Before and After Borders: The Nomadic Challenge to Sovereign Territoriality

International Politics

Author/s (editor/s):

Joseph MacKay, Jamie Levin, Gustavo Carvalho, Kristen Cavoukian, Ross Cuthbert

Publication year:


Publication type:

Journal article

Find this publication at:

Joseph MacKay, Jamie Levin, Gustavo Carvalho, Kristen Cavoukian and Ross Cuthbert, ‘Before and After Borders: The Nomadic Challenge to Sovereign Territoriality’, International Politics, 51(1) 2014: 101‒23.

Although non-state actors have recently proliferated, many predate the modern state system itself. Among these, traditional nomads uniquely challenge sovereignty. Nomadism undermines states’ capacity to tax, conscript and otherwise regulate population. However, nomadism constitutes an ideational as well as material threat to states. By disrupting states’ territorial configuration, nomadism undermines the ideational foundations of statehood. States have responded to nomadism in three ways. Many forcibly settle nomads. Weak states, unable to secure borders, allow nomads to migrate relatively freely. Others voluntarily facilitate freer migration by reducing the salience of borders. We offer three examples: Bedouins, often forcibly settled; African pastoralists, permitted to migrate through porous borders; and Roma, permitted to migrate transnationally within the European Union. While the Bedouin and African instances suggest a necessary conflict between the role of state and the culture of nomadism, the European experience suggests border relaxation can permit states and nomads to coexist.

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