In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nation-Building

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works: Concepts and Definitions
  • Seminal Case Studies

International Relations Nation-Building
Harris Mylonas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 September 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0217


Nation-building may be defined as the process through which the boundaries of the modern state and those of the national community become congruent. The desired outcome is to achieve national integration (Reference Works: Concepts and Definitions). The major divide in the literature centers on the causal path that leads to national integration. Thus, nation-building has been theorized as a structural process intertwined with industrialization, urbanization, social mobilization, etc. (Structural Explanations); as the result of deliberate state policies that aim at the homogenization of a state along the lines of a specific constitutive story—that can and often does change over time and under certain conditions (State-Planned Policies); as the product of top-bottom processes that could originate from forces outside of the boundaries of the relevant state; and as the product of bottom-up processes that do not require any state intervention to come about (Contingency, Events, and Demonstration Effects). Since the emergence of nationalism as the dominant ideology to legitimate authority and the template of the nation-state as an organizational principle of the international system, state elites have pursued different policies toward the various unassimilated groups within their territorial boundaries (Seminal Case Studies) with variable consequences (Nation-Building and Its Consequences). Thus, scholars have suggested that the nation-building experience of each state—or lack thereof—has had an impact on patterns of State Formation and Social Order, Self-Determination Movements, War Onset, and Public Goods Provision.

Reference Works: Concepts and Definitions

The concept of nation-building cannot be understood without the help of certain key concepts such as the nation, national identity, nation-state, and nationalism. The term “nation” has been defined by multiple philosophers, scholars, and practitioners. These definitions range from essentialist ones that reify certain characteristics as purely national ones (Herder 2004, Fichte 2008) to more constructivist ones highlighting collective ascription as a key element for the existence of a nation (Renan 1995, Anderson 1983). Tension exists between scholars who see the emergence of modern nations as a natural outgrowth from centuries of development and those who understand national identity as a modern social construct. Naturally, most nationalists themselves adopt a primordialist understanding of nationhood but prominent scholars also highlight the ethnic origins of modern nations (Smith 1986). Modernization scholars (Gellner 2006, Anderson 1983) and, later on, various strands of constructivists (Laitin 2007, Brubaker 1996) have pointed out the limitations of the primordialist view. The view of nations being the natural outgrowth of premodern ethnies often assumes phenotypical commonalities that do not correspond to realities on the ground. Moreover, constructivists echo Renan’s critique that shared ethnic attributes do not necessarily mean a shared national identity or imply anything about loyalty to a nation. Finally, a primordialist perspective that essentializes attributes cannot help us explain identity change (Laitin 2007) or the timing of “national awakenings.” Regardless of the definition of the nation and debates about the origins of nationalism, most scholars agree that nationalism—the “political principle which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent” (Gellner 2006, see p. 1)—is one of the most potent ideologies in modern times. In fact, what differentiates an ethnic group from a stateless national group is the fact that the former is not motivated by a nationalist ideology, namely the belief that the world is divided into national units (“nation-states”), that the primary loyalty should be to the nation and not to the family, the kinship group, or some other local or supranational unit, accompanied by a claim to sovereignty over a territorially bounded homeland. Nationalism takes different forms depending on the position that the group making the claim to sovereignty currently occupies in relation to other groups (Hechter 2000).

  • Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

    Anderson introduces an influential definition of nationalism that focuses on the constructed nature of nations, calling them “imagined communities.” He defines the nation as an imagined impersonal community, defined by its common history and perceived distinctiveness, that is believed to exercise the collective right to sovereign control over a given territory.

  • Brubaker, Rogers. Nationalism Refrained: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511558764

    Brubaker’s theme is the nationalization of the political sphere. He highlights the dynamic interaction in the triadic nexus involving national minorities, nationalizing states, and external national homelands. The three entities are far from fixed according to Brubaker, who invites us to stop treating the “nation” as an entity and approach it as “an institutionalized form.”

  • Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Addresses to the German Nation. Edited and translated by Gregory Moore. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    Fichte (1808) defined the nation by objective criteria such as shared attributes. For Fichte, language is a natural phenomenon. Indeed, the possession of a shared language defines the natural boundaries of a Volk or a Nation. Fichte’s writings developed in reaction to the occupation of German territories by Napoleon’s forces.

  • Gellner, Ernest. Nations and Nationalism. 2d ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.

    This pathbreaking book was originally published in 1983. Gellner famously defined nationalism as “primarily a political principle that holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent” (p. 1). He emphasized the role of industrialization in the emergence and spread of nationalism through the introduction of mass schooling and assimilation into a high culture.

  • Hechter, Michael. Containing Nationalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Hechter defines nations as “territorially concentrated ethnic groups” (p. 14). He focuses on the transition from indirect to direct rule and identifies different types of nationalism: State-Building Nationalism, Peripheral Nationalism, Irredentist Nationalism, Unification Nationalism, and Patriotism. Hechter, echoing Gellner, defines nationalism as “a collective action designed to render the boundaries of the nation congruent with those of its governance unit” (p. 15).

  • Herder, Johann Gottfried. Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings. Edited and translated by Ioannis Evrigenis and Daniel Pellerin. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2004.

    This is a reliable English translation of Herder’s writings from the second half of the 18th century. Herder argued that “Nature raises families; the most natural state is therefore also one people, with one national character. Through the millennia, this national character is maintained within a people and can be developed most naturally if its native prince so desires, for a people is as much a plant of nature as a family, only with more branches” (p. 128). He is considered as one of the fathers of romantic nationalism.

  • Laitin, David. Nations, States, and Violence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Laitin defines the nation as a population with a coordinated set of beliefs about their cultural identities whose representatives claim ownership of a state for them by dint of that coordination either through separation, amalgamation, or return. Benefits of coordination explain the stickiness of these national identities.

  • Renan, Ernest. “What Is a Nation?” In The Nationalism Reader. Edited by Omar Dahbour and Micheline R. Ishay, 143–155. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995.

    This is an English translation of a lecture that Renan gave in 1882 at Sorbonne University. It presents one of the first coherent and thorough critiques of the romantic nationalist view. Renan reviews the most common markers used to define nations in Europe, such as race, dynasty, language, religion, and geography, and discusses their limitations. For Renan, “the existence of a nation is a daily plebiscite” (p. 154).

  • Smith, Anthony D. The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

    Smith has famously engaged Gellner’s claim that “any old shred and patch would do” for the purposes of constructing a nation. Smith, instead, highlights the importance of ethnic roots in the formation of nations. He takes issue with the emphasis on the exclusively modern quality of nations and argues that most nations have premodern origins in the form of long-standing cultural symbols that are building blocks for modern nation-building.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.