In this class, we will use some specific definitions of everyday words, some of which are different than how they are commonly used in the United States.


            While there is no single accepted definition of the state, when we are talking about states we are talking about formal political institutions – organizations such as bureaucracies and legal systems.  States have defined territories and are recognized as the authority over those territories by other states.  People know which state(s) they belong to through formal laws of citizenship.  The main function of state institutions is to deliver public goods – states collect taxes and use them to provide security, infrastructure, and other services to their citizens.

Public goods are things that, once created, everyone has access to, regardless of whether they contributed to their creation.

Public goods can be material, as in roads or health clinics, or they can be more intangible, like national defense. 

This is in contrast to …


            Nations are groups of people.  Defining nations is even more controversial that defining states, but members of a nation have some kind of cultural connection to each other.  This connection is usually based on a claim of a shared history and may be based on ethnic or religious ties, but it does not have to be (as in the civic nationalism promoted by many multi-ethnic states).  Members of a nation may be geographically concentrated in certain areas, but nations are not defined by their territories.  Nations are defined by their identities, whatever they may be, and membership in a nation is a matter of group identification.  As with all identities, this is mostly a matter of how individuals choose to identify themselves, but the perceptions of other people also play a role and the definitions of some nations is more porous and contested than others.  Rather than providing specific services, nations tend to provide a sense of belonging – a connection to other members and to the institutions that say they represent those members.  Not every group is a nation, though.  Nations have political goals – they may claim or aspire to statehood, seek formal representation within a state, or organize politically for cultural rights.

Institutions (bureaucracy, legal system)
Legal recognition
Deliver public goods
People (cultural, maybe ethnic ties)
Group identification
Provide sense of belonging

This matters because the history of nations and states is bloody.  Wars have often erupted where the borders between states and nations don’t coincide.  Today, there remain many groups that consider themselves nations but do not have their own states, with the Kurds being the most famous example.

Bosnia and Herzegovina before and after an ethnic war.

When we talk about states, we typically focus on two key concepts that states (or their leaders) aspire to: legitimacy and sovereignty.

Legitimacy is the idea that citizens accept that a state (or leader) has the right to act in a certain way.  Consent of the governed is an element of authority, but accepting an authority as legitimate doesn’t necessarily mean choosing it or supporting it.  Legitimacy is more than compliance, however.  Governments may have legal authority to take actions but still be seen as illegitimate.  Legitimacy is a combination of moral and legal agreement on what is acceptable.

Sovereignty is the idea that a state is recognized as the sole legitimate authority over a territory.  There are two key elements to this idea: autonomy and recognition. 

  • Autonomy: Sovereign states are the sole authority over their territories, which is often challenged today by transnational and subnational movements. For example, the European Union limits the sovereignty of its member states – euro-zone members cannot establish independent monetary policies, among other things. And regional independence movements (Scotland or Catalonia, for example) challenge the idea that they should be ruled from a distant capital.
  • Recognition: When speaking of sovereign states, we are typically discussing formal recognition – legal membership in international organizations such as the UN or a formal statement by one state that they acknowledge the existence of another. There are many unrecognized states in the world today, ranging from states like Taiwan, which most states do not legally recognize it due to opposition from China, to states like Kosovo or Palestine, whose recognition is more contested.
Countries recognizing Palestine as a state
Countries recognizing Kosovo as a state

Last note is on a distinction that I have organized the course around and wanted to make clear – the difference between states, regimes, and governments.

  • We will talk about states as a set of formal institutions (like a bureaucracy) within a defined territory.  When we think about differences between types of states, we can think about degree of centralization (federal vs unitary states) or size of the state (welfare states vs smaller states).
  • Regimes are about the overall type of political system.  There are many dimensions you could examine, but we will focus on one: the degree of popular involvement in choosing the leader (aka democracy vs dictatorship). 
  • We will refer to “government” when we want to talk about how regimes select leaders.  Is a democracy presidential or parliamentary?  What kind of electoral system does it have?  What kind of authoritarian system are we looking at – a traditional monarchy like in Morocco or a political party-based system like in China?

There are important differences among countries in each of these areas, and I have chosen to begin our course with a discussion of the state because it is the fundamental unit of analysis we will be using – it is the playing field that politics takes place in.  Understanding how states differ and how those differences arose is the first step toward understanding other political phenomena.