What We Talk About When We Talk About States

24 Pages Posted: 9 Jun 2012

Date Written: January 25, 2010


What are U.S. and European governments trying to construct when they engage in "state-building," and how can we assess the progress of those efforts and the consequences they have within countries across time? To answer these questions in accurate and useful ways, we need to have a strong prior understanding of what states are, including the messy parts. To help provide that understanding, this essay briefly and selectively reviews prior efforts to conceptualize and measure the political state. For pragmatic reasons, I pick up the story in the early twentieth century with the work of Max Weber, whose definition of a state is probably the most widely cited one in modern social science. After considering Weber’s definition and its shortcomings, I turn to conceptualizations of the state found in other writings on the subject, dwelling mostly on recent thinking by international relations theorists about the notion of sovereignty and the units in which its is said to reside, namely, the nation-state. In the penultimate section, I briefly review a variety of approaches that take the criticism of the Weberian tradition a step further by explicitly considering how the state is constituted through everyday practices and symbolic representations. Finally, I conclude by proposing a specific strategy for observing several clusters of phenomena related to the state for purposes of empirical analysis.

Keywords: state, sovereignty, state-building, nation-building, Weberian

Suggested Citation

Ulfelder, Jay, What We Talk About When We Talk About States (January 25, 2010). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2080216 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2080216

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