The State and Its Evolution Over Time

Top Norwegian political scientist and social anthropologist, Professor Iver B. Neumann, returns to Webster Vienna Private University this fall for a series of private and public lectures focused on trending international relations topics.

In addition to teaching select courses, students and attendees of his lectures, Professor Neumann shared his views on:

The State and Its Evolution Over Time

The lecture is a first introduction to the concept of the state: where we find it in history and how it has been theorized What all the three founders of social sciences – Marx, Weber, Durkheim -- have in common, is to conceptualize the state as some kind of configuration of three different entities: a spatial one, delineated territory; an institutional one, central government; and a biological one, people. Each of these has its conceptual history. During the European eighteenth century, ‘the people’ was conceptualized as the leading class that stood up to the more or less autocratic King. That would traditionally be the aristocracy. From the middle of that century, however, the new middle classes – traders and thinkers, basically – high-jacked the concept of the people for their own. The most blatant example is France, whose 1792 revolution was all about how the middle classes took on the old aristocratic power structure, but we are talking about a European-wide phenomenon here. Note that history repeated itself during the first decades of the twentieth century when the increasingly important labor movements hijacked the concept of ‘the people’ for themselves. State and people form a conceptual pair, in the sense that the people is one of the three elements of the state, the one government governs.

The principle of the nation-state has since spread across the globe and has broken up already existing societies by sometimes introducing and always reinforcing the concept of ethnicity. The latest converts to the doctrine of nationalism are to be found in Central Asia where, during the two decades since the break-up of the Soviet Union, we now suddenly have fully-fledged histories for all the titular nations in the area, and are also blessed with the kind ethnic clashes with the state as co-sponsor which characterized the area of the nation-state in Europe as well. State and nation may have started as European concepts, but they are now global.

The reasons are sundry. One is that ‘war made the state, and the state made war’, as Charles Tilly (1992) put it in Coercion, Capital and the European States. The state is a good fighting force, for it mobilizes a public, not least so that they can pay taxes, which may, in turn, be used to build an even stronger army. In a self-help system like the system of the state, where there is nothing to prevent war, every polity has a strong incentive to copy the institutions of the leading ones. If the state is the war-fighting force of choice, and war-fighting is then it follows that turning a polity into a state is a matter of survival. Another reason why the state spread to cover the entire globe was what we may call colonial symbolic entrailment. With European nation-states lording it formally or informally over the entire globe, the state became something to emulate not only for its efficiency but also because this way of ordering a polity was the high-status way of ordering a polity.

More about author

Iver B. Neumann is Director of NOVA and an adjunct professor of the Museum of Cultural History, Oslo University. From 2012-2017, he was the Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics. Amongst his twenty books is, with Einar Wigen, the Steppe Tradition in International relations: Russians, Turks and European State Building 4000 BCE-2018 CE (Cambridge University Press, 2018). From 1 January 2020, Neumann will be the director of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Norway. 

This feature lectures will be a part of the undergraduate Introduction to International Relations course that will be taught by Professor Neumann in the 2019/2020 academic year.