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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .


Reclaiming Sovereignty
Laura Brace & John Hoffman eds.

(London: Pinter, 1997)
45.00hb, ISBN 1-85567-456-4, 210pp, index.



Debates over the meaning of sovereignty as a constitutive rule in modern politics have traditionally been an important focus in political philosophy, comparative politics and international relations. Most studies, however, had been relatively static in the sense that they preceded from an unquestioned assumption that the centralized state is the unit of analysis.

Recently these debates have become more dynamic. While sovereignty has always been a contested concept, it is only recently that scholars have been willing to "de-link" sovereignty from statehood in trying to understand political relations within and across juridical borders. Reclaiming Sovereignty fits within this research program.

Editors Brace and Hoffman bring together a rather eclectic collection of articles focused on "reclaiming" the concept of sovereignty from its state centric tradition. While the book does not appear to make a major contribution to new theory in this area, the case studies and theoretical discussions help us to rethink about our traditional treatments of sovereignty. In particular, it refocuses our understanding of ethnic conflict in terms of a contest over the "location" of sovereignty within a polity.

As such, the most interesting discussion is found in the articles that explore this question of where sovereignty is located. Indeed the answer to this question largely determines the identity of the community itself. John Hoffman offers the theoretical justification for pursuing this line of inquiry by proposing a "poststatist" (although not necessarily postmodernist) view of sovereignty. This is followed by studies that explore the changing concept of "sovereignty of Parliament" in Britain and the multidimensional character of sovereignty within the European Union.

Ethnic conflict is most directly discussed in the articles on Northern Ireland and South Africa. Here the question of location is particularly important. In both cases the issue of self-determination revolves around how the conflicting parties define the self. If Northern Ireland is neither British nor Irish, who gets to determine the identity of the territory? Who is sovereign: the state (Northern Ireland as a juridical unit), the people (the community of citizens) or the nation (the Irish versus the British or Catholic versus Protestant). Similarly, in South Africa, both the Apartheid state and the democratic state have been faced with the thorny question of who has "title" to the state and what to do with those who do not belong to the sovereign community.

While Reclaiming Sovereignty does not break new theoretical ground in helping to address these and other key issues, it does raise new questions. And perhaps this is its most important contribution.


Bruce Cronin, University of Wisconsin-Madison



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