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13.1: Introduction to Nation-States

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    253614
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    Learning Objective

    • Define a nation-state

    Key Points

    • The concept of a nation-state is notoriously difficult to define. A working and imprecise definition
      is: a type of state that conjoins the political entity of a state to the cultural entity of a nation, from which it aims to derive its political legitimacy to rule and potentially its status as a sovereign state.
    • The origins and early history of nation-states are disputed. Two major theoretical questions have been debated. First, “Which came first, the nation or the nation-state?” Second, “Is nation-state a modern or an ancient idea?” Scholars continue to debate a number of possible hypotheses.
    • Most commonly, the idea of a nation-state was and is associated with the rise of the modern system of states, often called the “Westphalian system” in reference to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648).
    • Nation-states have their own characteristics that today may be taken-for-granted factors shaping a modern state, but that all developed in contrast to pre-national states.
    • The most obvious impact of the nation-state is the creation of a uniform national culture through state policy. Its most demonstrative examples are national systems of compulsory primary education that usually popularize a common language and historical narratives.

    Terms

    declarative theory of statehood

    A theory that defines a state as a person in international law if it meets the following criteria: 1) a defined territory; 2) a permanent population; 3) a government; and 4) a capacity to enter into relations with other states. According to it, an entity’s statehood is independent of its recognition by other states.

    constitutive theory of statehood

    A theory that defines a state as a person in international law if, and only if, it is recognized as sovereign by other states. This theory of recognition was developed in the 19th century. Under it, a state was sovereign if another sovereign state recognized it as such.

    Westphalian system

    A global system based on the principle of international law that each state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs, to the exclusion of all external powers, on the principle of non-interference in another country’s domestic affairs, and that each state (no matter how large or small) is equal in international law. The doctrine is named after the Peace of Westphalia, signed in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War.

    Nation-Station: Challenges of Definition

    The concept of a nation-state is notoriously difficult to define. Anthony Smith, one of the most influential scholars of nation-states and nationalism, argued that a state is 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. This is a very narrow definition that presumes the existence of the “one nation, one state” model. Consequently, less than 10% of states in the world meet its criteria. The most obvious deviation from this largely ideal model is the presence of minorities, especially ethnic minorities, which ethnic and cultural nationalists exclude from the majority nation. The most illustrative historical examples of groups that have been specifically singled out as outsiders are the Roma and Jews in Europe. In legal terms, many nation-states today accept specific minorities as being part of the nation, which generally implies that members of minorities are citizens of a given nation-state and enjoy the same rights and liberties as members of the majority nation. However, nationalists and, consequently, symbolic narratives of the origins and history of nation-states often continue to exclude minorities from the nation-state and the nation.

    According to a wider working definition, a nation-state is a type of state that conjoins the political entity of a state to the cultural entity of a nation, from which it aims to derive its political legitimacy to rule and potentially its status as a sovereign state if one accepts the declarative theory of statehood as opposed to the constitutive theory. A state is specifically a political and geopolitical entity, while a nation is a cultural and ethnic one. The term “nation-state” implies that the two coincide, in that a state has chosen to adopt and endorse a specific cultural group as associated with it. The concept of a nation-state can be compared and contrasted with that of the multinational state, city-state, empire, confederation, and other state formations with which it may overlap. The key distinction is the identification of a people with a polity in the nation-state.

    Origins

    The origins and early history of nation-states are disputed. Two major theoretical questions have been debated. First, “Which came first, the nation or the nation-state?” Second, “Is nation-state a modern or an ancient idea?”  Some scholars have advanced the hypothesis that the nation-state was an inadvertent byproduct of 15th century intellectual discoveries in political economy, capitalism, mercantilism, political geography, and geography combined together with cartography and advances in map-making technologies. For others, the nation existed first, then nationalist movements arose for sovereignty, and the nation-state was created to meet that demand. Some “modernization theories” of nationalism see it as a product of government policies to unify and modernize an already existing state. Most theories see the nation-state as a modern European phenomenon, facilitated by developments such as state-mandated education, mass literacy, and mass media (including print). However, others look for the roots of nation-states in ancient times.

    Most commonly, the idea of a nation-state was and is associated with the rise of the modern system of states, often called the “Westphalian system” in reference to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). The balance of power that characterized that system depended on its effectiveness upon clearly defined, centrally controlled, independent entities, whether empires or nation-states, that recognized each other’s sovereignty and territory. The Westphalian system did not create the nation-state, but the nation-state meets the criteria for its component states.

    image
    European boundaries set by the Congress of Vienna, 1815. This map of Europe, outlining borders in 1815, demonstrates that still at the beginning of the 19th century, Europe was divided mostly into empires, kingdoms, and confederations. Hardly any of the entities on the map would meet the criteria of the nation-state. 

    Characteristics

    Nation-states have their own characteristics that today may be taken-for-granted factors shaping a modern state, but that all developed in contrast to pre-national states. Their territory is considered semi-sacred and nontransferable. Nation-states use the state as an instrument of national unity, in economic, social, and cultural life. Nation-states  typically have a more centralized and uniform public administration than their imperial predecessors because they are smaller and less diverse. After the 19th-century triumph of the nation-state in Europe, regional identity was usually subordinate to national identity. In many cases, the regional administration was also subordinate to central (national) government. This process has been partially reversed from the 1970s onward, with the introduction of various forms of regional autonomy in formerly centralized states (e.g., France).

    The most obvious impact of the nation-state, as compared to its non-national predecessors, is the creation of a uniform national culture through state policy. The model of the nation-state implies that its population constitutes a nation, united by a common descent, a common language, and many forms of shared culture. When the implied unity was absent, the nation-state often tried to create it. The creation of national systems of compulsory primary education is usually linked with the popularization of nationalist narratives. Even today, primary and secondary schools around the world often teach a mythologized version of national history.

    image
    Bacon’s standard map of Europe, 1923. While some European nation-states emerged throughout the 19th century, the end of World War I meant the end of empires on the continent. They all broke down into a number of smaller states. However, not until the tragedy of World War II and the post-war shifts of borders and population resettlement did many European states become more ethnically and culturally homogeneous and thus closer to the ideal nation-state.  
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