The term nation-state was originally intended to describe a political unit (a state) whose borders coincided or roughly coincided with the territorial distribution of a nation, the latter in its pristine sense of a human grouping who share a conviction of being ancestrally related. The word nation derives from the Latin verb nasci (meaning to be born) and its noun form, natio (connoting breed or race). The very coining of the hyphenate, nation-state, illustrated an appreciation of the essential difference between its two components, but careless terminology has subsequently tended to obscure the difference. Today, nation is often used as a substitute for a state (as in ”the UnitedNations”) or as a synonym for the population of a state without regard to its ethnonational composition (e.g., ”the British nation”). With the distinction between nation and state thus blurred, the term nation-state has lost much of its original value as a means of distinguishing among types of states. Although only some 10 percent of all states are sufficiently ethnically homogeneous to merit being described as nation-states, it has become an increasingly common practice to refer to all states as nation-states.

The confusing of nation with state would not be so troublesome were all states nation-states. In such cases, loyalty to nation (nationalism) and loyalty to the state (patriotism) reinforce one another in a seamless manner. The state is perceived as the political extension or expression of the nation, and appeals to the one trigger the same associations and emotions as do appeals to the other. The same blurring of the two loyalties is common in the case of a staatvolk, a nation which is sufficiently preeminent – politically, culturally, and usually numerically – that its members also popularly perceive the state in monopolistic terms as the state of our nation, even though other nations are present. (Examples include the Han Chinese, the Russians, and, at least prior to the very late twentieth century, the English.)

For people with their own nation-state and for staatvolk, then, nationalism and civic loyalty coincide and reinforce. But the overwhelming number of nations neither have their own state nor constitute a staatvolk. For them, civic and national loyalty do not coincide and may well conflict. And, as substantiated by the commonness of secessionist movements waged under the banner of national self-determination, when the two loyalties are perceived as being in irreconcilable conflict, nationalism has customarily proven the more powerful of the two loyalties.

In recognition of the unparalleled advantage that the nation-state enjoys over other forms of states for mobilizing the entire population under its jurisdiction, governments have adopted policies aimed at increasing national homogeneity. Although, in a very few cases, governments have permitted – in still rarer cases, even encouraged – a homeland-dwelling minority to secede, determination to maintain the territorial integrity of the state customarily places secession beyond governmental contemplation. More commonly, governments have pursued homogenization through what is currently called ”ethnic cleansing.” Genocide, expulsion, and population transfers, employed separately or in combination, are the usual means of achievement. Far more commonly, however, governments of heterogeneous states accept the current inhabitants of the state as a given and pursue homogenization through assimilationist programs. Such programs vary considerably in scope, complexity, intensity, ingenuity, degree of coerciveness/persuasion, envisaged timetable, and fervidity of the implementors. But programmed assimilation does not have an impressive record, as we are reminded by the history of the Soviet Union wherein national consciousness and resentment grew among non-Russian peoples despite 70 years of comprehensive and sophisticated governmental efforts to solve what was officially termed ”the national question.” As a result of such failures, an increasing number of governments have elected to shun the nation-state model in favor of programs seeking to peacefully accommodate national diversity through the granting of greater cultural and political autonomy to minority nations.



  1. Connor, W. (1994) Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  2. Tilly, C. (ed.) (1975) The Formation of National States in Western Europe. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.


Walker Connor