The Report of the Death of ‘Polities’ was an Exaggeration: Comments on Laust Schouenborg’s International Institutions in World History

This is the fourth comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Benjamin de Carvalho. Benjamin  is a senior research fellow at NUPI. His research interests are, broadly speaking, between three fields: He works on issues of broader historical change such as the formation of the nation-state in Europe, sovereignty, and the role played by confessionalization and religion.

The other posts for this forum are available here.


Laust Schouenborg invited me to take part in this symposium on his latest book, a request I was thrilled to accept, given that the book had for some time already been on the list of books I wanted to read. Having now read and engaged with Schouenborg’s work, I am very glad I accepted.

International Institutions in World History (IIWH) is an ambitious and thought-provoking work, which I would recommended to any scholar of IR seeking to understand not only the world beyond the state, but also our current predicament. I found his emphasis on social institutions stimulating and on the whole convincing, and really believe he is onto something. That being said, as he himself concludes, the book marks the beginning of an endeavor rather than its end. And as is the case with any broad claim, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Schouenborg’s three cases, while illustrative of his claim about the “universality” of his institutions, nevertheless leave something to be desired. Granted, nomad Central Asia, Polynesia, and the Central African rainforest are pretty much as remote places as one could have picked to engage on such a trip of discovery from New York and Roskilde. And if his framework of international institutions can be found (or even be useful in analyzing) there, then they must be at least fairly universal, is the thought. But then again, while illustrating their occurrence, their utility to the analyst is to me still a bit unclear. While it does structure his accounts, it seems to me that the analysis could have been brought further. Furthermore, for the whole framework to knock out the state (or polities, for that matter) altogether, the book would also have had to tackle some more common cases and demonstrate its utility by superimposing the findings to those of other works in a more sustained and systematic way. Continue reading

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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.

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A New Language for a New World

This is the first comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Erik Ringmar. Erik is Lecturer in Political Science in the Department of Political Science at Lund University. He works on topics such as international history, international relations, cultural sociology, and social theory.

The other posts for this forum are available here.


The basic insight that drives the argument presented in this book is that we need a new way of thinking about international politics which does not privilege European experiences and the idea of a sovereign state. This is required since we need to be able to talk about other parts of the world, about European history before the rise of the state, and about a future in which the state no longer will be with us. World history, simply put, is not about the state, and it really isn’t the case that der Gang Gottes in der Welt daß der Staat ist. And people who claim that this is the case — not only Hegel, but all philosophers of history from Adam Ferguson to Walt Whitman Rostow — are simply mistaken. Compare the recently fashionable idea of a “failed state.” To identify a state as having failed is to identify it as not living up to a European standard. It is like saying that a woman is a “failed man.”

Laust Schouenborg‘s suggestion is to dispense with state-talk in favor of a discussion of political functions. We should stop talking about what political entities are and focus instead on what they do. Perhaps we could think of this as a move from ontology to practice. We are in Durkheimian territory, in other words, or Talcott Parsonian. The state, says Schouenborg, can be disaggregated into four functions having to do with 1) legitimacy and membership; 2) conflict regulation; 3) trade, and 4) governance.

Since all polities of whichever kind they may be fulfill these basic functions, this, not the state, should be our focus. Instead of a state-centered vocabulary which only allows us to talk sensibly only about Europe, a function-centered vocabulary allows us to talk sensibly about all of world history and everyone everywhere.  This taxonomy provides a “basic grid,” says Schouenborg, which is neutral between historical and geographical contexts. “So, my general argument in this book is not only that four functional categories can be used to capture social institutions throughout history. I also argue that we should discard the main alternative conceptual framework in the form of the state and the attendant stage models.” Continue reading

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? Continue reading

Beyond the ‘Case for Colonialism’: Rethinking Academic Practices and Dissent

This is the second in this weekend’s pair of posts on L’affaire TWQ. The author is Swati Parashar from the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, who has Disordered previously. An abridged version of this essay appeared in the Indian Express on 30 September 2017.


It is arguable that we are living in an era of anti-intellectualism, with little respect for scholarly debates and academic endeavours. Despite the odds, several academics have been at the forefront of resistance against undemocratic forces; from participating in the widely attended public lectures on ‘nationalism’ at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi in support of students charged with sedition, protesting against Trump’s policies in the US, to raising voices against state oppression in Turkey. Many academics in the critical tradition visualise an equitable world and contribute to insightful research and progressive activism. Hence, when a leading academic journal, intuitively named the Third World Quarterly (TWQ), founded to encourage anti colonial critiques and voices from the Global South, turns around to advocate for a return to colonialism and its benefits, it requires a serious public debate. It is time to hold the mirror to ourselves and reflect on our own academic practices.

TWQ was established in the 1970s, an era when being referred to as ‘Third World’ was a badge of defiance or honour rather than a slur. The term is now back in circulation within critical/postcolonial scholarship and has an analytical and political purchase. The journal averred to promote “an open-minded and sympathetic search for establishing an international order based on justice”. The main financial patron of this academic venture was the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which gained notoriety in 1990s with allegations of money laundering and other financial irregularities. However, the journal recovered from this scandalous association and went on to become one of the premier academic avenues for critical development discourse and postcolonial and decolonial perspectives on global politics. Academics, especially from the Global South, take pride in publishing in this journal.

The most recent issue of the journal carried an article by Bruce Gilley, a professor of Political Science in the US, titled “The case for colonialism”, which not only glorifies the earlier colonial rule but also advocates for the recolonization of certain ex-colonies. The publication of this article led to widespread furore in the global academic community, with angry petitions demanding the retraction of the published article. The statement by the editor-in-chief that the article was a ‘Viewpoint’ published to generate debate and had undergone double blind peer review, was endorsed later by the Taylor and Francis Group. It has now come to light that the editor-in-chief chose to publish the piece with major revisions, after 2 reviewers’ recommendations varied from rejection to minor revisions. As a protest against the publication,15 of the 34-member editorial board have resigned, stating in their letter that they had not been consulted about the publication of this article, and that even after requests, the reviews were not made available to them. Continue reading

The Eternal Return of Benign Colonialism

One of a pair of posts we will be featuring at The Disorder this weekend on the Third World Quarterly affair. This first contribution is from Naeem Inayatullah, Professor of Politics at Ithaca College, who has visited with us before.


In “The Case for Colonialism” (2017), Bruce Gilley calls for a return to colonialism. He asserts that colonialism brought great benefits to Third World states, that these gains were squandered due to a premature granting of independence to the former colonies, and that only a re-colonization by Western states can develop lost capacities. Many scholars are outraged by Gilley’s publication. Some have called for its retraction while others demand that we ignore it altogether. I think we make a mistake in underestimating this event.

We need not express surprise by Gilley’s presentation. He is only the latest in a long line of scholars and policy makers that have made such claims for decades and for centuries.  For example, Robert Jackson’s Quasi-States (1990) makes similar arguments but without Gilley’s polemical bite. Jackson’s book itself expands on an influential article he wrote with Carl Rossberg, “Why Africa’s Weak States Persist,” (Jackson and Rossberg, 1982).  Indeed, the tone and substance of Gilley’s presentation is widespread in our time. We can find it in the work, for example, of Max Boot (2002), Robert F. Cooper (2002), Niall Ferguson (2008), Michael Ignatieff (2003), Robert Kagan (2002) and Robert D. Kaplan (2003). Some Marxists make comparable claims: Bill Warren in Imperialism, Pioneer of Capitalism (1980) argues that the Third world needs more, not less capitalism and imperialism. Imperialism, as capitalism’s pioneer first destroys and then reconfigures all other cultures. This creative destruction is the condition for moving the world to socialism and to communism. The political bent of these mostly academic writers can range from Marxist to liberal to conservative. But they all require former colonizing states to accept the responsibility of doing good for others via a benevolent imperialism/colonialism. Nor are eminent philosophers, such as Kant, Hegel, and Marx, short on praise for imperialism’s and colonialism’s value to subjected people (Blaney and Inayatullah 2010, chapters 5 and 6).

If our response is disbelief, we might wish to familiarize ourselves with the academy’s centrality in propagating a colonial praxis. Indeed, many have said that academia is an effect of empire, that King Leopold’s dream of creating universities to propagate and refine colonialism has been true for some time.

Three elements make Gilley’s article different from the usual.

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The Face Of Sexuality: Why Do AI-Generated Sexual Orientations Matter?

This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Weber is the author of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge which has been the subject of a symposium on this blog, besides also being an occasional contributor to the blog. This text is based on comments presented at the 2017 European International Studies Association Annual Conference, Barcelona, on the panel ‘The Politics and Responsibility of IR in an Age of Crisis’.

A Stanford University study by Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski that recently went viral repackages long discredited beliefs that a person’s face is scientifically readable for specific personality traits (also see this). The study claims artificial intelligence (AI) facial recognition technology can determine a person’s sexual orientation, with 16-30% greater accuracy than the human eye. The study analyzed more than 35,000 images on a US dating website of white, able-bodied, 18-40 year olds for ‘fixed’ (e.g., nose shape) and ‘transient’ facial features (e.g., grooming styles, weight, facial expressions). Researchers compared their AI-generated sexual orientations against sexual orientations researchers found from dating profiles, which researchers established ‘based on the gender of the partners that [website users] were looking for’.

LGBTQ advocacy organizations immediately labeled the study ‘junk science’. Social scientists will have little trouble understanding why. For example, the study’s sample is skewed in terms of race, age, (dis)ability, and location (online and in the US). Furthermore, the study’s coders failed to independently verify crucial information like age and the problematic category sexual orientation, which are things people regularly lie about on dating sites.

What may be less obvious to many reading the study are some of the other ways biases are created via coding errors or are written into the facial recognition algorithm. For example, the study restricts the range of sexual orientations, sexes and genders to neat yet inaccurate binaries: gay and straight, male and female, masculine and feminine. The study also mistakenly equates sexual orientation with sexual activity, even though people who have same-sex sex do not necessarily identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer. And the study treats ‘transient’ facial features as if they are natural or ‘native’ to ‘gay culture’ and ‘straight culture’, rather than understanding them as performative acts that are highly dependent upon context. In addition to naturalizing culture, this move overdetermines how ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are coded. For it fails to recognize that people who choose to go on a dating site will likely post photos of themselves that can be easily understood through sexualized stereotypes, which they may or may not perform in other on- and off-line contexts.

If there are so many problems with this study, why should any of us give it a second thought, particularly (IR) scholars, policymakers and activists? And why should this study be the focus of reflections on the politics and responsibility of International Relations in an age of crisis?

I have five answers.

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