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Theories of State

The Concept of State

The concept of state can have varied meaning. We can begin with understanding what it is not. State is not a country, nor government nor nation. Country is a territorial entity, a geographical concept. Nation is more of an internal entity which resides in the minds of people. In the words of Sabine, nation refers to a unity of culture; a feeling of loyalty for a common land, common language and literature, identity of history and common heroes and common religion…  Government on the other hand is a part of the state and not a state per se.

State can be defined as a legal and political entity, endowed with authority to govern the people. State usually exists in a country, but existence of country does not guarantee the existence of state. Unless country is independent, it is not a state. And state can exist with or without the feeling of nationalism.

Theories of Origin of State

Social Contract Theory

This theory suggest that state has evolved as a result of contract between man. It is not a natural institution, but a contractual entity. Hobbes suggest that there was no protection of rights of man before state, and therefore man enters into agreement. For the same reason, he suggests an overarching state with enormous powers. Locke, on the other hand suggest that the state is just an ‘additional safeguard’ to protect the rights of man & advocates minimal state.

Historical / Evolutionary theory

It suggests that state is not a deliberate creation of man, instead a natural development in course of history. Just like language, culture, customs developed, state also evolved and continues to do so even at present. The formation of state is a complex phenomenon, and should not be reduced to a single factor. Numerous small and big factors like social instinct, religion, force, kinship, economy, development etc. have played role in formation of state.

Marxian theory

Marxists scholars like Engels argue that state is not natural. It was created at a point of time when society started dividing into two contending groups. It was created as an apparatus of a dominant class to protect their property and privileges and perpetuate the oppression of the marginalized section. And it would be better if humanity were to abolish the idea of state altogether.

According to Garner, political science begins and ends with the state.  State represents authority or a system of governance. City State in ancient Greece evolved into Roman Empire, which in period of time changed into Nation State. And now we are witnessing even Supranational system (e.g. EU)

The modern state.

Territory, population, government, sovereignty etc. Sovereignty is the defining feature of modern nation state. Inherent in the idea of sovereignty is autonomy (internal and external), territoriality and centralization of authority.

Theories of Sovereignty.

It is a modern concept, associated with the rise of modern nation state. Hobbes gave the first complete theory of the sovereignty of the state. Hobbes clearly established state absolutism. Ended the confusion of ‘two swords’, clearly defined that law is command of sovereign, it comes with the power of punishment.

A] Monistic theory of sovereignty.

The monistic theory of sovereignty comes from Hobbes’s theory, hence it can also be called as Hobbesian theory of sovereignty. It led to the evolution of the monistic theory of sovereignty. The best exponent of the monistic theory is John Austin. Hence it is also known as Austinian theory.

Evolution of monistic sovereignty theory.

Monistic theory emerged out of the experience of the medieval age where sovereignty was fragmented. It led to the chaos and hence the idea was accepted that on a particular set of people, living in a particular territory, the authority of state will be absolute. Neither any association outside the state (roman church) nor any associations inside the state (local churches or communities), can challenge the authority of the state. Hence the entire power in a defined territory got centralized at one place. Hence it is called as the monistic view.

The theory of sovereignty of state is closely associated with the theory of law. The monistic theory  clearly established law as ‘command of sovereign’. It is because of this attribute Max Weber described modern nation state as an institution having monopoly over the use of violence in a particular territory.

One of the most acceptable definition of sovereignty (monistic theory) is given by John Austin.

”If a determinate (explicit/specific) human superior1, not in a habit of obedience to the like superior2, receives habitual obedience, from the bulk of the society3, then that human superior is sovereign and that society is a political society4… law is command of sovereign.’

John Austin

1. Determinate human superior: In medieval times, there was a confusion as to which authority is superior. Now it is clear that state is superior. Thus the characteristic of sovereignty is 1. Superiority and 2. Determination. 
2. Not in the habit of obedience to the like superior: It means sovereign does not obey any other sovereign. There is a difference between being a state which is sovereign and being a colony or dominion. There is no authority over the state. Thus the sovereignty means absolutism.
3. Receives habitual obedience: State is an institution which majority respects because command of sovereign is law.
4. Political society means state.

Thus the characteristic of sovereignty from the perspective of monistic theory is Determinate, absolute, inalienable or non-transferrable, permanence and enforceability.

Why monistic theory is not desirable?

It is threat to international peace. It concentrates too much power in the hands of the states, there is a fear of state becoming autocratic (anti-democratic). And it also does not give the real explanation of sovereignty.
According to Laski with emergence of federal form of govt. it has become ‘impossible’, misadventure to locate the sovereign. According to scholars like Duguit and Krabbe, state is not the only source of law, there are multiple sources of law, most important being customs and traditions (positive school of law vs sociological school of law). Monistic theory ignores the growth of international organizations and international law.

According to the historians like Henry Maine, there is no example in the history which can be put forward as an ideal example of Austin’s theory of sovereignty. Henry Maine cites the example of Raja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, who also could not exercise the sovereignty in the way Austin describes.

B] Pluralistic theory of sovereignty:

Exponents – Laski and MacIver


Monistic theory dominated till second world war. It was accepted that state has absolute powers, there are no limitations internal or external on the powers of the state, not even international law. Adherence to such ideas led to the recurrence of wars in Europe. The consequences of 1st and 2nd WW were unacceptable. Hence it was realized that there is a need to modify the theory of sovereignty. There is a need to give importance to international law and promote respect for human rights.

It has led to the experimentation of the ideas like European union. It has diluted the sovereignty of the state and transferred the power of decision making from the state to new supranational institutions beyond the state. Both after 1st WW and 2nd WW, there is an emergence of international institutions, international law and it was realised powers of the states have to be made limited. Thus emerged the idea of the pluralistic theory of the sovereignty

Pluralist theory is a rejection of monistic theory. According to monistic theory, power is to be concentrated at one place whereas according to pluralistic theory, power of the state should be distributed among different associations. According to pluralists state is an association like many other associations. Man has created various associations for fulfilment of his interest. State alone cannot fulfil all the interests of man. One of the best exponent of pluralist theory is Laski. According to Laski ‘since society is federal, authority should also be federal.’ Krabbe held that “The notion of sovereignty must be expunged from political theory.”

Philosophical basis of pluralistic theory of sovereignty.

Laski has given the philosophical basis. Universe is multi-dimensional. Man is a part of universe, so man is also multi-dimensional personality. Man has multiple needs, and hence man has created multiple institutions. State alone does not fulfil all the needs of man, hence other associations also deserve share in man’s obligation.

Types of pluralists.

1] Moderate Pluralists e.g. Laski

According to moderate pluralists, state is one of the associations among various associations. However state is more important than other associations. According to Laski, it happens because of the unique role played by the state. The role of conflict resolution. Which is also called as equilibrium maker. Hence for Laski state is the keystone of the social architecture. It means society cannot continue without state.

Problem in Laski’s ideas.
On one hand he is skeptical with respect to the power exercised by the state. So he wants to limit the powers. Hence he says that “Since society is federal, authority should also be federal.”
At the same time he realizes the importance of the state and is forced to accept that the state is the keystone of the social architecture.

2] Extreme Pluralists e.g. MacIver.

Extreme pluralists do not give any primacy to the state. For them state is just one of the associations. Who is MacIver? MacIver is a sociologist whereas Laski is a political scholar. Hence there is difference in there attitude. It is natural for Laski to give importance to the state.

According to MacIver there are many institutions and associations which are prior to state, not dependent on state for their existence e.g. Church. MacIver gives the concept of ‘service state’. According to him, state commands because it serves. It means state deserves the respect only when it fulfills the useful functions.

According to MacIver, state is both the guardian of law and the child of law. Means state’s purpose is to maintain law and order and at the same time, state is also under the law. State cannot exercise arbitrary powers. State powers are limited (the concept of rule of law).

According to MacIver, the general will is not the will of the state, but will of the people for the state. It means It is misunderstood as if state enjoys ultimate powers. Totalitarian rulers misused the concept. The concept of general will does not give ultimate powers to the state. It gives ultimate powers to the people. It is people’s wish, which is expressed through the general will. State itself has to abide by the will of the people.

Critical evaluation of Pluralistic theory:

Pluralistic theory is more realistic explanation. In the age of federalism and growth of multiple associations like UN, ICJ, EU, we cannot accept the monistic view that law is just the command of sovereign.
Monistic theory is relevant for jurists lawyers. It is a legal fiction. On the other hand pluralistic theory is sociological and political explanation

However, it is also inconsistent. They are against the state, but they do not eliminate the state [ this is also the major difference in anarchists and pluralists ]. When state exists, it automatically gains primacy over other associations. Thus state has to be recognized as higher than other associations rather than just like any other association.  It is said that pluralists want to keep the cake and have it too.


Even when pluralism is inconsistent it does not mean it is irrelevant. Consistency is not the most important requirement of a sound theory. Pluralism is relevant because it is more realistic and more conducive for international peac

Impact of Globalization on Sovereignty of the States.

Globalization is defined as borderless world or de-territorization.
Historically nation state has been a territorial concept. Nation states have been carved out of the Roman empire. The definite territory or border became the essential element. Sovereignty denotes the supreme power to make law lies with the state.

If nation state can be considered as a billiard ball with hard shell, the forces of globalization e.g. ICT (info. and comm. technology), Market integration, International Organizations, Int. laws, Global civil society etc. have made this shell porous / penetrable. Thus conceptually the territorial states and globalization are antithetical forces.

There is a lack of consensus among the scholars. Some believe that globalization has weakened the sovereignty, whereas others believe that state is in command of globalization. Hence we can analyze the impact on the basis of three perspectives.

1. Globalists perspective.
According to them globalization is real and it has diluted the sovereignty of the state, both internal and external.
2. State Centric perspective.
Globalization is on the losing end, the world continues to be state centric. States are controlling globalization.
3. Transformationalists view.
Globalization and sovereignty are not a ‘zero-sum game’. In some contexts state is winning and in some contexts globalization is winning.
* Views of Sorenson
Globalization has not impacted all the states equally. Some are winning and some are losing.


According to Kenichi Ohame, world is turning into global economy with political boundaries becoming less important. Due to development of ICT people are able to access lifestyles across the world and want best of everything. People want global products and governments are becoming more and more powerless in controlling it. This is true especially for developed countries like USA, EU, Japan.

Individuals have become global citizens because of their consumption habits – and government can no longer control consumption habits for fear of vote bank. Also, transnational companies no longer see themselves as rooted in one country. All this have eroded ability of governments to control economies.

He also argues that globalization of economy makes use of military forces less likely since economies have become interdependent. Slump in another economy will also affect country’s own citizens.
Role of state has been limited to producing conditions conducive for business and welfare activities in general.


It’s not true that countries cannot control their trades. Recent tariff increase by USA on imported goods from various countries is good example for this. With economies becoming interlinked governments across world might have reduced intervention in business but it does not reduce their power to do so.
USA, Russia are using their military forces abroad too, contrary to what Ohame proposes.

According to global pessimists – he overstates power of consumers. While in reality, corporations and bankers have more power.

Susan Strange

According to her neither economist nor political thinkers have proper understanding of global financial market. Economist’s understanding is poor since they rely too much on economic models and don’t have proper idea of power. While understanding that of political thinkers is woeful. Since they only think in terms of power and politics. One needs a balanced approached. A study of both economics and political science to have realistic understanding.

Posted in PSIR 1A

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