In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Empire and State Formation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Concepts and Approaches
  • Primary Sources and Research Guides
  • European State Formation
  • Indigenous Polities of the Americas
  • Ideology and Religion
  • Law and Empire
  • Political Economy
  • Knowledges and Empire
  • Empires in War and Revolution

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Atlantic History Empire and State Formation
Catherine Desbarats
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0020


Historical writing on empire and state formation is undergoing a kind of global renaissance for a host of complex reasons, including the rapid political reconfigurations accompanying the end of the Soviet Union, the persistence of empires, and the dawning realization that the homogeneous nation-state is not, and has probably never been, the “natural” form of political organization. Though never fully eclipsed as objects of historical enquiry, empires and states came to be seen for a time by many social historians as quintessentially elitist, Eurocentric, patriarchal preoccupations. In the end, however, what several generations of scholars have revealed, through their studies of peasantries, women, and indigenous or enslaved peoples, not to mention of landscapes and the environment, was not that empires and states were somehow irrelevant, but rather that the dominant narratives about them—those firmly rooted in textbooks and public discourse, and persisting even in academic works, had long been profoundly elitist, patriarchal, and Eurocentric. Historical discourse about high politics and government, moreover, had contributed significantly to the ideological, cultural work of state formation itself: settler societies produced Whiggish stories about the progress from “colony to nation,” and North Atlantic European countries produced histories centered on the “rise of democratic nation-states” that either celebrated the civilizing, democratizing effects of empire or ignored imperial pasts altogether. Both sets of national histories naturalized European expansion, emphasized formal institutional structures of government at the expense of less obvious sources of power, and tended to treat European state formation as somehow both prior to, and impervious to, processes of imperial and colonial state formation. Anthropologists, sociologists, and literary and critical theorists of various stripes have helped reinvigorate the study of empires and states. Through their attention to indigenous agency—namely, to the practices of power, including discursive ones—they have refined the concepts of empire and state formation as well as hinted at new ways in which we might interpret the records produced by such polities, paving the way for decolonized histories of both. Though much of this literature deals with settings in the 19th and 20th centuries, historians of the early modern Atlantic world are increasingly drawing inspiration from it. By conjoining regions typically studied apart (West Africa, Europe, the Americas), they have helped identify features of empire and state formation invisible within national frameworks. Above all, perhaps, they have reminded us that empire and state formation has important spatial dimensions, involving not just land but also oceans and waterways. Conversely, the histories of empires and states, which encompass Asian and Pacific theaters, challenge Atlantic historians to think carefully about the boundaries they impose on their inquiries.

General Overviews

This selection emphasizes overviews, including Greene and Morgan 2009 and Burnard 2007, that treat the Atlantic world comprehensively and critically or that might help provide global and longue durée contextualization of Atlantic world imperial processes, as in Douki and Minard 2007, Muldoon 1999, and Pagden 2001. It hardly bears repeating that few empires were perfectly coeval, either in spatial or temporal terms, with “Atlantic world” phenomena. Burbank and Cooper 2010 offers perhaps the most analytically satisfactory discussion of empires among the large-scale examples chosen, partly by virtue of its explicit treatment of the relationship between state and empire formation. Darwin 2007 works with a much looser conception of empire, while the theoretical, multisectoral model for imperial trajectories presented in Abernethy 2000 will strike many historians as profoundly reified, but it offers the reader a taste of social-scientific causal analyses. Russell-Wood 1995–2000 gathers in one place scores of classic and original essays that shed light on the institutional nuts and bolts of European empires in Africa, Asia, and America, among many other topics.

  • Abernethy, David B. The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires, 1415–1980. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

    Attempt by a political scientist to provide a theory for the “rise, persistence, and fall” of western European “salt water” empires, beginning with the Portuguese seizure of Ceuta and ending with the independence of Zimbabwe. Effective coordination of “public, private, and religious” sectors here explains phases of successful expansion.

  • Burbank, Jane, and Frederick Cooper. Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

    Through comparisons of selected imperial trajectories and strategies of rule, beginning with 3rd-century BCE China and Rome, this interpretive synthesis argues that empires incorporating heterogeneous peoples have been more prevalent than political units claiming to represent a single nation. Essential reading, with discriminating guides to relevant literatures.

  • Burnard, Trevor. “Empire Matters? The Historiography of Imperialism in Early America, 1492–1830.” History of European Ideas 33.1 (2007): 87–107.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.histeuroideas.2006.08.011

    Review essay arguing for the relevance of imperial history, especially comparative, to Atlantic historians. Notes that imperial subjecthood was a crucial, common experience within the Atlantic world. Draws attention to the general absence of the French Empire from recent texts, in contrast to the Abbé Raynal’s sweeping 18th-century comparative history.

  • Darwin, John. After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire since 1405. London: Allen Lane, 2007.

    Important example of trend toward massively scaled comparative histories casting early modern empires as precursors to globalized modernity. Erratic in its attempt to “decenter” Europe and synthesize regional literatures. Critics note that its treatment of European empires is hampered by omission of the Caribbean and indigenous empires of the Americas.

  • Douki, Caroline and Philippe Minard, eds. Special Issue: Histoire globale, histoires connectées. Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 54.4 (2007).

    Review essays drawn from an interdisciplinary international round table of the Société d’histoire moderne et contemporaine held in Paris in 2007. The introductory piece raises concerns about the “imperialism” of American scholarly approaches. Useful entry point to scholarship on global, imperial, and connected history in languages other than English.

  • Greene, Jack P., and Philip D. Morgan, eds. Atlantic History: A Critical Reappraisal. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Up-to-date, comprehensive review essays by experts introducing the regional literatures of the Atlantic world. Each chapter comes with a useful annotated bibliography. Superb starting point for those wishing to attempt imperial comparisons; sensitive to weaknesses as well as to strengths of Atlantic approaches.

  • Muldoon, James. Empire and Order: The Concept of Empire, 800–1800. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230512238

    By carefully reviewing the multiple concepts of empire extant in the medieval era, Muldoon helps explain why early modern rulers were so reluctant to embrace explicitly the language of “imperium,” even as their overseas expansion caused the practical problems of imperial governance to grow rather than disappear.

  • Pagden, Anthony. Peoples and Empires: A Short History of European Migration, Exploration, and Conquest from Greece to the Present. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

    Brief analytic treatment of European imperial expansion from Alexander onward. Focuses on the central importance of claims to universality (mainly in legal and religious discourse) and of challenges to such claims. The emphasis is on doctrine and textual discourse rather than on social and political practices and conflict on the ground.

  • Russell-Wood, A. J. R., ed. An Expanding World: The European Impact on World History, 1450–1800. 31 vols. Aldershot, UK: Variorum, 1995–2000.

    Volumes 20–24 deal with theories of empire, metropolitan and overseas institutions of governance, administrators, and warfare. Volume editors David Armitage, A. J. R. Russell-Wood, Mark A. Burkholder, and Douglas Peers offer helpful introductions to essays published over the entire course of the 20th century, a number of which are original.

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