A nation is a form of cultural or social community. Nationhood is an ethical and philosophical doctrine and is the starting point for the ideology of nationalism. Members of a "nation" share a common identity, and usually a common origin, in the sense of ancestry, parentage or descent. A nation extends across generations, and includes the dead as full members. Past events are framed in this context; for example; by referring to "our soldiers" in conflicts which took place hundreds of years ago. More vaguely, nations are assumed to include future generations.


A nation is usually the people of a state, and while traditionally monocultural, it may also be multicultural in its self-definition. 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, 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.


In common usage, terms such as nations, country, land, and state often appear as near-synonyms, i.e., they can be used for a particular area or territory, or for 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 legitimized 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 recognized 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 Northern Ireland. These are not sovereign states in their own right. The island of Ireland is now divided into the sovereign Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland which remains part of the United Kingdom. The current status of the UK, in any case, is controversial and disputed, since there are secessionist movements in England, 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 to "recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.", an unusual concession to sovereigntist terminology, even though it explicitly places them within Canada. 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." This event highlighted the confusion around the motion, as Bloc québécois MPs had understood it as inclusive of all Quebecers, irrespective of their ethnic origin.


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 categorize 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.


The first requirement for the definition is that the characteristics should be shared - a group of people with nothing in common cannot 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 neighboring nations. All of the characteristics can be disputed, and opposition to secessionist nationalism often includes the denial that a separate nation exists.


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 recognized 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.


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), although the case of Catalan linguistic nationalism comes quite close to this. India also emphasizes a 'national' identity, despite having more than 20 official languages in its government, and hundreds more languages/dialects spoken throughout the nation.


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 civilizations as 'national heritage'.


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 an Irish national characteristic, in contrast to the largely Protestant British colonial power that usually recognized the Protestant minority in Ireland as Irish too. 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.


Some ideas of a nation emphasize 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 Empire. 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").


This article is licensed under the the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Nation".




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