Central questions I will briefly answer are: (1) What are the struggles within the state to define its rules?  (2) How does the state deal effectively (or ineffectively) with society; i.e., families, clans, multinational corporations, enterprises…?  (3) Why do some states continue to be weak?  (4) What are the effects of strong/weak states that permeate the society?

Migdal defines the state as: “an organization, composed of numerous agencies led and coordinated by the state’s leadership (executive authority) that has the ability or authority to make and implement the binding rules for all the people as well as the parameters of rule making for other social organizations in a given territory, using force if necessary to have its way” (19).  Basically, the state is the legitimate authority that provides the official rules that people within the borders must follow.

Strong states almost seamlessly are able to guide the rules of society—without threatening opponents. Here, the “rightness of a state’s having high capabilities to extract, penetrate, regulate and appropriate” the rules of society is unchallenged and generally ubiquitous.

Weak states often showcase strongmen whom “offer viable strategies of survival to villages, ethnic groups….” (210).  The state is unable to mobilize the population for political purposes and there is often a fragmentation of social control (228).  Weak states often add insult to injury, and “dirty tricks” are often employed to gain control (228).

A paradigm within developmental theory was articulated thus: “Effective social control depends first on regulation of resources and services” (80). Midgal fashions globalization via global proletarianization (80) and global taxation (everyone on the globe is taxed). Overall, I think Midgal’s point thus: the stronger the state, then the stronger will be institutional penetration.

Why have some states struggled to fashion state-society relations, neutralise opposition, gain predominance, and achieve social control, whereas others have been strong in this regard? This book presents a model for understanding state capabilities in the Third World based on state-society relations. Its central premises are that:  i) the nature of the state cannot be separated from the nature of societies; and ii) the emergence of a strong, capable state can occur only with a tremendous concentration of social control (to the state).

The state’s struggle for social control is characterised by conflict between state leaders, who seek to mobilise people and resources and impose a single set of rules, and other social organisations applying different rules in parts of the society. The distribution of social control in society that emerges as a result of this conflict (between societies and states) is the main determinant of whether states become strong or weak.

  • Probably the most important factor in the state’s ability to survive is its ability to mobilise society. Governments acquire the tools of political influence through the mobilisation of human and material resources for state action. States in Europe aquired a triad of ‘essential tentacles’ for this purpose: a standing army, a vastly improved tax-collecting mechanism, and an expanded set of judicial courts.
  • The state’s capacity to mobilise society rests on social control, defined as the ability to make the operative rules of the game for people in society. The major struggles in many societies are over who has the right and ability to make the rules that guide people’s social behaviour (the state or other organisations).
  • Social control requires the state to become a real and symbolic aspect of people’s daily survival strategies. Informal and formal organisations all have a variety of sanctions and rewards (systems of rules) – both material and symbolic. Strategies for social control need to include both material incentives and coercion, and the manipulation of symbols of how social life should be ordered.
  • Lack of state social control means understanding resistance to social control. Societies are often characterised by conflict among organisations offering different rules. Strong societies can be either highly centralised (in state power) or fragmented (across several social organisations). Such conditions can enfeeble the state.
  • Where societies have been web-like and where social control has been fragmented among numerous organisations, states have faced formidable barriers in seeing their policies through.

Levels of (state) social control are reflected in three indicators: compliance, participation and legitimation. These are used by state and non-state organisations alike to seek social control.

  • Strong states emerged only in the wake of severe social disruption. Social control cannot occur without exogenous factors first creating catastrophic conditions that rapidly and deeply undermine existing strategies of survival; the bases of social control. The two key exogenous factors are 1) spread of the world economy and 2) colonial rule. War and revolution, closely related to mass migration, are 20th century examples of dislocations that have weakened old forms of social control and allowed new ones to emerge.
  • The need to achieve social mobilisation and at the same time a strong central state constitutes ‘the rulers’ dilemma’: State leaders can only achieve political mobilisation when they have proffered viable strategies of survival to the populace. This requires an elaborate set of institutions, but creating strong state agencies risks creating powerful sub-organisations which within the state itself can become an oligopoly of mobilisational capacity. State leaders therefore risk creating potential power centres they cannot control.
  • Fragmented social control, the rulers’ dilemma, and the difficulties of political mobilisation have led to a pathological style at the apex of the state – the ‘politics of survival’: State leaders have been concerned with preventing leading officials in important agencies from using their own mobilisational capacities against the central state leadership, which has pulverised the very arms of the state that could achieve their goal of mobilisation.
  • In situations of fragmented social control, the state has become an arena of accommodations: The local social control of strongmen has led to a ‘triangle of accommodation’ between implementors, politicians and strongmen.
  • The legacy of fragmented social control continues to constrain states, and the prospects for the consolidation of the state in parts of society which are fragmented is slim. The politics of survival at the top and the triangle of accommodation at the bottom reinforce social fragmentation.



Migdal, J. S., 1988, ‘Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World’, Princeton University Press | http://www.gsdrc.org/document-library/strong-societies-and-weak-states-state-society-relations-and-state-capabilities-in-the-third-world/