Question frishta Politics & International Relations

The concept of nationhood

What is a nation? Where does this term come from?

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Answer Expert #735

There are varying definitions of the term 'nation'. At the most basic level, it can be defined as a collective or large group of individuals that are bound together and therefore unified by commonalities like language, ethnicity, habits, behaviours and customs. However, national identities are highly complex and this raises significant questions of what may actually constitute a nation in practice rather than theory. For example, Smith (1999) argues that a nation is built upon myth and memory because these elements forge a collective purpose, hence inducing a sense of belonging that all too often inspires the 'nation' to defend its identity. Stalin (1913, n. pag.) asked what a nation was in his text Marxism and the National Question, noting that nationhood goes beyond tribal and racial origins, instead advocating that a nation must be a "...historically constituted community of people", thus situating the idea firmly in historical, political and social discourse that extends into the past. However, it should be noted that the term itself is not a modern one. Instead, it can be traced back to the 14th century where it referred to a series of concepts that extend from the idea of descendants, countries and birth (Harper, 2001). In effect, the structure of the idea behind it has always been complex but has evolved alongside understandings and attitudes towards what constitutes a nation. Despite that, the notion of unification has remained constant, with Egypt essentially being identified as the first nation as a direct result of the shared ethnic background, cultural consensus and unification on which it as built (Gat, 2013). In effect, the concept of a nation existed for several millennia prior to the actual term.


Gat, A., (2013). Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harper, D., (2001). Nation. Online Etymological Dictionary. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 15 November 2016].

Smith, A., (1999). The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Oxford: Blackwell.

Stalin, J., (1913). Marxism and the National Question. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 15 November 2016]