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Towards a genealogy of ‘society’ in International Relations


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.

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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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1 Owens, Patricia, Economy of Force: Counterinsurgency and the Historical Rise of the Social (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); see also Owens, Patricia, ‘Human security and the rise of the social’, Review of International Studies, 38:3 (2012), pp. 547567; Owens, Patricia, ‘From Bismarck to Petraeus: the question of the social and the social question in counterinsurgency’, European Journal of International Relations, 19:1 (2013), pp. 139161

2 See, for example, Geuss, Raymond, ‘Genealogy as critique’, European Journal of Philosophy, 10:2 (2002), pp. 209215.

3 Owens, Patricia, ‘Method or madness? Sociolatry in international thought’, Review of International Studies, 41:5 (2015) 41, this Forum.

4 Weber, Martin, ‘On the history and politics of the social turn’, Review of International Studies, 41:5 (2015), this Forum.

5 On this separation see Yar, Majid, ‘From nature to history, and back again: Blumenberg, Strauss and the Hobbesian community’, History of the Human Sciences, 15:3 (2002), pp. 5373.

6 For an analysis of this assumption, see Helliwell, Christine and Hindess, Barry, ‘“Culture”, “society” and the figure of man’, History of the Human Sciences, 12:4 (1999), pp. 120.

7 Wight, Martin, Systems of States (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1977), pp. 3335.

8 Bull, Hedley, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (London: Macmillan, 1977), p. 5.

9 Ibid., p. 13.

10 Ibid., p. 9.

11 Ibid., p. 15.

12 Ibid., p. 316.

13 See Bull, Hedley, ‘The importance of Grotius and International Relations’ in Hedley Bull, Benedict Kingsbury, and Adam Roberts (eds), Hugo Grotius and International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1992); Wight, Martin, International Theory: The Three Traditions ed. Gabriele Wight and Brian Porter (Leicester & London: Leicester University Press, 1991); Kingsbury, Benedict, ‘Grotian tradition of theory and practice: Grotius, Law, and moral skepticism in the thought of Hedley Bull’, Quinnipiac Law Review, 17 (1997), p. 3; Cutler, Claire A., ‘The “Grotian Tradition” in International Relations’, Review of International Studies, 17:1 (1991), pp. 4165.

14 Bartelson, Jens, ‘Short circuits: Society and tradition in International Relations theory’, Review of International Studies, 22 (1996), pp. 339360; Tuck, Richard, The Rights of War and Peace: Political Thought and the International Order from Grotius to Kant (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Kingsbury, Benedict and Straumann, Benjamin, ‘The state of nature and commercial sociability in early modern international legal thought’, Grotiana, 31:1 (2010), pp. 2243.

15 Buzan, Barry, From International to World Society? English School Theory and the Social Structure of Globalisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 108118.

16 Ibid., p. 111.

17 Meyer, John W., Boli, John, Thomas, George M., and Ramirez, Francisco O., ‘World society and the nation-state’, American Journal of Sociology, 103:1 (1997), pp. 144181 (p. 145).

18 Ibid., p.148.

19 Shaw, Martin, Theory of the Global State: Globality as an Unfinished Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 19.

20 Cerny, Philip G., Rethinking World Politics: A Theory of Transnational Neopluralism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Kessler, Oliver, ‘World society, social differentiation, and time’, International Political Sociology, 6:1 (2012), pp. 7794; Albert, Mathias, Buzan, Barry, and Zürn, Michael (eds), Bringing Sociology to International Relations: World Politics as Differentiation Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

21 Urry, John, Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 120.

22 Shaw, Martin, Theory of the Global State, pp. 1112, 67–97.

23 See, for example, Wallerstein, Immanuel, ‘The rise and future demise of the world capitalist system: Concepts for Comparative Analysis’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 16:4 (1974), pp. 387415.

24 Dunne, Timothy, ‘The social construction of international society’, European Journal of International Relations, 1:3 (1995), pp. 374379. For the limits of this affinity, see Reus–Smit, Christian, ‘Imagining society: Constructivism and the English School’, The British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 4:3 (2002), pp. 487509.

25 See, for example, Meyer, John W., ‘World society, institutional theories, and the actor’, Annual Review of Sociology, 36 (2010), pp. 120.

26 Onuf, Nicholas Greenwood, World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relations (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989), p. 6.

27 Ibid., p. 16.

28 Ibid., p. 36.

29 Ibid., p. 40.

30 Ibid., p. 46.

31 Wendt, Alexander, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 1.

32 Ibid., pp. 49, 68.

33 Ibid., pp. 87–8

34 Ibid., p. 160.

35 Ibid., p. 158.

36 Ibid., pp. 186–7.

37 Luhmann, Niklas, ‘The concept of society’, Thesis Eleven, 31:1 (1992), pp. 6780 (p. 68).

38 Weber, Max, ‘“Objectivity” in social science and social policy’, in Max Weber, Edward Shils, Henry A. Finch, Robert J. Antonio, and Alan Sica, Methodology of Social Sciences (New York: The Free Press, 1949), pp. 49112 (p. 74).

39 Simmel, Georg, ‘How is society possible?’, The American Journal of Sociology, 16:3 (1910), pp. 372391 (pp. 375, 389).

40 Brett, Annabel S., Changes of State: Nature and the Limits of the City in Early Modern Natural Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

41 Ibid., p. 60.

42 Fustel De Coulanges, Numa Denis, The Ancient City: A Study of the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome (Dover Publications, 2006).

43 Wagner, Peter, ‘“An entirely new object of consciousness, of volition, of thought: the coming into being and (almost) passing away of “society” as a scientific object’, in Lorraine Daston (ed.), Biographies of Scientific Objects (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 145157.

44 Foucault, Michel, ‘Society Must Be Defended’: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–76 (New York: Picador, 2003), p. 134.

45 Hont, Istvan, Jealousy of Trade: International Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 45ff; also Hont, Istvan, ‘“The language of sociability and commerce: Samuel Pufendorf and the foundations of Smith’s Four Stages” theory’, in Anthony Pagden (ed.), The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europé (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 271316.

46 See Riedel, Manfred, ‘Gesellschaft, Gemeinschaft’, in Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, and Reinhart Koselleck (eds), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, Vol. 2. (Stuttgart: Klett, 1975), pp. 801862; Hont, Istvan and Ignatieff, Michael (eds), Wealth and Virtue: the Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Jones, Gareth Stedman, ‘Hegel and the economics of civil society’, Civil Society: History and Possibilities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 105130.

47 See, for example, Wokler, Robert, ‘Saint-Simon and the passage from political to social science’, in Anthony Pagden (ed.), The Language of Political Theory in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 325338; Wokler, Robert, ‘Rousseaus Pufendorf: Natural law and the foundations of commercial society’, History of Political Thought, 15:3 (1994), pp. 373402; Richter, Melvin, ‘Tocqueville and Guizot on democracy: From a type of society to a political regime’, History of European Ideas, 30:1 (2004), pp. 6182.

48 Klautke, Egbert, ‘The French reception of Völkerpsychologie and the origins of the social sciences’, Modern Intellectual History, 10:2 (2013), pp. 293316.

49 Tönnies, Ferdinand, Community and Society: Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Michigan State University Press, 1964).

50 Durkheim, Émile and Coser, Lewis A., The Division of Labor in Society (New York: The Free Press, 1997).

51 Ibid., p. 219.

52 Rosenberg, Justin, ‘Why is there no international historical sociology?’, European Journal of International Relations, 12:3 (2006), pp. 307340; for a different interpretation, see Inglis, David and Robertson, Roland, ‘The elementary forms of globality: Durkheim and the emergence and nature of global life’, Journal of Classical Sociology, 8:1 (2008), pp. 525.

53 See, for example, Jaume, Lucien, ‘Citizen and state under the French Revolution’, in Quentin Skinner and Bo Stråth (eds), State and Citizens: History, Theory, Prospects (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 131144.

54 Rose, Nikolas, ‘The death of the social? Re-figuring the territory of government’, Economy & Society, 25:3 (1996), pp. 327356 (p. 329).

55 Keene, Edward, Beyond the Anarchical Society: Grotius, Colonialism and Order in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 1516.

56 Ludwig Heeren, Arnold Hermann, A Manual of the History of the Political System of Europe and Its Colonies, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Talboys & Browne, 1834), p. viii.

57 Boli, John and Thomas, George M., ‘World culture in the world polity: a century of international non-governmental organization’, American Sociological Review, 62 (1997), pp. 171190; Shaw, Theory of the Global State, passim.

58 For a similar argument, see Seth, Sanjay, ‘“Once was blind but now can see”: Modernity and the social sciences’, International Political Sociology, 7:2 (2013), pp. 136151.

59 Lebow, Richard Ned, The Politics and Ethics of Identity: In Search of Ourselves, (Cambridge: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Yack, Bernard, Nationalism and the Moral Psychology of Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

60 See, for example, Mehta, Uday Singh, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Armitage, David, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Pitts, Jennifer, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Morefield, Jeanne, Covenants Without Swords: Liberal Idealism and the Spirit of Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Bell, Duncan (ed.), Victorian Visions of Global Order. Empire and International Relations in Nineteenth-Century Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). For an overview, see Bell, Duncan S. A., ‘Empire and International Relations in Victorian political thought’, The History Journal, 49 (2006), pp. 281298.

61 See, for example, Benton, Lauren A., A Search for Sovereignty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Benton, Lauren, Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

62 Armitage, David, Foundations of Modern International Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 1756 (pp. 191–214).

63 See, for example, Lorca, Arnulf Becker, ‘Universal international law: Nineteenth-century histories of imposition and appropriation’, Harvard International Law Journal, 51:2 (2010), pp. 475552; Yasuaki, Onuma, ‘When was the law of international society born? – an inquiry of the history of international law from an intercivilizational perspective’, Journal of the History of International Law, 2:1 (2000), p. 166.

64 For a similar suggestion, see Connell, Raewyn, ‘Northern theory: the political geography of general social theory’, Theory and Society, 35:2 (2006), pp. 237264.

65 Pollock, Sheldon, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

66 Syros, Vasileios, ‘Galenic medicine and social stability in early modern Florence and the Islamic empires’, Journal of Early Modern History, 17:2 (2013), pp. 161213; Syros, Vasileios, ‘An early modern South Asian thinker on the rise and decline of empires: Shāh Walī Allāh of Delhi, the Mughals, and the Byzantines’, Journal of World History, 23:4 (2012), pp. 793840.

67 Scott, James C., The Art of not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

68 See Bhambra, Gurminder K., Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). For excellent overviews, see Bhambra, Gurminder K., ‘Historical sociology, modernity, and postcolonial critique’, The American Historical Review, 116:3 (2011), pp. 653662; Go, Julian, ‘For a postcolonial sociology’, Theory and Society, 42:1 (2013), pp. 2555.

69 See Alatas, Farid, Alternative Discourses in Asian Social Science: Responses to Eurocentrism (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2006); Patel, Sujata, ‘Beyond binaries: a case for self-reflexive sociologies’, Current Sociology, 54:3 (2006), pp. 381395.

70 Alatas, Farid, ‘Ibn Khaldun and contemporary sociology’, International Sociology, 21:6 (2006), pp. 782795.

71 See, for example, Christian, David, ‘World history in context’, Journal of World History, 14:4 (2003), pp. 437458; Stokes, Gale, ‘The fates of human societies: a review of recent macrohistories’, The American Historical Review, 106:2 (2001), pp. 508525.

72 See Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (ed.), Another Knowledge is Possible: Beyond Nothern Epistemologies, (London: Verso, 2007).

73 See Shilliam, Robbie (ed.), International Relations and non-Western Thought: Imperialism, Colonialism and Investigations of Global Modernity (London: Routledge, 2010).

* 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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