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Contemporary Problems With The Nation

There is tension between nation as citizenship and as culture, but such tension is frequently manageable. In specific cases it is difficult to imagine how, in the foreseeable future, Israelis and Palestinians or Croats and Serbs, for example, could live peaceably together in one state. Equally, it is difficult to see how the world could be stably organized on a thoroughgoing ethnonational basis.

First, there are problems of creating many small states and coping with the geographical intermixing of different nationalities. Second, there is the theoretical problem of what constitutes a nation. Making the nation-state the political norm encourages minorities to formulate demands in the name of the nation. When does a distinct cultural feature qualify for recognition as a separate nation? For some theorists the answer lies not in ethnonational states but in enabling nationalities to live together in one state. One approach seeks to divide political authority between nationalities geographically through federalism or explicit division of powers at the state level. Another approach is to entrench nationality rights on issues such as language, education, and worship. An alternative to these public recognitions of multiple nationalities is to make a firm public-private distinction, regarding nationality as a private cultural preference and the state as a secular and public authority above such preferences. All these policies confront severe problems and are matters of fierce political and intellectual debate.

For some the nation is banal, equated with existing state, society, and everyday life. For others it is under threat. For a few it is a prison they wish to leave. All these experiences are modern. The premodern political lineage of natio relates to populus; its premodern cultural lineage to gens. The rise of the sovereign, territorial, public, and participatory state made the question "Who are the people/nation?" acute. Once the argument that the nation was the sum of the citizens of the existing state proved inadequate, the search moved on to consider the claims of culture. Nation as a significant political concept represents a series of attempts to answer that modern question.


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John Breuilly

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mysticism to Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotideNation - Prepolitical Usages, The Nation And Political Authority, 1000–1500, Making Politics National, 1500–1800, New Ways Of Thinking About The Nation