State autonomy and culture: towards a culturalist state theory

XIAO Wenming1

(1.Boya College, Sun Yat-sen University)

【Abstract】State autonomy is a key issue in state theory. This article critically reviews relevant discussions concerning the state autonomy provided by different schools of state theories, pointing out that they more or less neglect the significance of culture, and tend to regard state-society relationship as a zero-sum relationship. We need to bring the relationalism approach to overcome this tendency, and understand state autonomy as embedded state autonomy, which is based on a consent notion of culture. In this regards, we should draw insights from state theories of Emile Durkheim and Antonio Gramsci, and consider the definition of culture and the concrete mechanisms through which culture influences the state autonomy. This effort can pave way for a culturalist state theory, and provide a theoretical possibility of non-zero-sum state-society relationship.

【Keywords】 state autonomy; state-society relationships; culture; relationalism;


【Funds】 Major Outstanding Young Teachers Training Program at Sun Yat-sen University of Fundamental Research Funds for Universities in 2017 (17wkzd14)

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    [1]. ① Of course, we inevitably use conceptually different terms such as state and society, but this does not mean that we consider them to be separate entities. [^Back]

    [2]. ① Due to space limitations, this article will ignore the elements of the state theory that is included in classical sociology, and will ignore advances in the state theory by Samuel P. Huntington or Michael Mann. One of the most important state theorists during the past few years is Bob Jessop. This article cannot provide a systematic review of him, but his views will be cited in different parts of this article. [^Back]

    [3]. ① Neo-Marxism scholars who tend to discuss state autonomy from the logic of capital include Claus Offe and others. Offe’s analysis reminds us that we should not equate the logic of the state with the logic of capital. There is a more complex and uncertain relationship between the two, which also means the existence of state autonomy (Jessop, 1990: 38–41). [^Back]

    [4]. ① Some scholars have recently grouped the definition of culture into three types. The first one is to understand culture as a grammar or code, and its understanding of culture and action is similar to the relationship between grammar and speech. Actions are only the reproduction and expression of culture. The second one is to understand culture as value. The relationship between culture and action is the relationship between goals and means. Culture provides a goal, and material interest is another goal. Actions appear in the conflicts between the two. The third one is to understand culture as map or script. People can use culture to guide them, and culture provides play scripts or travel guides (Hall et al., 2012: 539). However, no matter what kind of definition, culture is characterized by commonality and shareability described below. [^Back]

    [5]. ② Fei Xiaotong also pointed out that to understand culture from the perspective of individuals and groups, culture is to accumulate much individual and limited life experience in history through the group form of society, and transform into a kind of spirit, thought and intellectual property shared by society. Then, it is preserved in various ways in lives, thoughts, attitudes and behaviors of today’s living individuals, becoming something that transcends the individuals (Fei, 2003). Fei Xiaotong also emphasized the consent and shareability of culture. [^Back]


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This Article


CN: 11-1100/C

Vol 32, No. 06, Pages 211-235+246

November 2017


Article Outline



  • 1 Introduction: state autonomy and the definition of the state
  • 2 An overview of recent discussions about the state autonomy
  • 3 Middle inspection: the approaches of culture and relationalism
  • 4 Durkheim and Gramsci’s state theory
  • 5 State autonomy and culture
  • 6 Summary and remained discussion
  • Footnote