International Politics

, Volume 51, Issue 1, pp 101–123 | Cite as

Before and after borders: The nomadic challenge to sovereign territoriality

  • Joseph MacKay
  • Jamie Levin
  • Gustavo de Carvalho
  • Kristin Cavoukian
  • Ross Cuthbert
Original Article


Although non-state actors have recently proliferated, many predate the modern state system itself. Among these, traditional nomads uniquely challenge sovereignty. Nomadism undermines states’ capacity to tax, conscript and otherwise regulate population. However, nomadism constitutes an ideational as well as material threat to states. By disrupting states’ territorial configuration, nomadism undermines the ideational foundations of statehood. States have responded to nomadism in three ways. Many forcibly settle nomads. Weak states, unable to secure borders, allow nomads to migrate relatively freely. Others voluntarily facilitate freer migration by reducing the salience of borders. We offer three examples: Bedouins, often forcibly settled; African pastoralists, permitted to migrate through porous borders; and Roma, permitted to migrate transnationally within the European Union. While the Bedouin and African instances suggest a necessary conflict between the role of state and the culture of nomadism, the European experience suggests border relaxation can permit states and nomads to coexist.


sovereignty nomadism territory borders state migration 



The authors thank Steven Bernstein, Kimberly Carter, Lilach Gilady, Jeffrey Kopstein, Norrin M. Ripsman, Edward Schatz, Janice Stein, Michael C. Williams, the journal's editor and an anonymous reviewer for helpful feedback.


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Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joseph MacKay
    • 1
  • Jamie Levin
    • 1
  • Gustavo de Carvalho
    • 1
  • Kristin Cavoukian
    • 1
  • Ross Cuthbert
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

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