Towards a sociological understanding
January 25 2020 11:37 PM
Darim Al Bassam
Darim al-Basam

By Darim al-Basam

In recent years there has been a great deal of scholarly interest in revisiting the topic of the Nation State and to tackle it from sociological and cultural and literary viewpoint to challenge the prevailing political sciences’ viewpoint that dominate the field. For political scientists the “state” as a political entity is any politically organised community living under a single system of government.
In international relations theories, states are assumed to be persons by virtue of their capacity to act intentionally, if not always rationally.
The general characteristics that constitute this particular actor is missing, and the notion that the state is to be understood as an actor is more or less automatic.
The Arab region remains under-represented in general historical and sociological theories of nationhood.
Arab social scientists need to adopt a variety of disciplinary, thematic, and country-based approaches to the complex and contested issues around the character of the nation-state in our region.
In fact, we need to generate debate and research on the topic through anthropological research of the state that explore the possibilities of studying ethnographically how “the state” was produced and contested through everyday practices and discursive constructions in the recent Arab culture.
Sociological studies of the state should focus from their vantage point on the mundane techniques of government and everyday practices of local bureaucracies, role of tribalism and patterns of social networks and how to evaluate the reach and qualities of the established nation-state and the ambiguous relations between formal and informal institution that made the state hybrid.
Early notions of pan Arabism, secular movements, relations between religion and the state, and the ambiguous role of liberalism should also be investigated from a political science point of view.
Instead, it was formally declared when colonial powers marked new borders on the world map.
Theoretically, there are two decisive features that define a nation-state: The self-reference of people who declare themselves a nation-state, ie the nation-state draws its legitimacy from the people – or the acceptance of that declaration by the international community with the blessing of ex-colonisers.
It is clear that these two defining principles of the nation-state do not fit together harmoniously.
Many people and communities have unsuccessfully claimed their self-determination as an independent nation-state.
Therefore, in studying the nation-state, we need to distinguish between cases that there is a “state-system” and cases that there is still only a “state-idea”. Historically, the structure and dynamism of the nation-state as we know it is a modern phenomenon, which dates back no more than 200 years.
But it is not without its history and predecessors.
Empires, kingdoms, princedoms and caliphates have been around for more than 4,000 years, each with very different forms of governing systems, different types of leadership and different relationships between rulers and ruled.
The nation-state as successor of the preceding empires, princedoms and caliphates, is the form to organise societies in modernity and institutional rationality.
As it took shape in Europe during the 19th century, the nation-state’s impact on the modern world has been tremendous.
After the industrial revolution, there was a structural felt need for its creation.
The principled defence of the nation-state would start from the proposition that markets and the widening division of labour require rules.
Markets are not self-creating, self-regulating, self-stabilising or self-legitimising, so they depend on non-market institutions.
Anything beyond a simple exchange between neighbours requires investments in transportation, communications and logistics; enforcement of contracts, provision of information, transparency and prevention of cheating; a stable and reliable medium of exchange; arrangements to bring distributional outcomes into conformity with social norms; and so on.
Behind every functioning, sustainable market stands a wide range of institutions providing critical functions of regulation, redistribution, monetary and fiscal stability, and conflict management.
These institutional functions have so far been provided largely by the nation-state.
Therefore, nation-states are basic constituents of modernity, providing the framework in which people lead their lives, and nationality is one of the fundamental conditions shaping their personal identity and the social contract between them and the state.
Globally, we live now in a system of territorial nation-states and see ourselves as belonging to one or more of them.
And yet, how problematic the institution seems when expectations are weighed against outcomes.
There are now 193 nation-states, all sitting together in a body called “the United Nations”, size in square kilometres or number of inhabitants does not matter: There are no such criteria for the membership and existence of a nation-state in the General Assembly.
Yet, criteria are different in the Security Council that constitutes the club of major international powers that won WWII.
Things at the beginning kicked off quite well, and national spirits were extremely high.
After the dust of the War subsided, the struggle against colonialism and the self determination liberation movements, which was at its peak at that time, produced nation-building effects.
There was usually a nearly three-decade period of trial and error in which secular, ostensibly democratic nationalism/patriarchal rules developed, together with noticeable enhancement of the welfare of people triggered by social policies and steady moderate economic growth.
Most new regimes appeared at the time to be somewhat leftist – there was “Third World Socialism”, “Pan Arab Nationalism”, “African Socialism” etc.
Even in Western Europe the concept of “Social Market” was in place before the welfare state surrendered to the neoliberal invasion.
The balance of power at that time between the two models of the state and nation building: The United States representing the capitalist camp and the Soviet Union representing the socialist camp, played a major role in that drives.
As few decades of the cold war passed by, things start changing.
With the exception of the East Asian countries that adapted their own home grown development nation-state model and were financially backed by generous FDI from the West for some geopolitical reasons, alternative nation building efforts began to stall everywhere else. “Socialism” became revealed as despotic across the third world.
Since secular nationalism was seen as failing to deliver development or promised liberty, there came counter waves of ethnic and religious movements of revitalisation.
These created massive civil conflict, either between majority and minority ethnic or religious groups, or between secular and “fundamentalist” rivals.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall thing took a new tilt with the declaration of neoliberalism as the end of history.
Let me assign few lines to deconstruct the concept of the nation-state with a hyphen between the two pillars of the term, so we might have better clarity in our debate for the rest of the article.
Nation is a cultural term, referring to a body of people who are naturally bounded together by certain affinities that give them a sense of unity by making them feel that they have something in common and differ from other people.
State, in return is a political term, referring to a body of people who live on a definite territory and are unified under a set of institutional forms of governance, which possess monopoly of coercive power and demand obedience from people The merger of the two terms implies that politics and culture support each other, where a state derives the legitimacy to rule from its endorsement of a specific cultural group, and in turn a culture survives and thrives by the aid of political power.
To dig a bit deeper, we can use two theoretical approaches to conceptualise the formation of the nation-state: the ethnic approach and the civic approach.
For national identity, the ethnic approach (also known as ethnic nationalism) believes that a nation is held together by shared heritage, including a common language, a common culture, and a common ethnic ancestry.
Arab countries follow this line of thinking.
On the other side, the civic approach (also known as civic nationalism), believes that a nation is held together by social contract and democracy, where its members (individuals and social groups ) have equal rights and the legitimacy of the state comes from the “will of people” it represents.
Western democracies developed and adapted that as part of a process of profound change that was initiated by new political and philosophical ideas that led the renaissance movement, which identified the people as the source of sovereignty.
Nation-state becomes in this case a source capable of generating institutional capital.
States enable the establishment of reliable contracts between citizens in that they provide information and monitor legislation about contracts, and enforce rights and rules that sanction lawbreakers, ensure social inclusiveness, protect minorities and actively support the integration and participation of citizens.
In this regard certain types of public institutions start playing a major role of creating generalised trust in state machinery, namely the legal and administrative institutions of the state responsible for the implementation of public policies.
We argue that the impartiality, efficiency and fairness of this street-level institutions are important dimensions of interpersonal trust among people (average individual’s belief that another individual or institution will act consistently with his/her expectations of positive behaviour). Put differently, the credibility of such institutions that have direct contact with people’s daily life will cement confidence in the nation-state.
Conceptually they are separated from conventional trust in politicians, parties, and “the government” that can come and go.
Political trust is critical for a state’s legitimacy.
Without citizen’s trust and support, the state is not able to exercise its governance on all cylinders.
But that trust in public institution has been harmed in recent years by the wide spread of big data and by entering the age of digitalisation, both of which represent, in my opinion, historical challenges to established state-society relations.
In response to these developments, researchers started addressing the question of how state-society relations are currently being reconfigured.
We can observe, even in our region, how some states are becoming under stress in terms of a decline of political participation in formal elections, loss of trust in representative institutions, increasing bureaucratisation and securitisation and new forms of multilevel confrontation and conflict at intra-national, and regional level.
More seriously, increased numbers of armed non-state actors – transnational ethnic and sectarian groups, rebels, tribes, terrorist organisations, foreign militias and mercenaries – are challenging many states’ claims to monopoly of violence and territorial control.
Sectarian entrepreneurs and political leaders have enhanced their power and deflected demands for change by manipulating fears of political exclusion, claiming to protect certain sections of the population from others, or using sectarianism to discredit their political opponents and regional rivals.
On the other hand, we observe how societal actors are empowered against states in the use of new digital technologies, rights’ conscious and active citizenship and new forms of association beyond the national.
In the theoretical frameworks of political sociology, researchers can seek to explore how these various forces have an impact on both state and society? What are the consequences of these developments regarding both established state-society relations at national and regional levels?
Moreover, how are these developments of breaking up existing state-society relations resisted by new sovereigntist forces and populist parties? How do they affect several domains such as citizenship, solidarity, migration, civic mobilisation and social movements?
More importantly, what challenges social identities, trust and legitimacy both between (national) state and its different social parts, and on a supra- and transnational level in the case of the European Union citizens for example?
Prompting inter- and multidisciplinary research, epistemic understandings from various disciplinary angles and multiple methodologies to address the changing state-society relations are needed to contribute to a new political sociology of the nation-state.

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