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Political Science is the study of life in an organized community and the organized community is the state. According to Harold Laski (1967) the study of politics “Concerns itself with the life of men in relation to organized states”. What this means is that the study of politics is largely the study of the state and other activities that relate to winning of power and exercising such power in a given state/country.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1.  explain what the state is, its origins, its characteristics and functions 
  2.  differentiate between state and society and state and nation. 


3.1 Definitions of the State

There is no clear definition of the state. However, some radical writers like Marx and Engels argued that the state is essentially an expression of class relationships generated by the particular mode of production and unambiguously involved in the class struggle on the side of the dominant economic class. Thus, Marx and Engels (1976, P.486) wrote that in capitalist society, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. Some regard the state as one organization that transcends class and stands for the whole community. Other definitions have emphasized the political authority, the monopoly of force through government and political allegiance of citizens to the state. Some have regarded the state as moral and good society where justice and the promotion of the general welfare of the people are established. Broadly speaking, the state is the political form of society. What we call the state is a community of men organized for preserving and creating order and general well-being of its members.

3.1.1 Theories of the State –Origins of the State

The most obvious characteristic of early statehood are monarchy supported by royal bureaucracy. The king becomes a national figure that replaced the family and tribal head, while the King’s councilors take the place of tribal elders. The origin of the state thus is marked by the introduction of centralized authority, formalized hierarchy, specialization of task in the performance of public duty, and writers (instead of oral) communication. Although there are many theories of the state, we are going to discuss four major ones in this section.

3.1.2 The Divine Rights of Kings

Prior to the organization of the state, tribal authority was based on traditions and conventions. However, with emergence of a kingship system, there was a need for creating legitimating principles to make a ruler (King) acceptable to rule the subjects. To achieve this legitimacy politics was united with religion and the King as then presented to the people as choosing by the Divine Will. Thus, the idea that the ruler (King) was God’s appointed agent on earth legitimized the King’s power and made it both unquestionable and unassailable. Thus, to challenge the king was to challenge the Divine Will (God’s authority). Because of this, later Kings/Queens could claim descent from the first King divinely appointed.
The Divine Right of Kings idea is the longest living doctrine in politics. The theory helped the early kings to usurp tribal autonomy and allowed many tyrants to disguise their actions as an expression of God’s will. By contrast, the Divine Right theory helped to stabilize the political process and prevented violence and revolutionary activities by making the king and his orders divine.

Finally, the doctrine of divine right of kings aided the rulers to impart to their subjects a sense of group cohesion and collective purpose that formed the bedrock of most of modern day European states.

The theory of Divine Right of kings is a powerful doctrine as this has been demonstrated by its endurance to date. For example, until 1917 the Divine Rights of kings operated in Russia by the Romanov Dynasty. And as at 1974, Emperor Haile Salasie was still claiming the Divine Rights to rule over the people of Ethiopia.

3.1.3 The Force Theory – Might Makes Right

The doctrine of ‘might makes right’ is a simpler doctrine for legitimizing state power or power between individual or groups. This is an appeal to force or the battlefield where the fittest survive. What this theory amount to is that ruler who know how to get power and how to keep it are the effective and legitimate rulers. Thus, whoever has the power to rule either by the use of force or fraud, can also legitimately claim to have the authority to rule.
Theorists who support the force theory are concerned with ensuring political stability. According to Thomas Hobbes, all the good things of life, material and spiritual, depend first and foremost on the security of life itself. For Hobbes, if there is no power to enforce the will of the sovereign, then there is no government, no state, no security.
Hobbes and Machiavelli argued that any form of government could rightly claim legitimate authority, as long as it had the power to enforce its will. Both thinkers preferred monarchy because they believed that a strong monarchy was the strongest government of all and so the most entirely to ensure stability. What this means is that if a government lose power it loses the legitimacy for claiming power. And that power legitimizes itself.

Finally, the force theory opens the way for an undistinguished play for power between states competing for position on the stage of international politics. Those states that conquer others can rightfully claim authority over their territorial conquests precisely because they are the conquerors and not the conquered. And those revolutionary movements and military coups that succeed can legitimately claim all the rights and privileges formerly enjoyed by the old political order. In fact, this is the primary criterion at work in the granting of diplomatic recognition to new governments, whether they are established by conquest from within or without. Does the new government in fact govern the people and territory it claims to govern? Thus, most governments avoid the troubling questions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, in their dealing with each other.

3.1.4 Social Contract Theory

The alternative views of the origin of the state, and the principles that legitimizes its power are found in the social contract theories. The social contract theory is premised upon the idea that the state is a human creation by means of agreement – a social contract agreed upon by individual in a given society. Thomas Hobbes who was the first of the social contract theorists argued that prior to the existence of the state, life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” because there was no organized authority to preside over the affairs of men.
In fact, life was a free for all fight and “every man was for himself and God for us all”. It was man, in realization that this state of nature was not benefiting them that they decided to surrender their individual natural rights of self- government to an absolute sovereign authority by means of a contract.

John Locke, another social contract theorist argued that because men are rational, they can be trusted to pursue their self interest without infringing on the equal rights enjoyed by other citizens. And because men are rational, they can be trusted to judge the legitimacy of government as it legislates, administers, and adjudicates states laws.
Although this line of thinking would lead to total freedom and so no government as such, however, rational men perceived the advantages of organizing a government. It can impartially settle disputes between citizens, it is necessary to conduct foreign relations with other governments, and it is essential authority for divining and maintaining a system of monitory exchange which allows for the accumulation of material wealth.
The idea of social contract was taken further by Jean-Jacques Rousseau who insisted that no government was legitimate unless the people gave their consent to its authority. Thus, Russeau’s social contract includes all citizens in the initial agreement to by the terms of the contract, all citizens enjoy an equal right to participate in the making of law, and so to participate in the decision making that defines the appropriate boundaries of the law and the proper domain of the state activity. Finally, Rousseau insisted that government is legitimate only in so far as it operates according to the principles of popular sovereignty.

3.1.5 The Evolutionary/Natural Theory of the State

According to evolutionary theorists, the state is best understood as an evolving organism that develops naturally according to some inherent dynamics of growth.
Aristotle in the forth B.C. had argued that the state developed from the evolving interests and needs of the individual. In contrast to social contract and force theories, the evolutionary theories believed the individual’s needs and interests have been progressively met by the family, the clan, the tribe, and finally, by the complete community of social existence that is best expressed by the state. The guiding principles of growth of the state has been self sufficiency (not self interest) and the development of ever more elaborate institutions essential to satisfying mankind’s unique and most distinguishing characteristic reason.
Finally, war and conquest played an important role in the evolutionary emergency of the modern state and its institution war and conquest helped the consolidation of gained territory through war. And in the origin and development of the state, common religious worship and language had a great influence by welding together families, clans and tribes into larger organized community better known as the state.


Discuss the major theories of the state known to you.

3.2 Primary Characteristics of the State

The “essential elements” of the modern state are: People, Territory, Government and Sovereignty. In explaining each characteristic we will be able to answer the question stated earlier: what is the nature of the state?

A. People

The state as a human organization is made up of people that reside within its territory. Membership of a state is compulsory once an individual is born into it unless he changed his/her nationality. Even when a national of Nigeria, for example, renounces his citizenship of Nigeria he must acquire another citizenship because no one can be stateless; except refugees who temporarily lost their State from which they fled into exile.
When we are talking about the state in terms of population we are concerned with numbers and the characteristics of the people who composed the state’s body politic. For example, while some modern states like the U.S.A and Canada are still under populated relative to land area and resources, other states like Egypt and India are confronted by the problem of a population that is expanding too rapidly for their natural and technological resources.
Thus, a state with a very small population may find it difficult or impossible to maintain its independence against states with greater manpower and resources. For example, the lack of significant population growth in Ghana contributed to the decline of Ghana as a regional power from her position in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The characteristics of the people who compose the state are very important to the state standing in the world. If there is high literacy and high education in a particular country, then the skill in the economic applications of modern technology will be high. Further, if the people living within a state have a common language, subscribed to the same religious beliefs and shared common cultures, then the strength of such a state is enhanced more than a state with many nationalities and languages. States such as France and Germany are stronger than states like the old Soviet Union or Yugoslavia both of which have disintegrated into ethnic states.

B. Territory

An important pre-requisite for the existence of the state is territory. Most state has been established by conquest of neighbouring tribes and forming a centralized administration. Important consideration about the territory of a state should focus on its area, geographical location, resources, technology and climate.

In the modern world there are presumably sovereign independent states of all sizes and shapes ranging from a huge country like China to such a tiny principalities like Luxemburg and Monaco with a small population and land area. Yet, China and these small states have equal rights and status in international law. However, small states often find it difficult to act on the world stage or even to exist without alliances with stronger neighbours or a superpower.
Geographical location is very important for a state’s survival and development. It is very important that a state have natural barriers such as ocean, sea, rivers, mountains or deserts, against powerful or aggressive neighbours. For example, Island powers like Great Britain and Japan developed strong navies, whereas Russia, Germany and France relied on the military strength of their land armies.

Economic resources are also very important in determining a state’s power in the world today. For example, little England and medium sized Germany became great powers because of the early industrial revolutions which in turn was made possible only because of rich natural resources to which technology could be applied.

C. Government

The state exists in order to ensure the safety of the lives, liberties and properties of its citizens. The agency of machinery by which the state performs its functions is known as the government. This is normally formed by a body of persons vested with authority to make and enforce rules on people under their jurisdiction. The government can command and coerce, that is use force, when obedience is not forthcoming. These two attributes – the ability to command and coerce, constitute power or authority of the state. Simply defined government is a body of persons authorized to govern or rule a country or state.
There are various forms of government. Monarchy, which is government by an individual who rules according to his will without legal limitations, is the oldest form of government. The ruler usually claims historical legitimacy through the Divine Rights of Kings. Aristocracy is another form of government in which few citizens make the major decisions that affect the lives of all the citizens of the country. Finally, we have Democracy in which most citizens participate in choosing their representatives into a Parliament, Congress or the Assembly. Thus, whenever we have a group vested with comprehensive power, there is a government.
Depending on the constitution of a country, the functions of government are many and varied. There are three organs of government. The Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. The Government enacts or makes Laws and general rules of conduct, usually under the direction of the Executive. This function is performed by the Legislature or Parliament, which consist of the Head of State, the Upper and the Lower Houses in many countries. The legislature also controls the exercise of executive power in the country on such matters as the national finance and expenditure.

In the United States of America, Congress is the Legislature. The Executive which comprises the Secretaries and the civil servants including local government authorities sees to it that the laws passed and the rules makes by the Legislature are put into effect. In most countries the Executive is also concerned with the general administration. The Judiciary refers to the courts of law which interpret and enforce the laws and the rules. It is the duty of the judiciary to punish law breakers – they are fined or sent to prisons.

Finally, we must make a distinction between the state and the government. The state comprises the government and the governed. Government on the other hand is only the machinery through which the purposes of the state are sought to be realized. While the government of a state may change from time to time, the state is a permanent entity.

D. Sovereignty

Sovereignty as a concept is discussed fully in another unit. It suffices to say here that the word Sovereignty can be traced back to the Greek Philosophers who used it to refer to that which is supreme in the state. Since then, the concept has been variously defined and analyzed by political scientists to convey several meanings. We could state here that Sovereignty is the supreme legal authority of a state power over its own affairs, be they internal or external. It is important to note that colonized Africans or Asians could not claim statehood because they were ‘Sovereignty voids that is Metropolitan countries like Britain, France, Holland, etc exercised sovereignty on their behalf.


What are the major characteristics of the State?

3.3 State and Society

For analytical purpose we must distinguish the State from Society. The society is wider than the state. This distinction is very crucial. The state exists within society but it is not even the form of society. While the state is the nation legally organized and assuming the aspect of a single legal association, society is the nation socially organized and assuming the aspect of plurality of associations. Societies thus, suggest many social relationships which cannot be expressed through the state. It consists of the complex network of groups and institutions expressing human association. The state is one of the groups in society. But it is unique because it is the most important group. Although this group may set the keynote of the social order, it is not identical with society. The state provides the framework of the social order and it holds society together. There are many groups or associations in society, e.g. the family, the church or the club which do influence social life but owe neither their origin nor their inspiration to the state. Again there are established institutions or social forms like custom, initiation, competition, marriage, inheritance, which the state may protect or modify but certainly does not create. The state is a way of regulating human conduct in society. Its end is a system of control and order.

The state is society in its political aspect. In personal composition the state and society are one because they both include the same body of persons. In purposes, however, they are different. The state exists for one great but single legal purpose which is the making and enforcing of a permanent system of law and order. To equate state with society would justify state interference in all aspect of the life of individual and consequently may breed tyranny of state control. From experience, the individual liberty suffers where no distinction is made between state and society such as what existed in the totalitarian systems under Nazism in Germany and Communism in the Soviet Union.


What is the difference between state and society?

3.4 The Distinction between State and Nation

Generally, the terms State and Nation are sometimes used interchangeably. For clarity however, a clear distinction between the two terms must be made. The terms may or may not be synonymous. The word nation has two distinct meanings:
(i) It may mean a political unit i.e. a State
(ii) It may mean an ethnological unit, e.g. a Race
A nation in a political sense is what Ernest Baker defines simply as juridical organized unit or a unit organized for action under legal rule. As suggested earlier, it is sovereign state having a definite territory, a population, a government, formal independence and a sense of national identity made possible by a combination of both subjective and objective factors.
A nation in ethnological sense is commonly defined as a group of people who form a distinctive community by inhabiting a definite territory and recognizing themselves as possessing relatively homogenous set of cultural traits. Those cultural traits include a common or related blood, a common language, a common religion, a common historical tradition and common customs and habits e.g. the Yorubas of South West Nigeria.
Not all the above ingredients need to be present among the people to produce the spirit of nationalism i.e. a sense of belonging to a homogenous unified group. In other words, a nation need not necessarily be a state. The modern state is therefore not necessarily a unitary nation, it may be multi-national in composition i.e. it may contain national minority or ethnic group who may exist simply as a social group cherishing its own social manners and culture, its own particular language or dialect and its own form of particular religious worship. Switzerland for example is a nation with three races, four
official languages and many local dialects. Great Britain is also made up of the Irish, Scots, Welsh and the English.

Both countries despite the multi-ethnicity of their composition are pervaded by a strong sense of national unity – a somewhat homogenous political culture and above all by a subjective sentiment of belonging together. On the other hand, a state may lack the spirit or feelings of nationalism or of oneness among its people and yet it remained a state. In this sense, Nigeria may still be conceived as a State but not a nation-state.


What is the difference between State and Nation?


In this Unit, we have explained the nature, functions and purpose of the state. We have examined various theories of the state both ancient and modern. We also explained the various characteristics of the state and law determining the power of the state in international politics. We explained the difference between State, Society and Nation.


If you have comprehended this Unit, you should now be able to explain what the state is; understand theories purporting to explain the raison detre of the state; the features of the state; and the differences between the state and nation.


  1.  What is a state? 
  2. What are the primary characteristics of the state? 
  3. What is the role a Government within a State? 


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