Sociology 304

January 26, 1999

Definitional Issues – Nation, People, State, Nation-State, Ethnicity


A. Introduction

Basic to Kymlicka’s analysis are concepts such as nation, nationalism, national minority, people, culture or national culture, ethnicity, polyethnicity, ethnic groups, and immigrant groups . Culture will be examined in greater detail later, although it is strongly connected to the other concepts. These terms and concepts have been subject to great practical and theoretical confusion, and they are important in the life and struggles of minority groups. The different approaches to defining and discussing these illustrate the manner in which different individuals and groups conceive of and analyse issues related to minority group social and political issues.

Related to these terms are state and nation-state. Sometimes these mean the same thing, although the latter are more likely to invoke the idea of geographic territory. Further terms that need to be considered are citizenship, nationalism, and patriotism. Additional terms that enter the discussion are race, blood, and tribe and there are undoubtedly many other similar terms in English and in other languages.

Kymlicka notes that "according to the United Nations’ Charter, ‘all people have the right to self-determination’. However, the UN has not defined ‘peoples’, and it has generally applied the principle of self-determination only to overseas colonies, not internal national minorities" (p. 27). In the UN statement, the meaning of both people and self-determination are problematic, and subject to considerable argument – what -does it mean to be a people, and what does self-determination imply.

Self-determination has sometimes been interpreted to mean a separate state or national independence, as in the case of colonial struggles against the colonial government (Algeria, Kenya, a Kurdish state, a Kashmiri state). In other cases it might imply some means to increase self-government over a fairly narrow range of issues such as education or administration of justice. Or it could imply special representation rights for a national minority in a national assembly – for example, 10 per cent of the seats reserved for members of the national minority (see Kymlicka, pp. 147-149 on the separate electoral list for Maori voters in New Zealand). What self-determination implies is that a group or people will have the ability to determine how they are governed. As Kymlicka notes (pp. 116-118), the group may want to federate with other groups (Switzerland, Canada, Belgium, Czechoslovakia until recently) or even assimilate or integrate into the majority culture (new immigrants, the Amana colonies in Iowa). With respect to both Quebec and aboriginal people in Canada the issue of the meaning of self-determination is an important one, and one whose outcome cannot be assumed. That is, self-determination may imply national independence, but there are many other possible outcomes.

Kymlicka does not discuss these as fully as he might, although in the process of presenting examples, many of the meanings and implications of these become apparent. The initial discussion is on pp.11-26, where he makes his important distinction between national minorities and polyethnicity. Multiculturalism might be used as a general term to include both national minorities and ethnocultural groups, but many multicultural policies might apply only to the latter. In addition, it is important to note that different principles must be used to examine the claims of national minorities and immigrant, ethnocultural groups. Further note that while multiculturalism has sometimes been used to include cultural groups such as women, gays, or disabled people, in Multicultural Citizenship, Kymlicka does not include these new social movements as part of his analysis (p. 19). In his 1998 book, Finding our Way, Kymlicka devotes one chapter to an analysis of the new social movements and considers how their claims might be examined and evaluated.


B. Nation, People, and State

Nation has sometimes been considered to be identical with state and these two concepts have become merged in nation-state. Hobsbawm notes that the development of nations was a relatively recent historical development. In the American and French revolutions, the meaning of nation was more or less the same, and during this period in the late eighteenth century and through much of the nineteenth century, "nation = state = people" was the common implication (Hobsbawm, p. 19). He notes that "early political discourse in the United States referred to "‘the people’, ‘the union’, ‘the confederation’, ‘our common land’, ‘the public’, ‘public welfare’, or ‘the community’ in order to avoid the centralizing and unitary implications of the term ‘nation’ against the rights of the federated states" (Hobsbawm, p. 18). Note that many of the national struggles during this period were against kings, lords, the aristocracy, or the church. Hobsbawm draws the conclusion that the nation was "the body of citizens whose collective sovereignty constituted them a state which was their political expression. For, whatever else a nation was, the element of citizenship and mass participation or choice was never absent from it" (Hobsbawm, pp. 18-19).

A state, or what we might more loosely call a country, tends to be defined on a territorial or geographic basis, as occupying a specific geographic territory with definite boundaries. The concept of the state also has a political meaning in terms of there being a government that governs this territory and the citizens in it. At the level of the state, there is government, political authority, a judicial system, a clearly defined geographic territory, and sovereignty of the state. In the Marxist tradition, the concept of state is often used to refer primarily to this political authority.

Citizenship is the means by which people are part of the state or are attached to the state. That is, in contemporary states such as the United States of Canada, it is citizenship, rather than tradition or ancestry, that makes the individual a part of the state, and is the means by which the individual belongs to the state. Laws or rules that define who is and who is not a citizen are established. For example, the first Canada Citizenship Act was passed by Parliament in 1947, when Canadians were first considered to be Canadian citizens, not British subjects. The Citizenship Act was revised in 1977, and is currently being modified and revised again, to take effect in 1999. Modern uses of the state, or nation-state, generally take this approach and for individuals, the meaning of state implies citizenship, along with citizenship rights, responsibilities, and obligations. This also means that within the rules established by the state concerning immigration, everyone in the state who meets the rules governing citizenship is a citizen, not just those having the proper ancestry. Some countries, such as Germany and Israel, are partial exceptions to this, in that they accord citizenship rights preferentially to ethnic Germans or those of Jewish ancestry, respectively. In any state, one of the problems is that many of the citizens may consider themselves to be part of the state more through tradition and ancestry than through citizenship, thus confusing nation and state.

One problem with using nation as identical to state, as in the nineteenth century nation-state, is that this ignores many of the cultural aspects that exist within the nation-state – the language, traditions, customs, history of a people. In fact, state as defined in the above paragraphs ignores the meaning of people, because there is no reason why people and state need have any connection with each other. Multination states can exist, for example Canada, Belgium, China, and the Soviet Union are or have been examples of states with several nations or peoples within them. Similarly, a people can cut across several nation-states. The Kurds are an example of the latter, with many members in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, and some in Syria and Armenia. Kurdistan may exist as a nation, but it is not a state. Hobsbawm notes that in the nineteenth century identity nation=state=people, "there was no logical connection between the body of citizens of a territorial state on one hand, and the identification of a ‘nation’ on ethnic, linguistic or other grounds or of other characteristics which allowed collective recognition of group membership" (Hobsbawm, p. 19).

Making the concept of nation identical with state may have made practical sense in the period of the building of the great nations such as Italy, France, Germany, Britain, and the United States, at least for the dominant national group that spearheaded the building of these new nation-states. But this approach ignored smaller groups which could rightly be considered peoples, but which did not have political strength or the means of forming their own nation-state. This may have been because of the small size of the group, because of oppression of the group, or because of the assimilation of the group.

In response to this problem, nationalism and national movements in the period 1880-1914 developed three characteristics, according to Hobsbawm. The changes were: (i) abandonment of the threshold principle of size – any body of people could be considered a nation, (ii) ethnicity and language became the central, decisive, and perhaps the only definition of nationhood, and (iii) nationalism sometimes was reactionary and became identified with patriotism and national symbols such as the flag. (See Hobsbawm, p. 102). While nationalism may have been somewhat in decline as a political force between the two world wars, there was a resurgence of nationalism as a political force after the second world war. Independence movements in Africa and Asia created many new independent states in the 1950s through the 1970s. The successful struggle waged by the Vietnamese against the United States and the civil rights movement in the United States were factors that gave new impetus to national minority groups around the world. In the 1970s, there were separatist movements among the Basques, Bretons, Québecois, Puerto Ricans, and many other national minorities in rich, industrial countries as well as in poorer countries. Some of these movements were successful in creating new nation-states, some were able to create greater regional autonomy for the national minority, some movements disintegrated, and others are still in existence.


C. Nation

This sets the stage for the list of definitions on the handout. The first is by the Austrian socialist, Otto Bauer, from 1907. His definition, along with that of Stalin’s, was an attempt to deal with the problem of oppressed peoples or peoples who wanted recognition. Both Bauer and Stalin were writing about the political situation in Central and Eastern Europe, where there were a great variety of national groups, many of them oppressed by other nations, old aristrocracies, or backward political regimes.

Bauer. ... the totality of people who are united by a common fate so that they possess a common (national) character. The common fate is ... primarily a common history; the common national character involves almost necessarily a uniformity of language. (Davis, p. 150).

Bauer’s concern was "how the several nationalities in the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary could receive their rights without exercising the ultimate sanction of secession" (Davis, p. 149). He considered it possible to have both nationalism and socialism, in fact, Bauer thought that capitalism prevented some national groups from expressing their character or fate. The development of socialism could lead to a flourishing of different national groups, each being able to express their national character. A state or country could have several national groups, and state and nation need not be identified together conceptually nor in practice.

Stalin took a similar approach, adding territory to the list of characteristics of a nation.

Stalin. A nation is an historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup manifested in a community of culture. (Quote from J. V. Stalin, 1913, from Davis, p. 163).

Nationality ... is not a racial or tribal phenomenon. It has five essential features: there must be a stable, continuing community, a common language, a distinct territory, economic cohesion, and a collective character. It assumes positive political form as a nation under definite historical conditions, belonging to a specific epoch, that of the rise of capitalism and the struggles of the rising bourgeosie under feudalism. (Based on J. V. Stalin, Marxism and the National Question, 1913 from Bottomore, p. 344).

In contrast to Bauer, Stalin was concerned with incorporating some of the national groups into what would be the Soviet Union. In general, he was opposed to national-cultural autonomy, looking on it as a route to secession. This may explain why he adds territory to the list of characteristics. While he favoured national self-determination, he generally looked on nationalism as bourgeois.

For both Bauer and Stalin, the ideas of character and psychological makeup are problematic in that they might be thought of as inherent parts of the national group. Because of his stature within the Soviet Union and the world communist movement, Stalin’s definition has often been repeated and used in other parts of the world. National liberation movements in Africa and Asia, influenced by socialism and communism, have often tried to bend their characteristics to match the definition of Stalin.

Current definitions of nation usually come quite close to the definition of Stalin. Note that even Kymlicka’s definition of nation is fairly similar to that of Stalin, although the notion of national character or psychology is replaced with a contemporary understanding of the meaning of culture.

Kymlicka. ... ‘nation’ means a historical community, more or less institutionally complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and culture (p. 11).

The approaches of Bauer and Stalin tend toward using a relatively objective set of characteristics, although each has a subjective component (national character or psychological makeup). While some aspects of these definitions are not so clear, many contemporary definitions of nation have a checklist of characteristics that must be met to establish the definition of a people or nation. The approach of Kymlicka goes beyond this, in identifying culture as a primary aspect of nation.


D. Imagined Communities or Groups

Benedict Anderson provides a different type of definition. His approach is similar in some ways to Weber’s definition of an ethnic group. Weber noted that practically any characteristic (skin colour, belief in a common descent, adherence to teachings of a charismatic leader) could serve as a basis for defining the ethnic group. That is, the belief in one of these characteristics, and the common political and social action connected with this belief, could result in the formation of an ethnic group. Weber’s definition applies more to ethnic groups within a nation-state than to the whole nation, and he was more concerned with social action of a specific form than is Anderson. But the implication of both is that any characteristic could become the basis for formation of a group or people.

Anderson. ... it is an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. ... all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined. (Anderson, p. 6).

For Anderson, the notion of imagined is important. National identity is not something that is inherent in the individual, but is "formed and transformed within and in relation to representation. We only know what it is to be ‘English’ because of the way ‘Englishness’ has come to be represented, as a set of meanings, by English national culture. ... a nation is not only a political entity but something which produces meanings - a system of cultural representation. ... People ... participate in the idea of the nation as represented by its national culture" (Hall, p. 612).

Anderson notes that the nation is imagined because "the members of even the smallest nation will never know each of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion" (Anderson, p. 6). It is limited because it is smaller than the whole of humanity, and it is sovereign in the sense of having sovereignty rather than being under the control of a king or external power. It may also be sovereign in the sense that the members of the nation imagine themselves to be able to exercise some control or direction over it, that is, the individuals are free, have rights, and are capable of exercising decision-making power within the nation. Finally, it is a community in that "the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship" even though there may be much inequality within it (Anderson, p. 7).


E. National Culture

While the nation, people, and national culture may be imagined, these do become important for some or all individuals. Whether or not this becomes part of individual or group identity varies considerably by individual and group, but there is no doubt that national culture is a way of thinking and talking about (i) ourselves, (ii) our relationships with others, and (iii) our relationship with the nation-state as a whole. For some, this may take on a very strong meaning and national identity may lead to patriotism or national chauvinism. Or it can take on a less political and more cultural meaning.

Stuart Hall notes five main ways in which the imagined community may emerge. See Hall, pp. 613-615 for a fuller description.

Regardless of the truth or falsehood of the above, these stories, myths, traditions, and common ancestry do have a powerful effect on people, and for many people do provide a source of culture, a way of connecting oneself to the wider society of which they are part. Kymlicka also shows how such culture is important for people as a means of organizing their lives and providing a context of choice.


F. National Minority

These different approaches may help us determine what a national minority is. Kymlicka notes how many countries wish to deny that they have national minorities and may try to claim that the national minority is just another ethnic group (p. 22). In Canada it is not really possible to make this claim and by any of the definitions of nation used above, aboriginal people in Canada and Québecois would seem to be nations, although Quebec itself may not be. This, of course, still leaves out the issue of exactly which characteristics do constitute those that are decisive, and it also does not answer the question of what types of rights these nations should have. Further, if the rights of self-determination belong to these national minorities, the exact political meaning or result of self-determination remains to be seen.

Kymlicka notes that the group may define itself on the basis of race or descent, but such claims are difficult to establish. With considerable intermarriage between members of the group and others who were not originally members of the national minority, such claims of descent are always somewhat questionable. What Kymlicka means when talking about national minorities is "cultural groups" (p. 23). He further notes that "descent-based approaches to national membership have obvious racist overtone, and are manifestly unjust" (p. 23). That is, membership would be denied to those without the proper genetic or ancestral credentials, and this is exclusionary.

In contrast, when the definition of nation is cultural, then membership in the nation should be open to "anyone, regardless of race of colour, who is willing to learn the language and history of the society and participate in its social and political institutions" (p. 23). Early aboriginal society seemed to be like this, although claims related to proper ancestry may be the favoured definition of some aboriginal groups.

For Kymlicka, national minorities can emerge on the basis of voluntarism or force. A voluntary federation of different national groups can create a multination state, and the different nations need not be minorities. Rather the different national groups could be joined together into a multinational federation where each group is on a relatively equal footing with other national groups. Switzerland and Belgium are often cited as the two main examples of this (p. 13), where the various groups have primarily allegiance to the nation-state, not the national group.

 In most cases of multinational federations, there was likely some element of coercion or force in the formation of the federation. The national minority would have been incorprated in the nation-state in some involuntary manner. Aboriginal people in Canada, Hispanics in the southwest of the United States, and Basques in Spain are examples of this. Over time, the minority group may assimilate or integrate, and in Europe this has often happened (e.g. Alsatians, Provencals, Occitans in France). Kymlicka notes that forced assimilation has often not worked well, and many of these national minorities have not given up their culture. Kymlicka points out how some Indian groups in the United States have persisted in the face of limits on the use of their language and customs, and "their status as self-governing ‘domestic dependent nations’ is now more firmly recognized. The determination they have shown in maintaining their existence as distinct cultures, despite these enormous economic and political pressures, shows the value they attach to retaining their cultural membership." (p. 79).


G. Ethnic Groups

Ethnic groups differ in various ways from national minorities in Kymlicka's conceptual model. While Kymlicka never really defines these, his definition would be little different from the standard definitions. He generally considers them to be ethnic groups to be immigrant groups or emerge from immigrants with a common origin (p. 30).

A definition of ethnicity may be even more complicated than that of nation, although generally of less importance, at least if Kymlicka is correct in his view that members of these groups wish to integrate with the wider society. Among the standard definitions are those of Gordon and Dashefsky, with Driedger providing a useful summary approach.  

Gordon. ... a group of individuals with a shared sense of peoplehood based on presumed shared sociocultural experience and/or similar physical characteristics. This includes national, linguistic, religious, and racial groups. (Based on Milton M. Gordon, Assimilation in American Life, 1964, from Driedger, p. 136). 

Dashefsky. Group identification is "a generalized attitude involving a personal attachment to a group and a positive orientation toward being a member of a group. Therefore, ethnic identification takes place when the group in question is one with whom the individual believes he has a common ancestry based on shared individual characteristics and/or shared sociocultural experiences." (Arnold Dashefsky, Ethnic Identity in Society, 1975, from Driedger, pp. 136 - 137). 

Driedger. In our discussion of ethnic identification we shall touch on six factors: ecological territory, ethnic culture, ethnic institutions, historical symbols, ideology, and charismatic leadership. (Driedger, p. 143). 

For Kymlicka, these definitions are to be attached to immigration and immigrants, because Kymlicka considers immigrant groups to become ethnic groups. A variety of immigrant groups coming to a country creates a polyethnic society. While we may consider these new immigrants to bring a different culture with them, and maintain a considerable portion of that culture, this has not meant "the establishment of distinct and institutionally complete societal cultures alongside the anglophone society" (p. 78). Rather, with industrialization, standardized education, an "official" language used in government agencies, and the importance of literacy in contemporary society, it is difficult for these new groups to maintain a separate language for all aspects of life for very long. Ethnic enclaves may assist in this, but it is likely that a second or third generation will wish to participate in the institutions of the country in which they live. If they are to do this, they must become familiar with the official or majority language and customs. In addition, if these individuals were born in the country, they may have no particular attachment elsewhere.


H. Unequal Relationships

Peter Li, of the Department of Sociology at the University of Saskatchewan, presents a different approach to the study and examination of ethnicity. Li notes the following. 

Li. Another approach to race and ethnicity is to examine them as consequences of unequal relationships, produced and maintained by differential power between a dominant and a subordinate group. According to this view, racial and ethnic groups are constructed on the basis of social relationships and are not based on genetic factors or primordial features. The focus is on the institutional framework within which groups are defined as racial or ethnic and how social interactions are organized accordingly. (Li, p. 23). 

Like Weber and Anderson, Li looks on culture as flexible and changing, not as primordial, genetic, or racial. More than these authors though, he focuses on inequality and oppression, looking on these in the countries of origin and destination.  

An example might be Vietnamese-Canadians. In Vietnam, the Vietnamese people had a particular culture historically, but French and U. S. imperialism in Vietnam may have disrupted some aspects of this. Certainly the character of Vietnamese culture in Vietnam changed somewhat as a result of Vietnam becoming a colony. Further, the war, periods in refugee camps, and the voyage to Canada, left their impact on the Vietnamese who came to Canada. Finally, the Vietnamese who came to Canada were not able to recreate their societal culture, with all the cultural practices and institutions they had in Vietnam. Rather, they began to find a place within the Canadian social structure, a structure having considerable economic and ethnic inequality. The manner in which they have integrated into this social structure and the manner in which they are viewed by others in the social structure constitute the "culture" of Vietnamese-Canadians. The resulting Vietnamese-Canadian culture has some connection with the original Vietnamese culture in Vietnam, but has also gone through much transformation.

Li also emphasizes the degree of variation in culture within each of the ethnic groups, arguing that there may be as much variety within each of these cultures as there is between the various cultures. For example, refugees from the civil war in El Salvador who came to Canada represent many different types of people. To call them all Salvadoran, and regard them as a single ethnic group with a common culture could be quite misleading. Some of the refugees who came to Canada were supporters of the army and the political regime in power in El Salvador. Other refugees were supporters of the rebels and may have been persecuted or tortured by the army or police. Still others may have not been involved in either side, but the civil war disrupted the normal life in El Salvador, so they decided to leave the country.


I. Visible Minority

In Canada, visible minority has come to acquire an official meaning for purposes of employment equity legislation. Further, this designation was requested on the 1996 Census of Canada. The definition is: 

Persons who are non-white in colour or non-Caucasian in race, other than Aboriginal people. These minorities are divided into ten groups: Blacks, Chinese, Filipino, other Pacific Islanders, Indo-Pakistani, Japanese, Korean, Southeast Asians, West Asians and Arabs, and Latin Americans.  

There are many problems with this definition of visible minority.

References for Notes of January 26, 1999:

Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1991.

Balakrishnan, Gopal, ed., Mapping the Nation, London, Verso, 1996.

Bottomore, Tom, ed., A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1983.

Davis, Horace B., Nationalism and Socialism: Marxist and Labor Theories of Nationalism to 1917, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1967.

Driedger, Leo, The Ethnic Factor: Identity in Diversity, Toronto, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1989.

Hall, Stuart "The Question of Cultural Identity," in Stuart Hall et. al., Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Blackwell, 1996.

Hobsbawm, E. J., Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Li, Peter S., Ethnic Inequality in a Class Society, Toronto, Thompson Educational Publishing, 1988.

Synnott, Anthony and David Howes, "Canada’s Visible Minorities: Identity and Representation," in Vered Amit-Talai and Caroline Knowles, Re-Situating Identities: The Politics of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture, Peterborough, Broadview Press, 1996.


Notes for January 26, 1999.


Back to Sociology 304 – Winter, 1999