State formation is the process of the development of a centralized government structure in a situation where one did not exist prior to its development. State formation has been a study of many disciplines of the social sciences for a number of years, so much so that Jonathan Haas writes that "One of the favorite pastimes of social scientists over the course of the past century has been to theorize about the evolution of the world's great civilizations." The study of state formation is divided generally into either the study of early states (those that developed in stateless societies) or the study of modern states (particularly of the form that developed in Europe in the 17th century and spread around the world). Academic debate about various theories is a prominent feature in fields like Anthropology, Sociology, Economics and Political Science. State formation can include state-building and nation-building.
A state is a political system with a centralized government, a military force, a civil service, an arranged society, and literacy. Though, there is no clear agreement on the defining characteristics of a state and the definition can vary significantly, based upon the focus of the particular definition. The state is considered to be territoriality bound and is distinct from tribes or units without centralized institutions.
According to Painter & Jeffrey, there are 5 distinctive features of the modern state:
1) They are ordered by precise boundaries with administrative control across the whole;
2) They occupy large territories with control given to organized institutions;
3) They have a capital city and are endowed with symbols that embody state power;
4) The government within state creates organizations to monitor, govern and control its population through surveillance and record keeping;
5) They increase monitoring over time.
Additionally, Herbst holds that there is another relevant characteristic of modern states: nationalism. This feeling of belonging to a certain territory plays a central role in state formation since it increases citizens' willingness to pay taxes.
Theories of state formation have two distinct focuses, depending largely on the field of study:
|Susa||Mesopotamia, southwestern Iran||ca 4000-3000 BCE|
|Uruk||Mesopotamia, southern Iraq||ca 4000-3000 BCE|
|Hierakonpolis||upper Egypt||ca 3500-3100 BCE|
|Harrapa||Indus Valley, western India, eastern Pakistan (Punjab, Rajasthan, Sind, Gujarat)||ca 2600-2000 BCE|
|Erlitou||central China (Shanxi and Henan)||ca 1900-1500 BCE|
|Monte Albán||Oaxaca valley, southern Mexico||ca 300 BCE-200 CE|
|Teotihuacan||Basin of Mexico, central Mexico||ca 100-1 BCE|
|Virú||Virú valley, coastal northern Peru||ca 200 BCE-200 CE|
|Tiwanaku||Lake Titicaca, northern Bolivia||ca 300-600 CE|
|Hawai'i||Hawaiian islands||ca 800-1800 CE|
States are minimally defined by anthropologist David S. Sandeford as socially stratified and bureaucratically governed societies with at least four levels of settlement hierarchy (e.g., a large capital, cities, villages, and hamlets). Primary states are those state societies that developed in regions where no states existed before. These states developed by strictly internal processes and interaction with other non-states societies. The exact number of cases which qualify as primary states is not clearly known because of limited information about political organization before the development of writing in many places, but Sandeford lists ten likely cases of primary state formation in Eurasia, the Americas, and the Pacific.
Studies on the formation of early states tend to focus on processes that create and institutionalize a state in a situation where a state did not exist before. Examples of early states which developed in interaction with other states include the Aegean Bronze Age Greek civilizations and the Malagasy civilization in Madagascar. Unlike primary state formation, early state formation does not require the creation of the first state in that cultural context or autonomous development, independently from state development nearby. Early state formation causation can thus include borrowing, imposition, and other forms of interaction with already existing states.
Early state formation in Europe happened in the late 9th century to the early 11th century, as stable kingdoms formed in Germany, France, England, and Scotland; three stable, large kingdoms formed in Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway and Sweden), as well as three in East Central Europe (Poland, Bohemia and Hungary). Historian R.I. Moore argues that 970-1215 was the crucial period in European state formation.
Historian Sverre Bagge argues that "in its main features, the European state system seems to have been formed between the division of the Carolingian Empire and around 1200. At the latter date, there were fifteen kingdoms in Europe: England, Scotland, France, Castile, Aragon, Portugal, Navarra, Sicily, Germany, Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, Den- mark, Norway and Sweden." Of these 15 kingdoms, seven were still in existence by 1648. Of those that disappeared, it was usually due to marriage alliances and hereditary succession.
Theories on the formation of modern states focus on the processes that support the development of modern states, particularly those that formed in late-medieval Europe and then spread around the world with colonialism. Starting in the 1940s and 1950s, with decolonization processes underway, attention began to focus on the formation and construction of modern states with significant bureaucracies, ability to tax, and territorial sovereignty around the world. However, some scholars hold that the modern state model formed in other parts of the world prior to colonialism, but that colonial structures replaced it.
Scholarship on modern state formation frequently uses European state formation as its referent point.
There are a number of different theories and hypotheses regarding early state formation that seek generalizations to explain why the state developed in some places but not others. Other scholars believe that generalizations are unhelpful and that each case of early state formation should be treated on its own.
The earliest forms of the state emerged whenever it became possible to centralize power in a durable way. Agriculture and a settled population have been attributed as necessary conditions to form states. Certain types of agriculture are more conducive to state formation, such as grain (wheat, barley, millet), because they are suited to concentrated production, taxation, and storage.
Voluntary theories contend that diverse groups of people came together to form states as a result of some shared rational interest. The theories largely focus on the development of agriculture, and the population and organizational pressure that followed and resulted in state formation. The argument is that such pressures result in integrative pressure for rational people to unify and create a state. Much of the social contract philosophical tradition proposed a voluntary theory for state formation.
One of the most prominent theories of early and primary state formation is the hydraulic hypothesis, which contends that the state was a result of the need to build and maintain large-scale irrigation projects. The theory was most significantly detailed by Karl August Wittfogel's argument that, in arid environments, farmers would be confronted by the production limits of small-scale irrigation. Eventually different agricultural producers would join together in response to population pressure and the arid environment, to create a state apparatus that could build and maintain large irrigation projects.
In addition to this, is what Carneiro calls the automatic hypothesis, which contends that the development of agriculture easily produces conditions necessary for the development of a state. With surplus food stocks created by agricultural development, creation of distinct worker classes and a division of labor would automatically trigger creation of the state form.
A third voluntary hypothesis, particularly common with some explanations of early state development, is that long distance trade networks created an impetus for states to develop at key locations: such as ports or oases. For example, the increased trade in the 16th century may have been a key to state formation in West African states such as Whydah, Dahomey, and the Benin Empire.
Conflict theories of state formation regard conflict and dominance of some population over another population as key to the formation of states. In contrast with voluntary theories, these arguments believe that people do not voluntarily agree to create a state to maximize benefits, but that states form due to some form of oppression by one group over others. A number of different theories rely on conflict, dominance, or oppression as a causal process or as a necessary mechanism within certain conditions and they may borrow from other approaches. In general the theories highlight: economic stratification, conquest of other peoples, conflict in circumscribed areas, and the neo-evolutionary growth of bureaucracy.
Other aspects are highlighted in different theories as of contributing importance. It is sometimes claimed that technological development, religious development, or socialization of members are crucial to state development. However, most of these factors are found to be secondary in anthropological analysis. In addition to conquest, some theories contend that the need for defense from military conquest or the military organization to conquer other peoples is the key aspect leading to state formation.
Some theories proposed in the 19th century and early 20th century have since been largely discredited by anthropologists. Carneiro writes that theories "with a racial basis, for example, are now so thoroughly discredited that they need not be dealt with...We can also reject the belief that the state is an expression of the 'genius' of a people, or that it arose through a 'historical accident.' Such notions make the state appear to be something metaphysical or adventitious, and thus place it beyond scientific understanding." Similarly, social Darwinist perspectives like those of Walter Bagehot in Physics and Politics argued that the state form developed as a result of the best leaders and organized societies gradually gaining power until a state resulted. Such explanations are not considered sufficient to explain the formation of the state.
In the medieval period (500-1400) in Europe, there were a variety of authority forms throughout the region. These included feudal lords, empires, religious authorities, free cities, and other authorities. Often dated to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, there began to be the development in Europe of modern states with large-scale capacity for taxation, coercive control of their populations, and advanced bureaucracies. The state became prominent in Europe over the next few centuries before the particular form of the state spread to the rest of the world via the colonial and international pressures of the 19th century and 20th century. Other modern states developed in Africa and Asia prior to colonialism, but were largely displaced by colonial rule.
Political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists began studying the state formation processes in Europe and elsewhere in the 17th century--beginning significantly with Max Weber. However, state formation became a primary interest in the 1970s. The question was often framed as a contest between state forces and society forces and the study of how the state became prominent over particular societies. A number of theories developed regarding state development in Europe. Other theories focused on the creation of states in late colonial and post-colonial societies. The lessons from these studies of the formation of states in the modern period are often used in theories about State-building. Other theories contend that the state in Europe was constructed in connection with peoples from outside Europe and that focusing on state formation in Europe as a foundation for study silences the diverse history of state formation.
Based on the model of European states, it has been commonly assumed that development is the natural path that states will eventually walk through. However, Herbst holds that in the case African states, as well as in developing countries of other regions, development need not be the natural step. States that struggle their consolidation could remain permanently weak.
There are three prominent categories of explanations for the emergence of the modern state as a dominant polity: (1) Security-based explanations that emphasize the role of warfare, (2) Economy-based explanations that emphasize trade, property rights and capitalism as drivers behind state formation, and (3) Institutionalist theories that sees the state as an organizational form that is better able to resolve conflict and cooperation problems than competing political organizations. According to Philip Gorski and Vivek Swaroop Sharma, the "neo-Darwinian" framework for the emergence of sovereign states is the dominant explanation in the scholarship. The neo-Darwininian framework emphasizes how the modern state emerged as the dominant organizational form through natural selection and competition.
According to Hendrik Spruyt, the modern state is different from its predecessor polities in two main aspects: (1) Modern states have greater capacity to intervene in their societies, and (2) Modern states are buttressed by the principle of international legal sovereignty and the juridicial equivalence of states. The two features began to emerge in the Late Middle Ages but the modern state form took centuries to come firmly into fruition. Spruyt notes that sovereign equality did not become fully global until after World War II amid decolonization. Adom Getachew writes that it was not until the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples that the international legal context for popular sovereignty was instituted.
Two related theories are based on military development and warfare, and the role that these forces played in state formation.
Charles Tilly developed an argument that the state developed largely as a result of "state-makers" who sought to increase the taxes they could gain from the people under their control so they could continue fighting wars. According to Tilly, the state makes war and war makes states. In the constant warfare of the centuries in Europe, coupled with expanded costs of war with mass armies and gunpowder, warlords had to find ways to finance war and control territory more effectively. The modern state presented the opportunity for them to develop taxation structures, the coercive structure to implement that taxation, and finally the guarantee of protection from other states that could get much of the population to agree. Taxes and revenue raising have been repeatedly pointed out as a key aspect of state formation and the development of state capacity. Economist Nicholas Kaldor emphasized on the importance of revenue raising and warned about the dangers of the dependence on foreign aid. Tilly argues, state making is similar to organized crime because it is a "quintessential protection racket with the advantage of legitimacy." Tilly's theory is prominent in the field of historical sociology, where scholars have tended to identify the onset of modern state formation as coinciding with the military revolution in the 16th century.
Michael Roberts and Geoffrey Parker, in contrast, finds that the primary causal factor was not the "state-makers" themselves, but simply the military revolutions that allowed development of larger armies. The argument is that with the expanded state of warfare, the state became the only administrative unit that could endure in the constant warfare in the Europe of this period, because only it could develop large enough armies. This view--that the modern state replaced chaos and general violence with internal disciplinary structures--has been challenged as ethnocentric, and ignoring the violence of modern states.
War has played a key role not only in the consolidation of European states but also of some third world states. According to Herbst, external security threats have had a fundamental role in the development of the South Korean and Taiwanese states. However, Chin-Hao Huang and Dave Kang argue that Tilly's bellicist theory of state formation does not account for Korea and Japan, as they did not face intense security threats. A 2017 study which tests the predictions of warfare theories of Tilly and others found that the predictions do not match the empirical record. The study found that median state size decreased from 1100 to 1800, and that the number of states increases rapidly between the twelfth and thirteen centuries and remained constant until 1800.
Historian Sverre Bagge argues that neither external nor internal wars were important per se in processes of state formation. To what extent warfare was important in state formation, it was indirectly "by mobilizing the aristocracy in the king's service and by necessitating drastically increased taxation and bureaucratization." Furthermore, he argues that the chronology of events in China and Europe are inconsistent with Tilly's argument that increasing costs of warfare led to processes of state formation. Substantial technological and organizational changes that raised the cost of warfare happened in Europe during the same period as when China unified, but Europe did not have unification during that period. Bagge also argues that the number of states did not meaningfully reduce, even though new military technology gave advantages to larger and wealthier units. He writes that "there are relatively few examples in Europe of kingdoms formed by conquest." Historian Ian Morris similarly disagrees with Tilly's thesis; Morris turns it around and says "War made the state and the state made peace."
Other theories have emphasized the role of trade and urbanization in state formation. Stein Rokkan and others have argued that the modern territorial state developed in places that were peripheral to the commercial "city belt" ("a central regional band extending, roughly, in an arc from the Low Countries, through the Rhineland and into Northern Italy") that ran through Central Europe. The existence of prosperous urban centers that relied on commerce in Central Europe prevented rulers from consolidating their rule over others. The elites in those urban centers could rely on their wealth and on collective security institutions (like the Hanseatic or Swabian league) with other urban centers to sustain their independence. A lower density of urban centers in England and France made it easier for rulers to establish rule over expansive territories.
Another argument contends that the state developed out of economic and social crises that were prominent in late-medieval Europe. Religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, and the involvement of leaders in the domains of other leaders under religious reasons was the primary problem dealt with in the Peace of Westphalia. In addition, Marxist theory contends that the economic crisis of feudalism forced the aristocracy to adapt various centralized forms of organization so they could retain economic power, and this resulted in the formation of the modern state.
Some scholarship, linked to wider debates in anthropology, has increasingly emphasized the state as a primarily cultural artifact, and focuses on how symbolism plays a primary role in state formation. Most explicitly, some studies emphasize how the creation of national identification and citizenship were crucial to state formation. The state then is not simply a military or economic authority, but also includes cultural components creating consent by people by giving them rights and shared belonging.
Scholars have emphasized emulation and learning as a driver behind the diffusion of state-like institutions. Chin-Hao Huang and Dave Kang argue that state-like institutions diffused to Korea and Japan due to emulation of Chinese institutions. According to Anna Grzymala-Busse, universities and churches provided organizational templates that influenced European state formation. Medieval churches were bureaucratized, with notions of office, hierarchy and an esprit de corps among its servants.
Sverre Bagge has argued that Christianity was a key component in European state formation, as the "Church created permanent institutions which strengthened the power of the king." He also argues that the Church played an active role in legitimizing monarchies and kingdoms as systems of government in Western Christendom.
Sverre Bagge argues that the key factors behind the consolidation of European kingdoms were marriage alliance and hereditary succession. He notes that kingdoms frequently failed to conquer one another through warfare, but ended up merging with one another when marriage ties led the king of one kingdom to become the rightful heir to a second kingdom. He cites as examples: the union of Denmark and Norway under King Oluf of Denmark; King James VI of Scotland inheriting the English throne; and dynastic marriages in Spanish kingdoms ultimately leading to the union between Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469.
While modern states existed without European influence around the world before colonialism, post-colonial state formation has received the most significant attention. While warfare is primary in theories about state formation in Europe, the development of the international norm of non-interventionism means that other processes of state formation have become prominent outside Europe (including colonial imposition, assimilation, borrowing, and some internal political processes. John W. Meyer's World Society Theory contends that the state form was exported from Europe, institutionalized in the United Nations, and gradually the modern nation-state became the basis for both those in power and those challenging power. In addition, because many of the early modern states like the United Kingdom and France had significant empires, their institutional templates became standard for application globally.
According to academics on state formation in Africa, most notably Jeffrey Herbst, in his States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control (2000) many contemporary African states lack the empirical qualities of states found in their counterparts in the developed world. This is due to the differences in the state building experience between Europe and Africa. Statebuilding in Europe was characterized by the threat of territorial wars, as such states formed as a by product of ruler's efforts in preparing for and waging war. As states in Africa were formed out of decolonization and born in an international system that respected the sovereignty of international borders, this meant that the threat of territorial conquest, which highlighted the European statebuilding experience, was absent from Africa. As such, ruling elite in Africa did not have the impetus to develop strong and effective institutional structures as the survival of the state was guaranteed by the international community. In doing so this led to the proliferation of weak states in Africa, with only juridicial statehood, in reality they lacked effectiveness and legitimacy.
Latin America as Trade-Led State Formation
Sebastián L. Mazzuca's Latecomer State Formation. Political Geography and Capacity Failure in Latin America (2021) compares state formation in Latin America and Europe. A key argument is that state formation in Latin America was trade-led rather than war-led and that this difference explains why Latin American states have low state capacity relative to their European counterparts. In early modern western Europe, Mazzuca argues, "state formation had multiple linkages to state building. Violence monopolization required great efforts at fiscal extraction, which in turn caused the abolition of the intermediary power of local potentates and incited social demands for new public goods." In contrast, in Latin America, "the obstacles to the development of state capacities were the result of mutually convenient bargains struck by central state-makers and peripheral potentates, who, far from being eliminated during state formation, obtained institutional power to reinforce local bastions."