Max Weber defined the state as the human community that, within a defined territory (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of force for itself. This definition focuses on the function of the state ascribing territory as its only inherent characteristic. On the topics of the use of force, Weber argues that, though force is not the normal or sole means available to a state, without the ability to use force, a state would cease to exist. He suggests there are three pure types of legitimacy: custom (based on time immemorial), gift of grace (i.e., charisma), and legal statute. Weber explains that these pure types are rarely found but more often there exist complex variations, transitional forms, and combinations of these types. This widely accepted definition has continually met criticism as Weber’s definition focuses on the functions of the state rather than its identifiable characteristics.
In the 1950s to 1960s, the concept of state was subsumed in sociological analyses that focused on society at large. The state, sociologist Edwards Shils argued, was one (though arguably very important) organization within a broader array of organizations existing at the center of society. Shils understood the center to be the elites, values, beliefs, and institutions that act as the modernizing force within a given society. This modernizing center must struggle for change against a traditional periphery.
By the 1970s and 1980s, however, the center-periphery model had lost influence, as critics of Shils pointed to the birth of “new nations” in the third world that were not following the Western path toward modernization. Theda Skocpol reintroduces the state as an autonomous (and not simply central) actor in “Bringing the State Back In” (1985). She argues that states are not simply organizations controlling territories but rather they are braced at the “intersection between domestic sociopolitical orders and transnational relations within which they must maneuver for survival and advantage in relation to other states.” Thus, states must be viewed as organizations maneuvering to consolidate power domestically and maneuvering to survive internationally.
Joel Migdal argues that the state as an independent actor may provide a simple theoretical concept, but it lacks applicability. Instead, Migdal returns to the concept of the state as a central organization that battles among social organizations to gain social control both domestically and internationally. He argues that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in western Europe the state began to directly challenge other forms of social organization and proved the most effective domestically in improving existing tax-collecting mechanisms and expanding its courts, as well as defending itself internationally with a large standing army.
In his 2001 work, State in Society, Migdal has posited a more dynamic definition of the state than Weber’s. The state, Migdal suggests, “is a field of power marked by the use and threat of violence and shaped by (1) the image of a coherent, controlling organization in a territory, which is a representation of a people bounded in that territory, and (2) the actual practices of its multiple parts.” He argues that the two parts of a state, its image and its practices, could either be reinforcing or mutually destructive.
Migdal’s definition is not only a two-level analysis of the state but the two levels are paradoxical in nature. The image of a state, Migdal argues, presents a view of the state as a “clearly bounded, unified organization that can be spoken of in a singular term.” In contrast, a given states’ practices are executed by “a heap of loosely connected parts or fragments, frequently with ill-defined boundaries between” them and responsible for promoting conflicting sets of rules from one another and from the accepted rule of law. Though this definition lacks simplicity, Migdal warns that theories that do not capture the paradoxical nature of the state “end up either over idealizing its ability to turn rhetoric into effective policy or dismissing it as a grab-bag of every-man-out-for-himself, corrupt officials.” From this conception, Migdal moves to an analysis of state society relations, or the relations of the state with its component societal interests.
Countries vary in their state-society relations, specifically in the ability of the state to achieve social control within society. States that have effectively gained social control are considered authoritarian or strong. Russia is an example of an authoritarian state that exercises almost complete control within its own society. Many European and Asian countries have strong states that have not gained complete control over society but are nonetheless effective in regulating and limiting it. Other countries have weak states. The United States, for example, has a weak, “checked-and-balanced” government. Many developing counties are considered too weak in that they have such little social control that they cannot govern or carry out effective public policies.
- Migdal, Joel S. “The State in Society.” In New Directions in Comparative Politics, 3rd ed., edited by Howard J.Wiarda, 63–80. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2002.
- State in Society: Studying How States and Societies Transform and Constitute One Another. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2001.
- Strong Societies and Weak States: State-society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.
- Skocpol, Theda. “Bringing the State Back In: Strategies of Analysis in Current Research.” In Bringing the State Back In, edited by Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol, 3–40. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- Weber, Max. “Politics as a Vocation.” In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by Max Weber, Hans Heinrich Gerth, and C.Wright Mills, 77–128. New York: Galaxy, 1958.
- Wiarda, Howard J. Civil Society: The American Model and Third World Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Westview, 2003.
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