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What are countries?

Imagined communities

How do people organize themselves? Families, of course. Groups of families are tribes. They share first, a language, and then the benefits and burdens of living together. They also share geography. In a real community, everyone knows everyone else.

What’s the next largest unit of organization? What happens when the community gets so geographically large that it is impossible for everyone to know everyone else, even though they share a language?

At that point, we have what are called imagined communities. For most of human history, they were held together by either religion (“God says so”) or a person (“The King says so”) and often the person — and his/her direct descendants — claimed to have his/her authority from God, aka the “divine right” of a monarchy or empire. Some of the largest and most famous:

    • Persian Empire in the Mideast
    • Mongol Empire in Asia
    • Holy Roman Empire in Europe
    • Inca Empire in S. America
    • Ming Dynasty in China

Today’s Emperor Akihito of Japan. Just like every Japanese emperor for the last 2,500 years, all of them his grandfathers, Akihito claims to be a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. For first 90% of that time, the United States did not exist.



When we speak of history, we are often speaking of the grand conflicts between mighty empires for territory and resources. When we look at the rise and fall of these empires, we see the dependence on the personality and character of the ruler. In that world, wisdom and virtue didn’t help much.

The Dutch Republic - the world's first nation-state

The Dutch Republic – the world’s first nation-state

Today, what we call the modern world is organized by countries. So let’s look at that more closely.


Until 1648, political boundaries were based on war, religion, or ethnicity. The Peace of Westphalia introduced a new concept, the nation-state. The treaty ended the the 80 Years War, which began in 1568 when 17 provinces in a flat, marshy corner of the Spanish empire revolted. The people living there didn’t want any kings or emperors or popes making decisions for them. As the awkward hyphen suggests, this new entity, what we commonly call a country, balances two unequal imagined communities:

  • a cultural and/or ethnic nation
  • a political and geopolitical state

According to the treaty, the mighty empires of Europe (Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg Empire, the Kingdom of Spain, the Kingdom of France, and the Swedish Empire) finally agreed that with all their power, they could not conquer the Dutch people. They recognized the Dutch Republic as the world’s first nation-state. It certainly mattered that in the 80 years since they told the Spanish to get out, the Dutch people had grown their little corner of Europe into the world’s richest, healthiest, most educated — and most urban.Asia-Imperialism-Map-1“Nation-state” implies that the two geographically coincide, but in every one of our countries, we will see that the state is trying, often unsuccessfully, to contain several nations. Both, however, are imagined communities.

The just over two hundred countries in the United Nations are almost all collections of disparate groups of people who happen to live in one of 200+ geographical entities, often with highly arbitrary borders. These two hundred contain, all together, thousands of ethnic groups and languages, which means thousands of different cultures. This course is titled the Arts in Society, and the arts come from a culture, not from a country.

For example, in the late 1800′s, rather than have wars about it, some of the European nations (France, Germany, England, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Belgium) carved up Africa according to spheres of influence, noted on the map on the right by colors: blue for France, purple for Portugal, red for Great Britain, green for Germany.300px-Colonial_Africa_1913_map

The Scramble for Africa, also known as the Race for Africa or Partition of Africa was a process of invasion, occupation, colonization and annexation of African territory by European powers during the New Imperialism period, between 1881 and World War I in 1914. … The last 59 years of the 19th century saw transition from ‘informal imperialism’ of control through military influence and economic dominance to that of direct rule.

You are each focusing on one country, one state, but several cultural nations, and you need to keep them straight. They also provide helpful search terms. For example, the country of Ghana is named after an ancient empire that was in another part of Africa. Geographically, they share no territory, the ancient empire and the modern country by the same name. The current physical territory called Ghana was for centuries part of the Ashanti Empire. If you want to know more about the traditional arts in Ghana, using the search term “ashanti” will get you interesting results that using “ghana” would not get.

Then there’s the undiscovered country of Zomia, the transnational highlands of Southeast Asia that have never been controlled by the nations within whose border they lie.

Numerical data about the countries

We are studying what some sociologists call countries that are not WEIRD: Westernized, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic.

Compared to the other WEIRD countries, the U.S. does not fare so well. For example, look at the U.N.’s latest study of child well-being in 29 WEIRD countries. The good news is that U.S. children and teens drink less alcohol and get more exercise and eat more fruit than children and teens in other countries. However, on almost all the other several dozen standards, U.S. children do not fare so well.

The map below shows the countries in the U.N.’s report, those shaded in blue. None of our countries is among them, except for the Netherlands, which is, by quite a wide margin, the best country in the world for children. Notice the similarity between the two maps. Those shaded blue in the upper map and all well-lit in the lower map. The countries we are studying are many of those that are well lit, that is, Industrialized, but not yet fully WEIRD.

The WEIRD countries in the U.N.'s report

The WEIRD countries in the U.N.’s report

Compared to the countries that we are studying, the U.S. fares much better. The pages below have numerical data comparing the countries that we’re studying along with the U.S. and the Netherlands.

Some of the data sources on those pages are more neutral than others. Some are sponsored by an organization with a well-defined purpose that takes the side of an issue. Many of the sources have insufficient and perhaps unreliable data. I have tried to provide sources that are diverse geographically and politically.


The Lights on Earth

From those comparisons, you will come to see the special combination of characteristics that make each of your countries unique. You might want to apply this to your final essay for this course, which should also be based on data and information of this kind.

  • In what ways is your country similar to the others? In what ways different?
  • Is your country in the middle of most of the lists? On which lists is it on one end or the other?
  • What does it all say about the country you are researching? For example, the data tells me that the Netherlands is a Tiny Country Standing Tall. What about your country?