Nation vs Nation State

The nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.1

Nation vs Nation State Nation vs Nation State

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Table of contents

    When people go to war and die for their nation, what exactly are they dying for? What is a nation? People are grouped by their nationality, but what does it mean to come from a certain nation? Let's discuss.

    Nation Definition

    Nation has many definitions. Sometimes it is erroneously used as a synonym for state. However, the definition is as follows:

    A nation is limited to a cultural identity without statehood. The nation does not govern a sovereign territory. This applies to ethnic groups but also religions, multi-ethnic language groups, etc.

    Political scientist Benedict Anderson defined nations as "imagined communities" that are "limited and sovereign."1 While nations are tied to a specific territory across space and time, nations are not natural. They are human-made; they are imagined.

    Members of a nation do not all know each other. With hundreds of thousands, hundreds of millions, and even over a billion, it would be impossible for all members of a nation to meet each other. Yet, by "limited," Anderson meant nations are defined. Not everyone is involved in the same nation; there are certain membership criteria. As for sovereignty, the nation is free from foreign control and can manage its own affairs.

    Nation State Definition

    About 20 of the 193 UN member states are nation-states. Like nations, nation-states are populations with a defined territory. However, there is a key difference between nations and nation-states.

    Nation-State: a sovereign state in which the cultural borders of a nation match the borders of the state.

    Nation-states retain much of the same politics of nations, such as being limited and imagined. However, the nation also has a sovereign territory. It can manage its own affairs without having to accommodate different nations within its borders.

    If a nation lacks its own state, it is not a nation-state.

    Nation vs Nation State Examples

    The use of these terms is confusing. Let's discuss this.

    Nation Examples

    As a reminder, nation refers to an ethnic or cultural group with a common, defined culture. Nations may have a sovereign territory, or they may not. Nations also include members of a nation who are in diaspora, which means they do not live in their original homeland.


    While Armenians possess their own state, Armenians are found in diaspora communities all around the world. Armenians fled their homeland due to a genocide in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The present territory of Armenia is smaller than it once was.

    Nation vs Nation State Armenian Diaspora Map StudySmarterFig. 1 - A map of the Armenian diaspora. While Armenians have a sovereign state, individuals who identify as part of the nation of Armenia live in diaspora around the world. The darker the color, the more Armenians in the country

    No matter where Armenians live, they still share their culture and shared history with Armenians located in Armenia and elsewhere around the world.

    Jewish People

    The Jewish people are another example of a nation. The members of this ethnoreligious community are found throughout the world. No matter where they live, whether it be Israel, the US, or elsewhere, the Jewish people share history and culture. Throughout history, the Jewish nation has been persecuted, exiled, and the victims of numerous genocides. The Holocaust is an infamous example of the Jewish nation being specifically targeted and exterminated.

    Nation State Examples

    As a reminder, nation-states refer to countries where the sovereign state's borders match the borders of a nation. Out of the 193 states of the world, only 20 or so can be classified as nation-states.


    This Scandinavian island is an example of a nation-state. Icelandic culture and language are distinct. The island's population density is sparse and small. The country has only a slim population of refugees or immigrants. The country is also incredibly geographically isolated, as it is a sparsely populated island located in the middle of the North Atlantic. Because most citizens of Iceland are members of the defined Icelandic nation, this island is a nation-state.

    Nations and Nation-States Icelandic Language StudySmarterFig. 2 - Iceland has a unique language. Icelandic is directly related to the Old Norse language of Scandinavia. A unique language is a great unifier for a nation-state


    Japan is another example of a nation-state. Japanese are unified by a shared history, culture, and language. Japan does not accept many immigrants, so nearly all the citizens of Japan are members of the Japanese nation. Since the borders of the Japanese nation and the sovereign state of Japan align, Japan is one of the world's few true nation-states.

    The United States

    A complicated and much-debated example of a nation-state is the US. The US is a diverse and multicultural country. It is famously a melting pot of languages, ethnicities, and races from all around the world who now identify as Americans.

    There is nothing innate in being a US citizen--no biological quality that defines someone as "American." By design, the nation has no unifying language, creed, race, etc.

    Yet, the 365 million residents of the US are unified: by shared ideals and symbols. Shared ideals include individualism and liberty. Shared symbolism includes the US flag, collective American history, Uncle Sam, and the bald eagle. This shared history classifies the US as a nation-state, even if it is diverse in terms of language, race, and identity.

    Some geographers call the US a multicultural or multinational state because it is one state that contains various nations and cultures within its borders. This complication is something to be aware of in AP Human Geography.

    Nation vs Nation State Statue of Liberty StudySmarterFig. 3 - The State of Liberty long welcomed immigrants to the US. It's a symbol of the US as a melting pot of all different nations that once here, become "American"

    Multi State Nation vs Stateless Nation

    These confusing terms are different. Let's see how this works.

    Multi-State Nation: nations not isolated in one state but rather spread over several states.

    An example is the Korean nation. Koreans share a language, culture, and history, or at least they did until 1948. The Korean peninsula used to be home to one Korean nation-state. However, in 1948 the Korean War split the Korean nation into two separate states: North and South Korea.

    Nation vs Nation State Map of Korean Peninsula StudySmarterFig. 4 - The Korean nation split into North and South Korea

    While a nation may be found in multiple states, sometimes it also may have none.

    Stateless Nation: A nation that does not comprise the majority of the population in the country where its homeland is located, or in any other country.

    An example of a stateless nation is the Kurds. The Kurds are a nation without a state of their own. Instead, the Kurdish population is spread across territory in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Their attempts at statehood have failed, though they have gained some autonomy from the states where they reside.

    Nation vs Nation State Map of Kurds StudySmarterFig. 5 - Map of the location of Kurdish populations. The Kurds do not have a state of their own but rather live in many states

    Difference between Nation and Nation State

    These are important terms in AP Human Geography. Outside the classroom, you may hear these terms used erroneously and interchangeably.


    A cultural identity without statehood. The nation does not govern a sovereign territory. This applies to ethnic groups but also religions, multi-ethnic language groups, etc.

    A sovereign state in which the cultural borders of a nation match the borders of the state.

    Nations are essentially ethnic groups. They have a shared and unifying history and culture. Nations can have a sovereign state or they cannot. They can exist within one state or within multiple. When nations have a sovereign state of their own, that is known as a nation-state.


    Perhaps George Orwell said it best:

    One prod to the nerve of nationalism and the intellectual decencies can vanish, the past can be altered, and the plainest facts can be denied.6

    Being a member of a nation unites people with each other, their culture, and their geography.

    Nationalism: loyalty to and identification with one's particular nation, especially to the exclusion of others and their separate nations.

    Nationalism creates a national consciousness that emphasizes the nation and its people, values, and culture as better than other nations and nationalities. This can be beneficial for the state in times of war to gain support for a military response.

    A pertinent nationalist military response includes the fight for a nationality's liberation or unification. For instance, before the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the peninsula was home to many separate states. Giuseppe Garibaldi was an Italian general and nationalist who unified the peninsula under one kingdom. As a result, the entire peninsula was unified under a shared language, culture, and history.

    In 1871, Otto von Bismarck also similarly made Germany into a nation. He unified separate kingdoms, remnants of the Holy Roman Empire, into one German state. This simultaneously created the German nationality.

    Nationalism can also be forged through public education. The education system can create nationalism as the entire population learns the same history, values, and language. For instance, history classes can ignore or gloss over unappealing details from the nation's history.

    Types of Nationalism

    Nationalism can manifest in different ways.

    Ethnic Nationalism: ethnocentric nationalism narrowly focused on a specific ethnicity.

    Ethnic nationalism can be dangerous. It sees an ethnic group and its members as superior to those of other groups. It can alienate and discriminate against individuals that do not fit the mold of the nation's exalted nationality. Nazi Germany proved how dangerous this can be, as all the internal and neighboring nations that it saw as inferior to its nation were violently persecuted.

    While ethnic nationalism is focused on ethnic identity, civic nationalism is focused on other concerns.

    Civic nationalism: nationalism based on common ideas and shared values, rather than on exclusive definitions of ethnicity, culture, or language.

    Civic nationalism is seen as inclusive because there is no narrow definition of a citizen. All citizens, no matter what nation they come from, can be welcomed into the group if they share the same values as other citizens of the country. Thus, the US is an example of a state with a high degree of civic nationalism.


    Patriotism differs slightly from civic nationalism.

    Patriotism: loyalty and support for one's nation.

    Patriots feel pride in their country. In the US, manifestations of patriotism include displaying the US flag on your property or singing the national anthem. Patriots love their country, but that does not necessarily mean they think their country is superior to all other states.

    A civic nationalist places importance on shared values among citizens, while a patriot is simply loyal to their country.

    Nation vs Nation State US Patriotic Parade StudySmarterFig. 6 - The celebration of the US holiday of the Fourth of July is an example of patriotism. Depicted here is a parade celebrating the holiday and country

    For more information about nationalism, read StudySmarter's explanation Ethnic Nationalist Movement.

    Nation vs Nation State - Key takeaways

    • A nation is a cultural identity without statehood. The nation does not govern a sovereign territory. This applies to ethnic groups but also religions, multi-ethnic language groups, etc. Examples include Jews and Armenians.
    • A nation-state is a sovereign state in which the cultural borders of a nation match the borders of the state. Examples include Iceland and Japan.
    • A multi-state nation is when an ethnic group is a predominant group across multiple states. An example includes Koreans. Meanwhile, a stateless nation is when an ethnic group is spread across many states rather than containing a state of its own. An example includes the Kurds of the Middle East.
    • Nationalism is the condition of being unified by a nation's shared culture and values.
    • Civic nationalism is inclusive and focuses on shared values; ethnic nationalism is focused on the defined ethnic group and its perceived superiority to other groups.


    1. Anderson, B. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso books. 2006.
    2. Fig. 1 Map of Armenian Diaspora ( by Allice Hunter licensed by CC-BY SA 4.0 (
    3. Fig. 3 Statue of Liberty (,_NY.jpg) by William Warby licensed by CC-BY SA 2.0 (
    4. Fig. 4 Map of Korea ( by Johannes Barre licensed by CC-BY SA 3.0 (
    5. Fig. 5 Kurd Population Map ( by Ebrahimi-amir licensed by CC-BY SA 3.0 (
    6. Orwell, G. Notes on nationalism. Penguin UK. 2018.
    7. Fig. 6 Fourth of July Parade ( by Kenneth C. Zirkel licensed by CC-BY SA 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Nation vs Nation State

    What is the definition of nation? 

    A nation is limited to a cultural identity without statehood. The nation does not govern a sovereign territory. This applies to ethnic groups but also religions, multi-ethnic language groups, etc. An example is the Armenians or Jews.

    What is a nation state? 

    A sovereign state in which the cultural borders of a nation match the borders of the state. An example is Japan or Iceland.

    What is the relationship between nation and nation-state? 

    Nations may possess their own state or they may not. If they do possess their own state, the country is labeled as a nation-state.

    What is the difference between nation and nation state? 

    Nation refers to the cultural group that shares a history and homeland. Meanwhile, nation-state classifies a country based on whether the state borders match the cultural borders of a nation.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which is an example of a multi-state nation? 

    Which of the following traits did Benedict Anderson not use to describe nations? 

    How does a nation-state differ from a nation?

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