The Incoherence of Empire. Or, the Pitfalls of Ignoring Sovereignty

Andrew Dilley, Jon Wilson

Research output: Working paper

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Dominant conceptions of the history of the British Empire assert that empire was a coherent phenomenon and maintain the coherence of their subject matter by treating empire as a metaphor for broader conceptions of power. Influential histories of empire since the 1950s do not present empire as a phenomenon in its own right, and collapse into other totalising meta-concepts such as global capitalism or western cultural dominance. Challenging such approaches, this article argues for the return of an essentially political definition of empire with sovereignty at its core, which recognises that British assertions of sovereignty were incoherent, multiple, and mutually incompatible with one another. Tracing the history of conflict between different idioms of sovereign authority, it shows how the British empire was defined by a series of mutually self-contradictory ideas about what it was. It suggests that a recognition of the incoherence of imperial sovereignty offers new, more nuanced, readings of central concerns in the literature such as imperial violence and the economics of empire.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages33
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sep 2019


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