Is the concept of nation explicitly ethnic?

I always thought that a “nation-state” was a synonym for a sovereign country, but the Wikipedia article on the subject reads a little ambiguous.

It is a more precise concept than "country", since a country does not need to have a predominant ethnic group.

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    Possible duplicate of In the US why is nationalism equated with racism? Feb 8, 2019 at 13:49
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    The irony is that no country contains 100% of one ethnic group only and at the same time almost every person has dna from somewhere other than their home nation. Feb 8, 2019 at 17:00
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    @MarkRogers The notion of "ethnic group" is by itself very unclear. In Ireland people discriminate between protestants and catholics but in France or Germany or Switzerland you'd be called crazy to say the protestants or catholic forms different ethnic groups. And I believe Liechtenstein and both Coreas are close to 100% of one ethnic group for instance.
    – Bregalad
    Feb 9, 2019 at 8:32
  • Nation is an ethnic term, not a political or geographic term. Note that the root of the word "Nation" is "birth". I believe, but am not sure, that the term nation had started to be applied to political entities around the time of the French revolution, but became commonplace after WWI or WWII. Thus, today, you will find people who still consider it an ethnic term, and those who consider it a political term.
    – dotancohen
    Feb 10, 2019 at 12:46

5 Answers 5


"Country", "State" and "Nation" are often used synonymously to refer to political entities. But if you want to nitpick:

  • A "country" usually means a geographical region.
  • A "state" is a political organization which rules over a country.
  • A "nation" is a far more fuzzy term. It usually means a group of people who are connected by culture and heritage. Some people might also consider common ethnicity to be a descriptor of nationality, but how ethnically homogeneous a group of people needs to be to be considered one nation is a matter of debate.

So People can reside in a country, but you can not be part of a country. Mountains, forests or cities can be part of a country, but people can not because people aren't geographical places.

For example, let's say you are a citizen of Arstotzka, but you currently work and live in Kolechia as a guest worker.

  • You are currently present in the country of Kolechia.
  • As long as you are in the country of Kolechia, you have to follow Kolechian laws, so you are a subject of the state of Kolechia. You would also be counted as part of the population of Kolechia.
  • But as long as you speak Arstotzkan, live a typical Arstotzkan lifestyle, self-identify as an Arstotzkan and still have Arstotzkan citizenship, you are still part of the Arstotzkan nation.

A nation state is a state where the majority of the population is considered to be part of one nation and where no notable numbers of that nation live outside of the state. Real world counter-examples are:

  • Cases where nations are split by state borders. For example, the Korean nation is currently split across North Korea and South Korea.
  • Cases where one state governs people who consider themselves different nations. For example, a lot of citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland usually don't self-identfy as "United Kingdomers" but rather as "English", "Welsh", "Scottish" or "North-Irish" (although some people in Northern Ireland might consider themselves part of the "Irish" nation which is split between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom).

However, I would not be surprised if some people would dispute these two examples. You could claim that the people who live in North Korea and South Korea have diverged so far in their culture that they can no longer be considered one nation. One could also claim that the Scottish, Welsh, English and North-Irish are subjects of the United Kingdom for so long that they are now just different ethnic groups within one "British" nation.

Which groups of people are the same nation and which are not can be a very subjective distinction. And people often try to establish their preferred definitions to achieve political goals. For example, when a region of a country is having a referendum for independence, then the proponents might claim "We should be independent because we are a separate nation" while the opponents might claim "We should stay together because we are part of one big nation". Who of them is right? That's a matter of personal opinion.

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    Thank you. This begs the question: does nationalism imply enthnonationationalism? If not, then this is highly confusing. If so, why is there a separate term?
    – 52d6c6af
    Feb 8, 2019 at 13:31
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    @Ben It may or may not depending on the writer. Neither nationhood nor ethnicity are uniquely defined and on occasion the goal is to draw a distinction.
    – origimbo
    Feb 8, 2019 at 13:42
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    I've downvoted this question for the assertion nation is dependent on ethnicity. Feb 8, 2019 at 13:48
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    Sounds like someone has been playing Papers, Please... Feb 8, 2019 at 13:51
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    @paulj The division of the United Kingdom is actually even more complicated than that. I wonder if it would be better to find a cleaner example of a multi-national state.
    – Philipp
    Feb 8, 2019 at 15:24

No. The concept of a nation is not explicitly ethnic.

Despite the recent preponderance of intersectionality considerations, or the vast multitudes of nations that appear ethnic, a single ethnic build up is not an explicit requirement of being a nation.

It is possible for a national identity to exist as the superset, having a greater hierarchical ranking than ethnic considerations. Part of this can be seen as the general aim for the long arc of small 'r' republican values built into the Constitution of the United States at ratification. While there was ethnic flaws in the implementation of the concepts of individual rights and equal protection of the law, the last an assumed measure that wasn't codified until the 14th amendment, the Constitution is largely ethnic neutral.

" But the 3/5ths compromise"

Rebuttal: would you prefer that slaves weren't counted at all, or that they were counted as full portions? The Southern states, with an interest in protecting their markets, wanted them counted as full people for representation, without the protections of the very document in question. Those opposed to slavery wanted it as none, to limit the Souths power; the downside here is it would codify their lack of personhood even further. Instead, there was a compromise. Some measure of counting, but not the full measure because they aren't enfranchised.

To the Point A nation can exist independent of a shared ethnic background. Look to the UK; while the vast majority of the populace shares the same melanon content, they are different ethnic group.

  • So you're asserting that the common identity that binds a nation is not necessarily ethnicity, right? At first it seems like the United States is a good example. But then I'm not sure how to distinguish between national identity and patriotism, which I'll define here as loyalty to the original legal framework of the state and its underlying philosophy. One can certainly feel a sense of kinship with others who interpret patriotism in the same way, but does that make a nation? For that matter, does loyalty to a sports team make a nation, or is that just a facetious usage of the word? Feb 8, 2019 at 23:22
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    @TKK primarily, I'm saying a nation needn't be structured around a common ethnicity. Feb 8, 2019 at 23:51
  • You've mentioned the Constitution and skipped right over an important part of the Preamble: "to ourselves and our Posterity".
    – user15103
    Feb 9, 2019 at 2:16
  • @Joe Relevance? Feb 9, 2019 at 2:17
  • It means that America was founded on a specific group of people and that it still primarily consists of their descendants -- i.e., Americans. The fact that many immigrants over the years have become Americans, does not imply that there's no such thing as an American people. Now, you're equating "ethnicity" with "race" in your answer, and that's your confusion. The original Americans were white, black, and red... an "ethnicity" but not a single race.
    – user15103
    Feb 9, 2019 at 2:33


The point is, most nation states came about by force of arms in one way or another. The only difference is how long ago - North and South ethnicities in India have been in conflict many centuries ago; Spain unified in the process of conflicts that ended up with Fedrinand and Isabella marrying; France unified as a result of 100 years war; Germany in 19th century; Russia as a result of constant warlike (or outright war) expansion. As such, winners got a bigger state while losers ended up as ethnic enclaves in it. Lather, rinse, repeat over many centuries. Egypt had this repeated over thousands of years (most recent and ethnically impactful major one was Arab invasions).

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    ...and more! Ethnic clashes are pretty common in parts of Africa and the Middle East, even to this day. Its how South Sudan came about only a few years ago. Feb 9, 2019 at 2:30
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    But this says nothing about a nation. You are just demonstrating that a country can be multinational. German nation constituted itself before the unification of Germany and comprised people outside of Germany as well, otherwise there would be no point in Heim ins Reich. Feb 9, 2019 at 17:01
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    @VladimirF - on that level, it's just semantics games that should be on English.SE and not Politics.SE
    – user4012
    Feb 9, 2019 at 18:27

For some, like the authors of the previous two answers, a nation is indeed almost the same as a country. This is what the French nation is, for example. And melting pots like the USA.

It couln't be more different in Central Europe, where the Herder's idea of nation caught on. Germany was still divided into many small states and Austria and Hungary had a German and Hungarian speaking minority and a majority consisting of many various Slavic speaking populations. Soon the nations even within such a small territory as the Kingdom of Bohemia became clearly separated based on the languge. There was no nation of Bohemia (any longer?) but the German nation and the Czech nation. That lead to many clashes that lead to the final resolution with the expulsion of the Germans after the WWII. In these areas the idea of nation defined by common heritige, but also common blood or race to some extent, still continues and calling a country "a nation" sounds just weird. A nation is mainly an ethnical entity here.

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    This also explain the problem of Alsace-Moselle which was caught between two nationalisms - French nationalism who thought anybody in the geographical boundaries of France is French - and German nationalism who thought that anybody spoking German language is German. This made Alsacians and Mosellans simultaneously French and German by French and German standards.
    – Bregalad
    Feb 9, 2019 at 8:49

Question: Is the concept of nation explicitly ethnic?

The answer depends on the definition of nation that you are willing to accept. The word nation is derived from the Latin verb "nascere" - "to be born". That means that nation might imply some kind of "shared birth" or ethnicity, at least historically. If you read the introduction of the Wikipedia article for "nation" in various languages, you'll find all kinds of definition.

Today all international media speak about a trial in Spain against a number of Catalonian separatists. In 2006 Catalonia had adopted a new Statute of Autonomy which defined Catalonia as a nation inside of Spain. Therefore, I was curious to read up the definition presented on the Spanish Wikipedia:

La palabra nación tiene dos acepciones: la nación política, en el ámbito jurídico-político, es un sujeto político en el que reside la soberanía constituyente de un Estado; la nación cultural, concepto socio-ideológico más subjetivo y ambiguo que el anterior, se puede definir a grandes rasgos como una comunidad humana con ciertas características culturales comunes, a las que dota de un sentido ético-político. [..]

Thus, there are a political nation which is simply defined as possessor of the sovereignty of a country. And there is a cultural nation, which is a community of humans with certain shared cultural characteristics which confer an ethical-political sense. (Please forgive me, if you consider my translation imprecise.)

This section is followed by several classic definitions:

  • Anthony D. Smith: "a named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members" (Source).

  • Benedict Anderson: "it is an imagined political community - - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign." (Source)

  • Ernest Gellner (Source):

    1. Two men are of the same nation if and only if they share the same culture, where culture in turn means a system of ideas and signs and associations and ways of behaving and communicating.

    2. Two men are of the same nation if and only if they recognize each other as belonging to the same nation. [..]

Note that not one of these definitions refers to ethnicity!

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