How to Identify Four Theories for the Origin of the State


About 6,000 years ago, people all over the world began organizing into states. Different groups, apparently acting independently, organized after reaching a certain level of agricultural skill and specialization. The actual mechanism for the initial organization into states is not well understood. Four basic, contradictory theories exist within the anthropological and sociological communities: The divine rights theory suggested by both Marx and Plato in somewhat different forms; Rousseau's social contract theory; warfare theories proposed by Oppenheimer and Carey; and automatic/evolutionary theories proposed by Aristotle and Wittfogel, among others.

  • Identify your theory based on motivating factors and sociological conditions leading to the establishment of the state. Consider geography, agriculture, evidence of specialization, and relationships with neighboring tribes.

  • Differentiate between voluntary and forced theories. Consider how leadership is established, and maintained. Remember the four major theories fall into these two categories, so distinguishing between the two helps identify the theory.

  • Consider various motivating factors. Distinguish between needs-based motivators, such as a surplus of agricultural products or complicated irrigation systems to feed larger numbers of people, and coercive ones.

  • Remember, voluntary theories assume people chose to organize themselves into states. Use the primary motivating factor to distinguish between the evolutionary/automatic and social contract theories. Consider time as the salient distinguishing feature. A gradual shift toward states according to the evolutionary/automatic theory contrasts with the more immediate needs described by social contract.

  • Distinguish between divine rights and those seized in warfare when examining forced theories. Both theories assume absolute leadership by a small group, but with different sources of authority. The general population is voiceless according to both ideas.

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