Sovereignty: conceptual limitations

We started last week with “a sketch on sovereignty” (link to complete article), the first post of a series of blog articles written for the general public in order to make more accessible a legal and political term that somehow has proven to be rather elusive with regards its actual meaning. Indeed, like any other expression or concept, we will see that its elusiveness has very little to do with its nature but with its interpretation. Thus, in most cases these interpretations have hidden agendas.
It is mainly for that reason that we will be discussing every Friday some relevant issues to untangle this supposedly absolute term and review some assumptions that only act as self-limitations when we think of sovereign States in a cooperative rather than a dysfunctional manner.
In the following we well introduce some conceptual limitations to the term “sovereignty”. The paragraphs are part of an article published by the International Journal for the Semiotics of Law (Springer) and will act as introduction and overview for the posts that will follow every Friday.
“Conceptual limitations have to do with any given term and its application within a certain domain. So, every concept has defining characteristics that makes it somehow limited (contrary to beliefs, assumptions, or justifications). In other words, a concept identifies a particular group of phenomena according to certain criteria. With regard to a concept such as sovereignty these criteria change over time as people’s situations, beliefs, assumptions or justifications change. Furthermore, the criteria writers think they are using are not always the ones they turn out to be actually using when one examines the phenomena and what they say about them. For instance, following a classical definition of the concept that is central to this thesis we find that:
“[Sovereignty is] a Supreme authority in a [S]tate. In any [S]tate sovereignty is vested in the institution, person, or body having the ultimate authority to impose law on everyone else in the [S]tate and the power to alter any pre-existing law. […] In international law, it is an essential aspect of sovereignty that all [S]tates should have supreme control over their internal affairs […]”
Martin, E. A. and Law, J., ed. 2006. A Dictionary of Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Evidently, there are many other definitions of sovereignty that can be quoted. Nevertheless, we can already see with this classical definition that there are several notions related to sovereignty: supreme authority, institution/person/body, inward and outward view, power, and so on. Indeed, this myriad of notions makes sovereignty a complex concept. That is because as a word, ‘sovereignty’ has the same linguistic difficulties any other language unit has (ambiguity, vagueness, open texture as per Hart’s classification). Is that the only problematic presented by such a concept? To answer the question affirmatively would be over-simplistic (or over-optimistic); contrary to that, not only has this particular word the same linguistic issues any other term may potentially have, but also possesses specific characteristics that makes it valuable yet highly complex. It is a multi-faceted term with influence in politics, law, and many other areas with several conceptual implications in all of them. We have thereby to focus our attention first on the analysis of some of these conceptual implications—i.e. the ones that are linked to this thesis.
There are indeed many conceptual issues we may consider when referring to State sovereignty. I will mention some of them below. The aim here is solely to make evident how a concept that is at first thought to be absolute presents several characteristics that show something different. Some of these conceptual issues include:
·                Confusion between supreme and unlimited or absolute authority and how different sorts of limits—e.g. internal, international, religious—relate to the concept of sovereignty.
·                Whether sovereignty is a form of authority or power or both.
·                The related distinction between de jureand de facto sovereignty.
·                Whether sovereignty is a feature of an office (or institution) or of a person or body of persons. Linked to this, the difference between sovereignty as something possessed by a State (e.g. the United States, Argentina) and sovereignty as something that may or may not be possessed by an institution within a State (e.g. Parliamentary sovereignty in the United Kingdom, the absence of a single sovereign institution within the United States).
·                What it is for a State to be ‘internally’ and ‘externally’ sovereign.
·                The notion of ‘popular’ sovereignty.
·                Whether we can think of sovereignty as something possessed within a limited jurisdiction (e.g. ‘I have authority over matter X but not over matters Y and Z, but my authority over X is final and complete, so I am sovereign over X’) or whether sovereignty must entail a notion of unlimited jurisdiction.
Before starting with the conceptual clarifications it is important to highlight that I am working with the concept of sovereignty—hence its conceptual implications—as it already exists and I do not propose a new definition.”
“The final publication is available at”.

We will continue with this analysis every Friday. Your comments are always appreciated. It is indeed in the variety of opinions and reasonable discussion that lies the secret to a paradigm in international relations.

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