Defining Nationhood

My current project is a book with the working title Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.

Nationhood is a pre-condition of liberal democratic government. It is not the only pre-condition for liberal democracy, but it is a pre-condition so fundamental that it has been described by political theorists as a premise, a presumed condition or a tacit assumption in all discussions of liberal democracy. This book argues that we ignore only at our peril the fact that culturally unified nationhood, the bond shared by people who share a language, a literature, a future and a set of ideas, is necessary to liberal democratic government.

The shared culture that we call nationhood has the apparently unique capacity to create a degree of social trust that makes it possible for large populations to enjoy civil liberties and participatory government. Absent nationhood, electoral systems fracture, are manipulated by the wealthy, ratify dictatorship, descend into violence, succumb to military coups, or become paralyzed by ethnic bloc voting.    Although nationhood makes liberal democracy possible, it does not automatically produce it; Iran and Russia are nations but they are not democratic nor are they  societies in which the civil liberties of individuals are protected.

Nationalism is, of course, a notoriously double-edged sword. It has the power to incorporate diverse groups into a single nation and to produce democratic government, but, like other political systems, it can also create the conditions that produce imperialism, tyranny, militarism, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Defining Nationhood

A nation is not a state. A state is a sovereign government, like the Republic of Ireland, the state created by the Irish nation on May 3, 1921. The Irish nation is older than the Irish state it created. But before we attempt to define nation, let us attempt to define a term that everyone is familiar with: marriage.

A marriage is a union … Already we have a problem. We must specify what kind of union. Surely we do not mean a one-night stand. Perhaps we could begin: A marriage is a legal… But what of marriages that are not legal? Polygamy is illegal in France, Canada and the United States; are the second and third wives of Mormons and Muslims in these countries not married women? I could continue, but many social scientists have done so without arriving at a definition that satisfies everyone. The British anthropologist David Leach asserts that no single definition of marriage applies to all cultures.

The difficulty arises because marriage is not a physical thing, like a wedding cake. Marriage is a social and legal construct, and therefore laws that define marriage for legal purposes in any one jurisdiction necessarily fall short of defining marriage for all times and places. Social constructs like marriage, religion, and nationhood are notoriously difficult to define. Is Confucianism a religion? Is Scientology? Is Hinduism a religion or a category under which we somewhat arbitrarily group an array of Indic devotional traditions? Max Weber famously began his  Sociology of Religion by asserting that “To define “religion,” to say what it is, is not possible at the start of a presentation such as this. Definition can be attempted, if at all, only at the conclusion of the study.” Weber’s  book ended without ever defining religion.

The most widely cited definition of the nation, by Benedict Anderson, is also the most misunderstood.

“In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign…   It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion… The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations.”It is imagined as sovereign… “Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” 1

Anderson’s use of the word “imagined” is often mistakenly taken to mean that nations do not really exist. His meaning is simply that nationhood is a social construct, like marriage, political parties, and religions. These things exist despite the fact that we have difficulty defining them. Anderson’s definition is more illuminating than useful because it omits some key aspects of nationhood. Anderson omits the fact that a nation is always conceived as extended in history, that is, as a collective that has both a shared past and a common future. He fails to specify that nations are always connected to a homeland. And he neglects to mention the cultural aspects of nationhood, which appear to me to be primary.

I find the definition worked out by Oxford University political theorist David Miller to be not only persuasive, but useful, especially in distinguishing nations from other kinds of constructed political and social entities. The abridged version is that a nation is “A community (1) constituted by shared belief and mutual commitment, (2) extended in history, (3) active in character, (4) connected to a particular territory, and (5) marked off from other communities by its distinctive public culture.”2

Miller’s definition allows us to test cases. Are the Roma (Gypsy) people a nation? No, because they lack a connection to “a particular geographical place.”3 Is Belgium a nation? No, because the Flemings and Walloons experience most elements of Miller’s defining characteristics as separate peoples. Is Costa Rica a nation? Yes, because despite being a predominately Catholic, Spanish-speaking former Spanish colony, like all of its neighbors, Costa Ricans understand themselves as a distinct national community, with a shared history and future, that is actively self-governing, connected to a defined territory and clearly distinguished from neighboring peoples by a distinctive public culture.

Miller attempts “to see in what sense nationality is a modern idea,” and concludes that what “is new and distinctive in modern ideas of nation and nationality, is the idea of a body of people capable of acting collectively and in particular conferring authority on political institutions.” 4

Where I quibble with Miller is in his understanding of the nation as a modern idea. Probably because I have examined ancient and medieval instances in which a people, gathered as a national assembly including all classes from small-hold farmer to aristocrat, acts collectively to defend its territory or to confer authority on political institutions, I locate the dividing line between modern and ancient nations elsewhere.

Modern nation states appear to many scholars to be a recent phenomenon largely because the history of nationhood has not been well understood.5 Modern nation states differ from older nation states in three significant ways. The first is that they now dominate the political landscape whereas in earlier periods they were rare. The second is that modern nation states uphold the principal that every member is equal before the law, whereas early nations were often hierarchical, with full membership open only to aristocrats, to non-slaves, or to an upper-class defined in some other way. The third is that modern nations are usually far larger than ancient or medieval nations, even though some modern nations are very small indeed. Iceland, with 317,000 people, is the size of ancient Athens. The scale not only of China, but of Turkey or France would have staggered Herodotus. A scaling-up of the size of workable nationhood has been made possible by a series of modern improvements in communication, beginning with the printing press. But Anderson is wrong in imagining that the “print capitalism” enabled nations to exist. Nationhood depends on the ability of a large number of people to participate in a common culture. This happened long before the advent of printing, although it did not happen often. One of the contributions of this book will be to demonstrate that nationhood depends not on print capitalism, but on literacy that reaches down to the village level, enabling even the illiterate farmer to become familiar with the content of the nation’s culture. Printing presses made achieving nationhood easier; they did not make it possible.

What I term egalitarian nationhood is similar to Anderson’s understanding that members of a nation share a “deep, horizontal comradeship.” Egalitarian nationhood, the idea that every member of the nation stands equal before the law, is one of history’s great, liberating ideas. It is radically different from pre-modern, status-based societies in which one’s standing as a peasant, nobleman, member of a caste or tribe, younger or older child was not only all-important, it was fixed at birth. Individuals in traditional societies were unequal before the law and had little prospect of altering their standing.

Finally, I would amplify Anderson’s observation that a nation “has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations.” The idea that a nation has boundaries is essential. Nations frequently claim a right to include neighboring territories or populations within their borders, but always on the grounds that these are rightful parts of the nation. Nations do not claim that the right to expand to the furthest horizon. This is what distinguishes nations from empires, and from such universalizing ideologies as Marxism, liberal capitalism, and Islam  that expect all the world’s peoples to recognize the superiority of their political, economic and social ideas.   Nations do not demand that the people on the other side of the border adopt their ideas. They ask only that the neighbors respect the border.

Part of what draws us to read stories of the rise and fall of nations is that national histories are like the lives of individuals writ large. Nations are born, mature, grow old, and die. Some are large and others small, some are powerful, some obscure, some rise from poverty to riches, others fall from riches to poverty. Nations, like people, can be artistic, militant, pastoral, or urban;  unique in an untold variety of ways. Most compellingly, nations, like people, make choices that determine their fate.

Like John Stuart Mill, I need scarcely say that I do not mean nation in the vulgar sense of the term: a senseless antipathy to foreigners; an indifference to the general welfare of the human race or an unjust preference for the supposed interests of our own country; a cherishing of bad peculiarities because they are national; or a refusal to adopt what has been found good by other countries. I mean a principle of sympathy, not of hostility; of union, not of separation. I mean a feeling of common interest among those who live under the same government, and are contained within the same natural or historical boundaries. I mean that one part of the community does not consider itself as foreign with regard to another part; that the members of the various parts set a value on their connection, feel that they are one people, that their lot is cast together.6

Nationhood, this sense of a people whose lot is cast together, enables large populations to act in unity to achieve such difficult goals as maintaining a decent and effective government, and producing those functional, expensive and delightful aspects of civilization that are inseparable from the specific culture that produced them: literature, law, philosophy, art. Most crucially, it enables the rule of law, that is, it enables judges and administrators act according to the merits of the case, and not to make decisions according to the identity of the claimant. Liah Greenfeld argues that in addition to all of this, successful nationhood facilitates economic prosperity.7 Perhaps it does.



1. Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, r revised edition, London and New York: Verso, 1991, pp. 5-7.

2. Miller, David, On Nationality Oxford 1995 p. 27

3. Miller, David, On Nationality Oxford 1995 p. 24; Appelbaum, Diana Muir, The Rootless Roma, The American Interest, March-April 2011, pp. 81-89.

4. Miller, David, On Nationality Oxford 1995, pp. 29-30.

5. Reynolds, Susan, Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300, Oxford University Press, 1984, 1997.

6. Lifted from John Stuart Mill, Of Nationality, As Connected with Representative Government.

7. Greenfeld, Liah, The spirit of Capitalism: Nationalism and Economic Growth, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2001.