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About this book

Broad-ranging in its coverage and truly international in scope, this major new text introduces all the main competing theoretical approaches to the study of the state as well as key contested issues in relation to globalization, new forms of governance, the changing public/private boundary, changes in the powers and capacities of states, and the differences between advanced liberal democratic and other states. Chapters have been specially commissioned to a common format and are written by an international cast of leading authorities.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Theories of the State

No concept is more central to political discourse and political analysis than that of the state. Yet, whilst we all tend to think we know what we’re talking about when we refer to the state, it is a notoriously difficult concept to define. Since the seventeenth century, when the term was first widely deployed, the concept of the state has been heavily contested (Skinner 1989; Viroli 1992). It remains so today. The state has meant, and continues to mean, a great variety of different things to a great variety of authors from a great variety of perspectives. Part of the aim of this volume is to look at family resemblances in those understandings of the state, in the hope that we might begin to piece together a more coherent picture of what this state is and, indeed, how it is developing. Yet that is no easy task, for whatever family resemblances we might discern are unlikely to hide the very considerable variations between contending accounts both of what the state is and of the trajectory of its development. We should then, from the outset, expect diversity.
Colin Hay, Michael Lister

Chapter 1. Pluralism

Pluralism has been one of the most dominant frameworks for understanding politics in mainstream political science. It has influenced much of the thinking on the nature of the relationship between the government and civil society from the late nineteenth century until the present day. Modes of pluralist thinking have influenced many subfields of political science, including pressure groups, political theory, multiculturalism, public administration and discourse theory. In addition pluralist analysis has been used for analysing a range of types of political systems from liberal democracies to authoritarian regimes. Many political scientists often work with an implicit pluralist framework.
Martin Smith

Chapter 2. Elitism

Classical elite theorists such as Gaetano Mosca (1939: 50), argue that the history of politics has been characterized by elite domination:
In all societies … two classes of people appear — a class that rules and a class that is ruled. The first class, always the less numerous, performs all political functions, monopolizes power and enjoys the advantages that power brings, whereas the second, the more numerous class, is directed and controlled by the first.
Mark Evans

Chapter 3. (What’s Marxist about) Marxist State Theory?

If Marxism, like feminism, is seen as ‘engaged theory’ (Bryson 1992: 1), not content merely to interpret the world but motivated by an overriding ambition to change it, then it is something of an understatement to say that the Marxist theory of the state cannot be judged a complete success. Indeed, a decade and half after the disintegration of ‘actually existing socialism’ it is surely tempting to dismiss the Marxist theory of the state as of purely historical interest. Yet the argument of this chapter is that, partly by virtue of its attempts to explain capitalism’s (for its) surprising longevity, Marxist theories of the state offer a series of powerful and probing insights into the complex and dynamic relationship between state, economy and society in capitalist democracies, from which other theorists of the state can learn much.
Colin Hay

Chapter 4. Public Choice

During his inaugural address as the fortieth president of the United States of America in January 1980, Ronald Reagan spoke of the ‘economic ills we [Americans] suffer that have come upon us over several decades’. In a line that was to become emblematic of his presidency he went on to suggest that ‘in the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem’. Over the following decade, elected politicians and unelected officials in an ever-greater number of countries attempted, in Margaret Thatcher’s (1993: 745) preferred terminology, ‘to roll back the frontiers of the state’. In this task they were assisted by an intellectual revolution in the study of politics the full effects of which were, at this time, only just beginning to be fully appreciated.
Andrew Hindmoor

Chapter 5. Institutionalism

The so-called ‘new institutionalism’ is a relatively recent addition to the pantheon of theories of the state and, like some of the other perspectives considered in this volume, it is by no means only a theory of the state. Nonetheless, and as explained in the introductory essay, its origins lie in the attempt to ‘bring the state back into’ mainstream political science by a range of theorists critical of the dominant agent-centred and behaviouralist approaches of the time (see, for instance, Evans et al. 1985). Such authors argued for the need to contextualize politics institutionally — in other words, to see the conditions of political opportunity as being, to a significant extent, set institutionally. In so doing, they developed a corrective to the dominance, as they saw it, of input-oriented theories of politics, which emphasized the pressures and influences brought to bear upon the state, rather than the capacity of the institutions of the state to respond to such pressures. This institutional contextualization of politics was initially confined to the attempt to bring the state back into political analysis but was later generalized, as neo-statism gave way to a more overarching new institutionalism. Yet, whilst the exclusive focus on the state has softened in the development of the new institutionalism out of neo-statism, the state still lies at the heart of new institutionalist scholarship — even if it not always labelled as such.
Vivien Schmidt

Chapter 6. Feminism

Introductory texts on feminism and politics frequently start by noting the difficult relationship between feminist approaches and political science (Phillips 1998; Randall 2002). The dilemmas that feminists face when studying the field are particularly clear regarding one of its key concepts: the state. Feminists have been ambivalent about the need to theorize the state. In the 1960s, the so-called second wave feminist movement searched for alternative channels of political influence mainly from the civil society. Later, the idea of a feminist state theory resulted in deep uneasiness among feminist scholars. Some claimed that such theory was non-existent and sorely needed (MacKinnon 1989), others that it was unnecessary (Allen 1990). Typically feminist engagements with the concept have ranged between the promise of significant gains in struggles for gender equality and fears of co-optation and compromise.
Johanna Kantola

Chapter 7. Green Theory

For students of politics, the state has always assumed central importance. However, for many in the Green movements, and the Green theorists articulating their concerns in a more abstract or systematic manner, the importance of the state has often been understated.
Matthew Paterson, Peter Doran, John Barry

Chapter 8. Poststructuralism

This chapter explores and evaluates poststructuralist approaches to the political theory and analysis of the state. It begins by putting poststructuralism into a very broad philosophical context, relating it to historical changes in Western society and culture and to current trends in political science. We argue that poststructuralism is distinctive in its opposition to analyses that treat politics as derivative of forces that are explicitly or implicitly non-political. Poststructuralists argue that ‘the political’ is the dimension of social existence in which social relations are constituted and contested and as such a cause and not merely an effect of social phenomena. We regard the state as an outcome of political activities as well as a contribution to them and this is because, as we will see, poststructuralism interprets the state not as a ‘thing’ but as a practice or ensemble of practices. In explicating this view we shall consider, not uncritically, some varieties of poststructuralist theory and analysis: the discourse theory developed by Laclau and Mouffe, critical theories of international relations and Foucauldian approaches to ‘governmentality’.
Alan Finlayson, James Martin

Chapter 9. Globalization and the State

There appears to be a veritable industry of academic work on globalization, which reflects, in turn, the way in which this term has entered into common currency in the media and even in public discourse. The issue of globalization, and especially the extent to which the process constrains the autonomy of the nation state and makes the pursuit of neo-liberal economic solutions and the marketization of all aspects of life inevitable, is a crucial one for at least two reasons. First, and most important, the issue is crucial for the future of social democracy; if many of the proponents of the globalization thesis are right, then social democracy is doomed. Second, any consideration of the issue throws light on two of the crucial meta-theoretical questions in social science, the relationships between structure and agency and between the material and the ideational. As such, our aim here is to examine, mainly conceptually, but also empirically, the contention that globalization severely restricts the autonomy of the state. Our view is that it is a relationship which is both rarely unpacked and more complicated that most treatments assume.
David Marsh, Nicola J. Smith, Nicola Hothi

Chapter 10. The Transformation of the State

A comprehensive debate about state transformation has been under way for some time (see for example Rosenau 1990; Camilleri and Falk 1992; Ohmae 1996; Strange 1996; Held, McGrew, Goldblatt and Perraton 1999; Weiss 1998; Rosecrance 1999). The debate was pushed by economic globalization; many observers were quick to point out that global economic networks changed the economic substance of states in major ways, because they undermined what had previously been predominantly national economies. The debate was also pushed by processes of political co-operation and integration in Europe and the development of governance networks on a global scale. These economic and political processes in turn helped challenge traditional notions of nationhood and citizenship and thus created a new debate about identity and community. All this in turn helped stimulate new reflections on the institution of sovereignty and the future of the sovereign state. Finally, the end of the Cold War as well as 9/11 encouraged new deliberations on the future of war and violent conflict; because of states central role in warfare this debate also concerns the fate of the state.
Georg Sørensen

Chapter 11. Governance, Government and the State

Governance is shorthand for the pursuit of collective interests and the steering and coordination of society. During the 1990s, new or emerging models of governance have become debated among social scientists and practitioners alike as a combined result of budgetary cutbacks, the ‘hollowing out’ of the state, the development towards an enabling or regulatory state, a growing interest among politicians to forge partnerships with strategic societal actors, and a ‘multi-layering’ of political authority. Together, these developments have raised questions about the ability of the state to be at the centre of governance. What is changing, in short, is the role of government in governance, and this change has brought with it complex questions concerning democratic input and accountability.
B. Guy Peters, Jon Pierre

Chapter 12. Public/Private: The Boundaries of the State

As previous chapters have demonstrated, ‘the state’ is an elusive and contested concept. Understanding its nature, trajectory and role has not been helped by the fact that the conceptual lenses that have historically been employed to study the state have employed a fairly narrow institutional focus. This restricted view of the state topography, with its emphasis on departments of state at the national level and elected government at the regional/state/provincial level, has created the impression of a fairly homogenous, fixed and stable entity. The opposite is true. In fact the boundaries of the state are far from clear, either by nature, role or direction. Internationally, the last quarter of the twentieth century witnessed significant changes in the structure and governance of the state, a change imbued with the belief that public services or functions need not necessarily be delivered or conducted by purely public institutions. The central argument of this chapter is therefore that the state consists of a highly heterogeneous network of organizations and that controlling, steering and scrutinizing this increasingly diverse flotilla of organizations and partnerships, many of which enjoy significant levels of autonomy from elected politicians and legislatures, remains the primary challenge of modern governance.
Matthew Flinders


This book has surveyed a great deal of work on the state and reflects the views of a variety of different authors. As such, it is impossible to offer a simple conclusion that reflects all that diversity. Rather, we shall focus on two questions which, explicitly or implicitly, engage many of the contributors and return to some of the key themes raised in the Introduction. To what extent have theories of the state changed over the past few decades? Has the importance of the state, more specifically the nation state, declined in that period?
Michael Lister, David Marsh
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