Nations without States

Many national identities do not have formal nation states with full autonomy: examples include the Welsh, the Basques, the Kurds and the Palestinians.

Nations without states consist of well-defined ethnic groups who identify together as a nation but lack an independent political community and autonomous self-governing body.

Nations without states exist within existing nation states, and sometimes across more than one already existing state. Examples include separatist movements in Israel/ Palestine and the Basque country in France and Spain.

Guibernau (1999) identifies two basic types of nations without states depending on the relationship the ethnic group has with the state or states in which it exists.

Map of Kurdish people in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran.
The Kurdish People are one of the larges stateless nations.

‘Nations’ recognised by nation states

An established nation state may accept the cultural differences of its ethnic minority populations and allow them some freedom to manage these. For example Scotland and Wales within Britain have the freedom to manage some of their own institutions.

Scotland has its own parliament and independent legal and education system. It also has the power to set a different rate of Income tax to England. Wales also has its own parliament and education system, and the welsh language is prominent in public institutions (formal documents are published in both English and Welsh), although Wales is not quite as devolved as Scotland.

Similarly the Basque country and Catalonia are both recognised as ‘autonomous communities’ within Spain and they have their own parliaments with some degree of autonomy.

But in both the cases of Britain and Spain most of the political power is located in the main national governments in London and Madrid: military power is controlled by these, for example, and not devolved!

Other nations without states have higher degrees of autonomy with regional bodies which have the power to make major political decisions without being fully independent. Examples here include Quebec in Canada and Flanders in Belgium.

In all of the above cases, these ‘nations without states’ have nationalist movements which advocate for full autonomy.

There is a possibility that Scotland will become fully independent in the future: there is a lot of support for the Scottish National Party who campaign for full independence, and although they lost their referendum on independence in 2014 they may well win another one in the future.

Nations not recognised by nation states

There are other examples where ‘nations’ are not formally recognised and the formal nation state in which they exist may use force to suppress the minority group.

Examples such situations include:

  • Palestinians in Israel
  • Tibetans in China
  • Kurds in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

The capacity for these groups to build their own formal nation states depends on many factors, but mainly the relative power of the nation state(s) within which they exist and any other nation states elsewhere in the world they may form alliances with.

The Kurds for example have a ‘Parliament in Exile’ in Brussels, and also a ‘safe haven’ in Northern Iraq which was established after the Gulf War of 1990-91 and consolidated after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, so you might say they are on their way to establishing nationhood.

The Dalai Lama is the center of the movement for Tibetan Independence from China, based in Dharamshala in India, but the Tibetans have much less chance of having their autonomy recognised given the immense power of China, even though Tibet was once a distinct country before China took it over in 1951.


This material should be relevant to anyone studying the nationalism and identity aspect of the culture and identity module, taught as part of most A-level sociology specifications.


Giddens and Sutton (2021) Sociology 9th edition

Montserrat Guibernau (1999) Nations Without States: Political Communities in a Global Age.

Where are the Kurds? Map

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