GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

5.3 Nations, States, Cultures, and Identity


In order to understand how nations and nationalism operate, it is important to distinguish between nation, state, and ethnicity — all of which are key ideas that are important to understanding nationalism. To ensure that we’re all on the same page, we offer the following general definitions, with the caveat that the borders between some of these categories are sometimes fuzzy and mutable.


Of these concepts, state is perhaps the easiest to define, though there is no single, canonical definition, and different scholars emphasize different things. Storey, for example, thinks of states as “agencies with power over citizens within demarcated territory” (2012, p. 70) while Knight describes them as “a legal and physical entity, with an effective system of government, [and] is a bounded container for the contents of a particular area, which includes the people, resources, and a means for communication and movement” (1982, p. 517). 

The Dictionary of Human Geography provides perhaps the most succinct definition when it defines a state as a “centralized set of institutions facilitating coercive power and governing capabilities over a defined territory” (Gregory et al., 2009, p. 722). Ultimately, following Mann (1984) and as summarized by Jones, Jones, and Wood, states consist of:

  1. a set of institutions and their related personnel;
  2. a degree of centrality, with political decisions emanating from this centerpoint;
  3. a defined boundary that demarcates the territorial limits of the state;
  4. a monopoly of coercive power and law-making ability. (2004, p. 20)


In contrast to states, which are legal entities consisting of both institutions and territory, nations consist of people, and it is difficult to pin down exactly what constitutes a nation. Again, without a single, canonical definition, we turn to a few sources, who characterize nations varyingly as “social collectives with an attachment to a certain territory” (Storey, 2012, p. 70); as a “product of nationalism” that is “treated by nationalists as the naturalized geo-historical foundation for national community” (Gregory et al., 2009, pp. 486-487); or, in the words of Benedict Anderson (1991), as socially constructed “imagined communities” of people who share a sense of belonging to a broader group even though they recognize that they will never meet everyone within it. 

As Antonsich (2017) explains, there are longstanding debates regarding how and when nations formed. There are two major sets of stances with regard to the development of nations: primordial or essentialist stances, and modernist stances. While we see the merits of both positions, we embrace a modernist position, arguing that nations are constructed through discourses of nationalism generated and reproduced by states.


It is likely that the term ethnicity is familiar to you in some way, especially if you are from the United States and know your family’s history of immigration. Like nation, ethnicity is difficult to define clearly; nation and ethnicity are sometimes used interchangeably, and there may be considerable overlap between them. We often use ethnicity to refer to a person’s ethnic origins — i.e., the cultural affiliations of one’s ancestors, which typically reflect the language(s), customs, religion(s), cuisine(s), and practices that they associate with a particular place, and which have been passed down through generations. This is particularly the case in the United States, where, due to waves of immigration over centuries, many people claim an American nationality but an ethnic heritage that is something else and which may be expressed in a hyphenated fashion (e.g., Irish-American, Syrian-American, Chinese-American, African-American, etc.).

Distinguishing between nation and ethnicity

For our purposes, we will distinguish between nation and ethnicity thus: we will consider the nation a primarily political identity (with cultural elements), and ethnicity a primarily cultural identity (though one that can be politicized). That is, to bear a national identity may be to have citizenship in the state associated with that nation, or to desire self-determination (as is the case with stateless nations like Kurdistan). National identities are implicated in the desire for control over territory.

By contrast, to bear an ethnic identity is to claim a connection to a particular culture and the place of its origin, but not necessarily to the state in which that culture is dominant (if indeed there is one). While there may be an attachment to a place that is associated with a given ethnicity, that attachment may be more cultural and historical than actively political — that is, even while representations of that territory may be culturally or symbolically significant, there might not be a desire to inhabit or participate in the political control of that territory.

Nations, states, culture, and identity

It is tempting to think of nations as collectives that change little over time, as groups that consistently identify with a clearly bounded territory. Yet from a modernist standpoint, nations are a relatively recent and politically charged construction that developed alongside the states. And states themselves are dynamic; borders change, internal conditions — both physical and social — change, and interaction between states (e.g., conflict, trade partnerships, etc.) can lead individuals to migrate to other places.

Transnational migrants provide an important example of how nations can become spatially fragmented or diasporic — and consequently give us reason to question the essentiality of identity. People who migrate across borders take their national and cultural identities with them, creating networks between places in the process. For individuals who retain citizenship in their home country, living abroad may reinforce their national identity (even if they don’t necessarily approve of aspects of their home country’s government). Migrants who have a limited or exceptional legal status (e.g., a Green Card in the case of the US) may find themselves regularly reminded of their national identity by the legal requirements of their host state.

A diaspora is:

A scattering of people over space and transnational connections between people and places. The term was first used to describe the forced dispersal of the Jews from Palestine in the sixth century BCE, and often continues to refer to forced migration and exile. More recently, and particularly since the 1990s, diaspora studies have come to encompass wider notions of transnational migration, resettlement, connection and attachment, often closely associated with post-colonial and ‘new ethnicities’ research. (Gregory et al., 2009, pp. 158-159)

It is through diaspora and transnational migration that we recognize that people’s national (and ethnic) identities may not be “pure.” The networks that transnational migrants create between places can also reflect the development of hybridity within identity — that is, “a blending of one’s old identity along with a newer identity imposed or resulting from a major move” (Kaplan & Chacko, 2015, p. 134). Hybrid identities suggest an internal, individual-scaled tension between one’s attachments to homeland and host state, and this tension suggests a fluidity of identity.

The implication here is that, although it is tempting to consider national identity as monolithic and unchanging at the scale of the nation itself, there is nothing inherently stable about national identity at the scale of the individual.


Antonsich, M. (2017). Nation and nationalism. In J. Agnew, V. Madouh, A. J. Secour, and J. Sharp (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell companion to political geography (pp. 297-310). Wiley Blackwell.

Additional References:

Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. (2nd ed). Verso.

Gregory, D., Johnston, R., Pratt, G., Watts, M. J., and Whatmore, S. (2009). The dictionary of human geography. Wiley-Blackwell.

Jones, M., Jones, R., and Woods, M. (2004). An introduction to political geography: Space, place and politics. Routledge.

Kaplan, D. H., and Chacko, E. (2015). Placing immigrant identities. Journal of Cultural Geography, 32(1), 129-138.

Knight, D. B. (1982). Identity and territory: Geographical perspectives on nationalism and regionalism. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 72(4), 514-431.

Mann, M. (1984). The autonomous power of the state: Its origins, mechanisms and results. European Journal of Sociology, 25(2), 185-213.

Storey, D. (2012). Territories: The claiming of space. Routledge.