1.4 The Relationship between Identity and Nation

Should nation be the foundation of identity?

Big Idea:

  • The relationship between identity, nation and nation-state

Your identity is unique to you. Your appearance, preferences, and all things that make up your personality are part of who you are. However, consider the groups of people to which you belong. You could have a background that comes from many cultures, regions, or societal classes around the world. Backgrounds often play a role in a person's identity.

An example of one kind of nation, shared through culture, is shown on the right. As the diagram shows, an individual from a culture is influenced by the characteristics of that culture (blue circles). In this example, a person who identifies with French culture is influenced by French cultural characteristics (language, art, heritage) - "I am French."

Cultural backgrounds can be defined in a variety of ways, such as geography (Maritime or Western Canadian culture), generation (baby boomers, millennials, Generation X), or occupation (miners, machinists, engineers).

When a group of people from the same cultural background recognize they have a shared identity, they can say they are a nation. This is also called their collective identity - the group of people identifies with the shared culture or nation ("We are French").

You may or may not identify strongly with your nation. However, you may say you identify strongly with your country. Now, wait a minute, nation... country? Aren't they the same thing? Yes and no. So, what's the difference between the two terms?

Go to your textbook, Understanding Nationalism, and read pages 20 to 23. These pages will further your understanding of the concepts of identity, nation, country, and collective identity.

  Take notes using the 1.4 Notebook Organizer (Word, PDF, Google Doc) about what you have read. You may want to refer to the tutorial How to Take Notes. When you are done, return here to continue.

Based on the readings, a nation can be both a nation, a nation-state, and a country at the same time, depending on the conditions. Review the chart and diagram below to clarify the conditions of nation and country.

A nation is a cultural group whose members have a strong sense of identity with their culture, but a nation may or may not be a country, as outlined below.

  • The cultural group might not live within internationally-recognized borders. It is a nation, but not a country.

  • The cultural group might live within internationally-recognized borders and have self-government. It is a nation and a country.
A country or nation-state ("state") must meet the following three conditions.

  • It is an independent (self-governing) nation. That is, it is a sovereign country. It can make its own decisions freely without outside influence.

  • It exists within clearly-defined and internationally-recognized borders. This means that other countries acknowledge its borders.

  • Its citizens share values and beliefs (such as a culture).

Note: It is possible for the terms nation, country, or nation-state to mean the same thing, but only under certain conditions. View the following examples by clicking on each tab.


Nation: a nation is made of people who share common cultural characteristics. Also, those people feel a very strong identity with their culture. Usually, but not always, the nation is associated with some location.

The Inuit are an Aboriginal people who have similar cultural characteristics and identify strongly with their culture; this makes them a nation. The Inuit live primarily in Canada's Arctic, though some Inuit live in Alaska and Greenland.

The Inuit people are a nation within the nation-state of Canada. They are one of many nations within Canada. The Inuit nation does not have its own internationally-recognized borders independent from other countries. On April 1, 1999, some of Canada's Inuit achieved a measure of self-government in the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut. About 85% of Nunavut's population is Inuit. Nunavut is one of three territories within the country of Canada, which also has 10 provinces. As the Inuit are a nation within a nation-state, they may encounter feelings of contending nationalist loyalties. "Contending nationalist loyalties" means they may feel they belong to Canada as a nation, but they may also feel they belong to the Inuit nation. When people belong to many nations, values and priorities can come into conflict. You may be interested in reading BBC Future's article "The countries that don't exist" to further your understanding of what binds people into different nations.

A country/state/nation-state must meet the following criteria to exist.
  • independent government
  • internationally-recognized borders
  • its citizens share values and beliefs

The Japanese have their own country/state/nation-state because
  • they have an independent government, and
  • Japan has internationally-recognized borders
  • Japanese citizens share common values and beliefs

There are many examples of countries/states/nation-states that meet the requirements of independent government, internationally-recognized borders, and may also have common/shared values. However, there is also significant debate when issues around self-determination and sovereignty of groups within a country are raised. You may be interested in reading the Republic of Lakotah's attempt in 2007 to reclaim their lands for the Lakota Sioux tribe.

The Inuit example shows a nation is not a country if it does not have internationally-recognized borders. A country must meet all of the above criteria to be a country or nation-state. A country can also be called a nation-state. The world map below shows the borders of countries or nation-states.

About 194 countries exist around the world. Each of the countries has
  • an independent government,
  • clearly-defined borders that are recognized by all other countries, and
  • a set of values and beliefs shared by their citizens.

Summary: The Relationship between Identity and Nation

How is the concept of nation tied to your individual identity? A person often identifies themselves with the country of which they are a citizen. Imagine you are on vacation in another country and someone asks who you are and where you're from. You may reply with your name, but you may also reply that you are Canadian. That person may ask you what Canada is like. You might reply with something similar to the following.

"My country, Canada,
  • is located in North America with boundaries on three oceans (Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific) and is a neighbour to the United States, or
  • has a democratic government that makes laws on behalf of its citizens, or
  • is made up of many cultural groups (or nations) that share similar values and beliefs."
You have just "identified" yourself as a citizen of the nation of Canada. You are a Canadian. Your "identity" is Canadian!


  • Besides identifying yourself as a Canadian (because you are a citizen living in Canada), in what ways does your country affect who you are as a person?

Tip Whenever you encounter these Reflect sections, take notes to brainstorm ideas about what you've just read or viewed. If there is no Notebook Organizer provided, take notes using your own methods (and if you need help taking notes, click on the following Tutorial: How to Take Notes).