Nation State

The nation state is a modern phenomenon that emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. Prior to this modern conception of the nation state, we witnessed philosophers create their own theories on what the state was. This was because philosophers could identify a growing sense of community and connectivity among the people around them and began theorising as to what this sense of community was. In this article, we explore nation states in more depth. 

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Table of contents

    Nation state meaning

    In political science, when the term nation state is used, this refers to a territorially-defined sovereign body in which governance occurs on behalf of the nation. The legitimate authority of a nation state is granted through the right to self-determination of a nation.

    Nations refer to a group of people who identify themselves as being part of a cohesive group based on shared factors like culture, religion, gand eographical space.

    It's important to remember that the terms nation and nation state refers to a nation that also has three key features: territoriality, a monopoly on the legitimate means of coercion, and sovereignty.

    Territoriality: Modern political units have a clearly defined border and space. Though the lines that separate nations are imaginary the effects of this separation are very real. In nation states borders have to be regulated, protected and enforced; they need political power and force behind them otherwise they do not exist.

    A monopoly of the legitimate means of coercion: Nation states have a concentration of power and they determine what force is allowed. In the UK we are not allowed to have guns as the nation state has set out that this use of force or means of coercion is not acceptable however in the USA you are allowed to bear arms as the state allows you to. The ability to make these decisions on what constitutes a legitimate means of coercion is something that is granted to nation states.

    Sovereignty: The state is the highest authority and exercises that over a given population. Nation states are sovereign and have authority over their states, nation state can exercise this authority without fear of interference from outside forces.

    For example, Kurdish people identify themselves as being a part of a cohesive group based on a shared Kurdish culture, history or ethnicity. However, Kurdistan is a nation but not a nation state , it has neither of the three characteristics of a nation state which has resulted in political instability for the Kurdish people who reside in the area that is referred to as Kurdistan. This is because Kurdistan exists within the borders of four states, these are Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. These four nations are sovereign, whereas Kurdistan is not which means they have authority over the governance of the regions referred to as Kurdistan.

    Nation state Map of the world with country flags on the countries StudySmarterFig. 1 Map of the world represented by flags

    Difference between nationalism and nation state

    Nation states are important parts of all sorts of political science today. One of these is the political ideology of Nationalism. In this ideology a person's loyalty and devotion to the nation state takes precedence over any individual or group interest.

    The establishment of nation states is an integral component of nationalism, and nation states often arise out of nationalist movements. Therefore whilst nation states and nationalism are often intrinsically linked they mean different things, one is an ideology and sovereign state in which its members have a shared sense of identity.

    Nation state building

    There are two important components in nation state building:

    1. A process of unification to formulate a cohesive group of people in which a shared desire for a sovereign state representative of their nation is expressed. This may take the form of uniting those from across the diaspora with a similar religious background for example being Jewish or the unification of those who shared liberal ideals in order to create a nation states.

    2. Independence is critical to building a nation state, the strive for independence often takes the form of sustained protest or conflict. There are many examples of how nation states came into existence through independence movements, for example by gaining independence from colonial powers.

    Aside from unification and independence, nation states require the formation of a government to preside over the newly independent nation of people.

    Nation state examples

    Nation states are often built on either ethnic, cultural or civic lines, these categories are not mutually exclusive and nation states often have elements of all three of these principles in varying amounts. Here we will examine ethnic and civic nation states and some examples of them.

    Ethnic nation states are nation states that have a strong sense of collective identity and are based on a real or fictitious sense of shared ethnic and/or cultural identity. Within these nation states governance is based on the presence of a shared common ancestry or roots which often have racial connotations. Fewer than 10% of nation states today view themselves as ethnic nations.

    In ethnic nations, there are fears of miscegenation or ‘melting pot’ societies as they believe that this leads to the loss of national and personal identity. As someone who does not shared the common ethnic background it can be incredibly hard to gain citizenship within these nation states.

    For more on ethnic nations see Ethnic Nationalism.

    In the United Arab Emirates it is extremely hard to become a citizen if you are not Emirati.

    Civic nation states are based on civic rights and citizenship. These nations require a shared set of civic values, often this is centred around liberal democracy. These nations often inspire patriotism. One must identify with the constitution and political institutions and be an active participant in civic duties. In civic nation states, there are fears of a shift to ethnic or cultural identity as the formation of nationhood. This threat can be seen with the collapse of Yugoslavia into numerous ethnic and cultural nations.

    For more on civic nations see Civic Nationalism

    The USA is an example of a civic nation state which is built around the ideas of shared values, especially freedom and a general rejection of the need for a shared ethnicity. Further, actions such as voting or jury duty are often seen as citizens performing their civic duties.

    While many nation states are mainly civic or mainly ethnic, there are very few that are only one or the other, and we can often see aspects of both examples of nation states in countries across the world.

    Nation state and economy

    The rise of globalisation has posed a threat to nation states and their sovereignty. A particular way in which nation states are being threatened is in regard to economies. Globalisation has seen the rise of the internet travel and global banking. This has allowed for an interconnected global economy in which individuals can contribute to the fall of the nation states economy through tax avoidance and offshoring through simple internet use.

    Origin of nation states

    Despite the fact that nation states dominate international relations today, this wasn't always the case. The idea of the nation state dates back to the polis in Ancient Greece but didn't fully developed until the 16th and 17th centuries.

    Aristotle: Polis - Ancient Greece

    Aristotle’s conception of the polis is an early theorisation of the state and what the state represents. Polis is the Greek term for state or city-state. For Aristotle, the Polis was the endpoint of a process of natural development for the species and the polis was a natural institution. It was the only way that we as species could develop, so we could live in an ordered community, the polis gave us the capacity to reflect on its order whereby citizens could ask and answer questions on how we should organise life. The polis made citizenship possible. For Aristotle, the polis was a place of community, identity, and represented the fullness of human life.

    Universalisation of nation states

    The world as we know it today is made up of nation states. This is a relatively new concept that began in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. During this period we witnessed the breakdown of political state systems that were dominated by religion and the Church. These systems were instead replaced with a new kind of state - the nation state. These states had distinct territories and were sovereign. This new conception of states has since spread across the world.

    Sovereign/Sovereignty in relation to nation states refers to the freedom and authority of a state to control its activities and do whatever it wants within its territory without outside interference.

    The Peace of Westphalia is credited as being the starting point for this transformation. The Peace of Westphalia was the name of the treaty that ended the Thirty-Year war in Europe in 1648. The treaty articulated the concept of territorial sovereignty and brought about the end of the religious wars in Europe.

    What did the world look like before nation state and the Peace of Westphalia?

    Prior to the legitimisation and formation of nation states there was an idea of universal authority which was exercised often in the form of empires. Empires as opposed to nation states were the most common iteration of political organisation.

    In Europe, empires were also backed by divine claims and therefore there was an amalgamation of the Church and state as leaders of empires were viewed as being chosen by God himself. For example, in the Holy Roman Empire the emperor had the right to decide who should become the pope as the emperor was anointed by God to make these critical decisions.

    Nation State - Key takeaways

    • Nation states are a modern conception and refer to territorially defined sovereign bodies which have a shared national identity.
    • The nation state is a vital part of the political ideology of Nationalism.
    • Unification and independence are important components of nation state building
    • There are two main forms of nation states: civic and ethnic.
    • The rise of globalisation poses a threat to nation states and their economies.


    1. Fig. 1 Flag map without coastlines ( by 19Joshua ( licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Nation State

    What is a nation state example?

    There are many examples of nation states if you think of a country it is most likely a nation state, for example, the USA, France, and Spain to name a few. 

    What does nation state mean?

    A nation state  is a combination of a nation which is a cohesive group of people with a shared culture or history or geographical space and a state which is a political organisation that governs over a particular population and territory. 

    What are four characteristics of a nation state?

    To be considered a nation state you must first have nation, then you must also have sovereignty, territoriality and a monopoly of the legitimate means of coercion. 

    How many nations states are there?

    There are 195 members of the UN however the exact number of nation states is debatable due to differences of political opinions. 

    How does globalisation affect nation states?

    Globalisation has led to the perceived demise of the nation state due to its attacks on state sovereignty. 

    What is the purpose of nation state?

    To provide a nation of people with sovereignty, territory and the right to self-determine. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is a requirement to be a nation state?

    What was the name of Aristotle’s early theorisation of the state?

    Colonialism and unification are the main aspects of nation state building. True or false?


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