State (polity): Wikis


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A state is a set of institutions that possess the authority to make the rules that govern the people in one or more societies, having internal and external sovereignty over a definite territory. In Max Weber's influential definition, it is that organization that has a "monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory". It thus includes such institutions as the armed forces, civil service or state bureaucracy, courts, and police.

Although the term often refers broadly to all institutions of government or rule—ancient and modern—the modern state system bears a number of characteristics that were first consolidated in western Europe, beginning in earnest in the 15th century, when the term "state" also acquired its current meaning. Thus the word is often used in a strict sense to refer only to modern political systems.

Within a federal system, the term state also refers to political units, not sovereign themselves, but subject to the authority of the larger state, or federal union, such as the "states and territories of Australia" and the "states" in the United States. Within a monarchy, two or more states may share personal union under the same monarch, but retain an individual identity, even unto a separate legislature and/or government.

In casual usage, the terms "country," "nation," and "state" are often used as if they were synonymous; but in a more strict usage they can be distinguished:

  • Country denotes a geographical area
  • Nation denotes a people who share common customs, origins, and history. However, the adjectives national and international also refer to matters pertaining to what are strictly states, as in national capital, international law
  • State refers to a set of governing institutions that has sovereignty over a definite territory



The word state and its cognates in other European languages (stato in Italian, état in French, Staat in German) ultimately derive from the Latin status, meaning "condition" or "status."[1] With the revival of the Roman law in the 14th century in Europe, this Latin term was used to refer to the legal standing of persons (such as the various "estates of the realm" - noble, common, and clerical), and in particular the special status of the king. The word was also associated with Roman ideas (dating back to Cicero) about the "status rei publicae", the "condition of public matters". In time, the word lost its reference to particular social groups and became associated with the legal order of the entire society and the apparatus of its enforcement.[2]

It has also been claimed that the word "state" originates from the medieval state or regal chair upon which the head of state (usually a monarch) would sit. Two quotations which reference these different meanings, both commonly, though probably apocryphally, attributed to King Louis XIV of France, are "L'État, c'est moi" ("I am the State") and "Je m'en vais, mais l'État demeurera toujours." ("I am going away, but the State will always remain"). A similar association of terms can today be seen in the practice of referring to government buildings as having authority, for example "The White House today released a press statement...".

Empirical and juridical senses of the word state

The word 'state' has both an empirical and a juridical sense, i.e., entities can be states either de facto or de jure or both.[3]

Empirically (or de facto), an entity is a state if, as in Max Weber's influential definition, it is that organization that has a 'monopoly on legitimate violence' over a specific territory.[4] Such an entity imposes its own legal order over a territory, even if it is not legally recognized as a state by other states (e.g., the Somali region of Somaliland).

Juridically (or de jure), an entity is a state in international law if it is recognized as such by other states, even if it does not actually have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force over a territory. Only an entity juridically recognized as a state can enter into many kinds international agreements and be represented in a variety of legal forums, such as the United Nations.

States, government types, and political systems

The concept of the state can be distinguished from two related concepts with which it is sometimes confused: the concept of a form of government or regime, such as democracy or dictatorship, and the concept of a political system. The form of government identifies only one aspect of the state, namely, the way in which the highest political offices are filled and their relationship to each other and to society. It does not include other aspects of the state that may be very important in its everyday functioning, such as the quality of its bureaucracy. For example, two democratic states may be quite different if one has a capable, well-trained bureaucracy while the other does not. Thus generally speaking the term "state" refers to the instruments of political power, while the term regime or form of government refers more to the way in which such instruments can be accessed and employed.[5]

Some scholars have suggested that the term "state" is too imprecise and loaded to be used productively in sociology and political science, and ought to be substituted by the more comprehensive term "political system." The "political system" refers to the ensemble of all social structures that function to produce collectively binding decisions in a society. In modern times, these would include the political regime, political parties, and various sorts of organizations. The term "political system" thus denotes a broader concept than the state.[6]

The historical development of the state

The earliest forms of the state emerged whenever it became possible to centralize power in a durable way. Agriculture and writing are almost everywhere associated with this process: agriculture because it allowed for the emergence of a class of people who did not have to spend most of their time providing for their own subsistence, and writing (or the equivalent of writing, like Inca quipus) because it made possible the centralization of vital information.[7]


The state in classical antiquity

The history of the state in the West usually begins with classical antiquity. During that period, the state took a variety of forms, none of them very much like the modern state. There were monarchies whose power (like that of the Egyptian Pharaoh) was based on the religious function of the king and his control of a centralized army. There were also large, quasi-bureaucratized empires, like the Roman empire, which depended less on the religious function of the ruler and more on effective military and legal organizations and the cohesiveness of an aristocracy.

Perhaps the most important political innovations of classical antiquity came from the Greek city-states and the Roman Republic. The Greek city-states before the 4th century granted citizenship rights to their free population, and in Athens these rights were combined with a directly democratic form of government that was to have a long afterlife in political thought and history[8].

In contrast, Rome developed from a monarchy into a republic, governed by a senate dominated by the Roman aristocracy. The Roman political system contributed to the development of law, constitutionalism and to the distinction between the private and the public spheres.

From the feudal state to the modern state in the West

The story of the development of the specifically modern state in the West typically begins with the dissolution of the western Roman empire. This led to the fragmentation of the imperial state into the hands of private lords whose political, judicial, and military roles corresponded to the organization of economic production. In these conditions, according to Marxists, economic unit of society—was the state.

The state-system of feudal Europe was an unstable configuration of suzerains and anointed kings. A monarch, formally at the head of a hierarchy of sovereigns, was not an absolute power who could rule at will; instead, relations between lords and monarchs were mediated by varying degrees of mutual dependence, which was ensured by the absence of a centralized system of taxation. This reality ensured that each ruler needed to obtain the 'consent' of each estate in the realm. This was not quite a 'state' in the Weberian sense of the term, since the king did not monopolize either the power of lawmaking (which was shared with the church) or the means of violence (which were shared with the nobles).

The formalization of the struggles over taxation between the monarch and other elements of society (especially the nobility and the cities) gave rise to what is now called the Standestaat, or the state of Estates, characterized by parliaments in which key social groups negotiated with the king about legal and economic matters. These estates of the realm sometimes evolved in the direction of fully-fledged parliaments, but sometimes lost out in their struggles with the monarch, leading to greater centralization of lawmaking and coercive (chiefly military) power in his hands. Beginning in the 15th century, this centralizing process gives rise to the absolutist state.[9]

The modern state

The rise of the "modern state" as a public power constituting the supreme political authority within a defined territory is associated with western Europe's gradual institutional development beginning in earnest in the late 15th century, culminating in the rise of absolutism and capitalism.

As Europe's dynastic states—England under the Tudors, Spain under the Habsburgs, and France under the Bourbons—embarked on a variety of programs designed to increase centralized political and economic control, they increasingly exhibited many of the institutional features that characterize the "modern state." This centralization of power involved the delineation of political boundaries, as European monarchs gradually defeated or co-opted other sources of power, such as the Church and lesser nobility. In place of the fragmented system of feudal rule, with its often-indistinct territorial claims, large, unitary states with extensive control over definite territories emerged. This process gave rise to the highly centralized and increasingly bureaucratic forms of absolute monarchical rule of the 17th and 18th centuries, when the principal features of the contemporary state system took form, including the introduction of a standing army, a central taxation system, diplomatic relations with permanent embassies, and the development of state economic policy—mercantilism.

Cultural and national homogenization figured prominently in the rise of the modern state system. Since the absolutist period, states have largely been organized on a national basis. The concept of a national state, however, is not synonymous with nation-state. Even in the most ethnically homogeneous societies there is not always a complete correspondence between state and nation, hence the active role often taken by the state to promote nationalism through emphasis on shared symbols and national identity.[10]

It is in this period that the term "the state" is first introduced into political discourse in more or less its current meaning. Although Niccolò Machiavelli is often credited with first using the term to refer to a territorial sovereign government in the modern sense in The Prince, published in 1532, it is not until the time of the British thinkers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and the French thinker Jean Bodin that the concept in its current meaning is fully developed.[2]

Today, most Western states more or less fit the influential definition of the state in Max Weber's Politics as a Vocation.[4] According to Weber, the modern state monopolizes the means of legitimate physical violence over a well-defined territory. Moreover, the legitimacy of this monopoly itself is of a very special kind, "rational-legal" legitimacy, based on impersonal rules that constrain the power of state elites.

However, in some other parts of the world states do not fit Weber's definition as well.[3] They may not have a complete monopoly over the means of legitimate physical violence over a definite territory, or their legitimacy may not be adequately described as rational-legal. But they are still recognizably distinct from feudal and absolutist states in the extent of their bureaucratization and their reliance on nationalism as a principle of legitimation.

Since Weber, an extensive literature on the processes by which the "modern state" emerged from the feudal state has been generated. Marxist scholars, for example, assert that the formation of modern states can be explained primarily in terms of the interests and struggles of social classes.[11]

Scholars working in the broad Weberian tradition, by contrast, have often emphasized the institution-building effects of war. For example, Charles Tilly has argued that the revenue-gathering imperatives forced on nascent states by geopolitical competition and constant warfare were mostly responsible for the development of the centralized, territorial bureaucracies that characterize modern states in Europe. States that were able to develop centralized tax-gathering bureaucracies and to field mass armies survived into the modern era; states that were not able to do so did not.[12]

State and civil society

The modern state is both separate from and connected to civil society. The nature of this connection has been the subject of considerable attention in both analyses of state development and normative theories of the state. Classical thinkers, such as Thomas Hobbes, J. J. Rousseau, Immanuel Kant emphasized the identity of the state and society, while modern thinkers, by contrast, beginning with G. W. F. Hegel and Alexis de Tocqueville, started to emphasize the relations between them as independent entities[13]. Following Karl Marx, Jürgen Habermas, has argued that civil society may form an economic base for a public sphere, as a placed in political superstructure domain of extra-institutional engagement with matters of public interest trying to influence the state and yet necessarily connected with it.

Some Marxist theorists, such as Antonio Gramsci, have questioned the distinction between the state and civil society altogether, arguing that the former is integrated into many parts of the latter. Others, such as Louis Althusser, maintain that civil organizations such as church, schools, and even trade unions are part of an 'ideological state apparatus.' In this sense, the state can fund a number of groups within society that, while autonomous in principle, are dependent on state support.

Given the role that many social groups have in in the development of public policy and the extensive connections between state bureaucracies and other institutions, it has become increasingly difficult to identify the boundaries of the state. Privatization, nationalization, and the creation of new regulatory bodies also change the boundaries of the state in relation to society. Often the nature of quasi-autonomous organizations is unclear, generating debate among political scientists on whether they are part of the state or civil society. Some political scientists thus prefer to speak of policy networks and decentralized governance in modern societies rather than of state bureaucracies and direct state control over policy.[14]

The state and the international system

Since the late 19th century, virtually the entirety of the world's inhabitable land has been parceled up into areas with more or less definite borders claimed by various states. Earlier, quite large land areas had been either unclaimed or uninhabited, or inhabited by nomadic peoples who were not organized as states. However, even within present-day states there are vast areas of wilderness, like the Amazon Rainforest, which are uninhabited or inhabited solely or mostly by indigenous people. Also, there are states which do not hold de facto control over all of their claimed territory or where this control is challenged (as in the 2006 civil war in Somalia).

Currently more than 200 states comprise the international community, with the vast majority of them represented in the United Nations. These states form what International relations theorists call a system, where each state takes into account the behavior of other states when making their own calculations. From this point of view, states embedded in an international system face internal and external security and legitimation dilemmas. Recently the notion of an 'international community' has been developed to refer to a group of states who have established rules, procedures, and institutions for the conduct of their relations. In this way the foundation has been laid for international law, diplomacy, formal regimes, and organizations.

The state and supranationalism

In the late 20th century, the globalization of the world economy, the mobility of people and capital, and the rise of many international institutions all combined to circumscribe the freedom of action of states. These constraints on the state's freedom of action are accompanied in some areas, notably Western Europe, with projects for interstate integration such as the European Union. Sovereignty to a large degree is reduced voluntarily by national states themselves[15]. However, the state remains the basic political unit of the world, as it has been since the 16th century. The state is therefore considered the most central concept in the study of politics, and its definition is the subject of intense scholarly debate.

The state and international law

By modern practice and the law of international relations, a state's sovereignty is conditional upon the diplomatic recognition of the state's claim to statehood. Degrees of recognition and sovereignty may vary. However any degree of recognition, even recognition by a majority of the states in the international system, is not binding on third-party states.

The legal criteria for statehood are not obvious. Often, the laws are surpassed by political circumstances. However, one of the documents often quoted on the matter is the Montevideo Convention from 1933, the first article of which states:

The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

Contemporary approaches to the study of the state

There are three main traditions within political science and sociology that shape 'theories of the state': the Marxist, the pluralist, and the institutionalist. Each of these theories has been employed to gain understanding on the state, while recognizing its complexity. Several issues underlie this complexity. First, the boundaries of the state are not closely defined, but constantly changing. Second, the state is not only the site of conflict between different organizations, but also internal conflict and conflict within organizations. Some scholars speak of the 'state's interest,' but there are often various interests within different parts of the state that are neither solely state-centered nor solely society-centered, but develop between different groups in civil society and different state actors.


For Marxist theorists, the role of modern states is determined or related to their position in capitalist societies. Many contemporary Marxists offer a liberal interpretation of Marx's comment in The Communist Manifesto that the state is but the executive committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. Ralph Miliband argued that the ruling class uses the state as its instrument to dominate society by virtue of the interpersonal ties between state officials and economic elites. For Miliband, the state is dominated by an elite that comes from the same background as the capitalist class. State officials therefore share the same interests as owners of capital and are linked to them through a wide array of interpersonal and political ties.[16]

By contrast, other Marxist theorists argue that the question of who controls the state is irrelevant. Heavily influenced by Gramsci, Nicos Poulantzas, a Greek neo-Marxist theorist argued that capitalist states do not always act on behalf of the ruling class, and when they do, it is not necessarily the case because state officials consciously strive to do so, but because the 'structural' position of the state is configured in such a way to ensure that the long-term interests of capital are always dominant. Poulantzas' main contribution to the Marxist literature on the state was the concept of 'relative autonomy' of the state. While Poulantzas' work on 'state autonomy' has served to sharpen and specify a great deal of Marxist literature on the state, his own framework came under criticism for its 'structural functionalism.'


While neo-Marxist theories of the state were relatively influential in continental Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, pluralism, a contending approach, gained greater adherence in the United States. Within the pluralist tradition, Robert Dahl developed the theory of the state as a neutral arena for contending interests or its agencies as simply another set of interest groups. With power competitively arranged in society, state policy is a product of recurrent bargaining. Although pluralism recognizes the existence of inequality, it asserts that all groups have an opportunity to pressure the state. The pluralist approach suggests that the modern democratic state's actions are the result of pressures applied by a variety of organized interests. Dahl called this kind of state a polyarchy.[17]


Both the Marxist and pluralist approaches view the state as reacting to the activities of groups within society, such as classes or interest groups. In this sense, they have both come under criticism for their 'society-centered' understanding of the state by scholars who emphasize the autonomy of the state with respect to social forces.

In particular, the "new institutionalism," an approach to politics that holds that behavior is fundamentally molded by the institutions in which it is embedded, asserts that the state is not an 'instrument' or an 'arena' and does not 'function' in the interests of a single class. Scholars working within this approach stress the importance of interposing civil society between the economy and the state to explain variation in state forms.

"New institutionalist" writings on the state, such as the works of Theda Skocpol, suggest that state actors are to an important degree autonomous. In other words, state personnel have interests of their own, which they can and do pursue independently (at times in conflict with) actors in society. Since the state controls the means of coercion, and given the dependence of many groups in civil society on the state for achieving any goals they may espouse, state personnel can to some extent impose their own preferences on civil society.[18]

'New institutionalist' writers, claiming allegiance to Weber, often utilize the distinction between 'strong states' and 'weak states,' claiming that the degree of 'relative autonomy' of the state from pressures in society determines the power of the state—a position that has found favor in the field of international political economy.

The state in modern political thought

The rise of the modern state system was closely related to changes in political thought, especially concerning the changing understanding of legitimate state power. Early modern defenders of absolutism such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean Bodin undermined the doctrine of the divine right of kings by arguing that the power of kings should be justified by reference to the people. Hobbes in particular went further and argued that political power should be justified with reference to the individual, not just to the people understood collectively. Both Hobbes and Bodin thought they were defending the power of kings, not advocating democracy, but their arguments about the nature of sovereignty were fiercely resisted by more traditional defenders of the power of kings, like Sir Robert Filmer in England, who thought that such defenses ultimately opened the way to more democratic claims.

These and other early thinkers introduced two important concepts in order to justify sovereign power: the idea of a state of nature and the idea of a social contract. The first concept describes an imagined situation in which the state - understood as a centralized, coercive power - does not exist, and human beings have all their natural rights and powers; the second describes the conditions under which a voluntary agreement could take human beings out of the state of nature and into a state of civil society. Depending on what they understood human nature to be and the natural rights they thought human beings had in that state, various writers were able to justify more or less extensive forms of the state as a remedy for the problems of the state of nature. Thus, for example, Hobbes, who described the state of nature as a "war of every man, against every man,"[19] argued that sovereign power should be almost absolute since almost all sovereign power would be better than such a war, whereas John Locke, who understood the state of nature in more positive terms, thought that state power should be strictly limited.[20] Both of them nevertheless understood the powers of the state to be limited by what rational individuals would agree to in a hypothetical or actual social contract.

The idea of the social contract lent itself to more democratic interpretations than Hobbes or Locke would have wanted. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, argued that the only valid social contract would be one were individuals would be subject to laws that only themselves had made and assented to, as in a small direct democracy. Today the tradition of social contract reasoning is alive in the work of John Rawls and his intellectual heirs, though in a very abstract form. Rawls argued that rational individuals would only agree to social institutions specifying a set of inviolable basic liberties and a certain amount of redistribution to alleviate inequalities for the benefit of the worst off. Lockean state of nature reasoning, by contrast, is more common in the libertarian tradition of political thought represented by the work of Robert Nozick. Nozick argued that given the natural rights that human beings would have in a state of nature, the only state that could be justified would be a minimal state whose sole functions would be to provide protection and enforce agreements. Murray Rothbard, another prominent libertarian, suggests that these protection and enforcement functions of government lead to a definition of the state as any entity that has a monopoly on crime in a given area.

Some contemporary thinkers, such as Michel Foucault, have argued that political theory needs to get away from the notion of the state: "We need to cut off the king's head. In political theory that has still to be done."[21] By this he meant that power in the modern world is much more decentralized and uses different instruments than power in the early modern era, so that the notion of a sovereign, centralized state is increasingly out of date.

Alternatives to the notion of state

There are those who believe that the state is not necessarily required to the management of social affairs. Karl Marx, for example, believed that under communism the state would eventually "wither away."

Also, anarchist political thought has argued that, a group of people, imbued with a sort of commonality and common sense as well as understanding and respect for one-another are able to live in liberty, free from the oppression of any state government and yet manage to tackle all aspects of life on their own.

Throughout history, there have been a number of anarchist communities, spanning a wide ranging of surfaces of land (some of them just a few sq. kilometers) and with lifespans from as little as several months to 1000 years. Some of them, such as the Whiteway Colony, still exist today.

See also


  1. ^ "state." Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 26 Feb. 2007. [].
  2. ^ a b Skinner, Quentin. 1989. The State. In Political Innovation and Conceptual Change, edited by T. Ball, J. Farr and R. L. Hanson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521359783
  3. ^ a b Jackson, Robert H., and Carl G. Rosberg. 1982. Why Africa's Weak States Persist: The Empirical and The Juridical in Statehood. World Politics 35 (1):1-24.[1]
  4. ^ a b Weber, Max. 1994. The Profession and Vocation of Politics. In Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521397197.
  5. ^ Bobbio, Norberto. 1989. Democracy and Dictatorship: The Nature and Limits of State Power. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0816618135.
  6. ^ Easton, David. 1990. The Analysis of Political Structure. New York: Routledge.
  7. ^ Giddens, Anthony. 1987. Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. 3 vols. Vol. II: The Nation-State and Violence. Cambridge: Polity Press. ISBN 0520060393. See chapter 2.
  8. ^ Grinin L. E. Democracy and Early State. Social Evolution & History 3(2), September 2004 (pp. 93-149)Democracy and Early State
  9. ^ Poggi, G. 1978. The Development of the Modern State: A Sociological Introduction. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  10. ^ Breuilly, John. 1993. Nationalism and the State. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN SBN0719038006.
  11. ^ Anderson, Perry. 1979. Lineages of the absolutist state. London: Verso. ISBN 086091710X.
  12. ^ Tilly, Charles. 1992. Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1992. Cambridge, Massachusetts: B. Blackwell. ISBN 1557863687.
  13. ^ Zaleski, Pawel (2008). "Tocqueville on Civilian Society. A Romantic Vision of the Dichotomic Structure of Social Reality". Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte (Felix Meiner Verlag) 50 (-).  
  14. ^ Kjaer, Anne Mette. 2004. Governance. London: Verso. ISBN 0745629792
  15. ^ Grinin L. E.Transformation of Sovereignty and Globalization. In Grinin L. E. et al. (eds.),Hierarchy and power in the History of Civilizations: Political Aspects of Modernity (pp. 191-224). Moscow, 2008 Transformation of Sovereignty
  16. ^ Miliband, Ralph. 1983. Class power and state power. London: Verso.
  17. ^ Robert Dahl. 1973. Modern Political Analysis. Prentice Hall. ISBN 0135969816
  18. ^ Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, Theda Skocpol, and Peter B. Evans, eds. 1985. Bringing the State Back In. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.ISBN 0521313139.
  19. ^ Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan. Part I, chapter 13.
  20. ^ Locke, John. 1689. Two Treatises of Government. Second Treatise, chapter 2.
  21. ^ Foucault, Michel. 2000 [1976]. Truth and Power. In Power, edited by J. D. Fearon. New York: The New Press, p. 123. ISBN 1565847091


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