The politics of devolution
The politics of devolution

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The politics of devolution

3 Nation, state and nation-state

3.1 What makes a nation, a state or a nation-state?

Why do England, Scotland and Wales take part in the Six Nations rugby championship alongside Italy, Ireland and France? Are they all ‘nations’? What do we mean by calling them ‘nations’? The nation has become one of the most contested concepts of our times. Scholars, politicians and political activists present different definitions of the nation, usually focusing on a variety of cultural, political, psychological, territorial, ethnic and sociological principles. The lack of an agreement on what constitutes the nation suggests there is some difficulty in dealing with such a complex phenomenon. The crux of the matter probably embraces the link that has been established between nation and state and to the common practice of using the nation as a source of political legitimacy. Recognition as a nation grants different rights to a community that claims to comprise a single national unit. It usually implies an attachment to a particular territory, a shared culture and history and the assertion of the right to self-determination. Of course, as we shall see, nations are not internally homogeneous and are affected by internal and external migration flows. Yet, to define a specific community as a nation involves the more or less explicit acceptance of the legitimacy of the state which claims to represent that nation. If the nation does not possess a state of its own, it then implicitly acknowledges the nation's right to self-government involving some degree of political autonomy. This, in turn, may or may not lead to a claim for independence or secession from the state which claims sovereignty over the nation.

The nation, however, cannot be viewed in isolation and a clear-cut distinction has to be drawn between three main concepts: state, nation and nation-state. Max Weber defines the 'state’ as ‘a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’ (Weber et al., 1991, p. 78). The concept ‘nation’ refers to ‘a human group conscious of forming a community, sharing a common culture, attached to a clearly demarcated territory, having a common past and a common project for the future and claiming the right to rule itself’ (Guibernau, 1996, p. 47). This definition attributes five dimensions to the nation:

  • psychological (consciousness of forming a group)

  • cultural

  • territorial

  • political

  • historical.

People who share such characteristics are referred to as having a common national identity. It is the sharing of a common national identity, expressed in terms of culture, language, religion, ways of life, common memories, shared past experiences and territory, that makes people feel they belong to the same community and have a certain degree of solidarity towards their fellow-nationals. However, a nation-state, being different from a nation and a state, has to be distinguished from the other two. The nation-state is a modern political institution. First, it is a state that both claims and exercises the monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a demarcated territory. Second, it is a state that seeks to unite the people subjected to its rule by means of homogenisation, creating a common culture, symbols, values, reviving traditions and myths of origin, and sometimes inventing them. In seeking to engender a sense of belonging among its citizens the nation-state demands their loyalty and fosters their national identity.

The nation-state aspires to consolidate the nation where it already exists, but, should the nation-state rule over a territory containing different nations, parts of nations or ethnic groups, it tends to prioritise the culture and language of a particular nation. These then become dominant under the state's protection. For instance, at its inception, the Spanish state imposed the Castilian language and culture on the various peoples living within its territory, notably Catalonia and the Basque country, which had previously enjoyed their own independent institutions and laws. In the case of Catalonia, these institutions were dismantled after 1714 as Spanish troops conquered and occupied Barcelona.

The nation-state has exercised control of institutions and laws, the national media and the national education system. It has variously sought to nominate and promote a single official language, sometimes a single religion, and disseminated a specific version of the nation-state's history based on remembering, ignoring or forgetting certain key events, and recovering and inventing national symbols, ceremonies, rituals, heroes, sacred places and traditions. Such strategies have been consistently employed in order to create and sustain a homogeneous national identity among its citizens. However, numerous examples prove that very few nation-states have managed to successfully homogenise their populations. Differences have prevailed in spite of the nation-state's historical strategies to instil a common identity among its otherwise diverse citizenry.


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