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The great majority of authors in the social sciences refer to a weberian conceptualization of the state, following Max Weber's, as he himself called it, ideal type of state: This ideal state has, says Weber, three important characteristics: it controls a particular territory, exercises the monopoly of legitimate coercion in this given territory, and is based on legitimacy. The modern state apparatus in this concept is rationalized, impersonal, and represents the general public interest. The state also has the monopoly over taxpaying and jurisdiction, i.e. it is able to establish effective norms (Weber 1964).

It is obvious that many existing, especially post-colonial states, do not comply with the criteria posed by this ideal type concept: fiscal constraints mean little state revenue and less room for maneuver; very often private actors exercise coercion locally or in wide parts of the country; norms and laws are only partially implemented by the central state. Many of those states are therefore called "failing" or "fragile" by some authors (Goldstone 2000). Examples pointed out again and again are Colombia or Mexico. But the ideal image of a state tied to particular functions has been formed by specific historical conditions during the constitution of European national states, as Weber himself noted. Critical voices in this ongoing debate thus point to weaknesses, instead, of the concept itself; some point to the dangers of justifying military interventions in countries previously declared "failed states" (for a summary of the debate on failed states see (Hauck 2004; Schlichte 2005).

The term 'state' is not easy to define, but clearly varying historical trajectories have shaped concepts that differ from each other considerably, just as the "modern nation-state" is a specific phenomenon.

The concept of the State in Canada and the U.S.

Qujiano stresses that the colonial occupation of territory in Northern America was violent from the beginning, but the territory occupied before the American Revolution was small, so “the process of the constitution of a new model of power went together with the configuration of the nation-state” (Quijano 2000), while indigenous natives were completely excluded. New immigrants, if not slaves, were able to re-identify themselves as Americans and participate in political processes as US citizens. Democratization of the control of the means of production and of the state was limited, but they did exist and cannot be underestimated.

Maybe as a consequence, throughout the dominant discourse at least, the state has continuously been seen not so much as a catalyst of development and welfare but much more as an entity that is supposed to provide favorable conditions for private enterprise, while guaranteeing certain rights for individuals.

If 'state' is conceptualized not as a fixed entity but as a field and result of social conflict, contradictions and struggles even within the state apparatus proper become visible and can be analyzed as part of the process. This is the position of critical state theories by authors such as Bob Jessop who base their work on extensive readings of European neo-Marxist thinkers such as Nicos Poulantzas or Antonio Gramsci, but also on Michel Foucault. In this interpretation of Marxist writings the state is neither a simple instrument of dominant classes nor a neutral entity.

This is not to say that post-weberian analysis of the 'state' automatically produce binary interpretations of strong or weak: innovative approaches in the US such as the work of Joel Migdal try to analyze the state not as a single actor with coherent actions but propose an anthropology of the state, within which the complex interaction between components of state institutions (small functionaries, regional state agencies, top executives) and civil society is analyzed (cf. Migdal 1994:17). The historical analysis, says Migdal, has to focus on patterns of domination which are determined by struggles in various social arenas (Migdal 1994:9).

The state in Latin America

After gaining independence (during the first decades of the nineteenth century for most Latin American countries) state organization was mostly oriented along US-American structures with a strong presidency, two parliamentary chambers and a proportional representation system. During the nineteenth century the state concept varied; in many countries conservatives (with the idea of a centralized, catholic state) and liberals (who favored anticlerical, export-oriented federal states with strong ties to the world market) fought over central power in long turbulent phases.

The term "developmental state" was coined during the 1930s and after the Second World War, when many Latin American countries tried to establish their own industries via the substitution of imports. The state was widely seen as the principal catalyst giving impulses for developing and protecting a partially dependent economy. Some countries with natural resources and a thoroughly organized export-oriented agrarian sector such as Mexico, were able to redistribute revenues gained by those exports towards investment in industry and manufacturing sector. The concept as well as the success of the corresponding policies suffered decline at the latest in the 1970s, when it became clear that dependency on the influx of capital and capital goods would not be overcome this way (cf. Boris 2007; for a critical view on development theories cf. Grosfoguel 2000).

The debate on state theory in Latin America was most vivid in the 1960s and '70s. The intense exchange of ideas about the particularities of the peripheral state and the type of hegemony in Latin America, did, however, not have many repercussions outside the academic world. The main arguments were the necessity to take into account the historical particularities of peripheral states (Zavaleta 1990; O’Donnell 1978; Lechner 1981; for an overview see also Leftwich 1993), stressing the historically conditioned and particular way of their insertion into the world market, the distribution and sources of national wealth and surplus, the relation between political society and civil society (closely connected to questions of economic nature) or the context-specific access routes to state power and the respective forms of representation and configuration of political institutions. Quijano for example argues that postcolonial states there represent rather a "rearticulation of the coloniality of power over new institutional bases" than genuine national states (Quijano 2000).

Current debate

In the last few years a new debate has emerged on how to analyze the state in Latin America today, which is closely linked to changing political dynamics on the continent, while there is hardly any debate on the state as such in Northern America.

There are at least three points of view that take recent transformations of the state into account. The first articulates an anti-state point of view, seeing the state as a principal source of repression which therefore has to be completely rejected (Holloway 1995). A second one takes the idea of the 'developmental state' up again. A third group of which Mabel Thwaites Rey (2010) or Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2010) might be representatives, tries to develop thought about the concept of the state under conditions of today's neoliberal globalization – a concept that cannot be understood ahistorically. They pose the question of what kinds of states might be thinkable in the Latin America of today and argue that even if transnational institutions have gained in power, national states in the south as well as in the north are still central in producing legitimacy for and enforcing certain policies as well as canalizing discontent. Mabel Thwaites Rey (2010) draws on European state theorists such as Joachim Hirsch and Bob Jessop but stresses that they do not take into account particularities shared by post-colonial states such as existing (if modified) models of dependency or differentiations and discriminations within state structures along ethnic lines.

Alke Jenss

Please cite as:
Jenss, Alke. 2012. “The concept of the 'state'.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives.


Boris, Dieter. 2007. "Staatlichkeit in der Peripherie" in Kapitalistische Entwicklung in Nord und Süd. Handel, Geld, Arbeit, Staat. Joachim Becker / Karen Imhof/ Johannes Jäger/ Cornelia Staritz (Ed.), pp. 243-259. Vienna: mandelbaum.

Goldstone, Jack. 2000. "State Failure Task Force Report2000: Phase III Findings". Accessed July 12, 2008 ( inscr/stfail/SFTF%20Phase%20III%20Report%20Final.pdf).

Grosfoguel, Ramón. 2000. "Developmentalism, Modernity, and Dependency Theory in Latin America", Duke University Press. Nepantla: Views from South 1 no. 2: 347-374.

Hauck, Gerhard. 2004. "Schwache Staaten? Überlegungen zu einer fragwürdigen entwicklungspolitischen Kategorie". Peripherie 24 no. 96, pp. 411–427.

Holloway, John. 1994. "Global Capital and National State" in Capital & Class 18 no. 1, pp. 23-49

Lechner, Norbert. 1981. "State and Politics in Latin America". vol. LARU Working Paper 31. Ontario, Canada: Latin American Research Unit (LARU).

Leftwich, Adrian. 1993. "States of Underdevelopment. The Third World State in theoretical perspective". Journal of Theretical Politics 6 no. 1, pp. 55-74.

Migdal, Joel. 1994. "The state in society. An approach to struggles for domination" in Cambridge studies in comparative politics, Joel Migdal / Vivienne Shue / Atul Kohli (Ed.), pp. 7-34. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Donnell, Guillermo. 1978. "Apuntes para una teoría del estado" in Revista Mexicana de Sociología 40 no. 4, pp. 1157–1199.

Quijano, Aníbal. 2000. "Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism and Latin America" in Nepantla: Views from South 1 no. 3, pp. 533-580.

Schlichte, Klaus. 2005. "Gibt es uberhaupt Staatszerfall?" in Berliner Debatte Initial 16 no. 4, pp. 74-83.

Sousa Santos, Boaventura De. 2010. Refundación del Estado en América Latina. Perspectivas desde una epistemología del Sur. Bogotá, Universidad de los Andes, siglo XXI, siglo del hombre editores.

Thwaites Rey, Mabel. 2010. "El Estado en debate: de transiciones y contradicciones" in Crítica y Emancipación II no. 4, pp. 9-24.

Weber, Max. 1964. Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Koeln [Tuebingen 1922], Kiepenheuer & Witsch.

Zavaleta, René. 1990. "El Estado en América Latina" in La autodeterminación de las masas, pp. 321-355 Bogotá, Siglo del Hombre (Ed.)/ CLACSO [Ensayos 1, México, UNAM, 1984, pp. 59-78]

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