Images of the State

The state — what it is, how it behaves, and what it means — varies greatly across societies. We have seen, for example, that there are parts of the world, like the Berber society of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, which historically did not have a state. We also showed, drawing on the work of the great anthropologist Ernest Gellner, that the structure of the Berber polity inverted standard definitions of the state. The state did not have a “legitimate monopoly of violence,” but society did. We also asked why people in sub-Saharan Africa tended to live far less frequently under the authorities of states than people in Eurasia, relating this, albeit speculatively, to particular social institutions such as age sets. We have also discussed some of the most important hypotheses about state formation in Eurasia, for example that of the sociologist Charles Tilly who linked it to inter-state political competition and warfare.

But there are difficulties in interpreting many of these facts and the rich patterns about the state. Why didn’t the Berbers have a state? It could have been that really they wanted a state but couldn’t figure out how to construct it, or perhaps just didn’t have a model of what a state looked like. Many scholars working in development economics, for example, argue that if a society lacks institutions or policies which would promote development then this must be because they don’t really understand how to make the policies or institutions work in their own specific context.

James Scott, on the other hand, would argue that the most plausible explanation for the absence of a Berber state was that the Berbers did not want a state (because the disruptions that the state would inevitably create in their lives) and had managed to create mechanisms to stop it forming. Scott’s general arguments about the state, which we review in the next two posts, are powerful and provocative images of what the state is and does and how people react to it. After we develop his arguments, we will discuss a whole series of empirical examples to interrogate his ideas.

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