Literacy and State-Society Interactions in 19th Century France

The forthcoming article “Literacy and State-Society Interactions in 19th Century France” by Nan Zhang and Melissa Lee is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Literacy and State–Society Interactions in Nineteenth‐Century France

Modern states are distinguished by the breadth and depth of public regulation over private affairs. Indeed, a defining axiom of the contemporary international state system is that state institutions should provide the predominant (if not exclusive) rules and regulations governing social and economic behavior over a given territory. Many scholars therefore consider the ability to make and enforce binding rules to be central to conceptions of stateness and state capacity.

Importantly, the everyday practice of this rule-making authority is predicated upon frequent and dense encounters between the state’s administrative institutions and the population it seeks to control. In strong states today, these interactions are so common as to be banal. Historically, however, the extent to which states were able to penetrate society and interpose themselves in the individual lives of citizens varied widely within national territorial boundaries.

Our paper argues that literacy in the official language of administration facilitates those interactions by lowering linguistic and cognitive barriers in encounters between citizens and public officials. These encounters proceed more smoothly when citizens can understand and comfortably communicate with the state through the medium of official written documents. By contrast, in areas where literacy is confined to an elite minority, ordinary citizens face increased transaction costs in dealing with state institutions. At the margin, these costs may deter citizens from interacting with the state altogether, thereby weakening a crucial component of state power.

In advancing this argument, we offer a new spin on the oft-cited role of literacy in mediating the relationship between states and their citizens. A central outcome of state-sponsored schooling was to inculcate a sense of shared national identity and loyalty to the state that ultimately served to elicit greater compliance with centralized “rules of the game.” While we acknowledge the loyalty-enhancing dimensions of education, our paper focuses instead on the role of literacy in reducing the costs of communication between states and their citizens. Though mundane, the everyday communicative aspect of literacy serves as an important factor supporting the effective implementation of official rules and regulations. This channel is especially important in domains of state-society interaction where loyalty is unlikely to affect society’s acceptance of the state as a monopoly regulator of social relations.

We test our argument using rich historical data from 19th century France, a foundational case in the state- and nation-building literature. We construct a subnational panel spanning the period 1836–1896 and demonstrate that as literacy increases, so too does the frequency of state-society interactions. Importantly, we control for the effect of loyalty to the state to show that reduced transaction costs constitutes an independent mechanism linking literacy to state-society interactions.

This article contributes to the rich scholarship on state formation and state capacity. Much of this literature has fruitfully focused on explaining the origins of the state’s formal institutions. We advance this line of research by studying how formal institutions, once constructed, actually interact with the populations they purport to rule. We draw attention to the importance of state-society interactions in the development of state capacity during a period when the state sought to expand its powers beyond extraction and conscription into the realm of social regulation. Our paper’s primary contribution is to highlight the central role of transaction costs in shaping the state-society interactions that form the bedrock of state power.

About the Author(s): Nan Zhang is a Senior Research Fellow at Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods and Melissa M. Lee is an Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. Their research “Literacy and State-Society Interactions in 19th Century France” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Speak Your Mind



The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

%d bloggers like this: