What is State?

The state is often defined narrowly as a separate institution or set of institutions, as what is commonly thought of as the state’. For example, when Louis XIV supposedly declared, “L’e ‘tat c’est Moi,” he was referring to the absolute power vested in himself as monarch.

The state, therefore, stands for the apparatus of government in its broadest sense, for those institutions that are recognisably “public” in that they are responsible for the collective organisation of communal life and are funded at public expense. Thus, the state is usually distinguished from civil society.

The state comprises the various government institutions, the bureaucracy, the military, police, courts, social security system, and so forth; it can be identified with the entire “body politic.”

In this sense, for instance, it is possible to talk about “rolling forward” or “rolling back the state,” which means expanding or contracting the responsibilities of state institutions and, in the process, enlarging or reducing the machinery of the state.

However, such an institutional definition fails to consider that individuals Or citizens are also part of the political community and members of the state.


Moreover, the state has a vital territorial component, its authority being confined to a precise geographical area. This is why the state is best thought of not just as a set of institutions but as a particular kind of political association that establishes sovereign jurisdiction within defined territorial borders. In that sense, its institutional apparatus merely gives expression to state authority.


The defining feature of the state is sovereignty. The state commands supreme power in that it stands above all other associations and groups in society; its laws demand the compliance of all those who live within the territory.

Hobbes, Leviathan, and Sovereignty

Thomas Hobbes conveyed this image of the state as the supreme power by portraying it as a “Leviathan,” a gigantic monster, usually represented as a sea creature. It is precisely its sovereignty that distinguishes the modern state from earlier forms of political association.

Sovereign authority in different periods

In medieval times, rulers exercised power only alongside various other bodies, notably the church, the nobility, and the feudal guilds. Indeed, it was widely accepted that religious authority, centered upon the pope, stood above the temporal authority of any earthly ruler.

The modern state, which first emerged in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, took the form of a system of centralised rule that succeeded in subordinating all other institutions and groups, spiritual and temporal. Although such a state is now the most common form of political community worldwide, usually taking the form of a nation-state, there are still examples of stateless societies.

Traditional societies, for instance, found amongst semi-nomadic peoples and sometimes settled tribes, may be said to be stateless in that they lack a central and sovereign authority, even though they may possess mechanisms of social control that may be described as government.

Is the state invincible?

No, a state can break down when its claim to exercise sovereign power is successfully challenged by another group or body, as occurs at times of civil war. In this way, Lebanon in the 1980s, racked by war among rival militias and invaded by Israeli and Syrian armies, and the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, can be described as stateless societies.

Characteristics of Sovereign State Power

In addition to sovereignty, states can be distinguished by the particular form of authority that they exercise.

State authority is territorially limited:

The States claim sovereignty only within their borders and thus regulate the flow of people and goods across these borders. In most cases, these are land borders, but they may also extend several miles into the sea.

The jurisdiction of the state within its borders is universal

Everyone living within a state is subject to its authority. This is usually expressed through citizenship, literally membership of the state, which entails rights and duties. Non-citizen residents in a state may not be entitled to certain rights, like the right to vote or hold public office. They may be exempt from particular obligations, such as jury service or military service, but they are still subject to the law of the land.

The states exercise compulsory jurisdiction

Those living within a state rarely exercise their choice about whether or not to accept its authority. Most people become subject to the authority of a state by virtue of being born within its borders; in other cases, this may be a result of conquest. Immigrants and naturalised citizens are the exceptions here since they alone can be said to have voluntarily accepted the authority of a state.

The state authority is backed up by coercion

The state must be able to ensure that its laws are obeyed, which in practice means that it must possess the ability to punish transgressors.

Max Weber (1864–1920) suggested in Politics as a Vocation (1948) that “the state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” By this, he meant not only that the state could ensure the obedience of its citizens but also the acknowledged right to do so. Therefore, a monopoly of ‘legitimate violence’ is the practical expression of state sovereignty.

Philip Bobbitt’s (2002) portrayal of the state as essentially a “war-making institution” also underlines the link between coercion and the state.

What is the difference between state and government?

The relationship between state and the government remains complex. The state is an inclusive association that embraces the entire community and encompasses those institutions that constitute the public sphere.

The government can thus be seen as merely part of the state. Moreover, the state is a continuing, even permanent, entity. By contrast, the government is temporary; governments come and go, and systems of government are remodeled.

On the other hand, although the government may be possible without a state, the state is inconceivable in the absence of government.

The government is responsible for making and implementing state policy as a mechanism through which collective decisions are enacted.

The government is, in effect, “the brain” of the state; it gives authoritative expression to the state.

In this way, the government is usually thought to dictate to and control other state bodies, such as the police and military, educational and welfare systems, and the like. By implementing the various state functions, the government serves to maintain the state itself in existence.

The difference between state and government is not simply an academic refinement; it goes to the very heart of constitutional rule.

Government power can only be held in check when the government of the day is prevented from encroaching upon the absolute and unlimited authority of the state. This is particularly important given the state and the government’s conflicting interests.

The state supposedly reflects the permanent interests of society—the maintenance of public order, social stability, long-term prosperity, and national security—while the government is inevitably influenced by the partisan sympathies and ideological preferences of the politicians who happen to be in power.

If the government succeeds in harnessing the sovereign power of the state to its own partisan goals, dictatorship is the likely result. Liberal-democratic regimes have sought to counter this possibility by creating a clear divide between the personnel and machinery of government, on the one hand, and the personnel and machinery of the state, on the other.

Thus, the personnel of state institutions, like the civil service, the courts, and the military, are recruited and trained in a bureaucratic manner and are expected to observe strict political neutrality, enabling them to resist the ideological enthusiasm of the government of the day. However, such are the powers of patronage possessed by modern chief executives like the US president and the UK prime minister that this clear division is often blurred in practice.


“The government” refers to ordered rule, a characteristic of all organised societies.

Though developments such as the fall of communism have blurred such distinctions.

The state is a sovereign political association operating in a defined territorial area. In the view of pluralists, the liberal democratic state acts impartially and responds to popular pressures. However, others suggest that the state is characterized by biases that either systematically favor the bureaucracy or state elite or benefit major economic interests.