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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Thinking About Crisis, Thinking About Emergency


When is a state not a state? This riddle is at the heart of how we think about the state in crisis. Traditional realist theorizing treats the state as a sort of organic entity which exists to build itself up through processes of extracting resources and mobilizing citizens, processes which occur during ordinary time and during war time. In contrast, a state which is unable to grow and maintain its infrastructure and defend its borders is frequently described as a failed state or the opposite of a state. I contend that this binary juxtaposition is neither useful nor accurate. Rather, it comes from a much older tradition in which disaster and disaster periods were treated as a sort of ‘time out of time,’ wholly unrelated to the periods which preceded them or followed them. In truth, states prepare for disasters long before they occur, and in the process build up their infrastructure and their state capacity – and the social and political changes which come about as the result of crisis have long-lasting effects upon the state long after the disaster has abated. In this way, the time of crisis is a vital aspect of the larger process of state-building, rather than a historical detour or ‘blip’ – as it has often been presented.

Insights Paper