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Spatialising the state in Africa


By Rony Emmenegger, University of Zurich (Department of Geography) and Davide Chinigò, University of Bologna (Department of Political and Social Sciences)


The state in Africa is in a constant process of reconfiguration and continues to constitute a conceptual challenge for its analysts. Since the early post-colonial era, the obvious mismatch between the complex empirical realities and the classical conceptual tools at hand for the study of state power and authority has been thought-provoking. Also stimulating has been a growing discomfort with normative models of the state and particularly the Weberian ideal-type that for long dominated the analysis of power dynamics in Africa. Recent years have further witnessed a growing interest in conceptualizations of the African state with the aim at capturing the complexity of increasingly globalised and localised dynamics in a variety of settings. Acknowledging and advancing this existing body of literature, we call for a spatially sensitive conceptualization of the state and for spatialising the state in Africa.

Over the past decades, the analytical focus has shifted towards a more sociological reading of the state. Contrasting its depiction as an independent and socially detached entity, the state has rather been characterized from the perspective of its multiple and constantly changing relationships with society, its embedded-ness as well as their interconnectedness and mutual interdependence. Rather than in isolation, such a reading of the state entails the analysis of the state in more diffuse fields of power relations, arenas of encounters and complex sets of social practices and processes (Bierschenk/Olivier de Sardan 1997; Hagmann/Péclard 2010; Krohn Hansen/Nustad 2005). In a similar vein, Mitchell (1991: 78) has called for the analysis of the “political processes through which the uncertain yet powerful distinction between state and society is produced” and continues to be powerful. The conceptual departure from the taken-for-granted state-society boundary, nevertheless, continues to acknowledge its significance in social and political processes. Framed in Mitchell’s terms, the state should be regarded as a “structural effect” of specific societal dynamics and as a structure produced internally, while appearing to be external and distinct from society. Such an approach puts emphasis on the analysis of the political and historical processes through which the boundary between the state and society is produced and negotiated. A socially embedded reading of the state more generally allows the analysis of a multiplicity of moments in which the state is produced and refashioned in its symbolic and material form.

Thus, sociological readings have significantly advanced our understanding of the state through its conceptualization beyond simplistic or statist understandings that have often derived from normative concepts in the past. Nevertheless, its preoccupation with the social production of the state hardly grasps how the state gets socially and historically consolidated. As such, breaking the state open within its particular social embedding leaves us with two major shortcomings. First, it tells us little about how the state gets socially aggregated beyond simply being a subjective manifestation and the narrow perceptions of the actors that are involved in specific contexts. Such a tendency towards descriptive empiricism, however, often constitutes the analytical lens through which the state and state-society relationships are conceptualized and understood. Second, a mere focus on uncertain and constantly mutating boundaries between state and society downplays historical continuities and path dependencies of yet contingent processes of state formation. As a result, it leaves us in the dark about processes through which the state assumes a variety of symbolic and material forms and consolidates both in stable and rather fragile empirical settings.

Against this backdrop, we argue that a spatially sensitive conceptualization of the state provides a fruitful starting point for overcoming these limitations. Our call for spatialising the state in Africa arises from the insight that the state is as much embedded in social relationships as it is embedded in space. We see the advantage of considering space in the analysis of the state to be twofold. On the one hand, it brings into consideration a wide range of spatial concepts that enable the analysis of the particular spatial settings and situations in which the state or state-society relations are produced, embedded and negotiated. Spatial concepts allow the analysis of a particular set of social relations as well as a wide range of flows of people, capital and ideas through which state and state-society relations are reconfigured in a wider web of connections and interlinkages. On the other hand, it acknowledges that the state and space are inextricably related and that space is even constitutive for the operation of state power. To be precise, our call for spatialising the state does not simply require a consideration of how space is appropriated and controlled but more fundamentally how is constructed, negotiated or contested. It is in this sense that we see the negotiation of state-society relations as inevitably working through boundary making, inclusion and exclusion as well as the fixation of citizens in space, places and territories. This, however, not only involves the establishment of state-society relations but also the production of overlapping spaces in which these relations can be symbolically and materially stabilized, fixed and consolidated.

Acknowledging that the state operates through space and assumes various symbolic and material forms marks a first step towards its successful problematization. In this sense, a variety of practices and processes leave symbolic and material traces in the landscapes, where they accumulate and come to divide the rural and the urban or the public and the private stratifying and setting the scene for everyday encounters and interactions. Thus, state-society relations get fixed and consolidated in the landscape that comes to form particular reifications, naturalizations or normalizations of the state, society and their historical relation. In this sense, the resulting spatial orders are expressions of power relations that are grounded in multiple spatial and historical trajectories and that consolidate in specific views of history and configurations of space. In turn, such spatial configurations and spatialised histories set the broader conditions in which the state-society relations are produced and negotiated again with significant symbolic and material consequences. An attempt to spatialise the state in Africa, therefore, further requires a more nuanced understandings of how political repertoires – through which histories are constantly written and re-written – are discursively legitimated, materialize and manifest in collective choices, and engender dynamics of social, economic and political exclusion and inclusion that are central to the negotiation of state-society relations.

As a starting point for spatialising the state, we focus on the role of place and territory in shaping processes of transformation and in mediating power relations. Such a joint analysis of place and territory allows an understanding of the state-society relationship in relational terms and in terms of their spatial consolidation. It puts under scrutiny the practices and processes through which state-society relations are spatially embedded, have emerged along particular trajectories and have consolidated in specific historical contexts. Our point of departure is to engage with the spatial dimension of the state along such spatial and historical trajectories. Of empirical interest, are specifically its most contested dimensions and those contested political spaces where the state is said to be in formation. Examples can include politicized identities, the constitution and dissolution of authority structures as well as ongoing resource struggles. It can further include power dynamics manifesting from mobility and control over mobility, processes of social and economic inclusion and exclusion framed around the politics of belonging, overlapping authority structures resulting from armed conflicts as well as the increasing role of environmental knowledge in shaping access and distribution of resources.


This blog post was originally conceived as a concept note that the two authors wrote for the panel ‘Spatialising the State in Africa’ held at the 6th European Conference on African Studies (ECAS), Paris, on 8-10 July 2015.



Bierschenk, Thomas, and Olivier de Sardan (1997): "Local Powers and a Distant State in Rural Central African Republic." Journal of Modern African Studies 35, no. 3: 441-468.

Hagmann, Tobias, and Didier Péclard (2010): "Negotiating Statehood: Dynamics of Power and Domination in Africa." Development and Change 41, no. 4: 539-62.

Krohn-Hansen, Christian, and Knut G. Nustad (2005), eds. State Formation: Anthropological Perspectives. London: Pluto Press.

Mitchell, Timothy (1991). "The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics." The American Political Science Review 85, no. 1: 77-96.