About this Project

2015 – 2017

The State as History and Theory project (2013–2014) and the related Problem of the Democratic State in US History project (2015–2017) have fostered a collaborative network of scholars advancing a new approach to the study of U.S. democratic power. Bringing together a growing international cohort of historians, sociologists, and political scientists, the project has built on Max Weber’s still-trenchant theories of the bureaucratic state to explore the multifaceted relationships between government and civil society. It has also complicated Weber’s framework by examining cases of democratic governance and the theoretical issues they raise regarding the putative autonomy of the state.

Project leaders recognized that a new research community could overcome analytic blind spots by creating conversations that were simultaneously multi-disciplinary, comparative, and historically engaged. The effort to create a new research network began informally and progressed to a more formalized series of workshops at which members of the research team and prominent interlocutors read critical texts, exchanged ideas, and tested analyses. Discussions focused on areas where the influence of American state-building is often hidden or overlooked: the philanthropic sector, local communities, post–World War II international commitments, and other areas that historians have tended to disregard or underestimate as factors in governance. Although the project focused on the United States, these conversations were enriched by sustained comparisons with France and its parallel but quite different trajectory of democratic state-building. The ideas that collaborators developed in workshops produced scholarly articles and longer monographic works. Members continued to develop these ideas in lectures at major research institutions and professional association gatherings. In all these efforts they were at the same time creating a research community, bringing together scholars from what had previously been different areas of inquiry.

Historian Stephen Sawyer, who served as a Visiting Fellow in the 2013–2014 academic year, played a pivotal role in the early efforts of the writing and reading groups. A specialist on French liberal political theory in the nineteenth century, Sawyer brought a transatlantic perspective to the research agenda and helped the project establish a presence in European scholarly networks. The research team organized a major conference on “The Democratic State in Trans-Atlantic Perspective,” held at the University’s Paris Center in June 2015. Sawyer also convened a conference at the American University of Paris (AUP) in May 2017 that strengthened links between scholars, politicians, and policy experts concerned with the contemporary crisis of democracy in the European Union.

Sawyer helped create and launch, with funding from the Mellon Foundation, the Center for Critical Democratic Studies at the American University of Paris. Among other activities, the Center serves as the institutional home of The Tocqueville Review, a bilingual journal on the comparative study of democracy in modern society, which Sawyer edits and to which Sparrow and Clemens contribute as members of the editorial board. The first issue under Sawyer’s leadership, which appeared in 2012, was titled “The History of French and American States” and was almost entirely devoted to work produced by the State as History and Theory collaborators. A subsequent volume in 2015, “Beyond Stateless Democracy,” also prominently featured the State as History and Theory collaborators and has attracted sustained scholarly attention.

The network of scholars expanded through a fruitful partnership with the Consortium on the History of State and Society (CHOSAS), a multi-year initiative that hosts rotating conferences at the University of Chicago, the AUP, Cambridge University, and the University of Michigan. The inaugural event, organized by Gary Gerstle and Joel Isaac and held at Cambridge in June 2015, explored the role of “states of exception” in American political development, with “exceptions” interpreted broadly to include both suspensions of the rule of law in the face of emergencies and jurisdictional gray zones. Isaac subsequently joined the University of Chicago as a member of the Committee on Social Thought and hosted a follow-up conference on these issues in May 2018, to which Clemens and Sparrow contributed (as they did in the 2015 meeting). The Neubauer Collegium provided funding to support this follow-up conference.

Clemens and Sparrow regrouped to extend their collaborative work through its next phase in the Problem of the Democratic State project. In May 2017 they convened a two-day conference, co-sponsored by CHOSAS, that explored how the “new liberalism” of the American postwar period was supplanted by the “neoliberalism” of the current era. Sparrow, Clemens, Gerstle, Isaac, and others presented original work that interrogated the paradoxical emergence of neoliberalism from a polity that was organized on nearly antithetical principles and politics—and considered possible signs of fracture in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

The project has yielded a large list of publications, including articles, books, special issues of academic journals, and edited collections. Notably, the collaboration invigorated and improved the quality of two book projects that were already underway. Boundaries of the State in U.S. History, a historical treatise edited by the research team that included an introduction, conclusion, and several chapters written by them, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2015. The Many Hands of the State, a collection of essays theorizing political authority and social control, was released by Cambridge University Press in 2017. More scholarly output is forthcoming as the collaborative team continues to explore democracy and state formation in the United States.

IMAGE: Detail of Flags II by Jasper Johns, 1970 (Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY).


One Parallel for the Coronavirus? The Great Depression

June 8, 2020

How do financial downturns affect the mobilization of progressive social movements? Elisabeth Clemens tackles this question in a new JSTOR Daily article on the Great Depression, which features her research from our State as History and Theory project.

Elisabeth Clemens on the Distinctive Category of Political Sociology

November 21, 2016

Collegium Fellow Elisabeth Clemens, principal investigator on the Problem of the Democratic State in US History project, has just published a new book titled "What Is Political Sociology?" According to this critical review by political science scholar Patricia Hogwood, the book is a "definitive and inspirational standard text for students at all levels" that "presents key concepts, theories and schools of thought to build an excellent grounding in the field." 

Boundaries of the State in US History

September 22, 2015

Edited by Neubauer Collegium Fellows James T. Sparrow, William J. Novak, and Stephen W. Sawyer.


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