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The Misuse of the Term “Nation State” (Roger Pearson)

The Misuse of the Term “Nation State”

Roger Pearson

The author argues that the clarity of discourse is lost by the misuse of the terms “nation” and “nation state,” attributable to ignorance of the evolutionary history of human society. He maintains that human social organization evolved from pair-binding and the family, and thence through an elaboration of kinship ties to the emergence of larger societies that were relatively homogeneous, both genetically and culturally, and which are properly known as nations. The term “nation-state,” originally devised to refer to a nation that enjoyed a degree of self-government and political autonomy, has increasingly come to be used in recent decades to describe any geographically-delineated political aggregate of individuals living, willingly or unwillingly, under a common government – no matter how varied their biological origins, culture or personal value systems. He regards this terminological misuse as a significant affront to clarity of thought because societies which are united by common values and a belief in common, shared origins, are more able to live together in harmony and to be willing to sacrifice personal interest for each other’s good than those which lack such unifying sentiments.

It is generally accepted that human social organization evolved from pair-bonding. Pair-bonding led to the emergence of families, and beyond families, kinship ties formed a basis for the regulation of behavior in larger tribal societies, and to a lesser extent in the much larger societies which we know as nations. Nations have been defined as human populations that share, or at least believe that they share, a substantially common history, culture, and ancestry.

As such, the term “nation state” was originally devised to refer to a nation that occupied a distinct territory and enjoyed a high degree of political autonomy. However, in recent decades the term has been increasingly applied to any geographically-delineated political aggregate of individuals living under a common government, no matter how varied their biological origins, culture or personal value systems. This results in so much ideological confusion, and I felt it desirable to once again invite attention to this contradiction in thought, drawing largely on an explication of social evolution first presented not less than thirty years ago in my Introduction to Anthropology (1974).2

The Origins of Human Society

While nonhuman primates tend to respond to sexual stimuli with very direct and largely unrestrained biological responses, human societies heavily restrict sexual behavior according to elaborate conventions, and it has been suggested that under these circumstances much of the emotional energy associated with sex tends to be sublimated into other activities. But the practice of pair-bonding leads among humans to something even more important than this. It leads to the institutionalization of the family, a social group comprising in its simplest form the original pair-bonded adults plus their offspring.

Anthropologists and sociologists still debate the ideal definition of the term family, but all agree that in some way the idea of the family combines the idea of pair-bonding with the concept of the household, as a cooperating economic unit. The evolutionary history of the family as a social institution makes this clear. The pair-bond is a form of cooperation which developed because it promoted the survival chances of the offspring. A family may therefore best be defined as a social group comprising one or more males linked by a socially recognized set of mutual obligations and privileges to one or more females, together with their offspring, who face the problem of survival as a joint enterprise.

The human family is the basic unit in a more complex network of community ties. As memory developed among our hominid forebears, so the pattern of behavior learned in infancy tended to be preserved into adulthood. Baboon infants lose their special relations with their mother as they grow into adulthood; and of course they know no father. On the other hand, chimpanzees, which have been speculatively equated with an early hominoid level of behavior, reveal a partial extension of infant patterns of behavior into adulthood in the apparent development of incest prohibitions that prevent the adult male from attempting sexual relations with his own mother. The further development of memory among our own hominid ancestors resulted in a still greater projection of attitudes learned during childhood into adulthood.

The slow but significant evolution of speech among hominids would also tend to promote the conventionalization of patterns of learned behavior, not only through the exchange of ideas but also by the invention of fixed labels for particular individuals. Labels such as “mother,” “father,” “sister,” and “brother” which are learned in infancy continue to be used in adulthood, and thus perpetuate into adulthood the patterns of affection, trust, and mutual obligation acquired during infancy. As adults, human males and females continue to be guided by the social rules learned in infancy. In contrast to most nonhuman primate societies, in which old age incapacitates individuals in the struggle for dominance and submission, the human father may retain the loyalty of his children even in sickness and senility.

Patterns of affection and obligation develop between siblings as well as between parents and children, and as brothers and sisters grow up to marry and establish their own families, so eventually the entire community will tend to become interlaced by a pattern of learned roles, attitudes, and statuses. Thus a man’s brother becomes, in the course of time, an uncle to his children, and his brother’s children become his own sons” cousins. In this way not only did pair-bonding produce the family, but at the human level it also produced the concept of kinship. It effectively replaced intragroup conflict by intragroup cooperation substituting patterns of mutual obligations for dominance and submission as the basis of social order. Henceforth every hominid born into the group acquired at birth a set of privileges and obligations, a recognized niche in an integrated social system. Kinship had evolutionary value in that it replaced the principle of dominance, rooted in conflict, with an ascriptive system in which social order was ensured by a pattern of learned behavior – the rules and obligations implicit in kinship ties – acquired at birth; thereby transforming the hominid band into a more efficient team of cooperating individuals who faced the problem of survival as a joint venture. Kinship was a cultural innovation that had survival value, and those groups which first developed efficient kinship systems had superior survival chances over those that lagged in this respect.

Held together by a network of kinship privileges and obligations, earlier human societies saw kinship not as we see it. In kinship based societies kinship is not just another category of social behavior in the sense of political, religious, or economic relations. In such societies kinship implies almost every other kind of relationship known to society. It embraces them all. In such societies kinship is the bond that holds all the members of the society together, and defines their behavior and relationships completely. Traditional kinship obligations and privileges define the limits of all possible relationships between the members of the community.

Only when society becomes larger do we begin to find distinctive political institutions that are not an integral part of the kinship system. Political institutions may be described as socially approved processes for defining the norms of acceptable conduct, for allocating offices of leadership, for settling disputes, and for organizing group defense. In earlier human societies the kinship system took care of all this. Only at a higher level of social complexity do distinctive nonkinship Political Institutions begin to emerge. Government consequently emerges unheralded as local groups begin to grow in complexity, initially through an elaboration of the kinship system, and only later by the inauguration of political institutions separate from the kinship structure.

Band Societies

Thus the analogy of primate society, the evidence of archeology, and the study of surviving hunting and gathering societies all suggest that man’s primordial hominid ancestors lived in small territorially based communities long before they had evolved to Homo sapiens status. These early hominid territorial groups are known as Bands, to distinguish them from the nonhuman primate troop from which they probably evolved and from which they differ because the hominid habit of pairbonding and the resultant family pattern of social organization involves food sharing and a division of labor between the sexes.

At the simplest level these small human bands each represented a distinct Mendelian population, being primarily inbreeding and hence largely isolated from a genetic point of view, like nonhuman primate troops. Such predominantly inbreeding hominid territorial groups are known as endogamous Bands.

Each endogamous band is autonomous in its own territory, and roams around this territory more or less continuously in search of food. Although divided into families, each individual is linked to every other individual by ties of kinship and the bonds of close companionship. The principle of incest normally operates to prevent sexual relations between members of the same family unit, but the simple fact of distance causes the members of these bands to find a mate from another family within the band.

Band type societies are described as acephalous. They generally lack headmen or leaders. A person who shows particular talent may be listened to with respect, but each adult male, as the head of his own nuclear family, is essentially a free agent in his own right, bound only by the cultural traditions which oblige him to show loyalty and diffidence to his fellows, particularly to those who are senior to him in the kinship system. There is no sense of authoritative power in a band type of society in the sense that authority implies coercive power vested in any individual by the members of the group.

Truly endogamous band-type societies are rare in the contemporary world, although several peoples, such as the Yahgan are predominantly endogamous, only occasionally intermarrying with neighboring groups. But since nonhuman primate troops generally inbreed, it seems justifiable to suppose that at some earlier stage in the history of hominid social evolution predominantly endogamous bands were the rule rather than the exception.

It may be noted that baboon troops sometimes increase in numbers to the extent that they are forced to divide into two distinct troops, sending off a colony to occupy a neighboring territory. Human bands may also become too large for the territory they occupy and send off a colony to settle a new territory. But after baboon troops divide, they lose contact with each other, and even if the two troops subsequently meet at a common waterhole, they show no evidence of particular friendship or recognition. Gorillas and chimpanzees, by contrast, show signs of recognizing former associates; and at the human level, kinsmen and kinship ties are definitely remembered. Consequently when a human band sends off a detachment to colonize a neighboring territory the kinship ties may be preserved, and the two groups may retain any preexisting attitudes of sympathy and kinship. When the members of the two groups meet again, they will then do so with confidence, because they are meeting cousins and kinsmen who share a common language and a common folk tradition with them.

In such cases there will be no barrier to the exchange of young women as wives for each other’s sons, and should interband marriages take place, these reinforce the mutual ties between the bands for yet another generation. The exchange of womenfolk as wives serves to prevent the bands from drifting apart genetically, linguistically, and culturally, and intermarriage keeps them united in every way except economically. As the principle of incest operates, it may even become the rule to find a wife from a related and friendly neighboring group rather than from within one’s own group, also thereby reducing the possibility of tension and conflict arising out of rivalry over women within each separate territorial band. As among the Arunta of Australia, the result is a group of local bands each independent and autonomous in its own territory, but all held together by a common language, a common culture, and even by a common gene pool. Although the members of these bands may know nothing about genetics, they will know that they look alike, that they share descent from common ancestors, that they share common folk-memories or traditions, and that they are recognizably different from the members of alien bands speaking alien languages, whom they will treat with suspicion.

Interbreeding exogamous bands feel a sympathy for each other, not only because of the bonds of intermittent companionship, language, and culture that unite them, but also because regular intermarriage binds them tightly with kinship ties. In consequence, the members of a group of exogamous bands may sometimes unite to aid each other, as when under the pressure of an expanding population the territory of a related band is subjected to infiltration by newcomers. The members of band-type societies do not always fight to defend their territories. An Eskimo band whose territory is invaded by rival hunters usually pack their belongings and move on to a less crowded area rather than attempt to dispute against a more formidable group. But if the new territory is marginal land, providing less food, a bad year may eliminate the band that was ousted from the better territory. Because a group of cooperating exogamous bands constitutes a considerably more formidable body than a single endogamous band, the latter inevitably give way to exogamous bands. Only a few endogamous band-type societies have survived into this century, and these are mostly located, like the Yahgan, in the more remote corners of the earth.

Clans and Phratries

In the course of time, contiguity may decline as the prime determinant of exogamous bands, but when this happens they may continue to be linked by memories of kinship. Territoriality is the main principle behind the band, even though internal cooperation is ensured by kinship. However, as the population of the band increases it divides into two or more separate bands, and spread over a larger area, interband marriages will emphasize the role of kinship and kinship links often become a powerful social force promoting collaboration between kinsmen living in separate geographical locations. When this happens the members of an exogamous band will think of themselves as the members of a specific and identifiable kinship group, such as a clan.

By definition, a clan is a group of people who believe themselves to be bound to each other by reciprocal privileges arid obligations by virtue of descent from a common ancestor, real or imaginary. Phratries are simply larger kinship groups, comprising several clans. Clans always have distinguishing names, and this is often the name of the eponymous founding ancestor.

In the course of time a clan may be reproductively successful and proliferate, in which case it will likely send off new colonies to settle fresh lands adjacent to the parent territory, or in the case of ancient Greece, lands readily accessible by sea. Only a small number of families may be involved, and if for example the leader of one such colony is named Millan, and that of another sibling colony is named Donald, the succeeding generations may call be known as MacMillans (or descendant of Millan) and MacDonalds in their honor. Because the MacMillans and the MacDonalds share the same heritage of folklore, language, and culture, and because they will remember that they are related to each other, they will feel safe with and probably negotiate exogamous marriages, with MacDonald men marrying MacMillan women and vice versa. Many variations on this hypothetical pattern of naming and clan organization may arise, but the role of the descent group and of kinship identity as a basis of human social organization remains fundamental.


The concept of what constitutes a tribe is one of the most disputed in anthropology. It is generally accepted that a group of intermarrying exogamous bands as a tribe, provided that the members think of themselves as a kin-related group and share a common language, culture, and contiguous set of territories. It is agreed that a band is essentially a territorial unit, whereas the principle of the tribe is rooted in the principle of kinship rather than that of territory. It would seem reasonable, however, to distinguish between bands and tribes more clearly than this, by enquiring to what extent a degree of political integration of the component clans and other kinship groups may exist. Bands are essentially autonomous units; but in a political sense a tribe always has some established formula for coordinating the relationship between the member units. When territorially segregated clans cooperate regularly and establish a clan council to ensure a degree of cohesive unity between the component units, they may be regarded as a tribe. Such a council of clan or tribal elders may or may not elect a permanent chieftain, and may not in its simplest form have any coercive power; but even if it functions in a consultative sense only, once some kind of supraband coordinating mechanism exists, we have a politically cohesive tribal society.

The earliest tribal councils were still rooted in the concept of kinship. Thus among the Bantu tribes of Rhodesia, all government was essentially familistic at the village level. When an issue was to be decided, the male heads of families met to discuss the matter under the “chairmanship” of the village headman, a position which is usually hereditary, being equivalent to a clan or lineage chief. All decisions were taken unanimously. The idea of a majority group dominating a sulking minority is objectionable in a tight kin group. Such debates might take several days, but in the end, as the mood of the meeting becomes more clear, the minority would eventually cease to advance any objections they may have had and go along with the majority element, putting on as good a face as possible.

But tribal societies are not always the result solely of the proliferation and division of a single descent group. The obvious way in which a tribe can come into existence is, as we have just explained, by an increase in the original population, causing an expansion in area of settlement, which causes a single band to grow into a number of exogamous bands. As these become separate intermarrying clans, linked by a tribal council of clan chiefs and possibly by a tribal chieftain, we have what has been called a segmentary tribe – one that has come into existence in a classical pattern of expansion in numbers and territory, resulting in a segmentation of the original group into a number of intermarrying clans.

Such classical segmentary tribes are often reasonably equalitarian because all members share common ancestors. But tribes can also result from an amalgamation of different peoples. A population may expand and seize neighboring territories without eliminating the indigenous population. Sometimes they will intermarry with these, absorbing them into the gene pool, but if the dominant group subordinates the defeated peoples, treating them as inferiors, or even as slaves, and refusing to intermarry with them on a basis of equality or near equality, then a new situation will develop. While admitting the conquered people as inferior clans under their political hegemony, the victors may keep the descendants of the conquered clans in subjugation for generations. Such units, comprising a politically unequal agglomeration of various non-intermarrying clans of diverse origins and diverse status, differ markedly from classical segmentary tribes, and may be described as Composite tribal societies.


Such is the pressure of populations on resources and territories, that not only have band type societies historically given way to tribes, but some tribes have multiplied and expanded at the expense of others, absorbing or dispersing the remnants of the less powerful peoples. In such cases the enlarged and more widely dispersed population may itself become subdivided into a number of related and cooperating tribal units. Where external pressures reinforce the internal bonds of loyalty to ensure cooperation under the prestige of a common kinship leader, the term Nation may be applied.

The relationship between the nation and the tribe is apparent even etymologically, for our word “tribe” comes to us from the Latin tnbus, indicating a third part of a nation. Nations reflect the kinship ideal at its maximum political and territorial extension. Although effective government may become bureaucratic rather than hereditary in principle and the nation may be held together by a variety of economic, political, and social forms, in the thoughts of its nationals a nation is still essentially a large kinship grouping, representing a particular ethnic type with a distinct gene pool, and regarding all its members as kinsmen who speak the same language and share a common cultural, historical, and linguistic heritage. This is an extremely important factor which cannot be over-emphasized. In the absence of an overall consensus, such as is inevitable when society is divided into divergent ethnic groups, one or more groups will always feel that they are excluded from and exploited by the mainstream, majority ethnic group. And individuals will normally be much more prepared to make sacrifices for the good of others with whom they feel they share common bonds of history, culture and kinship.

The Political Organization of the Earliest Nations

The governmental system uniting the earliest nations of Europe was originally rooted in kinship, just as the nation was essentially rooted in kinship, and it emerged from that of the tribe. Settlements were essentially organized on the basis of kinship, as we have seen. Thus the village/town of Hastings in England was originally called Haest-inga meaning simply the inga or descendants of Haest, and Anglo-Saxon England for long constituted several different kingdoms or national units.

The heads of families in each village in Anglo-Saxon England were regarded as equals, but a village chief was normally chosen for life from among the eligible members of one family which was regarded as senior to the others. The heads of families then assembled to make decisions, under the chairmanship of the village headman. When a tribal decision had to be made, the headman from each village would attend a tribal council where he represented his kinsmen under the chairmanship of a tribal chieftain. In the course of time, as larger political units came into being, this elementary system of kinship representation became transformed into a three-tier political structure comprising a hereditary national leader or King; a Council of Nobles representing the local clan or tribal chieftains who met periodically with the king as an advisory body, and a General Assembly of all the adult freemen who, being heads of households, were entitled to be consulted on important matters. This ancient system was anciently reflected in the British system of a King; a House of Lords, comprising the hereditary nobles; and a House of Commons, representing the freemen. Only in recent centuries was political representation in Britain extended to women and other adults who were not heads of households.

It is significant that the English word “king” derives from the Anglo-Saxon cyning, literally meaning a “man of the kin,” in the sense of the purest descendant from the original tribal founder and therefore the “father” of the living family of descendants. When an hereditary nobility and royalty emerge we talk of a Ritually Stratified society, for hereditary positions of leadership always tend to be reinforced by ritual ceremonial and frequently also by magico-religious sanctions. Kings will be crowned with solemn ceremony and sacrifices may be offered to royal ancestors. The existence of such ritual stratification in a tribal society does not necessarily mean that the hereditary officeholders exercise arbitrary authority. Kings are not necessarily “people who order other people around,” as an American schoolchild once told the author. On the contrary, traditional kings reigned rather than ruled. As symbols of tribal and national blood unity, the authority of kings is generally heavily circumscribed by custom. While kinship remains the basis of society, no king may impose any decision on his kinsmen that may be regarded as unjust according to tradition and the dictates of the national culture. Prior to the coming of feudalism, kings were customarily loved and revered as symbols of the unity of the nation-family, the people feeling that the kings belonged to them, rather than the reverse.

In the various social systems which we have so far described, ranging from bands to tribal and national organizations, kinship remained the dominant principle around which social relations are organized. Because of the relative simplicity of the societies which we have described, the individual band, clan, or tribal member is able to play a fairly significant role in his community, and habit and custom govern the course of behavior. Decision making is rigidly controlled within traditional limits and the concept of law making, or law giving, in the sense that this implies the deliberate creation of new principles of behavior, is generally unknown.

But as societies become larger and more complex, rivalries may develop within and between kinship groups that threaten to disrupt the community. A village headman or clan chief who is obliged to rely for authority on custom and the willingness of disputants to obey custom may be unable to prevent an internecine struggle from breaking out, something that would seldom if ever occur in a community comprising only 20 or 30 individuals. It follows inevitably that such leaders tend to acquire, through common consent, a degree of authoritative power. This means that when moral persuasion fails, they may use other forms of restraint, including possibly physical intervention to halt a dispute, with the full weight of public consent behind them.

In the earliest Homo sapiens societies, and for most of human history, society revolved around the traditionally ascribed responsibilities of kinship cooperation. Only as such societies become more complex and kinship structures began to break down did the old primate principle of dominance and submission, today known as competitive achievement, begin to undermine the principle of ascription by which roles are determined by the order of birth. As new political institutions steadily replace kinship ties, men begin to eulogize intragroup and even individual competitiveness. Participating eagerly in the scramble to win a presidential election or to secure a seat on the politburo in competition with their fellows, they abandon the age-old principle of kinship ascription in favor of a pattern of competitive social mobility and party politics oddly reminiscent of the baboon troop.

Centralized Chieftainships

Accordingly, there comes a time when positions of political and administrative responsibility are reinforced by the right to coerce – which in turn may be reinforced by the means to coerce, in the form of a body of armed retainers. In such cases, high office becomes in effect a prize for the successful competitor. In place of kinship leaders who exercise authority restricted by custom on the basis of the consent of the members of society, we find men who regards public offices as spoils to be secured for the sake of the personal benefits that they can bring. Regarding authority as their personal property, they may even seek to maintain their position by coercion or by the deliberate manipulation of public opinion. In such societies kinship may still remain an important element in primary, face-to-face loyalties, and the facade of the old clan and tribal chieftainships may survive. But in reality the tribal kinship structure has been replaced by a competitive power system, and the principles of coercion and manipulation have replaced the principles of ascription and custom. All subordinate offices – earldoms, chancellorships, and even the position of the village headman – come to be allocated to those who support the successful candidate for supreme office, as one of the rewards of personal loyalty.

In a sense, this development represents the beginning of bureaucracy; and the centralization of power in the hands of a single leader has a certain organizational superiority over the older pattern of village headmen, elected or hereditary chieftains, and representative tribal councils. Decisions can be made incisively and enforced ruthlessly. Since by the nature of the power structure, the supreme officeholder is likely to be a man skilled in political reality, the chances that he will make a reasonably effective leader are moderately high. In consequence, centralized chieftainships, in which a single individual or family effectively controls appointments to subordinate positions, arise as an evolutionary necessity wherever they have a greater survival value than the traditional clan and tribal systems which delegate only limited powers to their leaders. The most favorable condition for such a development is likely to be a society troubled by constant warfare, which may be forced to accept a strongly centralized system of social control in order to survive.

Many quite large and complex societies that are not exposed to the threat of war have revealed the ability to live contentedly under kinship-based clan councils and clan chieftains without ever appointing any full-time authoritative officers. In this way, the continental Saxons of early Europe lived without kings until they were finally conquered by the renowned “central chieftain” Charlemagne. But whenever there is a degree of political turbulence, with pressure being exerted from outside groups, or whenever migration and war require an effective coordinating system, social power tends to become authoritatively vested in a single individual or lineage. Although in tribal societies the kingship may remain elective within the royal family, centralized chieftainships usually become strictly hereditary in the mode of succession. Indeed the principle of primogeniture – the inheritance of an office by the eldest son or daughter – may often arise as a device intended to avoid internecine dispute following the death of the previous officeholder.

Centralized chieftainships are in effect pyramidal or cone-shaped hierarchical structures, in which the ruler occupies the key position with the power to direct the life of the community in an arbitrary fashion, although in reality such power is frequently limited by traditional moral restraints or by the existence of subordinate pressure groups. In this sense they differ from contemporary totalitarian regimes only by the fact that the administration remains essentially personal because of the smaller scale of society. The problems involved in supervising a large and rambling empire are considerable, and history records many examples of chieftainships which rose and fell in the lifetime of a single individual leader because of an overextension of the state beyond the limits that a single ruler can effectively control.


Feudalism represents the principle of the centralized chieftainship at its most highly organized but still personal and pre-bureaucratic level. In a feudal society the centralized chieftain no longer depends for his authority purely upon tribal ties of kinship with the persons over whom he rules. Indeed, the feudal king no longer “reigns” but now “rules” with largely arbitrary authority. Claiming ownership of the land and all who are born upon it, he allocates the control of geographical districts to subordinate officers who remain solely responsible to his authority.

The contrast between a kinship or tribal society and a feudal society is amply illustrated in the history of Europe. Prior to the rise of feudalism, northern Europe remained essentially tribal, each people having its own kin-father, who was designated as the “king”. Feudalism combines the authoritative power of a centralized chieftainship with a bureaucratic system of subordinate chieftains or territorial, overlords.

Until the coming of feudalism, Anglo-Saxon kings were known as Kings of the East Saxons, Kings of the West Saxons, or Kings of the English, clearly denoting the fact that their authority was based on kinship. But feudalism introduced a novel concept. Feudalism entered most European countries a result of the need for more highly organized military systems to defend a territory, and often, as in the case of the Norman Conquest of England, by the victory of a military adventurer over an indigenous nation organized more loosely on kinship lines. With feudalism, kings claimed to be kings of England (not of the English), or kings of France (not of the Franks). A strictly politically-based centralized chieftainship had replaced kinship as the prime determinant of authority. Kings appointed their most loyal assistants to positions of authority, and Norman lords replaced the Anglo-Saxon earls throughout England, erecting mighty castles to establish their rule over the conquered people.

That is not to say that the concept of kinship did not remain important, or that many of the new ruling class (who were racially not different from the indigenous population) did not deliberately take brides from the older noble families of England in an attempt to legitimize their rule in the eyes of the people, so that eventually the Norman-French interbred with the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings of England to become a part of the resultant English nation. But while in continental Germany the idea that a man had to be born of German parents to be a German, this legal principle was no longer true in Britain. Under feudalism, a man belonged to the lord on whose land he was born (under the ius solis principle), Anyone born on the King of England’s land became legally the property of the government of England, and so nationality ceased in Britain to be based on descent.

We see the results in modern Britain, suffering from a massive invasion of immigrants from the four quarters of the earth, in that the children of both legal and illegal immigrants, if born within the political boundaries of Britain are regarded by law as “British,” irrespective of their ancestry. Many older English, Scot and Welsh people consequently tend to avoid calling themselves “British” because the term has become almost meaningless to them, and they choose to call themselves English, Scottish or Welsh, because almost unconsciously they sense that in their minds these terms still imply nationality by descent. sections of the media, by contrast, work to confuse even that meaning by applying the term English or Scottish, or Welsh, to West Indians, Africans and Asians, born in those respective parts of the British Isles.


If the use of the term “nation-state” were restricted to its original sense of nations which enjoy self-rule as autonomous political entities, instead of being applied to any group of individuals, no matter how diverse and disparate their ethnic, cultural and racial origin, who live under a single government, we would much more easily recognize one of the prime causes of conflict in the world. Political states comprising widely diverse ethnic and cultural groups suffer from built-in cultural fractions. So many postcolonial African states exist in misery because they inherited ethnically meaningless colonial borders, and as a result represent a culturally meaningless agglomeration of quite separate tribal, national and ethnic populations; with the result that the dominant group constantly represses the weaker groups over which it exercises dominion. The same problem is reflected in Iraq, which comprises three quite different ethnic and cultural populations, formerly under the domination of the Sunni Arabs, but hardly likely to live together voluntarily in peaceful, free cohabitation. Nation-states have a moral validity which multiethnic states can seldom claim. Freedom is the right to live with those with whom you share a common bond, rather than be forced to accept the values of an ethnically disparate dominant majority, or to permanently cast your vote helplessly against the rule of those with whom you have no sense of community, arid who regard you as part of an alien, dissident “minority.” To refer to multiethnic political entities as “nation-states” only confuses subsequent discussion, and, indeed, suppresses the underlying realities of human social evolution, without some comprehension of which it is impossible to accurately comprehend the sociopolitical basis of so much of the dissidence that characterizes the contemporary human scene.


2 Roger Pearson, Introduction to Anthropology, Holt Rinehart, New York, 1974

[Mankind Quarterly]


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