Nation-State Formation: Rigid Development and Evolution from Ethnic Groups, Nation, to Nation-State


Why are some states more ethnically diverse than others? 

WHY ARE SOME states ethnically diverse than others is a question that interrogates the origins of the states, the recurring patterns in their development, and the forces that move its evolution from its beginnings to gradual and violent decline. Since the question why are some states more ethnically diverse than others is a question on the origins and composition of the state, this paper will argue on the following position: first, that the degree of diversity of the ethnic composition of some states reveal certain patterns on their origin as legitimate political structure that has citizens, clearly defined territory, and a sovereignty that is being recognized by other states; second, that the formation of a state, both with homogenous and with varied ethnic composition,  follows a logical determined pattern of ‘ethnic-nation-nation-state’; third, that the development between the series (ethnic to nation and nation to nation-state) in the logical determined pattern of state formation could reveal the roles played by conflict in each level of development phase in the series; and lastly, that nation-state could not exist without nationalism: an important ideology that intensifies the movement from nation to nation-state.

The homogenous and diverse ethnic composition of a state reveals the peculiarity of its origin and the relevant historical events that shaped its past. Nation states—or modern states—emerged from several historical events such the advent of capitalism and the decline of feudalism, from imperial conquests, wars, colonialism, and from local and inter-state ethnic and nationalist tensions. The genesis of state has been widely explored since the 19th century from Marx, Weber, Durkheim to Anthony D. Smith and we can all arrive in a clear and objective definition of a nation-state. However, the challenge is to locate and define that space that separates ethnic groups to nation as various theories and debates on nationalism could muddle the goal to chart the movement and historical evolution of nation-state from ethnic group (Connor, 1994).

When is an ethnic group will become a nation? What are the categories that make a nation and if these categories are also found in the ethnic articulation of a specific community that shared similar customs, traditions, and languages? When is a nation a nation-state? And can a state become a state even without a nation?  These questions can lead us to answer on why some states have various ethnic groups and while others have a homogenous composition as the ethnic configuration of a state determines also the dominant power structure that holds, maintains, and manages an ethnically homogenous and heterogenous nation-state.

The quest for clarity and direction on this essay compelled us to define the concepts of nation-state, nation, and ethnicity to set the limitations on our discussions. I will utilize the ideas by selected scholars of state and nationalism, ideas and discourses that could support and push my arguments for this essay.  

Ethnicity. All human beings belong to an ethnic group. Ethnicity on the other hand induce people together to form a community as language and culture in general are being shared.  Beliefs and communal memories play a role in the formation of an ethnic group. Weber opined that these beliefs and memories are subjective and constructed to serve the purpose of people sharing the similar languages and culture: to create an ethnic community with all its members coming from a common mythical origin:  “We shall call ‘ethnic groups’ those human groups that entertain subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration; conversely, it does not matter whether or not an objective blood relationship exists (Weber, 1978/1996,  p. 36).

Are ethnic groups political communities? Since subjectivity and beliefs frame the composition of ethnic groups, the politics of the group comes after if these subjectivities and beliefs are used to push specific political agenda that would benefit the majority of the members and the elite in the ethnic group; otherwise the group is just a composite community bonded together by customs, traditions, and language. In fact, an ethnic group can persist even after the disintegration of the political community since it is not the political agenda that organically bind an ethnic group together (Ibid, 1978/1996, p.36).

An ethnic group moves to become a political community if it begins to demand greater control over its affairs. Here power comes in the social organization. The dynamics that prompts an ethnic group to become a political community is the space that we can observe the movement of an ethnic group to become a nation: here demands are laid and executed, and power are either utilized, shared, or acquired. An ethnic group as political community (nation) will begin to engage with another ethnic group or in a more powerful political organization which it is subjected or dominated, the state.

Ethnicity is always being utilized by ethnic groups in entering in power relations with other ethnic groups or with the dominant power such as the state which it is subjected. Ethnicity has been used in power struggle as an alternative to class identification (Brass 1991/1996, p. 86), as a tool to demand and negotiate. The potency of ethnicity or ethnic identification as a legitimate currency in politics as ethnic group navigates towards becoming a nation has been captured succinctly by Brass:

“Ethnic groups that use their ethnicity to make demands in the political area for the alteration in their status, in their economic well-being, in their civil rights, or in their educational opportunities are engaged in a form of interest group politics…However, some ethnic groups in other contexts go further and demand that corporate rights be conceded to the groups as a whole, that they be given education opportunities…They demand a major say for the group in the political system as a whole or control over a piece of territory within the country, or they demand a country of their own with full sovereignty. Insofar as it succeeds in by its own efforts in achieving any one of these goals either within an existing state or in state of its own, it has become a nationality or a nation. A nation, therefore, may be seen as a particular type of ethnic community or, rather, as an ethnic community politicized, with recognized group rights in the political system.” (Ibid, 1991/1996, p. 86)

A nation (from an ethnic group) for Brass is when an ethnic group begins to make their demands political to influence or change the political system. The limitation of this description is the fact that there are nations of several ethnic groups and within these nations, various ethnic groups negotiate for power or they all struggle for dominance. What ‘bridges’ ethnic group to become a nation is more than the political demands and the shared beliefs and customs but something that binds various ethnic groups to create a space where they can negotiate identities, histories, customs and traditions, and political demands, a space where that can constantly interact and engage to form a cohesive social and political organization called a nation. Let’s discuss this force that binds ethnic groups together and the space where they can freely engage and negotiate.

Nation. Weber and Renan both posited that solidarity is the force that binds a nation together.  ‘National solidarity’ for Weber is different from ‘ethnic solidarity’ as the former goes beyond blood, religion, language, and even race and ethnicity from a specific territory or origin (Weber, 1948/1994, pp. 22-23). For Weber, national solidarity belongs to the ideal and from values that are not static but continuously evolving, a sentiment that continuously developing.

Solidarity and expansive engagement among members of the community is how Renan defined a nation ,and unlike Weber who use the communal ethnic group as the platform in interrogating the concept of nation, Renan went to the individual agency as the site of national solidarity.

“A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation’s existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.” (Renan p. 19)

Both Renan and Weber agreed that national solidarity is malleable, liminal, and changes as power structure moves among the various groups in solidarity: that a nation, unlike an ethnic group, changes and it is socially constructed by the community of various ethnic origins or citizens of various political positions and perhaps ideologies.

The space on where various groups and individuals negotiate in a ‘national solidarity’ is not bounded by geography and territory: this space is constructed by language and therefore meanings, access to it and its continuous reproduction for as long as the construction of language defines and supports the political, cultural, and social agenda of the national solidary. This space therefore is located on the level of imagination of the various ethnic groups or individuals participating in the national solidarity project.

Benedict Anderson described a nation as a space of perpetual reproduction of meanings while expanding its access to all individuals in the shared national solidarity, an ‘imagined community’ as nation is operationally defined as imagined, limited, sovereign, and community:

“It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, of even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion… is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nation…is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-oriented, hierarchical dynastic realm. Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” (Anderson, 2006, pp. 6-7)

For Anderson, nation is a space suspended as a metaphysical concept and imagined by those who are part of the national solidarity: that since it is ‘imagined’ meanings are formed and shaped by the power that dominates all those participating in the national solidarity to form a nation. Three things to consider in deploying Anderson’s nation as ‘imagined community’ as this essay addresses why some states are more ethnically diverse than others. First, the process of ‘imagining’ a nation is a performance done by those who have access to institutions connected to cultural and knowledge productions; ‘access’ here is determined by symmetrical power distribution within the community and not just by essentializing categories such as race, blood, or ‘authentic’ indigeneity—and yes, ethnicity. Second, that the historical evolution of an imagined community runs parallel to the historical evolution, say, of ethnic group as a social organization; or, it may run parallel or the evolution of where an ethnic group ends as where ‘nations’ begins: the politicization of the ethnic group as ‘ethnic nationalism’. [1] And lastly, since ‘nation’ is perpetually suspended in the ‘communal performance’ of meaning-makings and myth-makings, it is therefore not determined by any functional and concrete infrastructures that limit the boundaries of all the transactions being done in the process of ‘imagining’ a community, that it is framed by power structure that can be changed anytime, as it is porous, and indefinable—on this I argue on the inevitability of nations constantly articulating their political demands and national solidarity to become a state.

Nation-State.  The constant articulation of an imagined community of their political demands and national solidarity is best captured in Weber’s idea of the nation as a ‘community of sentiment’: “A nation is a community of sentiment which would adequately manifest itself in a state of its own; hence, a nation is a community which normally tends to produce a state of its own (Weber 1948/1994, p. 25). This ‘sentiment’, like Anderson’s ‘imagination’, is an abstract concept shared, nurtured, and has the capacity to reproduce itself given that there is a community that constantly produces and consumes it. This community and the power structure that frames their articulation of political demands and national solidarity (say, for example, the elites) then would like these abstract concepts to ‘arrive’ in a concrete and graspable (by the five senses) world in the form of a state, with its concrete bureaucracies and institutions. The inevitability of the formation of nation-states is the rationalization of political demands, national solidarity, communal sentiment, and imagined community.

The inevitability of the formation of nation-state has a historical underpinning and it was part of the changes brought by modernity in the West during the Enlightenment that shaped the world’s economic and political landscapes from thereon. Smith (1991) demonstrated the inevitability of the formation of nation-state through the 19th and 20th century as nations look at the historical formations of nation-states England, France, Spain, Holland, and Sweden as template. He postulated the ‘three revolutions’ that paved the way for nations as ethnic groups developed to become state: administrative, economic, and cultural. Administrative as the birth of bureaucracy to manage taxation conscription delineates territorial jurisdiction and reinforces civic loyalty. Cultural as print culture and public education became prevalent. And lastly, economic as the birth and eventual reign of capitalism as the dominant economic system: as capitalism encouraged unlimited accumulation of wealth, markets were expanded, trading became prevalent as a form of capital accumulation, extraction of resources elsewhere became the norm, modern cities were born. There was the need for more efficient administrative bureaucracy and military conscription for war and conquest (Smith, 1991, pp. 60-61).

The  inevitability of the formation of nation-state after the Middle Ages in Europe can lead us on two things on the understanding of ethnic compositions of states: that states developed from ethnic demands that became political through national solidarity and the articulation of these political demands that needed to be concretely developed in the form of a state—ethnic composition comes secondary unless a dominant ethnic group or several groups agreed on a common language to articulate the political demands in solidarity of imagining a distinctive and monolithic imagined community that does not necessarily require to be homogenous.

Ethnicity to Nation, Nation to Nation-State: The Roles of Conflict in the Formation of Nation and Nation-State

The second part of the essay interrogates the role of conflict in the formation of nations from ethnic groups and nations to nation-state. This part will explore ethnic conflict and nationalist tensions as platforms on how state formation either allows a homogenous ethnic nation-state or heterogenous nation-state.

Nation-state is the concrete representation of the history and development of ethnic groups and nations that comprise it. Nation-states rigidly frames discourses on nations and ethnicity within its boundaries: from historical narration of the nation and nation-state, identity formation, territorial integrity, and the various ‘national’ symbols and the respective meanings that can be derived from them.  Whether the nation-state has a single or various ethnic composition, the vertical power structure remains intact.

To understand the nature of ethnic conflicts and nationalist tensions in the formation of a homogenous or a heterogenous nation-state, the nation-state itself should be considered as the site for interrogation. Two premises to support this argument: first, nation-states are composed of nations as articulations of political demands came from various ethnic groups and therefore generalizations can lead us on homogenizing the various phenomenon that lead to the formation and development of nation-state from ethnic groups to nations; and second, nation-state is the most dominant concept in contemporary discourses on political and social organizations where nations, ethnicities, including nationalist tensions and ethnic conflicts can be examined as the world is divided among nation-states.

Harowitz (1985) explored ethnic conflict through the concept of ‘group entitlement’: that ethnic groups seek political affirmation through ethnic identity with the polity and this conflict behavior is articulated through the ‘exclusive-inclusive’ matrix and the basis for the group to claim that “the country (or region or town) is ought to be theirs and that the political system should reflect this fact by being constituted along essentially homogenous line” (Ibid., 1985, p 185). It is worth nothing though that conflict behaviors that can lead to ethnic conflict cannot be traced from something biologically inherent to an ethnic group such as color of the skin, physical appearance, and to some degree language, customs, and traditions. Conflict behaviors that lead to an ethnic conflict were political in nature: the presence of a power structure that constrained ethnic sentiment and power itself as it relates to subjugation and domination. Politicized ethnic groups acknowledges the presence of the politics of domination as the presence of other ethnic group or a more hegemonic power became more apparent (Ibid. 1985, pp 186-187).

Three conclusions we can draw from the development of an ethnic group or groups to a nation: that conflict is an essential element to either create a new nation as ethnic group’s demands become political, ethnic conflict is expected in the presence of a more powerful and hegemonic power such as nation-state (and this made ethnic conflict implausible outside nation-state), and ethnicity itself, before the political demands and national solidarity, cannot lead to conflict in the presence of other ethnic groups unless power is evenly distrusted among them or the hegemonic power such as the state articulates ethnic political demands. Harowitz succinctly described the relationship of ethnic conflict to the dominant power structure, on why certain nation-states can accommodate several ethnic groups, and the creation of a new nation-state from politicized ethnic demands and national solidarity:

“There are two imperatives in ethnic conflicts: the spontaneous and sentiment-driven versus the institutionally constrained. The more spontaneous the conflict behavior, the more pertinent will be the elements of group entitlement; the more tied into institutional constraints, the more we shall have to probe institutional arrangements. The tension between these two imperatives can result in the violent overthrow of the institutional systems when it fails utterly to reflect ethnic sentiment.”  (Ibid, 1985, p. 228)

Nationalist tensions on the other hand can reveal the roles of conflict to the creation of the nation-state and the location of ethnic groups in the formation of the state between nation and nation-state.

For the purposes of demonstration on nationalist tension, our discussion will focus on the newly created states from the former colonial empires. Smith (1985) argued that post-colonial states outside Europe were ‘invented’ as there are two recurring patterns in this process: first, the dominant ethnic group becomes the core ethnic community of the new political entity and second, the creation of a supra-ethnic ‘political culture’ for the new political community that neither of the several ethnic groups can dominate the state (Ibid, 1985, p. 110). Therefore: the presence of a dominant ethnic group that can articulate the ethnic demands politically and can rally the other demotic ethnic groups to form a national solidarity will always lead to the creation of a nation-state and ethnicity – and ethnic discourse is always present in nation and nation-state formation.

Smith’s ‘invention’ of post-colonial nations and nation-states can lead us to examine how  nations can develop and evolve into nation-state from ethnic groups (that the presence of ethnicity is still present in the nation-state and  in the nation-state formation), on how can nationalist tension obviously implausible outside nation-state, the inevitability of the development of nation to become nation-state as the nation is always subjected to rationalization to become a concrete structure in the form and substance, and how as nations ‘invented’ can accommodate a homogenous and heterogenous ethnic group composition as a nation-state.


Ethnic composition of a nation-state reveals the process of formation of the nation-state as legitimate political entity from ethnic group and nation. Ethnic groups cannot form a nation-state unless it will form first a nation; a nation, on the other hand, that can continuously articulate its political demands will move always towards building a nation-state or in the case that the more dominant state can accommodate ethic political demands, an autonomous government is always a viable alternative or multi-national nation-state as in the case of United Kingdom.

In Southeast Asia, Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma) are examples of ‘invented’ nation-state with several, even hundreds in case of the Philippines and Indonesia, of ethnic groups that forms a single homogenous nation: Filipino, Indonesian, and Myanmar. Except for Indonesia, Philippines and Myanmar are countries where the former colonial master indirectly elected a dominant ethnie to be the pillar of the state’s national identity: the dominant Tagalog (in Southern Luzon and Manila) for the Philippines and the Burmese for the Myanmar. In Indonesia, the Javanese is the dominant ethnic group that shapes the country’s identity. All these countries, in different periods of their histories encountered ethnic conflicts and nationalist tensions as part of the development of state-formation. The Karen, Karenni, and Shan ethnic groups in Myanmar and the Bangsamoro (a ‘nation’/’bangsa’ composed of thirteen Islamized ethnic groups) are nations without nation-state and are currently in an armed and parliamentary struggle with the dominant and powerful nation-state that ‘occupies’ their territories.


Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

Brass, Paul. (1996). Ethnic groups and ethnic identity formation. In J. Hutchinson and A. Smith (Eds), Ethnicity (pp. 85-90). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1991).

Connor, W. A nation is a nation, is a state, in an ethnic group, is a… In J. Hutchinson and A. Smith (Eds), Nationalism (pp. 36-46). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1978).

Harowitz, D. (1985). Ethnic groups in conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press, Ltd.

Renan, E. (1990). What is a nation? In H. Bhabha (Ed), Nation and narration (pp. 8-22). London: Routledge. (Original work published 1882).

Smith, A (1991). National identity. London/New York: Penguin Books.

Weber, M. (1994a). The nation. In J. Hutchinson and A. Smith (Eds), Nationalism (pp. 21-25). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1948).

Weber, M. (1996). The origins of ethnic groups. In J. Hutchinson and A. Smith (Eds), Ethnicity (pp. 34-40). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1978).

[1] Anthony D. Smith theorized the two models of the nation, civic-territorial and the ethnic-genealogical: the former where the elites played central to the development of a nation; while the latter, the nation created ‘from below’. ‘Ethno-nationalism’ as the foundation of national identity for Smith came from the latter (See Smith National Identity p 123). In this essay, ethno-nationalism is ‘nation’ as it is still the political articulation of ethnic demands and national solidarity.


ROGELIO BRAGA is playwright, essayist, and novelist. He is currently in London as a Chevening scholar.

This article is part of the Balangiga Press Manila inaugural folio on Populism, Imperialism, and Nationalism in Southeast Asia. We encouraged our readers to respond to this article for a broader discussion and debate on the themes we would like to explore for our inaugural issue. Submission guidelines is here.

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