Institutionalized Ambiguity in Legal Status: Managing the Tensions of U.S. Imperial Rule in the Philippines

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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 resolve conflicts inherent to an empire state that masquerade as nation state by institutionalizing ambiguity in legal status. I detail how this ambiguity enabled an array of future legitimate decisions about the relationship of the colony to the metropole. 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.

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