What is a State? — Definition, Features, and Origin of State

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In this article, we will examine the meaning of the state and the contending explanations of the state. We will also explore the various functions of the state as well as the various theoretical arguments regarding its evolution.


The State: Meaning, Functions, Attributes and Theoretical Antecedents

The centrality of the state in the modern political system cannot be overemphasized. This is because the state system, over the years, has evolved into one of the most complex human institutions and the pivot on which contemporary civilization is premised.

Therefore, the state can properly be conceived of as that form of political organization that is most widely accepted in the world today. This is understandable because the state is the ultimate repository of the collective, ethical, and coercive forces possessed by the inhabitants of a given geographical territory.

What is a State?

There are many definitions of the state provided by various scholars and thinkers, all of which serve to clarify and elucidate the generic meaning of what a state really is.

According to Robert Jordan, the term'state' applies to that political authority that maintains dominance over a specific geographical area. This authority is usually defined by a constitution, which provides for the institutions of government that are necessary to ensure internal stability and external security. Moreover, such a constitution is usually based on widely shared and accepted concepts of justice and equity. Essentially, there is a monopoly of force that distinguishes the state from its constituent groups and associations.

Definition of a State

A state is a politically independent, territorially defined group of people possessing a government that is subordinate to none other and monopolizing the coercive instruments of compulsion in the enforcement of its decisions.

In other words, a state is the ultimate stage in the evolution of a community. When a community, as a group of people, desires political independence, it becomes a nation. When it finally gains that political independence, it becomes a state. In the case of a nation-state, it simply entails a group of people occupying a definite territory and sharing a common language, common culture, common belief system, and racial homogeneity.

In the contemporary world, it is quite difficult to find such a nation-state. Even by Western standards, there are still noticeable differences in terms of culture, language, belief, and racial similarity. For example, the United States remains one of the most divergent nation-states in the world.

Some scholars have severely criticized the mainstream conception of the Burocentric as being of much analytic value. According to Claude Ake, the political economy approach has led to a growing awareness of the importance of studying the state as the critical key to understanding socio-economic formations, especially the configuration of social forces and the possibilities of their transformation.

In other words, Ake observed quite rightly that in the study of Africa, the attention that has so often been paid to the state has not been very useful, essentially because political scientists are not sufficiently mindful of the nuances and the analytic difficulties of the generic concept of the state.

Ake defines the state as a specific modality of class domination mediated by commodity exchange, such that the system of institutional mechanisms of domination is somewhat differentiated and dissociated from the ruling class and society and appears as an objective force standing alongside society.

He went further to posit that the state form of domination is the modality in which the system of mechanisms of class domination is clearly autonomized. This implies that the core institutional apparatus of class domination is largely independent of the various social classes, including the hegemonic class.

Ake's interesting argument concerning the generic meaning of the state should not sound so unfamiliar in mind that some scholars originating from the West have made similar arguments.

For instance, a highly respected political scientist, Harold Laski, observed that "no theory of the state is ever intelligible except in the context of its time. What men think about the state is "immersed." He insists that the state represents the supreme coercive power in any given political community.

However, this power is in fact used to protect and promote the interests of those who own its instruments of production. In this regard, the state, by its internal logic, expresses a will to maintain a given system of class relations. This it does through the extensive use of supreme coercive power. Ralph Miliband shared the same interpretation when he argued that the state is essentially a capitalist phenomenon, without which the capitalist class cannot maintain its hegemony over the other classes.

Having discussed at length the meaning of the state, we now turn to examine some of the attributes and functions of the state.

Five (5) Major Attributes of a State

It is important to note that the population of people, or human population, and defined territory as elements of the state are taken as its 'physical elements. The last two, functional government and sovereignty/constitution, are regarded as its 'spiritual elements.'

The modern state has four (or five) essential attributes, namely:

1. Territorial Boundary

A state must have a clearly defined geographical boundary separating it from another state.

Every state occupies a specific and delineated part of the earth, defined by internationally recognized boundaries. In fact, there can be no state without a territory of its own. The defined territory of a state includes the land mass, territorial water, and air space. It has maritime jurisdiction extending up to a distance of three nautical miles. It should neither be too large nor too small, but so much so that the people may lead a life of self-sufficiency.

2. Government

Effective government is very central to any modern state. Men accept government as a necessary pre-requisite for orderly and harmonious coexistence. Without government, life becomes, as Thomas Hobbes rightly observed, nasty, brutish, and short.

Government is seen as the soul of the state. If the state is considered the first condition of a civilized life, it is due to the existence of a government that maintains law and order and advances a good life. In essence, the modern state is expected to have a government to run its affairs. The state, as an abstract entity, has a government to carry out its activities and express, formulate, and implement its will. 

More importantly, a functional government is needed as an effective mechanism to protect the lives and property of a state's citizens and subjects by preventing external aggression and internal disturbances. It is pertinent to establish that there can be no state without a government, but there can be a government without a state.

3. Population

A state must have a population; while some modern states have large populations (e.g., the United States, India, China, Nigeria, Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, Japan, Bangladesh, the Russian Federation, Germany, and France), others have smaller populations (e.g., the Seychelles, Singapore, Benin Republic, Sao Tomé and Principe, Malta, Luxembourg, and Lithuania). The members of a given state are called citizens. Any other resident in the state is called an alien.

Since a state is a human association, the first essential element is the people. Every modern state presides over a given population of people made up mainly of its citizens but also including aliens or foreigners from other countries residing within the boundaries of the state at a point in time. The population should neither be too large nor too small, but numerous, so that the people may lead a life of peace and security.

4. Sovereignty

The idea of sovereignty is sine qua non to a modern state in the sense that it is the underpinning of legitimate authority and independence that a state has over its citizens and territory.

Sovereignty is the highest power of the state that distinguishes it from all other associations of the people. It connotes separateness and independence. By implication, a sovereign state exercises political authority and control over everything within its jurisdiction. 

Also, sovereignty implies that the country should be free from foreign control of any kind. In recent times, due to gross human rights violations, violent acts in the form of terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and civil wars often caused by governments, the international community has started to redefine sovereignty. 

The emerging consensus now, in the wake of genocides and conflicts in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Burundi, Sri Lanka, Syria, Libya, Guatemala, and Egypt, among others, is that sovereignty should be taken to mean non-interference by other countries in the internal affairs of any country experiencing gross human rights abuses and genocide as well as electoral violence, among others.

5. Constitution

A state also needs a working constitution, written or unwritten, according to which the business of government is carried out. Great Britain has an unwritten constitution, while Nigeria has a written constitution.

In the twenty-first century, our idea of the nature of the state has changed. The state is not regarded merely as a police institution for protecting lives from internal and external danger. Liberty is also not regarded as an inherent right, as opposed to the law. The present state aims at extending maximum facilities to its citizens and fostering international peace.

It is now very difficult to delineate a definite line of functions beyond which the state must not go. The nature of the state varies in different economic and political environments, and its function also differs accordingly. But the real purpose is neither individualistic nor collectivistic. It is a 'Golden Mean' between the two, the welfare of all. That is why we find a general tendency towards ever-increasing control over the means of production and distribution, even in countries like America, Great Britain, and France.

Functions of Modern Government

From the analysis of the actual workings, different writers have classified the functions of the modern government into two major parts:

  1. Fundamental or major functions, and
  2. Optional functions.

1. Fundamental Functions

Depending on how a state is organized, various functions fall within its scope; some of the major ones include:

  • The keeping of order and providing for the protection of persons and property from violence and robbery.
  • The fixing of the legal relations between man and wife and between parents and children.
  • The regulation of the holding, transmission, and interchange of property and the determination of its liabilities for debt or for crime.
  • The determination of contract rights between individuals.
  • The definition and punishment of crime.
  • The administration of justice in civil causes
  • The determination of political duties, privileges, and relations of citizens.
  • Dealings of the state with foreign powers: The preservation of the state from external danger or encroachment and the advancement of its international interests

To perform all these functions properly, the state must maintain a sufficiently extensive force, including the army, navy, and air force. Almost all the states of the present world spend a considerable part of their national income for defense purposes. Again, the state must maintain a well-organized civil department to carry out the functions of maintaining order within the country and amity in international relations.

2. Optional Functions

There are some other functions that are not essential for the continued existence of the state. Yet the states generally undertake them for the promotion of general welfare. The nature of the optional or secondary functions is not always identical in different states. Some of the optional functions fall under the following beadings:

  • The regulation of trade and industry
  • The regulation of labor
  • The maintenance of thoroughfares, including state management of railways, and that group of undertakings that we embrace within the comprehensive term "internal improvement."
  • The maintenance of postal and telegraph systems, which is very similar in principle to (3).
  • The manufacture and distribution of gas, the maintenance of water works, etc.
  • Sanitation, including the regulation of trades for sanitary purposes.
  • Education
  • Care of the poor and incapacitated
  • Care and cultivation of forests and similar matters, such as the stocking of rivers with fish
  • Sumptuary laws, such as "prohibition laws."

Relationship between the State, Government, and Other Societies or Associations

The state, government, and society are related in the following ways:

  • The state includes both the government and other human associations:
  • Membership in a state is obligatory, while that of other associations is voluntary.
  • The state is permanent, but the government and other human institutions and associations are not permanent.
  • The government, the state, and other societies depend on each other for the activities designed to realize the needs and aspirations of the people.
  • Rules made by the state are generally applicable to and binding on all, while the rules guiding other associations are applicable to members only.
  • The state may use force to put its laws and regulations into effect. Other associations cannot ensure obedience or compliance to their rules and regulations through the use of force.
  • The state has legal powers to fine, incarcerate, or pass the death penalty upon violators of its laws, but other associations have no such authority over their members.

Philosophical and Historical Accounts of the Origin of the State

There are diverse views on the origin of the state. Some scholars have given philosophical, historical, and descriptive accounts of how states emerged. According to Johari (2012), "the subject of the origin of the state is shrouded in mystery; we do not know exactly the source and time of origin." This may not be unrelated to the fact that the modern state is a result of a very long evolution. Several theories have been made on this subject that are worthy of discussion.

1. Divine Origin Theory

This is perhaps the oldest or earliest of the ideas on the origin and nature of the state as well as the nature of political authority. The divine theory simply states that God Himself ordained and established the state. The rulers are therefore regarded as descendants or agents of God, and opposition to them must be regarded as opposition to God. By implication, the divine right origin theory treats authority as a creation of God or some supernatural powers, and as such, it finds expression in the religious books. This was done by the theorists of divine origin to maintain law and order or to eliminate the condition of absolute anarchy.

2. Natural or Organic Theory

This political idea argues that the state arose out of people's natural desire to interact with their fellow men and achieve moral perfection. The theory contends that the state is best understood not as a mechanical contrivance of man's inventive ingenuity but rather as an evolving organism that develops naturally.

Accordingly, people are human only within the state, and an individual outside of the state is either a god or a beast. The state is an organism, and the citizens are its organs. The state, in short, was created as a matter of necessity. The government is the brain of the state, and its task is to control other organs—the citizens—in the interest of the whole organism.

3. The Force Theory

According to the force theory, the state arose out of the conquest and domination of the weak by the powerful. The implication of this is that the strong people subjugate the weak on the basis of'might is right'. Thus, political power is based on physical force. There is no ethical or moral justification for the state. Rulers govern because they have the power to do so. Subjects obey because if they did not, they would be punished heavily. In a word, the subjects are merely the tools of their rulers.

4. Genetic Theory

As the divine origin theory is a matter of faith, the genetic theory is based on sociological facts. The theory posits that the state is an eventual extension of the family. The first group of collective human life is the family or household, and the last is the state. It is believed that the sociable nature of man creates the union of males and females.

As Johari (2012:77) puts it, "The family system comes into being that develops into a tribe or clan, and that eventually develops into a state. The head of the family comes under the head of the tribe, who eventually becomes the ruler or head of the state. Kinship creates society, and society at length creates the state."

This theory is regarded by some political analysts as the historical account of the state. What is considered a modern state passes through different phases: family, group, society, and state. The state as we know it today, in the form of a country, is only about five hundred years old, with its evolution dating back to the 16th century AD.

5. Social Contract Theory

This theory argues that the state is a human creation. The state, according to the social contract idea postulated by the trio of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704) of England, and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) of France, was created by men who once lived in a state of nature. The theory assumed that the existence of political authority was based on the consent of the people.

According to Hobbes, life in a state of nature was nasty, brutish, poor, and solitary, and the law of nature informs the people to surrender all their natural rights in favor of a man (or assembly of men) as the price for living in a commonwealth that ensures them liberty, property, and the entire kit of a good life. A contract or agreement made by the people, society, state, and government (commonwealth) comes into being.

Towards Comprehensive and Evolutionary Theory of the State

In the absence of any valid proof different theories regarding the origin of the state cropped up at different time. But unfortunately, each one of them is obviously inadequate in their purpose and lays emphasis on one aspect or another. None of the theories, discussed above, is sufficient and thus most rightly rejected.

Prof. Garner (1960) rightly points out, "The state is neither the handiwork of God, nor the result of superior physical force, nor the creation of resolution or convention, nor a mere expansion of the family".

From our study it is clear that a simple and precise formula cannot explain the origin of the state. The state is not such a thing which was suddenly and arbitrarily created by anybody, either man or God. It is always with us. The very necessity of self protection and procreation have made men social and political animal. The state has emerged through a process of evolution.

The state, as Burgess (1940:48) puts it, "is a gradual and continuous development of human society out of grossly imperfect beginning; through crude but improving forms of manifestation towards a perfect and universal organization of mankind."

Nobody can say when the state first originated. But centuries have elapsed till its origin in the crude form giving rise to the growth of a civilized government. This process of development is not only slow, but confused. Thus, the major factors which have influenced the process of development are the following.

  • Kinship relationship,
  • Religious influence,
  • Economic necessity,
  • Force,
  • Political consciousness.

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