The most practical thing in the world is a good theory, because it helps us to think about how the world works. We have now finished two weeks on the nature of political science (weeks 1 and 2), and four weeks on some of the ideas that shape political action (ideologies in weeks 3-6). We now move on to ideas about institutions, beginning with the state. In week 7, we are particularly concerned with the origin, characteristics, and evolution of the state as an institution.
An institution is a way of organizing social behaviour. Institutions emerge out of collective behaviour over time, and survive because they are socially useful. If that sounds a bit circuitous, it is. It reflects one of the most important ideas in sociology – the concept of the interaction of structure and agency. Agency is the ability of individuals to take action. Structure is the network of institutions which constrain free agency (Giddens), but exercising agency also changes institutions over time. Think about three major institutions in contemporary society: marriage, organized religion, and the judicial system. Individuals choose whether to get married, go to church (or mosque, or temple), and obey the law. Their choices to do so, or not, reinforce or undermine these institutions over time. Being married, going to temple (or church, or mosque) each week affects the degree to which individuals are integrated into the society around them, and it affects their choices on other social issues, such as whether to obey state laws. The same is true of other aspects of the relationship between a state and its citizens, in theory and in practice.
States have changed over time, in their capacity and their functions, and the relationships of individuals and groups with states and across state boundaries has also changed. Phillip Bobbitt provides one perspective on the evolution of states through their interaction in epochal wars and post-war institutional peace-building. He identifies the “market state” as the evolution that followed the epochal “Long War” between capitalism, fascism and communism in the 20th Century, but is the market state dominated by corporations rather than states? The state is still the preeminent law-making and war-making institution, but have transnational corporations superseded states as the agenda-setting global institutions, with corresponding loss of popular confidence in states?
Self-assessment questions and readings.
Our seminar will focus on self-assessment question 4.
Weekly activities can be adjusted by class coordinators in consultation with the professor
Week 5 checklist of material
 Introduction from class coordinator – time allocation
 Current events of political significance (domestic, international) [60s]
 Review/amend focus of learning objectives [5D]
 Key terms [5D, GLI]
 Mapping the Political Landscape [5D, GLI]
 External resources [class coordinator]
 Exam questions [5D, GLI]
 Looking ahead: next week’s class coordinator introduces (last 15 minutes)
David Last, updated September 2016