Theses Doctoral

Legitimacy in Contested Spaces: Three Papers on Southeast Asia

Toh, Norashiqin

Legitimacy is arguably one of the most salient concepts in the political science discipline, affecting all forms of political life. In this dissertation, I explore how legitimacy influences the behavior of state and non-state actors in violent and non-violent contested spaces in three separate cases.

The first paper examines the mechanisms through which structural factors and micro-level conditions translate into civilian support for insurgents. While the literature has largely assumed that civilians are rational actors driven by interests, immediate utility calculations represent only one of the mechanisms through which civilian support can be reached. Evidence from the interviews I conducted during my fieldwork in Thailand demonstrate that weak insurgents who have limited capacity can still leverage shared ethnic identity to build support through trust and legitimacy. Building off these findings, I propose that utility, trust, and legitimacy constitute three mechanisms that exist along a continuum, with utility being purely interest-based driven, trust being a combination of interest and moral calculations, and legitimacy being rooted in moral obligation.

The second paper identifies the various conditions that lead to ASEAN taking action in response to domestic crises within its member states. Through elite interviews with top ASEAN bureaucrats and diplomats, I first identify four conditions that motivate ASEAN action, two of which are tied to its internal legitimacy concerns, while the other two are derived from its desire to maintain external legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Combing through thousands of official ASEAN documents, I then build an original dataset on ASEAN action and inaction, and run a qualitative comparative analysis to further determine how these conditions relate to each other. I find that ASEAN is ultimately more concerned with maintaining its internal legitimacy. The two pathways leading to the organization taking action are 1) when they have grounds to justify their action, and 2) when there is a threat of external interference and the member state does not feel like its domestic interests are being threatened.

In the third paper, I rely on interviews, participation in two consultation processes, and both manual and automated text analysis to map out the causes and consequences of regime complexity in the Mekong subregion, where nine informal institutions and one treaty-based organization operate with similar member states and functional scopes. I find that the institutions including an external partner as a member state were established as vehicles to legitimate the external state’s influence in the region. These institutions therefore engage in competition with each other, which leads to functional repetition. Meanwhile, the Mekong-led institutions seek institutional legitimacy by establishing niche areas, and thus avoid competition with each other. However, the most effective way for an institution to gain legitimacy appears to be through the availability of large amounts of funding, as these financial considerations determine which institution the Mekong member states prioritize in their engagement.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2028-09-05.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Nathan, Andrew J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 6, 2023