Why do we define states as we do?!

What is a state? Joel Migdal is a theorist who, in the 1980s, stated that the state is an artifact which can be strong or weak, and highlighted several factors why states survive (Migdal 1988: 4-21). He pointed out that, even though a lot of people (especially at that time) thought of the concept of a state being something rather old, it is in fact the opposite: quite young. Migdal is not a pure poststructuralist but certainly has strains of thought that are somewhat similar to the poststructuralists.

The poststructuralist approach is a part of constructivism. Constructivist theories believe that the world is constructed through language and practices. Therefore the discourses and thus also discourse analysis are rather important. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a constructivist thinker. He was interested in the questions of who decides what knowledge is. Who is being taught that knowledge, who benefits that particular knowledge which is taught and whom does it harm? Foucault says that power and knowledge are not the same, but the production of knowledge is related to information with which you can exercise power, or at least reinforce it.

But what does this have to do with states and definitions of statehood?

Well, Foucault actually does not explicitly talk about his understanding of the state. He points out a whole system of definitions and new terms which include for example power, disciplinary power and governmentality. Governmentality applies to a form of power related to modernity. He develops the term in order to explain how he perceives that the interaction of power, knowledge and subjectivity as the source of today’s power structures (Hansen, Stepputat 2001: 3). Thus governmentality entails, roughly said, a) a specific institutional set-up, b) a type of power which consists of discipline as well as self-discipline and c) the historical processes which led to the formation of modern nation-states along with liberal theories. Foucault does not believe that you can point out exactly when the concept of a state was founded. The processes of state formation are very complex and originated in multifaceted power structures. The state is a codification of power relations, a product of history and discourses, not a being.

What I find most important and what has influenced me whilst reading Foucault, are the following questions: How comes we know what we know? Who has decided that we should be taught this or that way? Who can tell what is the truth? And for this class, more importantly: who has the power to tell what a state is? Why do we have the knowledge about states? We have to remember to make visible where our knowledge comes from and try to understand why that is.


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