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Rethinking Societal Organization

Posted By Administration, Friday, October 26, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Monica Porteanu, a member of our Emerging Fellows program examines the concept of nation-state in her eighth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Today, emotions seem to run high about trade, politics, governments, policy, national pride, and much more. Numerous individuals may feel disenfranchised. How might society be organized such that it enables its members’ agency to harmonize civic rights and responsibilities with their values and aspirations?

Society is an instinctive human organization in which individuals continuously interact with each other, making it a living entity. Its members might share a similar social fabric, or live in the same geographical area, or participate in the same political-economic-social governance structure and avenues for civic engagement.

The two fundamental concepts that society has structured itself into are nation and state. Being human-made, both ideas are artificial. A nation is a group of individuals who share a common heritage. A state is linked to a territory and its internationally-recognized boundaries. A nation-state is a nation living within a state. In many contexts, a nation-state is equivalent to a country.

These concepts were born in the mid-1600s, during the negotiations for the Peace of Westphalia. This treaty established the foundation for international law, diplomacy, sovereignty, foreign and internal affairs, which ended wars and empires, while recognizing multiple states, most being nation-states. Some might feel inclined to note that in a way, the treaty ended the times’ flavour of globalization. At that time, nation would mostly live within the boundaries of a state. As such, the distance between nation and state was almost nonexistent.

Down the road, during post-colonialism, while borders were drawn sometimes artificially, nations might’ve been split amongst several states, introducing some distance between nation and state. Nevertheless, the Westphalian nation-state has continued to succeed, registering its peak during the peace treaties that ended World War I.

Since then though, the nation-state seems to have declined. In the aftermath of World War II, the artificial divide introduced by the Iron Curtain was (in historical terms) short-lived. Once the Curtain fell, everyone wanted to see what was outside of it. Furthermore, the development of the European Union eliminated the borders amongst some member states. It enables each nation to travel, work, and live without boundaries across the EU while preserving the autonomy and territory of its member states. In such an environment, state borders switched from an international to an internal, administrative affair. In this context, representatives of several nations could now live within the boundaries of one state. As such, the overlap between nation and state has diminished. Nations and states seem to have continued to grow further apart.

Similar migratory trends have been observed well beyond Europe. World political and economic tensions have pushed individuals to seek living solutions beyond their birth nation-state. As a result, migration is at an all-time high. A nation now has representation across multiple states. For example, the Indian diaspora spread across the world contributes not only to the development of their adopted country, but also to that of India. In the process, they also make their heritage known outside their country of birth, creating nuances of it elsewhere. The concepts of nation and state seem to have continued to grow further apart.

Migration seems to have changed the nation-state relationship in two ways. First, the relation between nation and state is not one-to-one anymore. Second, the two concepts don’t overlap as they did during Westphalian times. A distance between them has been emerging.

What should happen with this growing distance, especially when considering the role of the nation-state in the politics-economics-social governance and in civic engagement? The situation could become even more complicated when considering how unpredictable extreme natural, political, or economic events might push populations to seek shelter in friendlier territories. Furthermore, with increasing signs of globalization shifting to more decentralized, local, but distributed preferences, trade and information wars, etc., one could wonder whether we are living the modern version of pre-Westphalia. What would it take to build a contemporary model addressing societal organization issues that becomes at least as successful as the one built in the 17th century?


© Monica Porteanu 2018

Tags:  nation  society  state 

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