The Ontology of Statehood

By Jason MacLeod on October 12, 2011 — 2 mins read

Throughout the article, An ontological analysis of states- Organizations vs. legal persons, by Edward Robinson, he reviews and critiques the many definitions geographers have of nation states.  The author correctly looks to define the state as something beyond its physical geography and posits that the state should be defined beyond its bounded territory and analysis should be given to the “non-physical geopolitical entity” itself.[1]  Through this analysis, Robinson attempts to provide an overview of the state’s ontological essence.  One of the definitions he provides is by the well-known political geographer John Agnew.  Agnew defines the state to be “the government of a bounded territory which claims common political and legal authority and a monopoly of legitimate force and other sovereign powers throughout its jurisdiction.”[2]  This definition provides the clearest explanation of what a state consists of.

The definition includes the complex relationship between state and government and creates a simplistic relationship between the two.  We can argue that the state is the physical aspect of the geography – the bounded state.  This basic view, however, does not include the myriad aspects of what creates the state.  If the state could be created by one person drawing on a map, then the comprising pieces of this state – the government, people, communities, and nationalistic tendencies – may not be bounded within this territory.  How does this interaction play out?  Agnew states, the government of this bounded territory is necessary for the existence of the state.  As Robinson notes, the existence of a constitution could be a significant factor in the creation of the state, but this doesn’t guarantee its existence.  As is the case in many countries, there can be many governments in one nation – those with more power than others, but each one alone cannot or should not be the foundation to a state’s existence.  Therefore, as Agnew notes, the government must have “common political and legal authority and a monopoly of legitimate force and other sovereign powers throughout its jurisdiction,” which implies that power is necessary.

The exercise of power whether it is through military, social services, economic ties, police force,[3] the creation and signing of treaties, is a necessary function of a state government.  In the situation of Palestine, Hamas has this power, but only in the Gaza strip.  Does this mean this geographic area of influence is its state?  Any other line drawings of boundaries are exempt?  Sudan, and its recent annexation, provides an example of how two separate governments within one bounded territory can eventually split into two separate states.  The possibility of two or more independent state governments within one bounded territory initiates the concept of emergence.  From the complex interactions of the two separate peoples/governments emerges the new state(s).  The interactions are complex even within Agnew’s definition.  Yet, his definition captures the most important pieces of a nation state’s constitutive pieces.



[1] Edward Heath Robinson, An ontological analysis of states: Organizations vs. legal persons, 5 Applied Ontology, 110 (2010).

[2] Id. at, 114.(This definition is from 1998.)