The Domestic and Historical Determinants of State Development

Publications | Working papers | Research in progress

My second major research project examines the domestic and historical determinants of state development. In an interrelated series of papers, I explore how states penetrate, interact with, and administer their societies. These processes are foundational to the effective exercise of state power, and in politically developed states, we take for granted that state’s authority is pervasive across space and in the lived experiences of citizens. That is, in modern states, state power appears to be banal, routine, and even apolitical. Yet how the modern state \textit{came to be}, and how state power came to be ubiquitous and taken for granted, are not well understood.

My work advances our understanding of domestic state development by demonstrating that the characteristics of the modern state that we now think of as mundane arose through deeply contested, uneven, and exclusionary processes of societal penetration, ordering, and administration. My scholarship within this second project unfolds across four related papers: two publications in two of the three leading political science journals, and two working papers.

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.

One contribution that emerges from my research on the domestic processes of state development is that finding that state expansion has proceeded unevenly over space. The fourth paper in this research project demonstrates that this uneven expansion was exclusionary between groups in French Algeria — a finding that scholars overlook when they study the experience of dominant groups (largely but not exclusively white men). And in an interdisciplinary, ongoing study of Meiji Japan, I examine another possible explanation for uneven state expansion: principal-agent problems of bureaucratic control that undermine regulatory enforcement.


Literacy and State-Society Interactions 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.

“From Pluribus to Unum? The Civil War and Imagined Sovereignty in 19th Century America.” Under 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 the French Colonial Empire.” Working paper. (with Gabe 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.

The Politics of False Statistics: Building the Modern State in Meiji Japan. Research in progress. (with Fabian Drixler and Reo Matsuzaki).