In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The State

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Classic Works
  • Journals
  • Crisis and Hegemony
  • Feminist Theories of the State
  • Civil Society
  • Policy, Law, and the State
  • Power, Governance, and the Decentered State
  • Globalization and the State

Sociology The State
John Michael Roberts
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0208


In sociology, the state is a subject often dominated by the work of political sociologists, although other sociologists and social theorists, for example historical sociologists and feminist sociologists, also explore various aspects and themes of and about the state. On a broad level, sociologists are interested in how the state emerges through time and space, and how the state is socially constructed and constituted through various social mechanisms, power relations, and relationships of inequality. Sociologists are equally attentive to how the state maintains its capacity to rule through modes of governance and governmentality, bureaucratic apparatuses, networks, institutions, and organizations, and to struggles between groups for control of state hegemony. Moreover, sociologists are often keen to analyze the state as being part of a broader ensemble of social processes that include the economy, international relations, ideology, and civil society. That is to say, the state always operates within a wider set of societal relations. Given this fact, sociologists argue that there is nothing inherently “natural” and God-like about the state or indeed a plurality of states. Any state is a social construct with a history and identity forged over time through contestation, and one that is more open to certain interests and strategies than other interests and strategies.

General Overviews

A number of works have been written that provide general overviews of current issues and thinking about the state. Political sociologists and political scientists have written some of the more prominent textbooks on this subject. Hoffman 1995 explores different themes on the state, while Pierson 1996 focuses on broad issues and key areas regarding the modern state. Other sociologists, in works such as Barrow 1993, Nash 1999, Drake 2010, and Glasberg and Shannon 2011, integrate state theory with distinctive areas, such as discourse, social movements, globalization, and power. Hay 1996 and Held 1989 also look at factors such as power but they do so through specific state formations, such as the welfare state, and through terms, such as “legitimation crisis.” Other works, such as Hall 1994; Jessop 2015; and McLennan, et al. 1984, are more attuned to the relationships among sociology, sociological theories in the past and present, and the state. Corrigan and Sayer 1985 and Tilly 1993 both present historical accounts of the rise of the modern state.

  • Barrow, Clyde W. 1993. Critical theories of the state: Marxist, neo-Marxist and post-Marxist. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    Barrow looks at and reviews the work of a range of state theorists. He classifies them according to how they theoretically explore the relationship between the state and capital, alongside each respective theorist’s methodological assumptions. A wide range of critical work on the state is presented in a clear and concise manner.

  • Corrigan, Philip, and Derek Sayer. 1985. The great arch: State formation, cultural revolution and the rise of capitalism. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Corrigan and Sayer explore the emergence of the modern state from the 11th to the 19th centuries. They argue that it is vital to understand how the modern state also unleashes new modes of moral regulation upon the populations it governs, and how the modern state creates novel ways of managing people through cultural modes of power as well as political modes.

  • Drake, Michael. 2010. Political sociology for a globalizing world. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Drake maps out different theories of power from Marxist to postmodern approaches, and he then discusses how these various approaches make use of different state and nonstate processes and mechanisms at work in the world today. While Drake considers areas such as sovereignty and the state in the global world, and citizens, nations, and the state, he also links these to other areas such as the rise of the global public sphere, cosmopolitanism, and global risks.

  • Glasberg, Davita Silfen, and Deric Shannon. 2011. Political sociology: Oppression, resistance, and the state. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    The authors outline how the state reproduces oppressive power relations through a number of concrete forms that include political economy, patriarchy, racism, and heteronormativity. State structures, for example, serve to support gendered social divisions in “nonpolitical” areas of society such as the school system. However, the book also charts how organized groups and social movements in civil society have challenged these power relations through their own activism in and around particular policy issues.

  • Hall, John A. 1994. Coercion and consent. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Drawing on historical illustrations and material as well as illustrations from the late 20th century, Hall explores the institutional factors and apparatuses of the modern state. He does so through a variety of case studies that touch on nationalism, the makeup of civil society, the disintegration of socialist societies, military endeavors, and processes of democracy.

  • Hay, Colin. 1996. Re-stating social and political change. Buckingham, UK: Open Univ. Press.

    Hay explores the different forms the state has taken in modern times, from the pre-welfare state to the welfare state to the Thatcherite state. At the same time, he is careful to note throughout the book that the modern state is beset by various legitimation crises in its often failed efforts to treat and reconcile various social and political problems.

  • Held, David. 1989. Political theory and the modern state. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Written by a well-known political sociologist, this earlier book by Held explores central issues and controversies in political thought and analysis. It includes major discussions of the idea of the modern state, contemporary theories of the state, problems of power and legitimation, new forms of democratic ideal, citizenship and social movements, the direction of public policy, and the fate of sovereignty in the modern global system.

  • Hoffman, John. 1995. Beyond the state: An introductory critique. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Hoffman argues that to gain “legitimacy” in the eyes of its population the modern state must pursue policies and agendas through the constant threat of violence upon its citizens as embodied in law, order, and the military. Hoffman then distinguishes between the state as a “legitimate” concentrated force of violence and the “government,” which does not necessarily require violence to rule. Hoffman then sketches out an alternative nonstate theory of government.

  • Jessop, Bob. 2015. The state: Past, present, future. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Jessop discusses various approaches to the state and engages with them from his particular Marxist standpoint. Jessop argues, first, that it is important to understand how the state is an integral part of the structural and strategic contradictions and dilemmas of capitalism. Following this, Jessop then explores themes such as state formation, periodization, the rescaling of the state, and the future of the state.

  • McLennan, Gregor, David Held, and Stuart Hall, eds. 1984. The idea of the modern state. Milton Keynes, UK: Open Univ. Press.

    This text offers a comprehensive and systematic introduction to the major competing explanations and definitions of the state in modern societies. A series of corresponding essays examines key issues in the study of the state from Hobbes to Marx and Weber, theoretical problems in the analysis of contemporary states, the international context in which the state functions, the comparative functions of capitalist and communist states, and the future of the state.

  • Nash, Kate. 1999. Contemporary political sociology. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Nash begins her book by mapping out Marxist and Weberian perspectives in political sociology, respectively. She then usefully describes newer approaches in political sociology, particularly approaches that take discourse and culture seriously when exploring political sociology. She applies some of these perspectives in examining global social movements, globalization, new forms of citizenship in state-led and post-state worlds, and new types of, and experiments in, democracy and participation in civil society.

  • Pierson, Christopher. 1996. The modern state. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203391372

    Pierson provides a systematic description and analysis of the modern state through a set of interrelated themes. After providing a working definition of the modern state, the book places the rise of the modern state system in historical perspective; successive chapters then focus on areas such as the state and economy, the state and the international arena, and the state and citizenship.

  • Tilly, Charles. 1993. Coercion, capital and European states, A.D. 990–1990. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Tilly demonstrates that no one path can be traced to the development and eventual dominance of European nation-states. Nonetheless, he argues that during premodern times European states embarked on military conquests, which produced the apparatuses of modern state bureaucracies in many of these countries. Even so, Tilly also stresses that warfare led to different state formations in different European countries depending on local factors and relations.

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