State formation

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Voters waiting in line to vote in South Sudan (2011) to decide whether to form a new state or remain with Sudan

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 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.[2] State formation can include state-building, statecraft and nation-building.

The state[edit]

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.[3] The state is considered to be territoriality bound and is distinct from tribes or units without centralized institutions.[4]

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 state creates organizations to monitor, govern and control its population through surveillance and record keeping;

5) They increase monitoring over time.[5]

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.[6]

Explaining early states and explaining modern states[edit]

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.[7] 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.[8]
  2. In contrast, studies in political science and in sociology have focused significantly on the formation of the modern state.[9]

Early state formation[edit]

Table of primary states with region and approximate time of formation from Sandeford [10]
state region approximate date
Susa Mesopotamia, southwestern Iran ca 4000-3000 BCE
Uruk Mesopotamia, southern Iraq ca 4000–3000 BCE
Hierakonpolis upper Egypt ca 3500–3100 BCE
Harrapa Indus Valley, western India, eastern Pakistan (Punjab, Rajasthan, Sind, Gujarat) ca 2600–2000 BCE
Erlitou central China (Shanxi and Henan) ca 1900–1500 BCE
Monte Albán Oaxaca valley, southern Mexico ca 300 BCE–200 CE
Teotihuacan Basin of Mexico, central Mexico ca 100–1 BCE
Virú Virú valley, coastal northern Peru ca 200 BCE–200 CE
Tiwanaku Lake Titicaca, northern Bolivia ca 300–600 CE
Hawai‘i Hawaiian islands ca 800–1800 CE

States are minimally defined by anthropologist David S. Sandeford as socially stratified and bureaucratically governed societies with at least four levels of settlement hierarchy (e.g., a large capital, cities, villages, and hamlets). Primary states are those state societies that developed in regions where no states existed before. These states developed by strictly internal processes and interaction with other non-states societies.[10] 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,[11] but Sandeford lists ten likely cases of primary state formation in Eurasia, the Americas, and the Pacific.[10]

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.[12] 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.[13]

Modern state formation[edit]

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.[14][15] 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.[16]

Theories about early state development[edit]

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.[17]

Voluntary theories[edit]

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.[18] 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.[19] Much of the social contract philosophical tradition proposed a voluntary theory for state formation.[20]

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.[21] 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.[22]

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.[18]

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.[21]

Conflict theories[edit]

Conflict theories of state formation regard conflict and dominance of some population over another population as key to the formation of states.[22] 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 neo-evolutionary 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.[23]
  • 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).[24] 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.[25] 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.[26] The anthropologist Morton Fried (1923-1986) further developed this approach, positing social stratification as the primary dynamic underlying the development of the state.[27]
  • 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).[28][29] Oppenheimer argues that the state was created to cement inequality between peoples that resulted from conquest.[30]
  • 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)[31] 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.[32] 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.[27] 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.[33]
  • 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.[34] Groups that gained power in tribal society gradually worked towards building the hierarchy and segmentation that created the state.[35]
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.[36] Bureaucracy evolves to support the leadership structure in tribes and uses religious hierarchy and economic stratification as a means to further increase its power.[37] 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.[38] 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.[39]

Other theories[edit]

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.[40] 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.[21]

Discredited theories[edit]

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."[18] 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.[28][41]

Theories about modern state development[edit]

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.[42] 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.[43] 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.[44] Other modern states developed in Africa and Asia prior to colonialism, but were largely displaced by colonial rule.[45]

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.[46] 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.[47] 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.[48]

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.[6]

Warfare theories[edit]

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.[42] According to Tilly, the state makes war and war makes states.[49] 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.[50] 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.[51] Tilly argues, state making is similar to organized crime because it is a "quintessential protection racket with the advantage of legitimacy."[52]

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.[53] 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.[54] 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.[55]

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.[6] A 2017 study which tests the predictions of warfare theories of Tilly and others found that the predictions do not match the empirical record.[56] 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.[56]

Commerce theories[edit]

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.[56] The existence of prosperous urban centers that relied on commerce in Central Europe prevented rulers from consolidating their rule over others.[56] 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.[56]

Feudal crisis theories[edit]

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.[43] 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.[57]

Cultural theories[edit]

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.[58] 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.[47]

Outside Europe[edit]

While modern states existed without European influence around the world before colonialism,[59] post-colonial state formation has received the most significant attention.[60] 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.[61][60] 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.[62] 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.[62]

Africa and Juridicial Statehood[edit]

According to academics on state formation in Africa, most notably Jeffrey Herbst, many contemporary African states lack the empirical qualities of states found in their counterparts in the developed world. This is due to the differences in the state building experience between Europe and Africa. Statebuilding in Europe was characterized by the threat of territorial wars, as such states formed as a by product of ruler's efforts in preparing for and waging war. As states in Africa were formed out of decolonization and born in an international system that respected the sovereignty of international borders, this meant that the threat of territorial conquest, which highlighted the European statebuilding experience, was absent from Africa. As such, ruling elite in Africa did not have the impetus to develop strong and effective institutional structures as the survival of the state was guaranteed by the international community. In doing so this led to the proliferation of weak states in Africa, with only juridicial statehood, in reality they lacked effectiveness and legitimacy.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Haas 1982, p. 1.
  2. ^ Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 523.
  3. ^ Haas 1982, pp. 2-3.
  4. ^ Cohen 1978, pp. 2-5.
  5. ^ Painter & Jeffrey 2009, pp. 22-24.
  6. ^ a b c Herbst 1990.
  7. ^ Spruyt 2002, p. 129.
  8. ^ Marcus & Feinman 1998, p. 3.
  9. ^ Spruyt 2002, p. 131.
  10. ^ a b c Sandeford 2018.
  11. ^ Wright 1977, p. 386.
  12. ^ Wright 2006, p. 306.
  13. ^ Cohen 1978, p. 50.
  14. ^ Southall 1974, p. 153.
  15. ^ Spruyt 2002, p. 132.
  16. ^ Blanton & Fargher 2008, p. 13.
  17. ^ Spencer & Redmond 2004, p. 174.
  18. ^ a b c Carneiro 1970, p. 733.
  19. ^ Service 1978, p. 21.
  20. ^ Service 1978, pp. 21-23.
  21. ^ a b c Service 1978, p. 30.
  22. ^ a b Carneiro 1970, p. 734.
  23. ^ Haas 1981, p. 82.
  24. ^ Claessen & Skalnik 1978, p. 6.
  25. ^ Service 1978, pp. 25-26.
  26. ^ Claessen & Skalnik 1978, p. 7.
  27. ^ a b Service 1978, pp. 28-29.
  28. ^ a b Service 1978, p. 24.
  29. ^ Gross 1999, p. 5.
  30. ^ Claessen & Skalnik 1978, p. 10.
  31. ^ Carneiro 1970.
  32. ^ Claessen & Skalnik 1978, p. 13.
  33. ^ Carneiro 1970, pp. 734-735.
  34. ^ Blanton & Fargher 2008, p. 8.
  35. ^ Blanton & Fargher 2008, p. 9.
  36. ^ Cohen 1978, p. 38.
  37. ^ Haas 1982, p. 73.
  38. ^ Cohen 1978, p. 51.
  39. ^ Wright 2006, p. 316.
  40. ^ Cohen 1978, pp. 61-68.
  41. ^ Cohen 1978, p. 42.
  42. ^ a b Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 527.
  43. ^ a b Axtmann 2004, p. 260.
  44. ^ Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 535.
  45. ^ Krohn-Hansen & Nustad 2005, p. 12.
  46. ^ Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 525.
  47. ^ a b Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 530.
  48. ^ Krohn-Hansen & Nustad 2005, p. 8.
  49. ^ Tilly 1985, p. 170.
  50. ^ Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 527-528.
  51. ^ Kaldor 1963.
  52. ^ Tilly 1985, p. 169.
  53. ^ Thompson & Rasler 1999, p. 5.
  54. ^ Thompson & Rasler 1999, p. 6.
  55. ^ Krohn-Hansen & Nustad 2005, p. 19.
  56. ^ a b c d e Abramson 2017.
  57. ^ Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 529.
  58. ^ Krohn-Hansen & Nustad 2005, p. 9.
  59. ^ Ejogu 2011, p. 595.
  60. ^ a b Southall 1974, p. 155.
  61. ^ Barkey & Parikh 1991, p. 531.
  62. ^ a b Wimmer & Feinstein 2010, p. 769.


Further reading[edit]

  • 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]