Difference between state and nation (comparative table and examples)

We explain how a State and a nation differ, the origin of each concept, how they manifest themselves and various examples.

difference between state and nation
Nations can exist without the institutionality of the State, such as the Kurdish nation.

What is the difference between state and nation?

We often use the terms state and nation (and even people and country) interchangeably, as if they were synonymous. Although they can be in colloquial contexts, each one has a specific meaning that should be understood.

A country is a well-defined piece of the earth’s surface and inhabited by a population (a “people”) that shares social, cultural, political and historical traits to some extent. There are 194 sovereign countries, internationally recognized as such, but there are also unrecognized countries, which can be contradictory, since to be a country requires international recognition and sovereignty over its own territory.

It is there where the difference between state and nation is evident. For a State to exist, there must be political and social institutions that govern life in the territory in question and that are recognized by its inhabitants.

The States operate through a system of government (usually with executive, legislative and judicial public powers) and are governed by a body of laws that is commonly known as the National Constitution, that is, a founding document of the State.

In this way, a State is the set of institutions that support the government and the law, and that they therefore have sovereignty over a given territory. For example: who defends the borders of the territory of a country? The armed forces, which are part of the state. All sovereign countries are also states.

But the matter is more complex. In the same country, subject to the same State, there may be several nations: groups of people who possess a cultural, linguistic, religious and historical heritage different. Although they are forced to abide by the same laws and answer to the same institutions (again, to the same state), it can be said that they are members of different nations.

This is the case of plurinational States, in which members of different nations share the same citizenship (that is, the same nationality) and are part of the same country. The opposite case is also possible: different states whose population can be included in the same nation, due to the fact that they share important identity traits.

In conclusion, it is possible to summarize the differences between state and nation as follows:

It is a political concept, which refers to the institutions that make a country work.It is a sociological concept, which refers to the set of citizens who share cultural, historical and social traits.
They exist in a formal way and enjoy sovereignty over a specific territory.They are very varied and do not always have autonomy or territorial sovereignty.
It is about the institutional form that a nation takes.It is about the sociocultural and ethnic heritage with which a State identifies itself.
It manifests itself in a set of laws, agencies and political entities.It manifests itself in a set of traditions, socio-cultural practices and a language.
It has a historical-political originThey have a sociocultural origin

State and nation examples

Any of the sovereign countries of the planet are an example of a State, no matter how rich or poor they are, how many or few people they have, or how much international power they may exercise. As long as they possess territorial sovereignty and are capable of legally governing their citizens, they are considered as such: the French State, the Mozambican State, the Nicaraguan State, the American State, etc.

In contrast, the concept of nation is much more comprehensive. can we talk about the different nations that make up Bolivia, for example, and that respond to the same formal State: the Aymara nation, the Baure nation, the Araona nation, all of local origin and heirs of pre-Columbian peoples.

Or we can also talk about the kurdish nation, whose ethnic, linguistic and historical features distinguish it, but it inhabits a territory over which they have no autonomy: the limits of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, four different states. Therefore, there is no Kurdish state, as it does not have sovereignty or institutions, but the Kurdish nation or the Kurdish people do.