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Failed states? Category and critique, AD 0-present in Europe, Asia, Africa


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor and tutor: to be confirmed
  • Assessment: two 2500-word assessments (25% each) and a 48-hour take-home examination (50%)

Module description

The idea of ‘failed’ states in the study of the past explicitly or implicitly contrasts itself with the experiences of ‘successful’ states, but what are the terms of success and failure when we examine something as complex as the state?

The Roman Empire became a model for state structures and state representation across much of modern Europe, and yet it has also been constructed as the typical example of decline and fall, despite persisting for nearly 1000 years after this happened. ‘Failed’ states in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Middle East today, are accused of betraying the hopes and expectations of their citizens and the international community, yet many continue to operate, as distributors of resource and controllers of violence.

We ask:

  • Do states that were short-lived, but fundamentally shaped the political units that followed them, deserve to be studied, or should history be the tale of continuities?
  • Have beliefs more general, or more specific, than the state - from communism to tribalism, religion to international law - supported or undermined the maintenance of political order?

In this module we use close reading of primary sources and engagement with key theories of statehood and historical analysis to explore common themes across time and space. Above all, through comparison, debate and contextualisation of primary source material, we examine whether ‘failure’ deserves understanding, and whether the label ‘failed state’ says more about the person using it than the thing they are describing.

Indicative syllabus

  • Introduction to the idea of state structure as a historiographical problem, and the concept of failed states
  • Naming states: What is in a title? Kingdoms and decolonisation; understanding the religious and political claims of the late Ottoman Empire
  • Decline and fall: visiting the 'Sick Man of Europe’; imitating Rome in decadence and decline
  • Places to stand: writing about places that no longer exist; belonging and rejection at the end of empire
  • Holding it together: God on Earth and the State in Heaven: a Byzantine theocracy?; political ideology and cultural identity: conflict or conversation?
  • Getting by: imagining daily life in 'failed states’; living between states
  • Contesting the state: violence in modern western European political history; Crusaders then and now, from Constantinople to the ISIS Caliphate?

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • display a good knowledge of the major themes in the debates about state structures and how states ‘fail’
  • compare and contrast several narratives of state failure with reference to their distinct historical and historiographical contexts
  • handle primary sources with confidence and demonstrate the ability to use them as a means of critiquing current paradigms.