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Transformation de conflit, de Karine Gatelier, Claske Dijkema et Herrick Mouafo

Aux Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer (ECLM)


, Grenoble, juillet 2010

Questioning the demand for the State: an anthropological contribution

If a demand can be established, what kind of State is it for?

Mots clefs : Reconstruire l'Etat | Reconstruire de nouvelles relations politiques

Studying State dynamics in the post-crisis context whether this be after a violent conflict, following a political transition, or in so called fragile States, has led us to re-examine how we consider the State. In moving beyond assumptions about what the State is our approach has resulted in an emphasis on the varying mechanisms by which people and institutions relate to power.

Following this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, we finally find ourselves returning to looking at the concept of the State and the question of whether there is a demand for the State. If a demand can be established, what kind of State is it for?Trying to answer these questions can help us to create a picture of representations of the State that populations have in different parts of the world.

In this final chapter of Rethinking the foundations of the State we will describe to what extent and under what circumstances the population has expectations from, and a need of the State. With this description we do not aim to reconstruct the concept of the State, nor to praise the Weberian State. We undertake rather to bring a new diversity and complexity to the issue: the political entities that the international system recognises as ‘States’ and sometimes “Nation-States” vary a lot on the ground. These ‘States’ differ in the functions that they undertake as well as in their relations to the population. In light of this, is it possible to assert that some institutional functions can only be undertaken by a State? The empirical approach we use will enable us to explore some of the different directions in this research.

These variations of what a State is can be explained through some of the theoretical research carried out in political science. The State is seen as a diffuse field of power relations (1) so it has therefore been established that the State is not an external body separated from the social world. An example of this is Bayart’s demonstration that the State in Africa has long been appropriated by African societies and elites, and can therefore not be seen as an imported product (2). Migdal on his side has shown that the State is deeply rooted in society and is an emanation of it, a conclusion based on his ‘State-in-society’ approach (3). The State ends up being what society makes it: if re-appropriation occurs, it means that society has vested itself in the State. In this way the connection between the shape and role of the State and the influence of society is clear.

What kind of State are we talking about? Variability of the model

What a State actually is has recently been at the centre of debate: as a political method for the organisation of power it has been identified as a contributor to peace [1] and to security [2]. After a period of liberalism and reduction of State capacity, the State has finally come to be seen as a solution for conflict regulation and even conflict prevention.

Re-building the State in the post-conflict period has been analysed as a major contribution to peace-building [1]: State institutions based on democratic and liberal principles were supposed to act as conflict resolution and conflict prevention mechanisms. The technique in programmes of the international community (4) seems to be to implement the theories of some of the most classical – and constructivist – thinkers of the State: « State building provided for the emergence of specialized personnel, control over consolidated territory, loyalty, and durability, permanent institutions with a centralized and autonomous State that held the monopoly of violence over a given population » (5). Richer countries consider support for ‘State-building’ as their ‘central objective’ in conflict affected countries.

Consequently, the State has been targeted for consolidation, in order to ensure international security [2]. An entire normative terminology has emerged to designate and classify States according to whether or not they can guarantee security. These classifications have no academic credibility, and clearly appeared as a result of political instrumentalisation: disqualifying the sovereignty of certain States can be used to justify and legitimise international interventions.

Can States fail? Or is it that the State according to the Western concepts never worked in the first place (6)? Anthropologists have brought to our attention the problem of obsession with the State, referring us to ethnographic works that look for the State in primitive, archaic and exotic societies (7). Are we not now looking at another kind of State obsession? One that does not question the status of the Western State model as the only possible paradigm when “rebuilding”, or building, a State? State-building programmes in post-conflict situations are most often perceived and implemented as a technical step, which consists mostly of institution building. The model of State being applied is embedded and masked within a schedule of due dates for nominations of transition administrations, adoption of constitutions, elections etc.

Forms of centralised authority, political systems and/or arrangements vary from one local context to another, in some areas the State has existed for several centuries, in some cases preceding colonisation. However little or no attention has been paid to the pre-existing political arrangements and local political culture present in a post-crisis State, such as the relation of people to power. The theoretical concept of the State is too often considered as a unique, stable and homogenous reality.

This preconception survives despite the variability of the State as an organisational tool for power, exemplified by the different types of political arrangements, which exist to mediate between a centralised authority and society.

The lack of homogeneity of what we refer to as the State confirms that this State – because it is imagined through a normative frame – is not the most relevant concept for gaining an understanding of societies in a conflict or in post-conflict period. A focus on the interactions between the two ends of the relationship we are considering – the centralised authority and the population on whom it acts and who submit to it – tells us more about the root causes of conflicts and the power at stake than any normative model can. Anne Brown in her contribution to this volume (8) witnesses the gap or even the abyss that exists between the State and society in a variety of States, particularly the ones undergoing a process of State-building. It is only one example, but one which acknowledges the inadequacy of State-building programmes, and thus contributes to an explanation of their pitfalls in non-Western and post-conflict countries (9).

Through its empirical approach the use of ethnological methodology can help fill the gaps in an understanding of what power relations are based upon. However this approach cannot be considered as unambiguous and devoid of risk: the strong evolutionism present in ethnological, and more particularly anthropological approaches tend to interpret archaic and small scale forms of political systems as preliminary or lower forms of modern States. This evolutionist perspective remains in the recourse to typologies such as “fragile states” and “failed States” (10) and proves to be a teleological approach: that the model of the modern Western state is the goal every human society should be aiming towards.

Should we call it State or not? Diverse political arrangements

A diversity of political orders was presented and discussed in the previous chapters of this volume. An empirical as well as historical approach, in the case of Afghanistan, provides another illustration of a specific political order relationship between State and society.

Afghanistan nowadays represents one of the deepest political crises in terms of authority. A look back shows us that the Afghan state dates back to 1747 and its central authority, under the aegis of the prince, was never contested before very recent history (1978). The recognition of central authority is thus deeply rooted, but it does not follow that it brings with it the functions and monopolies of the Western concept of the State.

In Afghanistan, the central authority of the prince (khan) has been generally accepted in the middle of the 18th century, under the condition that local ruling elites’ power was respected, in particular regarding the sector of security. A monopoly of the legitimate use of force did not exist, and its absence was not an undermining factor for the existence of the State in itself. The relationship between the State and the regions – occurring through the local elites – was one of interdependency: the khan was legitimate in Kabul if he respected the authority of village and clan chiefs; and the local ruling elite was dependent on the khan for the source of its power. The political centre in Kabul was the only one that could provide the means to exercise authority: arms, money, power positions etc. The better connected to the central authority a local chief was, the more powerful he was locally (11).

Through this we can see that the relation to central authority took the form of negotiation and a type of patronage. It was based on a mutual recognition of authority, a recognition which was the basis for a greater hold on power for both parties. This symbiotic power relation was the only circumstance under which the prince in Kabul could expect to be accepted as legitimate by the tribes’ chiefs: their loyalty could only be obtained in return for their autonomy.

This interdependence of authority reveals that power was built on connections: the ability of local chiefs to connect their group to a source of power and to channel the highest possible amount of State resources to this group is what allowed them to maintain their authority. It is important to underline the fact that this power was not about detachment and autonomy from central authority, but rather it was about the opposite: proximity to and interdependence with this central power. The result of this was that the better the relations with the khan, the more powerful the local chief.

Holding onto power consisted of redistributing security and protection, and enabling the access of the whole group to external resources. The chief can offer money; connections and favours; arms; services and employment. To receive any one of these things was not a proof of dependence, to the contrary it marked out the importance of one’s social status. The Afghan local chief was shown to be simultaneously in a position of dependence and empowerment through these relations with central government. Nevertheless maintaining autonomy was still a necessity for the Afghan chief in order to be able to manage internal conflicts.

Locally, power was based on solidarity and loyalty within identity groups, which people belong to by birth. These are usually called primary solidarity groups and they determine the informal network of solidarity. These solidarity groups (12) were traditionally based either on the kinship; on a territorial dimension such as the village or the valley; profession; religion/religious denomination etc. The local ruling elite usually originated from the most powerful families, and power was based on the perception of power by others and generally has its basis in wealth and land.

The ongoing competition between local chiefs for power and influence was taking place within the context of a power of arbitration attributed to the State. It provided mediation through the assembly of chiefs, which gathered to solve conflicts through a process based on consensus in order to avoid violence. As the State could not impose its monopoly of the legitimate use of force, it presented itself instead as an essential mediator, as well as a donor. More recently the emergence of war deprived the State of its traditional role, particularly because of the much higher number of arms at the disposal of the population. Besides, the general interest of the population in the existence of the Afghan State had its basis on the objectives of protecting the territory from the expansionist aims of the regional empires of Russia and Great Britain, a threat that no longer exists in the same form.

The case of pre-1979 Afghanistan shows that the functioning of the State contradicts Western concepts, as the dynamics we see are the result of different political arrangements. The relationship between the State and the society as described in the case of Afghanistan shows a specific distribution of positions and authority derived from them. The State delegates part of its duties related to security to the local political elite, which creates a contradiction with the concept of a monopoly over the use of force held by the State.

From this point of view the State can be seen to exist in a variety of models. What we are calling “political arrangements” are sometimes referred to as political orders (13). However, we would like to put an emphasis on the relation between the representation of central authority and the local ruling elite, and the necessary negotiation between the latter and the former.

People set up different types of relations with central authority. These relations between the population and the central power, or society and the State, differ a lot between regions and over periods of time. It is already commonplace in political science to recognise the variations in the concept of the State, but here we would like to show the variation in political arrangements goes further than the scope of the definition of the State allows. The classic definitions if the State commonly refer to its attributes (territory, population, central power (14)); its core functions: security, representation, welfare (15); its prerogatives and monopolies (Weber and the monopoly on legitimate use of force (16)) or its capacity to govern a society. The distinctions between State and society are not under question here: the State exists because it is “dissolved” within society (17); and society only exist in contrast to the State.

From what perspective does the type of political arrangements vary?

Political anthropology has opened up the possibilities for understanding State arrangements, giving us the tools to describe the varying modes people use to relate to institutionalised authority:

The study by Clifford Geertz of the State in Bali (18) gives us path to follow in order to analyse the extent to which political process is itself culturally shaped. The Negara or, according to Geertz’s typology the Theatre-State, shows that the 19th century State in Bali was not held together by military force, but instead was governed through spectacle or theatre. Geertz uses his “model-of/model-for” paradigm to show that the State was “the public dramatization of the ruling obsessions of the Balinese culture: social inequality and social pride” (19). The Balinese king is both a model of divinity and a model of behaviour for his subjects, and thus the king must perform in the Theatre-State to display its divinity and to set an example for behaviour.

Helen Delfeld describes in the present volume (20), how in the contemporary Philippines the State’s institutions have functions and meaning for the local population that differ from the Western context. This example from the Philippines shows that the non-governmental organisations “working within the global community can define the shape of a State as much as the classic, if more catastrophic forces of State-to-State collusion and collision that are credited today”. Here we see that the non-profit sector as well as locally-generated cooperatives and similar organisations are revealed to be a more effective model of governance than the government itself.

Functioning without the State?

We are not trying to prove that the State is everywhere: there are societies without a State and without a centralised form of authority. As demonstrated by Günther Schlee, some societies have the capacity to maintain a degree of internal order and of regulated interactions without an institutionalised centralised authority and without a State (21). Even if we are convinced that it is impossible to think of the social without thinking of politics (22), thinking of politics does not necessarily mean that there is a State. This opens us up to plenty of circumstances under which societies function without a State. Research on this issue already shows this phenomenon, and this volume offers another contribution on this perspective through several examples of the State’s functions being taken over by non-State actors: on the island of Palawan, in the Philippines (Delfeld), in the Chiapas in Mexico (Van der Haar), in Somaliland (Wiuff Moe) and in Somalia (Menkhauss).

Post-2001 Afghanistan provides another case of non-State actors fulfilling State functions, in this case in the domain of legal stability (23). As the core tasks of State-building are not being fulfilled, the vacuum is filled by the neo-Taliban and insurgents who have established a now functioning legal system and police force in some Afghan provinces. The consequences for the central government in Kabul of not paying enough attention to the needs of the population go to “the very heart of a credible State-building” (24).

Is there, in the end, a demand for the State?

The discussions during the conference Post-crisis State Transformations: Rethinking the foundations of the State bore witness to the fact that there is a demand for the State: the example of Somalia, where businessmen need the State for economic development (25) can be seen to be replicated in other regions of the world (26). A territory, and thus a State, is needed to produce (27).

The existence of a demand for the state is the subject of wider consensus within the domain of security, as mentioned at the start of this conclusion: the investment of the international community in consolidating the State fulfils the objective of protecting rich states from the potential – sometimes imagined sometimes real – threats from the perceived instability of other States as exemplified by the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq. The problem is that under certain circumstances, international and national levels of governance are sometimes at odds (28).

The need for an interface with other States and international organisations, for political representation (passports etc.) can only be fulfilled by the State (29), as the international community recognises only State sovereignty. In addition, some States dominate international relations and can therefore be attractive as a model for some nations to base themselves on. This last remark is connected to another analysis that feeds this continuous demand for the State: the only expression of the principle of self-determination is the State; if a people decides to break with the State which it formerly depended on, there is no other alternative for them but to institutionalise their own State (30).

Politics without the State

Political anthropology focuses on the intertwining of politics and other social dimensions. The main contribution of political anthropology is to allow us to conceptualise the domain of politics without the State. Politics is everywhere, with or without the presence of the State. Originally ethnological works reflected what is now called “fetishism of the State” which has long prevented ethnologists from observing other forms of organised politics within society (31). Fortunately this ethnocentric position has been abandoned. It had led to the assimilation of primitive or traditional societies to a series of derogatory categories: without a State; without writing; without history; and without wealth (32). Referring to these societies, Clastres formulated his concept of “against the State”: some societies are not “without the state”, they are “against the state” (33). He bases his demonstration on the fact that some powers are non coercive. In these cases the chief without power protects the society against the abuse of power through a consensus process.

Godelier can help us understand this distinction: he demonstrates how State formation is dependent on the preliminary consent by the dominated people who accept their state of subjection in exchange for protection from those who control the sacred.

And indeed, the concept of consent is relevant to analyse so-called traditional societies. Several ethnologists analysed the fragility of power in contexts where the group or society controls the chief, meaning that his authority can only be based on consent. Ritual regicides in societies ruled by religious power and divine monarchies are a manifestation of this phenomenon (34): in case of consent being broken off the king is executed. From this point of view so-called traditional societies are characterised by a philosophical attitude of resistance to the idea that coercive violence should be the founding nature of political power (35). The relationship to power is not just one of inequality: an asymmetric relationship between partners does not prevent the existence of reciprocity (36). Modern societies distinguish themselves by the autonomy of the political sphere: the governed people renounce the exercise power and accept being represented.

Is the power balance described by Godelier just another myth that contemporary anthropology has not yet shattered? Or why else does it seem that the mechanisms through which the power of chiefs is counter-balanced by the consent of their subjects do not work anymore? Currently we can find in all continents the sites of illegitimate or authoritarian regimes, whose populations are forced to flee the violence and repression of the State within which they are unable to change or recreate their link to power and politics.


  • (1) : Abrams, P., 1988. ‘Notes on the difficulty of studying the state’, Journal of Historical Sociology, 1 (1): 58-89.

  • (2) : Bayart, Jean-François, L’Etat en Afrique. La politique du ventre, Paris, Fayard, 1989

  • (3) : Migdal, Joel S., State and Society. Studying how States and societies transform and constitute one another, Cambridge University Press, 2001, 304p

  • (4) : For some examples : UN report: “A more secure world: Our shared responsibility” Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change A/59/565; The Rand Corporation’s Beginners Guide to Nation Building; International accord between donor nations on their work in conflict affected and weak States piloted by OECD.

  • (5) : Tilly, Charles (ed.): Western-State Making and Theories of Political Transformation, in: The Formation of National States in Western Europe, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975: 70f.

  • (6) : Boege, Volker, Brown, M. Anne and Clements, Kevin P. (2009) ‘Hybrid political orders, Not fragile states’, Peace Review 21:1, 13-21

  • (7) : « State fetishism » in Krohn-Hansen & Knut (ed.) 2005: 14; Abélès, 2005 : 13f ; Clastres 1974 : 20.

  • (8) : Anne Brown, “Trajectories of State Transformation – political community in East Timor” Chapter State formation

  • (9) : Pouligny, Béatrice, Peace Operations Seen from Below : UN Missions and Local People, London, Hurst / Bloomfield (CT) / Kumarian Press, 2006

  • (10) : Krohn-Hansen and Knut (ed.), State formation. Anthropological perspectives, London, Ann Arbor, MI, Pluto Press, 2005.

  • (11) : Roy, Olivier, « Afghanistan : la difficile reconstruction d’un Etat », December 2004, Paris, Chaillot Paper, Institute for Security Studies.

  • (12) : Roy, Olivier, « Groupes de solidarité au Moyen Orient et en Asie centrale. Etat, territoires et réseaux », Cahiers du CERI, 1996.

  • (13) : Kevin P. Clements, Volker Boege, Anne Brown, Wendy Foley, and Anne Nolan, “ State Building Reconsidered: The role of hybridity in the formation of political order”, Political Science, Vol. 59, No. 1, June 2007, pp. 45-56.

  • (14) : Jellinek, Georg, L’Etat moderne et son droit (1909), trad.1911 ; Carré de Malberg, Roger, Contribution à la théorie générale de l’Etat, Paris, Alcan, 1922

  • (15) : Milliken, J. and Krause, K., „State failure, State collapse and State reconstruction: concepts, lessons and strategies”: Development and Change 33:5 (November) 2002: 753-74.

  • (16) : Weber, Max, Economie et société, Paris, Plon, 1971.

  • (17) : Dominique Darbon, 1990, in Politique Africaine n°39, « L’Etat prédateur ».

  • (18) : Geertz, Clifford, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980

  • (19) : Ibid.:13

  • (20) : “The Nation and the Hollow State, Imaginary of the Nation-State; reality of grassroots governance”, Chapter State formation;

  • (21) : Schlee, Günther, « Régularité dans le chaos. Traits récurrents dans l’organisation politico-religieuse et militaire des Somali » in Revue L’Homme, n°161, janvier-mars 2002 : 17-49

  • (22) : Clastres, Pierre, La société contre l’Etat, Les Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1974

  • (23) : Joshen Hippler, “Policy Adjustment or withdrawal? Political implications of the escalation of violence”, Policy Paper 29, Development and Peace Foundation

  • (24) : Ibid.

  • (25) : Günther Schlee

  • (26) : Dzharkinai Musaeva, Bagratyan Hrant, Kenneth Menkhaus

  • (27) : James Putzel

  • (28) : Mickael Miklaucic

  • (29) : Kenneth Menkhaus

  • (30) : Joshen Hippler mentioning the Palestinians and the Kurds.

  • (31) : Marc Abélès, Anthropologie de l’Etat, Paris, Payot, (1990) 2005: 8

  • (32) : Ibid : 72

  • (33) : Pierre Clastres, La société contre l’Etat, Paris Minuit, 1974

  • (34) : Frazer J. The Golden Bough : Studies or magic and Religion, London, MacMillan 1890 (Trad. française: Le Rameau d’or, Paris, Robert Laffont, 1984) ; Adler, A. La mort est le masque du roi, Paris, Payot, 1982 ; Muller J-C. Le roi bouc émissaire. Pouvoir et rituel chez les Rukuba du Nigéria, Québec, Serge Fleury, 1980

  • (35) : Clastres 1974

  • (36) : Godelier, Maurice, L’idéel et le matériel, Paris, Fayard 1984