Reply

In this final post in our symposium on  Laust Schouenborg’s International Institutions in World History: Divorcing International Relations Theory from the State and Stage Models, Laust responds to his interlocutors.

You can read the other posts in the symposium here.


It is a rare privilege to be afforded the time to reflect on the characteristics of social relations across history, and moreover to have those ideas published. It is even rarer to have such an outstanding group of scholars respond to those ideas. I am truly humbled and thankful, and my comments should be read in this light. In the spirit of academic debate, I will discuss where I disagree with some of the contributors’ observations, and where they may have misinterpreted parts of my argument. However, to paraphrase Yale, I generally think that there is more that unites us than divides us. I am so happy that they all see the value of the book as an intellectual project, and that most of them agree with the general thrust of my argument, of course with several important qualifications. Let me also extend a special thank you to L.H.M. Ling and Hendrik Spruyt who participated in the 2017 ISA roundtable that inspired the present symposium, but who were nevertheless prevented from contributing to the latter.

It is not possible to respond to all of the contributors’ individual concerns. Therefore, I will attempt to address those that I believe are the most significant and those that are shared by several of the them. This should by no means be read as a diminishing of the force of those arguments passed by. Hopefully I will get an opportunity to respond to those arguments in person or in a different forum.

Probably the most important issue to settle is the status of functionalism in my book. This is because it is the basis for the alternative theoretical framework I propose, and for what we can achieve with it. It is also an issue with a substantial room for misinterpretation, because my functionalism is of a specific kind. While most of the contributors seem sympathetic to my critique of the state and stage models, several are nevertheless concerned about different aspects related to functionalism.

Let me begin by focusing on one misinterpretation that, granted, is very easy to make given the conventional understanding of functionalism in the social sciences. This is the understanding of functionalism as an explanatory device. As Cornelia rightly stresses, it is an understanding rooted in British anthropology and the notion that social institutions sustain larger societal imperatives of order, equilibrium or stability. Although Hedley Bull was adamant that he was not a structural functionalist, it nevertheless appeared to be exactly the line of explanatory reasoning he adopted when he claimed that the five institutions of international society helped support the three fundamental goals or objectives of any society.[i]

To be absolutely clear, there is no explanatory content in my functional framework, as Erik accurately notes. I do not claim that the social institutions captured by my functional categories promote order, stability or anything of that kind. The understanding of functionalism I adopt in the book is just one of differentiation; the idea that it is possible to inductively distinguish between different forms of functionally-defined activities. For example, that going fishing is a different activity from reading a book, although both may also be captured by the more encompassing functional category termed ‘leisure activities’ (for fishermen and scholars, these activities may of course also be functionally categorised as ‘work’). As I argue in the book, the functional categories constitute a new basic grid for understanding social relations. They are an approach to cutting up the ‘social whole’ that is in front of us.

Now, this is also why my framework does not initially give us a handle on understanding and explaining change in and of institutions. This is Ben’s concern (and Erik’s), and he is absolutely right in that. At the moment, I have no concrete plans to develop that kind of theory. Those who are interested in that would do well to follow Ben’s suggestions, as well as to draw on the work of Holsti[ii] that Cornelia also makes reference to. The core value of my framework, as I discussed in the introduction to this symposium, is mainly that it responds to the ‘comparativist challenge’: how to compare societies across history and across cultures and regions of the whole world in an as objective fashion as possible, without being beholden to the specific social characteristics of one particular historical era or a specific culture (notably modern Western history). Cornelia puts a nice spin on this. The goal of the framework

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.      

Setting aside the misinterpretation regarding the (functional) explanatory content of my theoretical framework, there are other legitimate concerns regarding the functionalism I do embrace. One such concern is related to the question of where the functions come from. How did I ‘discover’ them? Both Erik and Cornelia touch on this. This is a very complicated question, and I am not sure that these brief remarks do justice to it. I will start by quoting Erik’s observation, which neatly connects to the explanation issue just discussed:

There is no given way in which the world must be and there is consequently no particular way in which it must be divided. There are no concepts, taxonomies or basic grids out there in the world. Instead you divide, conceptualize and taxonomize for a certain purpose, in order to explain a certain thing. Ontology is theory-dependent.

Cornelia makes a similar point by drawing on Weber’s claim that ideal-types are about selecting the parts of reality that are important to us, also implying purpose. Personally, I am just not convinced by these arguments. Not yet at least. And it may come down to our perhaps different understanding of human nature and possibly philosophy of science. I think there is such a thing as categorising just for the sake of it, perhaps linked to an innate human curiosity and interest in exploring the world around us. When I observe small children trying to make sense of the world, or just playing in the world, I think I see the purest expression of this. What different shapes are there, what colors, what sounds and so on. And to me, that innate and basic drive to categorise is also at the heart of science. A traditional functionalist might object here that the ability to categorise is an expression of the functional survival needs of our species, including small children. Perhaps. But does that invalidate the conclusion that small children categorise and cut up the ‘social’ and ’physical whole’ without any immediate purpose or goal, and that they are eventually better at bending that world to their will as a consequence? I do not think so. Therefore, I do think it is possible to engage in scientific categorisation without having a clear purpose or stated objective. My functional categories should be understood against this background.

That said, I did in fact have a clear purpose in formulating my functional categories: they were supposed to be an answer to the comparativist challenge. They should help us compare societies across time and space. And that returns us to the problem of how I ‘discovered’ the categories. Cornelia appears to argue that the categories are partly biased towards Westphalia, because my initial engagement was with English School (ES) scholars. However, that interpretation downplays some significant steps in the development of my argument. It is true that I started with a number of ES scholars back in my 2011 piece in International Relations, but the core thrust of that piece was precisely to challenge their Western-centrism and to construct an alternative set of categories that could travel across time.[iii] In the book, I went much further and engaged with the lists of functional categories proposed by a range of prominent IR scholars, anthropologists and sociologists. Several of these lists had been constructed to cover all of human history on this planet and most went decidedly beyond the modern West.

Have I arrived at the best list of functional categories? Yale states that they ‘are perhaps as good as we can do and better than most’. And I think that is precisely the point. My list is difficult to conclusively falsify, as noted by Erik, and can only really be judged in comparison with its alternatives. Are the alternatives as well suited to travel across time and space? This is the foundation for my core critique of the state and stage models. Granted, these do not represent a functional list, but they are the main theoretical alternative in the social sciences for comparing across time and space. And my argument is that they are not a good alternative, because they cannot travel. The characteristics associated with each are fundamentally biased towards modern Western political experience.

It is important to note at the same time that my list of functional categories is not final, and that it does gravitate towards the political dimensions, or functional areas, of human life on this planet. Arguably, the different functional categories can be further sub-divided into more specific categories and/or they can be aggregated into larger more encompassing categories. This is an invitation to all curious social scientists out there: go play!

I will, though, recognise and emphasise Erik’s important point that once you start looking for functions or types of activity, you tend to see them everywhere. It is indeed very hard to delimit the boundaries, if you will, of a function and provide a cast-iron definition. Nevertheless, I will challenge the potential objection that I was bound to find my four functions everywhere I looked. My list of categories was revised several times in the course of writing this book and is different from the one that appeared in the 2011 piece in International Relations. This was because I became convinced that some functions could in fact not travel across time and space; they were not there in all the societies I looked at.

Another central issue that several of the contributors touch upon is the status and execution of the three case studies. Ben, for example, notes that it would have been beneficial to have been treated to a more thorough engagement with the different historiographical debates. Erik makes a similar point, but also crucially suggests that the absence of this might have had some serious consequences for how I interpreted (or misinterpreted) the meaning of certain historical events. To be perfectly frank, it is very likely that I have made both errors of fact and interpretation. Here I rely on the ‘Michael Mann defence’ that is in the book: when these mistakes are discovered and corrected, are they enough to invalidate my overall conclusions? Probably not. I will also say that it is not everything that I read on the different cases that eventually appeared in the book. I read widely, but made selective decisions regarding presentation to illustrate institutions falling within each functional category. Moreover, I tended to side with more recent literature/interpretations. At the end of the day, though, Ben and Erik are of course right. It would have been better with a more thorough examination of each case, requiring more time than I spent, and probably resulting in a multi-volume work rather than the relatively thin book that we are discussing in this symposium.

I would like to end with a question posed by Ben:

This is probably where I agree the most with Schouenborg. We should not speak of states before the state.  But does it follow that we should lift the focus away from the political unit altogether in favor of social institutions? Or would we be better served using the framework he outlines so well in IIWH to supplement a focus on a political unit through a concept with much less conceptual baggage than the state, for instance the polity?

I personally like the concept of polities, and Yale easily detects that in his contribution. If we want to speak about (and compare) political units or corporate social actors across history, the polity concept, with its different parts, allows us to do that pretty well. I, at least, have not come across a better alternative. And in principle there is nothing that prevents us from marrying the concept of polities to the social institutions framework I propose in the book. In fact, in the book I state that my approach to an extent combines the two, while my focus is first and foremost on social institutions as understood by the ES and as recognised across the social sciences. However, as an intellectual exercise, I believe it is valuable to dispense with a core focus on units, because it has been so prevalent in the IR discipline up to today (mostly, it seems to me, to this discipline’s disadvantage). So to be clear, there is nothing wrong with being interested in units. But, for the sake of intellectual curiosity, if nothing else, why not start with social institutions going forward?

I realise that in making these final remarks, I also highlight another of Erik’s concerns, namely that I am a card-carrying member of the ES (I don’t have a card, but I am a paying member of the ES ISA section). While I do think that ‘social institutions’ is a concept that resonates across the social sciences, I am conscious of the possibility that some of the moves I make in the book are conditioned by ES debates and perhaps hard to access for outsiders. Here I must plead guilty to a certain degree of intellectual blindness, for better or worse.


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

[ii] Kalevi J. Holsti, Taming the Sovereigns: Institutional Change in International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

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

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