Institutions – the state (in theory)

Week 7

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the relationship between violence and the state
  • Understand the concepts of public and private spheres of activity managed by the state
  • Understand the different ways of thinking about the state, particularly those described by Weber, Pierson, and Tilly.

Class coordinators

Team 2


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?

Learning objectives

  1. Understand the relationship between violence and the state
  2. Understand the concepts of public and private spheres of activity managed by the state
  3. Understand the different ways of thinking about the state, particularly those described by Weber, Pierson, and Tilly.

Required readings

Optional readings


Self-assessment questions and readings.

Self-assessment questions

  1. What are the key steps in the evolution of the modern state, as the text defines them?  How are these steps related to the problem of different types of violence, and its management within and between states? (From Tremblay, Ch. 8)
  2. What makes a state, as Migdal defines it?  How do different types of states regulate individual and collective life in the public and private spheres?  Does it matter how these are defined?  (Tremblay, Ch. 8)
  3. How does Tilly’s view of state-making differ from the theory of a “social contract”, and what does it suggest about the evolution of states in other parts of the world?
  4. There is common ground in the description of the state by Weber, Pierson, Migdal, and Tilly, but there are also differences in their explanations of why the state is as it is.  What are the differences in their explanations, which do you find most convincing, and why?
  5. What are the elements of an effective review, and what is the key ingredient missing from Scott and Garrisons’ recipe? (From Scott, Ch. 8)


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

[1] Introduction from class coordinator – time allocation

[2] Current events of political significance (domestic, international) [60s]

[3] Review/amend focus of learning objectives  [5D]

[4] Key terms [5D, GLI]

[5] Mapping the Political Landscape [5D, GLI]

[6] External resources [class coordinator]

[7] Exam questions [5D, GLI]

[8] Looking ahead: next week’s class coordinator introduces (last 15 minutes)

Next up

David Last, updated September 2016