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In the Territory of Knowledge — State-centered Discourses and the Construction of Society

Jouni Hakli

International Studies Association
41st Annual Convention
Los Angeles, CA
March 14-18, 2000


The Argument

It is common knowledge today that social sciences have grown in the seed-bed of modernity. They emerged in response to profound social and cultural transformations that shook the 19th and early 20th century Europe – transformations such as urbanization, the consolidation of capitalism, and the formation of nation-state system. Research on the history of social sciences has convincingly shown that social sciences have become essential to the working of modern societies. They provide information and insight for attempts to regulate social developments – a process which Anthony Giddens has termed 'reflexive monitoring'.

On an epistemic level, it is clear that of all knowledge of society, it is the social scientific knowledge that is best aware of its conditions of knowing. Arguably, this is one of the features that mark science off from other ways of knowing.

However, it also seems that social scientific self-reflexivity has in general neglected one set of conditions which have heavily influenced that which we know of societies, and how we know them. Astonishingly, this failure goes right to the heart of social thought, to the very concept of 'society'. In what follows, I seek to show that the mainstream social science discourses have taken the state-territorial definition of society for granted, and consequently, have ended up promoting or reproducing a state-centered conception of the social world.


Tracing the territorial contours of 'society'

Why, then, is it that the master themes of modernity, such as alienation, division of labour, urban experience, bureaucratization, mass culture, and the rise of capitalism, can all be firmly located in a modern society, but one that does not reveal its geographical form? Why is it that the dominant tendency in social science discourses still is to take state territorial definition of society for granted?

To understand why, we do well to turn to Edward Soja who has for well more than a decade written about the subordination of space in social theory. The point he and other social geographers have wanted to make is simply that in the spirit of progressive modernization the category of space was reduced to mere platform upon which social processes took place. Spatial form at any given time was seen as the result of social forces, not a component in the constitution of society.

As regards the concept of society, early sociology focused largely on social forces that held society together – forces such as capitalist relations, social consciousness, or rationalization. These were explained through historical rather than geographical imagination. In the legacy of social theory the question of society's geographical formation has been marginalized.

Echoing Soja, Peter J. Taylor has written about the taken-for-granted conception of society in the mainstream social science discourses. Taylor talks about 'embedded statism', which refers to the state-centered understanding of the social world implicit in social theory, particularly in the form of a state territorial conception of society. Also John Agnew has argued for an awareness of various spatial scales in the study of social and political processes. He has written extensively about the devaluation of place in social theory and the implicit state-centered emphasis which he terms 'methodological nationalism'. For his part, Immanuel Wallerstein has insisted on the need to discard the state-centered definition of 'society' as the given unit of social scientific analysis. According to him we should "unthink" the 19th century social science, and – remarkably – create "new cartography and new statistics" which enable the visualization of the historical development of world economy.

This presentation derives from an article that attempts to provide a more detailed account of embedded statism in social research. The following sums up the basic arguments and conclusions that the article arrives at.


The territories of knowledge

Wallerstein's call for new maps and statistics suggests that to expose the territorial assumptions of social knowledge production, it is necessary to look into the intertwined histories of social knowledge production, territoriality, and the modern state. And indeed, state territoriality has organized and structured knowledge production in Europe. The state's relation to social knowledge was consolidated in the context of new rational ways of governing societies. During the 18th and 19th centuries it was generally realized that rational government requires empirical knowledge of society. Furthermore, a new analytic reason was also introduced in state government.

This resulted in increasingly sophisticated art of government, but also contributed to the production of state as a discursive formation. The 'national' soon became the dominant scale of representing the social world and framing issues of political importance. It is this formation that has come to be taken for granted also social research.

Thus, it is possible to talk about a hidden geographical agenda in the mainstream social sciences. This agenda crystallizes in the common assumption that the state territory adequately describes the spatiality of 'society'. Its consequences include the indistinct use of the terms 'nation', 'state', and 'society', and the dominance of the scale of state at the cost of more place specific or global analyses.

Also much of the social scientific knowledge has been, and still is, discursively related to the state. This relationship is based on a shared perspective from which the social world is viewed and portrayed. Among the 'statist' discursive limits are the conception of society as a territorially confined unit defined by the national state; the conception of space as a dead container of social relations; and confidence in maps and statistics as 'mirrors of reality'.

The persistence of state-centeredness is particularly intriguing in studies where political areal units make little sense in understanding the phenomena in question. Environmental issues are perhaps the most often quoted example. Challenges to state-centric conception of society have also arisen from within recent geoeconomic and geopolitical changes, such as globalization, ethno-regional movements, and the new forms of cross-border governance within the European Union. These challenges have been tackled from within critical approaches to geopolitics, but the latter have yet had little influence on the 'realist' mainstream political science analysis. Paradoxically, even though new technologies of electronic surveillance, such as the GIS, in principle enable the visualization of societies beyond political boundaries, the very context of application of such knowledge often leads to its reterritorialization.

The fact that the state still functions as one of the most powerful organizations of knowledge production and dissemination explains why state-centeredness still rules, and alternative conceptualizations of society have found it difficult to gain foothold in the mainstream social sciences. In this regard there is a strong inertia built into the states' concrete governmental praxis, but also into the myriad instances of intellectual reproduction ranging from school education to national broadcasting.

To conclude; while society is often portrayed in seemingly objective and impartial way in social science discourses, there is a "political geography of knowledge" involved in the ways in which we represent the social world. Therefore it is important to understand that the state territorial conception of society is only one possible, albeit firmly established discursive formation, which emerged as part of the history of modern government. We should continue exploring alternative ways of conceiving society and space, and dare to cross and rewrite the boundaries which we have inherited through the history of governmental power.