My personal genealogy of International Institutions in World History

The Disorder of Things is delighted to host a symposium on Laust Schouenborg’s new book International Institutions in World History: Divorcing International Relations Theory from the State and Stage ModelsWe kick off the symposium with an inaugural post from Laust, followed by replies over the next few days from Erik Ringmar, Cornelia Navari, Yale Ferguson, and Benjamin de Carvalho. We will conclude the symposium with a reply from Laust.

Laust is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Business at Roskilde University. His research interests fall within International Relations theory, particularly the English School approach, disarmament, security studies and world history.

You will be able to find all the posts for this forum here.


I must say that I have some rather grand ambitions with this book – perhaps too grand. I aim to put International Relations (IR) theory on a new footing and to challenge the role of the state and stage models, not just in IR, but also in our sister disciplines in the social sciences, most notably anthropology, archaeology and sociology. I did not start out with these grand ambitions. Initially, the book was meant to be a short foray into history to test some ideas I had developed in a 2011 piece in the journal International Relations.[i] However, as so often happens (the beauty of scientific discovery), the project went through a metamorphosis. A more complex creature emerged (probably not as pretty as the original if I am to pursue the analogy with Kafka’s famous book). The project did not change direction as such, but I became aware that I could use the initially conceived inquiry to support a sustained attack on two cherished (as well as loathed) concepts in the social sciences: the state and stage models. For the purposes of this symposium, it might be interesting to engage in a bit of genealogy and trace the evolution of the book from its somewhat humble beginnings to its eventual larger and ambitious claims. If you prefer the more polished or ex post facto story, I refer you to the actual book.

It all began with Hedley Bull, Barry Buzan and Jack Donnelly. While only the former two are traditionally associated with the English School (ES) of IR, all three had thought about the institutions of international society. Most readers are probably familiar with the five institutions that were discussed in Bull’s landmark contribution The Anarchical Society: international law, diplomacy, war, the balance of power and the great powers.[ii] These five are still central to ES debates, but have been supplemented by a long list of additional institutions identified by various authors.[iii] In the mid-2000s, Buzan and Donnelly separately started to address how all these institutions might be organised into functional (as referring to activity) categories, thus laying the groundwork for a theory of international institutions.[iv] I was very intrigued by this, and tried to think with them in this endeavour. In doing so, and I suppose partly as a consequence of my prior training as a historian, I was very conscious of the risk of formulating categories that were biased towards modern history. By this I mean the abstracting of social elements of modern societies into universal principles applicable at all times and in all places. Another way of describing this is through the ‘comparativist challenge’. It goes a little something like this. Assume that we are interested in comparing societies across history and across cultures and regions of the whole world. Not just societies from European history of the past millennium, or even Western civilization over the past five millennia, but potentially societies drawn from all human history on this planet. How can we do this objectively? How can we neutrally compare? What are the benchmarks that can be applied in this exercise?

My hunch was that a set of functional categories for institutions, rightly conceived, could act as such neutral benchmarks, and I eventually came up with a list that challenged Buzan’s and Donnelly’s similar attempts in certain respects (Bull was also ascribed a list by Buzan based on his fundamental goals pursued by all societies. It features in the table below). This was the piece published in International Relations.

Functional categories for institutions by author (the table also illustrates where the authors’ categories meaningfully overlap)

Source: Laust Schouenborg, “A New Institutionalism? The English School as International Sociological Theory,” International Relations 25, no. 1 (March 1, 2011): 26–44.

What I essentially did in that piece was to match the different lists with my admittedly very imperfect knowledge of world history, and in a very impressionistic fashion to assess the extent to which the categories could travel in time and space; whether they could meaningfully be used to capture institutions outside the context of modern international relations. The initial rationale of the present book was to continue this exercise by more systematically engaging with three historical cases that had traditionally been considered of marginal relevance to the formulation of IR theory: nomad Central Asia, the Central African rainforest and Polynesia. In each case, I intended to cover several thousand years of history and to put an emphasis on precolonial institutions. My optimistic estimate was that this could be done over 2 years or so, and result in a relatively short manuscript of 40.000-50.000 words. However, then things started to change.

First I read David Sneath’s brilliant book The Headless State: Aristocratic Orders, Kinship Society, and Misrepresentations of Nomadic Inner Asia for one of the case studies.[v] There had already been a limited critique of the state in my 2011 piece and its West-centrism, but Sneath showed me that the state was just one problematic piece in a larger mosaic of concepts that Western science has crafted to understand and compare Western and non-Western polities. Key among these concepts are band, tribe, chiefdom and empire. Even more problematically, these concepts have now for centuries been organised into different developmental stage models, often suggesting that primitive societies advance up the ladder of development to the advanced pinnacle, which, according to this thinking, is obviously the state. Elman Service stands out as the main exponent of this line of thinking in the social sciences.[vi] It slowly started to dawn on me that these two concepts, the state and stage models, appeared to constitute the main alternative to my framework of functional categories for institutions. At that point, I was no longer just discussing alternative lists of categories, I was also battling a larger theoretical opponent (for lack of a better term), with an extensive root network across the social sciences. This led to a form of inquiry in the empirical chapters of the book whereby I compared the representations that resulted from my framework with those that stemmed from the state and stage models.

Not surprisingly, I suppose in hindsight, readers of early drafts came back to me and suggested that I should review more carefully the debates concerning the state and stage models in IR’s sister disciplines in the social sciences, especially anthropology. I initially resisted these pleas because I felt I had a firm enough foundation to stand on to engage my main audience in the IR community, and also because the project had grown beyond 50.000 words and had certainly taken more than 2 years! Nevertheless, I was eventually persuaded, and extended my reading into anthropology, archaeology and sociology. This gave me an appreciation of the extent to which these disciplines are still influenced by the state and stage models – despite the many critiques that have been marshalled against these concepts over the years. Moreover, it allowed me to develop a partly novel (to my knowledge) critique about the transition between stages, my so-called quantity-into-quality critique. What I took aim at with this critique was that the literature in these different disciplines had never seemed to be able to explain convincingly the transition, say, from the ‘chiefdom stage’ to the ‘state stage’. What I found again and again in the literature was that the characteristics associated with one stage, through quantitative growth (often termed rise in complexity), suddenly morphed into qualitative change, the jump to a new evolutionary stage. This critique was developed in a new chapter 3 and pursued further in the individual case studies on nomad Central Asia, the Central African rainforest and Polynesia. As a result, I believe my framework of functional categories for institutions stand out much more clearly as the desirable alterative for comparative social theory.

Yet my overall purpose in the book was obviously not just to point out the unattractiveness of the alternative theoretical perspective in the form of the state and stage models. I also wanted to provide a positive case for my own framework of functional categories through the case studies and consider alternative lists of functions. As I explain in the book, it is hard to fully account for the individual steps in this research process. The process can probably best be described as a tacking back and forth between my list of functional categories and those formulated by other scholars (inside and outside the English School), as well as engagement with the empirical material in the three case studies. Eventually, what came out at the other end was a framework in which my original five functional categories had been reduced to four. After much thought, I decided to merge the ‘authoritative communication’ and ‘international organisation’ categories into the new category of ‘governance’. Consequently, my consolidated framework operates with the following four categories: 1) legitimacy and membership, 2) regulating conflicts, 3) trade, and 4) governance.

I will not engage in a detailed survey here of what I cover in the empirical chapters. Suffice it to say that the potential reader will encounter a wide range of topics and societies, from the the Lele and ‘blood debts’ in the Central African rainforest, over the decimal organisation of political space in Central Asia, to war canoes and the sometimes shocking understanding of justice and violence in Polynesia. These are all interesting cases of social relations in their own right, but above all I hope that they demonstrate my functional categories’ ability to travel through time and space. Before I end, let me say a few things about the main contributions of this book.

Key among these contributions is a sustained case for the reorientation of IR towards the study of social institutions. I am obviously not the first one to suggest that institutions are important and should be studied from an IR perspective (this is a central rationale of the ES), but I do make a claim to novelty when it comes to grounding this reorientation in a theoretical typology (my functional categories) with trans-historical and cross-cultural reach. The main competing IR theories (none mentioned, none forgotten) do simply not possess this reach, mainly because they are to different extents premised on the state concept and thus hostages to modern international relations. Sure, if you are comfortable with IR theory only being relevant to the past 200 or 400 years of European history, then there is no problem. However, representatives of the main competing IR theories do time and again make claims regarding these theories’ universal scope. If they want to continue to do so, they need to come up with better arguments.

Another key contribution is that the book in a very concrete way meets Amitav Acharya’s call for a ‘Global International Relations’ from his relatively recent ISA presidential address.[vii] The case material in the book stems from non-Western societies, non-Western histories, and the ambition is explicitly to construct a theory of global reach. I suspect that the book is probably insufficiently critical (and normative) for many postcolonial scholars. They will most likely not appreciate my use of such concepts as ‘universal’ or my insistence that it makes sense to compare very different societies from very different time periods. Here I suppose I am a traditionalist. Nevertheless, with my different theoretical and analytical moves, I believe I have broken important new ground, and established the parameters for a dialogue with postcolonial scholars, as well as more conventional IR theorists, regarding the shape of a truly global IR.

Lastly, the book serves to bridge the always artificial boundary between IR and the other social sciences. I stress this on the first page of the book when I say that it is mainly pitched to an IR audience, but that the core contribution is really to comparative social theory. The state and stage models unfortunately still inform much of our collective social science thinking about social relations, and I believe (or hope) that the focus on institutions, and on the theoretical typology for capturing them, will be welcomed as a substantial critical intervention by our colleagues outside IR.

[i] Laust Schouenborg, “A New Institutionalism? The English School as International Sociological Theory,” International Relations 25, no. 1 (March 1, 2011): 26–44.

[ii] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (London: Macmillan, 1977).

[iii] For good overviews, see Barry Buzan, From International to World Society? English School Theory and the Social Structure of Globalisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 161–204; Barry Buzan, An Introduction to the English School of International Relations: The Societal Approach (Cambridge: Polity, 2014), 41–80.

[iv] Buzan, From International to World Society?, 186–90; Jack Donnelly, “The Constitutional Structure of International Societies” (Unpublished paper. Denver: University of Denver, 2006).

[v] David Sneath, The Headless State: Aristocratic Orders, Kinship Society, and Misrepresentations of Nomadic Inner Asia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

[vi] Elman R. Service, Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective (New York: Random House, 1962); Elman R. Service, Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution (New York: Norton, 1975).

[vii] Amitav Acharya, “Global International Relations (IR) and Regional Worlds,” International Studies Quarterly 58, no. 4 (2014): 647–659.


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