Overview of topic: The State

The state as a form of political organization is often assumed to be the most legitimate, and naturally occurring, mode of association. This case study will consider various arguments that undermine or challenge the authority of the state to arbitrate on rights to political presence and the primacy of western models of sovereignty.

Carole Pateman, in The Sexual Contract, argues that there is nothing “natural” about the state and its associated notions of sovereignty (for discussion of Pateman’s text, see Chapter 10, section 10.3.2 Contemporary critiques: the Social Contract revisited). Pateman focuses on patriarchy as the overarching framework and foundation for the sovereign state. The constructed or manmade dimension of this setup remains hidden. We are told that the state and the rights that citizens are afforded in a public sphere are based on ideals of freedom and equality. This is a deceit, for Pateman, as the assumptions within this imaginary of sovereignty maintain the unequal gendered relationship between men and women, where men are assumed to possess the traits of autonomy and rationality and thereby are marked as individuals. Women, on the other hand, cannot possess this individuality, though this remains implicit. Since the original or fictional social contract never included women, the social world that was established with the coming into being of the state remained a patriarchal one. Pateman’s argument suggests that the theoretical basis for the image of a foundational democratic liberal order is already riven with inequalities, hierarchies, and forms of domination that can be deconstructed and questioned. This order is therefore contingent and contestable.

With the intensification of processes of globalization in recent decades, scholars have questioned whether there has been a shift in the role of the state as a primary site of politics. Globalization and new forms of mobilities have led to a growing interest in the production of transnational spaces and movements as processes that may be displacing the nation-state as container for political action (Adamson, 2005). International organizations made up of states, for some scholars, are important international actors as they take on forms of agency that are independent of individual states (Barnett and Finnemore, 1999). They lead to forms of political life and enact particular logics that are distinct. In these ways, scholars have demonstrated how, though the state remains central to the circulation of power in the international order, there are other sites of varying forms of power that nonetheless help to shape politics at the micro and macro levels (Fulcher, 2000).

With these theoretical debates, various challenges and organized resistance have emerged that question the claim the state has the right to arbitrate for the (formally sanctioned) political community. In other words, alternative actors exist in global politics who undermine the assumption that the state is the supreme political actor, such as diasporic political groups and transnational solidarity movements. Some scholars see the mobility of undocumented or irregularized migrants as a process that is understood through the “methodological nationalism” of the nation-state, meaning migration and mobility is assumed to be a “problem” and one to be solved by the state (Scheel and Tazzioli, 2022). Against the assumption the state has ultimate authority to define and prescribe the political community, Anderson et al. have called for a transgression of this model by opening up contours of collective selves to other and emergent political actors, such as migrants claiming the right to political speech by contesting states’ migration regimes based on the model of borders as sovereign. Scheel and Tazzioli (2022) similarly reject the approach to migration that defines a person by their relationship to the state in which they reside. State borders, they argue, are not natural but constructions or inventions that must be constantly reproduced by the state. In the following quote, Scheel and Tazzioli offer a definition of a migrant as an actor caught within mechanisms that reproduce borders as physical and symbolic sites of state sovereignty and power.

Case Study Box 10.1

“…we understand a migrant as a person who, in order to move to or stay in a desired place, has to struggle against bordering practices and processes of boundary-making that are implicated by the national order of things. This definition adopts the perspective of mobility and puts ‘border struggles’ (Mezzadra & Neilson, 2013) at the centre of the analysis.” Stephan Scheel and Martina Tazzioli (2022) Who is a Migrant? Abandoning the Nation-state Point of View in the Study of Migration. Migration Politics 1(002): 3.

Political sovereignty is not simply or originally a European phenomenon and non-western forms of sovereignty are part of global histories that are elided by a Eurocentric reading of “history”, imagined in the singular (Zarakol, 2018). John Hobson (2009) claims the assumption that the sovereign state was formed within the boundaries of Europe is a fiction, and that the state emerged in Europe as a consequence of practices and inventions in other parts of the world, namely in what he refers to as ‘the East’. Beyond the western state model, the concept and practice of sovereignty have different histories and often different meanings among indigenous peoples. It is not defined by the rational, autonomous individual and control over territory, domination of nature, but in some places by collective ways of being, solidarity, the importance of ancestral traditions, and a more horizontal relationship with the land (Simpson, 2017).

June McCue, a scholar of First Nation Studies at the University of British Columbia, writes that ‘[m]y people’s power is sourced or rooted in our creation stories, our spirituality and our organic and peaceful institutions. Sovereignty requires the energy of the land and the people and is distinct about locality’ (2007: 25). This illustrates how sovereignty for First Nations in Canada is not an abstract concept derived from theorizing in response to political conflict and warfare but grounded in lived expression of connection to people and place. McCue continues that the western understandings of sovereignty approach the concept as something technical and almost sterile in distinction to Indigenous conceptions of sovereignty as lived relation to culture, traditions, and a collective way of being that is dynamic in the sense of helping people to navigate their way through the world, rather than a rigidly coded instruction manual for territorial borders and limited rights of the citizen.

Case Study Box 10.2

From an Indigenous prospective, sovereignty is not just human centered and hierarchical; it is not solely born or sustained through brute force. Indigenous sovereignty must be birthed through a genuine effort to establish peace, respect, and balance in this world. Indigenous sovereignty is interconnected with self-determination. Non-Indigenous formulations of sovereignty treat states as artificial entities that hold sovereign rights such as territorial integrity or sovereign equality. Self-determination is severed as a right possessed by peoples which can limit state powers. Finally, Indigenous sovereignty is sacred and renewed with ceremonies that are rooted in the land. June McCue (2007:) New Modalities of Sovereignty: An Indigenous Perspective. Intercultural Human Rights Law Review 2, p 25.

To focus on these perspectives is to confront the Eurocentric nature of dominant understandings of sovereignty. For Aileen Moreton-Robinson, an Indigenous Australian scholar, the latter obscures the logics of whiteness inherent in what she describes as “patriarchal white sovereignty” (2015: xii). The possessive dynamics that mark settler states’ pursuit of domination of indigenous peoples – the desire to maintain control over indigenous lands – must be understood as mutually constitutive with practices and logics of racialization and the centring of whiteness.

Section 1: Decolonization and Sovereignty

Eritrean philosopher, Tsenay Serequeberhan (1994), argues that in East Africa, local practices of collective decision-making, representation of communities, and voting by elders, reflect much of what we associate with democratic forms of political organization today. These traditions existed long before European colonizers arrived to “give” societies in Africa a foundation and framework for sovereignty. Part of the ongoing effects of colonialism, he suggests, have included the denial and obscuring of indigenous histories, cultural and political, so that African societies were portrayed as blank canvasses, peoples without history before the expropriation of their lands by European imperial powers. This idea of metaphorical empty space, of fixed and timeless beings, was part of the justification for European “civilizing missions”.

Serequeberhan warned that African liberation movements within the context of the postcolony were in danger of enacting a form of neocolonialism by failing to identify the assumptions within European thought that set African forms of knowledge as inferior to the latter. Without acknowledging and attempting to counteract the displacement of local forms of knowing, so-called postcolonial states would never be independent. For Serequeberhan, politics cannot be understood in the abstract but must be approached as lived relation. The application of western ways of thinking to colonized spaces had consequences – involving in some cases a sense of loss of history. This is to highlight that concepts and ideas, and their work in the world, have histories which can be studied to understand the power relations that produced them and continue to produce hierarchical relations and structures globally.

1) Western models of sovereignty

Writing in 1982, J. F. Ade Ajayi argues that in the immediate aftermath of formal decolonization in Africa, the class of educated elites believed their knowledge of western forms of thought and political structures positioned them as the inheritors of the postcolonial state. He discusses a dialogue among English and French-speaking elites at a conference in 1959 to illustrate the assumptions that western structures and models of political sovereignty were the best solution for newly independent states to progress and modernize. Modernity, as a nineteenth-century western mode of thought and being, was the unquestioned framework for these new states, as Ajayi explains in the following quote.

Case Study Box 10.3

“Implicit in this abstract expression of the ends of government was the assumption that the leaders in the new states would be those who most thoroughly understood the Western cultural models that were to remain the prototypes of the new structures and institutions to be established. The conferees assumed that higher studies in Western education and advanced skills in Western science and technology, such as these probable leaders possessed, would be the most important attributes one could have in gaining positions of power and influence in the new states.” J. F. Ade Ajayi (1982) Expectations of Independence. Daedalus 111(2) 2.

These dominating assumptions about progress, political organization, and community shaped the formation of postcolonial states. The taken-for-granted assumptions of Westphalian sovereignty as the norm therefore remain a relevant issue within global politics, as groups constituted outside of established state structures continue to create spaces that fail to conform to this model. Westphalian sovereignty is assumed to be the original and legitimate state framework in part because of these histories of conquest and destruction of particular ways of life. The notion of neutrality in sovereignty as a concept and practice serves to hide the power relations that produced it. As demonstrated in scholarship within critical Indigenous Studies indicated in the introductory section, the claim that Westphalian sovereignty is suffused with violent histories of oppression remains salient today – particularly for those groups whose traditions and aspirations have been denied or masked by Eurocentric genealogies of thought.


Adamson, Fiona (2005) Politics Beyond the State: Globalisation, Migration and the Challenge of Non-State Actors. In: Richmond, Oliver P. and Henry F. Carey (Eds.) Subcontracting Peace: The Challenges of the NGO Peacebuilding. London: Routledge.

Ajayi, J. F. Ade (1982) Expectations of Independence. Daedalus 111(2): 1-9.

Anderson, Bridget, Sharma, Nandita and Cynthia Wright (2012) ‘We are all foreigners’: No Borders as a Practical Political Project. In: Nyers, Peter and Rygiel, Kim (Eds.) Citizenship, Migrant Activism and the Politics of Movement. London: Routledge.

Barnett, Michael N. and Martha Finnemore (1999) The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organizations. International Organization 53(4): 699-732.

Fulcher, James (2000) Globalisation, the Nation-State and Global Society. The Sociological Review 48(4): 522-543.

Hobson, John (2009) Provincializing Westphalia: The Eastern origins of sovereignty. International Politics 46: 671–690.

McCue, June (2007) New Modalities of Sovereignty: An Indigenous Perspective. Intercultural Human Rights Law Review 2, pp 19-30.

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen (2015) The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

Serequeberhan, Tsenay (1994) The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy: Horizon and Discourse. New York and London: Routledge.

Scheel, Stephan and Tazzioli, Martina (2022) Who is a Migrant? Abandoning the Nation-state Point of View in the Study of Migration. Migration Politics 1(002): 1-23.

Simpson, Leanne B. (2017) As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Zarakol, Ayse (2018) A Non Eurocentric Approach to Sovereignty. International Studies Review 20(3): 506-10.