The Domestic and Historical Determinants of State Development

Publications | Working papers

My second major research project examines the domestic and historical processes of state development. All modern states collect information, interact with their populations, and provide public goods and services. All modern states also have sovereignty and political communities that constitute the nation. My work in this second research project seeks to understand the processes that produced the modern state.

This project advances the scholarship on statebuilding in two principal ways. First, my work refines and extends the foundational theories on domestic statebuilding by focusing on the unevenness of state development. My work theorizes about where the state is active, whose lives the state chooses to touch, and who counts as a member of the political community with the right to make claims on the state. Though there are some famous exceptions, much of the statebuilding literature has overlooked these crucial questions of space- and group-based differences. By theorizing about how the politics of statebuilding unfold differently for non-core regions and non-core groups, my work advances important modifications and new factors into our understanding of state development.

Second, I bring rigorous evidence to bear on the foundational theories of state development in political science. This evidence rests on clear conceptualization and original and creative measures of different aspects of stateness, such as sovereignty, state capacity, and legibility. By refining critical concepts and overcoming the measurement challenge, I am able to utilize statistical analysis to address concerns about confounding factors, reverse causality, and unobserved heterogeneity, thereby bringing new evidence to the study of statebuilding.

A first pair of articles examine the processes through which the state imposed administrative order on society. I show that a particular kind of state capacity, legibility (or information capacity), allows the government to curb free-riding in collection action dilemmas by facilitating monitoring and enforcement. As part of that project, I developed and released new state capacity data that capture legibility.

Administrative order also depends on interactions between state bureaucrats and the citizens whose behavior the state seeks to regulate. In an award-winning study of 19th century France, I uncover an economic efficiency explanation: literacy in the language of state administration lowers the transaction costs of interacting with the state and its regulatory apparatus.

I continue my exploration of the processes underpinning the expansion of state power in a paper on the popular imagination of sovereignty. Contestation over the structure and location of sovereign authority plays a central role in political development, and war often settled these debates in an institutional sense. However, sovereignty is fundamentally ideational, in that it ultimately rests on the recognition of the governed. We show in the case of 19th century America that warfare shifts imagined sovereignty and points to the role of ideological entrepreneurs in bringing about this shift.

The fourth paper in this research project moves away from a purely spatial conception of “unevenness” in state development to one that is explicitly group-based. I show that the expansion of social welfare services after war proceeded unevenly between groups in French Algeria — a finding that scholars overlook when they study the experience of dominant groups (largely but not exclusively white men).

Inspired by questions about who counts as a member of the state’s political community, my newest work examines immigrants’ national identification and integration into the American mainstream. We theorize about how racial discrimination conditions the effectiveness of the military’s integrating mechanisms. We also contribute by surmounting the challenge of self-selection into service by leveraging the Vietnam War draft lottery, and by studying integration behavior rather than attitudinal measures of integration.

From Pluribus to Unum? The Civil War and Imagined Sovereignty in 19th Century America.” 2023. American Political Science Review. (with Nan Zhang and Tilmann Herchenröder)

Contestation over the structure and location of final sovereign authority — the right to make and enforce binding rules — occupies a central role in political development. Historically, war often settled these debates and institutionalized the victor’s vision. Yet sovereign authority requires more than institutions; it ultimately rests on the recognition of the governed. How does war shape imagined sovereignty? We explore the effect of warfare in the United States, where the debate over two competing visions of sovereignty erupted into the American Civil War. We exploit the grammatical shift in the “United States” from a plural to a singular noun as a measure of imagined sovereignty, drawing upon two large textual corpuses: newspapers (1800–1899) and Congressional speeches (1851–1899). We demonstrate that war shapes imagined sovereignty, but for the North only. Our results suggest that Northern Republicans played an important role as ideological entrepreneurs in bringing about this shift.

War and Welfare in Colonial Algeria.” 2023. International Organization 77(2): 263-293. (with Gabriel Koehler-Derrick)

A distinguishing feature of the modern state is the broad scope of social welfare. However, this remarkable expansion of public assistance was characterized by huge spatial and temporal disparities. What explains the uneven expansion in the reach of social welfare? Building on previous scholarship which highlights the role of veterans benefits and the expansion of public goods provision in the aftermath of conflict, we argue that social welfare expansion depends in part on the ability of the governed to compel the state to provide rewards in return for military service. In colonial states, subjects faced a bargaining disadvantage relative to citizens living in the colony; consequently, they were less likely to win concessions from the state for their wartime sacrifices. We test this argument in the context of early 20th century French Algeria, an overseas departement that played an important role in contributing soldiers — citizens and subjects alike — to the French military. We compare levels of spending on social services before and after World War I using fine-grained archival and geospatial data and a difference-in-differences design. Our preliminary results reveal that social welfare spending expanded less extensively in communes where the French subject share of the population was greater. We then show that wartime burdens among citizens drive the differential increase of state services. This paper contributes to the statebuilding literature by suggesting that, instead of a European norm and a colonial exception, a more fruitful distinction in state development is more fundamental: the differential ability of the governed to bargain with the state.

Literacy and State-Society Relations in 19th Century France.” 2020. American Journal of Political Science 64(4): 1001-1016. (with Nan Zhang) 
Winner of the American Political Science Association European Politics and Society Section 2020 Best Article Award.

Modern states are distinguished by the breadth and depth of public regulation over private affairs. This aspect of state capacity and state power is predicated on frequent and dense encounters between the state and the population it seeks to control. We argue that literacy in the language of state administration facilitates state-society interaction by lowering the transaction costs of those encounters. We support this claim with evidence drawing upon detailed historical data from 19th century France during a crucial period of state- and nation-building. Focusing on the specific domain of French marriage regulations, we find that increasing literacy predicts greater popular involvement with local authorities across French regions over time. These results demonstrate that literacy plays an important role in political development not solely by enhancing loyalty to the state, as the literature has recognized, but also by lowering cognitive and linguistic barriers to state-society interaction.

Legibility and the Informational Foundations of State Capacity.” 2017. Journal of Politics 79(1): 118-132. (with Nan Zhang)

Recent research in political science has stressed the importance of the state in curbing violence and promoting social and economic development, resulting in an explosion of interest in the foundations of state capacity. This paper argues that state capacity depends in part on “legibility” – the breadth and depth of the state’s knowledge about its citizens and their activities – and that legibility plays a crucial role in effective, centralized governance. We illustrate the importance of legibility through a novel argument that links legibility to the state’s role in curbing free-riding in collective action dilemmas. We then demonstrate this argument in the context of tax contributions to public goods using an original measure of legibility based on national population censuses. The paper concludes by discussing how future research may leverage our indicator’s exceptional temporal and geographic coverage to advance new avenues of inquiry in the study of the state.

Military Service and Immigrants’ Integration: Evidence from the Vietnam War Draft Lotteries. (with Nan Zhang)

Recent trends in global migration have raised questions surrounding immigrants’ national identification and assimilation into the American mainstream. What explains variation in immigrants’ integration choices? Although seminal theories in political science argue that military service is a critical driver of assimilation, some scholars have challenged the empirical basis and theoretical logic underpinning this relationship. A major obstacle bedeviling the study of military service and integration is self-selection: immigrants who are better assimilated may be more likely to join the military in the first place. We address the selection problem by examining the effects of military conscription during the Vietnam War using an instrumental variables approach. Conscription during the crucial years 1970–1972 was decided on the basis of national draft lotteries, which assigned draft numbers based on an individual’s date of birth. We use the draft lottery to instrument for military service and estimate the causal effect of service on a range of integration outcomes using granular data from the 2000 decennial census. Our study thus contributes novel evidence to key debates on the implications of military service for assimilation and national identification, while also highlighting a potential role for public policy to encourage immigrant incorporation via national service.