Trial Definitions

Let me try out a few definitions for size. A “nation” is people who are bound together by ties of blood, language, or culture. A “state” is an area of land with a population, borders, and a government. When most of the people who live within a state belong to the same nation we call it a “nation-state”. Between the wars Germans were a nation, Germany was a state, but Germany was not a nation-state. One of the factors behind World War II was the tension between nation and state with respect to Germans.

An “empire” is a state governed by a monarch (any autocrat, really) that rules over more than a single nation. Multiple nations that are governed by the same republic are either colonies or the same republic.

When multiple ethnic groups live in the same state with no one ethnic group comprising the overwhelming preponderance we think of it as “pluralistic”, especially if the various ethnic groups are tolerated. It’s a matter of degree. Most states are pluralistic. Estonia is pluralistic (70% ethnic Estonian). The Republic of Ireland is a nation-state (90% or more Irish). Hungary probably qualifies as a nation-state.

Disagreements? Modifications? Extensions?

8 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    I would say Germany was a nation-statue between the wars, its just that the German nation and the German state were not coterminous. And this was a source of conflict, particularly as outside powers had insisted on this state of affairs to weaken Germany.

    The word “empire” might be disputed in this context, because its more frequently used to describe a country that invades and annexes another people’s land. The U.S. was acting as an imperial power in the Mexican War and in the Spanish-American war. In other words, I think a Republic with colonies is going to be described as imperial, particularly if the colonies are treated as “other,” and not within the normal political framework of the Republic.

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    A “nation” is people who are bound together by ties of blood, language, or culture.

    So, that rules out the US as being a nation. In my own neighborhood, there are no common ties of blood, language or culture.

    A “state” is an area of land with a population, borders, and a government.

    This already gets sticky. What constitutes a government? Were the Taliban a government in Afghanistan in 2000? Libya claims to have a government, but doesn’t. Neither does the Ukraine, for that matter.

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    Using your definitions, I think the US is neither a nation, nor a state.

  • Were the Taliban a government in Afghanistan in 2000?

    It’s complicated. There’s a swathe of ungoverned territory that stretches from the Bosporus to the Hindu Kush, dotted with cities that maintain control over their immediate surroundings. The idea of central government is pretty foreign there. By the standards that prevail within that swathe of ungoverned territory, Afghanistan had a government. I don’t know whether it still does or not.

    Libya claims to have a government, but doesn’t.

    It used to have a government. Now it’s pretty similar to what I described above.

    Neither does the Ukraine, for that matter.

    That’s sort of the topic of one of my earlier posts today.

    We’re a state. Just a very sloppy one. We have borders that we don’t defend. We have overlapping and conflicting levels of government. However, we do have nominal borders and the central government extends its influence throughout the entirety of its nominal territory when it has a mind to. I think we’re decreasingly a nation (as I’ve used the term). I think that nationhood is darned hard to preserve with substantial immigration and modern telecommunications.

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    It is easy to think you live in a state (as you define it) when you live in a decent neighborhood. Much less so when you live in one of the shitty parts of town.

    And there is no way we can pretend to be a nation (under your definition) any more. I’ve got Haitians, Puerto Ricans and various other nationalities for neighbors. This is common for this part of the country. No common languages, no common blood, and the only pretense to common culture is that the dark skinned ones all like calling their mothers “nigger” and “bitch”, and they like to get together in groups to give each other brain-damage. That’s not much to hang the notion of “nation” on, unless you want the nation to look like the CAR or Haiti. (Which is apparently the goal of our leadership.)

    Come to think of it, Pine Hills could use some French Foreign Legionnaires to restore order….

  • mike shupp

    “Nation” and “state” are pretty commonly used as synonyms and I’m reluctant to argue with that. Let me suggest that what you would call a “nation” might instead be a “nationality” or perhaps a “people.”

    Let me also suggest that while it’s generally assumed a nation’s people share a common tradition or ancestory, this is usually the product of inadequate education. There’s much precedent for viewing a “people” as a collection of people who chose to view themselves as having some common element of identity. Orators speaking of the “die Deutsche Volk” in the last century usually were trying to persuade Swabians and Prussians and Saxons to see themselves as being linked together despite a thousand years of separatism in postage stamp-sized principalities. Politicians and others who refer to “the American people” or “the American nation” almost always use the phrases in the same inclusive fashion; so do most American citizens.

    “Empire” is a murkier term. Perhaps for formal purposes, we might require that an empire have an emperor or empress, but … Victoria was Empress of India but merely Queen of Great Britian. Napoleon became Emperor of the French and then King of Italy, but he’d basically risen to that point as First Consul-for-Life while ruling the French Republic. Again, Rome was generally perceived as having an empire while it was still officially a republic. And the Delian League was viewed by most Greeks as an Athenian empire, even while Athens continued to be a democracry.

    More to the point, “Empire” is a fine emotive term rhetorically applied to any large political entity with visible subdivisions. Books and speakers have proclaimed the wonders of “the American Empire” for many years and few of us see need to correct them; until recent times, references to “the Soviet empire” were often heard. I’m disagreeing with your definition, if it’s not clear.

    “Pluralistic” is another vague term. For one thing, it isn’t actually related to a real head count. We might refer to London as pluralistic; we shouldn’t infer something like “Caucasians make up 50 % or more of the city’s population.” but rather that “Londoners have a diveristy of racial and cultural backgrounds, including English, Welsh, Scots, Irish, East Asian, and West Indian.”

    For a second thing, there’s an implication of equality of some sort. India before 1947, say, had a multitude of peoples, but there was tension between Moslem and Hindu, and Englishmen ran the country — we’d be stretching things to call this a pluralistic society. Again, both 1900-era Chicago wards and the ante-bellum American South were populated by several races, but we’re more apt to label the Windy City pluralistic than Dixie.

    Third point, implicit in the above: “pluralistic” is a merit badge phrase. It’s a label we pin on larger societies we approve of, or which behave in ways we like. There are other terms, similar in usage but not implying such appreciation — “melting-pot” for example, or “cosmopolitan”.

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    Everything that isn’t mathematics is poorly defined, which is why philosophy, to choose one topic from many, is mostly a vast waste of time.

  • TastyBits


    Sans philosophy, mathematics does not exist. You have arithmetic, but little else. It is not an accident that the Greeks excelled in geometry, science, arts, and politics. They had a philosophical foundation to build upon.

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