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For publications of this name, see also Nation (disambiguation).

One of the most influential doctrines in history is that all humans are divided into groups called nations. It is an ethical and philosophical doctrine in itself, and is the starting point for the ideology of nationalism. The nationals (the members of the "nation") are distinguished by a common identity, and almost always by a common origin, in the sense of ancestry, parentage or descent. The national identity refers both to the distinguishing features of the group, and to the individual’s sense of belonging to it. A very wide range of criteria is used, with very different application. Small differences in pronunciation may be enough to categorise someone as a member of another nation. On the other hand, two people may be separated by difference in personalities, belief systems, geographical locations, time and even spoken language, yet regard themselves and be seen by others, as members of the same nation. Nationals are considered to share certain traits and norms of behaviour, certain duties toward other members, and certain responsibilities for the actions of the members of the same nation.

Nations extend across generations, and include the dead as full members. More vaguely, they are assumed to include future generations. No-one fixes a timespan, but a nation is typically several centuries old. Past events are evaluated in this context, for instance by referring to "our soldiers" in conflicts which took place hundreds of years ago.

The term nation is often used synonymously with ethnic group (sometimes "ethnos"), but although ethnicity is now one of the most important aspects of cultural or social identity for the members of most nations, people with the same ethnic origin may live in different nation-states and be treated as members of separate nations for that reason. National identity is often disputed, down to the level of the individual.

A state which explicitly identifies as the homeland of a particular nation is a nation-state, and most modern states fall into this category, although there may be violent disputes about their legitimacy. In common usage, terms such as nations, country, land and state often appear as near-synonyms, i.e., for a territory under a single sovereign government, or the inhabitants of such a territory, or the government itself; in other words, a de jure or de facto state.

In a more strict sense, however, terms such as nation, ethnos, and peoples denominate a group of human beings, in contrast to country which denominates a territory, whereas state expresses a legitimised administrative and decision-making institution. Confusingly, the terms national and international are used as technical terms applying to states, see country.



The origins of nations are disputed, and these disputes form a major issue in the theory of nationalism. There are some biological theories of its origin, which see humans as territorial animals and the nation as a territory in this sense. Most theorists reject this as simplistic, and treat nations as a relatively late human social grouping. The most widely quoted theories place their origin in the late 18th and 19th century, although this dating is very disputed. Certainly the identification with a "nation" was promoted by early romantic nationalism at that time, usually in opposition to multi-ethnic (and autocratic) empires.

The philosopher Avishai Margalit in The Ethics of Memory (2002), discusses the defining role of memory in shaping nations: "A nation," he says acerbically, "has famously been defined as a society that nourishes a common delusion about its ancestry and shares a common hatred for its neighbors. Thus, the bond of caring in a nation hinges on false memory (delusion) and hatred of those who do not belong."


The first recorded use of the word "nation" was in 968, when Liutprand, bishop of Cremona, while confronting the Byzantine emperor on behalf of his patron Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor, boldly declared in his report, "The Land": I answered, "which you say belongs to your empire belongs, as the nationality and language of the people proves, to the kingdom of Italy." (emphasis added)[1]

The term derives from Latin natio and originally described the colleagues in a college or students, above all at the University of Paris, who were all born within a pays, spoke the same language and expected to be ruled by their own familiar law. In 1383 and 1384, while studying theology at Paris, Jean Gerson was twice elected procurator for the French nation (i.e. the French-born Francophone students at the University). The Paris division of students into nations was adopted at the University of Prague, where from its opening in 1349 the studium generale was divided among Bohemian, Bavarian, Saxon and various Polish nations.

Modern understanding

Since the 19th century, it is considered the norm that a nation coincides with a sovereign state, called a nation-state. That norm itself derives from the ideology of nationalism, which asserts that each nation deserves its own state. Before the 19th century, it is difficult to find examples that fit the modern idea of a nation-state.

That does not mean that there is agreement on the number of nations, and their equivalence with a nation-state. Very few nations and nation-states have an undisputed territory and borders. There are many self-government movements, such as those in Belgium, the United Kingdom and Spain. There are nations which describe themselves as stateless nations, such as those of the Kurds and Assyrians. Claimed national territory may be partitioned, as in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. There are also examples of national identity without a corresponding state, or claim to a state. England is a nation in the United Kingdom, but unlike the other four component nations (Northern Ireland, Cornwall, Scotland and Wales) there has, until recently, been little sign of aspiration to self-government (see Campaign for an English Parliament).

The term "state-nation" is sometimes used, for nations where the common identity derives from shared citizenship of a state. It implies that the state was formed first, and that the sense of national identity developed later, or in parallel. The Netherlands and France are often quoted as examples. However, both countries also have a strong ethnic identity and cultural identity, reflected in widespread attitudes to immigrants. If the nation was defined only by citizenship, then naturalised citizens would be accepted as equal members of the nation, and that is not the case. In most countries citizenship is sharply distinguished from nationality.

Nation-states vary in their attitude to naturalisation and citizenship. In the United States, the only legal restriction on naturalised citizens is, that they may not hold the office of President, and the only act required of new citizens is an Oath of Allegiance. Many other countries have language and cultural knowledge tests, but they may be intended primarily as a barrier to immigration.

Almost all nations are associated with a specific territory, the national homeland. Some live in a historical diaspora, that is, mainly outside the national homeland. The term diaspora now refers mainly to dispersed economic migrants and their descendants. The Roma, who are considered in some parts of Europe to be a distinct nation, are a diaspora without a clearly identified homeland. Where territory is disputed between nations, the claims may be based on which nation lived there first - the nation is considered to include past members. That is mainly the case in areas of historical European settlement (1500-1950). The term "First Nations" is used by groups which share an aboriginal culture, and seek official recognition or autonomy.

The term nation is widely used, by extension or metaphor, to describe any group promoting some common interest or common identity, see Red Sox Nation and Queer Nation.

Related concepts

See also


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