Concept Paper: Ethnohistorical Territoriality

Now 1 week late, I have finally finished my concept paper for Jim Mahoney’s class on Ethnohistorical Territoriality

It was at times tedious and torturous, but in all, it was a useful exercise.  I even got some pretty pictures and typologies out of it.  I’ve reproduced it below; the diagrams and charts are interspersed throughout the text.  Click on them to enlarge them.

Happy reading for any and all interested parties.

Concept Paper: Ethnohistorical Territoriality

It is virtually impossible to study international politics without addressing the issue of borders. Even as many have argued that the importance of borders is dramatically decreasing in an age of globalization, the very fact that debates over international trade, security, development, population movement, and the environment remain framed in terms of the effective presence or absence of border considerations only confirms its persistent centrality in international affairs. Yet to say that borders matter is not enough; one must also clarify precisely how they matter.

Tied to international borders are two key elements: what they contain and what they exclude. Borders demarcate the territorial boundaries of the state. This political institution is normatively assumed to exercise a monopoly over the legitimate use of force within that space to the exclusion of domestic competitors. Externally, borders in a stable international system are seen as clearly demarcated, mutually recognized, and mutually exclusive to each state such that no other entity may legitimately interfere in its internal affairs. The former element often referred to as Weberian sovereignty and the latter as Westphalian sovereignty contribute to the defining principle of the contemporary international system: sovereign territoriality. Stephen Krasner further disaggregates these conceptions of sovereignty into four constitutive elements: domestic sovereignty referring to control of the internal affairs of state, interdependence sovereignty referring to control of transborder movement, international legal sovereignty referring to mutual recognition of the state by others, and Westphalian sovereignty referring to the exclusion of external actors from domestic authority (Krasner 1999, 9).

While all four elements are critical to upholding sovereign territoriality, if only insofar as states act on the whole “as if” they respect each other’s sovereignty, an increasingly immutable component of the international system is the existing division of territory between states as well as the lines along which they are drawn. International legal sovereignty once extended is rarely coercively violated and almost never withdrawn. Whereas territorial conquest and consequent border revision was, up until the end of the Second World War, a relatively commonplace practice in international affairs, the latter half of the Twentieth Century saw major interstate war in sharp decline and with it an almost unequivocal delegitimization of territorial aggression. The reasons for the this decline have been addressed by writers across the political-theoretic spectrum from realist power politics to global ideational development (Holsti 2004; Keohane 1984; Morgenthau and Thompson 1985; Mueller 2004; Zacher 2001). Despite disagreement as to the specific source of this significant change in international affairs, nearly everyone recognizes that territorial conquest is a thing of the past.

Defining the Concept

Given that the other three principles of sovereignty are regularly violated, it should come as no surprise, despite a seemingly stable status quo, that international legal sovereignty too is weakening. One such challenge is presented by ethnohistorical territoriality. As opposed to sovereign territoriality which delimits the exercise of state power to internationally recognized boundaries and takes existing international borders as the a priori politically legitimate partition of the political world, ethnohistorical territoriality defines the “rightful” boundaries of states as defined by historical claims tied to ethnonational identity. Whereas sovereign territoriality is legitimated by international structural and normative conditions, ethnohistorical claims are informed primarily by domestic discourse on appropriate territoriality. Such claims often problematize status quo territorial divisions and propose alternative arrangements conforming to pre-1945 or even pre-modern boundaries.

Like sovereign territoriality, ethnohistorical territoriality draws on the notion that each state is entitled to mutually exclusive territory, the extent of which, however, is to be determined by assessing historical claims of original ownership. While such discourse dovetails neatly with nationalist rhetoric and ethnocultural narratives, the revisionism it entails is rarely well received on the international stage. Ethnohistorical territoriality as a domestically conceived notion fails to account for what effect the realization of these territorial ambitions will have on other states. Privileging the disruption of existing borders while rejecting the authenticity of competing claims leaving little room for compromise, widespread deference to ethnohistorical territoriality would no doubt be a recipe for greater global instability. It is for this reason that the international community has been hesitant to privilege such claims under any circumstances.

Yet this alternative discourse remains critically important, particularly in the case of internationally disputed territories. Whereas outright territorial revisionism and expansionism do seem to be relics of the past, the world is plagued by a growing number of territorial disputes which problematize existing borders and threaten the sovereign territorial premise of the international system. From persistent disputes over occupied territories in the aftermath of decolonization and late interstate war in the developing world, to a large number of ethnonational separatist movements in the Balkans, Baltics, and Caucuses following in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the breakdown of the efficacy of borders in Africa, it is becoming increasingly clear that sovereign territoriality is less able to explain the international system outside of the Western world than it might have been even ten years ago. Not all of the problems described above find their roots in ethnohistorical claims, but the most complex and intractable of these often do.[1]

As a discourse of territorial appropriateness, ethnohistorical territoriality has much in common with well-studied concepts such as self-determination, nationalism, separatism, and irredentism. Like the principle of self-determination, ethnohistorical territoriality emphasizes a right of distinct national communities to rule themselves free from external domination. But whereas the former draws its legitimacy from the existence of a specific population in a given territorial space, the latter more heavily emphasizes the space itself. Conceptually compatible with the idea of nation, ethnohistorical territoriality is based on an artificially constructed and consciously politically maintained imagined community (Anderson 1991). Yet even in the construction of nation, identities and boundaries are drawn from some set of factors having “real” material and ideational substance. By focusing on the collective valuation and imagination of national soil, ethnohistorical territoriality provides a clear path to identifying those “real” factors in a manner similar to Anthony Smith’s emphasis on core ethnies and ethnosymbolism (Smith 1991). Separatism and irredentism may be seen as two sides of the same coin, both demanding some form of territorial revisionism. While separatist and irredentist claims are not necessarily ethnohistorical in nature, ethnohistorical claims are often expressed through these means given that few existing states’ borders conform to those patterned by culturally informed political histories.

Like any political discourse, the salience of ethnohistorical territoriality will vary depending on context. One would expect to see its emergence or revival where nationalism is inflamed, existing borders are in flux due to war, domestic or “neighborhood” regime changes, global power shifts, the state fails, or political elite manipulate public passions to achieve particular policy goals. This alternative conception of appropriate borders must, however, also contend with the ideas, norms, and political attitudes conditioned by sovereign territoriality both on the domestic and international stage. As such, it would be highly unlikely to see an “ideal-type” realization of ethnohistorical territoriality by any state short of a great power player as even the most ideologically revisionist of regimes are in some way responsive to international pressure. Similarly, it would be difficult to identify a perfect “negative pole” of this concept, represented by sovereign territoriality as such a case would imply the complete absence of any ethnohistorical frame for border definition. Clearly a perfectly dichotomous characterization of territoriality is analytically misleading making necessary more precise categories for analysis.

Analyzing the Concept

One can accomplish this by disaggregating ethnohistorical territoriality into two necessary and jointly sufficient constitutive dimensions: the politics of presence and the politics of indigeneity. Such self-conscious labeling of secondary level characteristics is helpful not only in identifying concrete sources of data but in its demand for explicit identification of the multidimensionality of concepts and the ontological assumptions driving analysis (Goertz 2006, 6). Given that ontological conditions are themselves only indirectly observable, it is then necessary to break them down further into indicator/data level concepts which can be directly examined. For ethnohistorical territoriality, the decomposition of secondary level characteristics reveals at least two types of indicators for each: material data and the discursive conditions necessary for making such evidence politically meaningful.

Figure 1: Three Level Concept of Ethnohistorical Territoriality


The politics of presence is largely synonymous with the aforementioned principles of self-determination drawing its legitimacy from the residence of the claimant population in that territory.[2] While the prior existence of an ethnonational population tied to the state in question is a prerequisite for the establishment of a historical claim, unlike the self-determination discourse this population need no longer be dominant at the time of the claim. It is necessary that the relevant ethnic cohort has resided at one time in that space, but it may be only weakly sufficient. What is critical is that any claim to territory conceived of in this way is coupled with a nationalist discourse focused on the rights of that group to self-determination in that space. Absent such discourse, political claims on the basis of identity have little meaning in terms of territoriality, particularly in states not already dominated or controlled by the group in question.

If the politics of presence is all about “being there,” the politics of indigeneity is all about “being there first.” The more explicitly historical constitutive dimension of our concept, indigeneity refers to the idea that an original and therefore rightful owner of a given territory can be identified whose claims should enjoy a priori legitimacy over contenders. The most important material prerequisite for this form of politics is the existence of artifacts substantiating historical claims to territory. Such evidence often takes the form of shrines, ancient ruins, or even archaeological excavations. If these artifacts can be positively identified with the dominant ethnonational character and historical lineage of the state or people in question, they may be sufficient to generate ethnohistorical claims to territory even absent a significant contemporary population. As with the politics of presence, however, there remains the necessary conjunction of discourse. Here it is ethnocultural narratives, the retelling of culturally informed history, often through the medium of ancient texts, oral myths, and modern nationalist narratives from which artifacts and ancient places derive meaning.

Challenging both the purely primordialist and constructivist schools of nationalism, analysis of these secondary level dimensions enables the identification of solid physical evidence for ethnohistorical claims to territory while allowing for significant political construction of national identity from interpretations of the distant past. If the politics of presence is taken in isolation of a politics of indigeneity, the occupancy of a claimant population and a discourse of self-determination are necessary and potentially jointly sufficient for a revisionist territorial logic promoting either separatism or irredentism in self-determination’s most polar forms. Yet when coupled with a politics of indigeneity, an absence of a dominant claimant population in the territory may be substantially compensated for although not entirely substituted by the existence of relevant artifacts and ethnocultural narratives and still constitute an ethnohistorical conception of territoriality. Given the critical element of history to this understanding of territoriality, although an existing population and artifacts are jointly sufficient for a strong ethnohistorical territorial claim, the existence of artifacts or comparable ancient sites is perhaps more necessary.

Table 1: The Nature of Territorial Claims


More important than the physical indicators themselves however are salient discourses. If all four indicators are treated dichotomously as either present or absent, a table of 14 types of territorial claims can be generated to illustrate this understanding. While the strongest claims are likely those which are positive on all indicators, some basis for ethnohistorical territoriality can persist even absent a claimant population or identifiable artifacts within the territory so long as the rhetoric itself remains. Such a diminished subtype might be labeled weak diaspora nationalism referring to a displaced population with culturally conditioned memories of living in the territory in question but who lack physical evidence to support this narrative. A slightly stronger claim includes both sets of discourse and physical indicators in the territory. Although this form of territoriality would certainly constitute a demand for self-determination, absent artifacts it would be difficult to substantiate a particularly historical claim. A stronger claim still would include both forms of discourse and the existence of artifacts but lack the population in the territory in question. This type would be consistent with both a diaspora nationalism where the group is without state but has enduring historical ties to the territory and a form of irredentism in which a state has physically demonstrable ethnohistorical claims to the territory. The only instance in which both sets of discourse are not necessary and jointly sufficient for an ethnohistorical claim is where both physical indicators are present but self-determination discourses are absent. Here one would assume that the ethnonational group of interest is already in effective control of the territory or it is not interested in politically contesting the rule of this space by other political or ethnonational groups. The remaining 9 types either predict no revisionist claim or contestation of borders on the basis of either a politics of presence or a politics of indigeneity or are consistent with self-determination territoriality. The two discursive indicators are then jointly sufficient for ethnohistorical territorial claims, while the different combinations of presence or absence of material conditions can be seen as radial categories indicating the particular form and strength of that claim (Collier and Mahon 1993, 848).

Figure 2: Typologies of territorial claims assuming presence of both rhetorical inputs


To use the language of Collier and Levitsky, ethnohistorical territoriality is further down the ladder of generality than territorial claims based on self-determination insofar as the former has more defining attributes and fits a narrower range of cases (Collier and Levitsky 1997, 434). Yet if one frames the discussion in Goertz’s emphasis on delineating the polar range of one’s concept, territoriality drawn from self-determination claims is a diminished subtype of ethnohistorical territoriality on a range from this concept to that of status quo sovereign territoriality (Goertz 2006, 82). Taken this way, ethnohistorical territoriality can be labeled a more specific instance of state (or substate) territorial claims without privileging self-determination territoriality (or sovereign territoriality for that matter) in the conceptual hierarchy. This formulation also allows one to avoid the charge of “conceptual stretching” by demonstrating that ethnohistorical territoriality is indeed a sensible subset of territorial claims in general (Collier and Mahon 1993).

Figure 3: Territoriality and diminished subtypes


Measuring the Concept

As for how the data/indictors themselves will be measured, material conditions are the most readily quantifiable. Both populations and artifacts could be coded dichotomously by presence or absence. It is not difficult, however, employ more continuously coded and therefore more precise measures which account for the historical duration of residence by the relevant population, the geographic concentration or relative demographic proportion of a given group versus other groups, or the relative age of subject artifacts compared to those claimed by competing parties. These measures should reveal the basic factual accuracy of ethnohistorical claims in that they operationalize tangible, often readily available data to substantiate both contemporary demographic presence and long term historical entitlements. Yet without the necessary conjunction self-determination claims and ethnocultural narratives, these physical indicators are politically irrelevant. This data is best seen, then, as a resource for political discourse, particularly insofar as it provides evidence which might sway international opinion as to the legitimacy of the proposed territorial revision.

Data necessary to confirm a self-determination discourse should focus on political rhetoric expressed as collective grievance. This may include demands for autonomy, independence, or territorial incorporation (irredentism). Here one may look in particular to elite political discourse with regard to the disputed territory in question. Demands on the basis of self-determination referencing autonomy, popular sovereignty, foreign domination, and the like should be readily identifiable in both public speech and published documents. Although it may be legitimately argued that elite ethnonational actors may popularize such tropes in order to achieve other, unrelated policy objectives, the language itself is not used in a vacuum: it must appeal to pre-existing popular sentiment. What matters is not the motivation behind the rhetoric, but that it was used, period.

For self-determination discourse to cross the line into ethnohistorical claims, it must appeal to and draw from meaningful ethnocultural narratives. If these narratives are indeed salient, repeated references to particular territory should be found throughout the group’s liturgy, mythology, and ancient texts as well as in contemporary national and state symbolism. Given that this study examines contentious territories, it obviously follows that these narratives should be consistently reiterated particularly domestically when legitimating the state’s claim to this space. Considering that such claims must be reflective to some degree of popular sentiment, political elite would have little to gain by masking such ambitions in alternative discourses in the domestic sphere. Following this logic, the most misleading statements are likely to be those addressed to the international community where the state or group in question must appeal to internationally acceptable logics of appropriateness, namely those conditioned by the principles of sovereign territoriality.

The real challenge, however, is not the identification of these discourses but their measurement and coding. Because discourse is not readily amenable to discrete measurement and the physical indicators alone lack political salience, it may be useful to code this data following fuzzy set rules. Using the recent work of Bowman, et al. as an exemplar, I will code my four attributes along a four value system: 1.00, 0.66, 0.33 and 0.00 (Bowman, Lehoucq, and Mahoney 2005). A 1.00 value will correspond to an attribute which are approximately fully expressive of its constitutive elements, 0.66 will correspond to cases which lie somewhere in the upper middle range, 0.33 will correspond to cases in the lower middle range, and a 0.00 value will refer to those cases which are more or less outside the given dimension.

To receive a 1.00 value on a dimension, a case must meet these rough thresholds:

1. Existing Population: The ethnonational group in question is the dominant, majority population of the disputed territory with a history of long, uninterrupted residence up until the present.

2. Historical Artifacts: The disputed territory is home to a large number of pre-modern or even ancient artifacts which can be directly traced to the ancestors of the group currently demanding control of the territory.

3. Self-Determination Discourse: Political elite engage in discursive claims demanding independence from an “occupying” state or territorial incorporation into a state controlled by an ethnic cohort. Claims of economic, political, and/or religious grievances at the hands of the controlling regime predominate. Demands for “national” rights inescapably define political discourse.

4. Ethnocultural Narratives: Specific references and claims to the disputed territory can be found in prominent liturgy, mythology, and ancient texts. References to the disputed territory or particular parts therein dominate or are an integral part of national and state symbolism.

To receive a 0.66 value on a dimension, a case must meet these diminished thresholds:

1. Existing Population: The ethnonational group in question is a minority population in the disputed territory and, while possibly having an ancient history in the territory, cannot claim uninterrupted residence up to the present day. The group may also constitute a recently achieved demographic majority but this was accomplished through means deemed illegitimate by international norms such as ethnic cleansing or civilian settlement of militarily administered “foreign” territory.

2. Historical Artifacts: The disputed territory is home to a relatively large number of pre-modern or ancient artifacts which are can be traced to the ancestors of the group currently demanding control of the territory but are contested by other groups with comparable claims.

3. Self-Determination Discourse: Political elite engage in discursive claims demanding independence or autonomy for the territory from an “occupying” state or legitimating their own occupation. Claims of economic, political, and/or religious grievances at the hands of the controlling regime are questionable and not readily independently verifiable. Demands for “national” rights inescapably define political discourse even while other indicators are weak.

4. Ethnocultural Narratives: Specific references and claims to the disputed territory can be found in liturgy, mythology, and ancient texts. References to the disputed territory or particular parts therein play a variably important role in national and state symbolism.

To receive a 0.33 value on a dimension, a case must meet these further diminished thresholds:

1. Existing Population: The ethnonational group in question is either dominant or a significant minority population in the disputed territory and, while possibly having an ancient history in the territory, this is not a crucial element of the population’s politicization.

2. Historical Artifacts: The disputed territory is home to a small or insignificant number of pre-modern or ancient artifacts which can be only weakly traced to the group currently demanding control of the territory and are often contested by other groups with stronger, more verifiable claims.

3. Self-Determination Discourse: Political elite engage in discursive claims demanding autonomy or independence from an “occupying” state. Claims of economic, political, and/or religious grievances at the hands of the controlling regime are relatively strong and tend to subsume references to “national” rights based in history in political discourse.

4. Ethnocultural Narratives: Ambiguous references and claims to the disputed territory may be found in liturgy, mythology, and ancient texts. References to the disputed territory or particular parts therein play a marginal role in national and state symbolism.

If an attribute does not meet these benchmarks, it receives a value of 0.00.

To aggregate these individual dimensions into an overall score for ethnohistorical territoriality, I follow fuzzy-set logic rules drawn from the analysis of necessary and sufficient conditions. The previous analysis indicates that all four indicators are necessary (although not equally sufficient) such that each case considered will receive an aggregate score equal to its lowest across all indicators. These in turn reflect the four primary typologies developed earlier: strong ethnohistorical territoriality, diaspora nationalism/ethnohistorical irredentism, ethnohistorically informed self-determination, and weak diaspora nationalism. Having thoroughly defined my concept, operationalized it by specifying necessary and sufficient conditions, logically (although not empirically) demonstrated its validity, described its field utility vis-à-vis competing and related concepts, hopefully having indicated its resonance, breached a discussion of its contextual range, parsimony is likely lacking and analytical empirical utility has yet to be demonstrated (Gerring 2001). Once applied to a theoretical framework, a degree of rebalancing of these criteria for “conceptual goodness” is likely. However, this exercise has been undeniably helpful in establishing a conceptual baseline for ethnohistorical territoriality.

[1] I also acknowledge that territory “legitimately” controlled by any given state in this system may also be domestically legitimated in ethnohistorical terms. Given that the focus of my work is on those claims deemed to be disruptive to an international system rooted in sovereign territoriality, these instances are however substantially less pressing and can be reserved for later analysis.

[2] The politics of presence here is not to be confused with its connotation in democratic political theory as the necessity for explicit inclusion and proportional representation of marginalized groups in the democratic political process (Phillips 1994).



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