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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.

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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.

Government Defined

The term ‘government’ also has a more precise meaning in political science compared to the way it is bandied about in casual conversation.

Government can be viewed in two different ways: as an institution and as a process. As an institution, the government is the group of people with the authority over a political unit at a given time. In other words, it’s the people in power that exercise the power of the political unit, whether it’s a small town or a sovereign State.

For example, the current elected Congress, the president, the executive agencies under the president, and the sitting members of the United States Supreme Court constitute the government of the United States. When using ‘government’ in this manner, we usually refer to it with the article ‘the,’ and say ‘the government,’ rather than just ‘government.’Government also refers to the manner in which a political unit is governed at a particular time. It involves the process and means that government uses to maintain order and manage the resources of the state. For example, government in United States involves democratic representation and primarily free market principles in managing resources.

Notice that when we use the term to refer to the process of governance, we do not preface the term with the article ‘the.’

Lesson Summary

Let’s review what we’ve learned. The field of political science utilizes terms that are often used in ordinary conversation but have more precise and specialized meanings in the study of political science. A State is a political unit that has sovereignty over an area of territory and population.

The term ‘country’ is a more imprecise and ambiguous term that is often used by laypeople instead of ‘State.’A nation is a group of people bound together by a common culture, history, and tradition that usually live within a concentrated geographic region. Modern States attempt to mold their populations into a nation with the result known as the Nation-State.The government refers to the group of people that currently have authority to govern on behalf of the State, while government is the process of governing a State.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this lesson you should be able to:

  • Explain what a State is and why it is a more preferred term than ‘country’
  • Recall what the difference between a nation and a State is
  • Discuss the two meanings of ‘government’

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