Topic 2: The State

Topic 2: The State


Dr. Last


The state is perhaps the most important unit in the study of politics, but it is not a fixed or simple object of study or variable in cases. Questions about the state abound.

At the level of the international system, what dynamics led to the rise (and perhaps the demise) of the state as an institution? Within state units, what forms do states take today, and how have they evolved over time? These two questions are related. Bobbitt (2002) describes the evolution of the state, driven by war, technological change, and post-war diplomatic and economic settlements. Immanuel Wallerstein (1976), founder of the world systems perspective, sees the state system, hence individual states, as part of a structure of expanding and deepening global capitalism.

The three structures of the world system were described as the structure of inter-state relations, the structure of capital accumulation, and the structure of the core-periphery division of labour, each of which shapes individual states as well as the world system. Wallerstein and the world system school thrived during the Cold War, when it was apparent that there were competing multistate regimes in East and West: centrally planned, one-party states on one side of the “wall” were described (in the West) as the Second World, and democratic market economies on the other side were described as the First World. A developing “Third World” and sometimes a particularly marginal “Fourth World” were also postulated, with varying definitions. But each claimed to represent democracy under different institutions, hence the DDR or Deutsche Demokratische Republik (what we used to call East Germany) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK for what we usually call North Korea claimed freedom from capitalist oppression and democratic rule by workers in their own state. We shouldn’t dismiss these claims out of hand, because they represent different ideas about the nature of democracy and equality. In the absence of the balance of terror that was once enforced by Cold War nuclear standoff, we have seen a shrinking of left-right politics in the West and erosion of the Welfare state (see Caramani on the Welfare State), as states put on what journalist Thomas Friedman calls “the Golden Straitjacket” of neoliberal policies (Lexus and the Olive Tree). We want to think about the state in historical perspective, with the methodological pluralism advocated by Skocpol.

The short piece about rise and decline in the global system is intended to be read not just at the system level (for international relations) but at the state level to permit the comparison of states within the international system, which can help to explain the context in which democracy, authoritarianism, and other state characteristics evolve. No state is an island.

Learning objectives

  • Understand the state in comparative terms
  • Use data for time series (diachronic) and cross-sectional (synchronic) descriptions of states and groups of states within the state system
  • generate hypotheses about influences and discuss data sources and methods for testing them

Discussion questions

  1. What are the common characteristics of modern states?
  2. Is there a “global middle class” of states?
  3. What are the dimensions along which states vary? How are they measured? (Consider data sources)
  4. How do their fixed and variable characteristics constrain or empower states?
  5. What is the relationship between “nation” and “state” ?
  6. How do laws and practices shape the state over time?
  7. What does “consolidation of state power” mean?
  8. What explains fluctuations in state capacity and relative power?
  9. How did citizens acquire rights vis-a-vis the state? (we’ll explore this further in topics 3 and 4)
  10. How do states acquire resources? Is there such a thing as a resource curse?


Dickovick and Eastwood, Ch. 1,2,3
Boix and Stokes, Ch. 6, 9
Caramani, Ch.21, Welfare State (Moodle)
Tilly (1985) “War-Making and State-Making as Organized Crime”


Activities before class

Find sources of data on the major characteristics of states

Activities during class

  • Divide contemporary states into groups with comparable political, economic, and social
  • Track the genesis of those groups in previous historic eras (e.g. Cold War, Colonial era, etc)
  • Sketch answers to selected discussion questions, and present them in 60-second summaries

Activities after class

  • Review learning objectives.
  • Post questions and notes to Moodle.
  • Suggest exam questions
  • Complete Quiz 1 on Moodle

Additional Resources

Bobbitt, P. (2007). The shield of Achilles: War, peace, and the course of history. Anchor. Chart of historical development of the state

Friedman, T. L. (2000). The Lexus and the olive tree: Understanding globalization. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (extracts on Moodle)

Last, D. (2019) POE320 Case: Rise and Decline


Web links and data sources