Toward a Theory of Heteronomy

Charles Butcher, Ryan D. Griffiths

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


It is thought that political order in premodern Europe was characterized by overlapping and crosscutting forms of authority. Scholars have called this heteronomy, arguing that it preceded and may follow the modern sovereign state system and that it has characterized various historical locales around the world. We maintain that this conception has been under-examined, and we identity three different forms of heteronomy that existed historically. These include: (1) interstitial heteronomy, where polities with limited capacity in low-density regions experience zones of informal mixed rule on the frontier; (2) functional heteronomy, where states in thickly populated systems develop complex patterns of functional differentiation; and (3) personalistic heteronomy, where power that is invested in individuals rather than territorially defined polities can produce patterns of dual vassalage. We develop a theory of heteronomy based on the density of the system (low, high) and the nature of political relations (territorial, personal), and using the resulting two-dimensional map we explore the form of heteronomy that existed and may exist in different systems across time and space. We conclude that when scholars envisage heteronomy in the modern system, it is mostly functional, and not interstitial or personalistic heteronomy, which they have in mind.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbersqac004
JournalInternational Studies Quarterly
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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