From International to World Society?: English School Theory and the Social Structure of Globalisation / Edition 1

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Barry Buzan offers an extensive and long overdue critique and reappraisal of the English school approach to International Relations. Starting on the neglected concept of world society and bringing together the international society tradition and the Wendtian mode of constructivism, Buzan offers a new theoretical framework that can be used to address globalisation as a complex political interplay among state and non-state actors. This approach forces English school theory to confront neglected questions about both its basic concepts and its assumptions, and about the constitution of society in terms of what values are shared, how and why they are shared, and by whom. Buzan highlights the idea of primary institutions as the central contribution of English school theory and shows both how this differentiates English school theory from realism and neoliberal institutionalism, and how it can be used to generate distinctive comparative and historical accounts of international society.
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Editorial Reviews

Foreign Affairs
Buzan, a leading scholar at the London School of Economics, has been instrumental in reinvigorating the English school of international relations, which focuses on the rules, norms, and institutions of the Western state system and sees world politics as driven by the interaction between Hobbesian power politics and Grotian shared norms and interests. In this illuminating study of modern global society, Buzan attacks the question of how the array of new cosmopolitan forces-the global linkages of peoples and societies-is affecting the old state system. Much of the book is an exploration of two alternate assessments of the essence of world society: a "pluralist" vision, in which states remain dominant and state sovereignty retains political and legal primacy, and a "solidarist" vision, which sees cosmopolitan values and universal norms weaving together a new global order. Buzan argues that these two logics coexist: the system of states, sovereignty, territory, nationalism, and great-power politics will increasingly mix with a much less coherent system of transnationalism, global markets, and universalistic society. This conclusion about the character of the global system is not new or surprising, but Buzan does nicely show the need to keep state-centered ways of thinking open to the murky forces of global society.
From the Publisher
"From International to World Society is the most important contribution to the English School's grand theory for a decade.... there is no doubt that the volume makes an important and ground-breaking contribution to both English School theory and International Relations theory more broadly." Alex J. Bellamy, International Affairs

"This book represents an attempt to rethink and redevelop the English School project as a coherent research program. Although it builds on the basic assumptions and premises that underlie the English School framework, it greatly expands the scope of the project and rethinks many of the fundamental issues and tensions. It actively engages with much of American social science and sociological literatures, makes some very nice links to American constructivist scholarship, and offers some excellent ways to improve the Wendtian approach.... the most important English School work in a generation." Bruce Cronin, City College of New York

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521541213
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2010
  • Series: Cambridge Studies in International Relations Series, #95
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Barry Buzan is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and a Fellow of the British Academy. He is the author, co-author or editor of over fifteen books and has published widely in academic journals.

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Cambridge University Press
0521833485 - From International to World Society? - English School Theory and the Social Structure of Globalisation - by Barry Buzan


The most fundamental question you can ask in international theory is, What is international society?

Wight (1987: 222)

After a long period of neglect, the social (or societal) dimension of the international system is being brought back into fashion within International Relations (IR) by the upsurge of interest in constructivism. For adherents of the English school, this dimension was never out of fashion, with the consequence that English school thinking itself has been somewhat on the margins of the discipline. In this book I will argue that English school theory has a lot to offer those interested in developing societal understandings of international systems, albeit itself being in need of substantial redevelopment.

International society is the flagship idea of the English school. It carves out a clearly bounded subject focused on the elements of society that states form among themselves. This domain has been quite extensively developed conceptually, and considerable work has also been done on the histories of international societies, particularly the creation of the modern international society in Europe and its expansion to the rest of the planet. World society also has a key place in English school theory, but is much less well worked out. While international society is focused on states, world society implies something that reaches well beyond the state towards more cosmopolitan images of how humankind is, or should be, organised. Quite what that 'something' that defines world society is, however, remains at best contested, and at worst simply unclear. Since world society can be (and is) easily cast as a challenger to international society, ambiguity about it is a major impediment to clear thinking about the social structure of international systems. A key cause of this problem is a widespread failure in English school thinking to distinguish clearly enough between normative theory and theory about norms. It is a central focus of this book to address that problem. Fortunately, several other traditions of thought have grappled with world society, sometimes using that label, sometimes with variants such as 'global society' or 'global civil society'. Latterly, its popularity, or that of its synonyms, perhaps can be understood best as a way of getting to conceptual grips with the phenomenon of globalisation. These other bodies of thought provide useful insights applicable to English school theory.

Consequently, although this book is about English school theory generally, and will have a lot to say about international society, much of the argument in the early chapters will focus on trying to clarify world society. The concept of world society, and especially how world society and international society relate to each other, is in my view both the biggest weakness in existing English school theory, and the place where the biggest gains are to be found. John Vincent's (1988: 211) observation that the need to work out the relationship between cosmopolitan culture and international order was one of the unfinished legacies of Bull's work remains true today. English school theory has great potential to improve how globalisation is conceptualised, but cannot do so unless it finds a coherent position on world society. I plan to survey the basic ideas and approaches to world society, and to attempt a coherent theoretical construction of the concept. My starting position is that there is not much to be gained, and quite a lot to be lost analytically, from simply using world society as a label for the totality of human interaction in all forms and at all levels. Globalisation fills that role already. My initial strategy will be to construct world society as a concept to capture the non-state side of the international system, and therefore as the complement/opponent to the already well-developed idea of international society.

The book is aimed at two distinct but not mutually exclusive audiences. The narrower audience comprises those already working in the English school tradition plus followers of Wendt's mode of constructivism. For the English school people, it offers a comprehensive critique of English school theory and an ambitious, detailed attempt to address this critique by developing a more purely social structural interpretation of the theory to set alongside its existing normative and historical strands. For the Wendtians, the book offers a friendly critique, an extension of the logic and an application of the theory. I seek to create a synthesis between the structural elements of the Bull/Vincent side of English school theory about international and world society, and Wendt's (1999) social theory of international politics. I take from both sources a social structural reading of international society, and a methodologically pluralist rejection of the view that paradigms in IR are incommensurable. I insert into both two things that they ignore or marginalise: the international political economy, and the sub-global level. And I impose on both a more rigorous taxonomical scheme than either has attempted. The result is a radical reinterpretation of English school theory from the ground up, but one that remains supportive of, and in touch with, the basic aims of both English school and Wendtian theory - to understand and interpret the composition and the dynamics of the social structure of international politics.

The broader audience is all of those in IR who acknowledge that 'globalisation' represents an important way of labelling a set of substantial and significant changes in the international system, but who despair about the analytical vacuousness of 'the "G" word'. To them, I offer a Wendt-inspired social structural interpretation of English school theory as a good solution to the problems of how to think both analytically and normatively about globalisation. English school theory is ideally tailored to address this problematique, though it has not so far been much used in this way. The English school's triad of concepts exactly captures the simultaneous existence of state and non-state systems operating alongside and through each other, without finding this conceptually problematic. It keeps the old, while bringing in the new, and is thus well suited to looking at the transition from Westphalian to post-Westphalian international politics, whether this be at the level of globalisation, or in regional developments such as the EU. English school theory can handle the idea of a shift from balance of power and war to market and multilateralism as the dominant institutions of international society, and it provides an ideal framework for examining questions of intervention, whether on human rights or other grounds. Managing this expansion from interstate to world politics is important to IR as a discipline. IR's core strengths are in the states-system, and it needs to combine these with other elements of the international system, and to avoid ensnaring itself in the trap of unnecessary choices between state and non-state alternatives. In my view, English school theory shows how this can be done better than any available alternative.

This broader audience includes practically everyone engaged in the debates about IR theory. Some of them may baulk initially at the idea of wading through a sustained critique of what they may see as a somewhat marginal and traditional body of IR theory. Why, they may ask, should we bother with something so demonstrably flawed? They should take this book in three stages. First, it can be read as a relatively compact introduction to a stimulating and useful body of theory with which they may not be very familiar. Second, it is a sustained attempt to bring together the IR tradition of thinking about international society, and Wendtian constructivism, and to set both of these against more sociological thinking about society generally and world society in particular. Wendtian thinking is broadened out to include non-state actors, and English school theory is forced to confront neglected questions about the constitution of society in terms of what values are shared, how and why they are shared, and by whom. Third, it is about developing out of this conjuncture a theoretical framework that can be used to address globalisation as a complex social interplay among state and non-state actors mediated by a set of primary institutions. This interplay can be captured as a finite, though not simple, set of structural possibilities governed by a relatively small number of key variables. Using English school theory to address globalisation does not offer the predictive oversimplifications of neorealism and neoliberalism. But by opening the way to a wider historical interpretation, it does offer an escape from the Westphalian straitjacket. It gives powerful grounds for differentiation and comparison among types of international society, and ways of understanding both what Westphalian international society evolved from, and what it might be evolving into. In that mode, this book also speaks to those grappling with integration theory, and how to understand, and manage, developments in the EU.

The plan is as follows. Chapter 1 provides a quick overview of English school theory in order to set the context, and to note some of the problems that a more social structural interpretation might redress. Chapter 2 sets out a detailed exegesis of the world society concept in English school thinking, establishing the role it plays in the debates about pluralism and solidarism, the incoherence of its usage, and its importance to the whole structure of English school thinking. Chapter 3 surveys how others outside the English school have deployed the idea of world society, and looks for ideas there which can be applied to the English school framework. Chapter 4 engages four analytical tensions at the heart of English school theory (state versus non-state, physical versus social concepts of system, society versus community and individual versus transnational), and develops a revised framework for thinking about international and world society. Chapter 5 returns to the pluralist-solidarist debates, focusing on the neglected question of what counts as solidarism, and particularly the place of the economic sector. It reconstructs this debate as a way of thinking about the spectrum of interstate societies. Chapter 6 explores the concept of the institutions of international society in English school theory, relating them to usage in regime theory, and attempting a comprehensive mapping of them and how they relate to types of international society. Chapter 7 introduces geography, arguing that the traditional focus on the global level needs to be balanced by an equal focus on international social structures at the sub-global scale. Among other things, bringing in a geographic variable opens the way into understanding the dynamics and evolution of international societies through a type of vanguard theory. Chapter 8 uses the analytical lens developed in chapters 4-6 to sketch a portrait of contemporary international society, to look back at the institutional change of the last two centuries that brought us to where we are now, and to think about the forces driving it. The chapter concludes with a consideration of the likely directions of its development, and with proposals for the English school research agenda.

1 English school theory and its problems: an overview

We need sharper analytical tools than those provided by Wight and Bull.

Dunne (2001b: 66)

This chapter starts with a summary of English school theory as it is conventionally understood. The second section looks at the different strands, tensions and potentials within the school, and locates within them the line to be taken in the rest of this book. The third section reviews the main areas of weakness in English school theory that subsequent chapters will address and hopefully rectify. The fourth section tackles the question of whether English school theory is really theory.

English school theory: a summary

The English school can be thought of as an established body of both theoretical and empirical work dating back to the late 1950s (Dunne 1998; Wæver 1998; Buzan 2001). Robert Jackson (1992: 271) nicely sums up the English school conversation by seeing it as:

a variety of theoretical inquiries which conceive of international relations as a world not merely of power or prudence or wealth or capability or domination but also one of recognition, association, membership, equality, equity, legitimate interests, rights, reciprocity, customs and conventions, agreements and disagreements, disputes, offenses, injuries, damages, reparations, and the rest: the normative vocabulary of human conduct.

Two core elements define the distinctiveness of the English school: its three key concepts, and its theoretically pluralist approach. The three key concepts are: international system, international society and world society (Little 1995: 15-16). Within the English school discourse, these are sometimes (and perhaps misleadingly) codified as Hobbes (or sometimes Machiavelli), Grotius and Kant (Cutler 1991). They line up with Wight's (1991) 'three traditions' of IR theory: Realism, Rationalism and Revolutionism. Broadly speaking, these terms are now understood as follows:

  • International system (Hobbes/Machiavelli/realism) is about power politics amongst states, and puts the structure and process of international anarchy at the centre of IR theory. This position is broadly parallel to mainstream realism and neorealism and is thus well developed and clearly understood. It also appears elsewhere, as for example in Tilly's (1990: 162) definition that states form a system 'to the extent that they interact with each other regularly, and to the degree that their interaction affects the behaviour of each state'. It is based on an ontology of states, and is generally approached with a positivist epistemology, materialist and rationalist methodologies and structural theories.

  • International society (Grotius/rationalism) is about the institutionalisation of shared interest and identity amongst states, and puts the creation and maintenance of shared norms, rules and institutions at the centre of IR theory. This position has some parallels to regime theory, but is much deeper, having constitutive rather than merely instrumental implications (Hurrell 1991: 12-16; Dunne 1995: 140-3). International society has been the main focus of English school thinking, and the concept is quite well developed and relatively clear. In parallel with international system, it is also based on an ontology of states, but is generally approached with a constructivist epistemology and historical methods.

  • World society (Kant/revolutionism) takes individuals, non-state organisations and ultimately the global population as a whole as the focus of global societal identities and arrangements, and puts transcendence of the states-system at the centre of IR theory. Revolutionism is mostly about forms of universalist cosmopolitanism. It could include communism, but as Wæver (1992: 98) notes, these days it is usually taken to mean liberalism. This position has some parallels to transnationalism, but carries a much more foundational link to normative political theory. It clearly does not rest on an ontology of states, but given the transnational element neither does it rest entirely on one of individuals. Critical theory defines some, but not all of the approaches to it, and in Wightian mode it is more about historically operating alternative images of the international system as a whole than it is about capturing the non-state aspects of the system.1

Jackson (2000: 169-78) puts an interesting twist on the three traditions by viewing them as defining the diverse values that statespeople have to juggle in the conduct of foreign policy. Realism he sees as giving priority to national responsibilities, rationalism he sees as giving priority to international responsibilities, and revolutionism (which he prefers to call cosmopolitanism) he sees as giving priority to humanitarian responsibilities. He adds a fourth, more recent value - stewardship of the planet - in effect, giving priority to responsibility for the environment.

The classical English school framework is summarised in figure 1 below. So far, the main thrust of the English school's work has been to uncover the nature and function of international societies, and to trace their history and development. The basic idea of international society is quite simple: just as human beings as individuals live in societies which they both shape and are shaped by, so also states live in an international society which they shape and are shaped by. This social element has to be put alongside realism's raw logic of anarchy if one is to get a meaningful picture of how systems of states operate. When units are sentient, how they perceive each other is a major determinant of how they interact. If the units share a common identity (a religion, a system of governance, a language), or even just a common set of rules or norms (about how to determine relative status, and how to conduct diplomacy), then these intersubjective understandings not only condition their behaviour, but also define the boundaries of a social system. Within the idea of international society, the principal debate has been that between pluralists and solidarists. This hinges on the question of the type and extent of norms, rules and institutions that an international society can form without departing from the foundational rules of sovereignty and non-intervention that define it as a system of states. Pluralists think that the sovereignty/non-intervention principles restrict international society to fairly minimal rules of coexistence. Solidarists think that international society can develop quite wide-ranging norms, rules and institutions, covering both coexistence issues and cooperation in pursuit of shared interests, including some scope for collective enforcement. As indicated on figure 1, pluralism and solidarism define the boundary zones, respectively, towards realism and revolutionism.

Figure 1. The classical 'Three Traditions' model of English school theory

Note: Titles in ( ) are Wight's labels; titles in [ ] are the analytical focus;
titles along the border zones are where the traditions blend into each other

The main focus of English school work has centred on a synthesis of realism and rationalism. This focus is nicely captured by Bull and Watson's (1984: 1) classic definition of international society as:

a group of states (or, more generally, a group of independent political communities) which not merely form a system, in the sense that the behaviour of each is a necessary factor in the calculations of the others, but also have established by dialogue and consent common rules and institutions for the conduct of their relations, and recognise their common interest in maintaining these arrangements.

This definition neatly demonstrates the combination of the Hobbesian/ realist element of international system, with the Grotian/rationalist element of a socially constructed order. It interleaves the logic of more material theories of the international system, driven by billiard ball metaphors, with the view that sentience makes a difference, and that social systems cannot be understood in the same way as physical ones.

But the pursuit of international society has obliged the English school to engage with the element of liberal revolutionism. Once the idea of society was conceded, one had to think not just of international society (amongst states), but also 'world society' (the idea of shared norms and values at the individual level, transcending the state). It is clear from figure 1 that world society is fundamental to the ability of English school theory to focus enquiry along these lines.

As captured in figure 1, the idea is that these three key concepts form a complete and interlinked picture of the IR universe. Although each element is conceptually and methodologically distinct, they blur into each other at the boundaries. In the English school perspective all three of these elements are in continuous coexistence and interplay, the question being how strong they are in relation to each other (Bull 1991: xvii-xviii; Dunne 1995: 134-7). The three key concepts thus generate the second distinctive feature of the English school, its theoretical pluralism. Little (1998, 2000) makes a strong case that the English school should be seen not just as a series of ontological statements about reality, but more as a pluralist methodological approach. By introducing international society as a third element, not only as a via media between realism and liberalism/cosmopolitanism, but also as the keystone to an interdependent set of concepts, English school theory transcends the binary opposition between them that for long plagued debates about IR theory. By assuming not only that all three elements always operate simultaneously, but also that each carries its own distinctive ontological and epistemological package, English school theory also transcends the assumption often made in the so-called inter-paradigm debate, that realist, liberal and marxist approaches to IR theory are incommensurable (McKinlay and Little 1986).

World society, and the problems and potentials of English school theory

As just noted, the foundation of English school theory is the idea that international system, international society and world society all exist simultaneously, both as objects of discussion and as aspects of international reality. This theoretically pluralist formulation takes the focus away from the oppositional either/or approaches of much IR theory ( interparadigm debate, realism-idealism, rationalist-reflectivist, etc.) and moves it towards a holistic, synthesising approach that features the patterns of strength and interplay amongst the three pillars. But world society has been the Cinderella concept of English school theory, receiving relatively little attention and almost no conceptual development. To the extent that it gets discussed at all, it is in the context of other concerns, usually, but not always, human rights.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

List of figures and tables xi
Preface xiii
List of abbreviations xv
Glossary xvii
Introduction 1
1 English school theory and its problems: an overview 6
English school theory: a summary 6
World society, and the problems and potentials of English school theory 10
The main areas of weakness in English school theory 15
Is English school theory really theory? 24
2 World society in English school theory 27
The intellectual history of world society within English school thinking 30
The pluralist-solidarist debate 45
Conclusions 62
3 Concepts of world society outside English school thinking 63
IR writers with a sociological turn: Burton, Luard and Shaw 66
Sociological conceptions of world society 70
Global civil society 77
Conclusions 87
4 Reimagining the English school's triad 90
State and non-state 91
Physical/mechanical and social concepts of system 98
Society and community 108
Individual and transnational 118
Conclusions: reconstructing the English school's triad 128
5 Reconstructing the pluralist-solidarist debate 139
What type of values, if shared, count as solidarist? 143
Does it make any difference to solidarism how and why any given values are shared? 152
What does 'thickness' mean in terms of type and number of values shared, and type and number of people and/or states sharing them? 154
Conclusions 158
6 The primary institutions of international society 161
Definitional problems 163
The concept of primary institutions in English school literature 167
Hierarchy and functionalism within primary institutions 176
The range of institutions and the types of international society 190
Conclusions 195
7 Bringing geography back in 205
Exclusive globalism is not necessary 207
Unwarranted pessimism 212
Understanding the interplay among the interhuman, transnational and interstate domains 217
Conclusions: a vanguard theory of international social structures 222
8 Conclusions: a portrait of contemporary interstate society 228
A snapshot of contemporary interstate society 231
Looking back: what changed, what didn't and why? 240
Driving forces, deeply rooted structures and contradictions 249
Conclusions: where to from here? 263
List of references 271
Index 284
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