… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

Concept description

Encyclopaedia Britannica defines state as “political organization of society, or the body politic, or, more narrowly, the institutions of government.”

It elaborates:

“The state is a form of human association distinguished from other social groups by its purpose, the establishment of order and security; its methods, the laws and their enforcement; its territory, the area of jurisdiction or geographic boundaries; and finally by its sovereignty. The state consists, most broadly, of the agreement of the individuals on the means whereby disputes are settled in the form of laws.”

Michael Atkinson cites Max Weber (references below) in describing the state as consisting of “those political institutions that together comprise a system of order that claims a monopoly on the exercise of coercive power and the authority to issue determinations that are binding on all of those living within a prescribed territory.” He notes that although one can think of the state as a single institution that acts with a coherent purpose in times of national crisis, normally “the state is a united entity only in the abstract” and that:

“in most states, separate institutions create, consolidate, divide, exercise, and adjudicate public authority. Included among state institutions are electoral systems, bureaucracies, executives, legislatures, and judiciaries. … Only totalitarian states that are marked by exceptional levels of organizational sophistication can aspire to overall coordination and only then by destroying the autonomy of individual institutions.”

The Global Policy Forum (reference below) provides an international overview:

“Some see a “state” as an ancient institution, going back to Rome, Greece and before, and theorized by Plato, Aristotle and other classical philosophers. Others insist on the unique features of the modern state, with its extensive rule of law, citizenship rights, and broad economic and social responsibilities. A state is more than a government; that is clear. Governments change, but states endure. A state is the means of rule over a defined or “sovereign” territory. It is comprised of an executive, a bureaucracy, courts and other institutions. But, above all, a state levies taxes and operates a military and police force. States distribute and re-distribute resources and wealth, so lobbyists, politicians and revolutionaries seek in their own way to influence or even to get hold of the levers of state power. States exist in a variety of sizes, ranging from enormous China to tiny Andorra. Some claim a long lineage, while others are of modern construction. In all but the short term, states are in flux. They expand and contract as military and political fortunes change. Some, like Poland, even disappear and re-appear later. Or they may be divided up (sometimes peacefully) by communities that prefer to go their separate ways (Czechoslovakia). Others, such as Iraq, may be occupied or run as a colony or protectorate. States can also “fail” – their governing institutions collapse due to civil war and internal strife (as in Somalia) or because the state has little authority outside the capital city (Afghanistan). While globalization and regional integration (like the European Union) challenge the state’s powers, the state is still the dominant arena of domestic politics as well as the primary actor in international relations.

“Some states occupy a unique status in the international community of states, due to a very small population or very small land area, but usually both. Microstates, or small states and territories (SSTs) are sovereign state and enjoy a disproportionately large influence in the United Nations General Assembly thanks to the one state, one vote rule. Experimental States, such as Sealand, Freedom Ship, Cyber Yugoslavia are among the hundreds of experimental states that people have founded in order to avoid taxation, feel independent, or to create a tourist attraction.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Governance and Institutions (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Encyclopaedia Britannica, State, at, accessed 29 December 2018.

Atkinson, Michael, 1993. Governing Canada: Institutions and Public Policy, pp. 5-10. Toronto: Harcourt, Brace and Co. In formulating his definition of institutions, Atkinson cites Fritz Scharpf, 1989, “Decision Rules, Decision Styles and Policy Choices,” Journal of Theoretical Politics, vol. 1, no. 2, 149-176, at, accessed 2 August 2016.

Max Weber, 1922, Economy and Society, 2: 56.

Global Policy Forum, What is a “State”? at, accessed 29 December 2018.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 29 December 2018.

Image: Ancient World History, Greek City-states, at, accessed 29 December 2018.