chapter  6
17 Pages

The semantics of statebuilding and nationbuilding: looking beyond neo- Weberian approaches


Introduction: the state and its meanings Discussed by most, defined by few, the state as a political unit is at the centre of most statebuilding debates. More often than not, these debates are based on an initial misunderstanding of what the state as a political and sociological concept actually means. As Anthony Giddens observes, there are two implicit, and often competing, concepts behind the notion of state: it sometimes means an apparatus of government or power, sometimes the overall social system subject to that government or power (1985: 17). This semantic imprecision has permeated the statebuilding literature to the extent where it is hard to distinguish what each author specifically means by state and statebuilding. Furthermore, this debate is far from being confined to aesthetics. The semantic imprecision has concrete spillover effects on other discussions related to, but not equated with the state and statebuilding. For instance, Paul Bastid acutely notes that ‘the idea of legitimacy has been linked alternatively to the process of establishment of certain forms of government and, more globally, to the authority underpinning the state, to the foundations of social life’ (1967: 4, my translation). Hence, whether or not one adopts a ‘restrictive’ conception of the state will carry specific implications for the overall analysis. This chapter will attempt to clarify the debate by associating the two conceptions of the state – as government or as social system – with distinct statebuilding approaches – institutionalism and ‘social legitimacy’. The first one, an institutional approach closely related to the Weberian conception of the state, focuses on the importance of institutional reconstruction and postulates that statebuilding activities do not necessarily require a concomitant nationbuilding effort. As this chapter claims, the Weberian approach to statehood is the starting point for a number of analyses, having attained the status of an orthodoxy in the mainstream statebuilding literature. Following the institutional approach, the state is equated with its institutions, state collapse is understood in terms of the collapse of state institutions, and statebuilding implies their reconstruction. While being portrayed as consensual and apolitical, the institutional approach to statebuilding carries specific consequences for scholarly and policy debates (Lemay-Hébert 2013).