In recent years of this Patreon I’ve attempted to achieve some kind of consistency around what terms I use at what times to refer to political units. I’ve almost certainly failed, but I take some comfort in the fact that this isn’t nearly as straightforward as you might think.
Why bring this up? After all, the question of what properly constitutes a “state” or any other such term is probably more abstruse than all but the most politically-focused fiction really cares about. Terminology aside, however, we do often care about the nature of the polities our characters live in . . . and pausing to think about the relevant words, even if they don’t get used in the story, can help us see some of the variations in what those polities might look like.
Let’s get the relatively straightforward ones out of the way first: many political units are named after the title of the person in charge of them. The one you’re by far the most likely to encounter in fiction is a kingdom (or more rarely its feminized counterpart, the queendom), but there are many other possibilities, including principalities, duchies or dukedoms, marquisates, earldoms, counties, and baronies — some of those potentially existing as sovereign units, others only as subsets of larger polities. In many cases the term refers both to the office in question and then, by extension, to the land attached to it. And note that this isn’t limited to Western European titles; elsewhere you have khanates, satrapies, caliphates, sultanates, sachemdoms, hetmanates, thakurates, and so forth.
. . . and empires? Yes and no. From one perspective, an empire is simply a polity ruled by an emperor or empress; from another, it gets significantly more complicated than that. Enough so, in fact, that we’ll save that one for its own essay next week.
The generic term I use most commonly in my essays is state, but that one has layered meanings. Thanks to my academic background, I tend to think of it from an archaeological perspective, where the focus is on how more complex, centralized, and large-scale polities emerged out of chiefdoms and other such societies. Many definitions of the word hinge on that notion of centralization, though people argue over how to measure it; meanwhile, Max Weber’s influential formulation adds another component, which is a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. (In other words, only the state and its authorized representatives are permitted do things like to wage war or perform executions: such actions by private individuals are illegal.) In that light, state formation can be a more drawn-out process, as the central government struggles to gather enough control to enforce that monopoly — and someone looking at my essays in that light could probably argue that I’ve talked about “states” in cases where it’s premature to do so.
Other terms have more buried origins. Country, for example, stands on a linguistic and conceptual foundation more oriented toward terrain than the politics atop it. Growing up in Texas, for example, I often heard references to “hill country,” i.e. a geographically distinct region within the state. The Monteagle letter, sent to warn off one of the conspirators in the seventeenth-century Gunpowder Plot, advised its recipient to “retire yourself into your country” — referring not to England, but to the part of England where he had his estate. In modern British politics, the United Kingdom is made up four distinct countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (though that last also gets called a province, a region, and various other terms).
By contrast, nation derives from a sense of common birth — its root is the same as that for “natal” and “native.” For all that we have the United Nations and often treat the term as a generic one for any sovereign polity, the root of this one matters quite a lot, because of how it affects politics. A nation-state is, at least in theory, a state (in the above sense) made up primarily of people who share a common origin of language, culture, and history: the majority of residents in France are French going back generations, ditto Germany, etc.
If you see some immediate problems with that concept, you’re not wrong. Although some scholars will argue, not without merit, for earlier examples of the concept, nations in this sense are often considered to be an invention of the eighteenth century onwards — maybe a little earlier. Prior to that (and prior to the homogenizing assistance of mass media), ethnic identity tended to be vastly more fragmented, especially among the common folk who lacked direct loyalty to and interaction with the crown to unify them under a national ideology. People within the territory we now call France would more readily have identified themselves as Bretons, Gascons, Picards, Savoyards, and more, and wouldn’t have hesitated to tell you what differentiated them from their neighbors.
So forging all these groups into a nation requires forging a common identity — which even a brief glance around the world right now can tell you is often a difficult, even violent process. We’ve already touched on the language aspect of this in previous essays, with regional dialects and languages disadvantaged or stamped out in favor of a standard tongue; this is the political side of that coin. Local customs may be replaced by imports from elsewhere, local histories and origin stories overwritten by a version that gives everyone that nationalistic sense of common birth.
And along with different groups being swept under a single nationalist banner, you also get people swept out. “Ethnic cleansing” may be a recent euphemism, but it’s as useful a term as any for the process of trying to remove people who can’t or won’t be assimilated to this centralized identity. That can take the form of genocide, but it can also mean deportation or simply so much hostility that the targets migrate to friendlier quarters. “Nation-states” are common enough nowadays — or at least claimed as a label, regardless of ethnic realities on the ground — that it’s easy to lose sight of how new their predominance is, but we definitely shouldn’t lose sight of what goes into their creation.
Like I said before, the important thing for a fiction writer isn’t making sure you adhere to proper political science vocabulary and definitions in talking about your fictional societies. Instead, it’s the question of what underlies the society in question — and where modern ideas might be influencing you unduly. If all the characters within the borders of a medieval-style kingdom think of themselves as sharing a singular ethnic identity, there’s a non-zero chance that you’re reflecting contemporary nationalist ideas backward to an earlier era, erasing the regional specificity more appropriate to the circumstances. And are you assuming a degree of centralized, state-like control that doesn’t fit the conditions? Would the characters be more likely to speak in terms of who rules them, rather than any identity based in geography or ethnic identity? All of these are possible; it just depends on what you’re writing about.