What is a country if it’s not a nation?

by Rashmee

Posted on March 21, 2022



Photo by Andrew Stutesman on Unsplash

Novelist Marina Lewycka’s musings about the ancient nature or not of Ukraine made me think about countries, nations, peoples and races.

What is a country if it’s not a nation, as American anthropologist Clifford Geertz once asked in an eponymous paper for ‘The Brown Journal of World Affairs’.

What indeed?

And what is a people without a country?

In his paper, Mr Geertz noted that we use some words interchangeably about “the elementary building blocks of global political order”. We say nation, state, country, society, people as if they mean the same thing. In actual fact, they have “a disturbing ambiguity built into their range, intent, and definition.”

France, Hungary, China, Cambodia, Mexico, Ethiopia, Iran or Portugal are just a few examples of nations that are states, countries, societies and peoples, all of these at once. But most other countries, nations, states and peoples have different layers of attainment of these identities.

For, all these descriptive terms have different “inward meanings”, said Mr Geertz. A nation means “blood, race, descent, and the mysteries and mystifications of biological alikeness”. A state is about “political and civic loyalty and the indivisibilities of law, obedience, force, and government”. A country is about “geographical aggregation, territorial demarcation, and the sense of origin, home, and habitat”. A society is about “interaction, companionship, and practical association, the encounter of persons and the play of interests”. And a people is about “cultural, historical, linguistic, religous, or psychological affinity—a quiddity of spirit”.

It is not accurate, Mr Geertz says, to conflate the conception of “the biological, the governmental, the territorial, the interactional, and the cultural”. There are not  “equivalent and substitutable expressions of the same reality (they) represent different sorts of solidarities and affiliations, grow out of different imaginings, different aspirations, and different fears”.

Perhaps Ms Lewycka has a point?

Click here, here, here and here to read the others in this series.

Tomorrow: Countries, nations and states. Where does Palestine fit in?


Rashmee has lived and worked in several countries in the past decade, including Afghanistan, India, Haiti, Tunisia, the UAE, US and UK

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