What Is Nation? The transformation of its definition

Scholars have long tried to shape the definition of the term.

2 min readAug 22, 2020


Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

By Charlotte Lee

After World War I, the United States’ president at that time, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, announced the “Self-determination” protocol in his Fourteen Points, and further startled the awareness of different ethnicities in self-governing. Since then, the definition of “nation” as a term in international relations has been debated without a concrete conclusion.

As a relatively new terminology, “nation” can often be perceived as an imagined and invented concept, which is partially proved accurate by ideologies such as Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities and different perspectives of Modernism such as Eric Hobsbawm and Eric Gellner. However, there are distinct flaws, if put in today’s scheme, in their theories. Furthermore, adding up with Anthony D. Smith’s National Identity, where ethnosymbolism is illustrated, one can understand that nations nowadays are more than mere imagination.

Benedict Anderson illustrates his theory of “imagined communities” by suggesting that even though no individual can meet every one of the rest of his or her nation throughout a lifetime, they perceive themselves as being in the same political unity. Later on, Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm further comment that cultures are thus invented due to the needs of nationalism, and the elites manipulate the formations of nations through a top-down process. However, there is a prominent fallacy in the previous statement.

The concept of nations has been widely accepted by international society nowadays, and nationalism has served as a powerful connection amid us. Thus, it is unconvincing to state that nations came from sheer imagination and human creation; they owe to have foundations to some extent. Therefore, Smith exemplified the definition of nations to a broader degree. In which, he concludes that it requires a territory, public cultures, historical memories, economy, and regulations, to form a nation. This perspective of ethnosymbolism offers a better explanation of why the idea “nation” can be quickly adopted after World War I and thus led to the risings of numerous state-nations at the time. Although ethnosymbolism may not serve as the perfect answer to how nations are formed, it does shed light on a fact: nations are more than imagined and invented communities.

This article is written by Charlotte Lee. Visit themockingjay.net for more articles.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Mockingjay.




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