Sovereignty has returned as a central concern in anthropology. This reinvention seeks to explore de facto sovereignty, i.e., the ability to kill, punish, and discipline with impunity. The central proposition is a call to abandon sovereignty as an ontological ground of power and order in favor of a view of sovereignty as a tentative and always emergent form of authority grounded in violence. After a brief account of why the classical work on kingship failed to provide an adequate matrix for understanding the political imaginations of a world after colonialism, three theses on sovereignty—modern and premodern—are developed. We argue that although effective legal sovereignty is always an unattainable ideal, it is particularly tenuous in many postcolonial societies where sovereign power historically was distributed among many forms of local authority. The last section discusses the rich new field of studies of informal sovereignties: vigilante groups, strongmen, insurgents, and illegal networks. Finally, the relationship between market forces, outsourcing, and new configurations of sovereign power are explored.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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