About this Project

As the state’s role has diminished in the face of privatization and globalization, from multiple directions there has been a resurgence of interest in forms of governance and organized power that do not resemble the unified sovereign state that is at the center of dominant scholarly traditions of political analysis and theory. This wave of empirical inquiry and theoretical debate is visible across history, sociology, and political science, spurring multiple forms of cross-disciplinary collaboration. This project aims to fuse these collaborations toward a focused and generative debate on the State as History and Theory. What is necessary is a reconciling of the realistic institutional paradigm predominating in the scholarship on the state with the requirements of everyday politics and democratic political theory – in short, a theory of the democratic state. UChicago faculty in History, Law, Political Science, and Sociology will cohere as a group around the year-long visit of Steve Sawyer from the American University of Paris, who will help sharpen and focus the group’s efforts to produce a new political theory of the democratic state.


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.

Professor Harcourt Part of Interdisciplinary Study of the State

October 17, 2013

The ever-changing state and the way it interacts with its citizens is always important, which is why Professors Bernard Harcourt, Elisabeth Clemens, and James Sparrow are in the midst of a yearlong exploration of that topic, "The State as History and Theory."

Project Updates

Boundaries of the State in US History

384 pages | © 2015

The question of how the American state defines its power has become central to a range of historical topics, from the founding of the Republic and the role of the educational system to the functions of agencies and America’s place in the world. Yet conventional histories of the state have not reckoned adequately with the roots of an ever-expanding governmental power, assuming instead that the American state was historically and exceptionally weak relative to its European peers.

Here, James T. Sparrow, William J. Novak, and Stephen W. Sawyer assemble definitional essays that search for explanations to account for the extraordinary growth of US power without resorting to exceptionalist narratives. Turning away from abstract, metaphysical questions about what the state is, or schematic models of how it must work, these essays focus instead on the more pragmatic, historical question of what it does. By historicizing the construction of the boundaries dividing America and the world, civil society and the state, they are able to explain the dynamism and flexibility of a government whose powers appear so natural as to be given, invisible, inevitable, and exceptional.


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