The foundational theories of state formation are based in a specific time and place: historical Europe.  They seek to explain how the institution of the state (and later, the nation-state) came to dominate a region once controlled by feudal lords, city-states, and the church.

There are three types of theories about state formation in Europe:

  • Inter-state war, best exemplified by sociologist Charles Tilly’s statement that “war made the state and the state made war.”
  • Contractual theories, where the state emerges as a result of negotiation between rulers and local power holders.
  • Cultural theories, which argue that nationalism and religion created a common bond between people that made them more willing to obey a central state.

This video summarizes these three theories, focusing on the theories of war and social contracts, to provide a foundation for comparing them in class and applying them outside of Europe.

War made the state

The most common theory of European state formation is based on the idea that military competition between feudal lords drove them to create state institutions to better fund their wars.  Rulers need a variety of resources to conduct war:  they need soldiers, the means to feed them, weapons, and the means to deploy them.  These requirements typically come down to a need for people and money.  Both of these resources are “extracted” from the general population – people through conscription and money (eventually) through taxation.  Here’s how the basic argument works:

— Feudal lords seek to maintain control within their territory and keep other powers out of their territory, so they develop militaries.

— Competition between these lords led to the development of new military technologies and larger military forces, but both of these require resources.

— While feudal lords initially obtained resources through force alone (pressing peasants into military service and pillaging crops), it was more efficient to extract resources in ways that generated less opposition and promoted longer-term economic growth.  So they developed ideologies to gain popular support and built networks of loyal local officials to gather taxes in lieu of other forms of resource extraction.

— Leaders that built bureaucracies for tax collection ended up being able to devote more resources to war, developing better military technologies and building larger armies, enabling them to win wars.

— Strong, bureaucratic states then came to dominate Europe through a process of “survival of the fittest,” where those leaders that did not come up with better ways to extract resources from their populations were conquered and disappeared.

There are many variations of this theory.  One important one is offered by Hendrik Spruyt in The Sovereign State and its Competitors.  He noted that other types of organizations (specifically, coalitions of city-states like the Hanseatic League) were just as good at fighting wars as nation-states.  They tended to raise revenue through loans and trade rather than extracting resources from farmers.  Spruyt argues that states won out because they did a better job of doing other things to promote economic development, such as developing standard currencies. 

Contractual theories

Other scholars, best exemplified by Douglass North and Barry Weingast, argue that state institutions (such as constitutions) developed as a sort of contract between rulers and other local power-holders.

Waging war still plays a role – it remains the central activity of the central state or ruler – but, like Spruyt, North and Weingast focus on other ways a ruler raises revenue.  In particular, English kings would fund wars in part by borrowing money from rich noblemen.  In order to guarantee that the king wouldn’t default on these loans, he established institutions (such as, eventually, a central bank) and constraints on his power that limited his ability to take money through force alone.  These institutions worked, North and Weingast argue, because they were “self-enforcing” – in other words, everyone had a powerful reason to comply with them – and because the king feared removal from office through a civil war.

Cultural theories

Finally, cultural theories seek to explain how states developed and used ideology to reduce popular opposition to conscription and taxation.  These theories are not in vogue right now because, in their earliest forms, they come down to the idea that Calvinist Protestants, because of the doctrine of the religion itself, makes people more likely to obey the state.  (This is similar to the idea of the Protestant Ethic making Calvinists better workers.) More recent research has started to examine the role of religion and culture in more detail, however, acknowledging that the Church was a very powerful actor in early modern Europe and influenced ideas about what constitutes legitimate power and contract enforcement.


This is a broad introduction to a complex topic.  You should focus on understanding the claims authors are making about causes and effects – and what connects them – and how they explain variation over time and space.  Because these theories have come under criticism both for how well they explain the European state system, but more importantly what their implications are for state-building in other parts of the world today.

  • In particular, is inter-state war really necessary to build states?   And if so, what are countries whose borders were set by colonial powers (as in most of Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America) supposed to do about that?
  • And what combinations of powerful groups in society are needed to generate the conditions for a stable social contract (as emerged in England)?

The other readings for this week begin to address these questions.  In particular, Victoria Hui, in War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe, rightfully notes that the same conditions of warring feudal lords existing in China one thousand years before they did in Europe.  While these conditions generated some of the same outcomes (moves toward bureaucratization in particular), they did not generate a strong multi-state system as in Europe.   

We’ll look deeper into these questions through these regional and case studies this unit and next.