Edited by Patricia Kennett
Chapter 5: Conceptualizing state and society
The practice of comparison in social science necessitates decisions about the unit of analysis to be adopted and the operational definition of that unit. The question, ‘What do comparative social scientists compare?’ may be met with the time-honoured answer, ‘societies’, but to do so is problematic for a number of reasons. Societies are notoriously difficult to define because their boundaries are fuzzy and are arguably becoming increasingly blurred. Furthermore, the economic, political, cultural and other dimensions of a society do not necessarily coincide, and as a result comparative social scientists have to ‘cope with the patterned mess that is human society’ (Mann, 1993, p. 4). Awareness of this problem is increasingly acute in an age of heightened international mobility and global interconnectedness, but it is not a new one. The distinction between ‘societies’ and ‘states’ can be traced back over several centuries, and Werbner (2008) has argued that it has been particularly influential in the discipline of anthropology. Anthropologists’ experience of colonial settings made them especially alert to states being institutions designed to administer, regulate and control populations whose members do not necessarily identify with the ideologies and agendas of those individuals and groups that occupy formal positions of power. States thus offer an alternative conceptualization of the social collectivities that social scientists seek to investigate comparatively, and their seemingly more concrete expression gives analytical advantages to approaches that focus on ‘states’ (or variants such as ‘nation-states’ or ‘welfare states’) rather than on the more amorphous and elusive ‘societies’.
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