What Makes a Nation?

Shelley Rigger, East Asian Studies and Political Science, Davidson College

Humans have organized themselves into clans, kingdoms, tribes, empires and countless other forms. In recent centuries we have organized ourselves into nation-states. Today, almost no one lives beyond the reach of a national government. This seminar asks what constitutes a “nation,” how nations are constructed, and how different types of nations hold together.

What makes a nation? Territory? Ancestry? Politics? Identity? Is nationhood rooted in primordial identities, or is it constructed by societies in the process of living together? We will explore this question through theories of nationhood and nationalism and examples from around the world. The seminar leader will provide theoretical readings for the early sessions, but the decision about what countries we want to look at as examples of nation-state formation will be made by the Fellows, based on their interests and the content of their curriculum units.

The seminar will introduce theories that explain how humans decide who is “in” and who is “out.” We’ll also look at how political institutions develop in conjunction with this “us and them” thinking. We’ll look at psychology to get some ideas about how group identity and belonging work, as well as ideas from anthropology and history that seek to explain how nations and national identities develop. We all know that states use laws, institutions and ideologies to define and shape national identities and promote nationalism, but in this seminar we will also pay attention to the ways literature and the arts help to create and strengthen the nation.

We’ll also spend some time thinking about what happens when a “nation” is not homogeneous. We’ll look at how multi-ethnic countries create a sense of nationhood, how immigration both challenges and reinforces national identity, and how nations within nations negotiate complex identities. Finally, we will consider how ideas about nationhood and nationalism work (or don’t work) today, when migration, immigration and globalization are huge trends pushing back against the traditional nation-state.

These links provide a sense of the theory we might read: