In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The political history of administration: Forms of the state in France in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
  • Alain Chatriot (bio)

The few works that have focused on the history of the state in France stand in stark contrast to the vigor of the judgments made on its behalf. Thus a disparity emerged: the state as a political problem, or as a bureaucratic phenomenon, is at the heart of partisan passions and philosophical debates at the same time that it has remained a kind of ahistorical object.1

Fortunately, this paradox on the historiography of the French state announced by Pierre Rosanvallon at the end of the 1980s is far less true than it was. Modern history has renewed its methods and its interrogations and approached the state as a key aspect of a political history that differs in fundamental ways from what had long been practiced. While what follows is not an exhaustive panorama of recent works on the state, I would like to explain some of the new investigations, in the French case, and bring together a handful of themes that have been more or less explored in these works. In metaphorical terms, it is a question of “opening the black box” of the state in order to explore its forms more precisely—i.e. the structures, the sites, the networks, the actors and the practices. It should also be stated that such an approach among historians cannot be separated from the work of political scientists and sociologists. Thus, grasping the historiographical changes in this area has the advantage of introducing other social sciences and a broad set of questions. [End Page 19]

Different approaches to the rediscovery of the state

Why did the “black box” remain closed for so long in France? The answer is not obvious, but a quick response would no doubt point to the fact that quantitative social history had relegated the state to the outmoded world of an antiquated political history. Political history—whose renewal has been announced again and again, and perhaps too quickly—focused primarily on the history of political life (parties, elections, public opinion, intellectuals, medias, etc.). Juridical sciences,2 administrative sciences,3 and bureaucratic history4 were not well-developed in France and remained primarily descriptive, although there were some original approaches. Lastly, traditional political science in France placed an accent on questions of political sociology (partisanship and elections). Thus, while the state and its history remained objects of investigation for medievalists and early modern historians,5 modern historians left aside the examination of this “cold monster” in favor of other historiographical priorities.

There are at least four visible tendencies in French historiography on the state that merit particular attention.

The first is the one opened by Pierre Rosanvallon’s synthesis at the end of the 1980s.6 Proposing methodological principles for the history of the state (deglobalization, hierarchisation, articulation, and totalization). He proposed four forms of the state to structure his demonstration: the democratic “Leviathan”; the “constitutor of the social”; “welfare” and “the economic regulator”. The political is therefore understood as an englobing category that cannot be reduced to a simple history of ideas. It is worth noting that the first version of this synthetic book was part of a collective work in which historians of different periods contributed their own historiographical knowledge. Thus, the studies of certain medievalists and of a number of modernists helped produce a more complex vision of the political that was concerned with social forces, juridical constructions and conceptual questions as well as interest groups.

Political science (including Pierre Birnbaum,7 Jacques Lagroye, Jacques Chevallier ou Michel Offerlé in France or Theda Skocpol in the United States8) also confronted the question of the state. Engaging in a wide range of new research on the frontiers of political science and history. A quasi “school” formed in France around a [End Page 20] sociological history of the political that placed a certain vision of the state and its different realizations at the heart of its study.9

Economic and social history also focused on this area. The now classic studies of Christophe Charle on elites in the Third Republic10 or Michel Margairaz on the...