This article attempts to analyze state formation process from a cultural perspective. It aims to shed a light upon the main theoretical approaches concerning state formation which do not ignore the immaterial and cultural concepts and practices. Though the term ‘state-building’ is used synonymously with ‘nation-building’, the latter emphasizes the role of communities and identities within this process, while traditional state-building concerns strictly the establishment or strengthening of state institutions and political systems (Fritz & Menocal, 2007: 47-48).
The perspective, which underlines the political-military dimensions of state formation, presents the modern state as a military, political, and economic accomplishment. However, it tends to obscure the fact that the modern state is also a symbolic accomplishment (Bourdieu, 1994). Drawing on Max Weber’s definition of the state (1978: 54) as a compulsory political organization that holds the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within its territory, it may be plausible to suggest that works on the rise of modern nation-states have focused on the political-military dimensions of state formation. Norbert Elias critically took up Weber’s core definition and conceptualized European state formation as a ‘civilizing process’: The civilizing process, seen from the aspects of standards of conduct and drive control, is the same trend which, when seen from the point of view of human relationships, appears as the process of advancing integration, increased differentiation of social functions and interdependence, and the formation of ever-larger units of integration on whose fortunes and movements the individual depends, whether he knows it or not. (Elias, 1994: 332).
In the theory of the civilizing process, Elias put together the macro-sociological aspects of state formation and the micro-sociological consequences of this process; the ways in which the evolution of the modern state has shaped social practices. At the core of the civilizing process, sometimes a contrary current manifests itself: while the modern state continues to monopolize the legitimate use of violence, and promotes and protects civilized modes of behavior and expression in society, at the same time it perpetrates massive and organized acts of violence towards specific categories of its citizens (De Swaan, 2001: 265).
Patrick Carroll who studied the use of modern scientific knowledge by British agents in their colonization of Ireland has recommended moving beyond the materialist conceptions of the state. According to Carroll (2006: 2), “states are made of knowledge, just as knowledge is constituted by states.” Carroll develops a concept of culture which includes the interrelated parts of discourse (like symbolic meaning) practice (organized social activities) and materiality (constructed environments). For Carroll, the material world is indisputably cultural. (Carroll, 2006: 16).
Philip Gorski explains that the descriptions of nation-states which underline the political-military dimensions of state formation are incomplete because “states are not only administrative, policing and military organizations. They are also pedagogical, corrective, and ideological organizations” (Gorski, 2003: 165-166). Ideas, beliefs and rituals serve to legitimize state power. Parallel to this, Bourdieu enriches the study of nation-states by elucidating the role of symbolic violence alongside the legitimate use of force by expanding Weber’s definition to emphasize both symbolic and physical violence. This definition points to Bourdieu’s notion of power; one clearly influenced by Weber in that power must be legitimated in order to be exercised in an enduring and effective way. Symbolic power according to Bourdieu is some kind of hidden structure of power which is applied when coercive power cannot be exercised. His understanding of symbolic power derives from the recognition of authority as legitimate and can be defined as the power to ‘constitute the given’ (Bourdieu, 1991: 170).
Gramsci’s notion of ‘hegemony’ is significant here as this notion highlights the importance of consent besides coercion while illustrating how state power can be exercised in a stable manner. The theory of hegemony is based on a simple principle: modern man is not ruled by force alone, but also by ideas (Bates, 1975: 351). Physical domination cannot be enough; there is a need for spiritual supremacy as well. Those who obey must, to some degree, share the values and standards of their superiors and consent to their own subordination. Hegemony therefore signifies the control of social life (by a group or a class) through cultural means, as opposed to physical means.
The rise of nation-states can also be captured by Foucault’s notion of ‘governmentality’ in which the state becomes an administrative state tasked with encouraging populations to be socially and economically productive (Foucault, 1991). Foucault’s conceptualization of power is useful in studying the power of modern nation-state in relation to her surveillance upon the citizens. In contrast to the traditional approaches to power, in Foucauldian understanding, the way in which power is applied plays a key role. By this, it could be argued that, Foucault does not mean ‘how does power manifest itself?’, but, rather, ‘by what means it is exercised?’. As known, during state formation and nation-building, the elites pursue not only internal peace and order but also a homogeneous and compliant population. From a Foucauldian perspective, the modern state has a disciplinary power through which the state imposes precise norms (normalization).
Last but not the least, it is noteworthy to say that state formation is never derived solely from physical and material instruments. Therefore, it can be argued that if the homogenizing policies are employed through only coercive means, this would not be exercised in an enduring way.
- Bates, Thomas R. (1975), “Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony”, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 36, No: 2, pp. 351-366.
- Bourdieu, Pierre (1991), Language and Symbolic Power, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
- Bourdieu, Pierre (1994), In Other Words: Essays Towards A Reflexive Sociology, Cambridge.
- Carroll, Patrick (2006), Science, Culture, and Modern State Formation, California: University of California Press.
- De Swaan, Abram (2001), “Dyscivilization, mass extermination and the state”, Theory, culture & society, Vol. 18, No: 2-3, pp. 265-276.
- Elias, Norbert (1994), The Civilising Process: The History of Manners and State Formation and Civilization, Oxford: Blackwell.
- Foucault, Michel (1991), “Governmentality”, in Burchell, Graham & Gordon, Colin & Miller, Peter (eds.) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, London: Harvester, pp. 87-104.
- Fritz, Verena & Menocal, Alina Rocha (2007), “Understanding State-Building from a Political Economy Perspective: An Analytical and Conceptual Paper on Processes, Embedded Tensions and Lessons for International Engagement”, London: Overseas Development Institute, pp.1-71. Available at http://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/1979.pdf (Accessed on October 5, 2013).
- Gorski, Philip (2003), The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Weber, Eugen (1976), Peasants into Frenchmen: the modernization of rural France, 1870-1914, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- Weber, Max (1978), Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology, California: University of California Press.