Globalization and the state: how not to get lost in translation

Keywords: State (state power / state formation), state and non-state actors or institutions, authority, formal and informal, public and private, sovereignty, rule (of law), (local, regional, global, multilevel) governance

Organizers: Bas De Roo (Communities, Comparisons and Connections) and Lisa Diependaele (Centre for Ethics and Value Inquiry – Global Ethics)

Speakers: Jo Van Steenbergen (Communities, Comparisons and Connections), Christopher Parker (Middle East and North Africa Research Group)

Moderator: Giselle Corradi (Human Rights Centre)

Workshop 1: Globalization and the state: how not to get lost in translation.

Given the link between the development of modern academia and the modern nation-state in the West, concept of ‘the state’ plays a pivotal – be it often implicit – role in social sciences and humanities. Within global studies, it is often unclear what is meant by ‘the state.’ The purpose of this workshop was to problematize and clarify the concept of ‘the state’. How is the state defined in the different disciplines and research fields that are part of Global Studies? How does the notion of the state relate to other concepts such as state formation, state power, public authority, society, nation, governance, and regime? How do we distinguish between ‘the state’ and non-state actors? Is state a relevant scale of analysis?

After a brief introduction by moderator Gisele Corardi, Jo Van Steenbergen started from Goldstone’s and Haldon’s discussion of ‘Ancient States, Empires, and Exploitation. Problems and Perspectives’ (2009) to historicize our conceptualization of ‘the state’ in relation to ‘empire’ and illustrated this with his own historical research on Mamluk state-formation. Despite the fact that these concepts play an important role in analyzing and clarifying historical processes, the concepts are hardly ever problematized. Starting from Mitchell’s contribution on ‘The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics’ (1991), describing the fierce controversy and debate about ‘the state’ in political sciences, Christopher Parker suggested genealogical and ethnographic approach to studying and defining ‘the state’ – a critical, reflexive analysis of ‘the state’ as a relational concept.

Immediately, some important findings and issues arose. First, ‘the state’ is often defined starting from the universalizing perspective of the modern European nation-state, whereas from a global historical point of view ‘the state’ is in fact an anomaly. Consequently, to avoid this one-sided perspective, a deconstruction of the ‘state’ focusing on social processes rather than structures, is necessary. Instead of a pre-given entity or actor, ‘the state’ is a relational concept. It is never fixed, but constantly in the making, being produced through specific power relations in a particular context. Thus performed, ‘the state’ is a normative tool, a cultural product, legitimizing a social order.

Second, it is difficult to demarcate ‘the state’ within global and local dynamics, and it is equally difficult to draw boundaries between ‘state’ and ‘non-state’, between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’. Both beyond and within ‘the state’, there are many dynamics, structures and processes that cannot be captured by the concept of ‘the state’ or clear-cut dichotomies. Especially economic actors often contribute to the political structuring of society, but they usually manage to represent themselves as something apart or outside of the state. Consequently, how one employs the concept of ‘the state’ has far-reaching consequences for any research, both in its design and its results, and can influence the perspective and outlook of an entire research discipline.

Another important issue that was raised refers to the role of religion and the interplay with the cultural context of state formation. Indeed, both religion and culture are undeniably influenced by political and state formation processes, but these processes themselves also shape cultural and religious evolutions.

Turning towards more methodological concerns, the debate focused on the pragmatic and practical necessity of defining ‘the state’ when conducting specific research projects, within specific disciplines. In many disciplines, methodological concerns constrain the possibility to go beyond a more limited or basic conceptualization of ‘the state’ as an actor, a scale or a category of analysis.  However, it was pointed out that, while we cannot avoid abstractions, we need to pursue a scientifically sound and legitimate use of the concepts we employ.

By Lisa Diependaele