I have enrolled in a course of Public Administration and there is a paper called State, society, and Public Administration. Unfortunately it is a course which a student needs to study him/herself without the guidance of professors. (Open University)

There, in the first chapter Nature of the state and section Defining the state I came across the following lines:

The State has been considered as a problematic institution. The theorists are unable to decide when States first arose or what States actually are. The trajectory of the State involves a long and chequered journey ‘from’ tribal communities-city communities-city states of Greece and Rome-feudal societies – Absolutist Sovereign States ‘to’ Fascist States-Communist States and Welfare States. Some define the State in terms of morality, while others see it as an instrument of exploitation. Some regard it simply as an aspect of society, still others as a synonym for government. The State has even been viewed as a unique and separate association, which stands apart from social institutions. There are also metaphysical and quasi-religious interpretations of the State. Some point toward the legitimacy of the State, while some to the character of power it enjoys. Yet, we must define the State in order to grapple with its so-called ‘problematique’.

I didn't understand why state has been considered as a problematic institution in the context.

I will really appreciate any help.

Link to the chapter:


  • 9
    The author is using the term problematic to refer to the definition of the term State. As in, there's no real consensus as to the meaning of the term, what is and is not a State etc. The examples in your quote are examples the author gives as to why the meaning of State is problematic. Whether States themselves are problematic is a different question.
    – Alex
    Jun 1, 2020 at 10:13
  • 8
    This text is very poorly written, i wouldn't worry too much about anything it concludes.
    – dandavis
    Jun 1, 2020 at 17:14

3 Answers 3


Cynical answer:

The paragraph quoted seems like an ominous portent of the boredom to follow. They're just saying that over the centuries various authors have various differing definitions of "the State", and the present book's authors are either:

  • genuinely uncertain which, if any, is the most useful and correct of these definitions, and are hashing out the problem in the text because they somehow imagine that their students would prefer being instructed by authors who are still figuring things out as they go along, or because the authors really haven't all that much to say but such a survey fills up pages and their textbook publisher doesn't usually know, or care, whether a given textbook is useful.

  • blandly pretending not to have an opinion prior to outlining some biased survey of existing definitions, then selecting the definition they had all along.

  • painstakingly avoiding committing to any opinion, the better to sell the textbook to the widest possible audience. A time honored favorite strategy of American textbook publishers to avoid the wrath of the hydra-headed monster of the 50 States' school boards.

  • needlessly basing their model of a textbook upon previous textbooks written for commercial publishers which exhibit the previous bulleted compromises.

  • teaching, by passive voice prose example, their future administrator readers the career skill of how to waffle.

But there are sincere alternatives...

  • Typically an author defines terms by some set of examples, (say A, B, and C), and abstracts upwards by using some term (e.g. "the State", etc.) to encompass these examples. No "problem".

    More terms and examples are introduced as needed. Where these terms and examples have common elements and form supersets and subsets, the author then has a taxonomy, (i.e. a tree or graph).

    The author might later demonstrate how and why these terms and taxonomies are useful. Further chapters might wrestle with other authors' varying and conflicting definitions and taxonomies, and their pros and cons as best the current book's author can manage.

  • Or if an author's view of a subject is admittedly provocative and radical, and they regard current orthodoxies as obsolete or harmful, they can spend early chapters listing the defects of their rivals, which if correctly done, can be quite constructive.

    The best example that comes to mind is not directly political, from Gilbert's ON THE LOADSTONE, BK. I., CHAP. I., ANCIENT AND MODERN WRITINGS on the Loadstone, with certain matters of mention only, various opinions, & vanities., which in 2020 reads like half TED Talk, half insult comedy, concluding:

    ...Many others I omit wittingly; modern Frenchmen, Germans, and Spaniards, who in books written for the most part in their native tongues either misuse the placets of others, and send them forth furbished with new titles and phrases as tricky traders do old wares with meretricious ornaments; or offer something not worthy of mention even: and these lay hands on some work filched from other authors and solicit some one as their patron, or go hunting after renown for themselves among the inexperienced and the young; who in all branches of learning are seen to hand on errors and occasionally add something false of their own.

  • Had I not an account here already, I would have joined to upvote your cynical options.
    – ilkkachu
    Jun 1, 2020 at 19:16

For context, the link you posted seems more like a course synopsis than a paper in its own right. Its intent seems to be to discuss the how the concept of 'state' has changed over time, and particularly how it runs up against the issue of globalization. Keep in mind that it's meant to be a survey of the field — a broad overview of various topics — than a true research paper that's meant to come to some conclusion.

The concept of the state, as we the term in political theory today, didn't come into existence until the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Before that time there were merely nations — e.g., Britain, France, Russia, India — which were political organizations built around some common (or imagined) ethno-cultural heritage. Occasionally we would see empires (in which one national group imposed its authority over other national groups) or commonwealths (in which several national groups combined for their common interest), but the idea of a political unit that was not more or less directly associated with an ethno-cultural nation hadn't really occurred to anyone. But through the through the colonial era, the industrial era, and the world wars, ethno-cultural identity became less important to the definition of a nation than control of territory or of economic productive forces. Political units were defined more by lines on maps than by common heritage, lines that were sometimes drawn and imposed arbitrarily by colonial forces without regard to underlying populations. It did not, for instance, really 'fit' to call all of the peoples that were lumped together in colonial India – an area with a size and diversity of cultures and languages equivalent Europe — a 'nation'. The term 'state' was adopted for this new kind of political unit, in which territory and resources were more central than culture.

This was probably sufficient to define a colonial state: i.e., a region subordinated by a distant, controlling nation which was only interested in the territory and resources that nation could extract. But when these states began to gain independence and become sovereign states, they needed the concept of 'state' to become something more essential than mere happenstance: more than lines drawn on a map by foreign conquerors. The above cited paragraph is pointing out that there have been many efforts at essentializing and legitimizing the concept of 'state' — efforts at making the concept of state 'real' instead of abstract — all of which have limitations and failings. As the world becomes increasingly global, it becomes increasingly important to have a clear conception of 'state', an I imagine this course will take you though all of the various current and historical conceptions so that you can see the strengths and weaknesses of each.


The second sentence in your quote gives you the TL;DR:

The theorists are unable to decide [...] what States actually are.

This is more than just a conundrum for writers of philosophy. If you want to have a conversation with anyone about what "the state" should be responsible for, what its boundaries should be, what limits there should be on its powers or whether it should in fact exist at all, you need to start by agreeing what "the state" actually is. If you can't do that then you are going to be talking past each other.

To illustrate the problem, lets look at a practical example. Is a commercial company part of the state?

Mostly the answer would seem to be "no". Anyone can create and operate a company, and the only interaction with the state is formal registration and subsequent payment of taxes. The state doesn't tell a company owner how to run the company beyond a set of laws that must be kept, and if the company runs out of money the state will just let it die.

However for large companies the distinction between state and company often seems to break down. Large companies frequently exhibit a selection of the following characteristics:

  • They have a majority of the market, or in some cases even a government-guaranteed monopoly.

  • They are subject to rules and regulations which do not apply to other companies. Often these rules require them to do things (such as serve some customers at a loss) which further government interests rather than their own commercial interests.

  • They are provided with subsidies by the government, to the point where this is a major source of revenue.

  • Employees frequently move between company and government.

These characteristics mean that a big company can behave like a division of the government; it is funded by taxation and carries out government policy. Indeed, if the company were officially made part of the state by nationalisation the only people who would notice would be the senior management and shareholders.

At what point do we consider such a company to be part of "the state"? The answer matters because if we define a company as outside the state then the limits on its behaviour that we place on the state do not apply to it.

For instance, look at the current argument about free speech on social media in the USA. The social media companies are not part of the state, and hence are not required to observe First Amendment limitations on state control of speech. Indeed, their separateness from the state means that they have their own First Amendment rights to decide which speech to carry.

But on the other hand look at the case of Marsh vs Alabama in which Grace Marsh, a Jehovah's Witness, won the right to distribute religious literature on the privately owned main street of a company town. The Supreme Court held that

In our view the circumstance that the property rights to the premises where the deprivation of liberty, here involved, took place, were held by others than the public, is not sufficient to justify the State's permitting a corporation to govern a community of citizens so as to restrict their fundamental liberties.

In other words, because the company was acting like a state in providing a public street, it would be held to the same constitutional limits on its power to regulate speech within that area.

  • I think the conundrum is that it's circular definition. A "state" is an abstract idea (not something physical or personal, Louis XIV aside) that needs to be defined in terms of what it can and cannot do. Therefore, you can't define a "state" and then go about defining its rights and responsibilities separately. Defining the two things involves defining both simultaneously.
    – Phil Perry
    Jun 1, 2020 at 18:16
  • Regarding Marsh v Alabama, I think the issue was more of "when does private property operated (or widely regarded) as a public space, entitle the public to more protections than a strictly private space"? A very similar issue has come up with shopping malls, which technically are private property, but regarded as a public space (especially in regards to free speech rights).
    – Phil Perry
    Jun 1, 2020 at 18:22
  • @PhilPerry Yes, that was the issue. But behind it is the point where a company starts to perform state-like functions (such as providing a public street) and hence needs to be treated as part of the state. A strict reading of property rights would have had Marsh lose: she could always have distributed her leaflets on public land. Jun 1, 2020 at 18:50

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