rather than with Normandy.

The political concept of nation referred to monarchy and the ruling class. When the eastern Frankish empire took the name "The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation," nation meant the princes and high nobility of the empire. The nation, in becoming political, divested itself of populist elements associated with language and customs. Insofar as descent was claimed, this was dynastic and aristocratic.

Nation was used inconsistently and descriptively in political discourse. Sustained arguments about legitimate rule were couched in terms of religion, dynasty, and privilege. The king of "England" could claim the "French" crown; indeed such a claim by Henry V was recognized in a treaty even though his premature death prevented the agreement coming into effect. Rulers invoked the nation when rejecting jurisdictional claims by the papacy or other princes but dropped it when making such claims themselves. Occasionally they drew upon older ethnographic meanings to appeal to their subjects, though we have no idea how this was received. The word also figured in conflicts between princes and elite subjects, especially when nobles defended privileges as properties of the nation.

Natio was used in many other ways. Delegations to the Council of Constance (14141418) and bodies of students at the University of Paris were called nations and given specific names. The word broadly referred to specific groups of foreigners but lacked stable meaning, suggesting it was not disciplined by constant deployment in political arguments. So long as arguments about legitimate political authority excluded notions of equal citizenship and popular participation, the nation remained a marginal concept. Only when natio took on attributes of populus did it become politically significant.

Making Politics National, 15001800

There were two principal ways in which the political concept of nation developed. The first was during the Reformation. Protestants invoked the biblical idea of God's chosen people, or elect nation, associating this with sacred territory and promised land. It is difficult to gauge the long-term significance of this. Protestant resistance to authority took mainly sectarian and international forms; salvation was for individuals or small groups. Radical Protestantism was crushed by Catholic and mainstream Protestant regimes before the later emergence of popular national movements. However, by then it was commonplace to combine state, confession, and nation in political arguments.

Second, the growth of state power meant that ever-larger groups were brought into contact with the central government. If government was "national," then groups deployed that term in political conflict. A significant example is eighteenth-century France. As the crown attacked privileged groups, its publicists portrayed these as factional interests undermining national interests. Those opponents in turn conflated nation with privileged institutions, insisting they were defending "national liberty." These ideas of national interest and liberty could be combined and extended. Revolutionaries generalized the concept of the nation to all subjects of the crown.

New Ways of Thinking about the Nation

The Enlightenment view that human beings choose and construct their institutions, that society and state are contractual associations, and that all human beings are equal, endowed with reason and rights, entailed profound consequences for the concept of nation. It took on qualities of populus, extended to the populations of territorial states.

In February 1789 in France, the abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (17481836) published a pamphlet entitled What Is the Third Estate? His answer was that it was not one estate among others in a society of privileges, but was everything. The actual representatives of the Third Estate, meeting in the Estates-General summoned in 1789, acted out this answer by transforming themselves into the National Assembly and inviting members of the other Estates to join them. The Assembly issued a Declaration of Rights: "The Nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty; nor can any individual or any body of men, be entitled to any authority which is not expressly derived from it" (Article III). The French Revolution abolished privileges and devised political arrangements to realize national sovereignty. Despite the failure of these experiments the notion became entrenched as a basic tenet of modern democracy.

Apart from practical problems of implementing national sovereignty, there was a conceptual difficulty: Who belonged to the nation? If the nation was defined in relation to the state over which it claimed sovereignty, then it should consist of the subjects of that state, with all their accidental differences of customs, beliefs, and conditions. Even this required one to define state boundaries precisely, itself a novel practice. Then one had to devise rules for turning subjects into citizens. Citizens and inhabitants were two different notions. Children and women as well as foreigners were excluded from citizenship. Above all, there was the problem of reconciling nation as the sum of individual citizens with nation as a group bound by ties of culture and values. The Jacobins tried expanding the idea of politics so that these ties flowed from, rather than toward the state, but they failed. It seemed necessary to look beyond politics to find the nation.

This was already happening during the Revolution. Radicals in Paris suggested that Bretons, Basques, and other reactionaries were infected by cultures and languages that made them incapable of appreciating new truths. Conservatives in and beyond France, notably Edmund Burke (17291797), argued that revolution was destructive because it ignored the importance of the traditions and customs that made each society (nation) distinct; revolutionaries mistakenly imagined that human reason could design an ideal society and state.

The German thinker Johann Gottfried von Herder (17441803) moved from the idea of variety to that of uniqueness. Different languages were not variants on a universal language; human beings had not rationally constructed languages. Each language expressed and transmitted across individuals and generations unique values that embodied the national spirit. The argument could be extended to music, architecture, customs, laws, indeed, to every aspect of society. The Romantic movement promoted the view that societies were organisms; art, the expression of uniqueness; and human beings, bound together by feelings and emotions not by reason and interest.

Two kinds of nation?

These two ways of thinking about the nation appear diametrically opposed. One stresses politics, reason, and choice; the other, culture, emotions, and belonging. This distinction has been linked to two kinds of nationalism variously called "western" and "eastern," "civic" and "ethnic," "political" and "cultural." The distinctions differ in important ways but all relate to these opposed ways of thinking. We need to see how such ideas were combined or opposed as the nation became the justification for statehood.

Nation and State in Europe after 1800

The opposed elements combined in many ways. In the first half of the nineteenth century, nationality as citizenship was linked to "high" culture. Basques and Catalans, Welsh and Scots, Bretons and Provencals must become Spanish, British, and French, respectively, to belong to the nation. Educational and other policies were pursued to this end. Such policies were explicitly assimilationist.

The situation was more difficult when one could not link the state to a dominant culture. Habsburg, Romanov, and Ottoman rulers were reluctant to do this. In some regions they confronted subjects with their own elites and high culture, such as the Poles and Magyars. There were also large and culturally subordinate groups, especially Slav speakers. These ranged from peoples with indigenous elites, a literary language, autonomous institutions, and national consciousness to peasant communities with distinct ethnic qualities but without national consciousness. Other areas were splintered into small states with one dominant nationality, above all the German lands and Italian peninsula.

As the nation as the bearer of popular sovereignty became a central political concept, these nonnational states were confronted with difficult questions. The "answer" in the German lands and the Italian peninsula was "unification," although these unifications included people who did not share in the national culture and excluded people who did.

In multinational empires no single national culture could assimilate others. The Russification project in the Russian Empire failed. The Habsburgs in the western half of the AustroHungarian Empire recognized distinct German and Czech nationalities. The Magyars practiced harsh assimilationist policies that alienated subordinate groups. The Ottomans conceded autonomy to Christian subjects but by the late nineteenth century had been expelled from areas claimed for "nations" using names such as Serbian, Greek, Bulgarian, Rumanian. Apologists for these "nations" legitimized political claims in cultural terms: creating a national literature, constructing a confessional identity, elaborating national customs, ceremonies, and histories. Ethnic-cultural ideas figured more centrally than they had in the national movements of dominant cultural groups in western European territorial monarchies.

Linking ethnicity and nationality was one response to problems in multinational empires. Ethnic censuses asked people whether they were Germans or Czech (one could not answer "both" or "neither"). The Austrian socialists Otto Bauer (18821938) and Karl Renner (18701950) elaborated arguments separating political citizenship from national identity, anticipating contemporary debates on multiculturalism. However, with the collapse of multinational empires at the end of World War I, the stage was set for the ethnic nation-state.

National cultures did not neatly distribute themselves as territorial blocks. Nationalities were brought together, as in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (meaning "south Slav," a name designed to bridge differences between Croatians, Serbs, and Slovenes). National minorities were created. One attempt to address resultant problems was by entrenching minority rights, to be monitored and enforced by the new League of Nations. This failed. Without strong and united support from the major Western powers, the League could not enforce rules. The doctrine of national sovereignty was understood to mean majority rule in a state that recognized no higher authority. The notion of citizenship as a property of individuals made it difficult to frame limitations on state power with respect to groups.

The Soviet Union had a national policy. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (18701924) recognized the need to gain support from non-Russians. The state was a union of republics named by their dominant or "titular" nationality. The state recognized "personal" nationality, embodying this in passports and educational claims. The destruction of all political autonomy under Joseph Stalin (18791953) included the autonomy conceded to nationality. Nevertheless, cultivation of national identity and a system of national republics shaped the way the Soviet Union collapsed.

The breakdown of political order in central Europe saw ethnonationalism taken to extremes. Nationalist and racist movements aimed to destroy "inferior" nations or races by expulsion, exploitation, and murder. Arguably, racist justifications for race empire and genocide go beyond the idea of the nation that, if only implicitly, recognizes plurality and difference. However, fascism and Nazism drew upon arguments about the nation.

These extreme forms of ethnonationalism were defeated by 1945, but not before they had altered the map and mentality of Europe. The national states created after 1945 were ethnically more homogenous than those formed in 1919. Ethnic cleansing continued with the expulsion of Germans from other states. Yet the doctrine of national sovereignty was qualified by the formation of supranational blocs centered on the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as the formation of the United Nations. The title of this organization, as that of its predecessor the League of Nations, equates nation with state.

The Concept of Nation beyond Europe

The United Nations, an association of formally sovereign states, excluded colonies. Colonial nationalists argued for independence in political terms. Imperial powers could not reject democratic arguments, as these legitimized their own states. Racism, even if endemic in Europe and the United States, had been discredited. Imperialists could only argue that circumstances were unpropitious, divisions too acute, indigenous resources for self-rule inadequate.

There were other reasons for making the nation purely political. Boundaries of colonial states were arbitrary, dividing close-knit groups. The small-scale nature of many indigenous groups made it difficult, if not impossible, to identify a dominant culture. Nationalists confined themselves to challenging imperial rule within given boundaries. Hardly any postcolonial state has seen its boundaries change. The most important such case, Bangladesh, took the form of a separation within otherwise unchanged boundaries. Yet tension between nation as culture and as citizenship presented itself in the first important act of postwar decolonization, when Muslim movements achieved the separation of the state of Pakistan from India. The justification was that Muslims constituted a separate nationality.

Internal conflicts within postcolonial states have been explained in terms of cultural difference, variously described as ethnic, tribal, or national. Sometimes federal arrangements have been implemented to try to reduce these conflicts; sometimes there have been civil wars, expulsions, and genocides. However, in other cases a conception of nationality as citizenship has brought unity at the state level, even if multiple ethnic differences remain important.

Contemporary Problems with the Nation

There is tension between nation as citizenship and as culture, but such tension is frequently manageable. In specific cases it is difficult to imagine how, in the foreseeable future, Israelis and Palestinians or Croats and Serbs, for example, could live peaceably together in one state. Equally, it is difficult to see how the world could be stably organized on a thoroughgoing ethnonational basis.

First, there are problems of creating many small states and coping with the geographical intermixing of different nationalities. Second, there is the theoretical problem of what constitutes a nation. Making the nation-state the political norm encourages minorities to formulate demands in the name of the nation. When does a distinct cultural feature qualify for recognition as a separate nation? For some theorists the answer lies not in ethnonational states but in enabling nationalities to live together in one state. One approach seeks to divide political authority between nationalities geographically through federalism or explicit division of powers at the state level. Another approach is to entrench nationality rights on issues such as language, education, and worship. An alternative to these public recognitions of multiple nationalities is to make a firm public-private distinction, regarding nationality as a private cultural preference and the state as a secular and public authority above such preferences. All these policies confront severe problems and are matters of fierce political and intellectual debate.

For some the nation is banal, equated with existing state, society, and everyday life. For others it is under threat. For a few it is a prison they wish to leave. All these experiences are modern. The premodern political lineage of natio relates to populus; its premodern cultural lineage to gens. The rise of the sovereign, territorial, public, and participatory state made the question "Who are the people/nation?" acute. Once the argument that the nation was the sum of the citizens of the existing state proved inadequate, the search moved on to consider the claims of culture. Nation as a significant political concept represents a series of attempts to answer that modern question.

See also Citizenship ; Ethnicity and Race ; Feudalism, European ; Sovereignty ; State, The .


Cobban, Alfred. The Nation-State and National Self-Determination. Rev. ed. London: Collins, 1969.

Forde, Simon, Lesley Johnson, and Alan V. Murray, eds. Concepts of National Identity in the Middle Ages. Leeds, U.K.: School of English, University of Leeds, 1995.

Greenfeld, Liah. Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Hutchinson, John, and Anthony D. Smith, eds. Nationalism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Kemilainen, Aira. Nationalism: Problems concerning the Word, the Concept and Classification. Jyväskylä, Finland: Jyväskylän Kasvatusopillinen Korkeakoulu, 1964.

Koselleck, Reinhart, et al. "Volk, Nation, Nationalismus, Masse." In Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, edited by Otto Brunner, Werner Conze and Reinhart Koselleck, 141431. Vol. 7. Stuttgart, Germany: E. Klett, 1978.

Miller, David. On Nationality. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Motyl, Alexander, ed. Encyclopaedia of Nationalism. 2 vols. Vol. 1: Fundamental Concepts. San Diego, Calif., and London: Academic Press, 2001.

Reynolds, Susan. Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe, 9001300. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Scales, Len, and Oliver Zimmer, eds. Power and the Nation in European History. London: Palgrave, 2005.

Smith, Anthony D. Nationalism and Modernism: A Critical Survey of Recent Theories of Nations and Nationalism. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

John Breuilly


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The term nation connotes a broad community of individuals, whose members consider themselves linked on the basis of shared long-standing cultural practices, ethnicity, history, memories, or traditions, who are typically associated with a specific geographical homeland, and who are predisposed to make political claims of autonomy, sovereignty, or other assertions of rights on the basis of their membership. Though nations are abstractions, in practice they are quite real to those who believe they belong to one. The idea that nations are real and legitimate forms of social organization is a fundamental assumption in ideologies of nationalism and national self-determination.

While in vernacular and economic use nation is often synonymous with country or state, the historical and sociological understanding of the term does not demand the existence of government or recognized statehood. Despite this difference, nation and state are often used interchangeably. For example, the United Nations is in fact an assembly of states, not nations, much as international relations actually refers to relations between states. To further confuse matters, citizens of states are often described as having that states nationality. However, states grant citizenship to recognize rights in the political community of the state, whereas nationality solely describes ones membership in the nation. Nation is also commonly used as a synonym for an ethnic group, which may in some cases overlap in practice, though the term is analytically distinct.

Core disputes in theories of the nation include the very nature of nations existence: Are they real? Is it natural for humans to organize themselves into nations? Are these organizations based on natural differences, or are these differences social constructions? How long have people felt themselves part of nations? Is membership voluntary or ascribed?

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theorists believed that all people were born as members of a nation, with an inherent national character endemic to their group. Philosophers such as Johann Gottfried Herder (17441803) argued that nations were naturally occurring linguistic and cultural communities, real and hereditary expressions of an eternal essence, generally unchanging over time, which deserved self-determination due to their differences from other groups. This school of thought has come to be known as primordialism. While contemporary scholarship has generally rejected this view, it lives on in the rhetoric of nationalist leaders, and in some representations of nations in popular media, particularly during times of war, when conflicts may be portrayed as ancient hatreds with no identifiable beginning and no possibility for resolution.

Refining the primordialists belief that nations are natural and real, perennialist scholars emerged in the mid-twentieth century to describe the robustness of nations without reliance on nature. Authors such as Anthony D. Smith suggested that nations may have a birth moment in the past, rooted in unique cultural practices and traditions that could be described as ethnic. However, once established, these characteristics of the nation become entrenched to the point of permanence, perennially reiterated in subsequent generations. Tales of golden ages or ancient battles with other national groups are passed down to younger generations, told and retold to cement the new generations links with its past.

Against this view of nations as ancient or eternal, so-called modernist theorists such as Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson examined the process of nation formation and argued that nations resulted from economic advances and industrialization. These authors grow out of a social constructivist tradition, which argues that no human enterprise can be understood as innately natural or real. From this perspective, nations are invented or imagined, and only gain legitimacy through broad public acceptance, not a priori existence. Anderson, perhaps the most famous representative of the modernist or constructivist school, argued that nations were imagined political communities, in which individuals came to believe that they were connected through cultural and political bonds to others whom they had never met, even the dead or notyet-born. According to Anderson, these beliefs were disseminated as a byproduct of modern inventions such as the printing press, which, in combination with the capitalist desire to sell books and newspapers, helped standardize language and information dissemination across wide territories. Print-capitalism increased the scope of communities, but also defined their boundaries. As information spread, images of both the in-group and the out-group were constructed.

Modernists also highlight the role of the state in constructing the nation, through common symbols such as flags and holidays, common institutions such as public education and national museums, and through activities that cemented the community's boundaries and limits, such as maps and censuses. The modernist paradigm has created a vast research program into the history of nations, asking how particular nations developed and how belief in these nations was manifested. Furthermore, it has opened up new perspectives: Once a nation is seen as imagined or constructed, it becomes possible to conceive of alternatives. This raises the questions of whether membership in the nation is a choice, either at the individual or the group level, and whether nations can be based on civic values, such as political principles, rather than ethnic traditions. In turn, postmodernists, writing since the mid-1990s, have argued that nations can never be fully constructed, that their content is subject to discursive redefinition and change, and that nations continually undergo reconstruction and reproduction.

As their name suggests, modernists also argue that the nation is a recent phenomenon. Many authors point to the French Revolution as a critical historical moment in the spread of the idea. When revolutionaries called for government to represent the people, they referred to the nation, instead of a particular class, religion, or region. This arguably had the effect of making illegitimate those forms of government that did not claim to represent the nation. Simultaneously, the ideology that states should represent nations, and that nations should have their own states, potentially hides other divisions that might exist within a society, for example, gender or class disparities. Postmodern and Marxist scholars have critiqued the hegemony of the nation as an organizing principle of political life.

A country whose borders coincide with a perceived national homeland is called a nation-state. However, this is an ideal type, and with the growth of immigration and globalization the idea of a homogeneous nation-state is arguably losing relevance. On the other hand, political leaders may nonetheless rule as if their state were an uncontested nation-state, and accordingly may enact policies on behalf of their nation, thereby keeping the nation a part of political life. As Rogers Brubaker suggests, the nation cannot be written off; even if its meaning cannot be pinned down, the idea of a nation remains useful as a category of practice.

SEE ALSO Citizenship; Ethnicity; Identity; Nationalism and Nationality; Revolution; Society; Sovereignty; State, The


Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. London: Verso.

Brubaker, Rogers. 1996. Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Gellner, Ernest. 1983. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Herder, Johann Gottfried. [1803] 1997. Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung des Menschheit. Stuttgart, Germany: Reclam.

Kohn, Hans. 1944. The Idea of Nationalism: A Study in Its Origins and Background. New York: Macmillan.

Renan, Ernst. [1882] 1990. Qu'est-ce qu'une nation? [What Is a Nation?] Trans. Martin Thom. In Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha, 822. London: Routledge.

Smith, Anthony D. 1986. The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Oxford: B. Blackwell.

Mark Ashley


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na·tion·al·i·ty / ˌnashəˈnalitē/ • n. (pl. -ties) 1. the status of belonging to a particular nation: they changed their nationality and became Lebanese. ∎  distinctive national or ethnic character: the change of a name does not discard nationality. ∎  patriotic sentiment; nationalism.2. an ethnic group forming a part of one or more political nations: all the main nationalities of Ethiopia.


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nation XIII. — (O)F. nation, †nacioun — L. nātiō, -ōn- breed, stock, race, f. nāt-, pp. stem of nāscī be born; see NATAL, -TION.
So national XVI, nationality XVII. nationalize, nationalist XVIII. native (hist.) born thrall XV; (astrol.) subject of a horoscope; one born in a particular place XVI; original or usual inhabitant XVII. — medL. nātivus, sb. use of L. nātivus adj. (whence adj. XIV, of one's birth XV), f. nāt-, pp. stem of nāscī; see -IVE. nativity (festival of) the birth of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or St. John Baptist XII; birth XIV. — (O)F. — late L.


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na·tion / ˈnāshən/ • n. a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory: leading industrialized nations. ∎  a North American Indian people or confederation of peoples.DERIVATIVES: na·tion·hood / -ˌhoŏd/ n.


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nation Nation of Islam an exclusively black Islamic sect proposing a separate black nation, founded in Detroit c.1930. It came to prominence under the influence of the American political activist Malcolm X (1925–65).

See also the gaiety of nations, law of nations, One Nation at one, two nations.


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inhabitants of a country; a community of men or animals; the people of the earth, collectively, 1667. See also people, race.

Examples: nation of field and wood, 1733; of hedges and copses, 1726; of herbs, 1768; of sea, 1697; of unfortunate birds, 1590.

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