The Sources and Political Uses of Ambiguity in Statecraft

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Description: A perennial question in the scholarship of the state asks how states rule and expand their capacity to do so. Within this field, scholars have paid special attention to activities that rationalize and build administrative capacity, known as legibility projects. In this article, I argue that alongside these legibility projects, state actors also use a technique given less attention, which I term institutionalized ambiguity. Using the case of U.S. imperial rule and decolonization of the Philippines, I introduce a framework for research on ambiguity and the state. I show how state actors institutionalize ambiguity resolve conflicts inherent to empire states, such as the United States. I detail the productive uses of ambiguity, demonstrating how U.S. politicians used ambiguity to define territory and membership in seemingly contradictory ways, to exclude colonial subjects from social and juridical citizenship, and to maintain territorial sovereignty over the archipelago. Overall, the institutionalized ambiguity of Philippine legal status enabled the persistence of inequality in citizenship, social welfare benefits, and geopolitical arrangements in the first half of the twentieth century. More generally, institutionalized ambiguity allows state actors to manage imperial conflicts over racial hierarchies and treat populations in differentiated ways all whilst maintaining state control.

License: CC0 1.0 Universal

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