State Capacity as a Conceptual Variable

By Matthew Adam Kocher, PhD*

From Volume 5, Issue 2 - Spring/Summer 2010: Spotlight on Security

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State capacity has become a central concept in the study of security. The author argues that common uses of the concept to explain violent conflict are tautologies. He outlines several ways to disaggregate the state analytically which have the potential to lead to more rigorous empirical research on violence.


Over the last two decades, low state capacity has gradually become the central preoccupation of security intellectuals in the developed world, displacing a prior focus on the dangers of powerful authoritarian states. The concern with weak, failing, or failed states is pervasive and cuts substantially across otherwise distinct and competing visions of the nature of security. Weak or collapsing states are in one way or another held to account for civil war, domestic and international terrorism, ethnic cleansing, piracy, refugee flows, illicit economies, corruption, famine, and a general failure of development, among other ills. Some have gone so far as to identify a general “crisis of the state” in the contemporary world.[i]

In this essay, I contend that “weak statehood” is a poor analytic framework for thinking about the core concerns of domestic and international security, in particular the causes of armed conflict at the sub-state level. I focus on two related issues. First, “state capacity” and associated analytic constructs like “weak” or “failing” states are often used in ways that are quasi-tautological and systematically obscure more than they reveal about the drivers of violent conflict. Second, the social scientific literature offers several plausible alternative ways to think about the capacities of states that, while analytically sound, do not form a coherent “syndrome.” I make the case for a theoretically disaggregated approach to studying the impact of state characteristics on conflict. While the implications of my argument hold for the full range of dependent variables that analysts have taken to be affected by state weakness, in this essay I focus specifically on the literature about civil wars.

The Concept of State Capacity

According to the usual understanding of statehood in the social scientific literature, states seek to be monopolists over the means of organized physical violence within their territorial borders. In spite of uniform goals, however, some states succeed in monopolizing violence, while others fail. Consequently, it makes intuitive sense to examine variation in their capacities as a way to understand why some states experience civil wars or other violent disorders, while others do not. A related, but somewhat different, formulation points to “incipient” or “emerging” anarchy as a cause of sub-state violence.[ii] When a state’s status as monopolist of violence begins to slip, actors of all types see a need to provide for their own security, opening the door to war between previously non-mobilized groups or organizations. In either case, the ebbing capacities of the state provide the essential condition for violence to emerge.

But arguments from capacities are trickier than they may seem at first blush. First, in ordinary language, a capacity or a capability is not a free-floating disposition for doing just anything well; it is subject-specific. Thus, you might inquire about my capacity to solve equations or shoot jump-shots, but it would not make much sense to inquire about my capacity in general. Second, if you did ask about my success in doing some particular thing, it would not be an adequate explanation to say: “I am good at things of that type, or I have a high capacity for doing things of that type.” An actual explanation would refer to specific classes of identifiable antecedents that account for my capacity or ability in this particular area: conditioning, experience, or genetics, for example. Once such antecedents are offered, the notion of “capacity” does no analytic work. The posited antecedent either is or is not a cause of the outcome, but it makes no difference one way or another whether we refer to it as a “capacity.” To make the point even more sharply: explaining the outcome just is explaining the capacity.[iii]

Take, for instance, the claim that an insurgency broke out in Afghanistan in 2006 because of the Afghan state’s low capacity.[iv] Just what capacity is at issue here? Presumably it is the capacity to prevent insurgencies, not the capacity to grow opium poppies or protect the Presidential palace. If that is correct, then the theory reduces to the claim that an insurgency broke out because the state lacked the capacity to prevent an insurgency, which is circular and therefore trivially true. To see that this is so, try to make sense of the contrary claim: an insurgency broke out in Afghanistan in 2006 in spite of the Afghan government’s capacity to prevent an insurgency. By definition, such a capacity was lacking, since there was an insurgency. In short, explaining the capacity amounts to explaining the outcome.

Does it help to reformulate the claim in terms of emerging anarchy? Since anarchy is defined as the absence of an authority capable of decisively settling conflicts, it is logically prior to war. In sub-state contexts, however, it is not clear how to identify anarchy prior to the outbreak of armed hostilities. It might be possible to do so when formally sovereign states have sub-units with long-standing independent means of violence, such as, for instance, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATAs) of Pakistan.[v] In general, however, anarchy is not an exogenous shock; rather, it emerges as a consequence of civil war, as non-state armed actors carve zones of control away from the state.[vi] Anarchy may be analytically useful for explaining patterns of violence within civil wars,[vii] but it appears conceptually problematic for understanding their outbreak.

One may object to these characterizations by noting that state capacity or strength operates in the literature as a heuristic: a concept that simply categorizes classes of underlying mechanisms rather than operating directly as an explanatory factor.[viii] Thus, for instance, James Fearon and David Laitin[ix] identify state capacity with “the government’s police and military capabilities and the reach of government institutions into rural areas”; likewise, they characterize weak states as “financially, organizationally, and politically weak” [emphases added]. Ann Hironaka[x] similarly cashes out state weakness as ineffective bureaucratic and political systems. The problem with these elaborations is that they merely recapitulate the original problem in slightly different language rather than identifying actual causal antecedents: what, in this context, is the state other than a bureaucratic and political system? What constitutes military and police capabilities or the reach of government institutions? In what sense are these things weak? It is no more informative to explain insurgency in virtue of bureaucratic capacity than it is via state capacity.

A second objection is that empirical studies that use state capacity or weakness as a theoretical construct identify associations between conflict and specific operational variables like per capita income and the size of countries’ populations. This is certainly true, and there can be no doubt that straightforward studies of empirical relationships have been extremely informative in identifying stubborn facts that subsequent theoretical work has to take account of.[xi] Nevertheless, some studies purport to be using such variables as indicators of a single underlying theoretical construct: state capacity. My argument shows that there is no such underlying causal factor, and the problem is not one of measurement. Given that the major empirical findings in the conflict literature are nearly always observationally equivalent relative to the set of available explanations, it is crucial to identify and eliminate theories that have no genuine explanatory content. Moreover, indicators of state capacity in the field of conflict studies could, in principle, be as numerous as possible explanations for conflict, rendering state capacity theories effectively unfalsifiable.

Is it, then, impossible to reconstruct a non-circular and falsifiable theory of state capacity? In fact, theorists within the realist framework in international relations have used such theories for many years. John Mearsheimer[xii], for instance, makes an argument similar to my own in pointing to the circularity in Robert Dahl’s[xiii] classic formulation of power: the ability of A to get B to do what B would not otherwise do. He then formulates states’ relative power in terms of their possession of literal material assets: tanks, ships, jet planes, and soldiers. Setting aside for the moment whether or not material power can explain what realists believe it can, such theories are clearly non-circular and falsifiable (some would argue that they have already been falsified!).[xiv] Studies that use “capacity,” “strength,” or “power” as ways of categorizing one or more clearly specified causal antecedents, as the realist tradition generally does, are thus unobjectionable on the grounds raised here. In the next section, I rely on a wider social scientific literature to identify five specific classes of variables related to the structure and characteristics of states that could (and in most cases already do) function as elements of non-circular explanations for violent conflict.

Disaggregating State Capacity

The social scientific literature points to at least five distinct understandings of the strong/weak state dimension, several of which have sub-types. There is no reason to suppose that the list is exhaustive of all possible accounts that refer to the characteristics of the state, but it is a plausible initial list.

First, strong states have been identified with centralization, which can be either territorial or administrative. Territorially decentralized states have possessions that are separated from state cores either by water or by the territory of other states; strong states are territorially unified. Jeffrey Herbst[xv] goes further in conceptualizing geographical weakness, pointing to states with multiple densely populated regions separated by vast spaces of low population density. Administrative centralization refers to the autonomous powers of subsidiary units. In decentralized states, these units may raise independent taxes, directly elect executive or legislative bodies, or carry out independent public policies in few or many domains. Both federal states and states with systems of indirect rule may be considered decentralized. A link between decentralization and civil war seems plausible on its face. Historically, secessionist and decolonization movements have often coordinated on pre-existing sub-state boundaries, and the infrastructure of sub-national units has sometimes provided an organizational base for challenging the center. It is difficult to imagine the US Civil War or the wars attending the break-up of Yugoslavia absent the pre-existing federal structure of these states.

Second, state strength has been conceptualized as wealth,[xvi] “latent power”,[xvii] or fiscal capacity,[xviii] the last of which may include the ability to tax or to borrow. The rationale is straightforward: accomplishing policy goals of almost any kind requires resources. States that are better able to acquire resources, either because more resources are available or because they are better at tapping them, will in general be more successful at achieving their policy goals. This conceptualization of “strength” leads directly to a general class of theories that ascribe political instability or violence to exogenous income shocks caused by war,[xix] population pressure,[xx] changes in rainfall[xxi] or fiscal dependence on volatile natural resource income.[xxii] The quantitative literature on civil war has consistently identified a strong relationship between per capita income and the outbreak of civil war;[xxiii] however, the evidence for income shocks is mixed.[xxiv] While the empirical relationship between income and violent conflict is well-established, at least two important questions remain. Assuming that higher income produces social peace through its effects on state institutions rather than through its effects on society, through what mechanisms does it operate? In cruder terms, what does the state purchase with more money? Second, per capita income is highly associated with a basket of factors that are characteristic of modernization. We have excellent quantitative series on gross domestic product, but we continue to lack similarly high-quality cross-sectional and time-series data on many other factors, especially political variables. Perhaps the strong effects discovered for economic variables are a function of data-generation processes rather than reflecting features of the world.

Third, in the Weberian tradition, strength is related to a professional and autonomous bureaucracy, including the military officer corps. Professionalization is rooted in the methods of credentialing and selection (school degrees and competitive examinations, for example) and the ethos of the bureaucrat. Autonomous officials are salaried, and they cannot appropriate their offices and attached assets as personal property or pass them down to heirs. Weak or failing statehood has been identified by some contemporary scholars with “neo-patrimonialism,” or the systematic privatization and exploitation of public positions and resources.[xxv] Such states are termed “predatory”[xxvi] in the sense that they extract resources from society without providing corresponding public benefits. A related deviation from bureaucratic rationalism involves systematically directing state resources and offices toward real or fictive kin. In effect, states without a professionalized bureaucracy lack autonomy and neutrality with respect to social groups. The state becomes an object of competition rather than an agent in the service of society.

Fourth, strength may be conceptualized as a relative lack of institutional constraint on the regime. A political system in which many actors have an effective veto over policy implementation may find it hard to get anything accomplished. Autocrats, in particular, face fewer checks on their executive discretion than elected officials. Consequently, they are free to resort to a range of policy options (including repression) that their democratic counterparts do not have available to the same degree. This vision of strength has clear affinities with Hamilton’s account of the US Presidency as an “energetic executive.” This conception of “strength” has declined along with the fortunes of authoritarian states during the so-called “Third Wave” of democratization. However, it is often revived in popular and journalistic discourse when discussing, for example, the governing agility of the Chinese leadership or Vladimir Putin’s revitalization of the Russian polity. A number of empirical studies of conflict have identified an inverse-U shaped relationship between regime type and civil war, indicating that the most authoritarian states are fairly resistant to the outbreak of civil wars.[xxvii]

Fifth, as noted in the previous section, the realist tradition in international relations has long conceptualized strength in terms of the quantity and quality of literal military assets or “capabilities”: soldiers, tanks, naval vessels, and munitions, for example. This view of strength is highly intuitive: big, expensive armies win wars and deter would-be aggressors. The logic of the argument can be extended to encompass non-military security forces such as police. Domestic groups that might otherwise see opportunities to capture the state or detach territories from it are likely to be deterred or defeated quickly before large-scale challenges can develop.

Each of these variables or classes of variables is a plausible candidate as a partial explanation for civil war and other violent social conflicts. Each makes clear reference to characteristics of the state. Would it, then, make sense to identify them, or a subset of them, as elements in a theory of state capacity? Subject to several provisos that I discuss below, there is no reason why it would be objectionable to classify these variables (and perhaps others) under the heading of “state capacity” in order to distinguish them from more society-centric accounts.

First, as argued in the previous section, none of these theoretical constructs ought to be treated as indicators or measures of state capacity. They are bases for theories in their own right. Second, and based on the same rationale, the category of state capacity should not be understood as having any independent analytic leverage once explanations based on these concepts are elaborated. Third, it seems likely that one or more of these variables will tend to interact in generating conflict outcomes. For instance, a large army in a state with an unprofessional bureaucracy and officer corps may turn out to be more civil war-prone than a state with no army. Indeed, the possibility of interactions suggests another rationale for disaggregating state capacity conceptually: it is not clear how one should interpret interactions among variables that are all indicators of a single underlying theoretical construct.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there is no a priori reason to suppose that these variables constitute a “cluster” or “syndrome,” such that ostensibly destabilizing values on them will tend to go together. The historical trajectory of advanced industrial states has tended to converge toward high incomes, large and well-financed security forces, and professional bureaucracies. However, these states have varied considerably in terms of centralization, and most have had executive authorities that are highly constrained. The Socialist states of the 20th century in general had lower incomes, equally or more powerful security forces, relatively low levels of executive constraint, and considerable variation in bureaucratic professionalization and administrative centralization. The countries of the developing world, though generally poorer, have exhibited significant variation on all the other variables discussed here.

Finally, while all of the variables discussed above are potential explanatory variables for violent conflict, it is by no means clear that they are independent variables. Conflict, violent or otherwise, shapes the characteristics of both state and society. Among other things, conflict destroys assets, reshapes demographics, deepens existing political cleavages, creates new ones, and leaves its imprint on the institutional structures of the state. At an even deeper level, treating states as autonomous from society is at best an analytic simplification, useful for some purposes and not for others. As the Marxist and pluralist traditions of state theory recognized, the state is both an organization and an arena of conflict simultaneously. Contemporary research in political science has become quite sophisticated in addressing problems of endogenous causality operationally, but theoretical research programs have generally failed to keep pace.


For better or for worse, conflicts within states have become the dominant form of violence in the contemporary world. Understanding states is and will remain central to the project of both explaining and controlling such violence. The ability of scholars and practitioners to accomplish these ends will depend on careful conceptualizations of the phenomena. Conceived as a single conceptual variable, “state weakness” is not analytically separable from the outcomes it is used to explain; weakness is, properly speaking, the object of explanation, not the explanation itself.

-       Alexandra Kendall served as lead editor of this article.

*Matthew Adam Kocher is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and the International Affairs Council at Yale University.  He holds a B.A. from Reed College (1993) and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago (2004).  Dr. Kocher’s recent work has appeared in World Politics, the Journal of Peace Research (JPR), and Politics and Society.  He is a past recipient of the American Political Science Association’s (APSA) Gabriel A. Almond Award for the best dissertation in comparative politics (2006), APSA’s Gregory Luebbert Award for the best professional article in political science (2009), and the JPR’s Article of the Year Award (2010). Dr. Kocher’s research is concerned with the causes and internal dynamics of civil wars and other violent social processes.


[i]Philip Gourevitch, Failed State: Failed Concept, working paper, Columbia University, 2009.

[ii] Barry R. Posen, “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict,” Survival 35(1) (1993).

[iii] The critique of explanations from ‘faculties’ or ‘capacities’ goes back at least to Molière’s mockery of the early modern medical profession in the Malade Imaginaire. Under examination, a medical novice is asked for “the cause and reason why opium induces sleep” [“causum and rationem, quare opium facit dormire”]; he replies to great approval from the chorus of medical experts, “because there is in it a dormitive virtue, the nature of which is to sedate the senses” [Quia est in eo virtus dormitiva, cujus est natura sensus stupifire]. Enlightenment-era critiques of such related notions as “faculties,” “dispositions,” and “virtues” in medieval science led to a widespread modernist rejection of this mode of explanation in the natural sciences.

[iv] Seth G. Jones, “The Rise of Afghanistan’s Insurgency,” International Security 32(4) (2008). Jones notes that fighting commenced in 2002, but escalated into “full-blown” insurgency by 2006.

[v] Cases like the FATAs present conceptual difficulties as well, since they are marginal cases of sovereignty to begin with. Are these truly civil wars? As a matter of causal explanation, cases like the FATAs look much like the situation in international relations, where anarchy is a weak necessary condition for war. Anarchy may co-exist with peace for very long stretches of time, which implies that it cannot account for outbreaks of war; see James D. Fearon, “Rationalist Explanations for War,” International Organization 49(3) (1995).

[vi] Nils Hagerdal, “Anarchy, Ethnicity and Civil War Violence: Lessons from Lebanon, 1975-76,” Working paper, University of Chicago, 2009.

[vii] Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[viii] Michon makes precisely this point about the general validity of arguments from “causal powers”: they need not be vacuous if they point toward the existence of underlying mechanisms that may be revealed in subsequent research. Cyrille Michon, Opium’s Virtus Dormitiva, in Max Kistler and Bruno Gnassounou (eds.) Dispositions and Causal Powers (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007)

[ix] James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War,” American Political Science Review 97(1) (2003): 75, 80.

[x] Ann Hironaka, Neverending Wars: The International Community, Weak States, and the Perpetuation of Civil War, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

[xi] Havard Hegre and Nicholas Sambanis, “Sensitivity Analysis of Empirical Results on Civil War Onset,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 50(4) (2006).

[xii] John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc, 2001), 57-58.

[xiii] Robert Dahl, “The Concept of Power,” Behavioral Science 2(3) (1957).

[xiv] Although this point is speculative, it seems likely that the literature as a whole suffers from a publication bias in favor of subtly tautological arguments vis-à-vis non-circular but empirically weak claims. “No asterisks” or weak statistical associations among variables is the kiss of death in the anonymous review process.

[xv] Jeffrey Herbst, States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[xvi] Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987).

[xvii] John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc, 2001), 60 – 67.

[xviii] Theda Skocpol, “Bringing the State Back In: Strategies of Analysis in Current Research,” in Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (eds.) Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

[xix] Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

[xx] Jack A. Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

[xxi] Edward Miguel, Shanker Satyanath, and Ernest Sergenti, “Economic Shocks and Civil Conflict: An Instrumental Variables Approach,” Journal of Political Economy 112(4) (2004).

[xxii] Macartan Humphreys, “Natural Resources, Conflict, and Conflict Resolution: Uncovering the Mechanisms,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 49(4) (2005).

[xxiii] Havard Hegre and Nicholas Sambanis, “Sensitivity Analysis of Empirical Results on Civil War Onset,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 50(4) (2006).

[xxiv] Christopher Blattman and Edward Miguel, “Civil War,” Journal of Economic Literature 48(1) (2010). These findings are puzzling in at least two respects. First, if low per capita income is in fact a cause of civil war (rather than a spurious correlate), then one would expect large income shocks to be also. In effect, what the findings suggest is that differences in income across states predict civil war, but changes in income within states may not. Second, that it is per capita national income, rather than simply national income, that is associated with civil war would seem to imply that there are no economies of scale in governance. The very robust positive association between country population and civil war outbreak similarly argues in favor of very significant diseconomies of scale for statehood (over population, though not over territory).

[xxv] William Reno, Warlord politics and African states (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1998).

[xxvi] Robert Bates, “State Failure,” Annual Review of Political Science 11 (2008). Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (eds.) Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

[xxvii] For an alternative reading, see James Raymond Vreeland, “The Effect of Political Regime on Civil War: Unpacking Anocracy,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 52 (3) (2008).

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