Max Weber famously defined the state as an organization with a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a territory.  This definition of a state is so widespread that I presented a virtually identical definition without caveat in the last video.  This video is about some caveats and a little nuance.

Weber and Sam Huntington both see state power as a generally positive thing (what we might call “governance”) and offer more detailed definitions of what “good” states should be.

In Economy and Society, Weber gave us the concept of a Weberian bureaucracy.  Weberian bureaucracies have a bunch of characteristics, but they fundamentally come down to the idea that bureaucracies are impersonal (positions and services don’t depend on personal connections) and layered (there is a hierarchy and division of labor).  The job of a bureaucrat is to develop and implement rules and regulations based on their expert skills and training they have received.

Weber saw bureaucracies as a form of rational-legal authority that could produce the most efficient outcomes for a state because they provide technical expertise and continuity over time.

Weber’s characteristics of bureaucracy

Task specialization

Hierarchical layers of authority

Written rules and regulations

Impersonal orientation

Technical expertise

Promotion based on competence

Huntington, in Political Order in Changing Societies, also sees states as necessary organizations that allow polities to incorporate new groups and remain stable, but provides an alternate way of defining and classifying them.  He identifies four dimensions around which states (and organizations generally) vary.  Good, or strong, states have a high degree of institutionalization, which can be broken down into adaptability, complexity, autonomy, and coherence.  State institutions tend to become more institutionalized over time because they have had to adapt to and incorporate a greater variety of changes and groups.

Both Weber and Huntington provide key insights into how states can and should function, but they both offer top-down views of politics – the state is something that acts on or towards its people.

State-Society Relations

Other theories and concepts of the state focus more on the relationship between the state and society.

Michael Mann, in The Sources of Social Power, draws a distinction between a state’s despotic power – its ability to impose its will on the people – and a state’s infrastructural power – its ability to implement policy through society.  Infrastructural power characterizes successful modern states, but it requires not only rational organization within the state, but also a strong relationship between state and non-state organizations.  State policies are not fully implemented unless they are accepted by society (legitimate), which gives citizens agency in this process. 

Joel Migdal, in Strong Societies and Weak States, puts this in the context of post-colonial Africa and the Middle East.  Migdal notes that in countries where state institutions are weak, social institutions are often strong, exhibiting the complexity, adaptability, and sometimes hierarchy that Weber and Huntington praise in the state.  Migdal argues that one reason for the weakness of post-colonial states is that they are built on colonial institutions that, while they were highly coercive, were also disconnected from the strong societies that preceded them.

While these theories all vary in the weight they give state vs social power, they all focus on two key attributes of states:  incorporation and mobilization.  States need to incorporate new social groups (bring social classes, ethnic groups, young people into the political process) to avoid unrest and mobilize citizens around their goals to successfully implement policy.  Over the next few weeks we will examine how states vary in their ability to do this, beginning with getting a better understanding of how we know we are looking at a strong or a weak state.