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Is there any agreement on what makes a state "state"?

  • Is it de facto tax collection (especially, customs)?
  • Is it the number of general-residents ("permanent-residents") in a given place?
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  • There must be legal definitions, which is probably the most rigorous kind of definition you can find. For example the UN's chart probably defines what kind of entity can be member of the UN.
    – armand
    Sep 7, 2021 at 22:58

2 Answers 2

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From Wikipedia 'State (polity)':

A state is a polity under a system of governance with a monopoly on force. There is no undisputed definition of a state.

From Etymonline:

state (n.2)

"political organization of a country, supreme civil power, government," c. 1300, from special use of state (n.1); this sense grew out of the meaning "condition of a country" with regard to government, prosperity, etc. (late 13c.), from Latin phrases such as status rei publicæ "condition (or existence) of the republic."
The sense of "a semi-independent political entity under a federal authority, one of the bodies politic which together make up a federal republic" is from 1774. The British North American colonies occasionally were called states as far back as 1630s; the States has been short for "the United States of America" since 1777; also of the Netherlands. State rights in U.S. political sense is attested from 1798; form states rights is first recorded 1858. Church and state have been contrasted from 1580s. State-socialism attested from 1850.

Many forms are tax collection are surprisingly modern. There used to be tithes for the church inc support for the poor, and customs charges and estate revenues to run government. Income tax in the modern sense only dates from 1799.

Language is use. I recommend following changes in use of the words organ, and shuttle, to highlight the fluidity of language use in practice. Concepts don't have an essence, but are defined by how we use them.

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  • This is one of those topics where one needs to be skeptical of Wikipedia. That is the Libertarian definition of a state, which isn't widely recognized in political science, but it quite popular among a small, vocal community. Sep 7, 2021 at 15:59
  • @TedWrigley: "Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society. There are forms of oppression and domination which become invisible - the new normal."
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 7, 2021 at 20:27
  • @TedWrigley: "The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them." Both Foucault. Just libertarians you say? Give another definition that can cover diverse regions & epochs.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 7, 2021 at 20:28
  • Foucault was a social theorist, not a political scientist, and from his rather jaded worldview that makes sense. But if we don't recognize the jadedness of his worldview, we are doing ourselves a great disservice. And I don't need to worry to much about epochs. the concept of a 'state' is a product of the enlightenment, when people began to worry about the idea of governance in the abstract, separated from cultural and linguistic divides. Sep 7, 2021 at 21:05
  • @TedWrigley: He wasn't a libertarian, so my point is made.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 7, 2021 at 21:14
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In political science, a state is territory — a geographical area — that is claimed, administered, and controlled by an established government.

A state, by that definition, is in contrast to a nation, which is a community of people with social, cultural, or ethnic cohesion. In times of peace states generally have well-defined borders, either defined by 'natural' geographic boundaries or by treaty with other states. But during periods of conflict a territory may be contested: claimed by various different states, or by non-state actors working within a given state or states. In some cases a government will collapse completely, leaving an administrative vacuum in which various small groups contest for power, none of which can establish control or administer the normal functions of government (e.g. Somalia). These 'failed states' persist as long as surrounding states continue to honor the borders established with the original (now failed) state, on the expectation that a new government will eventually form within that territory.


There is a long and difficult tension between the concepts 'nation' and 'state'. In some cases powerful, established states, through conquest or colonization, lump together various small nations and ethnic groups to create an overarching, 'artificial' state, with predictable internal conflicts (e.g. India). In other cases, clearly defined nations are split up among various different states, creating 'stateless' peoples (e.g., the Kurdish people). In still other cases a drive towards nationalism — the effort to subdue a diverse state under the control of a culturally, ethnically, and/or religiously homogenous national group — produces suppression, oppression, and other problematic outcomes. But none of this confusion affects the basic distinction that 'state' refers to delineated territory and 'nation' to groups of people.

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  • Many early states only had systems of tribute, rather than administrating, eg Aztecs, Ancient China. City states founded colonies, which were about trade routes rather than territory.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 7, 2021 at 20:40
  • merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nation "1b : a community of people composed of one or more nationalities and possessing a more or less defined territory and government. Canada is a nation with a written constitution." A nation can be a group of people with a shared culture and language, as in sense 1a - or it can be essentially the same as a state, as in sense 1b.
    – causative
    Sep 7, 2021 at 21:05
  • @causative: Yes, the terms are used fluidly in common parlance, sometimes even as synonyms. The sharp distinction only really pertains to political science discussions. A lay person can conflate the nation of Israel with the state of Israel; that's more problematic in academic discussions. Sep 7, 2021 at 21:08
  • @TedWrigley No, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civic_nationalism "Civic nationhood is a political identity built around shared citizenship within the state. Thus, a "civic nation" is defined not by language or culture but by political institutions and liberal principles, which its citizens pledge to uphold."
    – causative
    Sep 7, 2021 at 21:12
  • @causative: It's still an identity group, not a territory. Please be reasonable. Sep 7, 2021 at 23:07

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