State as a Concept: Definition, Development, & Size

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

States are sovereign territories with individual governments that hold centralized power. Learn more about the definition of a state, how states developed and grew in size over time, and explore the relationship between the state and federal governments. Updated: 10/27/2021

Definition of State & Power

For those of us living in the U.S., the term 'state' is a very familiar one. After all, it's part of our name. We live in the United States of America. However, there is a larger meaning behind the word 'state' that goes way beyond the idea of Pennsylvania, California, or Kentucky. In today's lesson, we're going to explore this a bit deeper as we discuss the broader political concept of the term 'state.'

First of all, when studying the concept of state, it doesn't take long to figure out that there are some varying definitions. For this reason, we're going to stay rather general using the most accepted definition, which defines a state as an autonomous political unit, including many communities within its territories over which it has legitimate centralized power. In short, a state is a sovereign entity. It holds supreme rule over its territory.

When we say legitimate power, we simply mean power coming from a formalized position or office. It's not a street thug who's in charge simply because he can beat everybody else up. On the contrary, legitimate power is power that has been granted through institutions, things like voting, bureaucracy, and sometimes even tradition, as seen in bloodline monarchies. Yes, the burly street thug may have lots of guys listening to him, but it's pretty safe to say these lackeys never stepped into a voting booth and pulled the lever for his name.

With this idea of legitimate power in mind, it's important to note that states come in all sizes. They can be as large as the ancient Roman Empire that ruled over much of the known world of its day, or as small or smaller than the independent African nation of Gambia.

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  • 0:02 State & Power
  • 1:45 Centralized Power
  • 2:55 Federal Systems
  • 3:51 Development & Rational…
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Centralized Power

Focusing more on power than size, the legitimate centralized power of a state has the recognized power to do things like collect taxes, make laws, enforce laws, and even draft citizens for war. Speaking of wars and law enforcement, this brings us to one of the main characteristics of a state: a state holds legitimate power to use legitimate force to maintain order.

Going back to our street thug, he definitely wields power. However, his power doesn't come in the form of an institutionalized, well thought out and centralized system. In other words, he's not holding court every week or handing out citations. On the other hand, when a state trooper pulls me over for speeding, you better believe the ticket he hands to me holds legitimacy. If I choose not to pay it, I will find myself eventually going through an institutionalized court system.

Going beyond the ability to hand out speeding tickets, a state holds centralized power through things like a police force and a structured standing army. Also, within a state, the centralized authority holds a monopoly on power. In other words, the state has the last say on what goes on within the state.

Federal System

With this in mind, it might be difficult for some of us to understand why, let's say, the state of Pennsylvania is considered a state when the overarching federal government of the U.S. has the right to tell the citizens of Pennsylvania what to do. This is because the United States of America is a federal system of states in which a union of states have placed themselves under a centralized government authority. However, these states still maintain some level of autonomy.

For instance, the Tenth Amendment allows any powers not specifically delineated in the U.S. Constitution to go to the states. That's why, as a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, I had to wait until I was 16 to get my driver's permit, while my cousin in West Virginia got his when he was 15.

Since we've placed so much emphasis on the idea of the legitimate power and authority of a state, I think it'd be a good idea to take a little time and talk about how this legitimacy has historically developed.

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