Please tell me what is meant by 'social artifice' in the following

Now historians are increasingly arguing that nation or national feeling cannot simply be described as 'invented' or 'imagined'. Such an approach presupposes that nation is a thing of social artifice, a symbolic formulation, rather than a natural essence.

  • Do you know what artifice means?
    – Peter
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 15:34
  • I do. It means trickery. But I somehow can't understand it in connection with 'social'.
    – Policewala
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 15:35
  • We need some context... where is the quote from? Please always cite the sources for your question content.
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 15:36
  • I am reading a book on Modern History. It is a printed copy. This is the best I can cite. Source: books.google.co.in/…
    – Policewala
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 15:39
  • @Policewala Artifice does not always connote a negative. Carefully read (for instance) this entry and think about social contrivance or social strategem. Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 20:45

4 Answers 4



  1. b : an ingenious device or expedient
  2. a : an artful stratagem : trick

Social artifice seems to be another way of expressing the idea of social construction, without getting into all the complicated details of sociology. Here, the author is saying that the presupposition is that "nation" is a social construct. This is similar to the notions that gender and race are social constructs.

A social construct or construction concerns the meaning, notion, or connotation placed on an object or event by a society, and adopted by the inhabitants of that society with respect to how they view or deal with the object or event. In that respect, a social construct as an idea would be widely accepted as natural by the society, but may or may not represent a reality shared by those outside the society, and would be an "invention or artifice of that society.


"Artifice" CAN mean a trick or deceit. But it can also mean an invention, in the sense that the telephone is an invention. Collins English Dictionary gives definition 4: "a skilfully contrived device".

"Social" means having to do with society.

So a "social artifice" is an invention created by society.

So the writer here is saying that the idea of a "nation" is not something invented by society. I'm not quite sure what he means by that without more context, but whatever.


Artifice is an archaic word, used more commonly in older writings. An example is:

Man is a growth by law and not a creation by artifice.
-James Allen circa1903.

If you look at the date of your writing and/or the education of your author, you may see a clearer option to his or her intent. After all, antonyms for ‘artifice’ are: fairness, candor, simplicity, and openness.

‘Social artifice’ could very well and I presumably believe to mean social manipulation or trickery.

Good words that once held specific definitions lose their given qualities when used loosely a few times, and then we are all left needing more context, when the answer should be perfectly clear.


I interpret "social artifice" in this context to be pretty much as they define immediately after, i.e. that a nation is not simply an artifact of a society, it's not just "a symbolic formulation", but instead it has it's own intrinsic properties and uses.

In other words, the nation is not an artifact (accidental, emergent property, or consequence) of a society (social structure), but that is a proper entity onto itself.

  • My initial reading was the author was saying that a nation is a thing of social artifice. I suppose that we need to agree what such and approach refers to, I thought it was to what the historians are arguing, rather than the thing they are arguing against.
    – djna
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 16:43
  • Well, whether the author was arguing for a nation being a social artifice or not, the question was regarding what a social artifice was.
    – Matt
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 16:56
  • I agree that you've given a nice explanation of social artifice (no down vote from me), the problem for me was that having come to the opposite understanding of the author's intention your the nation is not an artifact caused me to lose the flow of what you were saying. I'd be tempted to pull the definition of artifact out separately.
    – djna
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 17:09
  • 1
    I think I interpreted the argument as negative because author stated that historians are arguing the issue A, which presupposes B .... I initially interpreted that as the author separating himself from the presupposition, when really by that clip the author could be entirely neutral towards the presuppositions validity. I would follow your advice (extracting the definition) or even re-write it in the positive, but @Max's response does exactly that - and is well done. :)
    – Matt
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 20:16

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