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Standoffish States: Nonliterate Leviathans in Southeast Asia


Under what conditions do states strive to homogenise their populations, rendering them ‘legible’ for state-making projects? Virtually all conditions, according to James Scott's landmark treatise, The Art of Not Being Governed. Whereas Scott sees states’ appetites to standardise their populations for purposes of control and extraction as practically universal, we see this appetite as radically and fascinatingly uneven. Much as Scott sees mobile populations as ‘nonliterate’ due to their disinterest in (and not their ignorance of) the purported fruits of civilisation, we see Leviathans as frequently ‘nonliterate’ in their disinclination (and not simply their incapacity) to actively administer their subjects and territory: even in Southeast Asia, the region that has done more than any other to generate Scott's theories of state power and practice. We thus argue that the world is riddled with standoffish states, not just standardising states. Even in the zones where the potential costs of eschewing the pursuit of legibility appear highest – those containing violent insurgencies – states can prove surprisingly disinterested in pursuing centralised governance in a highly administrative manner. We highlight four alternative strategies – indirect rule, divide and conquer, militarised pacification, and forcible expulsion – that states commonly deploy to fulfil what we see as their most fundamental objective: preventing political challenges to the ruling centre.

Corresponding author
*Corresponding author: Diana Kim, Center for History and Economics, Harvard University, USA;
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TRaNS: Trans-Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia
  • ISSN: 2051-364X
  • EISSN: 2051-3658
  • URL: /core/journals/trans-trans-regional-and-national-studies-of-southeast-asia
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