State Weakness Conference 2013


University of Exeter, 12-13 September 2013


Dr Edward Schatz, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto

Dr John Heathershaw, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, University of Exeter

Once only European, Leviathans are now global. Yet, states vary in their institutional strengths and global reputations.  Eurasia is understood to be the site of “weak” states—i.e., states that fundamentally lack, in Mann’s (1984) term, the “infrastructural power” to penetrate societies and are susceptible violent political upheaval. The post-Soviet states were only lately decolonized, and the whole of Eurasia from the former Yugoslavia to Mongolia has been profoundly disrupted by the end of Soviet Union and the conditions of post-socialism.  Many suffered political crisis and some faced armed conflict linked to irredentist claims or ethno-regional struggles over the identity of the state.  The five post-Soviet Central Asian states (along with Afghanistan and Pakistan) are often understood collectively as exemplars of state weakness.   But how different are these states from each other and from states in other parts of Eurasia which are also deemed weak?  Moreover, what explains the endurance and even strengthening of many of these polities?

This workshop will bring together leading scholars of Eurasia’s “weak” states, and of the modern state more broadly, to address four core questions:

1)    What is gained and what is lost when one studies the state through the weak-strong lens?  Are there aspects of “weakness” that might, if viewed differently, be seen as “strengths”?

2)    What is the relationship between the formal and informal dimensions of stateness?  Do informalities disrupt its singular infrastructural power or are these practices constitutive of a “pluralized” state?

3)    What do we learn about the “weak” state if we abandon the definition of it as a national-territorial and spatio-hierarchical structure? What can be discovered if we consider it in terms of its local, regional and global networks/assemblages (Ong & Collier 2005; Sassen 2006)?

4)    What alternative conceptualizations of the state might shed light on the “weak” state? These include institutionalist (e.g. Migdal’s state-in-society), political economy (e.g. Reno’s “warlord state”), performative (e.g. Mitchell’s “state effect”), and practice-based approaches (Adler and Pouliot 2011).

Our participants will contribute to a volume entitled The Strength of Weak States in Eurasia, (a proposal is being sent to several prominent university presses).  Authors will engage with the state both historically and conceptually in their papers.  These papers will address one or more of the aforementioned questions in light of a single case study or multiple country studies from this vast region.

The conference is funded by the universities of Exeter and Toronto.  Additional funding is provided by the UK’s Economic and Social Science Research Council under the research project Rising Powers and Conflict Management in Central Asia involving the universities of Exeter, Newcastle and Bradford and the non-governmental organisation Saferworld.

Islam in Central Asia: Politics, Society and Resistance

An international conference held at

The Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, 24th-25th November 2012