4.1 Defining Nation-States

The term nation refers to a homogeneous group of people with a common heritage, language, religion, or political ambition. A state is an organized political community acting under a government. States may be classified as sovereign if they are not dependent on, or subject to, any other power or state. States are considered to be subject to external sovereignty, or hegemony if their ultimate sovereignty lies in another state. A federated state is a territorial, constitutional community that forms part of a federation. Such states differ from sovereign states, in that they have transferred a portion of their sovereign powers to a federal government. A location claimed by a sovereign state is called a territory.

To understand the differences between state and nation, consider an example like Poland. The people of Poland have long formed a nation with a shared language and culture, but that nation has, through history, been crosscut by various political borders. Thus, at times, members of the Polish nation have been governed by different states. Today, Poland’s boundaries roughly align with the geographical area where the people of the Polish nation live, and thus Poland can be thought of as a nation state.

States may be classified as sovereign if they are not dependent on, or subject to, any other power or state. Other states are subject to external sovereignty or hegemony where ultimate sovereignty lies in another state. A federated state is a territorial and constitutional community forming part of a federation. Such states differ from sovereign states, in that they have transferred a portion of their sovereign powers to a federal government. When people of the same nation and state come together, there is a true nation-state, wherein most citizens share a common heritage and a united government.

The concept of the state is different from the concept of government. A government is a particular group of people that controls the state apparatus at a given time. In other words, governments are the means through which state power is employed; for example, by applying the rule of law. The rule of law is a legal maxim whereby governmental decisions are made by applying known legal principles. The rule of law is rule not by one person, as in an absolute monarchy, but by laws, as in a democratic republic; no one person can rule and even top government officials are under and ruled by the law.

The concept of the state is also different from the concept of a nation, which refers to a large geographical area, and the people therein who perceive themselves as having a collective identity. The state is a political and geopolitical entity; the nation is a cultural or ethnic entity. The nation-state is a state that self-identifies as deriving its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign entity for a nation as a sovereign territorial unit. The term nation-state implies that the two geographically coincide.

In classical thought, the state was identified with political society and civil society as a form of the political community. In contrast, modern thought distinguishes the nation-state as a political society from civil society as a form of economic society. Civil society is the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests. It is sometimes considered to include the family and the private sphere and then referred to as the third sector of society, distinct from government and business.


A colony is a territory that is controlled by a sovereign state. European powers focused on establishing settlements and political power around the world by imposing their military, economic, political, and cultural influence through colonialism. Colonialism is control of previously uninhabited or sparsely inhabited land. Europeans used colonialism to promote political control over religion, extract natural resources, increase economic influence, and to expand political and military power. The European states first colonized the New World of the Americas, but later redirected their focus to Africa and Asia. This colonial expansion across the globe is called imperialism. Imperialism is the control of territory already occupied and organized by an indigenous society.

Theories of a State

State Formation and the Centralization of Power

Today we take it for granted that different societies are governed by different states, but this has not always been the case. Since the late nineteenth century, virtually the entirety of the world’s inhabitable land has been parceled up into areas with more or less definite borders claimed by various states. Earlier, quite large land areas had been either unclaimed or uninhabited, or inhabited by nomadic peoples who were not organized as states. In fact, for most of human history, people have lived in stateless societies, characterized by a lack of concentrated authority, and the absence of significant inequalities in economic and political power.

The first known states were created in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, the Americas (e.g., Aztec civilization, Inca civilization). Most agree that the earliest states emerged when agriculture and writing made it possible to centralize power durable. Agriculture allowed communities to settle and also led to class division: some people devoted all their time to food production, while others were freed to specialize in other activities, such as writing or ruling. Thus, states, as an institution, were a social invention. Political sociologists continue to debate the origins of the state and the processes of state formation.

Most political theories of the state can roughly be classified into two categories. The first, which includes liberal or conservative theories, treats capitalism as a given and concentrates on the function of states in a capitalist society. Theories of this variety view the state as a neutral entity distinct from both society and the economy.

Marxist Theory

Marxist theory, on the other hand, sees politics as intimately intermingled with economic relations, and emphasizes the relationship between economic power and political power. Marxists view the state as a partisan instrument that primarily serves the interests of the upper class. Marx and Engels were clear that communism’s goal was a classless society in which the state would have “withered away. ” For Marxist theorists, the role of the non-socialist state is determined by its function in the global capitalist order. Marx’s early writings portrayed the state as “parasitic,” built upon the superstructure of the economy and working against the public interest. He believed that the state mirrored societal class relations, that it regulated and repressed class struggle, and that it was a tool of political power and domination for the ruling class.


Anarchism is a political philosophy that considers states immoral and instead promotes a stateless society, anarchy. Anarchists believe that the state is inherently an instrument of domination and repression, no matter who is in control of it. Anarchists believe that the state apparatus should be dismantled entirely and an alternative set of social relations created, which would be unrelated to state power.


Pluralists view society as a collection of individuals and groups competing for political power. They then view the state as a neutral body that enacts the will of whichever group dominates the electoral process. Within the pluralist tradition, Robert Dahl developed the theory of the state as a neutral arena for contending interests. He also viewed governmental agencies as merely another set of competing interest groups. The pluralist approach suggests that the modern democratic state acts in response to pressures that are applied by a variety of related interests. Dahl called this kind of state a polyarchy. Pluralism has been challenged on the ground that it is not supported by empirical evidence.

Hydraulic Civilization

According to one early theory of state formation, the centralized state was developed to administer large public works systems (such as irrigation systems) and to regulate complex economies. This theory was articulated by German American historian Karl August Wittfogel in his book 1957 Oriental Despotism. Wittfogel argued that most of the earliest states were formed in hydraulic civilizations, by which he meant civilizations where leaders controlled people by controlling the water supply. Often, these civilizations relied on complex irrigation systems that had to be centrally managed. The people, therefore, had good reason to give control to a central state, but in giving up control over the irrigation system, they also gave up control over their livelihoods and, thus, the central state gained immense control over people in general. Although Wittfogel’s theory is well known, it has also been criticized as inaccurate. Modern archaeological and anthropological evidence shows that many early societies were not as centralized, despotic, or unequal as the hydraulic theory would suggest.

Coercion, War, and the State

An alternative theory of state formation focuses on the rise of more modern nation-states and explains their rise by arguing they became necessary for leveraging the resources necessary to fight and defend against wars. Sociologist Charles Tilly is the best-known theorist in this tradition. Tilly examined the political, social, and technological change in Europe from the Middle Ages to the present and attempted to explain the unprecedented success of the nation-state as the dominant form of state on Earth. In other words, instead of asking (like Wittfogel) where the very first states came from, Tilly asked where the types of states with which we are most familiar came from, and why they became so prevalent.

According to Tilly’s theory, military innovation in pre-modern Europe (especially gunpowder and mass armies) made war extremely expensive. As a result, only states with a sufficient amount of capital and a large population could afford to pay for their security and ultimately survive in a hostile environment. Thus, the modern states and its institutions (such as taxes) were created to enable war-making.

Rationalization and Bureaucracy

Another theory of state formation focuses on the long, slow, process of rationalization and bureaucratization that began with the invention of writing. The Greeks were the first people known to have explicitly formulated a political philosophy of the state, and to have rationally analyzed political institutions. In Medieval Europe, feudalism furthered the rationalization and formalization of the state. Feudalism was based on the relationship between lord and vassal, which became central to social organization and, indeed to the state organization. The Medieval state was organized by Estates, or parliaments in which key social groups negotiated with the king about legal and economic matters. Since then, states have continued to grow more rational and bureaucratic, with expanding executive bureaucracies, such as the extensive cabinet system in the United States. Thus, states have evolved from relatively simple but powerful central powers to sophisticated and highly organized institutions.

Future of States

This article describes globalization as the increasing flows of “people, financial resources, goods, information, and culture.” As you read this article, consider the following questions:

  • How does globalization represent a threat “from above” to the traditional institution of the nation-state?
  • Do the growing influence of multilateral agencies and global governance erode state power? Why or why not?
  • What do you think are the cultural implications of globalization? How will this impact the power of the nation-state?


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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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