Closet Postcolonialists? On Buzan and Lawson’s Global Transformation

julianaugust13This is the second post in our symposium on The Global Transformation by Buzan and Lawson. We are delighted to welcome Julian Go, Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies at Boston University, and Editor of Political Power and Social Theory. Julian’s recent books include American Empire and the Politics of Meaning (Duke University Press, 2008) and Patterns of Empire: the British and American Empires, 1688 to Present (Cambridge University Press, 2011), both of which have won numerous prestigious awards in various disciplines. He is currently working on a manuscript provisionally entitled Postcolonial Theory and Social Thought and a volume on Global Historical Sociology co-edited with George Lawson.

Update: Jeppe’s response, Jamie’s response and the authors’ rejoinder are now also live. Original post here.


In this magisterial work, Buzan and Lawson make two overarching claims: 1. the nineteenth century saw a fundamental “global transformation” in the “international order”, creating the essential aspects of the “global modernity” we inhabit today, and 2. disciplinary IR needs to recognize this transformation and reconfigure its identity and agenda accordingly. As a historical sociologist, I feel less certain about judging the second claim but more certain about the first. Was there a fundamental transformation in the nineteenth century that has shaped our contemporary global modernity? Yes. And Buzan and Lawson painstakingly and persuasively chart this transformation like none other.

What, then, to say about this important book – a book, by the way, which every serious historical social scientist needs to read? A book which, in my estimation, belongs among the great works of historical sociology like those of Wallerstein, Tilly, and Mann? Pushed to say something critical, I will instead say something didactic. More precisely, I will comment on two things: the relative absence of theory and the remarkable presence of empire. Put differently: what is the theoretical frame or theoretical considerations mobilized in the work? And why isn’t empire the fundamental organizing analytic category? Or, put simply: are Buzan and Lawson closet postcolonialists? Continue reading

The Global Transformation: The Making of the Modern World

This guest post by Barry Buzan and George Lawson marks the beginning of a symposium on their book The Global Transformation: History, Modernity and the Making of International Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Barry is a Fellow of the British Academy, Emeritus Professor in the LSE Department of International Relations and a Senior Fellow at LSE IDEAS. He was formerly Montague Burton professor in the Department of International Relations, LSE. Among his books are, with Richard Little, International Systems in World History (2000); with Ole Wæver, Regions and Powers (2003); From International to World Society? (2004); with Lene Hansen, The Evolution of International Security Studies (2009); and An Introduction to the English School of International Relations (2014). George Lawson is an Associate Professor of International Relations at LSE. His research focuses on the interface between International Relations and Historical Sociology, and on processes of radical change, most notably revolutions. He is the author of Negotiated Revolutions (2005) and the editor (with Chris Armbruster and Michael Cox) of The Global 1989 (2010).

Team BG

Update: Julian’s response, Jeppe’s response, Jamie’s response and the authors’ rejoinder are now live.


The core argument of The Global Transformation is straightforward: during the 19th century, a ‘global transformation’ remade the basic structure of international order. This transformation involved a complex configuration of industrialization, rational state-building, and ideologies of progress. What do we mean by these terms?

  • By industrialization we mean both the commercialization of agriculture and the two-stage industrial revolution, which together both shrank the planet and generated an intensely connected system of global capitalism. The extension of capitalism brought new opportunities for accumulating power, not least because of the close relationship between industrialization and dispossession. Indeed, industrialization in some places (such as Britain) was deeply interwoven with the forceful de-industrialization of others (such as India).
  • By rational state-building, we mean the process by which administrative and bureaucratic competences were accumulated and ‘caged’ within national territories. This process was not pristine. Rather, as we show in the book, processes of rational state-building and imperialism were co-implicated – most 19th century nation-states in the West were imperial nation-states, and imperialism ‘over there’ fed into rational state-building ‘at home’: the modern, professional civil service was formed in India before being exported to Britain; techniques of surveillance, such as fingerprinting and file cards, were developed in colonies and subsequently imported by the metropoles; cartographic techniques used to map colonial spaces were reimported into Europe to serve as the basis for territorial claims,. Domestically, rational states provided facilitative institutional frameworks for the development of industry, technological innovations, weaponry and science; abroad, they provided sustenance for imperial policies. Both functions were underpinned by ‘ideologies of progress’.
  • By ‘ideologies of progress’, we mean assemblages of beliefs, concepts and values that address how polities, economies and cultural orders relate to each other, how individuals and groups fit into these assemblages, and how human collectivities should be governed. In the book, we highlight the impact of four such ideologies: liberalism, socialism, nationalism and ‘scientific racism’, all of which were rooted in ideas of classification, improvement, control and progress (including ‘scientific racism’, many of whose proponents favoured a ‘forward policy’ in which European imperialism was hardened, both to safeguard white gains and to combat miscegenation with ‘backward’ peoples). Again, there was a dark side to these ideologies (and not just with ‘scientific racism’) – the promise of progress was linked closely to a ‘standard of civilization’ which served as the legitimating currency for coercive practices against ‘barbarians’ (understood as peoples with an urban ‘high culture’ – the ‘Oriental Despotisms’ of the Ottomans, Indians, Chinese, etc.) and ‘savages’ (understood as peoples without an urban ‘high culture’ – virtually everyone else). These ideas ended the long dominance of the dynastic state and defined the social framework of modernity. Nothing of comparable weight has come into being since, so these ideas, and the interplay amongst them, not only defined the dynamics of legitimacy and conflict during the 20th century, but continue to dominate the 21st

The three components of the global transformation were mutually reinforcing. Continue reading

Confronting the Global Colour Line

Race and Racism in IR

Our edited volume Race and Racism in International Relations: Confronting the Global Colour Line has now been published. We asked some of the contributors to give us their thoughts on what has been (both deliberately and unwittingly) overlooked by the discipline of International Relations with regard to questions of race and racism; the challenges posed by (re)centring these vital questions; and how IR may atone for its implication in empire. At your service, Sankaran Krishna, Debra Thompson, Srdjan Vucetic and John Hobson.

What has been the least investigated aspect of race and racism in IR?

Sankaran Krishna

The question makes me want to laugh because to me mainstream IR is all about how not to talk about race and racism while constantly appearing to talk about the relations between different kinds of peoples and countries. I came to IR only at the PhD level. My masters in modern history had acquainted me with the history of colonialism, racism, genocide, man-made holocausts like the Great Bengal famine, the slave trade, and other such events, on a world-scale in the post-Columbian (ie; post-1492) era. In my first IR courses in the United States the focus seemed to be on how can we understand the social world through models that pretend humans are unthinking molecules or inanimate entities. Stuff like Bueno de Mesquita’s War Trap (I kept waiting for someone to tell me that was a joke, like they do on Candid Camera.) It was a few years later that I realized that the penchant for abstract theorization, distaste for historical specificity and woolly stuff like ideology, and fetish for numbers – all voiced in deep manly intonations about analytical rigor – were nothing but an assiduous refusal to face the world in all its racial violence and splendor. In other words it’s the absence of considerations of race and racism that coheres the discipline.

When you widen the frame beyond mainstream IR and include those at the margins – thinkers like DuBois immediately come to mind – and especially take into account writings over the last few decades, the picture is a lot better. From my point of view, there has been a tendency in self-proclaimed dissident literatures to be inadequately critical of the racial conditions of their own emergence: invocations of the Global South or postcoloniality or marginality or the colour line can themselves become fetishized and serve as screens preempting a closer inquiry into racial difference and the consequences of othering. Continually calling out the protean forms in which race and racism manifest themselves historically and contemporarily seems, to me at any rate, a worthwhile vocation.

What is the most important theoretical challenge to IR posed by an engagement with race and racism?

Debra Thompson Continue reading

Dr Manchanda, I Presume?

A Doctor of Philosophy was made this day. Our own Nivi, for her thesis on Imagining Afghanistan: The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge Production, received from the University of Cambridge. An analysis ranging from the imagined border to the constructed tribe, from gender to sexuality and back again, from the post-colonial to the homonationalist, and from the 19th century to present. Duly tested and found more than able by Dr Sharath Srinivasan and Professor Jutta Weldes. Granted without corrections. From this point forth, Dr Manchanda.

LOL Edward Said Eurocentrism

The Global Colonial 1914-18: A Public Roundtable

This is the fourth and final post in our series on The Global Colonial 1914-18, which is the video and transcript of the public event which took place at SOAS on September 18th 2014. Links to previous posts and the series as a whole can be found here. Many thanks to our speakers Hakim Adi, Catriona Pennell, Parmjit Singh, Martin Spafford and Charles Tripp for their contributions, as well as the audience for their incisive questions.

Global Colonial 1914 poster


M = Meera Sabaratnam

C = Charles Tripp

H = Dr Hakim Adi

P = Parmjit Singh

CP = Catriona Pennell

MS = Martin Spafford

M:       Okay. Hello, everybody and welcome. Thanks very much for coming. My name is Meera Sabaratnam, I’m a lecturer here at SOAS in international relations. And tonight we’re delighted to host a roundtable on the Global Colonial 1914-18. So obviously this is triggered by a number of contemporary events, not least the centenary of World War One, which you’ll have seen all over the news. But one of the stories I suppose, that gets told less often is the role of the wider world in the way that the war unravelled but also as a theatre of war. And in the place of where the war stood as part of the global context. So what else was going on, multiple revolutions, uprisings. So this is a moment in which the war is an important part of a global order which is undergoing substantial amounts of change. I should say this event is also sponsored…has been organised through the British International Studies Association and their working group on colonial, post-colonial and de-colonial research questions.

And this particular group tries to look at the elements of coloniality and colonialism in how the modern world came to be and what that means for when we understand globalisation and global history. I’m delighted to have a roster of speakers here tonight covering not just all of the sort of main areas, the regions that we’re studying in SOAS, namely Asia, Africa and Middle East. But also researchers and teachers who have been involved in how World War One is remembered in the classroom as a form of public cultural memory. Each of our speakers is going to speak for about 10 minutes. And then after that we’ll open it up for questions. Please do be forthcoming with your questions and we hope to have a good discussion afterwards, okay. I’d first like to welcome Professor Charles Tripp who is professor of Middle East here at SOAS. Thanks.

C:        Thank you very much, Meera. It sounds rather grand, I’m not the professor of Middle East, I’m professor of politics in the Middle East. But why not, grander? I was asked to talk today about the relationship between what was happening in the Middle East and what happened to the Middle East in and around the First World War. And I must admit straight off, I’m not a historian, so I don’t work on the first war particularly but clearly anybody who works in the politics of the Middle East is well aware of the fact that legacies of the First World War and what happened to the region are still very much there and indeed are being revived in the press in one form or another as they talk about Syria and Iraq at the moment. But what I wanted to really try and do is to pick out two themes if I can, in the time allotted. One is the notion that as with many other parts of the world, much was happening before the First World War that the First World War changed the course of, if you like. So in a sense one of the dangers of looking, which of course happens now to some extent in the press and elsewhere, is to see the Middle East purely as the Middle East as a political entity, whatever that is, as a kind of creation of European intervention, the First World War.

But what I’m trying to argue is that actually there were processes long before that that had been going on and that in some ways the European intervention set back in various significant ways that had an effect for the future as well. So the first part is really to think about what had been happening in the 50 years or so before the First World War in the region, we now think of as the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, Qajar, Iran, North Africa. And I want to look at two themes which are intertwined but really revolve around the same emerging idea and notion which is the idea of the autonomous citizen, which again was quite a novel, a radical idea with hugely radical implications for the dispensations of power. But the two themes that they were intertwined with was, one, the struggle against despotism and the other, struggle against colonialism, both of these seemed to be deeply repressive of the idea of the autonomous citizen. And in some senses therefore what you’re looking at in the long…well, the period before the First World War in the 40 or 50 years, whether it’s in the Ottoman Empire, the Qajar Empire, Iran, in Egypt, you have a struggle against local despotism for constitutionalism. A precarious constitutionalism which is often of course therefore sabotaged by those who would rather not see it. But nevertheless very powerful in the mobilisation of the politics of these regions. Continue reading

Mozambique and the Invisible Bodies: A Contrapuntal Reading of the Great War (1914-1918)

This is the third in a series of posts on the Global Colonial 1914-18.


The British cemetery in Lumbo, northern Mozambique, where individual headstones are inscribed for the fallen white soldiers of the Empire in the Great War. A few names of non-white enlisted East African, West African and Indian soldiers who died are engraved on memorial stones at the side of cemetery. The dead African porters and civilians are not remembered.

The British cemetery in Lumbo, northern Mozambique, where individual headstones are inscribed for the fallen white soldiers of the Empire in the Great War. A few names of non-white enlisted East African, West African and Indian soldiers who died are engraved on memorial stones at the side of cemetery. The dead African porters and civilians are not remembered.

Whatever one’s views on the causes, significance and consequences of the ‘Great War’, few deny that it was ‘world-historical’ as an ‘event’ or series of events. 1914 is offered by Hobsbawm as the end of the ‘long nineteenth century’; a periodization which is widely accepted as giving birth, finally, to ‘the modern world’. The horrors of the Great War, then, are quintessentially the horrors of modernity. The bodies of the Great War are the product of a particular configuration of nationalism, militarism, technology, class relations, capitalist expansion and an effective state administration, which enables death at this level of efficiency and magnitude. The fog of war does not arise from irrationality, but from the awe-inspiring complex edifice of modern political organisation playing out its tragic fate amongst white European nations. If we are looking for the ‘big picture’, this, it seems, is it.

Yet the ‘big picture’ metaphor is only expressive in a two-dimensional and static framing of history, rather like a painting. Said suggested on the other hand that thinking musically might be a more appropriate way of conceiving the pluralities of historical time. Musical counterpoint, in which independently moving melodies weave in and out of each other, creating resonances, harmonies, dissonances and an altogether more complex sound, was his method for thinking about the historical relationship between colonies and metropoles. Neither is subsumed under the other, and they may have different rhythms and patterns, but they move simultaneously through time. The hope is that reading history contrapuntally enables us to hear multiple melodies, neither cacophonously (although this may be itself productive) nor monotonously, but in a way which discloses both the relatedness and distinctiveness of human experiences.

With this in mind, in what follows I reconstruct some fragments of historical melodies in what is now called Mozambique from the period of the Great War, thinking about what this might disclose for our present histories and remembrances – what David Scott might call our own ‘problem-space’. The East African Campaign – if it is remembered at all in the metropole – is remembered mostly as the site of a brilliant and gutsy guerrilla campaign by the German commander Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and a small hardy detachment of Schutztruppe, who surrendered two weeks after the declaration of the Armistice having cunningly evaded the British throughout the war. Yet, this romanticised history of innovative military tactics in exotic tropical climes heavily obscures almost everything about the historicity of the war in East Africa – indeed it obscures much of the history of the campaign itself. Clearly, part of our contrapuntal reading must be a reading of these missing notes and melodies within the campaign.

Beyond this, however, the reading must open up the historical presence and experience of the peoples in what was at the time called Portuguese East Africa. If the ‘Great War’ began in Africa, it did not necessarily mean the same across the continent as it did elsewhere. Whilst both deadly and destructive, the matrix of war-related destruction was also configured by specific colonial historical relations of violence, prestige and dispossession, as well as by political struggles within the colonised space. These experiences resonate in unexpected, but important, ways with the ‘world-historical’ moment of the war.

Continue reading

The Global Colonial 1914-18: A mini-series

Askaris fighting for Germany listen to the news.

Askaris fighting for Germany listen to the news.

The Disorder of Things hosts a short series of posts connected to the event ‘The Global Colonial 1914-18‘, held at SOAS on 18th September 2014, and co-organised by the Colonial / Postcolonial / De-colonial Working Group of the British International Studies Association.

Our first post is by Lucian M. Ashworth, who discusses the breakdown of the colonial armed peace, as viewed by contemporary observers.

Our second post is by Dušan I. Bjelić, who offers a racial genealogy of the Great War.

Our third post is by Meera Sabaratnam, who suggests a contrapuntal reading of the war based in colonised Mozambique.

Our fourth and final post contains a transcript and video of the public roundtable which took place at the end of the day, featuring Hakim Adi, Catriona Pennell, Parmjit Singh, Martin Spafford and Charles Tripp, in which the colonial dimensions of the war are discussed, as well as their implications for teaching and commemorating the period today.

This post serves as a permanent link for the series.