Causal Assessment Paper: Ethnohistorical Claims in Territorial Disputes

Here is the next installment of my research design for Jim Mahoney’s qualitative methods class.  It builds off of many of the ideas developed in my earlier concept paper, but cuts out a lot of the finer details. 

Instead, it focuses more clearly on the emergence and theorized causal impact of ethnohistorical claims on the resolution of territorial disputes.  Comments are welcome as always.

Causal Assessment Paper: The Manifestation and Impact of Ethnohistorical Claims on Territorial Disputes

Borders are central to the study international politics. Even as many have argued that the importance of borders is dramatically decreasing in an age of globalization, the 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 confirms its persistent centrality in international affairs. Yet to say that borders matter is not enough; one must also clarify precisely how they matter.

Borders contain and exclude as they demarcate the territorial boundaries of the state. States are normatively assumed to exercise a monopoly over the legitimate use of force within their borders to the exclusion of domestic competitors. 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 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. Territorial conquest and border revision, relatively commonplace up until the end of the Second World War, has been in sharp decline since the latter half of the twentieth century, and in its place has grown an almost unequivocal delegitimization of territorial aggression. Writers across the political-theoretic spectrum have attributed this outcome to a variety of factors from realist power politics to global normative development (Holsti 2004; Keohane 1984; Morgenthau and Thompson 1985; Mueller 2004; Zacher 2001). Despite disagreement as to the specific source of this significant change, nearly everyone recognizes that blatant territorial conquest has been replaced by status quo sovereign territorial integrity as the norm in international affairs.

Developing the Theory

The international system has persisted and in even flourished in the face of regular, conscious violations of three of the four principles of sovereignty. Yet international legal sovereignty too is beginning to weaken under the burden of such “organized hypocrisy” (Krasner 1999). The challenge most often identified in this vein is minority self-determination. Ethnic groups are usually seen as rejecting status quo territoriality on the basis of largely material or instrumental considerations, namely inequitable access to political or economic resources or collective repression seemingly irresolvable in the framework of the existing state. Where mutually acceptable compensation or ethnofederal reform cannot be achieved, the prescription is often for borders to be redrawn and states subdivided to reflect existing population distributions as in cases of extreme ethnic violence coupled with international intervention. While the international community has yielded to some revisions, it has only broken states apart along provincial borders or old colonial boundaries “as if” the territorial integrity norm still applies.[1]

These developments may be seen as unproblematic or even positive insofar as they accommodate fringe challengers to sovereign territoriality without fundamentally compromising the principle itself. They also highlight however the new (and old) reality that territorial political entities may be successfully constituted with reference to values and ideas contrary to those underpinning sovereign territoriality. With some concentrated ethnic groups having successfully forced revisions of the territorial status quo utilizing self-determination claims, the prospect is raised that states too might employ comparable normative justifications for control of territory outside of their internationally recognized boundaries.

This inquiry is particularly pertinent to the analysis of internationally disputed territories. Broadly defined, a disputed territory is one claimed by at least two contending parties and is controlled by a state on ambiguous or problematic international legal grounds. Such territories include those deemed occupied, annexed, conquered, or illegitimately controlled thus inhibiting the self-determination claims of its primary residents. Given that the international system poses strong disincentives to perpetuating such disputes, assuming a relatively static conception of sovereign territoriality, revisionists face rather enormous obstacles in shifting international conceptions of the legitimate status quo. The end result would appear preordained; withdrawal should be the norm. However, claims by states exercising control over such territories often persist lacking external military intervention even as the balance of world opinion tilts against them. Why does this occur?

Conventional approaches focus most strongly on the material incentives, cognitive biases, and immediate political capital derived (or at the very least not lost) by states and elite political actors from territorial aggrandizement or persistent occupation (Snyder 1991; Liberman 1993; Lustick 1993; Mearsheimer 1994-1995; van Evera 1998; Spruyt 2005). Whether examining the outward looking politics of controlling a disputed territory in the face of international opposition or the domestic processes by which debate over control is either sparked or muted, the grounding assumption of these theories is largely that the value of territory is constructed by and derived from the conditions under which it was captured or became disputed. If domestic debate over the rightful expanse of the state are drawn from these conditions it should logically follow that favorable shifts in relevant factors should lead to the resolution of outstanding disputes by way of relinquishing state claims to the territory. Often this is not the case.

Rather disputed territories are frequently laden with historical and cultural meanings that assign value exogenous to the terms of the original dispute. These ethnohistorical claims tie the territory itself to the perceived identity of the nation. Once instrumentalized by political actors and reflected by popular opinion, retrenchment may become exceptionally difficult regardless of the externally imposed political, diplomatic, and strategic costs. Accounting for these perceptions is critical not only because they substantially contribute to domestic understandings of the “rightful” national space, but because they condition the willingness of the state in question to engage in compromise. Failure to address these concerns, just as with those drawn from immediate political calculations, can only be detrimental to efforts to find sustainable solutions to territorial conflict.

In this sense, ethnohistorical territoriality (EHT) is both an independent and dependent variable. As an explanatory factor, the presence or absence of an EHT claim is critical to identifying the conditions under which political settlement is possible. As a causal outcome, however, there is nothing deterministic about the emergence of an active EHT claim. Absent a process by which status quo sovereign territoriality is disrupted, EHT is highly unlikely to attain political saliency. Absent key ontological conditions, ethnohistorical claims to territory simply cannot be constituted. These include a politics of indigeneity and a politics of presence. Decomposing these characteristics further reveals at least two types of indicators for each: material data and the discursive conditions necessary for making such evidence politically meaningful.

Figure 1: EHT as Dependent Outcome


The more explicitly historical constitutive dimension of EHT, indigeneity refers to original ownership of territory. The most important material prerequisite for this form of politics is the existence of artifacts substantiating these historical claims. This 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. Yet 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.

The politics of presence is synonymous with the more conventional principles of self-determination drawing legitimacy from the residence of the claimant population in that territory.[2] EHT differentiates itself from conventional self-determination claims insofar as it is necessary that the relevant ethnic cohort has resided at one time in that space, but this population need no longer be dominant at the time of the claim. In a significant sense, then, EHT can be seen as a means claiming territory utilizing generally accepted norms of self-determination without the necessity of having a population in the space to make the claim. 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, territorial claims on the basis of identity have little meaning particularly in states not already dominated or controlled by the group in question.

Examining the relationship between these four indicators, it is apparent that the two discursive factors are jointly sufficient and equally necessary for an ethnohistorical claim, while the different combinations of presence or absence of material conditions serve as radial categories indicating the particular form and strength of that claim (Collier and Mahon 1993, 848). Although both forms of discourse are necessary, only self-determination rhetoric can be meaningfully influenced by agency. While political actors may choose whether to create or activate self-determination claims, ethnocultural territorial narratives are formed only in the long durée. If political elite faced with a challenge to their control of disputed territory wanted to rally nationalist support by fabricating territorial narratives, it is unlikely that the masses would respond favorably. Lacking a preexisting ethnocultural script, these appeals would be largely meaningless.[3] The material inputs of population and artifacts are even less readily manufactured. Taken together these indicators can be seen as forming the basis for a latent ethnohistorical claim. They do not by themselves, however, form a deterministic basis for the problematization or revision of accepted territorial boundaries.

Given the strong systemic prohibition against territorial revisionism, one would only expect EHT to achieve political salience in a context in which there has been a significant disruption of the territorial status quo by exogenous forces. Such scenarios include the outbreak of interstate war, state collapse, and imperial disintegration. In each case, borders of the state are likely to be significantly disrupted either resulting in the capture, loss, or political destabilization of territory. Although the dominant expectation is that states will adhere to the territorial integrity norm and, in settling any resulting conflict, return to ex ante territorial arrangements, in reality multiple obstacles stand in the way of achieving this end. From lingering security threats to concerns for economic prosperity, states capturing territory in conflict are unlikely to immediately concede its return. Similarly, states losing territory in conflict are likely to be increasingly vigilant against further losses. Even as immediate concerns are likely to dominate in the short run, where the territory of interest is the subject of latent ethnohistorical claims, barring early resolution such changes are likely to open a political space for their political manifestation.

Figure 2: EHT as Explanatory Cause


Having delineated the pathway along which EHT may become politically salient in the domestic sphere, one must also trace its effects. Given how embedded ethnohistorical claims are likely to be in dominant cultural scripts, where the borders of the state have been disrupted (dispelling the appearance of permanence guaranteed by the territorial integrity norm), it seems likely that EHT would emerge as an alternative discourse. Yet even under these conditions, the employment of revisionist territorial claims is not a foregone conclusion. Rather, political actors are always faced with a choice whether or not to operationalize these claims. Assuming they are focused on short-term political gains, where EHT enjoys a sympathetic or even enthusiastic public, decision makers are likely to reflect this sentiment rather than concerns for long-term territorial stability. It would be a mistake though to assume that mass publics are susceptible to the appeal of EHT while political actors are not. Decision makers, rather than being perfectly rational, are undoubtedly influenced by their personal views and values on the subject. This may lead them to either conform to or reject EHT claims. Similarly although popular sympathies may support territorial revisionism on the basis of EHT, they may not. Composed of diverse groups and individuals, the majority may prefer to pursue other ideas, interests, and goals even under conditions favorable to the operationalization of EHT.

Framed in this way, four scenarios are possible: elites may frame resolution of territorial conflicts in terms of EHT while the mass public does not, the mass public may frame resolution in terms of EHT while elites do not, both may appeal to EHT, or both may not. Where both the public and political elite choose not to frame territorial conflicts in ethnohistorical terms, the resolution may be conceived as if the prerequisites for such claims are absent. Solutions here should address the instrumental goals of the state and the conditions which gave rise to conflict in the first place. Where elite political actors frame conflict in terms of EHT but the public largely does not solutions are to be found either in regime change or, less dramatically, in the election of a new government. Such a scenario is largely consistent with those characterizations of ethnic conflict which see elite as generating ethnic violence in times of instability to achieve other political goals. When elite choose not to frame conflict in ethnohistorical terms but the public does, resolution can only be achieved in the short term through political repression. Depending on the degree to which the public stands by these claim, repression may be more or less severe. Often democracies are willing to accede to limiting the freedom of radical political minorities, but they are understandably decreasingly so as public demand to secure disputed territories become more prevalent. Paradoxically an authoritarian state may be more capable of returning to the ex ante territorial status quo in this context. The sustainability of this solution, however, is dependent on the ability of the regime to remain in power. Finally, both political elite and the mass public may frame appropriate territoriality in terms of ethnohistorical claims. Through the lens of upholding sovereign territoriality, this is the least favorable scenario. Either the international community must concede to the demands of the state or compel regime change coupled with domestic political repression. Both options entail the violation of Westphalian and international legal sovereignty, either of the occupying state or recognized claimants to the disputed territory.

Discussing the Methods

Given the different intentions and lessons drawn from viewing EHT as a dependent versus an independent variable, the methods for confirming its meaningful political emergence and assessing its causal effects are not entirely congruent. When EHT is conceived as a dependent variable, constructing the causal path leading to its meaningful expression in political discourse is essentially an inductive exercise. This framework is particularly suitable to qualitative tests using the congruence method. Beginning with a theory positing the relationship between variance in the independent and dependent variables, the task is to investigate if the case of interest is consistent with the theoretical predictions (Gerring 2001, 181). While this method does not in itself provide a robust case for causality, it can serve as a useful tool to test the performance of existing deductive theories against the inductive one proposed (Gerring 2001, 199-201). Insofar as contending explanations for territorial disputes claim persistence stems from circumstances generated by the conflict itself, the theory proposed here demonstrates that temporally prior conditions can explain persistent claims where they cannot, namely in the face of rising costs and changed underlying conditions.

Since the articulation of the causal pathway leading to the expression of EHT is theorized to be heavily dependent on the presence of ethnocultural territorial narratives potentially coupled with historical artifacts and existing populations, a critical element in assessing the possibility of an ethnohistorical claim is confirming the presence or absence of these conditions. Fortunately all three are readily observable. While both populations and artifacts may be coded dichotomously, it is not difficult to employ more continuously coded and therefore more precise analysis. Notably, one can relatively objectively measure 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 easily confirm or deny the material basis for EHT claims. Indicators for ethnocultural territorial narratives should be similarly recognizable. If these scripts are salient, repeated references to particular territory should be found throughout the liturgy, mythology, and ancient texts of the national group as well as in contemporary state symbolism. It moreover follows that these narratives should be consistently reiterated when legitimating the state’s claim to this space. Considering that EHT claims must be reflective to some degree of popular sentiment, political elite have little to gain by masking their ambitions in alternative discourses particularly in the domestic sphere.

As with the base ontological conditions, systemic change leading to the disruption of status quo territoriality should be self-evident. Given the relative permanence of existing international borders, events that substantially call them into question must be unmistakably dramatic. Interstate wars, state collapse, and imperial disintegration in the contemporary era are difficult to miss and often well documented. Moreover, the idea that in this context new political ideologies may be generated is generally well accepted. The assertion that a territorially revisionist political discourse might arise in this environment need only be confirmed or denied by examining the case itself. Within-case process tracing and across-case pattern matching here can substantially bolster the validity of this inferential method and the generalizability of its findings (Mahoney 2000, 410-12).

When conceived as an explanatory variable, examining the impact of EHT is a largely deductive enterprise. My theory proposes that where this form of discourse takes hold in a disputed territory, occupation and/or revisionist claims to the territory should persist in the face of rising material and international reputational costs. This is because the territory is seen as an integral component of the nation thus having a significance exceeding the costs of its control. State behavior potentially confirming this valuation may include the active settlement of civilians in patterns which, rather than securing strategic lands or resources instead complicate the withdrawal of control from ethnohistorically significant sites as well as the dispatching of military forces to protect such locations and artifacts even lacking supporting populations. In more extreme circumstances, the state may even engage in ethnic cleansing and widespread landmark desecration in order to erase the basis for competing claims to the territory. While these behaviors may fulfill immediate instrumental objectives they often do not. Instead they create highly problematic and only tenuously sustainable facts on the ground.

Yet it not enough to claim simply because behavior in disputed territory is “objectively” irrational, that it is attributable to state pursuit of ethnohistorical claims. Indeed, the settlement of civilians around strategically problematic but ethnohistorically important landmarks may be seen as the independent initiative of a small but committed minority rather than the state as a whole. If EHT claims are truly the outputs of such minorities rather than an expression of generally accepted nationalist imperatives, governments should be able to reverse these policies in the context of fulfilling more instrumental objectives. Evidence critical to this distinction is found in both political discourse and, somewhat tautologically, in whether or not the occupying state in fact withdraws absent significant international coercion. If the claim in question is not an ethnohistorical one, the political discourse should be largely free from such references. As argued earlier, if the territory is not already the subject of latent EHT claims, the attempt to construe it as such is not likely to have a responsive audience. Similarly, if the occupying state consents to withdrawal absent overwhelming domestic opposition, it is not very likely that the territory was seen as being truly integral to national identity.

Such arguments enjoy great internal validity insofar as they conform to the evidence provided by a specific case. However, for the theory to be generally applied, it must be demonstrated that the basic pattern applies to a number of cases. Here Mill’s Method of Agreement and Method of Different may be particularly useful. Using a language of necessity and sufficiency, Mill’s methods of analysis are particularly useful allowing for simple categorical comparison across cases in finding explanatory variables in common in observing common outcomes, and isolating variables of interest in cases of dissimilar outcome (Mahoney 2000, 392). If multiple cases of disputed territories can be found where EHT is a common discursive element, there is some evidence that the two may be causally connected. Even more instructive is if multiple cases are found with dichotomous outcomes, a persistent claim versus a relatively uncontested withdrawal, in which EHT as an explanatory factor present in the former and absent in the latter. While this topical analysis is independently insufficient to prove causality as critical variables may conceivably be missing from such a simple analysis and, in a complex world, it is often configurations of factors rather than individual variables that account for outcomes, process tracing the individual cases after finding apparent correlations may help ameliorate the limitations of Mill’s methods (George and Bennett 2005, 153-60; Ragin 2000, 71).


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[1] This speaks quite clearly to why the 1995 Dayton Accords did not formally split Bosnia along ethnic lines instead favoring an ethnofederal arrangement while the international “consensus” favored the partition of Kosovo from Serbia following the NATO air campaign in 1999.

[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).

[3] This is not to say that salient narratives cannot be constructed over a relatively short period of time. Examples abound in history of political elite rallying their followers around, for example, great military victories and defeats of recent memory. It is likely however that “heroic sacrifices” made in recent memory for a disputed territory will not stand in the way of diplomatic settlements to the degree that similar territorial narratives identified with hundreds or thousands of years of “national” history might.

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