The Difference Between Countries, Nations, States, and Governments

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  • 0:01 State & Country Defined
  • 1:41 Nation Defined
  • 2:44 Government Defined
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

The study of political science requires you to relearn familiar terms that hold a different meaning than found in common everyday usage. In this lesson, you'll learn about the difference between countries, nations, states and governments.

State & Country Defined

If you've ever looked at globes and maps, you've probably seen quite a few carved up by international boundaries of various States. A State is a political unit that has sovereignty over an area of territory and the people within it. Sovereignty is the legitimate and ultimate authority over a polity (i.e., a political unit). For example, the United States is a State that is sovereign over all 50 states and its territories, such as Puerto Rico and Guam. There is no higher political authority over the geographic region that is controlled by the United States.

You may be wondering about the difference between a 'country' and a 'State.' A country is simply another word for State. The United States can be referred to as either a 'country' or a 'State.' People use the terms interchangeably. However, in political science, and especially in the area of international relations, the term 'State' is used as it is more precise and less ambiguous, as 'country' can refer to other things, such as a rural environment.

You may also be wondering about the 50 states comprising the United States. The 50 states are political subdivisions of the United States. The 50 states do not have independent sovereignty like the United States and other States. It is convention to capitalize the term 'State' when referring to State in terms of a sovereign political unit, and not to capitalize the term 'state' when referring to a political subdivision of a State, such as 'the state of Minnesota' versus 'the State of Germany.'

Nation Defined

Another important term in political science is 'nation.' A nation consists of a distinct population of people that are bound together by a common culture, history, and tradition who are typically concentrated within a specific geographic region. For example, all Jewish people comprise a Jewish nation and different tribes of Native Americans are considered nations, such as the Lakota. Not all nations have States. While the Jewish nation is not a State, Israel is a State. On the other hand, the Lakota nation does not have a State of its own.

Modern States tend to try to develop a sense of nation within their territorial boundaries. It is believed that a state consisting of a nation of people is more cohesive and easier to govern as there is a common set of beliefs, values, culture, and history. In fact, States that are able to successfully create a nation out of its population are called Nation-States.

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