“What is a state if not a sovereign?” asked Clifford Geertz in 2004 in one of his very last articles. In this piece Geertz admitted that an older “island and mountain anthropology” had been ill-equipped to understand the rough and tumble of the birth of new nations and states across the global south in the 20th century. This was largely because anthropologists, from the marginal locations they studied, had accepted the dominant fiction projected by all would-be nation states as “leviathan machines”, i.e. that the state comprehensively ruled a territory and a population and that the state represented a modern and rational form of unitary governance. None of this ever happened in practice, and Geertz argued that anthropologists were uniquely equipped to investigate and understand the ensuing ‘confusion’ – his term for the complicated, historical layers of authority, power, attachments, and loyalty that today constitute states and politics in most of the world.
This new ‘anthropology of the state’ began in the 1990s and has since then become one of the biggest and liveliest areas within the discipline, supplanting an older, moribund “political anthropology” that had focused mainly on so-called traditional modes of power, kingship, and authority. This workshop will introduce some of the key texts and debates that gave rise to this new branch of anthropology. We will also trace how this has enabled two other lines of inquiry that have gathered a lot of force in the past decade: (1) studies of how legal sovereignty can be projected by the state but is often at odds with how sovereign power is lived, understood, and contested by local communities; (2) how enforcing the order and the monopoly of violence in the vast and sprawling urban areas across the global south has proved to be one of the most difficult and intractable challenges for the modern state, as well as for other social forces such as socio-political movements and religious institutions.