The Uses of Functionalism

This is the second comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Cornelia Navari. Cornelia is honorary senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham (U.K.) and visiting professor of international affairs at the University of Buckingham (U.K.). Her current research is into international regulatory regimes and involves several linked projects covering regime development.

The other posts for this forum are available here.


To an English School (ES) theorist, and in the context of that theory, the first thing Laust’s argument calls to mind are the structural affinities between the ES and the early days of anthropology. Indeed, it highlights the relation of the English School to, particularly, British anthropology, whose great breakthrough (to remind ourselves) was in the idea of functionalism in relation to social institutions. To recall, what the functional anthropologist was looking for in social practices was the key to social stability among pre-modern peoples, and he rated institutions in relation to their contribution to social stability. Laust has picked up, quite rightly in my view, the correspondence between the ES concept of world order, the institutions of world order such as great power management, and the anthropologist’s idea of social stability.

His argument is also spot-on in relating order or stability to, more particularly, institutionalisation. I don’t think he gives enough credit to Kalevi Holsti (indeed, he doesn’t seem to credit him at all, but who stated it much more boldly in his 2004 Taming the Sovereigns): you cannot have order without institutions.  Equally, however, Hedley Bull, the originator of the ES concern with institutions, features prominently in his argument, and Bull claimed to have identified the basic institutions that provided for world order. In the same manner, Laust’s categories are the functions that he expects any social order to provide. This point will become more important as we proceed.

Third, there is the important proposition that institutions have fuzzy borders, and that they can affect one another. Laust does not make use of the idea, prominent in classical anthropology, of co-adaptation, meaning that developments in one institution may effect, and certainly has implications, for other institutions. But the idea is there. This has particular implications for the modern world order where the rapid implementation of a human rights agenda has required adaptation in the regimes of trade, in the exercise of the war right, in the treatment of displaced persons.

Laust’s argument also calls forth, however, some perhaps forgotten cautionary tales.

Alfred Radcliffe Brown

The first concerns the origins of the functional method. Let us recall that Radcliffe Brown, who may justly claim to have invented functionalism in the sense that Laust is using it, was working among societies that had no written records. That is, they had no histories, and therefore no record of precedents—of what came before and what came after. This meant that the anthropologist could not know or recover any record of development and hence he/she could not know what caused what. Radcliffe Brown invented functionalism as an alternative entry point into understanding the significance of primitive social institutions. It is an alternative form of explanation for social forms: hence, the great triad in explanatory types: causal, intentional, and functional. What this means is that functional method cannot deliver an explanation of the causal type; functionalism can’t tell you about the causes of the First World War or the causes of the Great Depression.  What it may suggest is that an institution such as the WTO is functionally required to underpin a global trading order.

The imputed universality of his categories also deserves a precautionary comment. Laust tells us that he derived his categories from “tacking back and forth between different lists”. For those who are not aware of the literature, what he seems to be meaning is, among other things, the different lists of fundamental institutions in the various ES writings. Now, those lists are about the potential ordering elements of an international system, and in particular the system as it developed post 1648. They are all categories imputed by previous scholars to the ordering elements in the Westphalia system—that is partly why Laust’s categories will be so familiar. Laust acknowledges this somewhat indirectly, when he refers to alternative ordering institutions to his own set. (He refers to the main alternative ordering quite correctly as kinship. If you asked the participants in the societies he is analysing as to what their basic social institutions are, they would probably say some variant on kinship.) But his own model, or set of institutions, is also derived from a particular system of understanding social relations, and more particularly from an historical system that did not always exist and that is in some ways historically unique. Accordingly, universal does not mean exactly trans-historical. It means sufficiently general to include a lot of cases across time spans, and which importantly includes international relationships, or as he calls it “relations between polities”.

Max Weber

Now, if we really were aspiring after a social grid that could deliver universal correlations in the manner aspired to by traditional positivists, this would be bad news. But we are not. It is important to distinguish the Schouenborg approach from the quest for a foundational understanding of social orders. Laust is using his model more in the nature of Weber, to isolate what is important to us, in Weber’s famous formulation, and in particular, relevant to us as IR scholars and practitioners. “Relations between polities” is a category that we as IR scholars require. But it is also one that at the same time does not abstract away from how the primitive people might well have understood something of their own social orders. In that sense, even if he has incorporated elements of Westphalia, his categories can legitimately be said not only to overcome some of the limitations of historicity but also to avoid complete relativism.

To follow on from the last point, there is Laust’s determination to avoid ‘state’ modelling in relation to a model with Westphalia elements. Since Westphalia set up a system of states, it is often referred to as a state-system, and often imputed to modernity. But it is nothing like a state. Moreover, it has elements that are distinctly ‘un-modern’. It is decentralised, its law is not like the ‘domestic’ law of the modern single-hierarchy kind, its institutions are protean and plastic. Not only is the Westphalia system not like a state, it has resemblances to more primitive societies with decentralised social orders. Despite and because he has, inadvertently, used elements of Westphalia to construct his model, he has ipso facto escaped from the state model. Also, by using a system whose central features can be transposed out of its historical context, he has automatically escaped from stage models, which lock different societies into different stages of development and which relate their institutions to those different stages. Very clever.

Finally, to the case studies and the point of the exercise.

At the International Studies Association conference at which Laust presented his book, a lot of ancient systems were being discussed in their various aspects, using contemporary IR categories. That is, they were being discussed as hegemonial systems, as regional systems, as balancing power systems, as diplomatic systems etc.; and one might well ask, What is the point of it? Laust is giving us an answer to this question. Or rather he is telling us the better way to do it. This is not to isolate a practice in ancient society and relate it to some modern practice, as if one could read the state backwards or read modern diplomacy backwards. It is to produce thick pictures of institutionalisations in exotic societies along political and social categories sufficiently specific to capture what those institutionalisations might have meant in the societies in which they appeared, but which are specified in a way that makes them intelligible to us.

WTO Protest in Seattle 1999

The deficiency lies in the fact that there is no account in Laust’s book about how his method should be applied to the contemporary state-system or to the implications of doing so, and this I think shows some lack of confidence in, perhaps even misunderstanding of the nature of the categories he has created. Functionalism is a legitimate way of understanding social institutions and also a legitimate category of explanation. It is entirely reasonable to postulate that a globalizing economy needs something like a World Trade Organisation or a dispute resolution system. Moreover, we can explain why this is so without causal imputation and without even calling on the intentionality of agents. We can explain it as part of a self-sustaining system that has requirements. Because we have historical records, we know about the agencies that created the WTO, and hence how it came about. But that does not substitute for an understanding of the WTO as providing a requirement for stability in a system that nobody created and that in no way could be understood as the result of a discrete cause or set of causes.

I think Laust should aspire further.

*Images chosen and added by blog editor

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