Political Science The Nature of the State
Mike Miller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 March 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0151


The state is the quintessential modern political institution. What has been referred to variously as “the modern state,” “the nation-state,” “the constitutional state,” or “the bureaucratic state” has existed for no longer than five centuries and no less than two. Yet, in that time, the very nature of human society has undergone monumental transformations, and states have been at the center of each change. While the relevance of states to modern society—and to modern forms of politics—is widely recognized, the precise nature of the state and state power is the subject of perennial debate. Over the course of the 20th century, the study of politics has ebbed and flowed from state-centered explanations of political phenomena to society-centered explanations, wherein the state is seen as epiphenomenal to more-microlevel processes. Passionate debates continue over whether states are more or less coherent entities capable of autonomous, directed, state-interested action, or whether they fundamentally reflect the interests of the competing groups or classes that constitute society. Is there a universal category of political organization called the state or are particular institutions associated with the state mediated through widely varying cultural practices and institutions? More contentious still are debates over the political implications of how states are defined and constructed, through language and through law, and whether these images and discourses reproduce structures of power that consistently favor certain groups at the expense of others. Finally, as goods, capital, information, and people cross the borders of territorial states with increasing ease, some scholars question whether the notion of sovereignty has become obsolete or whether new ways of organizing social power will, if they have not already, relegate territorial states to the dustbins of history. This article is organized according to a loose chronology of the major approaches to and thematic debates about the nature of the state since the early 20th century. An additional section (Conceptual Foundations) reaches back further in order to introduce some of the theoretical and conceptual forebears to a political science or sociology of the state.

General Overviews

Several overviews provide useful introductions to theories of the state. Two classics are Dyson 2009 and Vincent 1987. The former is a much more comprehensive intellectual history of the state as an idea in western European thought; the latter a history of normative political interpretations of the state. A more recent intellectual history is Nelson 2006, which makes an explicit attempt to embed the Western tradition in its social context. Marinetto 2007 and Dryzek and Dunleavy 2009 are the most up-to-date overviews, each a comparison of various approaches to the state. Michael Marinetto’s emphasis is on modern approaches to the state, spending one chapter on the classical theories before moving into post-structuralism. The authors of Dryzek and Dunleavy 2009 are more interested in comparing the classical theories to modern innovations and critiques, and so they spend more time to elaborate those foundations. Hay, et al. 2006 is an edited volume with an excellent introductory chapter, followed by thematic chapters by experts. Both Barrow 1993 and Hobson 2002 are thematic overviews. The former is dedicated to parsing the history of debates within Marxist accounts of the state; the latter, within international relations (IR), a subfield of political science.

  • Barrow, Clyde W. Critical Theories of the State: Marxist, Neo-Marxist, Post-Marxist. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

    Dated but extensive introduction to the major Marxist theories of the state.

  • Dryzek, John S., and Patrick Dunleavy. Theories of the Democratic State. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    Survey of theories of the liberal-democratic state. Includes chapters on classical theories of the democratic state and critiques, in particular from feminist, environmental, conservative, and postmodern/post-structuralist perspectives.

  • Dyson, Kenneth H. F. The State Tradition in Western Europe: A Study of an Idea and Institution. ECBR Classics. Colchester, UK: ECPR Press, 2009.

    Classic intellectual history and analysis of the idea of the state in Western political thought. Great comparison of British and Continental traditions. Originally published in 1980 (Oxford: Martin Robertson).

  • Hay, Colin, Michael Lister, and David Marsh, eds. The State: Theories and Issues. Political Analysis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    Excellent collection of essays on historical and modern approaches to the state. Each chapter written by an expert in its respective literature. Includes a chapter on green/ecological theories of the state.

  • Hobson, John M. The State and International Relations. Themes in International Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    Introduction to theories of the state from an IR perspective. Also serves as a short but high-quality introduction to IR theory.

  • Marinetto, Michael. Social Theory, the State and Modern Society: The State in Contemporary Social Thought. Theorizing Society. Maidenhead, UK: McGraw-Hill International, 2007.

    Well-written and relatively current tour of the state in modern social theory. It has the advantage of being written by a single author: a narrative arc.

  • Nelson, Brian. The Making of the Modern State: A Theoretical Evolution. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781403983282

    A concise book that integrates political, sociological, and ideological context into a historical analysis of the origins of the modern state and state theory.

  • Vincent, Andrew. Theories of the State. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

    Well-written introduction to classical theories of the state from a political-philosophy perspective. Includes chapters on the absolutist state, (liberal) constitutional state, (Hegelian) ethical state, (Marxist) class state, and the pluralist state, with discussion of the English and American traditions of pluralism.

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