Group Ontology and Nation States

The analytic debate on social ontology can sometimes be far removed from what happens in the social sciences, so I am happy to have found a potential overlap. I currently work on my upcoming group ontology talk. My talk will concern what the metaphysical limits of group membership.

Group membership is a pecular thing from the perspective of metaphysics. As has been argued by various authors (Uzquiano 2004, Effingham 2010, Ritchie 2013) it cannot be reduced to set membership or mereological parthood. My talk will hopefully reveal more about its ontological role.

But group membership might also play an important role in the history of European nation states. I presume the following (simplified) historical picture taken from or at least inspired by Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States: The European nation states grew out of numerous armed conflicts and outright wars. A large number of small municipialities, dukedoms, city-states and the occassional empire, fought against one another until those left standing became modern nation states.

To survive this selection process, the states had to draw as many resources as feasible from their population. To make the people willing to support the war, they had to be co-opted in one way or another. The states increasingly provided services to their population and offered them a voice – or perhaps one should say that without starting to listen to their subjects states could not acquire the resources they needed.

I propose the following reconstruction with an eye on group membership: At the beginning most states (except perhaps for city states) were social groups that had mostly a ruling clique as their members. The subjects did not stand in the group membership relation to the states, but were only governed by them. With the increasing need to tax subjects and make them willing to accept such taxes, this changed. The subjects slowly became citizens and were at least promised group membership. At then end of the change nationalism rose as the ideology of the state being a group of all citizens, sometimes conceived of as an ethnic group. (I focussed here on the effects of war, Anderson’s Imagined Communities would have emphasised other factors.)

However, this extended group membership creates new problems from the perspective of group ontology. Many accounts of group agency want to think of states as group agents (e.g. List & Pettit 2011, Tollefsen 2015) and this also seems to be a widespread folk assumption. We expect states to act, to defend their interests. But we might doubt that such large and disorganised groups as the citizens of Germany or the UK can form a group agent (compare with the arguments in Lawford-Smith 2015). We find a tension at the heart of a nation state: The promise of agency on the one hand and the promise of inclusive group membership conflict. The ontology of states can fulfil either, but the goal of meeting both aspirations remainselusive.

The totalitarian state, which tries to make all members subservient in the processes of the state, is a result of dealing with the conflict. Totalitarian states attempt to enforce a unity which would allow all cititzens to be members of the state in one way or another and the overall group to remain an agent. Those who resist have to be excluded by force. It came with human costs and never achieved the unity it aimed for.

Liberal democracy is another answer. I propse that it splits the state into two groups: the citizenship and the organisation-state. The first offers the inclusive citizenship and the second the agency. The citizenship has an influence of the organisation-state through voting. It ameloriates the underlying tension we found by considering the social ontology of nation states.

Perhaps an increase in global migration undermines the old imagination that all citizens form a group that should be the state, or at least control it. Dual citizenship creates overlapping citizen groups, while the states remain distinct. Furthermore, states form groups of groups, such as the EU or NATO, and how the citizens relate to these groups remains open. My upcoming talk will address some of the associated metaphyiscal issues, but we can already see that the ontology of the nation state remains a relevant topic.

I am aware that many gaps remain in this story. The exclusive focus on war as a mechanism broadening the membership conditions of states should be questioned. Nonetheless, I find the story a promising for connecting social ontology and research in the social sciences. Any political sociologists or political scientists out there, who want to co-author a paper with me?

p.S.: I should note that the picture I present here remains completely euro-centric. It does not even apply to the USA or Australia. The Civil War had quite a different impact than the European inter-state wars. I have little idea what one should say about China’s state formation.


Effingham, N. (2010). The metaphysics of groups. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, 149(2), 251–267.
Lawford-Smith, H. (2015). What ‘We’? Journal of Social Ontology, 1(2).
List, C., & Pettit, P. (2011). Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Ritchie, K. (2013). What are groups? Philosophical Studies, 166(2), 257–272.
Tollefsen, D. (2015). Groups as agents. Malden, MA: Polity.
Uzquiano, G. (2004). The Supreme Court and the Supreme Court Justices: A Metaphysical Puzzle. Noûs, 38(1), 135–153.

4 thoughts on “Group Ontology and Nation States”

  1. Thanks, this is very interesting and I’d like to see a copy of the paper if you’re willing to share it.

    I have a few remarks here on Foucault and governmentality (which abjures notions of citizenship, but nonetheless has something to do with the functioning of states):

    There’s some more here on shifting modes of governmentality in relation to processes of state-formation, including Foucault’s notion that the state has taken over modes of governing people that were previously developed in “pastoral power”:

    Finally, here are some class notes on James C Scott, _The Art of Not Being Governed_, which deals with the flight of people from nascent states to live non-state lives. Although its case study in SE Asia, the processes it describes can I think be generalized to all sorts of maroon communities:


    1. I’m afraid I don’t have a paper to share. This was just an idea I developed in this post, although there is some mild overlap with my thesis.
      I’m somewhat familiar with Foucault’s theory of the state (although not an expert!) and I think there would be major problems to include him in the story I sketched. He does not think of the state as a group, at least on my reading. It is not easy to pin down what else he thinks the state is. Maybe it some sort of wide-reaching and amorphous relation holding between a large amount of individual agents? Maybe you disagree?

      I’m also familiar with Scott’s work, which I appreciate a lot. I agree, that if I ever were to develop the ideas of this post further, his research could shed some light on the group ontology of the state.


      1. I think that’s right about Foucault. He’s really only talking about the organizational state and not the group of citizens. Here’s the key bit on that I think, from the second linked paper:

        For Foucault, “the state does not have an essence”; it is not “an autonomous source of power” (NB 79F / 77E). Rather it is only the “effect, the profile, the mobile shape [découpe mobile] of a perpetual statification [étatisation] or perpetual statifications [étatisations] in the sense of incessant transactions which modify, or move, or drastically change, or insidiously shift” multiple practices such as finance, investment, decision-making, control, and relations of local / central authorities (NB 79F / 77E).

        I go on to distinguish the “virtual multiplicity” of state-forming processes (all the potential ways a state could arrange its multiple practices of finance, etc) from any one actual state (a selection from that set). But again, that’s not what you’re after in trying to think the relation of group of citizens and organizational state. I think what F talks about is more like governing of subjects, not citizens, rights, and so on.


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