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STATE-CENTERED APPROACHES TO SOCIAL REVOLUTIONS

Strengths and limitations of a theoretical tradition

Jeff Goodwin

I argue in this chapter that state-centered theoretical approaches comprise some of the most powerful analytic tools that are currently available to analysts of social revolutions. By contrast, fashionable post-structuralist conceptions of power simply beg too many fundamental questions. Certain types of cultural analyses, as we shall see, as well as the recent turn to "civil society," are somewhat more useful. But state-centered approaches are even more helpful for resolving the key puzzles that are distinctive to the study of social revolutions. 1 (Throughout, I refer to state-centered approaches in the plural, because-as I shall detail-there is no single statist perspective or argument, but several overlapping ones.) Of course, state-centered analysis, like any theoretical tradition, has its blindspots and limitations, which I shall also address. Fortunately, these limitations point the way toward a more powerful synthetic perspective on revolutions and collective action.

What is the statist theoretical tradition all about? All of the state-centered approaches that I shall review emphasize or "center" a particular set of causal mechanisms-namely, those processes whereby states (foreign as well as domestic) shape, enable, or constrain economic, associational, cultural, and even social-psychological phenomena. State-centered theorists argue that these mechanisms are, for certain purposes, more powerful or causally important than (or at least complementary to) a range of alternative causal processes-for example, those emphasizing social class, civil society, culture, or social psychology. Statist perspectives, then, are intentionally one-sided.

And yet partly because of this one-sidedness, state-centered approaches are exceptionally valuable for understanding social revolutions. This follows, at least in part, from the fact that revolutions themselves are unusually state-centered phenomena. As Charles Tilly notes, "whatever else they involve, revolutions include forcible transfers of power over states, and therefore any useful account of revolutions must concern, among other things, how states and uses of force vary in time, space and social setting." 2

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