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Countries and nations
In everyday usage people often talk about ‘America’, ‘Britain’, or ‘Germany’ as ‘societies’. But our discussion of human collectivities must make us pause for thought. On a map these may be labels for land areas depending on when and where it was made. ‘America’ may be a continent, or two, or a political unit. Is ‘Britain’ just an island? Where was ‘Germany’ before it became one country in 1870, or between 1945 and 1989 when it was two? Even commonsensically we have to know something to be able to use these terms competently. The terms ‘Americans’, ‘the British’, ‘Germans’ are no less ambiguous. Do they refer to citizens of a nation-state or to those sharing in a culture? After all German-speaking people could include Austrian and some Swiss people. ‘Americans’ might refer to people outside the United States, while ‘British’ can even refer to people who have no right to come to live in the United Kingdom. Nothing becomes clearer by referring to American, British and German ‘society’ or ‘culture’. Reference to language does not help. The German language may convey German culture, but the Americans and British scarcely share English culture because they speak English. If one talks of ‘the global power of US culture’ it sounds like the Americanisation of the world, except that it is the consumer requirements of the world market rather than of the United States which dictate to Hollywood. Replace Americanisation by ‘globalisation’ and United States culture is under threat. What then are countries? We should distinguish at least four facets:
These are very different things which often do not coincide but which we throw together when we speak of America or Germany doing something. It is often at this point that society is introduced. In other words when you link state, territory, nation and culture you get society.
So both in everyday usage and among modern sociologists terms like ‘South Africa’, ‘Kenya’, ‘Chile’ etc. are often used for countries or societies without making any distinction between them. ‘Society’ then appears to be the term which cements our experience of the intimate connections between territory, state, culture and nation.
However the term ‘country’ or ‘land’ is perhaps more expressive of these ties. Moreover these are nation-states too, which means we should sort out the connections between nation and society. If we do we will find that nation-states are only one special version of society.
In fact some have come to the conclusion that the names applied to countries have no very clear meaning and no necessary reference to society. A celebrated sociologist, Norbert Elias (1897-1990) called these names ‘verbal symbols of a collective entity with numinous qualities’. 13 Historians can be equally sceptical. The great historian of world civilisations, Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) called names like France ‘mythological proper persons’ and not nearer to reality than ‘Marianne’ or the ‘Gallic cock’. In these terms ‘United States’ and ‘Uncle Sam’ are equally ambiguous.
We don’t have to be so sceptical. The reason these names loom so large is that they do provide a continuity in the stories people tell each other and in tales of the human past. They refer to complex entities in which state, culture, territory or nation are bonded in varying untidy ways which do not have neatly coinciding boundaries. In this sense countries are a particular kind of human collectivity. They are more than just societies, but, as with any collectivity, social relations are crucial for their maintenance.
Countries, or in earlier times and even now, ‘peoples’ when they are detached from territory, are the subjects of humanity’s big story, and have been ever since the earliest accounts. Society has an important place in this story, but it is not the whole tale and has a lesser role than the largest collectivity of all—humankind.