State legitimacy underpins power relations. It is an important concept for understanding power and politics, yet research on it has been surprisingly apolitical. Research has focused on measuring legitimacy and its sources at narrow points in time, at the expense of explaining how changes in legitimacy happen, and the people, ideas and political processes behind them.
This paper carves a path through the sprawling debate on the meaning and measurement of state legitimacy, and sets out a political approach to researching it. Explaining legitimation and de-legitimation requires attention to political structures, ideas and agency – in particular, to the expectations established through the social contract, the nature of the political settlement, and how legitimacy claims are made and contested in public discourse.
The paper provides an analytical framework that applies this political approach to a key question for state-building practitioners and legitimacy scholars: whether, when and why service delivery supports or undermines state legitimacy.
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