Research and teaching about the state in Latin America have been under the strong influence of constitutional law and political philosophy since the nineteenth century. To this day, a formal constitutional understanding of the state dominates not only professional training and scholarly research in the fields of government and public administration but also, perhaps more significantly, public controversies about the design of state institutions. Such controversies do not happen often, but they have significant consequences when they do. We will illustrate the last point with a test case, the public controversy about the configuration of state institutions that took place during the past ten years in Mexico. The controversy had ample coverage in national media, and it contributed to a series of institutional conflicts—still ongoing—at the highest levels of the federal government in the country. Our analysis of this national debate, in section 2 of the article, shows that certain preconceived ideas about public life and the constitutional order are much more than just “technical” legal principles; they form a practical expectation of political and institutional life. Certain of these ideas, however, have been employed to support political positions that are hostile toward the consolidation of professional state bureaucracies. Only relatively recently, an alternative line of research on the state has begun to develop in Latin America, including contributions from political sociology and history, which systematically examines issues related to professional bureaucracies and political legitimacy.

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