The Study of the State: A Brief Intellectual History

Almost 20 years ago, Margaret Levi wrote an essay titled “The State of the Study of the State,” which was published in Political Science: The State of the Discipline (edited by Ira Katznelson and Helen Milner). In the essay, Levi reviewed the booming literature on state formation and state building, but also noticed that “After a period of scholarly emphasis on theories of the state, social scientific interest in the state seems to have taken a back seat to institutions, on the one hand, and social capital, on the other.”

In recent years, however, there seems to be a revival in scholarly interest in the state. In addition to numerous articles on state capacity and state building (e.g., see a recent post by Garfias and Sellars), book-length studies by Acemoglu and Robinson, Carles Boix, Mark Dincecco, Francis Fukuyama, Anna Grzymala-Busse, Melissa Lee, Sebastián Mazzuca, James Scott, Dan Slater, Hillel Soifer, David Stasavage, Daniel Ziblatt, and others have again brought this classic topic to center stage in academic discussions.

In this post, I revisit some of the earlier works on the study of the state. I will briefly discuss the dominant perspectives in analyzing the state since the 1950s in the hope that tracing the lineage of the literature may help us formulate new ideas. This short review is certainly not exhaustive as I have admittedly omitted important works due to either ignorance or space limit. For an expanded discussion, please check out my recent review article in Comparative Politics.

Taking Stock

I characterize modern social scientific studies of the state as comprising three generations. The first generation, represented in pluralist, structural–functionalist, and neo-Marxist traditions dating back to the 1950–70s, takes a society-centered perspective: it views the state as an arena in which different social groups and classes vie for power. The second generation, best reflected in the movement to “bring the state back in” in the 1980s, takes a state-centered perspective: it treats the state as an independent actor that is autonomous from society. Branches of this tradition that focus on interstate competition and ruler–elite bargaining produce some of the most influential arguments about state building. The third generation, reflecting on the state-centered view, acknowledges that the state is not autonomous from society – and must often compete with it for predominance. Using a state-in-society perspective, this generation of scholars applied its insights to the state-building process in newly independent states in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and produced an impressive collection of studies in the 1980s and 1990s.

Society-Centered Perspective

After World War II, modern social sciences turned away from legal–formalist studies of constitutional principles and toward more empirically focused investigations of human behavior. Amid this behavioral revolution, society-centered ways of explaining politics and governmental activities became dominant in political science and sociology in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.

A pluralist tradition offers a group interpretation of politics. In a seminal contribution, Robert Dahl investigated how different groups participated in and influenced decision making and argued that power was dispersed among a number of groups that competed with each other.

A structural–functionalist tradition employs a more macro-level analysis. Deeply rooted in sociology, the structural–functionalists view society as a complex system that resembles a “body” with different parts as “organs.” According to this perspective, institutions exist to perform certain functions, and government institutions are parts of the system in which each unit has its own role. Social and economic groups provide their inputs for the government, which then produces outputs.

Lastly, neo-Marxists view the state as an instrument of class domination. As the mode of production changes, the composition and power relations of different classes in a society evolve, and the dominant class uses the state apparatus to dominate other classes and preserve its favored mode of production. Perry Anderson, for example, in a grand tour of European historical development, argued that landed elites created and used the “absolutist state” to exploit the peasantry.

In all three theoretical perspectives, the state is not an independent actor: it is an arena in which social groups compete (according to the pluralists), an organ that translates inputs into outputs (according to the structural–functionalists), or an instrument of class struggle that reflects the interests of the dominant class (according to the neo-Marxists).

State-Centered Perspective

As the post-war era unfolded, society-centered perspectives increasingly failed to explain the social and political changes emerging in both the developed and developing world. Many developed countries continued to pursue wartime Keynesian economic policies in the post-war period. Public expenditures continued to increase in these countries as the state became a main provider of welfare and services. Waves of independence produced scores of new states in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, which strived to shed their colonial pasts and build their own nation states. The developed countries in Europe and North American started to face stiff competition from the newly industrialized countries in East Asia, which relied on a “developmental state” to steer their economies.

In 1983, the Social Science Research Council established the Research Planning Committee on States and Social Structures. The committee aimed to “foster sustained collaborations among scholars from several disciplines who share in the growing interest in states as actors and as institutional structures.” Its first publication was a field-changing book – Bringing the State Back In.

In the book’s preface, Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol state that “Until recently, dominant theoretical paradigms in the comparative social sciences did not highlight states as organizational structures or as potentially autonomous actors.” In the introductory chapter, Theda Skocpol contends that states formulate and pursue goals that do not simply reflect the demands of social groups, classes, or society. States achieve autonomy when “organizationally coherent collectives of state officials” that are “insulated from ties to currently dominant socioeconomic interests” launch distinctive state strategies.

Once the state can be modeled as a coherent collective of officials, researchers can analyze it as a unitary actor. The rewards of such an approach are enormous. One of the most influential arguments in this camp is the notion that interstate competition drives state building. Originated by Otto Hintze, and popularized by Charles Tilly, it has become a widely held belief that external war incentivizes state elites to develop a centralized fiscal system, a modern bureaucracy, and a standing army. As Tilly succinctly summarized, “war made the state.”

This bellicist argument has set the agenda; much of the follow-up work has centered on how war (or its absence) has affected state building beyond Europe. For instance, scholars have applied the bellicist theory in ancient China and indirectly proved Tilly’s argument with negative cases in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, where there were no (large-scale) wars and no state building. Over time, much of the scholarship in this camp evolved from a state-centered structuralist to a historical institutionalist approach, which emphasizes the importance of critical junctures and path dependence.

Another branch of this state-centered camp is an institutional approach to state building. This approach takes a rational choice perspective and focuses on state elites and their bargaining power with the ruler. Margaret Levi labeled the impulse behind this approach “bringing people back into the state.” For rationalist state theorists, the agents who comprise the state, rather than the state itself, is the actor. This agency focus differentiates the rationalists from the structuralists, who focus on macro-level factors such as population, geography, and geopolitics.

In an influential study, Douglass North and Barry Weingast argue that England’s Glorious Revolution established parliamentary sovereignty, which cemented the Crown’s commitment to the elites whose financial support was urgently needed to finance war. Robert Bates and Donald Lien examine how asset specificity conditions elites’ bargaining power and show that while taxing commerce produced early democracy in England, taxing land produced absolutism in France. For Margaret Levi, the ruler is a revenue maximizer, but is constrained by bargaining power, transaction costs, and time horizon. According to Barbara Geddes, building state capacity by institutionalizing a meritocratic recruitment and promotion system would deprive rulers of the opportunity to use these positions as rewards, creating “the politician’s dilemma.”

Bellicist and institutional accounts have both analyzed state building independently of society. Since state elites are autonomous from society, inter-state relations and within-state bargaining ultimately determine how the state is organized and how strong it is.

State-in-Society Approach

During the heyday of the state-centered approach, another group of scholars who studied the newly independent states in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East observed that these states often struggled to establish authority in competition with strong social forces. These social forces – tribes, clans, or chiefdoms – were either a legacy of the past or recently empowered by colonial powers. Although these countries had established a central government with a well-staffed bureaucracy in the capital, the center often found it difficult to project its power to the country’s remote corners, where traditional authorities still dominated people’s lives.

In his 1989 book Strong Societies and Weak States, Joel Migdal argues that many Third World states have grave difficulties becoming the organization in society that effectively establishes the rules of behavior. In his model of state–society relations, a state does not exist in isolation: it coexists with other social organizations that all strive to exercise social control by using a variety of sanctions, rewards, and symbols to induce people to follow certain rules or norms. These social organizations range from small families and neighborhood groups to mammoth foreign-owned companies. Whether the state can triumph over such organizations to achieve predominance depends on whether it can best serve people’s “strategies of survival.”

Migdal’s state–society approach provides a new way of studying the state. The key insight is that we should study the state in relation to the society. Using quantitative social science terminology, Migdal points out an omitted variable bias in the state-centered literature. For example, his case studies show that state capacity, namely the ability to implement policies and mobilize the public, depends on the structure of a society. When the society is strong, the state will often have trouble establishing predominance. And a strong society can only be weakened by “cataclysmic events” such as a natural disaster or war.

The state–society approach has generated a fruitful literature. One strand of this literature examines how social forces constrain state power. In Vivienne Shue’s study of the Chinese state, she argues that the imperial state’s “reach” was limited by the rural “honeycomb” structure that consisted of gentry families. Another strand of the literature investigates how incorporating social forces into the state shapes state goals and capacities. Elizabeth Perry, for example, shows that the Chinese state incorporated the working class into its leadership during the communist revolution, which influenced state goals after the founding of the People’s Republic.

The 1994 volume State Power and Social Forces, edited by Joel Migdal, Atul Kohli, and Vivienne Shue, further developed the state–society approach and called it state-in-society; this work showcases the approach’s ability to explain a wide variety of phenomena in the developing world.

Looking Forward

Much of the previous scholarship, however, has focused on relatively short historical periods and particular world regions. This narrow temporal and geographical focus has raised questions about the “scope conditions” of state theorists’ past arguments. It is possible that their debates may simply reflect the different stages of state development they are examining.

A promising direction represented in some of the more recent works is that they examine state development in a much longer time horizon. While most previous studies start with the premise that the object of analysis – the modern state – is a relatively fixed and consolidated entity, recent works reach far back into history to explore how different types of states came into being (e.g., see my recent post on state formation).

In conclusion, the study of the state is one of the most time-honored areas in the social sciences, which has produced generations of remarkable scholarship. With a rising interest in HPE and more availability of historical data, the analysis of long-term political development will likely produce a new generation of exciting work in the decades to come.


  • Wang is the Frederick S. Danziger Associate Professor of Government at Harvard University. He received a B.A. from Peking University and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. His research has focused on the politics of state building, with a regional focus on China. He is the author of Tying the Autocrat’s Hands: The Rise of the Rule of Law in China (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and The Rise and Fall of Imperial China: The Social Origins of State Development (Princeton University Press, 2022).

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