Why is the state a central concept in studying politics?
Once described as “the shadow which falls upon almost every human activity” (Heywood, 2007: 89), the state has traditionally been at the center of much political analysis because it is regarded as the highest form of authority, being inextricably linked with sovereignty, and as the supreme law-making body in a society (Garner et al., 2012: 7). The state shapes and controls, and where it does not, it regulates, supervises, authorizes or proscribes every activity from education to economic management, from social welfare to sanitation and from domestic order to international security, even those aspects of life considered personal or private (Heywood, 2007: 89). Politics is often understood as the study of the state through the analysis of its institutional organization and the evaluation of its impact on the society (Heywood, 2007: 89). This essay will provide three reasons explaining the pivotal position of the concept of state in the study of politics.
As argued by Gallie, the first reason for which the state is a central concept in studying politics comes from its paradoxical nature of being “a classical example of an essentially contested concept” (Gallie mentioned in Garner et al., 2012: 27). Gallie is in accordance with Hoffman and Graham, who add that, “the state is not a suitable concept for political theory, since it is impossible to define it” (Hoffman and Graham, mentioned in Garner et al., 2012: 27). Although it may seem impossible to define the state, everybody knows that it plays an essential role both at the national and the international levels, a fact supported by its historical backgrounds. The concept of state dates back to the triumph of the monarchs throughout the 15th and 16th centuries (van Creveld, 1999:108), when it replaced feudal societies and established itself, after the 30 Years War and The Peace of Westphalia, in 1648, as an “instrument of power” in the Modern Age (van Creveld, 1999: 126).
In spite of those who consider that the state cannot be defined, many scholars in political science tried to give a coherent definition to this concept. Max Weber considers that the state is an institution claiming a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in enforcing its order within a given territorial area” (Max Weber quoted in Garner et al., 2012: 27), but it must be added that modern states have a monopoly not only over the means of violence but also on law-making, therefore representing a whole apparatus of institutions and individuals who are responsible for managing public affairs (Garner et al., 2012:157). Garner et al. define the state as being sovereign and legitimate, with public institutions, and in the business of domination covering a particular territorial area (Garner et al., 2012: 157). It can be seen from the above that there are some similar attributes, such as sovereignty, authority, legitimacy and power, which are used to try to define the state and which explain its relevance in studying politics.
The second reason explaining why the concept of state is so critically important in studying politics is that the state deals with power. The state applies and uses power to gain authority over the population of a given territorial area. Authority, power and legitimacy are known for playing an essential role in understanding the state’s political aspects and typology. Hoffman and Graham point out that, although power and authority cannot be properly defined, governments use both in practice (Hoffman and Graham mentioned in Garner et al., 2012: 50). The theories defining the state are all centered on the distribution of power (Garner et al., 2012: 54), and they may be used to describe the power structures in different societies.
Firstlyst of all, Hay considers that “power is to political analysis as economy to economics” (Garner et al., 2012: 48). Politics is about competing interests and values,...
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