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  • Historycal contributions to a renewed sociology of the state: Crossed Franco-American Perspectives
  • Sarah Gensburger (bio)

In France and across the Atlantic, historians’ interest in the state is relatively recent. In 1990, Rosanvallon was still deploring the state’s status as a “historical non-object” (1990, p. 9), whereas, three years earlier, for Leuchtenburg, then president of the Organization of American Historians, the State remained a “new frontier” to be conquered for the discipline (1986, p. 589). Since then, historians have encountered the State in a “return to the actors” (Revel, 1995; Guery, 1997; Boucheron, 1998; Chatriot, 2006). In the United States, “social and cultural historians followed their stories inside City Hall [and] state houses” (Balogh, 2003, p. 458).2 In France, if one considers only early modern history (the first branch to engage with the state thematic) focus has also shifted little by little, and attention now ranges from objects such as state-formation factors (Tilly, 1975Tilly, 1990) to the simple “subjects” of the king (Te Brake, 1998; Gorski, 2001).

Though major theoretical reformulations have been reached in both countries, these projects have been institutionalized differently: on the one hand, they are positioned within the discipline of history, on the other, within the relations they maintain with sociology and political science. In France, the creation of historical committees at the end of the 1980s, modeled on the Economic and Financial History Committee established in 1986 by the Economic, Finance, [End Page 43] and Budget Ministries, has encouraged modern historians in their studies (Margairaz, 1991). At the same time, public money enabled the activities of a large European initiative, “The Genesis of the Modern State,” which confirmed the role that early modern history has played in the development of historical research projects on the State (Genet, 1997; Schaub, 1996; Descimon and Guéry, 1989). Despite a certain number of historiographical reflections on the gradual formation of a “history of the State” (Chatriot, 2006; Fridenson, 2000), the domain has not truly been institutionalized, perhaps because of gaps existing between the historians working on different, and often exclusive periods of time, from Middle Ages to Twentieth Century. This situation goes hand in hand with the paucity of dialogue linking historical work and sociological or political science projects: indeed historians, for example, have left little room for research in sociohistory (Quennouëlle, 2002).3 In this sense, then, the most recent publications represent a break, for they call not upon a sociology of the state itself but upon an analysis of public policies. While these analyses aspire for a return to the concept of the State, they are also, and paradoxically so, a way of renewing the historian’s approach to the topic (Capuano, 2009; Delalande, 2009).

On the American side, the situation has been quite the reverse.4 Interest in the state first piqued in the 1970s, partly because of the dearth of academic positions available to historians. This “Public history movement” culminated in the creation of a professional association and a journal, The Public Historian. It was not, however, until the end of the decade that this movement truly linked together with research in the university. In 1987, a new, strictly academic journal was created. Though the Journal of Policy History did not only deal with matters of the state, questions surrounding the nature of the state, state functioning, and the reshaping of the state became central. The successful institutionalization of this sub-field was due primarily to the dialogue historians fostered with historical institutionalism, which expanded exponentially on the American political science scene.5 As Zelizer, historian and former editor of the Journal of Policy History described, “Given the state of politics within the history profession, some of the most prominent political historians by the 1990s tended to be political scientists (2004, p. 128)”. Present-day exchanges between historical institutionalism and American political development more generally, along with historical studies of the State [End Page 44] continue to flow freely.6 Questions of continuity and change are at the heart of this dialogue, and thus for historians the task is to determine if, on the one hand, it is correct to speak of State building, of a beginning and an...


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