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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 members of a 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 applications. 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. Members of a nation are considered to share certain traits, values and norms of behavior, 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 as a synonym for 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.

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. 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. Where territory is disputed between nations, the claims may be based on which nation lived there first. Especially 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.


[edit] Ambiguity in usage

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 the English language, the terms do have precise meanings, but in daily speech and writing they are often used interchangeably, and are open to different interpretations.

In the strict sense, terms such as nation, ethnos, and 'people' (as in 'the Danish people') denominate a group of human beings. The concepts of nation and nationality have much in common with ethnic group and ethnicity, but have a more political connotation, since they imply the possibility of a nation-state. Country denominates a geographical 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. International law, for instances, applies to relations between states, and occasionally between states on the one side, and individuals or legal persons on the other. Likewise, the United Nations represent states, while nations are not admitted to the body (unless a respective nation-state exists, which can become a member).

Usage also varies from country to country. As an example, the United Kingdom is an internationally recognised sovereign state, which is also referred to as a country and whose inhabitants have British nationality. It is however traditionally divided into four home nations - England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Three of these are not sovereign states, but Ireland is now divided into the sovereign Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom. The current status, in any case, is controversial and disputed, since there are secessionist movements in Scotland and Wales, and for example, Cornwall is considered by some to be a separate nation, within the country of England. Usage of the term nation is not only ambiguous, it is also the subject of political disputes, which may be extremely violent.

When the term 'nation' has any implications of claims to independence from an existing state, its use is controversial. In November 2006 the Canadian House of Commons passed a motion "That this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.", an unusual concession to separatist terminology, even though it explicitly places them within Canada. <ref>BBC: Quebec 'nation in Canada', [1]; Bloc Quebecois supports Canada PM, [2]</ref><ref>CBC: House passes motion recognizing Québécois as nation, [3]</ref>. Minister Michael Chong resigned in protest, saying '"To me, recognizing Quebecers as a nation, even inside a united Canada, implies the recognition of ethnicity, and I cannot support that. I do not believe in an ethnic nationalism. I believe in a civic nationalism." <ref>Tory cabinet minister quits post over motion, [4]</ref>

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.

[edit] Etymology and early use

The English word "nation" is derived from the Latin term nātĭō (stem nātiōn-), meaning:<ref>Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, (1879). A Latin Dictionary. Entry for natio. Online at [5]</ref>

  • The action of being born; birth; or
  • The goddess personifying birth; or
  • A breed, stock, kind, species, race;or
  • A tribe, or (rhetorically, any) set of people (contemptuous); or
  • A nation or people.

The combining form nātiōn‑ is built on the past participle form nāt‑us "having been born" of the verb nāscī "to be born". Thus it is also related closely to the English word "native", and more remotely to the English word "kin".It shares a common derivation from the Proto-Indo-European root *gen- "bear, generate, etc." <ref>See [6]</ref>

As an example of how the word natio was employed in classical Latin, consider the following quote from Cicero's Philippics Against Marc Anthony in 44 BC. Cicero contrasts the external, inferior nationes ("races of people") with the Roman civitas ("community").:

"Omnes nationes servitutem ferre possunt: nostra civitas non potest."
("All races are able to bear enslavement, but our community cannot.")<ref name="PERSEUS">M. Tullius Cicero, Orationes: Pro Milone, Pro Marcello, Pro Ligario, Pro rege Deiotaro, Philippicae I-XIV (ed. Albert Clark, Oxford 1918.) Online at [7]</ref>
An early example of the use of the word "nation" in conjunction with language and territory is provided in 968 by Liutprand, bishop of Cremona, who, while confronting Nicephorus II, the Byzantine emperor on behalf of his patron Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor, declared:
"The land...which you say belongs to your empire belongs, as the nationality and language of the people proves, to the kingdom of Italy.'" (Emphasis added.)<ref>Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana ad Nicephorum Phocam. Online translation at [8].</ref>

It is perhaps worth noting that, although Liutprand was writing in Latin, his native tongue was Lombard, a Germanic language.

A significant early use of the term nation was at mediaeval universities, to describe 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 division of students into nations was also 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.

[edit] Nationalism

Main article: Nationalism

In Europe, especially since the late 18th century, the idea of nation assumed a fundamental political significance, with the rise of the ideology and philosophy of nationalism. Nationalists saw a 'nation' not simply as a descriptive term for a group of people, but an entity entitled to sovereignty, if necessary by the destruction of non-national states. There is no consensus, among the theorists of nationalism, on whether nations were a significant political factor before that time. England and Portugal are seen by some historians as early nation-states, with a developed sense of national identity. Others see the nation-state as a 19th century creation, either as the result of the political campaigns of nationalists, or as a top-down creation by pre-existing states. The modernisation-oriented theorists such as Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm are sceptical about the 'centuries-old nations' which nationalists claimed to represent.

By the end of the 19th century, however, the idea that the Europe's populations is divided into nations was generally accepted. In the course of the 20th century, partly through decolonisation, a 'world of nation-states' came into existence, at least nominally. That does not mean that there is any agreement on the number of 'nations', on whether they correspond with a nation-state, or on whether any existing state is legitimate. Very few nation-states have 100% undisputed territory and borders. Political actors make claims on behalf of 'stateless nations', such as the Kurds, Assyrians, Palestinians or Roma people (Gypsies). Secessionist movements may oppose the very existence of the nation-state, as in Belgium. Autonomous movements request greater autonomy within the framework of the broader state (e.g., Catalonia or Galicia in Spain, Quebecois in Canada, Native Americans in the US). Claimed national territory may be partitioned or divided, 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 within the United Kingdom, but there has, until recently, been little sign of aspiration to self-government (see Campaign for an English Parliament). Although it is common to attribute political and territorial aspirations to a nation itself, they are in fact made by political movements claiming to speak on behalf of that nation.

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. Italy 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 always the case. Citizenship may itself be conditional on a citizenship test, which usually includes language and/or cultural knowledge tests, see Life in the United Kingdom test.

[edit] Defining a nation

Nations are defined by a limited number of characteristics, which apply to both the individual members, and the nation. The first requirement for the definition is that the characteristics should be shared - a group of people with nothing in common, can not be a nation. Because they are shared, the national population also has a degree of uniformity and homogeneity. And finally, at least some of the characteristics must be exclusive - to distinguish the nation from neighbouring nations. All of the characteristics can be disputed, and opposition to secessionist nationalism often includes the denial that a separate nation exists.

[edit] Common descent

The etymology of the word nation implies ancestry and descent. Almost all nationalist movements make some claim to shared origins and descent, and it is a component of the national identity in most nations. The fact that the ancestry is shared among the members of the nation unites them, and sets them apart from other nations, which do not share that ancestry.

The question is: descent from whom? Often, the answer is simply: from previous generations of the same nation. More specifically:

  • the nation may be defined as the descendants of the past inhabitants of the national homeland
  • the nation may be defined as the descendants of past speakers of the national language, or past groups which shared the national culture.

Usually, these factors are assumed to coincide. The well-defined Icelandic nation is assumed to consist of the descendants of the island of Iceland in, say, 1850. Those people also spoke the Icelandic language, were known as Icelanders at that time, and had a recognised culture of their own. However, the present population of Iceland cannot coincide exactly with their descendants: that would imply complete endogamy, meaning that no Icelander since 1850 ever had children by a non-Icelander. Most European nations experienced border changes and, migration over the last few centuries, and intermarried with other national groups. Statistically, their current national population can not coincide exactly with the descendants of the nation in 1700 or 1500, even if was then known by the same name. The shared ancestry is more of a national myth, than a genetic reality - but still sufficient for a national identity.

[edit] Common language

A shared language is often used as a defining feature of a nation (that is, apart from its value in facilitating communication among the members). In some cases the language is exclusive to the nation, and may be central to the national identity. The Basque language is a unique language isolate, and prominent in the self-definition of the Basque people, and in Basque nationalism, although not all Basques speak it. In other cases, the national language is also spoken by other nations (shared among the nation, but not exclusive to the nation). Some nations, such as the Swiss nation, self-identity as multilingual. Papua New Guinea promotes a 'Papuan' national identity, despite having around 800 distinct languages. No nation is defined solely by language: that would effectively create an open membership (for anyone who learnt the language).

[edit] Common culture

Most nations are partly defined by a shared culture. Unlike a language, a national culture is usually unique to the nation, although it may include many elements shared with other nations. Additionally, the national culture is assumed to be shared with previous generations, and includes a cultural heritage from these generations, as if it were an inheritance. As with the common ancestry, this identification of past culture with present culture may be largely symbolic. The archaeological site of Stonehenge is owned and managed by English Heritage, although no 'English' people or state existed when it was constructed, 4 000 to 5 000 years ago. Other nations have similarly appropriated ancient archaeological sites, literature, art, and even entire civilisations as 'national heritage'.

[edit] Common religion

Religion is sometimes used as a defining factor for a nation, although some nationalist movements de-emphasize it as a divisive factor. Again it is the fact that the religion is shared, that makes it national. It may not be exclusive: several nations define themselves partly as Catholic although the religion itself is universalist. Irish nationalism traditionally sees Catholicism as a Irish national characteristic, in opposition to the largely Protestant British colonial power. (It usually recognized the Protestant minority in Ireland as Irish). Some religions are specific to one ethnic group, notably Judaism. Nevertheless, the Zionist movement generally avoided a religious definition of the 'Jewish people', preferring an ethnic and cultural definition. Since Judaism is a religion, people can become a Jew by religious conversion, which in turn can facilitate their obtaining Israeli citizenship. Jews in Israel who convert to other religions do not thereby lose Israeli citizenship, although their national identity might then be questioned by others.

[edit] Voluntary definitions (will)

Some ideas of a nation emphasise not shared characteristics, but rather on the shared choice for membership. In practice, this has always been applied to a group of people, who are also a nation by other definitions. The most famous voluntarist definition is that of Ernest Renan. In a lecture in 1882, Qu'est-ce qu'une nation? he rhetorically asked "What is a Nation?", and answered that it is a 'daily plebiscite'. Renan meant, that the members of the nation, by their daily participation in the life of the nation, show their consent to its existence, and to their own continued membership. Renan spoke in the context of the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by the German Reich. At the time, the region was ethnically more German than French, and the Alsatian language is a west German language: Renan opposed such 'objective' criteria for a nation. Like Renan, most voluntarist definitions appeal to consent for existing nations, rather than promote explicit decisions to found new ones. Renan saw the nation as a group "having done great things together and wishing to do more" ("avoir fait de grandes choses ensemble, vouloir en faire encore").

[edit] Stalin's definition

Many definitions of a nation combine several of these factors. One of the most influential of these combined definitions is that of Joseph Stalin. His views on national identity influenced his subsequent nationality policies in the Soviet Union and the creation of the Republics of the Soviet Union. Stalin wrote in 1913:

A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.
Marxism and the National Question. Prosveshcheniye, Nos. 3-5, March-May 1913. [9]

[edit] See also

[edit] References


[edit] Further reading

  • Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities. ISBN 0-86091-329-5 .
  • Brubaker, Rogers. 1996. Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-57224-X .
  • Canovan, Margaret. 1996. Nationhood and Political Theory. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar. ISBN 1-85278-852-6 .
  • Delanty, Gerard and Krishan Kumar (eds) Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. London: Sage Publications, 2005.
  • Geary, Patrick J. 2002. The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-11481-1 .
  • Gellner, Ernest. 1983. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-1662-0 .
  • Hobsbawm, Eric J. 1992. Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43961-2 .
  • Renan, Ernest. 1882. "Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?"
  • Smith, Anthony D. 1986. The Ethnic Origins of Nations London: Basil Blackwell. pp 6–18. ISBN 0-631-15205-9 .
  • Weber, Max. 1978 [1922]. Economy and Society, eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[edit] External links

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