Empire and State Formation

Catherine Desbarats

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online December 2012 | | DOI:
Empire and State Formation

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
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Historical writing on empire and state formation is undergoing a kind of global renaissance for a host of complex reasons, including the rapid political reconfigurations accompanying the end of the Soviet Union, the persistence of empires, and the dawning realization that the homogeneous nation-state is not, and has probably never been, the “natural” form of political organization. Though never fully eclipsed as objects of historical enquiry, empires and states came to be seen for a time by many social historians as quintessentially elitist, Eurocentric, patriarchal preoccupations. In the end, however, what several generations of scholars have revealed, through their studies of peasantries, women, and indigenous or enslaved peoples, not to mention of landscapes and the environment, was not that empires and states were somehow irrelevant, but rather that the dominant narratives about them—those firmly rooted in textbooks and public discourse, and persisting even in academic works, had long been profoundly elitist, patriarchal, and Eurocentric. Historical discourse about high politics and government, moreover, had contributed significantly to the ideological, cultural work of state formation itself: settler societies produced Whiggish stories about the progress from “colony to nation,” and North Atlantic European countries produced histories centered on the “rise of democratic nation-states” that either celebrated the civilizing, democratizing effects of empire or ignored imperial pasts altogether. Both sets of national histories naturalized European expansion, emphasized formal institutional structures of government at the expense of less obvious sources of power, and tended to treat European state formation as somehow both prior to, and impervious to, processes of imperial and colonial state formation. Anthropologists, sociologists, and literary and critical theorists of various stripes have helped reinvigorate the study of empires and states. Through their attention to indigenous agency—namely, to the practices of power, including discursive ones—they have refined the concepts of empire and state formation as well as hinted at new ways in which we might interpret the records produced by such polities, paving the way for decolonized histories of both. Though much of this literature deals with settings in the 19th and 20th centuries, historians of the early modern Atlantic world are increasingly drawing inspiration from it. By conjoining regions typically studied apart (West Africa, Europe, the Americas), they have helped identify features of empire and state formation invisible within national frameworks. Above all, perhaps, they have reminded us that empire and state formation has important spatial dimensions, involving not just land but also oceans and waterways. Conversely, the histories of empires and states, which encompass Asian and Pacific theaters, challenge Atlantic historians to think carefully about the boundaries they impose on their inquiries.

Article.  10376 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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