The only appropriate unit of political analysis is the state.Discuss.

Essay 2004 6 Pages

Politics - Political Theory and the History of Ideas Journal


This essay attempts to evaluate the State’s importance within the field of Politics.

In the first place it needs to be discussed, what the State is. This is one of the most frequently asked questions within the field of Politics. It seems to be a simple question to ask but as we will see later on, the idea of the State is hard to pin down and there is not only one absolute definition. Often, the term ‘State’ is misunderstood and even misused. When mentioning the State there is a variety of responses: fear, hope or even puzzlement. We do not only talk of the ‘police state’ or the ‘welfare state’. It is undeniable that the State is of profound significance. In most advanced societies, the State has become a consistent presence - affecting our daily lives constantly. This is partly because the State is recording births, certifying them, authorizing our marriages and enacting them. We are paying taxes, carry our passport with us when entering or leaving a State and we have to obey the laws made by the State. Just try not to pay taxes.

The State doesn’t reveal itself at the first look. By definition it’s an abstract idea, since it is independent of rulers who can be replaced. Several persons might argue that the today’s understanding of the term State is equivalent or a simple analogue of the Greek city (polis1 ). That is, the Greek polis had no understanding of privacy or citizens´ rights or freedoms. The polis stood above all and the citizens had to serve the polis not the way around, as we know it today. The State’s purpose today is to serve its citizens. But they do have something in common: They both have a definite territory, the idea of citizenship, a certain population and also laws. The State and its nature have been analyzed by various scholars in the twentieth century. For instance Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Karl Marx, Jean Bodin, Max Weber, and G. W. F. Hegel. While reading several articles dealing with the term ‘State’, I noticed Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), the first modern political philosopher using the concept of state to refer to a ‛territorial sovereign government in the widely circulated manuscript of the ‛Prince’ completed in 1513.’2 In the first place it is significant that the State’s reason for being was to serve the citizens as I mentioned in the beginning, not the other way around. In addition the rulers’ status in the State is explored. Machiavelli was convinced that the only purpose of a ruler was to make war, and protect its citizens from other States. Therefore the ruler is enabled to do whatever he believed was necessary to maintain his country, even if it was unjust. In our society today, it is not the ‛rulers’’ purpose to make war. (Even if we could get the impressions of some states doing so today). As Tilly (1975) noted, ‘war made the state, and the state made war’3 There are various reasons for the emerging of the State. Firstly Gunpowder was invented in the 14th century which contributed to military growth and competition among States. Rulers had to adjust to that new challenging situation, for example kings needed help for building larger, standing armies. The monarchies became more centralized. Secondly religious reformation also contributed to the formation of states - secular authority became superior to Church - Power.

After that the need grew for a Sovereign. Bodin clearly highlighted with his theory of sovereignty that the Sovereign should be responsible for war and peace, appointments and legislation Religion became sort of a matter of personal belief. The State possesses authority to carry out actions. Its monopoly is seen as necessary and just and secondly States are controlled and regulated by rules-so the State isn’t omnipotent. The State is given a legitimate authority, it is just and rightful. Furthermore the States main goal is to maintain the internal order and the external defence. Among internal functions are protective functions - protecting property, maintaining public order, protect the environment. The external functions inherit the protection of the country, carrying out wars, maintaining diplomatic relations with other countries and so on. As I mentioned earlier most scholars argued that the individual should serve the State and the State is centre but nowadays its said or it’s a fact, that the individual is the most important unit of interest and the State is the protective force. So what is the State by definition? John Hall (1994) wrote that

1. ‘The State is a set on institutions, the most important of which are those concerned with violence and coercion.
2. These institutions are located within a geographically- bound territory.
3. The State monopolises rule-making within its territory’.4

The term ‘State’ is used to cover all agencies and agents as well as all institutions within a given territorial space. We as citizens have to obey its rules and laws, if we fail to do so the state has the legitimate power to enforce them and to ‘punish’ those disobeying. Laws and rules set up by the State are not thought as punishment - they came/come into existence out of collective decisions and they serve as public good. The State is performing three roles: creating law, executing law and protecting law. But where does the State take its right to do so? What is regulating the relationship between the State and the individual? Most States have a constitution which defines how the State should be organised. Constitutions set a limit on the States power over the individual. This concludes that the State is subordinate to the individual and the individuals rights are seen as more important than the States power. When talking about the State in the tutorial, my fellow students and I talked about the three levels of analysis in comparative politics. The first one mentioned is the Institution- centred, next the Society-centred and the State-centred. A shifting between these three levels is possible. Institutions help holding society together because they possess legal personality over generations. Organizations do shape behaviour.

It is argued that most countries have an executive, legislature and judiciary and therefore should be compared. When comparing institutions one has to realize that roles matter more than people holding them. When using the institutional level one should compare legislatures rather than legislators and so on. Persons are seen as actors performing their role; they attend meetings, visit foreign countries for negotiation and so on, but simply because they are expected to.

In the 1970s this approach was no longer appropriate due to state building, so a more society-centred approach took place. Within this approach ‘the political system’ among other vocabulary still forms part of today’s political analysis.5 For a better illustration I will describe Easton’s model of the political system.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Easton stated politics has a relationship with the wider society. His system is made out of institutions and processes involved in the authoritative allocation of values for society. The political system takes inputs from society (inputs are demands for policies and expressions of support.) The political system forms outputs, that is, policies and decisions. These outputs go back to society affecting the next cycle of inputs.


1 ` Transliteration of the Greek word for `city-state´. In Plato and especially Aristotle, polis has the normative connotation of the best form of social organization.´(McLean, I; McMillan A. (2003) Concise Dictionary of Politics, Polis p.413, Oxford University Press

2 p.513 state, Concise Dictionary of Politics, Oxford University Press

3 Tilly, C. (1975) ‘Reflections on the History of European State-Making’, in The Formation of National States in Western Europe, ed. C. Tilly (Princeton, NJ: Princeton ‘University Press) pp. 3-83

4 Hall, A. J. (1994) The State: Critical Concepts, London: Routledge.(in Politics: An Introduction, London: Routledge, 1997)

5 Easton’s systems model of the political system in Easton, D. (1965) A Framework for Political Analysis & A Systems Analysis of Political Life (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall) & (New York: Wiley)


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Title: The only appropriate unit of political analysis is the state.Discuss.