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?

Regarding the absence of theory, the authors expressly reject any grand theoretical narratives or systems that might organize their mass of empirics. They deny that they are attempting to construct a causal account of why the global transformation of the nineteenth century occurred. “Our aim is not to make a novel theoretical argument regarding the causes of the global transformation” (p. 9). But they also refrain from describing that transformation or explicating its effects in systematic theoretical terms. Reading their highly readable narrative, one is hard-pressed to find categories derived from a larger and comprehensive theoretical system. Surely, there are contenders that Buzan and Lawson must have toyed with. They probably could have told their story in terms of capitalism; perhaps, for instance, using their data to extend world-systems theory and its emphasis upon cycles of hegemony or global regimes of accumulation (is “decentered globalism” merely the next period of hegemonic competition?). Or they could have hitched their story to John Darwin’s narrative of the British empire (2009). For Darwin, the nineteenth century was formative too, creating our contemporary global market and global institutions (just that he sees it all in terms of a “British world-system”). Or they could have crafted their empirics to align with Michael Mann’s (2013) IEMP model of the four sources of social power (Ideological, Economic, Military, and Political), showing how each of these underwent generative reorganization or change in the nineteenth century. Or they could have probably drawn upon and then modified various IR theories, such as Modelski and Thompson’s “leading sector” (1996) theory or great power theory.


True, none of these theories would have fit perfectly. For example, Buzan and Lawson are right to point out that world-systems theory might be good for theorizing cyclical trends but bad on theorizing qualitative transformations such as the kind they find in the nineteenth century (9). And they are right to suggest that a narrow focus upon a “British” world-system would overlook a more global set of dynamics. “It was not Britain that was hegemonic,” they declare “…but a particular configuration of social power” (60). As for Mann’s IEMP model, I would eagerly nod in agreement if Buzan and Lawson were to suggest that Mann’s transhistorical categories on power are at once to narrow and too universal to be particularly useful for theorizing the specific transformation that occurred in the nineteenth century. Still, Buzan and Lawson could have tried to build upon existing theories, no? Or they could have searched for other theories that might be useful, even if they have not yet been deployed for IR. For example, David Harvey’s (1982) neo-Marxist spatial theory of capitalism (ie his “historical geography of capitalism”) could be set into the lines of their text rather comfortably. Or, further still, they could have elaborated their own set of theoretical categories; their own theoretical system.

Buzan and Lawson do say that if any theory is put to work it is Rosenberg’s “uneven and combined development.” In a footnote, they say that the benefit of this approach is that “the analytic of uneven and combined development (UCD) stresses the ways in which the timing and circumstances of interactions between diversely situated social orders generate varied outcomes. In this way historical development is seen as multilinear rather than linear, variegated rather than singular, and uneven rather than smooth” (p. 21, fn 1). But it seems to me that theory is not used systematically throughout the analysis; their narrative is not organized around the theoretical concepts stemming from a UCD approach (in a work of over 350 pages, I only found the phrase “uneven and combined” on fourteen of them). Then again, their work need not be framed in terms of UCD. One does not need UCD to tell us that history is complicated or that development non-linear. Besides, if Buzan and Lawson wanted theoretical categories that would help them better process the specificity of the nineteenth century (which is why, presumably, they would not use Mann’s framework or world-systems’ cyclical theories), UCD does not seem the best contender. Is not UCD meant to cover social processes from the beginning of time, not unlike Mann’s IEMP model?


Thus, bracketing Buzan and Lawson’s tentative and sporadic use of UCD, there seems to be no overarching theoretical system guiding their story. And this is well and good. Buzan and Lawson are under no obligation to theorize their mess of data; and anyways they state forthrightly they are not interested in offering a new theoretical account. A new theoretical account might end up distracting from their valuable narrative anyways. But, in their summary for this forum, Buzan and Lawson write: “our view is that IR should take its place as a ‘historical social science’ that aims to write new narratives of global modernity, whether these narratives concentrate on macro-dynamics or more granular accounts of particular events and processes within global modernity.” If this is so, the question about what concepts should best frame their narrative remains open.

Enter “empire.” Now, surely Buzan and Lawson do not want to repeat John Darwin’s argument that the British world-system, i.e. the British empire, is the centre of the global transformation. In my view, that would be misguided. But would not empire more broadly, and associated processes like imperialism and colonialism – with all their economic, political, and ideological or discursive correlates – be an appropriate way to think about the empirics they work with? One could argue that every aspect of the transformation they discuss is about empire. The increases in “interaction capacity” that enabled global modernity? These occurred through imperialism and colonialism. The major inter-oceanic canals Buzan and Lawson discuss were created in the US empire (Panama) and the British empire (Suez), as were the main developments in railroads (US westward imperialism and British India) (68-70). They were driven by imperial imperatives. What about industrialization and the “extension of the market to a global scale”? Again, these were fully enmeshed within, and occurred through, imperialism, if not driven by them (e.g. 31-33). What about the processes of “rational state-building” that were also constitutive of the new global modernity (new techniques of surveillance, control, and administration, and cartography etc.)? They too were developed in or in relation to the Anglo-European colonies overseas (40-41). As Buzan and Lawson say themselves “processes of rational state-building and imperialism were co-implicated” (6). Or, what about the “ideologies of progress”? These included scientific racism and civilizational discourse. Are not these discourse, as well as others like nationalism (and citizenship), inextricably tied to the dynamics of empire and colonialism?


We could go on. The transformation of political units? Again: empire. “Imperialism, therefore, both constructed and sustained the development of a core–periphery international order. Indeed, imperialism was the principal means through which Western states exerted their power around the world” (134). And more than that, it was through imperialism that, ironically, the nation-state form and the ideal of citizenship became globally hegemonic after World War Two. The revolutions around the world that played such a key role in developing systems of governance? It is difficult to conceive of those revolutions without recognizing the processes of imperialism that contributed to them in Europe and generated them overseas, as Buzan and Lawson also seem to acknowledge (e.g. 137). Radical changes in relations between states and markets? “Core states not only carried out structural adjustment programmes on their own societies, they also did so in their overseas territories” (148). What about how to periodize IR history and what “benchmark dates” should be on the agenda? Those listed by Buzan and Lawson are nearly all about imperial dynamics or colonial processes (324-323). We could even substitute their phrase “global transformation” with “imperialism” and we would probably still be on solid ground. For example: take page 43 at random and substitute in the word “imperialism” where it says “global transformation”:

[Imperialism] had three major effects on international relations. First, the spread of industry, finance, railways and the telegraph, along with practices of colonialism, bound peoples and states together within a more closely integrated global system. … Second, [imperialism] created a disjuncture between those social orders that acquired the configuration of global modernity and those who either failed to acquire, or who were denied, the new mode of power. Because this mode of power allowed the core to open up distant societies and extend market relations globally, interactions did not take place on equal terms. [Imperialism] bifurcated the world between a small core of strong, rich states and a large periphery of weak, poor, often colonized peoples. Third, [imperialism] caused upheaval in the ranks of the great powers. Specifically, it promoted early adopters (Britain and, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Germany, the United States and Japan) and demoted others who did not make the initial transformation (China, the Ottoman Empire, Russia). More generally, by making power conditional on the new configuration of industrialization, the rational state and ideologies of progress, [imperialism] induced volatility into balancing dynamics (43).

To me, this passage is right on the spot. And potentially rich for theoretical elaboration.

My point is not that Buzan and Lawson overlook or occlude empire. One of the many strengths of the book is that it is willing to name empires and chart imperial processes. Buzan and Lawson have taken in the new imperial studies and postcolonial theory; they recognize that imperialism is at the core of their story. They say so repeatedly. And they show it. If, for instance, “uneven and combined” development is only mentioned on fourteen pages, “empire” is found on at least one hundred of them, “colonial” or “colonialism” on one-hundred twenty-one, and imperialism on eighty-one! My point is that since imperialism and empire are everywhere in their story, why do they not frame it as such? Why not make empire their key analytic?

This is partly a matter of nominalism; of what to call what. But it is not only that. Organizing their empirics around a narrative of empire, imperialism, colonialism, inter-imperial rivalry, and postcolonial nation-statism would bring power relations to the forefront. The global transformation was not just a neutral transformation: it was a transformation in and rearticulation of power relations. It would also bring actors more clearly into the story. The global transformation did not just happen behind peoples’ backs. It is a story of imperial states expanding and consolidating power, of colonial states seeking to dominate, of capitalists using imperialism for their own narrow gain, of soldiers fighting for imperial armies, of humanitarian groups resisting the slave trade and anticolonialists cooperating with or otherwise resisting domination. All of this is implied in Buzan and Lawson’s wonderful narrative. But it is sometimes buried.

Admittedly, by reorganizing their story in terms of the analytics of empire, Buzan and Lawson would probably have to occlude some other things that are not reducible to the dynamics of imperialism or the social processes associated with colonialism. They would also run the risk of being reductionist. But after all, that is what theoretically-driven narratives do. They abstract, organize, and reduce. So why not empire?

Framing their entire narrative as a story of imperialism would work not only with their overarching story but also with their conclusions. Buzan and Lawson point out the various legacies of the nineteenth century that we live with today, from global inequality to the nation-state. Are these not the direct legacies of empire? Is not the shift from what they call “Western colonial” to “western global” a shift from empire to postcoloniality; a shift from a world of formal colonial empires to a world of nation-states? We might also think of “decentered globalism” not so much as a form of “globalism” as a new arrangement of imperial power: a multi-centric neo-imperial formation.

Finally, Buzan and Lawson highlight how IR needs to reorient itself by taking into the global transformation of the nineteenth century. Are not Buzan and Lawson really just saying IR needs to recognize empire as a constitutive and formative social object as well as an organizing analytic category? Indeed, making empire a key theoretical analytic might have done more than helped Buzan and Lawson restructure their narrative. It might have yielded a new conceptual vocabulary for IR and historical social science more broadly. It might have provided a theoretical bridge linking postcolonial theory, transnational history, historical sociology and IR. “Our aim,” they write at the end, “is to contribute to a literature that understands the need to think outside the narrow bandwidth of much contemporary IR and to join the fertile debates taking place in cognate disciplines about the emergence and development of the modern international order” (333). Focusing upon the nineteenth century imperial origins of the modern international order” would surely serve as one way to do this.

In the end, Buzan and Lawson write that they want IR to produce “new narratives of modernity.” And in this wonderful, penetrating and erudite tome, they have given us one. I just wonder if the narrative of modernity they have given us is not really a narrative of empire, of imperial complexities, and colonial legacies. I also wonder if there might be something about IR as a discipline that has unwittingly impeded them from saying so.


Buzan, Barry and George Lawson. 2015. The Global Transformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Darwin, John. 2009. The Empire Project: the Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harvey, David. 1982. The limits to capital. Oxford: B. Blackwell.

Mann, Michael. 2013. The Sources of Social Power Volume 3: Global Empires and Revolution, 1890-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Modelski, George, and William R. Thompson. 1996. Leading sectors and world powers: the coevolution of global politics and economics. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press.


5 thoughts on “Closet Postcolonialists? On Buzan and Lawson’s Global Transformation

  1. Pingback: The Global Transformation: The Making of the Modern World | The Disorder Of Things

  2. One of the issues we Indigenous people face in North America is the simultaneous acknowledgement of colonial history and the denial that the colonial enterprise continues to shape our lives, and thus, the academic disciplines in which we are embedded. Within this double description lie innumerable opportunities for erasure and obscuration. The reformulation of history also displaces Native values, beliefs, and aspirations, enclosing them in a romanticized past that renders them irrelevant to a “global” system that stands in firm opposition to those beliefs, values, and aspirations. It is an immense problem.


  3. Pingback: This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History | Imperial & Global Forum

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