Nation (lat. natio – people) is a concept widely used in science and politics, which denotes the aggregate of citizens of one state as a political community. Hence the notion: “the health of the nation,” “the leader of the nation,” “national economy,” “national interests,” etc. In the political language, nations are sometimes simply called states. Hence the concept of the “United Nations” and many terms in the sphere of international relations. The members of the nation are notable for their common citizenship (e.g., Americans, British, Spanish, Chinese, Mexicans, Russians), a sense of common historical destiny and a single cultural heritage, and in many cases a common language and even religion.
The concept of civil, or political, nation was established in Europe in the era of the French Revolution (in the Middle Ages, nations were called the nations of the earth). In order to oppose the divine origin of monarchical power to the idea of a civil society that has the right to create a state, to possess sovereignty and control power. The concept of “nation” was widely used in the era of the formation of modern states instead of feudal, dynastic and religious political entities. In the states of modern times, together with the affirmation of unified management, market and mass education, cultural and linguistic uniformity were extended instead of local identity or along with it, general civil and legal norms, and at the same time a common identity. So there were nations in Europe and the regions of immigrant colonies (North America, Australia, New Zealand), as well as in Latin America on the basis of the colonies of Spain and Portugal. In Asia and Africa, the concept of “nation” was borrowed from Europe, especially during the decolonization and formation of sovereign states in the 20th century.
Civil nations have been and remain multi-ethnic entities (except small island states) with varying degrees of cultural and political consolidation. The overwhelming majority of nations include several, and sometimes tens and hundreds of ethnic communities speaking different languages and professing different religions (e.g., American, Indian, Malaysian, Canadian, Chinese, Nigerian, Swiss). Usually, the language and culture of the most numerous ethnic community acquire the dominant (and sometimes official) status in the civil society – the state, and the culture of small groups or groups of immigrant populations, called minorities (see Minority ethnicity), is assimilated and discriminated against. According to national laws and international legal norms, minority representatives are equal members of nations and usually consider themselves as such (Indian peoples and naturalized immigrant groups in the Americas, Corsicans and Bretons in France, Scots, Irish, Welsh in England, Quebecers, Indians, Eskimos , immigrant groups in Canada, non-Han peoples in China, non-Russian peoples in Russia).
In a number of countries where the ideology and practice of ethnic nationalism or racism is prevalent, demographically and (or) politically dominant ethnic communities exclude others from the concept of “nation” and even deny citizenship to indigenous (non-immigrant) inhabitants of the country, translating the situation (incl. by legislative means) into the distinctive “nation and minority” scheme or considering the latter to be “stateless” or “colonized”. This is especially true for a number of post-Soviet states, in which the number of those who do not belong to the category of a nation can reach half of the country’s population and make up the majority of its capital’s inhabitants (e.g., in Latvia).
Unlike previous eras, when the orientation toward the cultural homogeneity of a nation prevailed through the mechanisms of assimilation, in recent decades, due to more intensive immigration, the growth of local identities and group (ethnic) self-awareness, cultural heterogeneity and the ethnorrational diversity of European nations (for example, the British, Germanic , Italian, French). This process was promoted by democratization and social movements in defense of human rights and minorities that unfolded in the world from the beginning. At the same time, modern states are taking directed efforts to form a common citizenship identity and preserve the integrity of the nation, including through the policy of cultural pluralism and various internal forms of self-determination (cultural and territorial autonomy). Instead of the idea of a “melting pot”, the formula “unity in diversity” is more often the symbolic formula of modern nations. The idea of national self-determination and a nation-state on an ethnic basis still retains some positions, but in countries experiencing post-communist transformations, it has increased markedly.
Ethnic, regional and religious differences and inequalities, as well as the nature of the social order and political regime of individual states, can cause crises and conflicts right up to the split of the nation into new national formations-states. For these reasons and under the influence of the ideology of ethnic nationalism in the end of 20 century several multiethnic civil nations disintegrated. Instead of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, more than 20 new polyethnic civil societies emerged, where a complex process of formation of new nations is taking place. At the same time, two cultural-related and previously state-divided civil nations in the GDR and the FRG were united into one German nation, which includes a number of ethnic and immigrant minorities (Serbs, Russian Germans, Turks, Croats, etc.). Within civil societies, political and armed movements of separatism or irredentism can occur on an ethnic (tribalist), religious or regional basis. Such movements exist in many countries of the world (Great Britain, India, Spain, Italy, Canada, China, Sri Lanka, many African countries), and they represent the main threat to the integrity and peaceful development of civil nations. After the collapse of the USSR, such movements, including in the form of an armed recession, emerged in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Russia.
It is also common to understand the nation as an ethnic community or ethnonational (in the domestic tradition – as a type of ethnos), which is understood as a historically emerging and stable ethnosocial community of people with a common culture, psychology and self-awareness. The concept of a cultural nation has origins in the ideology of Austro-Marxism and Eastern European Social Democracy and has spread in the 20th century, in the process of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires. After World War I, multiethnic states of Eastern Europe, as well as Finland, were formed on the basis of the doctrine of national self-determination.
In the USSR, the communist doctrine and regime adopted the notion of ethnonational and internal “national-state construction,” which was reflected in the administrative structure of the country (territorial autonomies of different levels for the main non-Russian peoples) and other forms of institutionalization of “socialist nations and nationalities.” During the existence of the USSR, the social construction of many Soviet nations took place on the basis of administrative-state formations and due to the abolition or weakening of former local, linguistic, religious and other differences (Azerbaijani, Georgian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek and other cultural nations). However, there was an all-Russian (all-Soviet) identity and a historical and political community in which the ideology of Soviet patriotism and the doctrine of the single Soviet people replaced the doctrine of the civil nation. Ethnic communities (peoples) were called nations, and in fact the existing civil nation was called the Soviet people. This understanding has been preserved in this region of the world and up to now.
Ethnic nationalism has become one of the important causes of the collapse of the USSR, and it also poses a threat to civilian national construction in the post-Soviet states. Some new states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine) are aware of the need to shift to the concept of a civil nation that is beginning to be affirmed alongside or instead of the concept of ethnonation. However, in post-Soviet states, ethnic nationalism, especially on behalf of the so-called titular nations, maintains powerful positions in the socio-political discourse and serves as a means of political mobilization, ensuring priority access to power and resources.
In Russia, based on the doctrine of the “multinational people” and the practice of ethnic federalism, cultural nations have political and emotional legitimacy. The complex coexistence of two concepts of the nation takes place in many polyethnic countries: at the level of the state and the official language, the concept of the civic nation as a means of consolidating co-citizenship is used primarily; at the level of ethnic communities the concept of a cultural nation as a means of protecting its interests, political mobilization and protection of collective cultural identity from the threat of assimilation or discrimination by the state and the dominant culture is used to a greater degree. The multi-valued use of the concept of “nation” is becoming more common in contemporary socio-political discourse, although its ethnic meaning is not recognized by international legal norms and norms of most states of the world.
The scientific content of the concept of “nation” is the subject of lengthy and unproductive discussions, despite the participation of many prominent scientists and publicists in the past (I. Herder, O. Bauer, M. Weber), and in modern social science (D.Armstrong, B.Anderson, U. Konnor, E.Smith). In world science, there is no accepted definition of a nation, especially if it is about its borders, membership in it, or about a nation as a statistical category. Nevertheless, until recently in the social sciences, the understanding of the nation as a real community dominated and maintained its positions.
In this case, the nation is viewed as a collective individual (or body), possessing basic needs, (self) consciousness, a common will and capable of a single and purposeful collective action. One of such needs is to ensure the conditions for its preservation and development, and this desire implies the desire for autonomy and independence in the form of a separate “national state”. The phenomenon of nationalism, in this case, appears as a socio-political phenomenon, in which nations are the main authors. Realist (or substantial) ontologization of the nation exists not only in naive sociology and political science, but also in a more professional social discourse that is still accompanied by attempts to give a scientific definition of this concept.
This vision of the nation is not limited only to the indication of primordial, deep roots, ancient origins and the special spiritual strength of national feelings. The ontological view is in fact shared by many supporters of the modernist and constructivist approaches that view the nation as the result of the industrialization and spread of “print capitalism“, as a result of unequal development, growth of communication and transport networks and, finally, as a result of the powerful integrating influence of the modern state (i.e. not nations create a state, and the state creates nations). Substantial approach is not limited only to a view of the nation as an “objective reality”, i.e., a community having general objective characteristics (language, religion, etc.), but it also includes the subjective factors of the national community, such as, for example, a common myth, historical memory or self-consciousness. For even in this case, the nation is understood as a socially constructed, but still existing group. In the last decade of the 20th century, some new approaches in social theory contributed to a departure from the treatment of social coalitions (groups) as real, substantial communities. This is primarily an interest in the so-called network forms and the growing use of the “network” category as a guiding image or metaphor in theory and concrete research. In the theory of rational action, the emphasis is placed on individual behavior strategies and a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of groupness. There is a noticeable departure from structuralist views, in which the group was viewed as an initial component of the social structure, instead of the concept of “group”, the constructivist concept of “groupness” is used as a constant property of people to unite, which manifests itself differently, is constructed depending on the context. Finally, postmodern approaches have become widespread, which focus more on fragmentation, ephemeral and erosion of rigid forms and clear boundaries of social groups.
It is becoming increasingly evident that the modern substantive approach to understanding the nation takes the category of “practice” as an analytical one. The idea of the nation, contained in the practice of nationalism and the activity of the modern system of states, as a real community, is transferred to the sphere of science and becomes central to the theory of nationalism. It is this phenomenon of the reification of the nation as a social process, as an event, and not only as an intellectual practice, noted by a number of modern authors (F. Bart, R. Brubaker, R. Sunni, P. Hall, G.-R. Wicker, T.-H.Eriksen). In the light of this approach, the nation can be viewed as a semantic-metaphorical category that has acquired emotional and political legitimacy in modern history, but which has not and can not be a scientific definition. In turn, a national as a collectively shared image and nationalism as a political field (doctrine and practice) can exist without recognizing the nation as a truly existing community.