State Failure, Actor-Network Theory, and the Theorisation of Sovereignty


Author/s (editor/s):

Joseph MacKay

Publication year:


Publication type:

Journal article

Find this publication at:
Brussels Journal of International Studies

Joseph MacKay, ‘State Failure, Actor-Network Theory, and the Theorisation of Sovereignty’, Brussels Journal of International Studies, 3, 2006: 61‒98.

The actor-network theory (ANT) model currently in use in science and technology studies attempts to evaluate the processes at work in systems and collectivities on new terms. ANT suggests that we evaluate networks, broadly defined as virtually any sort of collectivity, in terms of both their social and material components. Applying it to the international system suggests a new way of evaluating both state failure and state sovereignty as such, addressing the concerns mentioned above about the phenomenon and our understanding of it. While the model was developed to explain the development of scientific knowledge, its creators intend it for application to almost any complex, collective activity or set of relationships. By doing away with the distinction between social and material causes, it permits a more inclusive model for explanation of what occurs when an organised system such as a state breaks down. If a state is an actor-network, an affiliation of material and social elements coherently organised such that it can present itself as a unified actor, then state collapse is the breakdown of this organising capacity. Thus, sovereignty in practice can be understood as the ability of a state to present itself as a unified actor in the international system. This essay will argue that sovereignty is not a static fact or a condition— rather, it is a process, or a series of actions and processes, through which a collection of actors and networks present themselves as a coherent unit. Thus, a failed state is a heterogeneous set of physically and culturally interrelated actors that has lost its capacity to coordinate itself, and has broken down into a set of cultural and material non-state actors.

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