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State (polity)

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State (polity)

The frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan

A state is a compulsory centralized government that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a certain geographical territory.[1][2]

Many human societies have been governed by states for millennia, however for most of pre-history people lived in stateless societies. The first states arose about 5,500 years ago in conjunction with rapid growth of cities, invention of writing, and codification of new forms of religion. Over time, a variety of different forms developed, employing a variety of justifications for their existence (such as divine right, the theory of the social contract, etc.). Today, however, the modern nation-state is the predominant form of state to which people are subject.

States may be sovereign. The term state is also applied to federated states that are members of a federal union, which is the sovereign state.[3] Some states are subject to external sovereignty or hegemony where ultimate sovereignty lies in another state.[4] The state can also be used to refer to the secular branches of government within a state,[5] often as a manner of contrasting them with churches and civilian institutions.


  • Definitional issues 1
    • Types of states 1.1
    • The state and government 1.2
    • States and nation-states 1.3
    • The state and civil society 1.4
    • The man versus the state 1.5
  • Theories of state 2
    • Theories of state function 2.1
      • Anarchist 2.1.1
      • Marxist perspective 2.1.2
      • Pluralism 2.1.3
      • Contemporary critical perspectives 2.1.4
      • State autonomy (institutionalism) 2.1.5
    • Theories of state legitimacy 2.2
      • Divine right 2.2.1
      • Rational-legal authority 2.2.2
  • Etymology 3
  • History 4
    • Pre-historic stateless societies 4.1
    • The Neolithic period 4.2
    • The state in ancient Eurasia 4.3
    • The state in classical antiquity 4.4
    • The state in the pre-Columbian Americas 4.5
    • Pre-Colonial African States 4.6
    • The Feudal state 4.7
    • Late Pre-Modern Eurasian States 4.8
    • The modern state 4.9
  • See also 5
  • References 6
    • Notes 6.1
    • Bibliography 6.2
  • Further reading 7

Definitional issues

There is no academic consensus on the most appropriate definition of the state.[6] The term "state" refers to a set of different, but interrelated and often overlapping, theories about a certain range of political phenomena.[7] The act of defining the term can be seen as part of an ideological conflict, because different definitions lead to different theories of state function, and as a result validate different political strategies.[8]

The most commonly used definition is government; a commonwealth; a nation. b such a community forming part of a federal republic, esp the United States of America".[3]

Confounding the definitional problem is that "state" and "government" are often used as synonyms in common conversation and even some academic discourse. According to this definitional schema, the states are nonphysical persons of

  • Barrow, Clyde W. (2002). "The Miliband-Poulantzas Debate: An Intellectual History". In Aronowitz, Stanley & Bratsis, Peter. Paradigm lost: state theory reconsidered. University of Minnesota Press.  
  • Bottomore, T. B., ed. (1991). "The State". A Dictionary of Marxist thought (2nd ed.). Wiley-Blackwell.  
  • Bratsis, Peter (2006). Everyday Life and the State. Paradigm.  
  • Faulks, Keith (2000). "Classical Theories of the State and Civil Society". Political sociology: a critical introduction. NYU Press.  
  • Feldbrugge, Ferdinand J. M., ed. (2003). The law's beginning. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.  
  • Fisk, Milton (1989). The state and justice: an essay in political theory. Cambridge University Press.  
  • Friedeburg, Robert von (2011). State Forms and State Systems in Modern Europe.  
  • Green, Penny & Ward, Tony (2009). "Violence and the State". In Coleman, Roy et al. State, Power, Crime. SAGE.  
  • Hall, John A., ed. (1994). The state: critical concepts (Vol. 1 & 2). Taylor & Francis.  
  • Hansen, Thomas Blom & Stepputat, Finn, ed. (2001). States of imagination: ethnographic explorations of the postcolonial state. Duke University Press.  
  • Hoffman, John (1995). Beyond the state: an introductory critique. Polity Press.  
  • Hoffman, John (2004). Citizenship beyond the state. SAGE.  
  • Jessop, Bob (1990). State theory: putting the Capitalist state in its place. Penn State Press.  
  • Jessop, Bob (2009). "Redesigning the State, Reorienting State Power, and Rethinking the State". In Leicht, Kevin T. & Jenkins, J. Craig. Handbook of Politics: State and Society in Global Perspective. Springer.  
  • Lefebvre, Henri (2009). Brenner, Neil & Elden, Stuart, ed. State, space, world: selected essays. University of Minnesota Press.  
  • Long, Roderick T. & Machan, Tibor R. (2008). Anarchism/minarchism: is a government part of a free country?. Ashgate Publishing.  
  • Mann, Michael (1994). "The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms, and Results". In Hall, John A. The State: critical concepts, Volume 1. Taylor & Francis.  
  • Oppenheimer, Franz (1975). The state. Black Rose Books.  
  • Poulantzas, Nicos & Camiller, Patrick (2000). State, power, socialism. Verso.  
  • Sanders, John T. & Narveson, Jan (1996). For and against the state: new philosophical readings. Rowman & Littlefield.  
  • Scott, James C. (1998). Seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Yale University Press.  
  • Taylor, Michael (1982). Community, anarchy, and liberty. Cambridge University Press.  
  • Zippelius, Reinhold (2010). Allgemeine Staatslehre, Politikwissenschaft (16th ed.). C.H. Beck, Munich.  
  • Uzgalis, William (May 5, 2007). "John Locke". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 

Further reading

  • Barrow, Clyde W. (1993). Critical Theories of State: Marxist, Neo-Marxist, Post-Marxist. University of Wisconsin Press.  
  • Bobbio, Norberto (1989). Democracy and Dictatorship: The Nature and Limits of State Power. University of Minnesota Press.  
  • Cudworth, Erika (2007). The Modern State: Theories and Ideologies. Edinburgh University Press.  
  • Dogan, Mattei (1992). "Conceptions of Legitimacy". In Paynter, John et al. Encyclopedia of government and politics. Psychology Press.  
  • Flint, Colin & Taylor, Peter (2007). Political Geography: World Economy, Nation-State, and Locality (5th ed.). Pearson/Prentice Hall.  
  • Hay, Colin (2001). "State theory". In Jones, R.J. Barry. Routledge Encyclopedia of International Political Economy: Entries P-Z. Taylor & Francis. pp. 1469–1475.  
  • Joseph, Jonathan (2004). Social theory: an introduction. NYU Press.  
  • Malešević, Siniša (2002). Ideology, legitimacy and the new state: Yugoslavia, Serbia and Croatia. Routledge.  
  • Nelson, Brian T. (2006). The making of the modern state: a theoretical evolution. Palgrave Macmillan.  
  • Rueschemeyer, Dietrich; Skocpol, Theda; Evans, Peter B. (1985). Bringing the State Back In. Cambridge University Press.  
  • Salmon, Trevor C. (2008). Issues in international relations. Taylor & Francis US.  
  • Sartwell, Crispin (2008). Against the state: an introduction to anarchist political theory. SUNY Press.  
  • Scott, James C. (2009). The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press.  
  • Skinner, Quentin (1989). "The state". In Ball, T; Farr, J.; and Hanson, R.L. Political Innovation and Conceptual Change. Cambridge University Press. pp. 90–131.  
  • Vincent, Andrew (1992). "Conceptions of the State". In Paynter, John et al. Encyclopedia of government and politics. Psychology Press.  


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  2. ^ a b Salmon, 2008: p. 54
  3. ^ a b c d (1995). "state". Concise Oxford English Dictionary (9th ed.) (Oxford University Press). 3 (also State) a an organized political community under one government; a commonwealth; a nation. b such a community forming part of a federal republic, esp the United States of America 
  4. ^ For example the Vichy France (1940-1944) officially referred to itself as l'État français.
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  8. ^ Barrow, 1993: pp. 10-11
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See also

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.[85]

The modern state

Late Pre-Modern Eurasian States

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 military power in his hands. Beginning in the 15th century, this centralizing process gives rise to the absolutist state.[84]

[83] During Medieval times in Europe, the state was organized on the principle of

The Feudal state

Pre-Colonial African States

The state in the pre-Columbian Americas

Several 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.

Although primitive state-forms existed before the rise of the Ancient Greek empire, the Greeks were the first people known to have explicitly formulated a political philosophy of the state, and to have rationally analyzed political institutions. Prior to this, states were described and justified in terms of religious myths.[82]

Painting of Roman Senators encircling Julius Caesar

The state in classical antiquity

Mesopotamia is generally considered to be the location of the earliest civilization or complex society, meaning that it contained cities, full-time division of labor, social concentration of wealth into capital, unequal distribution of wealth, ruling classes, community ties based on residency rather than kinship, long distance trade, monumental architecture, standardized forms of art and culture, writing, and mathematics and science.[79] It was the world's first literate civilization, and formed the first sets of written laws.[80][81]

The state in ancient Eurasia

In the past, it was suggested that the centralized state was developed to administer large public works systems (such as irrigation systems) and to regulate complex economies. However, modern archaeological and anthropological evidence does not support this thesis, pointing to the existence of several non-stratified and politically decentralized complex societies.[78]

Sedentary agriculture led to the development of property rights, patriarchal societies, domestication of plants and animals, and larger family sizes. It also provided the basis for the centralized state form[75] by producing a large surplus of food, which created a more complex division of labor by enabling people to specialize in tasks other than food production.[76] Early states were characterized by highly stratified societies, with a privileged and wealthy ruling class that was subordinate to a monarch. The ruling classes began to differentiate themselves through forms of architecture and other cultural practices that were different from those of the subordinate laboring classes.[77]

During the Neolithic period, human societies underwent major cultural and economic changes, including the development of agriculture, the formation of sedentary societies and fixed settlements, increasing population densities, and the use of pottery and more complex tools.[73][74]

The Neolithic period

It is not enough to observe, in a now rather dated anthropological idiom, that hunter gatherers live in 'stateless societies', as though their social lives were somehow lacking or unfinished, waiting to be completed by the evolutionary development of a state apparatus. Rather, the principal of their socialty, as Pierre Clastres has put it, is fundamentally against the state.[72]

The anthropologist Tim Ingold writes:

For 99.8 percent of human history people lived exclusively in autonomous bands and villages. At the beginning of the Paleolithic [i.e. the stone age], the number of these autonomous political units must have been small, but by 1000 B.C. it had increased to some 600,000. Then supra-village aggregation began in earnest, and in barely three millennia the autonomous political units of the world dropped from 600,000 to 157. In the light of this trend, the continued decrease from 157 to 1 seems not only inescapable but close at hand.[71]

The anthropologist Robert L. Carneiro comments:

For most of human history, people have lived in stateless societies, characterized by a lack of concentrated authority, and the absence of large inequalities in economic and political power.

Pre-historic stateless societies

Since the late 19th century, virtually the entirety of the world's inhabitable land has been parcelled 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 Amazon Rainforest, which are uninhabited or inhabited solely or mostly by indigenous people (and some of them remain uncontacted). Also, there are states which do not hold de facto control over all of their claimed territory or where this control is challenged. Currently the international community comprises around 200 sovereign states, the vast majority of which are represented in the United Nations.

Initially states emerged over territories built by conquest in which one culture, one set of ideals and military bureaucracy.[70] Currently, that is not always the case and there are multinational states, federated states and autonomous areas within states.

The first known states were created in prehistory and much of the history of the human species and civilization.[70]

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.[69]


The early 16th-century works of Machiavelli (especially The Prince) played a central role in popularizing the use of the word "state" in something similar to its modern sense.[68]

In English, "state" came about as a contraction of the word "estate", which is similar to the old French estat and the modern French état, both of which signify that a person has status and therefore estate. The highest estates, generally those with the most wealth and social rank, were those that held power.[60]

With the revival of the Roman law in 14th-century Europe, this Latin term came 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 also had associations 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.[67]

The word state and its cognates in some other European languages (stato in Italian, estado in Spanish, état in French, Staat in German) ultimately derive from the Latin word status, meaning "condition" or "status."[66]


Max Weber identified three main sources of political legitimacy in his works. The first, legitimacy based on traditional grounds is derived from a belief that things should be as they have been in the past, and that those who defend these traditions have a legitimate claim to power. The second, legitimacy based on charismatic leadership is devotion to a leader or group that is viewed as exceptionally heroic or virtuous. The third is rational-legal authority, whereby legitimacy is derived from the belief that a certain group has been placed in power in a legal manner, and that their actions are justifiable according to a specific code of written laws. Weber believed that the modern state is characterized primarily by appeals to rational-legal authority.[63][64][65]

Rational-legal authority

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.

Divine right

States generally rely on a claim to some form of political legitimacy in order to maintain domination over their subjects.[60][61][62]

Theories of state legitimacy

G. William Domhoff claims that "The idea of the American state having any significant degree of autonomy from the owners and managers of banks, corporations, and agribusinesses is a theoretical mistake based in empirical inaccuracies," and cites empirical studies showing a high degree of overlap between upper-level corporate management and high-level positions in government.[57][59]

"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 of (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.[58]

State autonomy theorists believe that the state is an entity that is impervious to external social and economic influence, and has interests of its own.[57]

State autonomy (institutionalism)

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.'

Michel Foucault believed that modern political theory was too state-centric, saying "Maybe, after all, the state is no more than a composite reality and a mythologized abstraction, whose importance is a lot more limited than many of us think." He thought that political theory was focusing too much on abstract institutions, and not enough on the actual practices of government. In Foucault's opinion, the state had no essence. He believed that instead of trying to understand the activities of governments by analyzing the properties of the state (a reified abstraction), political theorists should be examining changes in the practice of government to understand changes in the nature of the state.[54][55][56]

Jürgen Habermas believed that the base-superstructure framework, used by many Marxist theorists to describe the relation between the state and the economy, was overly simplistic. He felt that the modern state plays a large role in structuring the economy, by regulating economic activity and being a large-scale economic consumer/producer, and through its redistributive welfare state activities. Because of the way these activities structure the economic framework, Habermas felt that the state cannot be looked at as passively responding to economic class interests.[51][52][53]

Contemporary critical perspectives

Pluralism has been challenged on the ground that it is not supported by empirical evidence. Citing surveys showing that the large majority of people in high leadership positions are members of the wealthy upper class, critics of pluralism claim that the state serves the interests of the upper class rather than equitably serving the interests of all social groups.[49][50]



Gramsci's theories of state emphasized that the state is only one of the institutions in society that helps maintain the hegemony of the ruling class, and that state power is bolstered by the ideological domination of the institutions of civil society, such as churches, schools, and mass media.[46]

For Marxist theorists, the role of the non-socialist state is determined by its function in the global capitalist order. 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 social, economic, and political ties.[45]

Marx's early writings portrayed the state as "parasitic", built upon the superstructure of the economy, and working against the public interest. He also wrote that the state mirrors social class relations in society in general, acts as a regulator and repressor of class struggle, and acts as a tool of political power and domination for the ruling class.[44] The Communist Manifesto claimed that the state is nothing more than "a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie.[41]

Marx and Engels were clear in that the communist goal was a classless society in which the state would have "withered away".[40] Their views are scattered throughout the Marx/Engels Collected Works and address past or the then extant state forms from an analytical or tactical viewpoint, not future social forms, speculation about which is generally anathema to groups considering themselves Marxist but who, not having conquered the existing state power(s) are not in the situation of supplying the institutional form of an actual society. To the extent that it makes sense, there is no single "Marxist theory of state", but rather many different "Marxist" theories that have been developed by adherents of Marxism.[41][42][43]

Marxist perspective

Various Christian anarchists, such as Jacques Ellul, have identified the State and political power as the Beast in the Book of Revelation.[38][39]

Anarchists believe that the state is inherently an instrument of domination and repression, no matter who is in control of it. Anarchists note that the state possesses the monopoly on the legal use of violence. Unlike Marxists, anarchists believe that revolutionary seizure of state power should not be a political goal. They believe instead that the state apparatus should be completely dismantled, and an alternative set of social relations created, which are not based on state power at all.[36][37]

Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state immoral, unnecessary, and harmful and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchy.

IWW poster "Pyramid of the Capitalist System"(c. 1911), depicting an anti-capitalist perspective on statist/capitalist social structures


Most political theories of the state can roughly be classified into two categories. The first are known as "liberal" or "conservative" theories, which treat capitalism as a given, and then concentrate on the function of states in capitalist society. These theories tend to see the state as a neutral entity separated from society and the economy. Marxist theories on the other hand, see politics as intimately tied in with economic relations, and emphasize the relation between economic power and political power. They see the state as a partisan instrument that primarily serves the interests of the upper class.[21]

Theories of state function

Theories of state

[35] Given the role that many social groups have 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.

Jürgen Habermas, spoke of a public sphere that was distinct from both the economic and political sphere.[34]

church, schools, and the family are part of an "ideological state apparatus" which complements the "repressive state apparatus" (such as police and military) in reproducing social relations.[31][32][33]

English philosopher, sociologist, biologist and writer Herbert Spencer wrote of the many aspects of the character of the state as opposed to the character of man in his book The Man Versus The State. In it, Spencer details almost a Shakespearean academic analysis of the standoff and the consequences of interrelationships between the state and men who live under it.

The man versus the state

In the classical thought the state was identified with both political society and civil society as a form of political community, while the modern thought distinguished the nation state as a political society from civil society as a form of economic society.[25] Thus in the modern thought the state is contrasted with civil society.[26][27][28]

The state and civil society

States can also be distinguished from the concept of a "nation", which refers to a large geographical area, and the people therein who perceive themselves as having a common identity.[24]

States and nation-states

Each successive government is composed of a specialized and privileged body of individuals, who monopolize political decision-making, and are separated by status and organization from the population as a whole. Their function is to enforce existing laws, legislate new ones, and arbitrate conflicts. In some societies, this group is often a self-perpetuating or hereditary class. In other societies, such as democracies, the political roles remain, but there is frequent turnover of the people actually filling the positions.[23]

A state can be distinguished from a government. The government is the particular group of people, the administrative bureaucracy, that controls the state apparatus at a given time.[19][20][21] That is, governments are the means through which state power is employed. States are served by a continuous succession of different governments.[21] States as immaterial and nonphysical social objects, whereas governments are groups of people with certain coercive powers.[22]

The state and government

States may be classified as sovereign if they are not dependent on, or subject to any other power or state. Other states are subject to external sovereignty or hegemony where ultimate sovereignty lies in another state.[3][17] Many states are federated states which participate in a federal union. A federated state is a territorial and constitutional community forming part of a federation.[18] Such states differ from sovereign states, in that they have transferred a portion of their sovereign powers to a federal government.[3]

Types of states

[16] The relationship between a government and its state is one of representation and authorized agency.[15] According to the


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