The 5 elements of the State (and their functions and characteristics)

What is a State? What elements make it up? Does a State encompass only concepts of politics or also of another kind?

In this article we will answer these questions and also talk about the five elements of the State: population, territory, government, sovereignty and coercion.

We will know what each of them consists of and we will explain their characteristics and functions within the institutional, legal and factual framework of a country.

Elements of State

Before explaining what the elements of the State are, let us answer the following question: What is a State?

A state is a form of political and social organization, formed by different institutions of government through which it exercises its power or sovereignty. The State is distributed over a specific, delimited territory and is made up of a specific population (its citizens).

In this way, as we have mentioned, the State also has a supreme power available to the citizens, which is sovereignty. Thus, in the definition of the State, we have just mentioned the five elements of the State: population, territory, government, sovereignty and coercion (or monopoly of violence).

1. Population

The population, sometimes called the “people”, is the group of people who live in a given place.. Populations are part of States, they configure them. Without population, the state could not exist.

All citizens have a number of rights (e.g. education, housing, the right to a decent life, etc.) and duties (e.g. compliance with certain actions, laws, obligations, etc.). In addition, they have the right to vote and to cede their power to whoever they want to represent them (we will see this in the fourth element of the State; sovereignty).

The “ideal”, at least according to the philosopher Aristotle, is that a population has a number of inhabitants neither too low nor too high; its reason is that without a minimum of people the State cannot supply itself, and if they are excessive, it cannot be governed.

Although it is difficult to find the mid-point and all populations end up finding their form of government, the ideal is a population with an “average” number of inhabitants. Speaking of “sizes”, for example we find Switzerland, which has a small population, and we find China, with a very large population.

When a person visits another State and stays in it for “X” period of time, this person is called an “alien”; likewise, when a person migrates from one State to another, the host country calls him or her an immigrant (and his or her country of origin an emigrant). These two groups of people (foreigners and immigrants) can become citizens of the State where they live, fulfilling a series of requirements (which are often complex).


2. Territory

The second of the elements of the State is the territory, which consists of the physical space where the state develops. That is, it is a space on earth (not air or sea), physical, existing and real. However, although it is a land area, the territory also includes the different “bodies” found in the water (e.g. rivers, seas…), airspace and coastal areas, if any.

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Territories are well delimited, separating one State from the rest of States. On the other hand, territories may contain islands.

These elements of the State can be of different sizes (large, small, medium…). Thus, for example, Russia has a very large territory, as does China, the United States, etc. In contrast, other countries or states such as Vatican City, Monaco or San Marino, have small territories.

On the other hand, the territory of a State plays a key role in the politics and economy of a country, since the different resources available to a State will depend on it (e.g. oil, building zones, green zones, etc.). We are talking about the most “material” part of a territory and its exploitation.

Finally, another function that the territory fulfils is to allow people to live, that is to say, that the population of a State, the previous element of which we have already spoken, be installed.


3. Government

Continuing with the elements of the state, we find the government, which consists in the political organization of a State, and in the entity that allows the political decisions of the State to be taken.. This is the pillar of it, of its highest authority. In this way, the government allows the will of a state to be expressed, that is, what the citizens want. The government also directs and controls a number of institutions (which exercise state power).

What elements make up government? Basically different institutions from different fields (politics, health, families, education, protection…). On the other hand, the State exercises its power from different organs of government; specifically, we are talking about three types of power: the judicial, the legislative and the executive. But what does each of them consist of?

The judiciary has the power to punish persons who break the law. The legislative power has the mission of formulating laws that incuntrate the citizens of the State. Finally, the executive reinforces the law and has the function of enforcing it within the territory. These three powers, if they function correctly, allow coexistence to be possible in the society of the State, and for it, moreover, to be peaceful.


4. Sovereignty

Another element of the State is sovereignty, that is, the supreme power, the power of the State.. That power is supreme implies that there are no powers above it. In other words, sovereignty is the ultimate authority of the State at the political level. It represents a kind of consensus on who decides and on which territory, another element of the State.

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Through sovereignty, other types of powers arise. On the other hand, sovereignty allows multiple issues to be decided within the territory of the State.

This type of power that corresponds to sovereignty “allows” the State to govern and decide within its territory. In addition, it has the function of ensuring that laws are complied with in this area. But sovereignty is not simply the power of the State, but in reality, it is the power of the people, of the citizens, who delegate their power to politicians (it is as if they lent it to them, through their votes in elections).

In other words, citizens choose who they want to be represented in politics (this refers to presidents, ministers, deputies, etc.).


5. Coercion

Also known as a monopoly on the use of violencethe modern state must ensure compliance with the law through this ability to subdue through force that group or individual that violates the basic laws of the functioning of the nation.

In practice, this element of the state is a logical consequence of the fourth element, sovereignty, since it is necessary that sovereignty can be imposed in the event that there are dissenting voices within the state that attempt to use force to achieve undemocratic ends or that do not agree with the status quo.

The state security forces have the mission, among others, of repelling and defending the status quo in a situation in which the sovereignty of the state is threatened. In some countries, in fact, the use of anti-terrorist police has led to cases of abuse of power by coercive forces, since with the mission of preventing and repelling attacks on Sovereignty, practices such as torture, murder or viciousness have been used, far from the public light and, of course, attacking Human Rights and the country’s own laws. It’s what’s known as “state sewers.”

In any case, coercion generally refers to the power of the State to legally repress any attempt at insubordination, uprising or illegality in order to impose the sovereignty and laws of the country. State prisons and other mechanisms will be the places where those who attempt against the State are detained and, if possible, tried to reintegrate them so that they can live in society once the sentence has been served.


Bibliographic references

  • Donovan, J.C., Morgan, R.E., Potholm, C.P. and Weigle, M.A. (1993). People, power, and politics: an introduction to political science. Rowman & Littlefield.

  • Official Gazette of Bolivia. (2009). Political Constitution of the State. Ministry of Institutional Transparency and Fight against Corruption. Plurinational State of Bolivia.

  • Heller, H. (1995). Sovereignty. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica.