A nation is a human cultural and social community. In as much as most members never meet each other, yet feel a common bond, it may be considered an imagined community. One of the most influential doctrines in Western Europe and the Western hemisphere since the late eighteenth century is that all humans are divided into groups called nations. Nationhood is an ethical and philosophical doctrine and is the starting point for the ideology of nationalism; a nation is a form of self-defined cultural and social community. Members of a "nation" share a common identity, and usually a common origin, in the sense of history, 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. Though "nation" is also commonly used in informal discourse as a synonym for state or country, a nation is not identical to a state. The people of a nation-state consider themselves a nation, united in the political and legal structure of the State. While traditionally monocultural, a nation-state 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, "scattered" or "sown 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 theory called Urrecht, in which history is brought to bear to legitimise present occupancy: Phoenicianism and Zionism are two such historicised nation-building doctrines. National founding myths are etiological legends that when examined in historical contexts are found to answer quite specific issues, which generated them. Especially in Canada the term "First Nations" is used for groups which share an aboriginal culture, and have or seek official recognition or autonomy.
In the strict sense, terms such as "nation", "ethnos", and "people" (as in "the Danish people") denote 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 instance, 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 recognised 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 or home countries - 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 a very few people who live there 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, among others, had understood it as inclusive of all Quebecers, irrespective of their ethnic origin. The use of the French word Québécois is also an historical recognition to the French people who colonized along the Saint Lawrence River the French colony of Canada for four hundred years.
Nationalism is a term referring to a doctrine or political movement that holds that a nation, usually defined in terms of ethnicity or culture, has the right to constitute an independent or autonomous political community based on a shared history and common destiny. Most nationalists believe the borders of the state should be congruent with the borders of the nation. Extreme forms of nationalism, such as those propagated by fascist movements in the twentieth century, hold that nationality is the most important aspect of one's identity, while some of them have attempted to define the nation in terms of race or genetics.
Nationalism has had an enormous influence on Modern history, in which the nation-state has become the dominant form of societal organization. Historians use the term nationalism to refer to this historical transition and to the emergence and predominance of nationalist ideology. Nationalism is closely associated with patriotism.
The combining form nātiōn‑ is built on the past participle form (g)nāt‑us "having been born" of the verb (g)nāscī "to be born". Thus it is also related closely to the Latin derived words "native", "nature" and more remotely to the native English words "kin", "kindred" and "kind". It shares a common derivation from the Proto-Indo-European root *gen- "bear, generate, etc.
As an example of how the word natio was employed in classical Latin, consider the following quote from Cicero's Philippics Against Mark Antony in 44 BC. Cicero contrasts the external, inferior nationes ("races of people") with the Roman civitas ("community").:
"Omnes nationes servitutem ferre possunt: nostra civitas non potest."
("All races are able to bear enslavement, but our community cannot.")
An early example of the use of the word "nation" in conjunction with language and territory is provided in 968 by Liutprand, bishop of Cremona, who, while confronting Nicephorus II, the Byzantine emperor on behalf of his patron Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor, declared:
"The land...which you say belongs to your empire belongs, as the nationality and language of the people proves, to the kingdom of Italy.'" (Emphasis added.)
A significant early use of the term nation, as natio, was at mediaeval universities (see: nation (university)), to describe the colleagues in a college or students, above all at the University of Paris, who were all born within a pays, spoke the same language and expected to be ruled by their own familiar law. In 1383 and 1384, while studying theology at Paris, Jean Gerson was twice elected procurator for the French natio (i.e. the French-born Francophone students at the University). The division of students into a natio was also adopted at the University of Prague, where from its opening in 1349 the studium generale was divided among Bohemian, Bavarian, Saxon and Polish nations.
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 neighbouring nations. All of the characteristics can be disputed, and opposition to secessionist nationalism often includes the denial that a separate nation exists.
Primordialism argues that those shared characteristics has an ancient root, and nations are natural phenomena over different historical eras.
The question is: descent from whom? Often, the answer is simply: from previous generations of the same nation. More specifically:
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 recognised 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 in some cases than a genetic reality - but still sufficient for a national identity nevertheless. This national myth concept becomes even more complicated for nations whose populations are largely comprised of or descended from relatively recent immigrants.
Primordialism encountered enormous criticism after World War II, and scholars turn their eye on how nations are constructed by the process of nationalism, which is driven by technology and modernization. Nation is not defined by what common characteristic is shared, by instead by how it is constructed.
On the other hand, Eric Hobsbawn argues nations are invented tradition, include invention of education, public ceremonies and mass production of public monuments. The nations are defined by those invented traditions.