The Whole and Its Parts

This is the third comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Yale Ferguson. Yale is a Professorial Fellow in the Rutgers University-Newark Division of Global Affairs and Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Global and International Affairs.  His publications include 12 books and over 60 book chapters and articles. Among his latest books with Richard W. Mansbach (Iowa State) are Globalization: The Return of Borders to a Borderless World?; A World of Polities: Essays in Global Politics; and Remapping Global Politics: History’s Revenge and Future Shock. He and Mansbach have a new book in progress, War and Political Evolution in the Ancient Mediterranean.

The other posts for this forum are available here.


It is a pleasure for me to take part in this symposium on Laust Schouenborg’s International Institutions in World History (hereafter IIWH), as it was to read his thoughtful and provocative book. Reviewers are always saying that some study is a must-read or should be on every scholar’s and serious student’s bookshelf. Well, occasionally such accolades are merited, and for those of us interested in IR theory and history, they certainly are in the case of Laust’s book. His is indeed a landmark study, and I not only enjoyed but profited from reading it, not least in considering Laust’s observations about my own work with Richard Mansbach on Polities. Laust has read essentially everything relevant to his concerns, set forth other authors’ positions with care and respect, and then explained how he begs to differ. In this little piece, I hope to do the same for Laust.

There are so many things I like about IIWH that I cannot begin to mention them all, so I will simply list a few specifics and then move on to what I see as central issues in the book as a whole. First, the list:

  1. Laust’s focus is on social institutions seen as “made up of patterned practices, ideas and norms” (emphasis in original). Social institutions are what they do on a regular basis, what ideas sustain them (and they convey), and what they regard (and do not regard) as legitimate behavior.
  2. He looks at social institutions from a multi-disciplinary perspective, including IR, anthropology, archaeology, and historical sociology. He weighs their respective contributions to his subject, mixes and matches what he can from them, and then advances his own distinct theoretical position.
  3. His approach in IIWH is also proudly and even militantly cross-cultural and trans-historical.
  4. The empirical second section of the book is a broad study of “three extreme or marginal historical cases: nomad Central Asia, the Central African rainforest and Polynesia.” Laust has the audacity to suggest that he has gone to those extremes or margins to highlight the “universality” of his four functional categories versus the “limitations” of the “state-based framework” he attributes to almost everyone else, including those advancing “stage” models.
  5. Laust insists, quite rightly, that there is no useful or reasonable basis for labeling the likes of his case-study societies and their institutions as “primitive.”
  6. He boldly maintains that we can and should view “the functional activities relevant to corporate social actors or polities” and their “interactions” as falling into only four basic categories: legitimacy and membership, regulating conflicts, trade, and governance.
  7. Last in this list, I have special reasons for liking Laust’s observations about war in his discussion of “regulating conflict.” He notes that war is often viewed as a “social evil” or at best (like Bull) a “necessary evil” to help maintain order. However, Laust comments: “In many past societies, including the three [that are his cases], war did not always carry a “negative connotation.” “On the contrary, it was often celebrated. Hence, we are “allowed to consider the possibility that war might be the dominant mode of social interaction, so to speak.” In fact, Mansbach and I are currently writing a book focusing on war and polities in the ancient Mediterranean that argues war was the primary driver of political evolution for thousands of years and speculates about how far one can push that connection into the present and future.

Flammarion engraving, Paris 1888, for Flammarion’s 1888 L’atmosphère : météorologie populaire

Moving on from this initial list, it seems to me that the central issue raised by IIWH is really the age-old analytical problem of the whole—in this instance and in Laust’s language “the social whole” and its parts. That is, how best to conceptualize the whole and then accurately, meaningfully, heuristically (or whatever we aim for) proceed to describe and categorize the institutions within the whole. As Laust’s subtitle proclaims, he is especially intent on Divorcing International Relations Theory from the State and Stage Models. Since Mansbach and I have spent forty years decrying IR theory’s traditional fixation on “the state,” Laust’s intention sounds mighty good to me. As always, the devil is in the details.

Mansbach and I have insisted that the devotion of IR theory to the state has always been profoundly misguided —for many reasons. One is that there has always been and continues to be so much more to world history and the world’s social institutions than states. If we are going to limit ourselves to sovereign states, we can hardly go back much further in history than the early modern period in Europe—and what a motley diverse and wobbly collection of polities those were. Westphalia? It is sobering to remember that the boundaries of ALL the original “Westphalian states” later shifted, some frequently–except for Portugal, which gained and then lost an empire. Many archaeologists and anthropologists thoroughly muddy the water by regarding practically any sort of unit with any form of governance structure as a “state”—thus the Aztec state, the Athenian state, and so on. Odd, isn’t it, that scholars who love to delve in the archaic and exotic seem so content with such tired European terminology.

As the foregoing suggests, another important reason for decrying state-centricity in IR theory is that the concept of “the state” has itself always been and continues to be a “conceptual variable” or, less delicately, a conceptual mess. What exactly is the darn thing? In international law, an entity that is recognized by the “international community” (talk about silly language) as sovereign and independent. So now we “know”: We have in the same basket the Cook Islands, Liechtenstein, Norway, Ukraine (with or without Crimea), Syria, the Russian Federation, the EU (nope), Texas (nope), Israel (well, yes and no—ask the Arab states), the Vatican, and something like 188 more. The poet W.H. Auden (“September 1, 1939”) wrote “There is no such thing as the State.” Of course, he was reacting to the looming threat of WWII and our universal need to “love one another or die.” Hitler’s Nazi Germany proved “real” (or should we say, “surreal”) enough to those whose lives were subsequently extinguished, displaced, or altered forever. But recall that Hitler termed his Germany the Third Reich, with all its connotations of empire.

“An Historical Atlas Containing a Chronological Series of One Hundred and Four Maps, at Successive Periods, from the Dawn of History to the Present Day.” by Robert H. Labberton. Sixth Edition. 1884.

Key concepts linked to “the state” only add to the confusion. Stephen Krasner characterized Sovereignty as Organized Hypocrisy and tried to make a virtue out of it, insisting that the fact that sovereignty had always been a fiction demonstrated that it couldn’t possibly be under threat by contemporary transnational forces. However, it is correct that sovereignty is no guarantee that a “country’s” economy won’t be buffeted by a global financial crisis, that the government can control every part of its territory (faced with internal rebellion perhaps, as in “frozen conflicts” supported on the ground by foreign “little green men”), that the authorities have a Weberian monopoly on the legitimate use of violence (ask the rebels). In sum, sovereignty is, at best, a claim to independence and internal control that may or may not amount to much in practice. And then there is “nation,” as in nation-state. I tell my students that the only useful definition of “nation” is “a group of people who think there are one.”

Such a definition of “nation” points up what any good IR theorist should know, that all concepts and classification systems—including the various so-called schools of IR theory—are all “constructions.” At the end of the day, we simply have to assess as best we can which constructions seem to improve our understanding of the world we perceive–more than they confuse, which all constructions inevitably do. Different conceptual lenses bring some matters into focus, while blurring or entirely excluding others.

Laust writes that his key concept of “polities” is “inspired” by Ferguson/Mansbach and Osiander, to wit: “[T]he central idea is that groups of humans legitimize different authorities to act on their behalf in the pursuit of value satisfaction. All corporate social actors or polities are then ‘political’ in the sense that they make collective decisions based on legitimate power… According to this understanding, a polity may refer to anything from a family, bowling team or firm to a nation-state. Moreover, an individual human may be part of numerous polities, which can nest and overlap. For example, a modern human being may be a member of all four polities just mentioned at the same time.” Mansbach and I would equally stress the fact that all human beings have multiple co-existing identities and loyalties, and the relative salience of each also tends to vary with value satisfaction/deprivation and particular contexts. For instance, my surname is Scottish in origin, although I really don’t “feel” Scottish. I’m not all that fond of bagpipes or haggis or Scotch whiskey (OK, maybe a wee dram). But I could quickly become very Scottish indeed were a well-funded academic prize to be offered only to Scots. Conversely, were Scottish persons being systematically persecuted, I’d probably try to change my surname or go into my heretofore undiscovered Braveheart mode.

Laust is more than generous in generally praising our “polities” theoretical framework that we originally (1996) developed through six historical case studies: Mesopotamia, Greece, ancient China, Islam, and Italy. Not surprisingly, he also offers some criticisms, to which I think it may be instructive for me to respond.

First, Laust objects: “[I]n undermining one essential ideal-type (the state) they end up reifying a whole set of equally questionable ideal-types: families, tribes, cities, kingdoms, empires, etc. They note that they do not want to construct ‘a definitive list of polity types’, but at the same time hold that ‘many of the same types appear again and again.” We hold that polities are never static, but continually change and (de)evolve–although not necessarily in a unilinear fashion. Fusion and fission of polities are regular features of the process. Laust writes: “To be sure, this is not evolutionary theory, but there is certainly the idea of oscillation…” He quotes us: “Polities of one type routinely shade into another or evolve from one into another type, but the moment of transformation is rarely precise.” Laust further comments: “The problem is that all of these ideal-types are in many ways as ill-defined as the state…In fact, [Ferguson/Mansbach] are quite open about how vague they are. For example, they state that ‘What exactly constituted a “tribe” is often not easy to determine.’ Or ‘Empire also blurs into other polity types and is itself a murky concept.’”

Leo von Klenze, “The Acropolis at Athens”

Here we have that “the whole versus its parts” conundrum I highlighted earlier. Any analyst is damned if he/she does and damned if he/she doesn’t. We use and indeed love the terms “polity” and “polities.” Their fundamental virtue is that they cover virtually any entity that fulfills our three conditions: having an identity, a degree of hierarchy (leaders and followers), and at least some capacity for value satisfaction (or relief from value deprivation). An analyst then can and should take it from there. What is that identity, what degree and form of hierarchy is involved, and what sort of values are being served or preserved? Yes, “polities” is (un)decidedly generic. The analyst must fill in the gaps in the spaces provided. Does that mean that trying to categorize different types of polities—and resorting to some familiar “ideal types” as a means of starting the conversation—is necessarily a bad thing? We argue to the contrary and, to be honest, even “the state” concept (as Laust demonstrates and I hope I have also done above) can be useful as a point of departure. The most important lesson here is not to fool ourselves about how precisely we have succeeded in capturing either the whole or what we find useful to regard as its parts. Being vague is an essential element in the process. Incidentally, this not unlike the perennial issue of periodization in history. Dividing history into periods is an almost irresistible temptation and can be useful in identifying differences between timeframes, while avoidably downplaying perhaps equally significant similarities.

The respective approaches of Schuoenborg and Ferguson/Mansbach, I believe, exhibit far more agreement than discord. However, we do reject his two additional criticisms of our ideal-types. One is that they “bear the imprint of modern political experience, not least the division of the world into civilized and uncivilized areas.” This distinction is not one that we accept or use in our work. We speak of polities like family, clan, tribe, village, and city (e.g., Sparta) and—to the best of my knowledge or recollection—have never suggested there is anything “uncivilized” about any of them. Indeed, all these types still exist today and thus are quite literally “modern,” albeit also exhibits in what we call the world’s “living museum.” Moreover, for certain, I am reluctant to dignify with the term “civilized” any modern polity that practices, for instance, ethnic cleansing or seriously contemplates offensive nuclear war. For them, as for terrorists, “barbarian” still seems to fit. Laust’s other criticism is that our “use of essential types such as tribes, kingdoms and empires…cannot be disconnected from the state-based framework. Indeed, they mainly make sense as the state’s ‘others’ or as different kinds of states.” Sorry, Laust, but the bit about “the state’s ‘others’” makes no kind of sense to me and to refer to “different kinds of states” seems to me to fall back into the archaeology/anthropology trap I grumbled about earlier.

Finally, a word about Laust’s four functional categories, which was on my initial list of things I particularly like about his book. If we look at polities from a functional perspective, these four are perhaps as good as we can do and better than most. But let’s not get to wedded to them. Following on the whole and the parts theme, some of these might easily be subdivided. Also, as Cornelia Navari mentions in her comments in this symposium, systems-level theorists would stress that polities’ day-to-day exercise of their functions and interpolity relationships unfold in a wider system(s) context that offers both opportunities as well as constraints. The fact that realists, structural neorealists, ES international society almost-liberals, liberal institutionalists, constructivists and others usually “read” the effects emanating from the systems-level very differently is a subject for another day. Likewise, at the micro-level (although, admittedly, not so micro as a microbe or particle), we must give due credit to the human individual, of which all systems are fundamentally constituted. Get one or two of them in high places or involved in grassroot movements, and all bets may be off.

*Images chosen and added by blog editor

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