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Towards a genealogy of ‘society’ in International Relations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 July 2015


The concept of society and its cognates have long been widely invoked in order to understand International Relations. Theories of international society distinguish between a society of states and a mere system of states, and theories of world society assume that the world constitutes a single social space. In order to come to terms with the social character of International Relations, constructivists of different stripes have invoked a societal context within which the construction of identities and norms takes place. As I shall argue in this article, these usages draw on conceptions of society that emerged during the early phases of modern sociology, and have then been projected onto alien historical and cultural contexts. In order to avoid the anachronism and Eurocentrism that invariably have resulted from these uncritical usages, I argue that academic International Relations should seek to accommodate those forms of human association that cannot be subsumed under a recognisably modern concept of society by incorporating insights from postcolonial sociology into its theoretical core.

© 2015 British International Studies Association 

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I would like to thank Tarak Barkawi, Andreas Behnke, Martin Hall, Catia Gregoratti, Kimberly Hutchings, Catarina Kinnvall, Nick Onuf, Patricia Owens, Erik Ringmar, and Ted Svensson for their valuable comments on previous drafts of this article.


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