State formation is the process of the development of a centralized government structure in a situation where one did not exist prior to its development. State formation has been a study of many disciplines of the social sciences for a number of years, so much so that Jonathan Haas writes that "One of the favorite pastimes of social scientists over the course of the past century has been to theorize about the evolution of the world's great civilizations."[1] The term state formation is most commonly used to describe the long-term processes which led to the genesis of modern political domination in form of the territorial sovereign state. In a few works, the terms state-building, nation-building, or institution-building are used synonymously with state formation. In the mainstream literature, modern state formation is understood to have originated in Europe and expanded to other world regions through European colonialism and the later integration of postcolonial states into the international state system.[2] The study of state formation is divided generally into either the study of early states (those that developed in stateless societies) or the study of modern states (particularly of the form that developed in Europe in the 17th century and spread around the world). Academic debate about various theories is a prominent feature in fields like Anthropology, Sociology, Economics and Political Science.[3]

The state

A state is a political system with a centralized government, a military force, a civil service, an arranged society, and literacy. Though, there is no clear agreement on the defining characteristics of a state and the definition can vary significantly, based upon the focus of the particular definition.[4] The state is considered to be territoriality bound and is distinct from tribes or units without centralized institutions.[5]

According to Painter & Jeffrey, there are 5 distinctive features of the modern state:

1) They are ordered by precise boundaries with administrative control across the whole;

2) They occupy large territories with control given to organized institutions;

3) They have a capital city and are endowed with symbols that embody state power;

4) The government within said state creates organizations to monitor, govern and control its population through surveillance and record keeping;

5) They increase monitoring over time.[6]

Additionally, Herbst holds that there is another relevant characteristic of modern states: nationalism. This feeling of belonging to a certain territory plays a central role in state formation since it increases citizens' willingness to pay taxes.[7]

Explaining early states and explaining modern states

Theories of state formation have two distinct focuses, depending largely on the field of study:

  1. The early transition in human society from tribal communities into larger political organizations. Studies of this topic, often in anthropology, explore the initial development of basic administrative structures in areas where states developed from stateless societies.[8] Although state formation was an active research agenda in anthropology and archaeology until the 1980s, some of the effort has changed to focus not on why these states formed but on how they operated.[9]
  2. In contrast, studies in political science and in sociology have focused significantly on the formation of the modern state.[10]

Early state formation

List of Primary States according to Spencer & Redmond[11]
Area First State Approximate Year
Egypt Abydos 3000 BCE
Mesopotamia Uruk[12] 3000 BCE
Indus River Valley Harappa 2000 BCE
North China Shang Dynasty[13] 1800 BCE
Peru Moche, Tiwanaku, and Wari[14] 300-500 CE
Mesoamerica Monte Albán[15] 100 BCE

Studies of early state formation focus both on "primary states," or states which developed in a context with no preexisting states and thus may be fairly rare, and on "early states," or states which developed over a particular people but which may have interacted with existing states in nearby societies.

Primary states are defined by anthropologists Spencer & Redmond as those states that developed in a context with no contact or prior development of a state in the area. These are those situations where states developed for the first time in that social environment.[11] The exact number of cases which qualify as primary states is not clearly known because of limited information about political organization before the development of writing in many places;[12] However, the list typically includes the first states to develop in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus river valley, North China, Peru, and Mesoamerica.[11] Cohen identifies six zones of independent state development: 1) a zone stretching from Europe and North Africa through the Middle East to East and South Asia, 2) Mesoamerica, 3) Peru, 4) West Africa, 5) East Africa, 6) Polynesia.[16]

Studies on the formation of early states tend to focus on processes that create and institutionalize a state in a situation where a state did not exist before. Examples of early states which developed in interaction with other states include the Aegean Bronze Age Greek civilizations and the Malagasy civilization in Madagascar.[17] Unlike primary state formation, early state formation does not require the creation of the first state in that cultural context or development autonomously, independently from state development nearby. Early state formation causation can thus include borrowing, imposition, and other forms of interaction with already existing states.[18]

Modern state formation

Theories on the formation of modern states focus on the processes that support the development of modern states, particularly those that formed in late-medieval Europe and then spread around the world with colonialism. Starting in the 1940s and 1950s, with decolonization processes underway, attention began to focus on the formation and construction of modern states with significant bureaucracies, ability to tax, and territorial sovereignty around the world.[19][20] However, some scholars hold that the modern state model formed in other parts of the world prior to colonialism, but that colonial structures replaced it.[21]

Westphalian Order

The Westphalian settlement of 1648 legitimised a commonwealth of sovereign states. It marked the break up of the universal church and independence of states with no obedience to the institution outside the state.[22] Today, it is a recognised notion that states have sovereign power and exclusive authority within their territory. In essence, the general settlement negotiated in Westphalia was the charted of a Europe permanently organised on an anti-hegemonial principle[23]. It also affected the growth of national consciousness. The new order, followed by Treaties of Westphalia, allowed each state to take place in the wider international society of Europe. They all participated independently in the diplomatic dialogue. The permanent congress of the United Nations has evolved from the Westphalian settlement and bears an inherited resembles to it.[24]

Theories about early state development

There are a number of different theories and hypotheses regarding early state formation that seek generalizations to explain why the state developed in some places but not others. Other scholars believe that generalizations are unhelpful and that each case of early state formation should be treated on its own.[11]

Voluntary theories

Uruk one of the prime sites for research into early state formation

Voluntary theories contend that diverse groups of people came together to form states as a result of some shared rational interest.[25] The theories largely focus on the development of agriculture, and the population and organizational pressure that followed and resulted in state formation. The argument is that such pressures result in integrative pressure for rational people to unify and create a state.[26] Much of the social contract philosophical traditional proposed a voluntary theory for state formation.[27]

One of the most prominent theories of early and primary state formation is the hydraulic hypothesis, which contends that the state was a result of the need to build and maintain large-scale irrigation projects.[28] The theory was most significantly detailed Karl August Wittfogel's argument that, in arid environments, farmers would be confronted by the production limits of small-scale irrigation. Eventually different agricultural producers would join together in response to population pressure and the arid environment, to create a state apparatus that could build and maintain large irrigation projects.[29]

In addition to this, is what Carneiro calls the automatic hypothesis, which contends that the development of agriculture easily produces conditions necessary for the development of a state. With surplus food stocks created by agricultural development, creation of distinct worker classes and a division of labor would automatically trigger creation of the state form.[25]

A third voluntary hypothesis, particularly common with some explanations of early state development, is that long distance trade networks created an impetus for states to develop at key locations: such as ports or oases. For example, the increased trade in the 16th century may have been a key to state formation in West African states such as Whydah, Dahomey, and the Benin Empire.[28]

Conflict theories

Conflict theories of state formation regard conflict and dominance of some population over another population as key to the formation of states.[29] In contrast with voluntary theories, these arguments believe that people do not voluntarily agree to create a state to maximize benefits, but that states form due to some form of oppression by one group over others. A number of different theories rely on conflict, dominance, or oppression as a causal process or as a necessary mechanism within certain conditions and they may borrow from other approaches. In general the theories highlight: economic stratification, conquest of other peoples, conflict in circumscribed areas, and the neoevolutionary growth of bureaucracy.

Panorama of Monte Albán in present-day Mexico, seen from the South Platform. Archeologists oftentimes look for evidence of such "large-scale construction projects, trade networks, and religious systems" to identify early states.[30]
  • Economic stratification
Friedrich Engels articulated one of the earliest theories of the state based on anthropological evidence in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).[31] The theory of Engels developed from study of Ancient Society (1877) by Lewis H. Morgan and from the sketches of this work by Karl Marx on the Asiatic mode of production.[32] Engels argues that the state developed as a result of the need to protect private property. The theory contended that surplus production as a result of the development of agriculture created a division and specialization of labor: leading to classes who worked the land and to those who could devote time to other tasks. Class antagonism and the need to secure the private property of those living on the surplus production produced by agriculturalists resulted in the creation of the state.[33] The anthropologist Morton Fried (1923-1986) further developed this approach, positing social stratification as the primary dynamic underlying the development of the state.[34]
  • Conquest theories
Similar to the economic stratification theories, the conquest theory contends that a single city establishes a state in order to control other tribes or settlements it has conquered. The theory has its roots in the work of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and of Jean Bodin (1530–1596), but it was first organized around anthropological evidence by Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943).[35][36] Oppenheimer argues that the state was created to cement inequality between peoples that resulted from conquest.[37]
  • Carneiro's circumscription theory
The mountain Huayna Picchu overlooks the ruins of Machu Picchu. The Andes mountains circumscribed much of the region.
Robert Carneiro developed a theory (1970)[38] aiming to provide a more nuanced understanding of state formation by accounting for the fact that many factors (surplus agriculture, warfare, irrigation, conquest, etc.) did not produce states in all situations. He concluded that while population pressure and warfare were mechanisms of state formation, they only created states in geographic regions circumscribed, or walled off from the surrounding area.[39] Geographic barriers (or in some cases barriers created by nomadic raiders or by rival societies) create limitations on the ability of the people to deal with production shortfalls, and the result is that warfare results in state creation.[34] In situations of unlimited agricultural land (like the Amazon or the Eastern United States), Carneiro believes that the pressures did not exist and so warfare allowed people to move elsewhere and thus did not spur creation of a state.[40]
  • Neoevolutionary theories
A number of different theories, sometimes connected with some of the processes above, explain state formation in terms of the evolution of leadership systems. This argument sees human society as evolving from tribes or chiefdoms into states through a gradual process of transformation that lets a small group hierarchically structure society and maintain order through appropriation of symbols of power.[41] Groups that gained power in tribal society gradually worked towards building the hierarchy and segmentation that created the state.[42]
Elman Service (1915-1996) proposed that, unlike in economic stratification theories, the state largely creates stratification in society rather than being created to defend that stratification.[43] Bureaucracy evolves to support the leadership structure in tribes and uses religious hierarchy and economic stratification as a means to further increase its power.[44] Warfare may play a key role in the situation, because it allows leaders to distribute benefits in ways that serve their interests, however it is a constant that feeds the system rather than an autonomous factor.[45] Similarly, anthropologist Henry T. Wright argues (2006) that competitive and conflictual environments produce political experimentation leading to the development of the state. As opposed to theories that the state develops through chance or tinkering, experimentation involves a more directed process where tribal leaders learn from organization forms of the past and from the outcomes they produced.[46]

Other theories

Other aspects are highlighted in different theories as of contributing importance. It is sometimes claimed that technological development, religious development, or socialization of members are crucial to state development. However, most of these factors are found to be secondary in anthropological analysis.[47] In addition to conquest, some theories contend that the need for defense from military conquest or the military organization to conquer other peoples is the key aspect leading to state formation.[28]

Discredited theories

Some theories proposed in the 19th century and early 20th century have since been largely discredited by anthropologists. Carneiro writes that theories "with a racial basis, for example, are now so thoroughly discredited that they need not be dealt with...We can also reject the belief that the state is an expression of the 'genius' of a people, or that it arose through a 'historical accident.' Such notions make the state appear to be something metaphysical or adventitious, and thus place it beyond scientific understanding."[25] Similarly, social Darwinist perspectives like those of Walter Bagehot in Physics and Politics argued that the state form developed as a result of the best leaders and organized societies gradually gaining power until a state resulted. Such explanations are not considered sufficient to explain the formation of the state.[35][48]

Theories about modern state development

In the medieval period (500-1400) in Europe, there were a variety of authority forms throughout the region. These included feudal lords, empires, religious authorities, free cities, and other authorities.[49] Often dated to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, there began to be the development in Europe of modern states with large-scale capacity for taxation, coercive control of their populations, and advanced bureaucracies.[50] The state became prominent in Europe over the next few centuries before the particular form of the state spread to the rest of the world via the colonial and international pressures of the 19th century and 20th century.[51] Other modern states developed in Africa and Asia prior to colonialism, but were largely displaced by colonial rule.[52]

Political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists began studying the state formation processes in Europe and elsewhere in the 17th century—beginning significantly with Max Weber. However, state formation became a primary interest in the 1970s. The question was often framed as a contest between state forces and society forces and the study of how the state became prominent over particular societies.[53] A number of theories developed regarding state development in Europe. Other theories focused on the creation of states in late colonial and post-colonial societies.[54] The lessons from these studies of the formation of states in the modern period are often used in theories about State-building. Other theories contend that the state in Europe was constructed in connection with peoples from outside Europe and that focusing on state formation in Europe as a foundation for study silences the diverse history of state formation.[55]

Based on the model of European states, it has been commonly assumed that development is the natural path that states will eventually walk through. However, Herbst holds that in the case African states, as well as in developing countries of other regions, development need not be the natural step. States that struggle their consolidation could remain permanently weak.[7]

Warfare theories

A woodcut of the Defenestrations of Prague in 1618—which began the Thirty Years' War and ended with the Peace of Westphalia that started the recognition of the modern state

Two related theories are based on military development and warfare, and the role that these forces played in state formation. Charles Tilly developed an argument that the state developed largely as a result of "state-makers" who sought to increase the taxes they could gain from the people under their control so they could continue fighting wars.[49] According to Tilly, the state makes war and war makes states.[56] In the constant warfare of the centuries in Europe, coupled with expanded costs of war with mass armies and gunpowder, warlords had to find ways to finance war and control territory more effectively. The modern state presented the opportunity for them to develop taxation structures, the coercive structure to implement that taxation, and finally the guarantee of protection from other states that could get much of the population to agree.[57] Taxes and revenue raising have been repeatedly pointed out as a key aspect of state formation and the development of state capacity. Economist Nicholas Kaldor emphasized on the importance of revenue raising and warned about the dangers of the dependence on foreign aid.[58] Tilly argues, state making is similar to organized crime because it is a "quintessential protection racket with the advantage of legitimacy."[59]

Michael Roberts and Geoffrey Parker, in contrast, finds that the primary causal factor was not the "state-makers" themselves, but simply the military revolutions that allowed development of larger armies.[60] The argument is that with the expanded state of warfare, the state became the only administrative unit that could endure in the constant warfare in the Europe of this period, because only it could develop large enough armies.[61] This view—that the modern state replaced chaos and general violence with internal disciplinary structures—has been challenged as ethnocentric, and ignoring the violence of modern states.[62]

War has played a key role not only in the consolidation of European states but also of some third world states. According to Herbst, external security threats have had a fundamental role in the development of the South Korean and Taiwanese states.[7] A 2017 study which tests the predictions of warfare theories of Tilly and others found that the predictions do not match the empirical record.[63] The study found that median state size decreased from 1100 to 1800, and that the number of states increases rapidly between the twelfth and thirteen centuries and remained constant until 1800.[63]

Commerce theories

Stein Rokkan and others have argued that the modern territorial state developed in places that were peripheral to the commercial "city belt" ("a central regional band extending, roughly, in an arc from the Low Countries, through the Rhineland and into Northern Italy") that ran through Central Europe.[63] The existence of prosperous urban centers that relied on commerce in Central Europe prevented rulers from consolidaing their rule over others.[63] The elites in those urban centers could rely on their wealth and on collective security institutions (like the Hanseatic or Swabian league) with other urban centers to sustain their independence. A lower density of urban centers in England and France made it easier for rulers to establish rule over expansive territories.[63]

Feudal crisis theories

Another argument contends that the state developed out of economic and social crises that were prominent in late-medieval Europe. Religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, and the involvement of leaders in the domains of other leaders under religious reasons was the primary problem dealt with in the Peace of Westphalia.[50] In addition, Marxist theory contends that the economic crisis of feudalism forced the aristocracy to adapt various centralized forms of organization so they could retain economic power, and this resulted in the formation of the modern state.[64]

Cultural theories

Some scholarship, linked to wider debates in Anthropology, has increasingly emphasized the state as a primarily cultural artifact, and focuses on how symbolism plays a primary role in state formation.[65] Most explicitly, some studies emphasize how the creation of national identification and citizenship were crucial to state formation. The state then is not simply a military or economic authority, but also includes cultural components creating consent by people by giving them rights and shared belonging.[54]

Outside Europe

While modern states existed without European influence around the world before colonialism,[66] post-colonial state formation has received the most significant attention.[67] While warfare is primary in theories about state formation in Europe, the development of the international norm of non-interventionism means that other processes of state formation have become prominent outside Europe (including colonial imposition, assimilation, borrowing, and some internal political processes.[68][67] John W. Meyer's World Society Theory contends that the state form was exported from Europe, institutionalized in the United Nations, and gradually the modern nation-state became the basis for both those in power and those challenging power.[69] In addition, because many of the early modern states like the United Kingdom and France had significant empires, their institutional templates became standard for application globally.[69]

State Formation in Africa

Africa formed new states during the 1960s. An important number of African states were transformed into instruments of colonial rule, especially by the British. Many African kingdoms and states were created by conquest, but many others developed through more peaceful borrowing an assimilation of ideas and institutions from neighbours. Pre-colonial Africa, at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, offered more examples of emergent states than any other region of the world. This was because in other continents such as Asia or even Europe most of the smaller states of this type had long been absorbed into larger empires, while in aboriginal Australia state forms never evolved at all, and in the vast areas of pre-Columbian America there were only achieved in the limited areas of Meso-America and the Andean region. Thus, Africa provides the largest number of examples both of recent indigenous states and of contemporary states formed out of colonial territories.

An important number of African states were transformed into instruments of colonial rule, especially by the British, most notably in the case of the Hausa emirated and the Yoruba city states of Nigeria, the Ashanti in Ghana, the Ganda and other Interlacustrine kingdoms in Uganda, the Lozi in Barotseland, the Tswana chiefdoms, and the Swazi and Lesotho kings. The bridge between pre- and postcolonial state formation in Africa at first may have been seen as frail.

By 1973 more than half of Africa was under military rule, and most of the rest still remained under the leadership of its original Independence heroes. When most African countries achieved independence, they had very small armies which constituted little threat and seemed devoid of political ambitions. It was the dialectic of events that transformed them. Most countries found themselves face with dire poverty in relation to the ambitious goals of welfare and development which the leaders had convinced the people would follow automatically from independence. Most countries were irrationally assemblages of numerous, disunited, and rival ethnic groups out of which it was almost impossible to forge a fundamental sense of nationhood and unity.[70]

See also


  1. ^ Haas 1982, p. 1.
  2. ^ Bliesemann de Guevara, B. (2015)
  3. ^ Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 523.
  4. ^ Haas 1982, pp. 2-3.
  5. ^ Cohen 1978, pp. 2-5.
  6. ^ Painter & Jeffrey 2009, pp. 22-24.
  7. ^ a b c Herbst 1990.
  8. ^ Spruyt 2002, p. 129.
  9. ^ Marcus & Feinman 1998, p. 3.
  10. ^ Spruyt 2002, p. 131.
  11. ^ a b c d Spencer & Redmond 2004, p. 174.
  12. ^ a b Wright 1977, p. 386.
  13. ^ Haas 1982, p. 90.
  14. ^ Stanish 2001, p. 56.
  15. ^ Spencer & Redmond 2004, p. 193.
  16. ^ Cohen 1978, p. 39.
  17. ^ Wright 2006, p. 306.
  18. ^ Cohen 1978, p. 50.
  19. ^ Southall 1974, p. 153.
  20. ^ Spruyt 2002, p. 132.
  21. ^ Blanton & Fargher 2008, p. 13.
  22. ^ Watson, Adam (1992). The Evolution of International Society. London: Routledge. p. 187. 
  23. ^ Watson, Adam (1992). The Evolution of International Society. London: Routledge. p. 182. 
  24. ^ Watson, Adam (1992). The Evolution of International Society. London: Routledge. p. 196. 
  25. ^ a b c Carneiro 1970, p. 733.
  26. ^ Service 1978, p. 21.
  27. ^ Service 1978, pp. 21-23.
  28. ^ a b c Service 1978, p. 30.
  29. ^ a b Carneiro 1970, p. 734.
  30. ^ Haas 1981, p. 82.
  31. ^ Claessen & Skalnik 1978, p. 6.
  32. ^ Service 1978, pp. 25-26.
  33. ^ Claessen & Skalnik 1978, p. 7.
  34. ^ a b Service 1978, pp. 28-29.
  35. ^ a b Service 1978, p. 24.
  36. ^ Gross 1999, p. 5.
  37. ^ Claessen & Skalnik 1978, p. 10.
  38. ^ Carneiro 1970.
  39. ^ Claessen & Skalnik 1978, p. 13.
  40. ^ Carneiro 1970, pp. 734-735.
  41. ^ Blanton & Fargher 2008, p. 8.
  42. ^ Blanton & Fargher 2008, p. 9.
  43. ^ Cohen 1978, p. 38.
  44. ^ Haas 1982, p. 73.
  45. ^ Cohen 1978, p. 51.
  46. ^ Wright 2006, p. 316.
  47. ^ Cohen 1978, pp. 61-68.
  48. ^ Cohen 1978, p. 42.
  49. ^ a b Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 527.
  50. ^ a b Axtmann 2004, p. 260.
  51. ^ Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 535.
  52. ^ Krohn-Hansen & Nustad 2005, p. 12.
  53. ^ Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 525.
  54. ^ a b Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 530.
  55. ^ Krohn-Hansen & Nustad 2005, p. 8.
  56. ^ Tilly 1985, p. 170.
  57. ^ Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 527-528.
  58. ^ Kaldor 1963.
  59. ^ Tilly 1985, p. 169.
  60. ^ Thompson & Rasler 1999, p. 5.
  61. ^ Thompson & Rasler 1999, p. 6.
  62. ^ Krohn-Hansen & Nustad 2005, p. 19.
  63. ^ a b c d e Abramson 2017.
  64. ^ Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 529.
  65. ^ Krohn-Hansen & Nustad 2005, p. 9.
  66. ^ Ejogu 2011, p. 595.
  67. ^ a b Southall 1974, p. 155.
  68. ^ Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 531.
  69. ^ a b Wimmer & Feinstein 2010, p. 769.
  70. ^ SouthallAiden1974p=153-165


Further reading

  • Fox, John W. (2008) [1987]. Maya Postclassic state formation. Cambridge, UK and New York, USA: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-10195-0. OCLC 297146853. 
  • Kaspersen, Lars Bo and Jeppe Strandsbjerg (eds.) (2017). Does War Make States: Investigations into Charles Tilly's Historical Sociology New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Nagl, Dominik (2013). No Part of the Mother Country, but Distinct Dominions - Law, State Formation and Governance in England, Massachusetts und South Carolina, 1630-1769. Berlin, Germany: LIT. ISBN 978-3-643-11817-2. [1]