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7.6: Nationality

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    In this section, we will discuss group membership and identity as historians and political scientists are more likely to view them. Although their interests overlap somewhat with those of sociologists, the main focus of historians and political scientists is somewhat different. Rather than taking the “microscopic” view that seeks to divide a larger culture into constituent subcultures, political scientists tend to take a more “macroscopic” view. Political scientists, in other words, are more interested in exploring how the various subgroups of society relate to the larger political units of the world. Rather than dwelling on subcultural identities, they are more likely to inquire into national identities and the implications this may have for international relations. Let’s shift our focus then from ethnicity to nationality.

    Our everyday understanding of nationality is that it refers to the particular country whose passport we carry. But this is a loose way of speaking. According to International Law, nationality refers to membership in a nation or sovereign state (“Nationality” 2013). Before elaborating further, it will be useful to clarify some terms that are often wrongly taken to be synonymous: country, nation, and state. These are terms that have more precise meanings in the disciplines of history, political science, and international relations than they do in everyday discourse. The non-expert uses terms like country and nation with little reflection, but feels perhaps a bit uncertain about the term state. Let’s define these terms as the political scientist uses them.

    First, what is a country? A country is simply a geographic area with relatively well-defined borders. Sometimes these borders are natural, e.g., a river or mountain range. But often they are best thought of more abstractly as lines on a map.

    A nation is something entirely different. A nation is not a geographical entity. Instead, it is a group of people with a shared identity. Drawing on the opinions of various scholars, Barrington (1997: 713) has suggested that many definitions seem to converge on the idea that nations are united by shared cultural features, which often include myths, religious beliefs, language, political ideologies, etc.). Unfortunately, this definition of nation has much in common with the definition of an ethnic group. What is the difference? Some scholars believe the difference is only a matter of scale, e.g., that an ethnic group is simply a smaller unit than a nation but not otherwise different in kind. Others insist that because nations imply a relationship to a state, in a way that that of an ethnic group usually does not, it is important to make a clear distinction between ethnic groups and nations (Eriksen, 2002: 97). In other words, as Barrington further emphasizes, in addition to shared cultural features, nations are united in a belief in the right to territorial control over a national homeland.


    The stateless Kurds occupy the border regions of five countries

    What then is a state? First, let’s note that by the term state, as we are using it here, we do not mean the subdivisions of a country, as in “Utah is one of the 50 states of the United States.” Instead, we mean the main political unit that provides the means by which authority is exercised over a territory and its people. In other words, the state, as we are defining it here, refers to the instruments of government, including things like a military to counter external threats, a police force to maintain internal order, and various administrative and legal institutions.

    Finally, one sometimes encounters the term nation-state. This refers to an ideal wherein a country, nation, and state align perfectly. However, as Walby (2003: 531) has pointed out, perfect examples of the nation-state are rarely found in the real world where “there are far more nations than states.” In fact, nations sometimes spill over the territorial boundaries of multiple states. For example, the Kurds, who can be found in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia, can be seen as a nation without a state. Because they involve territorial claims, efforts on the part of some Kurds to establish an autonomous state are resisted by the governments of Turkey and others, sometimes leading to violent conflict.


    Also stateless are the Palestinians in Israel

    Another example of a stateless nation involves the case of the Palestinian people currently living in the state of Israel. Prior to 1948, the land in question had been occupied by Palestinian Arabs. But in 1948, the state of Israel was established, the result of a complicated set of post-World War II arrangements negotiated principally by old European colonial administrators, in particular for Palestine, Great Britain. These arrangements made it possible for many Jews returning from war-torn Europe to have a Jewish homeland for the first time in 2000 years. At the same time, many Palestinian people found themselves pushed by the newcomers from homes where their families had lived for generations.

    Indeed, the conditions under which Israel was established in 1948 sowed the seeds of perpetual conflict, the details of which are too complicated to summarize here. However, the result has been that Israel has become an economically prosperous modern nation-state, and Israelis on the average have thrived. Palestinians, on the other hand, have found themselves dispossessed, oppressed, and robbed of the possibility of national self-determination. For decades, many Palestinians, and indeed most international observers have called for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, a “two state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such a solution, however, would require anti-Israel partisans to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and guarantee her security, and it would require Israel to hand over some coveted territories.

    As the above discussion suggests, one reason that issues of national identity are complicated is because the relationships between nationhood, ethnicity, country, territory and state are extraordinarily complex.

    This page titled 7.6: Nationality is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Nolan Weil (Rebus Community) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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