Chapter Two: State Formation

Chapter two of the textbook began by exploring ways to define the word “state.” As in the case of the word place, the word state seems difficult to define and agree on, at least concisely and precisely. An interesting example of the difficulty in coming to an agreement on the definition of the state in academia is that fact that there exists an argument over whether or not one should even think of the state as a real entity, or “as an idea, a myth, or a symbolic construct.” To this point, the authors note that thinking of the state as only an idea or symbol can mistakenly lead people to believe that the state in fact does not exist at all. The authors instead argue that “myths, ideas, and symbols are far from illusory…they are powerful and durable social phenomena,” and that, as political theorist Timothy Mitchell has suggested, the state manifests itself materially in many forms. Another issue in coming to an agreement on the definition of state is that a state is a complex entity, and cannot be defined by a “single set of mechanisms.” To this, political theorist Bob Jessop suggests the use of a “weak theory” of the state, which I would describe as a framework of ideas that apply to the concept of state rather than a definition that would attempt to comprehensively and shortly sum up every aspect of a state. I believe this approach is best, as I believe “state,” as well as “place,” are words that are better conceptualized through a collection of ideas, rather than with concise definitions. As much as I think this approach seems necessary in order to fully explore the concept of “state,” this approach is of course a much bigger headache than would be a hard and short definition.  

Chapter two went on to describe the process of state formation throughout time. A topic discussed in this section was the idea of sovereignty and that states are widely accepted as the highest authority of governance over a territory and its people. The authors’ point that “modern states’ claims to sovereignty are conventionally recognized by other states, although some states are not regarded as sovereign or legitimate by all others,” reminded me of my trip to central Europe last year where I learned of the existence of the state of Kosovo: a state that the United States does not recognize as legitimate or sovereign. On the same trip I also learned that the United States was one of the last states to accept Slovenia as a legitimate state when it first broke away from Yugoslavia. So this section of the discussion I found interesting, mainly because it caused me to reflect on these things I’d already learned. 

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