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Sovereignty: Interview with the Authors

This post is associated with the Curated Collection "Sovereignty."

Julia Sizek and Hilary Agro: One starting point for the anthropology of sovereignty might be calling into question the assumed relationship between people, place, nationality, and sovereignty, framed by Liisa Malkki as the problem of “sedentarist metaphysics” some twenty-five years ago. More recently, contributors to our August 2017 Retrospectives collection invited us to unsettle sovereignty and to challenge its self-evident territorialization. What approaches have you found fruitful in engaging with the territorial dimensions of sovereignty in your work?

Peter Redfield: I find questions about sovereignty most interesting when they present themselves in practice, that is, when people in a given setting make claims or reveal assumptions about who should be in charge and what a legitimate mode of political authority might look like. Since I have long tried to follow groups of mobile experts, this problem of sedentarist metaphysics has always informed my thinking. Indeed, it might not be too much to call it formative, particularly given my own biography and the circumstances of my entry into the discipline. I grew up in a family that moved internationally and attended school surrounded by the children of expatriates. I encountered anthropology as an undergraduate during the transition period of the 1980s, before the American branch completed its Writing Cultures conversion, and thus retain some sense of classic work on nonstate ways of life like nomadism as well as some background in archaeology. Finally, Liisa was actually one of my early teachers at Harvard (as well as the first person to suggest that I read Michel Foucault, at a time when his name would rarely appear on a syllabus). So questions around the territorial aspects of sovereignty feel like second nature to me.

In relation to this discussion, though, I would simply note that if you take a long view of human history, then territorialized sovereignty begins to appear far more contingent than commonsensical. After all, we know that only certain kinds of people expect to live in a settled village, let alone a state. In this sense some very old concepts in anthropology can still come in handy as counternarratives.

Amahl Bishara: I am interested in how states structure publics, whether through media infrastructures, laws, or outright violence. We need to territorialize our understandings of expression as well as power. Looking at media like newspapers was, of course, a fundamental part of foundational studies of nationalism. But states also assert sovereignty by shaping the conversations we can have, and this is true in today’s digital age as much as it was true in the age of terrestrial television. Twitter looks different depending on one’s country, because some countries prohibit what they regard as hate speech. Border control can be a means of restricting speech, as with Israel’s anti-boycott regulations. And now at the prison at Guantanamo, prisoners’ art is being systematically confiscated.

In thinking about how power over place is asserted, I am also inspired by work that goes beyond territoriality to consider systems of water delivery and management or control over airspace and underground resources. These modalities of state power can either seem so permanent as to become invisible or can illuminate gaps and fissures. Finally, I have found it useful to think about movement as a mode of examining the territorial aspects of sovereignty. Those speaking in the name of the state tend to want to flatten out relationships to land. They want to see sovereignty as being evenly distributed across territory. Through movement—at or near border crossings, certainly, but also on the road or on foot, whether as individuals, families, or other kinds of collectivities—we can identify breaches, excesses, and variations in sovereignty. Movement also helps us to examine how policies of fragmenting territories can be tools of colonial projects, because we can see how people knit places together in spite of the state. Especially if we feel safe as we travel, movement comes into focus as a privilege and so, as we move, we are challenged to reflect on our own legal and embodied positions.

Circe Sturm: When first reading Malkki’s work years ago, I was immediately struck by how relevant it was for understanding the experience of indigenous people in North America. In Indian Country, we see this tendency to pathologize peoples that have been deterritorialized in the ways that indigenous people are held responsible for the social, cultural, and political losses that have accompanied the violence of removal and displacement. Given this tendency, I understand the call to unsettle sovereignty and to challenge the territorial claims on which it is based.

Yet the analytics of settler colonialism, coming primarily out of Native American and Indigenous Studies, offer an important corrective to theories of colonialism that fail to engage with geopolitical concerns. This failure has led to misrecognition or even refusal to acknowledge ongoing expressions of colonialism in modern states, because settler colonialism—where the key resource being extracted is indigenous land—does not look and act like franchise colonialism. What I have found most useful is to keep the territorial question alive when thinking about political contests over sovereignty, especially at the state level, because it helps us to recognize the literal grounds of sovereignty that are at stake in such contests, as well as the immense variation in colonial experience.

At the same time, I appreciate scholarly work like that of Audra Simpson (2014) that turns our attention to less formal, extra-state expressions of sovereignty, which might be enacted by individuals and communities in going about their daily lives as indigenous people. So, rather than using territory to pathologize indigenous people who do not occupy their traditional homelands as somehow less authentic than those who do, it’s more productive to turn our attention to the resilience and creativity that indigenous people enact in the face of territorial displacement: the creative work of building new homelands in new territories, for example, or the ongoing maintenance of relationships with original homelands, or even examples that bridge the two, as in the case of healers who successfully used traditional methods to discover completely new sets of plant-based medicine when displaced from their original territories. I can think of no more powerful example of lived sovereignty than this.

Jessica Cattelino: Tohono O’odham citizens debate the U.S.–Mexico border while their government maintains that President Trump’s wall will not pass through their transborder territory. Mohawks and other Haudenosaunee insist on their treaty right to cross the U.S.–Canada border unobstructed and to travel on their own passports. The Seminole Tribe of Florida owns Hard Rock International, with cafes, hotels, and casinos around the world. Standing Rock Sioux and Bad River Ojibwe communities insist on sovereign rights with regard to pipelines and mines, respectively, to be established in off-reservation watersheds and on ancestral lands.

On the one hand, indigenous sovereignty is insistently territorial. On the other hand, it opens up and unsettles dominant ways of thinking about the territoriality of sovereignty. My work has taken two turns with regard to sovereignty and territory. One is analytical: toward the ways that sovereignty is exercised, asserted, and constituted by relations of interdependency with others. Important scholarship theorizes sovereignty’s relation to recognition and refusal (e.g., Simpson 2014). As a complement, attention to how nations forge sovereignty through relations of interdependency with one another shows one way that obligation enlivens territory. Building in part from feminist theory (e.g., Fraser and Gordon 1994; Young 2001), I analyze the territorial dimensions of sovereignty not as exclusive and autonomous but as relational, in manifold and power-laden forms. This is the case for more and less powerful sovereigns alike.

Materially, I have turned to money and, more recently, to water. Water is linked to territory, physically and conceptually, but far from inert. Water’s movement does not respect property lines or political borders, especially in times of drought or flood. Wetlands change seasonally from land to water and back again, and swamps have long puzzled states and political thinkers who struggle to build politics on shifting ground. Pacific Island Studies scholars have led the theorization of indigeneity, sovereignty, and water (e.g., Hau’ofa 1993; Diaz 2015; Ingersoll 2016). One note of caution, though: interdependency, on the one hand, and the movement/fluidity of water, on the other, are not romantic alternatives to autonomy and solidity/land. Identifying the conditions of justice in sovereign forms and practices remains essential.

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui: In my work on Hawaiian nationalism, I have found scholarship on indigenous migration and diaspora to be helpful in engaging with the territorial aspects of sovereignty. The issue of territory in the Hawaiian archipelago, matched with the system of common descent, might suggest that the relationship between people, place, nationality, and sovereignty would be clear-cut (or clearer than in many other places). But the ambivalence of Kanaka Maoli (indigenous Hawaiians) about U.S. statehood has complicated matters and come to a head recently in the contest between those wanting the United States to withdraw from its illegal occupation of the independent state of Hawai‘i (the Hawaiian Kingdom) and those advocating for federal recognition of a Native Hawaiian governing entity within the framework of U.S. policy. Kanaka Maoli officials working for the latter model of self-determination seem to be drawing in diasporic Kanaka Maoli living on the North American continent to take part in this “Hawaiian nation” by appealing to their affective and ancestral ties to homeland.

JS and HA: Looking back to older debates around globalization and noting their return in contemporary political discourse, what do you think new approaches to sovereignty can contribute to our understanding of relationships between states?

AB: I remember, as a child, first learning a map of the world covered in states and then, later, learning that state borders had changed over time and that there were other means of organizing territory. Now I watch as my daughter is taught about place through a nested model of house-town-state-country-world that erases other possibilities for thinking about rhizomatic, ritual, or fantastical connections to place. In her classroom, they do have flags of other countries hung up to represent the places from which her classmates come. But that approach still foregrounds states. What about those far-away neighborhoods where they might have a favorite ice-cream shop or lakes that are part of their ancestral history or their imagined future?

So one thing I think anthropological approaches to sovereignty can contribute to understandings of the relationships among states is to make it common knowledge that states are not the only players in global politics. Highlighting indigenous politics within and across places that we now recognize to be settler colonies is one way to challenge this view; another is to look at places that are not usually analyzed under the rubric of indigeneity, as in the Western Sahara. I am thinking here of Alice Wilson’s (2016) new book. I am also inspired by Marisol de la Cadena’s (2015) work on indigenous cosmopolitics in the Andes, which helps us to think beyond human agents in politics.

How do we make political scientists—as well as politicians, activists, and so on—pay more attention to these nonstate actors? I suppose there are various approaches, and we should probably employ as many of them as possible. Some scholars have been successful in bridging the divide between anthropology and political science. Some of us may be better equipped to work with NGOs or with artists. I have a unit planned for my daughter’s class.

Kamari Maxine Clarke: One of the things that contemporary debates on sovereignty have shown us is how important it is to move beyond structural forms of governance and power that invest sovereign power in those understood in traditional terms to be “leaders.” Now more than ever, it is clear that the concept of states as unitary holders of sovereignty is a myth whose ideological fissures are becoming wider and more pronounced. From protests by citizen-subjects against governmental actions with slogans like “Not in Our Name” and “Refugees Welcome Here” to mobilizations around notions of the responsibility to protect, we are witnessing a decentering of governmental decision-making and privileges. These are examples of the need to reconceive sovereignty in relation to state power and to recast our understandings of the body politic with an eye toward physical and social bodies.

JC: Taking indigenous sovereignty claims and practices seriously can enrich the political imagination of nation-state sovereignty. When state sovereignty is measured against an ideal type based on autonomous rule over territory and people, the focus remains on powerful states and, sometimes, separatist movements. Meanwhile, public discourse too often treats indigenous sovereignty as failed, partial, and flawed. A corrective is in order. Yet I want to clarify that I do not hold up indigenous sovereignty as a model: the United States, Canada, and other settler states have constrained, limited, hobbled, and otherwise harmed indigenous sovereignty. But, in this, indigenous nations are not alone.

Consider how few states have self-sufficient economies, mount effective military forces, control clearly bounded territory, or make autonomous decisions over territory and citizenry. Holding onto such classic marks and measures of sovereignty limits scholarly analysis and the possibilities for political alliance and action. There is nothing new in what I am saying here. Indigenous activists long have engaged with international institutions, colonized or otherwise disempowered nations, and other entities that misalign with state sovereignty as it is imagined and idealized. Those engagements and alliances enact subtle and exciting sovereign forms, claims, and imaginations.

JS and HA: Race is an issue that underlies many of the tensions explored in this Curated Collection. In what ways, we wonder, do civil and/or human rights intersect with political sovereignty? How do people negotiate their various identities (political, ethnic, religious, racial, etc.) while pursuing particular paths to sovereignty? How do what Circe Sturm calls “racial expectations and assumptions” underlie and shape such struggles?

PR: Whatever sovereignty might be, it manifests itself in acts of human imagination and classification just as surely as in thrones, taxes, or tanks. Race is obviously a salient category for any discussion of contemporary identity, particularly in the American academy. It marks an old limit to the self-governing subject native to liberalism, and lies around all sorts of dark corners in the history of capitalism and science. So surely “racial expectations and assumptions” do shape other struggles for sovereignty. However, I have never pursued race (or gender, for that matter) as my foundational category of analysis, in part because I remain wary of the naturalizing assumptions that it carries, even when abstracted in theoretical terms. Do we always know, at a glance, what race is across contexts? Along with proselytizing religions and transnational discourses like human rights, categorizations of human difference have circulated and recirculated for some time, creating a shared vocabulary without entirely producing uniformity.

So following race formations through a given context requires careful translation and investigation; otherwise, you run the risk of projecting expected definitions too easily or quickly. I think this is especially the case when writing in English from the contemporary United States, an epicenter of hegemonic amnesia as well as moralizing politics. Since my chosen topics have involved navigating large stretches of partial knowledge about place, I have concentrated on the stories I feel most equipped to tell, while trying to remain open to the possibility of surprise. Fortunately thinking is a collective endeavor, and when you articulate one perspective, others will invariably complicate it. Adia Benton (2016) has written a piece related to my CA article but with an explicit emphasis on race, and I would direct interested readers there.

KMC: Indeed, civil rights/human rights are deeply connected to political sovereignty and those formations are often constituted through racial assemblages, which highlight how we understand human difference and classify it through geopolitically shaped relations that produce particular meanings with particular consequences. So much of my work concerns interrelationships between contemporary events and the historical inscriptions that they bear. My earlier work was concerned with the conditions of the possible within which individuals act. But those conditions are imbricated by racial fictions, related perceptions of inferiority, and embedded forms of inequality that constitute those relations. What this means is that global inequality and struggles for sovereignty need not be explicitly about race as a singular way of “doing difference.” Rather, what we see is that “racial expectations and assumptions” are part of the social relations through which people order and habituate the world in particular ways. What these expectations and assumptions do is that they reproduce social inequality, not simply through racism but through the way that those racial expectations and assumptions come to embody social relations themselves.

JKK: Race is certainly at issue, especially in relation to civil rights. However, indigeneity is also an exciting axis of social difference in new approaches to sovereignty, especially in settler-colonial contexts. Circe’s work is key in how she documents and theorizes the racialization of indigeneity. The rights of indigenous peoples (as collective polities) are distinct from racial and other minority rights for groups—as they are grounded in relation to land—while also distinct from human rights, even as they often intersect.

CS: As soon as we start talking about collective rights like civil rights or human rights, which are assumed to adhere to all people equally and to be at the bedrock of modern liberal democracy, then we immediately need someone to police those rights. In other words, who will guarantee that our rights are not violated? Who will monitor the polling booths, the courts, and the police to ensure we all get treated equally? Though we might be able to do this on our own in the form of so-called sousveillance, the tendency is for states to bear the responsibility for guaranteeing our collective freedoms. This need to surveil is one of the reasons why sovereignty is a fundamental principle of liberal democratic states. It is also why those democratic states that enact this sovereign power have a tendency to slide towards totalitarianism, as Anthony Giddens warned us nearly thirty years ago.

I think what is critical for us as anthropologists is to keep in mind how sovereignty acts as both a destructive and creative force. Think not only of the state of exception by which states have exercised genocidal biopower over certain populations (often targeted for their difference in terms of race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or sexual orientation), but also of times when state sovereignty creates or recognizes conditions of exception that are more liberatory. The dual nature of sovereignty as both a destructive and creative force results in a productive tension. We see this in the case of indigenous people, who simultaneously desire equality—to be treated the same as everyone else (civil rights, that is, freedom from racial discrimination)—but also inequality, meaning the prerogative to be treated differently because of the unique set of rights that belong to them as the original peoples of this land (tribal sovereignty; for instance, legal access to peyote for ceremonial purposes).

Modern liberal democratic states tend to view any examples of differential treatment as discriminatory rather than just, which is one of the reasons why justice that recognizes difference—as in the forms of slave reparations or indigenous land reclamation—has never gained much traction. What I am suggesting is that race is only one lens on a much larger and dynamic tension that is embedded in sovereignty. How can we keep these differences in mind, so as to better recognize when the actions of the state get corrupted, whether in the name of the commons, democracy, or universalism?

JS and HA: Sovereignty is enacted through power in its various forms, as it is produced through the daily lives of people and the mundane workings of organizations. How, then, do we study sovereignty ethnographically? What methodological approaches have you adopted in order to understand the topic on the ground through the lived experience of your interlocutors?

JC: The toolkit will vary by polity, community, and more. Here are three approaches:

  1. Follow sovereignty as an ethnographic category. Back in the late 1990s, the engagement with sovereignty was just about to explode in American anthropology. Meanwhile, sovereignty had been (and remains) a meaningful category and claim among many—though not all—American Indian peoples. This remains underappreciated in scholarship on sovereignty outside of Indigenous studies. Scholars can build toward more rigorous analysis of sovereignty by following the term as it is deployed day after day (in indigenous and other communities), tracing its transformations and mobilizations, and querying its significance.
  2. Sovereignty, of course, also lives in law and policy. I pore over legal documents and, at various points, have followed the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s legal department as it litigates and asserts sovereignty, as well as other departments that develop and enforce policies grounded in sovereignty. Sovereignty’s legal meanings and contestations are the routine and even mundane substance of daily life in many a workplace. This is open to ethnographic examination.
  3. Undertake a method of extension: discern the underlying commitments, concerns, and claims that research participants associate with sovereignty as a term, and then extend ethnographic analysis to similar practices and positions that they may not label sovereignty. Even in Seminole Country, where the term is relatively widely used, sovereignty is not discussed as such in many people’s day-to-day lives. Thus, a method of extension can establish patterns and build out analysis. Lived sovereignty extends far beyond the term itself.

CS: I work in the United States, a settler-colonial context, meaning a state that operates on the basis of an eliminatory logic that assumes indigenous people and their polities threaten its political authority and thus must be made to disappear. Throughout its history, the United States has exercised the logic of elimination using a variety of means, including everything from assimilation to outright genocide. So I begin my ethnographic work from the assumption that maintaining an indigenous presence in this context is an act of sovereignty in and of itself. I ask myself how that indigenous presence is expressed and maintained, how is it lived in its everyday forms and under more exceptional circumstances.

I pay particular attention to three things. The first is discourse. How does indigenous difference get named? How is it talked about both within and outside of Indian Country? The second is feel or emotional valence. What is the emotional tenor of a place, a community, the way people interact, and how does this “vibe,” for lack of a better word, change from one situation to the next? The third is practice, meaning what it is that people actually do, the actions they are conscious of and the stuff that seems to be taken for granted. I am also interested in how the collisions of all three get negotiated in these everyday forms of lived sovereignty as indigenous presence.

JKK: In my work, any discussion of sovereignty entails competing epistemological frames and thus different ontological orientations and therefore diverse forms of theorizing our political present. For example, in the Hawaiian context, those who identify with the contemporary sovereignty movement will find themselves distinguishing their political affiliation from a range of projects. Sovereignty speaks to Kingdom nationalists who advocate for the restoration of an independent state under international law. It also resonates for those who support federal recognition of a Native Hawaiian governing entity on par with tribal nations and subject to the strictures of U.S. domestic law. Then there are who use sovereignty as a gloss for the indigenous concept of ea, the power and life force of interconnectedness between deities, ancestral forces, humans, and all elements of the natural world: a distinctly different notion from the Western concept of sovereignty.

These fissures of meaning are not unrelated to the particular legacy of Hawai‘i as a case study—an island archipelago with paramount chiefs on each island that became a monarchy in the early nineteenth century and secured recognition as an independent state by 1843, only to be overthrown by settlers with the assistance of the U.S. Marines in 1893. By 1894, those who orchestrated the coup formed their own government —the Republic of Hawai‘i—when the U.S. government did not move in to annex soon enough. But by 1898, with the presidency of William McKinley, the United States unilaterally annexed Hawai‘i through a joint resolution of Congress in violation of international law. In 1959, the colonial administration held an internal vote on the question of political status, which preempted Hawai‘i’s inclusion in the UN resolutions on decolonization. At this point, the islands became known as “the fiftieth state.”

Meanwhile, Kingdom restorationists insist that Hawai‘i is still independent and merely subject to military occupation (and thus should be guided by The Hague Conventions), while others focus on the status of Kanaka Maoli as an indigenous people with the right to self-determination akin to that of Native Americans. Given this legacy, it is no wonder that Hawaiians have competing definitions of what constitutes sovereignty.

AB: For me, studying sovereignty requires some of the same essential techniques of participant-observation that are at the center of our discipline, but it also requires creative approaches. Doing participant-observation in one community over a long period of time while also trying to learn about and be present in other communities within the same polity attunes me to the local variations in the workings of sovereignty, so that I am not assuming a nationalist or statist analytic. It helps me account for the role that local governments, NGOs, and international organizations can play in confirming or contesting state sovereignty. Longitudinal study lets me track changes over time and allows my analysis of power to ferment. I have found that useful because doing the ethnography of sovereignty under military occupation can be really intense in the moment.

That’s also why I’ve needed ways to recognize and follow my own feelings of fear, alarm, anxiety, and anger, as well as those of my interlocutors. Play, fantasy, and humor can be methods for uncovering and expressing these emotions. While sometimes play and humor emerge in the everyday, for which I am very grateful, I have found that video, collage, and other creative media collaborations can be ways of making space for such experimentation. At best, these techniques offer paths toward imagining a different world.

PR: If you want to engage sovereignty directly, then one obvious strategy would be to look at sites or moments of contest—border crossings, flag-planting, struggles over authority—where some version of the concept is explicitly in play. I never set out with this aim in mind. Rather, I followed an interest in mobile forms of expertise into a study of medical humanitarianism at Médecins Sans Frontières, a group that sought to short-circuit social and political distance in the name of saving lives. So my interest grew less out of a theoretical investment in sovereignty per se than out of exploring the lived experience of what it means to try to provide medical care “without borders.”

As it turns out, this ambition reveals many lines of political and ethical tension in the contemporary world, from all of the mundane background work entailed in getting biomedicine to travel to debates over who should live or die. So my most honest answer would be to try to find an object of study where ethnography and theory fold back into each other. Then, ideally, you will have something to pursue that continually raises new questions. To know everything before you start would be terribly uninteresting.


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de la Cadena, Marisol. 2015. Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Diaz, Vicente M. 2015. “No Island Is an Island.” In Native Studies Keywords, edited by Stephanie Nohelani Tevas, Andrea Smith, and Michelle Raheja, 90–108. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Fraser, Nancy, and Linda Gordon. 1994. “A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State.” Signs 19, no. 2: 309–336.

Hau’ofa, Epeli. 1993. “Our Sea of Islands.” In A New Oceania: Rediscovering Our Sea of Islands, edited by Vijay Naidu, Eric Waddell, and Epeli Hau’ofa, 2–16. Suva, Fiji: School of Social and Economic Development, University of the South Pacific.

Ingersoll, Karin Amimoto. 2016. Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Wilson, Alice. 2016. Sovereignty in Exile: A Sarahan Liberation Movement Governs. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Young, Iris Marion. 2001. “Two Concepts of Self-Determination.” In Human Rights: Concepts, Contests, Contingencies, edited by Austin Sarat and Thomas R. Kearns, 25–44. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.