Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State (1977)




Abstract The state is not the reality which stands behind the mask of political practice. It is itself the mask which prevents our seeing political practice as it is. There is a state-system: a palpable nexus of practice and institutional stucture centred in government and more or less extensive, unified and dominant in any given society. There is, too, a state-idea, projected, purveyed and variously believed in in different societies at different times. We are only making difficulties for ourselves in supposing that we have also to study the state - an entity, agent, function or relation over and above the state-system and the state-idea. The state comes into being as a stucturation within political practice; it starts its life as an implicit construct; it is then reified - as the res publica, the public reification, no less - and acquires an overt symbolic identity progressively divorced from practice as an illusory account of practice. The ideological function is extended to a point where conservatives and radicals alike believe that their practice is not directed at each other but at the state: the world of illusion prevails. The task of the sociologist is to demystify; and in this context that means attending to the senses in which the state does not exist rather than to those in which it does.

‘When the state itself it is danger’, Lord Denning said in his judgment yesterday, “our cherished freedoms may have to take second place, and even natural justice itself may have to suffer a setback’.

‘The flaw in Lord Denning's argument is that it is the government who decide what the interests of the state should be and which invokes ‘national security’ as the state chooses to define it’, Ms Pat Hewitt, director of the National Council for Civil Liberties, said yesterday’.