Utopian visions of the state in the Global South

This project examines the role of the state as a vehicle for Utopian hopes in societies of the Global South. 

Series convenors

Bobby Sayyid (SSP) and William Gould (History)

Project overview 

Recent global shifts in the resurgence of anti-cosmopolitan nationalism, and the growing power of BRICS nations, has re-focused the attention of a range of researchers and political commentators on the durability of the nation-state and the nature of state-building as a utopian project. 

It could be argued, not least with the crisis of Europe and the rise of authoritarianism in mind, that the defining social and political process of the last 150 years has been the durability of the nation-state idea. Yet despite the fact that some of the most remarkably resilient state projects can be found in the global South (and particularly areas of the world historically subject to European colonization), most writing on state building has been based in paradigms centred on European and north American examples. 

This project therefore proposes a cutting-edge decolonial model for one of the largest and most important themes of the modern world. We in Leeds have the exceptional breadth and range of personnel to undertake this pioneering project. Although this work has been on-going for some time now, there has so far never been an attempt to create a large-scale and ambitious research network to articulate it. In this sense, we believe our project is potentially paradigm changing.

Given current political, economic, and social discussions based around the movement of people and ideas – whether the refugee crisis spreading from the Middle East and Central Asia into Europe; the influence of Islamic State and radical religious politics; or new alliances (and conflicts) between ultra-nationalist political leaders -  it is now necessary to bring scrutiny to state-building processes in the global South, much as has been done to Europe. 

Taking the states that emerged from decolonization in South Asia, South-East Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa as our primary models (reflecting the main Leeds participants’ expertise), this project seeks to generate high-quality postgraduate research as a means of creating a new paradigm for thinking about the state, both as a product of historic causality and as a model for future governing structures. Imagining post-colonial futures created opportunities for considering different visions for state-society relationships. 

This project focuses on analysing the formation and circulation of these utopian visions across the Global South.

We seek to highlight modernist utopias that simultaneously embrace the idea of the modern individual as well as the modern regulatory, often ultimately authoritarian, state. Principally, the different PhD projects within this overarching inter-disciplinary work would fall within a range of specific themes and sites that address aspects of state building, the international movement of ideas, utopian ideas of development and the promotion of human sciences as state projects. 

These themes move from larger, trans-national issues to more specific projects that explore the implementation of state-building projects.

We propose three main areas of research:

1. Late colonial ideas of the state and state building in the global South

This theme will support research exploring ideas of state building in South and South East Asia, the Middle East and Africa, both from the perspective of political theory and in terms of models of state development.

Projects here could be comparative or rooted in specific case studies, and could include: The nature of postcolonial state building and new constitutional histories; State building and the international flow of ideas; Federalism and the ‘federal moment’ in the global South; Tensions and junctures between pan-African or pan-Asian solidarity and state-centrism.

2. Citizen-state interfaces: Moving from the macro to the micro

The second theme will support projects that examine, in different ways, the specific kinds of social relationships and structures that emerge from a state-society interface.  What are the contingent meanings of ‘state’ for different sections of a population, and how does this affect the way in which we might explore its nature and development? What is the role of public religions or forms of political spirituality in these processes?

This theme would include: Concepts of indigeneity; Citizenship and concepts of the citizen; Popular ideas of government corruption; Concepts of ‘Civil Society’.

3. State building, instability and political violence

Some of the most enduring characterisations of states in the global South are the notions of ‘failed state’, ‘soft state’, ‘state decline’, ‘state capture’ or ‘state oppression’, in which forms of instability and violence are associated with the nature of state building itself.  This is especially the case in postcolonial contexts. 

This theme will support projects that interrogate this idea, or which aim to explore forms of resistance, protest, non-state or alternative state movements and forms of dystopian thinking. Project themes might include: Political instability and the state; Movements of popular resistance; Dystopias; State organised violence and looting/grabbing.