You are on page 1of 13

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 arecitizenship, 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 apeople. 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
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.
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
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
Stuart Hall notes five main ways in which the imagined community may emerge. See
Hall, pp. 613-615 for a fuller description.
 Narrative of the nation. This is the story that is told and retold from one
generation to the next. Associated with this may be stories, historical events,
great leaders, literature, symbols, and rituals. We consider ourselves as sharing
in these events and symbols, and this provides a way of lending "significance
and importance to our humdrum existence, connecting our everyday lives with a
national destiny that pre-existed us and will outlive us" (Hall, p. 613). E.g.
Jewish identity.
 Origins, continuity, tradition, and timelessness. For some, national origin
may be considered to be primordial and timeless, in the very nature of things,
existing from time eternal, always existing. This may be connected with race or
common ancestry. E.g. North American First Nations identities.
 Invented tradition. The rituals, symbols, practices, and stories may seem to be
old, but may be of very recent origin. The form in which the British monarchy
is celebrated is of very recent origin, but appears to be timeless. In Canada,
multiculturalism and bilingualism may by now seem timeless, although they
date from the 1960s. Canadian citizenship dates only from 1947 – before that
Canadians were considered British subjects.
 Foundational myth. The origins of the nation may be located in some specific
set of events that is of very distant history, one that is difficult or impossible to
verify. Jewish and Arabic origins have this characteristic. New nation-states
may create these, because they cannot claim long traditions that stretch back
into ancient history. Stories around the Fathers of Confederation are examples
of this. If Quebec establishes itself as an independent state, there will
undoubtedly be stories of this sort that emerge.
 Pure, original people. National origin may be traced to a few people – for
example, in Quebec the original 10,000 or so immigrants. Whether this group
has really maintained itself in pure form is very questionable, especially if the
time of origin is in the very distant past.
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.
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
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
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