Government » Introduction to Government » Basic Concepts of Government

State, Society and Nation


Recall that a state is a compulsory political organization with a centralized government that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a certain geographical territory.

Many human societies have been governed by states for millennia, however for most of pre-history, people lived in stateless societies. The first states arose about 5,500 years ago in conjunction with rapid growth of cities, invention of writing, and codification of new forms of religion. Over time, a variety of different forms developed, employing a variety of justifications for their existence (such as divine right, the theory of the social contract, etc.). Today, however, the modern nation-state is the predominant form of state to which people are subject.

Some states are sovereign. Some states are subject to external sovereignty or hegemony where ultimate sovereignty lies in another state. The term state is also applied to federated states that are members of a federal union, which is the sovereign state.

Differentiating State from Government

A state can be distinguished from a government. The government is the particular group of people, the administrative bureaucracy that controls the state apparatus at a given time. That is, governments are the means through which state power is employed. States are served by a continuous succession of different governments. States are immaterial and nonphysical social objects, whereas governments are groups of people with certain coercive powers.

Each successive government is composed of a specialized and privileged body of individuals, who monopolize political decision-making, and are separated by status and organization from the population as a whole.


A society is a group of individuals involved in persistent social interaction, or a large social group sharing the same geographical or social territory, typically subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations. Societies are characterized by patterns of relationships (social relations) between individuals who share a distinctive culture and institutions; a given society may be described as the sum total of such relationships among its constituent of members. 

Insofar as it is collaborative, a society can enable its members to benefit in ways that would not otherwise be possible on an individual basis; both individual and social (common) benefits can thus be distinguished, or in many cases found to overlap. A society can also consist of like-minded people governed by their own norms and values within a dominant, larger society.

Societies may also be structured politically. In order of increasing size and complexity, there are bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and state societies. These structures may have varying degrees of political power, depending on the cultural, geographical, and historical environments that these societies must contend with. Thus, a more isolated society with the same level of technology and culture as other societies is more likely to survive than one in closer proximity to others that may encroach on their resources. A society that is unable to offer an effective response to other societies it competes with will usually be subsumed into the culture of the competing society.


A nation is a large group of people having a common origin, language, and tradition and usually constituting a political entity. When a nation is coincident with a state, the term nation-state is often used.

A nation is a stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, ethnicity, or psychological make-up manifested in a common culture. A nation is distinct from a people, and is more abstract, and more overtly political, than an ethnic group. It is a cultural-political community that has become conscious of its autonomy, unity, and particular interests.

A nation can also be described as people living in the same country and government. The word nation comes from a Latin language word meaning “birth” or “place of birth.” The adjective is national.

Some nations are people with a particular belief, such as the Vatican City, or ethnic group, such as Armenia. Others share an idea, such as Democracy in the United States or Communism in China. Some nations are controlled by a small minority who have all the power, such as Saudi Arabia, who hold the nation together with the use of this power.

Some of these may also be combined. The highest lawful authority of most nations is a constitution, which is a document which states clearly what kinds of power the rulers have and how new laws must be made. Many others are ruled by a single person who holds an “office” (position), such as a King or Pope, or from a long legal tradition without an official Constitution, such as the United Kingdom.

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