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State Infrastructural Power: Approaches to Conceptualization and Measurement

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Michael Mann’s infrastructural power is a concept often applied but rarely rigorously conceptualized and precisely measured. Three distinct analytical lenses of infrastructural power can be derived from his definitions: infrastructural power as the capabilities of the central state, as the territorial reach of the state, and as the effects of the state on society. Exemplary texts applying each of these approaches are used to demonstrate their connection to Mann’s ideas, the relationships between these dimensions, and the boundaries between this and other aspects of the state’s strength. Moving from conceptualization to measurement, the paper shows the costs of common errors in the measurement of infrastructural power, and develops guidelines for its proper empirical application.

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  1. I am grateful for the comments of Miguel Angel Centeno, Matt Lange, James Mahon, Ryan Saylor, Dan Slater, Milan Vaishnav, and Daniel Ziblatt. Matthias vom Hau has greatly shaped my thinking on the state over the past several years.

  2. Joel Migdal et al. (1994) echoes these concerns, calling for a more explicit application of Mann’s concept, and for more analyses of the local weight of the state, and of the relations between the state’s commanding heights and its local representatives.

  3. In addition to uneven reach over territory, states are often marked by uneven penetration of society. This aspect of unevenness is explored in more detail below.

  4. A similar conceptualization of infrastructural power can be found in Ziblatt (2006: 13), who argues that infrastructural power encompasses three distinct dimensions: “(1) state rationalization, (2) state institutionalization, and (3) embeddedness of the state in society.”

  5. Mann himself (1993: 58–59) has recognized the relationship of his two concepts to these two distinct traditions of statist analysis. This distinction does to some extent reify the differences between the Marxist and Weberian traditions, but this simplification aids in the precise definition of state infrastructural power. For a more detailed analysis of how Mann’s conceptual framework (which includes many aspects of the state and of power beyond the one explored in this collection) fits into these traditions of statist analysis, see Hall and Schroeder (2006).

  6. This citation is from Kalyvas (2006: 174).

  7. This discussion is based on the delineation of his view of the state in Mann (1993).

  8. This implies that only where the state effectively penetrates society should we expect that the formal institutions of politics can adequately explain outcomes of interest. Where states penetrate society weakly and cannot enforce laws, greater divergence from the outcomes predicted by theories that build on the formal institutions of politics. In these contexts, the strategies and outcomes of politics are shaped less by formal institutions than by informal institutions. State infrastructural power, in other words, is an often unexamined scope condition in the application of formal institutional analysis. Helmke and Levitsky (2004), Ichino (Thugs and Voters, Harvard University, unpublished paper), and Soifer (2008) have explored the analytical power of informal institutions in the contexts of infrastructurally weak states.

  9. See Herbst (2000) for a similar analysis of the state as radiating authority from the center into the national territory. To these two components (radiation of political relations and territorial demarcation), Mann adds the state’s “differentiated set of institutions and personnel” and its “monopoly of authoritative decision-making.”

  10. The forms of administration of society and territory are traditionally divided into direct rule and indirect rule. The effects of the design of institutions of administration on the power of the state is the subject of work by scholars such as Waldner (1999), Ertman (1997), and Soifer (2006) among many others.

  11. Goertz (2005: 42–49) cautions that conceptual development requires explicit definition of the aggregation rule, which explains how the underlying concept combines its components. I do not explore this issue in detail in this paper, which focuses instead on the differential utility of the three aspects across theoretical contexts. Given the broad relevance of each of the three aspects, we can treat each as a necessary (but insufficient) condition for the identification of high infrastructural power in a specific case. In this framing, where a state completely lacks the power implicit in any of these three relationships, it has no infrastructural power. The infrastructural power of the state is shaped by how much (1) the central state has the capabilities at hand to exercise control over society, (2) the state has institutions which radiate through society and territory, and (3) the state shapes society at the local level. This means that we can build the following mathematical model of state infrastructural power, assuming for the moment that we could quantify each of these three aspects, and that each has equal causal weight: State infrastructural power = (state capabilities) × (spatial reach) × (effects on society) There is one notable inconsistency among the three attributes. The first two are necessary conditions that must exist for its exercise by the central state. On the other hand, the relationship between the central state and society is assessed post hoc, capturing the effects of the state. This inconsistency is an artifact of measurement rather than theory, as discussed further below, and could be resolved if we could measure the power of the state in this third relationship independent of its effects.

  12. Slater, Lange and Balian, and vom Hau take the “national capabilities” approach in the articles in this issue.

  13. Ziblatt and Schensul take the “subnational variation” approach in this issue.

  14. See for example Mahoney (2004).

  15. Note that while the capabilities of the central state might be measured by the resources at its disposal, capabilities are analytically distinct from resources. Theoretical analyses of infrastructural power should focus on capabilities and choose the most analytically relevant resource for measurement purposes.

  16. A more thorough accounting of the complex relationship between legitimacy and infrastructural power is developed in vom Hau’s article in this issue. It is surprising that Mann neglected legitimacy since his definition of the state is firmly in the Weberian tradition, which sees it as a fundamental attribute of the state.

  17. Centeno (2002) and Soifer (2008) use the census as a measure of this aspect of infrastructural power, arguing that it provides the state with the information necessary to assert control over society.

  18. We might see geography as a contextual variable, which facilitates or constrains the ability of the state to deploy its resources to reach through territory and exercise control. As such, geography is not constitutive of power itself, but determines the efficiency with which state resources can be translated into power. The Rwandan state’s power can depend on the geographic context without concluding that geography either causes or constitutes state power.

  19. Weber’s study is a complement, rather than a rejoinder, to the many analyses of state formation in Europe that highlight the early emergence of the French state. In this way, the careful distinction between infrastructural power and other aspects of the state highlights ambiguities in the conceptual frameworks of “state formation” and “state building,” which can be resolved with more clarity about what aspect or aspects of the state are being “formed” or “built.” I thank Dan Slater for bringing this point to my attention.

  20. The example of Vaughan’s work is particularly useful in illuminating this approach to infrastructural power because it can be compared to the analysis of the Mexican state’s project of social transformation provided by vom Hau in this issue, which finds that the Mexican state was more successful in some of its educational goals than in Vaughan’s account. In his focus on the ability of the Mexican state to transform the content of nationalism, vom Hau studies the relationship between teachers and the ministry of education rather than mirroring Vaughan’s focus on the interaction between teachers and local communities. This illustrates the distinct insights generated by divergent approaches to the study of infrastructural power, which can be cumulated in this case because of the care both scholars take to specify their conception of state power.

  21. See Goertz (2005) for a discussion of the importance of boundedness in conceptual construction.

  22. I thank Miguel Angel Centeno for bringing this issue to my attention. This discussion of Foucault’s analysis of power is based on Foucault (1977, 1991).

  23. This approach to the state informs a variety of substantive research agendas. For instance, it enjoys substantial prominence among cultural historians working on state formation in Latin America (see Nugent and Alonso 1994).

  24. This social reach, explored in the introduction to this issue, is a focus of O’Donnell (1993). There has been little systematic exploration of this aspect of the state’s power, as scholars who have focused on the uneven relationship between the state and societal sectors have tended to focus on the state’s autonomy from social actors rather than its power over them. The territorial unevenness of the state has been the focus of much more systematic analysis. Thus, the discussion here will focus on the territorial unevenness of the state’s reach, while calling for more research on other dimensions of unevenness.

  25. Goodwin (1999) graphically portrays the relationship between these three dimensions of the state and the probability of revolutionary emergence and success in Fig. 1.4, p. 29.

  26. Because his theory incorporates the extent of control exercised by both incumbents and insurgents, it takes a broader view of control than does the concept of state infrastructural power. Kalyvas is concerned with the ability of both state and nonstate actors to penetrate society and implement their chosen policies. His book raises the possibility that we can conceive of nonstate actors as having infrastructural power, which fits well with recent analyses of insurgent state building.

  27. Yashar (2005) has argued that the Peruvian state, like its neighbors, has never exercised effective control over the Amazon.

  28. Although recent years have seen much analysis of the formal institutional relations between center and periphery (most notably the massive literature on federalism), the reach of state institutions through territory is an analytically distinct aspect of the state—explored in work such as Boone (2003).

  29. For a recent critique of the conceptual framework of state failure, see di John (2008).

  30. See for example Mamdani (2002).

  31. This paragraph is based on a set of distinctions drawn in Caplan and Torpey (2001: 3).

  32. See vom Hau’s article in this collection and Darden and Grzymala-Busse (2006) on this question.

  33. If multiple indicators are used, scholars must also be attentive to the issue of aggregation: how multiple indicators are combined to score a particular case. Other issues central to measurement are replicability, and reliability, which relate to the coding of cases. Although these are major concerns, my focus here is on the more abstract issues of research design that relate to the operationalization of the concept of state infrastructural power.

  34. See Adcock and Collier (2001) and Lieberman (2002) for discussions of the consequences of choices about measurement.

  35. In addition to the misalignment between concept and measurement discussed above, Fearon and Laitin also fail to choose a measure that captures any dimension of infrastructural power.

  36. This raises again the issue of aggregation: the question of how the extent of police presence, educational oversight, and tax extraction should be combined into a unitary measure of infrastructural power. The assumption too commonly made is that a state that can tax can also exercise coercive power, and so forth: that state power is homogeneous across its arenas. The result of this assumption of homogeneity is that we lack precise categories for states with significant power divergences across arenas.The relationship between the various arenas of state power has been undertheorized beyond the virtuous cycle of taxation and military power, which characterized European state formation. For preliminary approaches to this important gap in the study of state development, see Slater’s article in this issue and Loveman (2005).

  37. By conceptualizing state-society relations as a process, scholars who explore the hegemony of state-society relations claim to solve this problem. See Mallon (1994). However, the difficulty of measuring hegemony still remains.


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Soifer, H. State Infrastructural Power: Approaches to Conceptualization and Measurement. St Comp Int Dev 43, 231–251 (2008).

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