Scaling Sovereignty: Intimate Militarism and the Anthropology of Exception

Activity: Talk or presentationInvited talk


What is at stake in contemporary calls to ‘take back control’ of state borders? What is being hoped for in demands to ‘regain sovereignty’ in places where it is felt to have been lost or compromised? In this essay I seek to situate state desire as a properly anthropological object of enquiry through an engagement with Barth’s work on scale. My starting point is a critical engagement, through the lens of scale, with recent ethnographic literature that has taken the production of legal exceptions as the starting point for an anthropology of contemporary sovereignty. Such literature has productively illuminated the legal, political and institutional mechanisms through which some human lives are systematically rendered ‘bare’.

Yet anthropology’s concern with sovereignty-as-exception has, I suggest, left us with fewer tools for exploring sovereignty-as-aspiration: with recognizing the bordered, territorially-integral, notionally-sovereign state as locus of material and affective investment. The concept of scale can be productive here, precisely by illuminating how ‘sovereignty’ might appear differently at different ethnographic and analytical scales. Drawing on research along Kyrgyzstan’s borders with neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, I seek to develop this argument ethnographically by exploring what I call ‘intimate militarism’: the normalization of, and desire for, military presence as an index of social and geographical legibility in a context otherwise marked by consistent state withdrawal.
3 Nov 2017


TitleThe Fredrik Barth Memorial Lecture
Web address (URL)
LocationUniversity of Bergen
Degree of recognitionInternational event