Ruling the Savage Periphery: Frontier Governance and the Making of the Modern State



A provocative case that "failed states" along the periphery of today's international system are the intended result of nineteenth-century colonial design.

From the Afghan frontier with British India to the pampas of Argentina to the deserts of Arizona, nineteenth-century empires drew borders with an eye toward placing indigenous people just on the edge of the interior. They were too nomadic and communal to incorporate in the state, yet their labor was too valuable to displace entirely. Benjamin Hopkins argues that empires sought to keep the "savage" just close enough to take advantage of, with lasting ramifications for the global nation-state order.

Hopkins theorizes and explores frontier governmentality, a distinctive kind of administrative rule that spread from empire to empire. Colonial powers did not just create ad hoc methods or alight independently on similar techniques of domination: they learned from each other. Although the indigenous peoples inhabiting newly conquered and demarcated spaces were subjugated in a variety of ways, Ruling the Savage Periphery isolates continuities across regimes and locates the patterns of transmission that made frontier governmentality a world-spanning phenomenon.

Today, the supposedly failed states along the margins of the international system--states riven by terrorism and violence--are not dysfunctional anomalies. Rather, they work as imperial statecraft intended, harboring the outsiders whom stable states simultaneously encapsulate and exploit. "Civilization" continues to deny responsibility for border dwellers while keeping them close enough to work, buy goods across state lines, and justify national-security agendas. The present global order is thus the tragic legacy of a colonial design, sustaining frontier governmentality and its objectives for a new age.

Product Details

Harvard University Press
Publish Date
May 05, 2020
6.5 X 1.2 X 9.4 inches | 1.3 pounds
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About the Author

Benjamin D. Hopkins is Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at the George Washington University. He has received research awards from the Woodrow Wilson Center, the Leverhulme Trust, and the National University of Singapore.


An outstanding book, with an original and clearly articulated argument well supported by evidence from an impressive array of archives around the world. Informed by the logic of empire and capitalism, frontier governmentality locked those at the margins of empire into a relationship of dependency with no prospect for economic betterment. Hopkins tells a gripping story well. His provocative contention that violence created colonial empires but sustains postcolonial states ought to stir up debate.--Ayesha Jalal, author of The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics
This is an ambitious and important book. The concept of 'frontier governmentality' is a very engaging and largely persuasive idea with broad applicability. Hopkins provides us with new ways to think about the relationship between the center and periphery, and the ambitious comparative dimension--along with the refusal to flatten differences--makes this a work that will command a wide readership in the fields of British Empire, Central and South Asia, and world history, but will also speak directly to those who study indigenous peoples, colonialism and post-colonialism, and global borderlands.--Andrew Graybill, author of Policing the Great Plains: Rangers, Mounties, and the North American Frontier