A nation is more overtly political than an ethnic group; it has been described as "a fully mobilized or institutionalized ethnic group". Some nations are ethnic groups (see ethnic nationalism) and some are not (see civic nationalism and multiculturalism).
It is a cultural-political community that has become conscious of its autonomy, unity, and particular interests.
Benedict Anderson has characterised a nation as an "imagined community" and Paul James sees it as an "abstract community". A nation is an imagined community in the sense that the material conditions exist for imagining extended and shared connections. It is an abstract community in the sense that it is objectively impersonal, even if each individual in the nation experiences him or herself as subjectively part of an embodied unity with others. For the most part, members of a nation remain strangers to each other and will likely never meet. Hence the phrase, "a nation of strangers" used by such writers as Vance Packard.
Black's Law Dictionary defines a nation as follows:
nation, n. (14c) 1. A large group of people having a common origin, language, and tradition and usu. constituting a political entity. o When a nation is coincident with a state, the term nation-state is often used....
2. A community of people inhabiting a defined territory and organized under an independent government; a sovereign political state....
The word "nation" is sometimes used as synonym for:
Thus the phrase "nations of the world" could be referring to the top-level governments (as in the name for the United Nations), various large geographical territories, or various large ethnic groups of the planet.
Depending on the meaning of "nation" used, the term "nation state" could be used to distinguish larger states from small city states, or could be used to distinguish multinational states from those with a single ethnic group.
In her book Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300, Susan Reynolds argues that many European medieval kingdoms were nations in the modern sense except that political participation in nationalism was available only to a limited prosperous and literate class. In his book The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism, Adrian Hastings argues that England's Anglo Saxon kings mobilized mass nationalism in their struggle to repel Norse invasions. Hastings argues that Alfred the Great, in particular, drew on biblical nationalism, using biblical language in his law code and that during his reign selected books of the Bible were translated into Old English to inspire Englishmen to fight to turn back the Norse invaders. Hastings argues for a strong renewal of English nationalism (following a hiatus after the Norman conquest) beginning with the translation of the complete bible into English by the Wycliffe circle in the 1380s, arguing that English nationalism and the English nation have been continuous since that time.
Another prudent example of Medieval nationalism is the Declaration of Arbroath, a document produced by Scottish nobles and clergy during the Scottish Wars of Independence. The purpose of the document was to demonstrate to the Pope that Scotland was indeed a nation of its own, with its own unique culture, history and language and that it was indeed an older nation than England. The document went on to justify the actions of Robert the Bruce and his forces in resisting the occupation and to chastise the English for having violated Scottish sovereignty without justification. The propaganda campaign supplemented a military campaign on the part of the Bruce, which after the Battle of Bannockburn was successful and eventually resulted in the end of England's occupation and recognition of Scottish independence on the part of the English crown. The document is widely seen as an early example of both Scottish nationalism and popular sovereignty.
A significant early use of the term nation, as natio, occurred at Medieval universities to describe the colleagues in a college or students, above all at the University of Paris, who were all born within a pays, spoke the same language and expected to be ruled by their own familiar law. In 1383 and 1384, while studying theology at Paris, Jean Gerson was elected twice as a procurator for the French natio. The University of Prague adopted the division of students into nationes: from its opening in 1349 the studium generale which consisted of Bohemian, Bavarian, Saxon and Silesian nations.
In a similar way, the nationes were segregated by the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, who maintained at Rhodes the hostels from which they took their name "where foreigners eat and have their places of meeting, each nation apart from the others, and a Knight has charge of each one of these hostels, and provides for the necessities of the inmates according to their religion", as the Spanish traveller Pedro Tafur noted in 1436.
In his article, "The Mosaic Moment: An Early Modernist Critique of the Modernist Theory of Nationalism", Philip S. Gorski argues that the first modern nation was the Dutch Republic, created by a fully modern political nationalism rooted in the model of biblical nationalism. In a 2013 article "Biblical nationalism and the sixteenth-century states", Diana Muir Appelbaum expands Gorski's argument to apply to a series of new, Protestant, sixteenth-century nation states. A similar, albeit broader, argument was made by Anthony D. Smith in his books, Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity and Myths and Memories of the Nation.
In the late 20th century, many social scientists argued that there were two types of nations, the civic nation of which France was the principal example and the ethnic nation exemplified by the German peoples. The German tradition was conceptualized as originating with early 19th-century philosophers, like Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and referred to people sharing a common language, religion, culture, history, and ethnic origins, that differentiate them from people of other nations. On the other hand, the civic nation was traced to the French Revolution and ideas deriving from 18th-century French philosophers. It was understood as being centered in a willingness to "live together", this producing a nation that results from an act of affirmation. This is the vision, among others, of Ernest Renan.
Present day analysis tend to be based in socio-historical studies about the building of national identity sentiments, trying to identify the individual and collective mechanisms, either conscient or non-conscient, intended or un-intended. According to some of these studies, it seems that the State often plays a significant role, and communications, particularly of economic content, also have a high significance.
There is an ongoing debate about the future of nations - about whether this framework will persist as is and whether there are viable or developing alternatives.
The theory of the clash of civilizations lies in direct contrast to cosmopolitan theories about an ever more-connected world that no longer requires nation states. According to political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, people's cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world.
The theory was originally formulated in a 1992 lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, which was then developed in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article titled "The Clash of Civilizations?", in response to Francis Fukuyama's 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man. Huntington later expanded his thesis in a 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.
Huntington began his thinking by surveying the diverse theories about the nature of global politics in the post-Cold War period. Some theorists and writers argued that human rights, liberal democracy and capitalist free market economics had become the only remaining ideological alternative for nations in the post-Cold War world. Specifically, Francis Fukuyama, in The End of History and the Last Man, argued that the world had reached a Hegelian "end of history".
Huntington believed that while the age of ideology had ended, the world had reverted only to a normal state of affairs characterized by cultural conflict. In his thesis, he argued that the primary axis of conflict in the future will be along cultural and religious lines. Postnationalism is the process or trend by which nation states and national identities lose their importance relative to supranational and global entities. Several factors contribute to its aspects including economic globalization, a rise in importance of multinational corporations, the internationalization of financial markets, the transfer of socio-political power from national authorities to supernational entities, such as multinational corporations, the United Nations and the European Union and the advent of new information and culture technologies such as the Internet. However attachment to citizenship and national identities often remains important.
Jan Zielonka of the University of Oxford states that "the future structure and exercise of political power will resemble the medieval model more than the Westphalian one" with the latter being about "concentration of power, sovereignty and clear-cut identity" and neo-medievalism meaning "overlapping authorities, divided sovereignty, multiple identities and governing institutions, and fuzzy borders".
A nation is at once an objectively abstract society of strangers, usually connected by a state, and a subjectively embodied community whose members experience themselves as an integrated group of compatriots.