The Danger of Over-Generalizing

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by Joshua Foust on 2/15/2012 · 6 comments

Frank Jacobs has a really interesting piece in the Opinionator about border areas and government control.

But there exists another type of border, one that doesn’t reflect back our image. In vampiric asymmetry, it offers only the void. There are no barriers, no officials, no capitals on the other side. The world as we know it — reciprocal even across national borders — ends here. One thinks of the American West in the mid-19th century, or parts of Brazil into the 20th. The borderline does not merely separate two territories, but two paradigms: law and order from anarchy, progress from primitivism. Or perhaps, seen from the other side: freedom from oppression, purity from decadence.

In earlier times, such lawless anomalies were surprisingly common, even in the middle of “civilization.” London was riddled by as many as a dozen legal safe havens, where debtors and criminals could seek refuge from arrest [1]. Emerging first in the Middle Ages, they persisted until Parliament abolished the last of them in 1723.

Lawless regions as an analytic construct is of interest to Central Asia hands, if only because there are a few of them in the region and they can sometimes adversely affect international politics. Jacobs highlights an intriguing region, called “Zomia” by Dutch historian Willem van Schendel, where states exercise little or no control over the people who live there. Recently van Schendel expanded this Zomia region to include several of the states of Central Asia, as highlighted in the map above.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan is perhaps the most immediately famous part of Zomia, and that can give you an idea of what the construct means: a region where a government might exist in some form but where control is either absent or violently contested by locals. It is intriguing, to be sure. But Jacobs also gets a few things badly wrong as well.

For one, the map of Zomia—which is posted above—is wrong. Even ignoring the completely arbitrary extent of the shaded area, whoever made the map mislabeled Tajikistan as Uzbekistan. That’s just… well, mistakes happen, even in the New York Times. But if you can’t name the right country on a map, just how much do you know how the social disconnection that may or may not be there?

But there is a more serious mistake Jacobs makes in trying to discuss the idea of Zomia:

In 2009, the Yale political scientist James C. Scott examined the fractious nature of Zomia’s politics in a “counter-narrative” [8] — in other words, from the local point of view. These highlanders, he contended, are not unassimilated because they are untouched by modernity, but because they reject it. This puts them in league with, or at least in the same league as, the non-conformists of Alsatia. This also illuminates, and complicates, our understanding of the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflicts, which might not be all about secular modernity versus religious orthodoxy, but maybe also about city versus village (or, more likely, valley).

Unless one equates modernity with answering to a central government you did not choose, this is all wrong. All of it. I can’t speak to Scott’s argument—I own but have not read his book—but the idea that these transitional regions resist their governments because they reject modernity is nonsense. Afghanistanis and Pakistanis do not reject modernity writ large: they love running water and sanitation and schools and iPhones and electricity and the Internet. Even the Taliban enjoy and appreciate these aspects of modernity. What they are rejecting is a government they view as abusive and unrepresentative. Moreover, most Afghans still identify as Afghans, even (or perhaps especially) when explaining why they reject rule-by-Karzai. So it’s not as simple as rejecting a national identity or modernity.

A similar thread connects the other regions of Central Asia. Southern Kyrgyz don’t reject modernity—they’d love to all drive a Mercedes and live in a big house and have nice things. What they reject is the broken politics of Bishkek. In Tajikistan, it’s hard to say even that the countryside is rejecting the state—the state is so absent in many places it’s hard to say the people there believe in it one way or another very strongly at all.

The idea of a lawless region as an object of analysis is fraught with issues. These regions are not “lawless,” as Jacobs calls them. They just operate under different laws that are neither drafted nor enforced by the state. The tribal areas of Pakistan, for example, actually follow a long-established pattern of competition between local and central methods of control. Similarly, Southwest Kyrgyzstan isn’t rejecting modernity by any stretch, it is just coming under the control of mafia dons who have taken up high-level positions in the local and regional government. It’s not lawless, it’s just a different kind of law, however un-ideal and crappy.

I know the idea Jacobs is getting at: that some regions of the world, seemingly clustered in Central and South Asia reject their governments’ control. That’s fine and fairly accurate to say. But to extend that to then argue that the people in this vast expanse exist in lawlessness and reject modernity is a pretty ridiculous assumption to assign to them. It’s also just not true, at least in a big chunk of the region he’s describing. When trying to make a grand argument about a big topic, it’s important to get the details right.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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AJK February 15, 2012 at 10:55 pm


I read (and LOVED) Scott’s book and yes, I think that it’s a bit mischaracterized here. Scott focuses on the Burmese/Thai highlands of Southeast Asia and I think there’s only a couple of tangential mentions of anything from Tibet westwards.

Scott writes on a much larger scale then we deal with here at Registan; he’s talking about broad concepts like civilization, the development of writing and reading…things like that. He’s more comparable to Graeber than Barfield. Scott talks more historically and doesn’t touch much after industrialization for the exact reason that he thinks that the concept of Zomia (one “o”) is dying out; because even people who hate states like running water and mobile phones.

This reads a bit like you’re taking a throwaway paragraph describing a throwaway sentence to attack here and hey, I’ll be the last one to argue that doing just that is a bad thing. But I do think that it’s still worth reading The Art of Not Being Governed even if you accept that it’s not even really writing about Central Asia and that Jacobs had to write a graph on “CURRENT EVENT IMPLICATIONS” to make his editor happy.

Joshua Foust February 15, 2012 at 11:02 pm

Hey I own Scott’s book for a very good reason — several people, including you now, have recommended it as an excellent study that’s worth understanding. So no argument with me from that!

I do stand by my point about getting details right. This is one reason why I usually dislike Grand Ideas, because they just don’t work out if you learn too much about specific case studies.

And crap let me go correct everything about Zomia.

Christian February 15, 2012 at 11:25 pm

The problem with discussing “modernity” in forums that cross from academia into broader circles is that there are several different definitions in use. I believe the authors mentioned above are all using the definition that is in line with “modernization theory” and the ensuing academic debate on that topic. And I’m fine with how they’ve used it.

As for the rest, I agree with Scott. RE: Jacobs, his use of “lawless” is as misplaced as the over-use of the term “ungoverned.” Societies beyond the reach of the modern state all have some system of law/governance.

Ian February 16, 2012 at 7:42 am

I finally, after years of planning to read it, bought the Scott book and started reading it because of the Times article, and although I’m not far along yet, I can see his argument applying extremely well to specific places at specific times in Central Asia. For example, his description of altitude as a major barrier to the state’s reach–so that rather than using a bird’s eye map, it’s better to use a horizontal perspective–matches almost exactly the anthropological literature on the Dara-ye Nur area in the north of Nangarhar. This is probably less so true now than it was when it was written in the 70s, but still. I’m also reminded of “Friend by Day, Enemy by Night: Organized Vengeance in a Kohistani Community,” in which it’s clear the locals didn’t want the Pakistan government to build a road because, while it would have been good for trade, they preferred to opt for their own ways of doing things outside of government.

I can see why the idea of some coherent “Zomia” sounds upsetting and overgeneral, especially when the NYT mistranslates it for its audience. It’s probably the case that the areas that fit the description are now tiny in Central Asia thanks to extremely effective Soviet policies and the last three decades of foreign intervention in Afghanistan. But, it goes a heck of a lot longer way to describing what usually falls under the unsatisfied rubric of “ungoverned spaces.”

jakob February 16, 2012 at 9:53 am

for German readers, Conrad Schetter has a discussion of the use of the term ‘ungoverned territories’ in ‘Geographica Helvetica’ (#65/3) which makes a pretty good read. similarly to ‘lawless areas’ it’s used without much regard and of course for strategic purposes in the long run.

MKM February 27, 2012 at 5:28 pm

“In Tajikistan, it’s hard to say even that the countryside is rejecting the state—the state is so absent in many places it’s hard to say the people there believe in it one way or another very strongly at all.”

I don’t think so – the state is absent in that it doesn’t do a good job providing services, but fairly omnipresent in a would-be continuation of the Soviet model. In areas that supported the Kulob/Rakhmon side in the civil war, there are banners, statues, and propaganda to remind citizens of the glory of Tajikistan – something like what Scott talks about as a “market of symbolic commodities.” The extent to which people know this is largely BS varies- it’s a visible demonstration of winning at patronage politics, basically. In areas that opposed the current ruling coalition in the civil war, state symbols are less present, or a deployed strategically in preparation for festivals or something like a school-building project. But people are certainly not unaware of the state in areas like Tavildara, where it periodically shows up with helicopters and fights gun battles. Less dramatically, there are loads of cops around asking for bribes – so just because the State isn’t very competent doesn’t mean it isn’t present. Today, even remote areas send droves of workers to Russia. That state is totally absent only in about the most isolated regions in the Wakhan (or any mountain village in winter, which is more cut-off), where Scott’s ideas about slicing societies by altitude make a fair amount of sense.

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