AnthroBites: Sovereignty

AnthroBites is a new series from the AnthroPod team, designed to make anthropology more digestible. Each episode tackles a key concept, text, or theme, and breaks it down into manageable, bite-sized chunks.

Our guest for this episode is Yarimar Bonilla, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University, who talks us through anthropological approaches to sovereignty. This episode builds on the Retrospectives collection on “Sovereignty,” which was edited by J. Kēhaulani Kauanui and published in the August 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology. You can follow Bonilla on Twitter to learn more about her approach to teaching and research.

Further Resources

Key Figures Mentioned in This Episode

Learn More about Sovereignty


AnthroPod features interviews with anthropologists about their work, experiences in the field, and current events. This episode was produced by Siobhan McGuirk. To pitch your own episode ideas or to offer feedback, email us at [email protected]

You can find AnthroPod at SoundCloud, subscribe to it on iTunes, or use our RSS feed. If you have any thoughts on this episode or on AnthroPod more broadly, please leave us a comment to the right or get in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

Music: Sweeter Vermouth by Kevin MacLeod.


Siobhan McGuirk: Welcome, Dr. Bonilla. Thank you for speaking with us today.

Yarimar Bonilla: Thank you! I'm so excited to be back on Anthropod!

SM: Absolutely! So, today we're going to be talking about the concept of sovereignty. Could you tell us what this word means, first of all kind of in the popular conception?

YB: Well, I think it's important to understand that sovereignty is not a thing in the world, but really is a concept. It's a theoretical concept, a political concept, and so I think that's what part of the confusion around the word "sovereignty" is. I have a lot of students who ask me, "what is sovereignty exactly!?" And I think it's important to think of it as a theoretical conversation about the way in which we imagine the world to be, rather than an actual quality, or ontological reality. So we have to understand sovereignty as a concept that emerges from within a conversation. Within the realm of theology, it's a conversation about divine power and divine authority. In the political realm, it's a conversation about the limits of state power and also the limits of imperial power, as the concept of sovereignty is directly tied also to the era of conquest and to claims that were being made on newly acquired lands.

SM: And so what kind of era are you talking about there, in terms of history?

YB: Well, in the 18th and 19th century, battles over sovereignty were about who had the right to conquer, who had the right to extract, upon lands that were imagined to be unpopulated even thought they were populated, and so imagined to be kind of up for grabs, in a sense. Of course, this idea of sovereignty then changes in the 20th century in the postcolonial era when after colonialism is brought into question, it then becomes again an open question: who has authority over certain lands, what does that authority will look like? And will the emerging authority of newly decolonized states be equal to, or different from, the kind of authority that imperial states had held?

SM: Right, so these are huge questions that many people other than anthropologists have been debating, but how have anthropologists taken this concept and used it in their work?

YB: Well, I think the interest in sovereignty within anthropology has centered mostly within political anthropology. And so, it comes within a conversation about the limits of state power, but also about the limits of borders. It's closely tied to the literature on globalization and migration and the interest that anthropologists have had in thinking about what constitutes a state, what are its limits, where does it begin and end? So, on the one hand it's been a conversation that has centered around migration, economic flows, but also about forms of governance, about how states rule over populations. And again, within postcolonial studies it's also been a conversation about what is the kind of state power that postcolonial societies have and if it's different from the kind of state power that other societies have had. Another aspect of what's important about what anthropology contributes to the conversation on sovereignty, is that I think anthropologists also ideally take sovereignty not just as a political concept, but also as a native category. So, to understand what it is that people are talking about when they talk about sovereignty and how it's not always the same thing. So, when the United Nations talks about sovereignty, versus when an indigenous community talks about sovereignty. When communities talk about food sovereignty, cultural sovereignty, or even sovereignty of the imagination and how these conversations about sovereignty are different in different times and places. So, for example, now when you had the Brexit vote, a lot of people talked about that vote in terms of sovereignty. What sovereignty in that context versus, for example, activists in Standing Rock who are asserting sovereignty over their land, it's kind of deploying these concepts in different ways to mean different things. And I think anthropologists are particularly adept at contextualizing those conversations and making sense of what sovereignty means in particular places and times, and understanding that it's not an ontological reality, but rather a term that is used to make a series of claims.

SM: So, for people who are new to this concept and new to this area of thinking, what kind of theorists or scholars have influenced these conversations about sovereignty?

YB: Well I think some of the kind of go to theorists, and I think Kamari Clarke's piece in the Retrospective does a really good job of pointing to this, how folks like Agamben and Foucault have been really central for a lot of anthropological theorizing around sovereignty. But I would also recommend that people look at Native American scholars who have written about sovereignty. In my piece, for example, I cite a number of authors, such as Alfred and David Scott and others, who have thought critically about sovereignty and thought of it specifically as a kind of Western mode of imagining power and authority and who argue that perhaps there are other ways of thinking through this question. So, for example, people might want to read—there's a great interview with Barbadian novelist George Lamming, on the idea of the sovereignty of the imagination and how that has been limited in lots of ways in the Caribbean. So, there are the kind of classic theoretical takes on sovereignty, but there are also these kinds of contentious wrestlings with sovereignty that a lot of folks might be interested in checking out.

SM: Right, and so when we think about sovereignty, and it kind of is flowing in and out of our conversation here, we often think about states or nation states. What other actors influence our ideas about sovereignty?

YB: Well, part of what interests me in particular is how social movements and non-state, but still political, actors shape and try to carve out new ideas about sovereignty. So, for example, in my first book I looked at how a labor union in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, how they were asserting alternative ideas of sovereignty, that were not based on national independence, that were not centered around the idea of kind of closed borders, and currency, and a flag, and a stamp and the kind of accoutrements of the state. But that were instead centered on alternative notions of community and alternative ideas of how to assert power over their lives. For example, not through taking state power, but through perhaps negotiating with, not just state actors, but also economic actors—businesses, corporations—and so they kind of recognize that sovereignty did not lie solely in the state. And in fact they recognized that there was not even a single state that ruled upon them, but rather a nested state, local states, local authorities, the French state, the European Union, that there were these series of state actors and also a series of economic actors—local elites, transnational corporations, international lending organizations—all these organizations come together to negotiate and work out the terms of daily life in Guadeloupe. And so the labor union that I studied, they carried out a general strike and in the end they didn’t sit down to negotiate with any one single actor, but rather tried to bring together all these actors to a large multi-sited negotiation table to work out the terms of daily living in Guadeloupe. And so part of what I was interested in was to see how they work, in a way crafting new ideas of sovereignty, new ideas of community, but they were still kind of locked in to the traditional ways of imagining national sovereignty and national revolution, so that even though they were incredibly successful in their social movement, a lot of people were very disappointed because it did not result in the kind of national sovereignty that we assume postcolonial states should be trying to achieve.

SM: Great. So if I'm understanding correctly, we could say that sovereignty implies power over people, implies power over geographical areas, and it could mean different things to different people, but more importantly different groups of people and the institutions that they create in order to exercise or use that power. Would that be correct?

YB: Absolutely. It's a conversation about power, but it's also a conversation about a lack of power. So oftentimes when communities are asserting sovereignty what they're expressing is the lack of sovereignty that they feel over their daily lives—over what they can eat, what they can drink, over the conditions of their environment. And so it's as much a claim about power as it is a claim about the lack of power.

SM: Right, absolutely. And you mentioned Brexit there as one high profile, let's say recent example, of how a debate over sovereignty can have huge implications and impacts. Can you think of other examples that we can say, this is why this concept is particularly important now, and why anthropological interventions and anthropological attention to sovereignty is particularly important at this time?

YB: Well, in the case of Brexit, I think the term sovereignty was directly invoked. But we also have now in the United Sates, the kind of narratives that emerged around the election—about making America great again, about solidifying its borders, about returning to a particular set of values—those are also claims about sovereignty, in a way, and about who has the right to define what America is, and what its limits are, and what its contents are. So I think within the United States it's a very important conversation. And then also, for example in the context that I'm working with in Puerto Rico, where there is a lot of debates right now about sovereign debt and non-sovereign debt, and about who has priority in deciding how different forms of international debt are repaid. And those are again conversations where sovereignty is really key. And in the case of Puerto Rico it's interesting because, on the hand, it doesn’t have the kind of rights of a sovereign state, like Argentina, to refinance its debt or devalue its currency. But it also doesn’t have the set of rights of a sovereign state in the US, where it cannot declare bankruptcy in the traditional sense. So, although it is a legal concept, and in some ways a kind of technical term, it's also a concept that has real-world implications for the daily lives of people. Because right now, for example in Puerto Rico, there are a lot of questions emerging about who has a say in restructuring this debt and whether what should be given priority are the needs of creditors, the needs of entrepreneurs, or the needs of populations who depend on public services, such as public transportation, and financial aid, and federal assistance. So, those questions take on real-world implications.

SM: Okay, so just to close us out, is there anything more that you would like to add about how this concept is guiding your own work?

YB: I'm interested in sovereignty as a kind of imperative and how it feels to not be able to live up to that. So, in my previous work in Guadeloupe and now my work in Puerto Rico, I'm studying populations who are thought to be in some ways pathological for not wanting this thing that everyone is supposed to want. And so how it feels to live in that reality, to live in place for which sovereignty is both expected, but at the same time impossible. Which is, in some ways, a particular situation, but not entirely particular because in fact these places make the contradictions of sovereignty more evident. And that these contradictions exist worldwide. So, part of what I'm interested in is to really question the idea of sovereignty as either an ontological reality, or a necessity, or an inherent quality of states, but rather to think about it as a political category, as an imperative, as a kind of desire that was produced in the postcolonial era. And to think about the folks who have been shut out of that desire and how that limits, like George Lamming talks about, the sovereignty of the imagination.

SM: This sounds like all very interesting and extremely important work. Thank you so much for sharing your work and research with us today Dr. Bonilla, and for enlightening us about these debates that are ongoing and very exciting around sovereignty. Thank you!

YB: Okay, thank you!