state, the state
The state is a distinct set of institutions that has the authority to make the rules which govern society . It has, in the words of Max Weber, a ‘monopoly on legitimate violence’ within a specific territory. Hence, the state includes such institutions as the armed forces, civil service or state bureaucracy , judiciary, and local and national councils of elected representatives (such as a parliament). Consequently the state is not a unified entity. It is, rather, a set of institutions which describe the terrain and parameters for political conflicts between various interests over the use of resources and the direction of public policy. Frequently there are conflicts over policy and resources, between elected politicians and non-elected civil servants, or between politicians in different parts of the state. It is therefore difficult to identify a state's interests , since different parts of the state apparatus can have different interests and express conflicting preferences.
It is also difficult to identify the boundaries of the state. Older administrative perspectives see the state as a clearly defined set of institutions with official powers. Others, including Marxist theorists such as Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser , question the distinction between the state and civil society and argue that the former is integrated into many parts of the latter. For example, Althusser maintains that civil organizations such as the Church, schools, and even trade unions are part of the ideological state apparatus . It is, indeed, increasingly difficult to identify the boundaries of the state. Many parts of civil society are given institutional access to the state and play a role in the development of public policy. The state also funds a number of groups within society which, although autonomous in principle, are dependent on state support. In addition, the boundaries of the state are continually changing, for example through privatization (transferring responsibilities from the civil service to private contractors) and the creation of new regulatory bodies. Often the nature of these quasi-autonomous organizations is ambiguous: it is simply not clear whether they are part of the state or part of civil society.
A further important issue in relation to the state is the nature of state power . The state as a set of institutions cannot act. It is the various actors within the state who make decisions and implement policy. This raises the important issue, much debated in recent years, of state autonomy. Pluralists generally see the state as acting in the interests of groups in society. State actions are therefore reactions to group pressures. For some pluralists, the state provides an arena for pressure group conflicts to take place, state policy being determined by the outcome of these conflicts. For others, the state is actually captured by pressure groups, while a third view is that the state determines what is in the national interest by arbitrating between the demands of the various interest groups.
For Marxist theorists, however, the role of modern states is determined by their location in capitalist societies. According to Nicos Poulantzas , for example (Political Power and Social Classes, 1968), capitalist states rule in the long-term political interest of capital. This raises the question of how the putative interests of capital are translated into state actions. So-called instrumentalists (such as, The State in Capitalist Society, 1969) argue that the state is dominated by an élite that comes from the same social background as the capitalist class. State personnel therefore share the same interests as the owners of capital and are linked to them via a whole panoply of social and political interconnections. As a result the state acts more or less at the behest of the capitalist class. Poulantzas, by contrast, argues that the question of who controls the state is irrelevant. Capitalist states act on behalf of the capitalist class, not because state officers consciously contrive to do so, but because the various parts of the state apparatus are structured in such a way that the long-term interests of capital are always to the fore and dominant.
Both the Marxist and pluralist approaches to the state may be said to be society-centred: that is, they view the state as reacting to the activities of groups within society, be they classes or pressure groups. However, other writings on the state (for example, the works of Eric Nordlinger and Theda Skocpol) suggest that state actors are to an important degree autonomous. In other words, state personnel have interests of their own, which they can and do pursue independently of (sometimes in conflict with) the various groups in society. Since the modern state controls the means of violence, and the various groups within civil society are dependent on the state for achieving any policy goals they may espouse, the relationship between state and civil society is asymmetrical and state personnel can (to some extent) impose their own preferences on the citizenry.
In his writings on the social sources of power, Michael Mann outlines two types of state autonomy. The first is despotic power, where the power of the state derives from force, and so is limited to the territory over which the ruler can exercise terror. However, in modern societies, state power is more likely to be infrastructural. Here, the state increases its power by negotiating administrative relationships with different groups in society, in order to develop its capabilities for intervening in particular areas of policy. The concept of infrastructural power suggests that the state-centred versus society-centred dichotomy is too simplistic. State actors do have interests but these interests develop in relation to groups in society. Moreover, in order to develop the means of intervention, state actors are dependent on allies in society. Force cannot be the only means of state power and, therefore, state actors do have to make concessions.
Any definition of the state has to recognize its complexity. Its boundaries are not clearly defined and constantly changing. It is the site of internal conflicts not only between different organizations but also within organizations. There is no single state interest but, rather, various interests within different parts of the state. These interests are neither solely state-centred nor wholly society-centred but develop instead through bargaining between different groups in civil society and different state actors. Roger King's The State in Modern Society (1986) is a good place to start when considering these various issues.
There is also an extensive literature on state formation. The issue here is one of identifying the processes by which states emerge. Can the formation of states be explained primarily in terms of the interests and struggles of social classes, or are other non-class actors involved? Is state-formation best viewed in terms of the internal dynamics and conflicts in a given country, or are there international dynamics involving, for example, conflicts of war or economic domination? Is there a discernible historical pattern in the emergence of capitalist states? Was the formation of national states in the West associated with the emergence of capitalism? These and related issues are pursued in’s ‘Recent Theories of the Capitalist State’, Cambridge Journal of Economics (1977),’s The Development of the Modern State (1978), and’s The Formation of National States in Western Europe(1975). See also military-industrial complex ; power élite.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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  • state — [stāt] n. [ME < OFr & L: OFr estat < L status, state, position, standing < pp. of stare, to STAND] 1. a set of circumstances or attributes characterizing a person or thing at a given time; way or form of being; condition [a state of… …   English World dictionary

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  • State — State, v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Stated}; p. pr. & vb. n. {Stating}.] 1. To set; to settle; to establish. [R.] [1913 Webster] I myself, though meanest stated, And in court now almost hated. Wither. [1913 Webster] Who calls the council, states the… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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