The paradox of attempting to (re)construct state institutions without considering the socio-political cohesion of societies recurs throughout the world, most notably today in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. This essay tries to shed some light on the debate around the concepts of state and nation-building. Drawing on a sociological understanding of the modern nation-state, it contends that it is impossible to conceive of statebuilding as a process separate from nation-building. This essay identifies two different schools of thought in the discussion concerning the statebuilding process, each of which reflects different sociological understandings of the state. The first one, an ‘institutional approach’ closely related to the Weberian conception of the state, focuses on the importance of institutional reconstruction and postulates that statebuilding activities do not necessarily require a concomitant nation-building effort. The second, a ‘legitimacy approach’ influenced by Durkheimian sociology, recognizes the need to consolidate central state institutions, but puts more emphasis on the importance of socio-political cohesion in the process. Building on this second approach and demonstrating its relevance in contemporary statebuilding, this article concludes with a discussion of recent statebuilding attempts and the ways external actors can effectively contribute to statebuilding processes.