In This Article State Formation

  • Introduction
  • Premodern State Formation and Cross-Cultural Views
  • Informal, De Facto, and Unrecognized States
  • International Statebuilding and State Formation

Political Science State Formation
Berit Bliesemann de Guevara, Philipp Lottholz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0123


The term state formation is most commonly used to describe the long-term processes which led to the genesis of modern political domination in form of the territorial sovereign state. In a few works, the terms statebuilding, nation-building, or institution-building are used synonymously with state formation. In the mainstream literature, modern state formation is understood to have originated in Europe and expanded to other world regions through European colonialism and the later integration of postcolonial states into the international state system. This literature has reconstructed modern state formation in Europe and the parallel formation of the international system of states as a complex directional but non-steered historical process, which comprises different central elements. These include, most importantly, the monopolization and institutionalization of the legitimate means of violence and of taxation; the successive democratization of these monopolies; the bureaucratization, rationalization, and depersonalization of rule; the idea of territorial boundaries of state rule coupled with the idea of state sovereignty; symbolic practices meant to ensure the legitimacy of state domination; the embedding of these processes into the expansion of capitalism as dominant form of economic reproduction; and the emergence of classes and nations. In other world regions, modern state institutions were mostly first introduced by European colonial rule, but coalesced with local forms of political organization in a number of ways. The trajectories of colonial and postcolonial state formation have therefore differed from the European experience and brought about different types of modern states, such as the developmental state, the neopatrimonial state, or the socialist-bureaucratic state. As part of these developments, informal states, which show a de facto character of statehood but lack formal international recognition, represent another form of modern state formation. Critics of the Eurocentric view on modern state formation have argued that the state has a much longer trajectory than the focus on modernity would suggest and that it can only be understood through a long-term historical perspective (Braudel’s longue durée). Others have pointed to the often-neglected oriental influences on occidental state formation. Since the mid-1990s, state formation has also been discussed as a concept describing the effects of the politics of statebuilding, a central aim and instrument of many contemporary international military and civilian interventions, on the recipient states. Here, state formation is used to differentiate the multiple intended and unintended effects of international military and civilian interventions on the de-/institutionalization dynamics of states from their stated goals.

Premodern State Formation and Cross-Cultural Views

In order to understand where the modern state is coming from, and what differentiates it from other or earlier state forms, it is useful to look into processes of premodern state formation as well as into works that compare the western European process of modern state formation with other regions or highlight the influences the oriental world had on the occident. Claessen and Skalnik 1978 and Feinman and Marcus 1998 are overviews of archeological and anthropological research on the “early” or “archaic” state in different world regions, its emergence, functioning, and decline. Blanton and Fargher 2008 looks at the same topic, but from an unconventional perspective, by using rational-choice theory to study collective action as an element in early state formation, thereby questioning some of the core assumptions of more classical studies. Anderson 2013 (two books) locates the modern absolutist state in Europe within a broader historical perspective stretching from Antiquity to feudalism to the modern state. Lieberman 2003 and Hui 2005 are illuminating cross-regional comparisons of state formation processes in East and West. Hobson 2004, finally, shows how western Enlightenment has been influenced by oriental thought, questioning some of the general assumptions about the “autonomous” rise and triumph of the modern western state.

  • Anderson, Perry. Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism. London: Verso, 2013.

    E-mail Citation »

    These two books explore the transition from ancient to medieval-feudal modes of production and society formation in both western and eastern Europe as a precursor to the later formation of the absolutist state, thus helping to put the formation of the modern European state into a broader historical and international perspective. First published 1974. Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: Verso, 2013)

  • Blanton, Richard, and Lane Fargher. Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-modern States. New York: Springer, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-73877-2E-mail Citation »

    Role of human action (rational-choice theory) at center of study of the formation of premodern states. Theory test of collective action using cross-cultural sample of premodern societies. Findings question dominant view that powerful despotic rulers dominated premodern states and suggest that collective forms of rule account for premodern states’ successful establishment.

  • Claessen, Henri J. M., and Peter Skalnik, eds. The Early State. New York: De Gruyter Mouton, 1978.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110813326E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive edited volume discussing theoretically and empirically the emergence of early, premodern states in different world regions and synthesizing theoretical and empirical findings in a concluding part of the book. Good introduction to classic scholarship about the early state.

  • Feinman, Gary M., and Joyce Marcus. Archaic States. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Collection of essays providing archeological insights into the operation and diversity of ancient states as well as their rise and fall. Includes case studies from the Andes, Egypt, India and Pakistan, and Mesoamerica.

  • Hobson, John M. The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511489013E-mail Citation »

    Important contribution questioning the Eurocentrism of western accounts of world history and exposing the autonomous, internally generated process of modern transformation in and dominance of the West as a politically invented myth. Rather, the author shows how western Enlightenment borrowed from ideas of the non-western world, especially East Asia.

  • Hui, Victoria Tin-bor. War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511614545E-mail Citation »

    Argues against idea of uniqueness of the modern western state system by juxtaposing it with periods in ancient China that knew systems of sovereign states. Discusses why China and Europe shared similar processes like war making, centralized bureaucratization, expansion of trade, and emergence of citizen rights, but with diverging outcomes.

  • Lieberman, Victor. Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830. Vol. 1, Integration on the Mainland. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Important two-volume global history of state formation. Traces state formation trajectories in Burma, Siam, Vietnam, France, the Russian Empire, and Japan in attempt to overcome the East-West binary of historical understandings. Main finding: despite profound differences in demography, culture, administration, and economic structures, regions share “synchronized political rhythms,” pointing to Eurasian interdependence. Volume 2, Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

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