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date: 17 January 2021

The Sociology of the State: The State as a Conceptual Variablelocked

  • Yale H. FergusonYale H. FergusonDivision of Global Affairs, Rutgers University-Newark
  •  and Richard W. MansbachRichard W. MansbachDepartment of Political Science, Iowa State University

Summary

The “state” is the theoretical and empirical bedrock of the international relations field, yet it is a hotly debated concept and is routinely defined to suit the normative and/or empirical ends of scholars and practitioners. It is thus a conceptual variable. The state has so many “meanings” and connotations that the term must be carefully defined every time it is used. Perhaps the most that can be said, with any degree of certainty, is that today the sovereign state has a recognized status in international law, continues to be an important identity symbol for many citizens, and is the focus of citizen demands for the provision of collective goods. Beyond such a statement, the going gets far more difficult.

Different “schools” of social science theory view the state with different lenses. Whether the concept of state has any applicability to polities that predated early modern Europe is dubious. In any event, the state and all its variants were contingent products of particular times and European space, and states have continued to adapt and evolve over the centuries to such an extent that the “modern” state bears little resemblance to its Westphalian predecessor. Indeed, modern states themselves evince such a remarkable diversity that they have little in common with one another except sovereign legal independence. That status, in turn, is not to be confused with “real” independence, which has become increasingly evident in our present-day substantially globalized world. The traditional “inside/outside” distinction offers little consolation to state decision makers who find the “outside” severely constraining their capacity to offer their citizens security and welfare. The state’s “crisis of authority” has only worsened with the spread of illiberal populist nationalism and the “return of geopolitics.”

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