Central conception of political science.

There is no single theory of the state, but the concept of the state either as the institution exercising ultimate legitimate power in a territory, or as the highest expression of the will of the people, has been at the heart of political science and political theory.

David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)


The word state and its cognates in some other European languages (stato in Italian, estado in Spanish and Portuguese, état in French, Staat in German) ultimately derive from the Latin word status, meaning “condition, circumstances”.

The English noun state in the generic sense “condition, circumstances” predates the political sense. It is introduced to Middle English c. 1200 both from Old French and directly from Latin.

With the revival of the Roman law in 14th-century Europe, the term came to refer to the legal standing of persons (such as the various “estates of the realm” – noble, common, and clerical), and in particular the special status of the king. The highest estates, generally those with the most wealth and social rank, were those that held power. The word also had associations with Roman ideas (dating back to Cicero) about the “status rei publicae“, the “condition of public matters”. In time, the word lost its reference to particular social groups and became associated with the legal order of the entire society and the apparatus of its enforcement.[6]

The early 16th-century works of Machiavelli (especially The Prince) played a central role in popularizing the use of the word “state” in something similar to its modern sense.[7] The contrasting of church and state still dates to the 16th century. The North American colonies were called “states” as early as the 1630s. The expression l’Etat, c’est moi (“I am the State”) attributed to Louis XIV is probably apocryphal, recorded in the late 18th century.[8]


There is no academic consensus on the most appropriate definition of the state.[1] The term “state” refers to a set of different, but interrelated and often overlapping, theories about a certain range of political phenomena.[2] The act of defining the term can be seen as part of an ideological conflict, because different definitions lead to different theories of state function, and as a result validate different political strategies.[9] According to Jeffrey and Painter, “if we define the ‘essence’ of the state in one place or era, we are liable to find that in another time or space something which is also understood to be a state has different ‘essential’ characteristics”.[10]

Different definitions of the state often place an emphasis either on the ‘means’ or the ‘ends’ of states. Means-related definitions include those by Max Weber and Charles Tilly, both of whom define the state according to its violent means. For Weber, the state “is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (Politics as a Vocation), while Tilly characterizes them as “coercion-wielding organisations” (Coercion, Capital, and European States).

Ends-related definitions emphasis instead the teleological aims and purposes of the state. Marxist thought regards the ends of the state as being the perpetuation of class domination in favour of the ruling class which, under the capitalist mode of production, is the bourgeoisie. The state exists to defend the ruling class’s claims to private property and its capturing of surplus profits at the expense of the proletariat. Indeed, Marx claimed that “the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (Communist Manifesto).

Liberal thought provides another possible teleology of the state. According to John Locke, the goal of the state/commonwealth was “the preservation of property” (Second Treatise on Government), with ‘property’ in Locke’s work referring not only to personal possessions but also to one’s life and liberty. On this account, the state provides the basis for social cohesion and productivity, creating incentives for wealth creation by providing guarantees of protection for one’s life, liberty and personal property. Provision of public goods is considered by some such as Adam Smith[11] as a central function of the state, since these goods would otherwise be underprovided.

The most commonly used definition is Max Weber’s,[12][13][14][15][16] which describes the state as a compulsory political organization with a centralized government that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a certain territory.[3][4] While economic and political philosophers have contested the monopolistic tendency of states,[17] Robert Nozick argues that the use of force naturally tends towards monopoly.[18]

Another commonly accepted definition of the state is the one given at the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States in 1933. It provides that “[t]he state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.”[19] And that “[t]he federal state shall constitute a sole person in the eyes of international law.”[20]

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a state is “a. an organized political community under one government; a commonwealth; a nation. b. such a community forming part of a federal republic, esp the United States of America”.[21]

Confounding the definition problem is that “state” and “government” are often used as synonyms in common conversation and even some academic discourse. According to this definition schema, the states are nonphysical persons of international law, governments are organizations of people.[22] The relationship between a government and its state is one of representation and authorized agency.[23]

Types of states

States may be classified by political philosophers as sovereign if they are not dependent on, or subject to any other power or state. Other states are subject to external sovereignty or hegemony where ultimate sovereignty lies in another state.[5] Many states are federated states which participate in a federal union. A federated state is a territorial and constitutional community forming part of a federation.[24] (Compare confederacies or confederations such as Switzerland.) Such states differ from sovereign states in that they have transferred a portion of their sovereign powers to a federal government.[21]

One can commonly and sometimes readily (but not necessarily usefully) classify states according to their apparent make-up or focus. The concept of the nation-state, theoretically or ideally co-terminous with a “nation”, became very popular by the 20th century in Europe, but occurred rarely elsewhere or at other times. In contrast, some states have sought to make a virtue of their multi-ethnic or multi-national character (Habsburg Austria-Hungary, for example, or the Soviet Union), and have emphasised unifying characteristics such as autocracy, monarchical legitimacy, or ideology. Other states, often fascist or authoritarian ones, promoted state-sanctioned notions of racial superiority.[25] Other states may bring ideas of commonality and inclusiveness to the fore: note the res publica of ancient Rome and the Rzeczpospolita of Poland-Lithuania which finds echoes in the modern-day republic. The concept of temple states centred on religious shrines occurs in some discussions of the ancient world.[26] Relatively small city-states, once a relatively common and often successful form of polity,[27] have become rarer and comparatively less prominent in modern times. Modern-day independent city-states include Vatican City, Monaco, and Singapore. Other city-states survive as federated states, like the present day German city-states, or as otherwise autonomous entities with limited sovereignty, like Hong Kong, Gibraltar and Ceuta. To some extent, urban secession, the creation of a new city-state (sovereign or federated), continues to be discussed in the early 21st century in cities such as London.

State and government

A state can be distinguished from a government. The state is the organization while the government is the particular group of people, the administrative bureaucracy that controls the state apparatus at a given time.[28][29][30] That is, governments are the means through which state power is employed. States are served by a continuous succession of different governments.[30] States are immaterial and nonphysical social objects, whereas governments are groups of people with certain coercive powers.[31]

Each successive government is composed of a specialized and privileged body of individuals, who monopolize political decision-making, and are separated by status and organization from the population as a whole.

States and nation-states

States can also be distinguished from the concept of a “nation”, where “nation” refers to a cultural-political community of people. A nation-state refers to a situation where a single ethnicity is associated with a specific state.

State and civil society

In the classical thought, the state was identified with both political society and civil society as a form of political community, while the modern thought distinguished the nation state as a political society from civil society as a form of economic society.[32] Thus in the modern thought the state is contrasted with civil society.[33][34][35]

Antonio Gramsci believed that civil society is the primary locus of political activity because it is where all forms of “identity formation, ideological struggle, the activities of intellectuals, and the construction of hegemony take place.” and that civil society was the nexus connecting the economic and political sphere. Arising out of the collective actions of civil society is what Gramsci calls “political society”, which Gramsci differentiates from the notion of the state as a polity. He stated that politics was not a “one-way process of political management” but, rather, that the activities of civil organizations conditioned the activities of political parties and state institutions, and were conditioned by them in turn.[36][37] Louis Althusser argued that civil organizations such as church, schools, and the family are part of an “ideological state apparatus” which complements the “repressive state apparatus” (such as police and military) in reproducing social relations.[38][39][40]

Jürgen Habermas spoke of a public sphere that was distinct from both the economic and political sphere.[41]

Given the role that many social groups have in the development of public policy and the extensive connections between state bureaucracies and other institutions, it has become increasingly difficult to identify the boundaries of the state. Privatization, nationalization, and the creation of new regulatory bodies also change the boundaries of the state in relation to society. Often the nature of quasi-autonomous organizations is unclear, generating debate among political scientists on whether they are part of the state or civil society. Some political scientists thus prefer to speak of policy networks and decentralized governance in modern societies rather than of state bureaucracies and direct state control over policy.[42]

State names

Most countries have two names, a protocol name and a geographical name or short name.[43][44][45]

The protocol name (full name, formal name, official name) e.g. the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic, the Swiss Confederation, the State of Qatar, the Principality of Monaco, the Kingdom of Norway, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria, the Argentine Republic, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the United States of America, the United Mexican States, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Free State of Bavaria, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The long form (official title) is used when the state is targeted as a legal entity: e.g. This Decision is addressed to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.The French Republic is authorised to …Agreement between the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Russian Federation …. If the recurrence of the name of a state in the text leads to a preference for using the short form, it can be introduced with the phrase ‘hereinafter referred to as …’.

The geographical name (short name) e.g. SlovakiaCzechiaSwitzerlandQatarMonacoNorwayLuxembourgEthiopiaAlgeriaArgentina, the United Kingdom, the United StatesMexicoMassachusettsBavaria, the Soviet Union. The short form (short name) is used when the state is referred to geographically or economically:  e.g. Workers residing in France.Exports from Greece ….[46]

For certain states, the long form and the short form are identical: e.g. the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Dominican Republic, the United Arab EmiratesBosnia and HerzegovinaCanadaGeorgiaHungaryIcelandIrelandJamaicaJapanMalaysiaMongoliaMontenegroNew ZealandRomaniaSaint LuciaSaint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon IslandsTurkmenistanTuvaluUkraine.

State symbols

  • flag
  • coat of arms or national emblem
  • seal or stamp
  • national motto
  • national colors
  • national anthem

One thought on “State

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