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. Continue reading

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. 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

Trump, Russia, and the Global Right: IR’s Difficulty with the Political Present

Christopher McIntosh is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Political Studies at Bard College whose published research examines the concept of war, “terrorism,” and the intersection of time and temporality in international politics. He most recently co-edited a volume called Time, Temporality, and Global Politics, and he is currently completing a book project entitled, Theorizing the Interim: IR as Study of the Present.

Given recent events in the United States and Europe, it appears IR scholars have fallen victim, in the words of Robert F. Kennedy (among others), to an ancient “Chinese curse”: “may [you] live in interesting times.” From my position as an American citizen writing in the United States, American politics—both foreign and domestic—appears completely consumed by Trump’s actions, the moves of his “administration,” and the role of Russia in the 2016 election and potentially beyond. Nationally televised Congressional hearings during the day and seemingly daily “bombshell” news stories breaking at night have made it appear as if the US polity is in a unique, ongoing crisis. As overwhelming as it sometimes appears, as IR scholars we cannot afford to look away, as much as we might like to do so. By all accounts, these are, indeed, “interesting times.” Trump’s rise and the rise of the global right potentially upends much of what we think we know and could create a series of natural experiments that confirm or disconfirm our theories.

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Queer International Relations (III)

The third post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge comes to us from Antke Engel. You can read Cynthia’s introductory post and responses to it here. engel_72dpi_small_tiller

Antke Engel is director of the Institute for Queer Theory in Berlin, a site where academic debate meets political activism and artistic/cultural practice. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy at Potsdam University and works as an independent scholar in the fields of queer, feminist and poststructuralist theory, political philosophy and visual cultural studies. She has held visiting professorships at Hamburg University (2003/2005), Vienna University (2011), and Alice Salomon University Berlin (2016), as well as a research fellowship at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry Berlin (2007-2009). She has published numerous essays (some of them available at e-flux journal) and two monographs, Wider die Eindeutigkeit (2002) and Bilder von Sexualität und Ökonomie (2009). She has also co-edited Global Justice and Desire: Queering Economy (Routledge 2015) and Hegemony and Heteronormativity: Revisiting ‘The Political’ in Queer Politics (Ashgate 2011).

Reading Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations has been a great pleasure for me, since I strongly agree with her desire expressed in the introduction and elaborated in the last part of the book to carve out a space for plural logoi in queer theory as well as political thinking and international relations. Plural logoi depend on the ability to uphold the simultaneity of and/or (rather than either/or) in understanding social realities as social complexities. Gender, for example, does not necessarily follow the pattern of either female or male, but might come along as female and/or male. You might like to call this transgender; yet, if you prefer to avoid another label (which would, anyway, only return to an either/logic – either female or male or trans), you would instead claim simultaneity or undecidability: ‘both either one thing or another or possibly another while…simultaneously…one thing and another and possibly another’ (196). For Weber this kind of thinking is what undermines the illusionary figure of ‘sovereign man’, which still successfully claims authority in international relations as the basis of all politics.

The argument is by far not as abstract as it may sound. Weber extracts it from a concrete study of figurations of homosexuality in recent political discourses. Her thesis is that two unacknowledged figures, namely the ‘perverse’ and the ‘normal homosexual’ underlie these discourses. These figures matter not only on the level of sexual politics (that is, the way gendered and sexualized subjectivities as well as intimate relations are socially organized, state regulated, and politically contested), but provide the foil against which ‘sovereign man’ legitimates himself as the guarantor of statecraft and international governance. The argument gets even more thrilling when she argues that currently a third figure turns up on the hegemonic political floor, a figure which is simultaneously perverse and normal. The reader gets to know this figure by accompanying Weber in her subtle and most convincing reading of the phenomenon of Conchita Wurst (Tom Neuwirth) winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014, which in its aftermath provoked some of the most interesting, highly contradictory reactions by European journalists, politicians and religious representatives.

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Accelerationism Without Accelerationism

The second post in our forum on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, from Steven Shaviro. Steven is the DeRoy Professor of English at Wayne State University. He blogs at The Pinocchio Theory.

The term accelerationism was coined by Benjamin Noys in 2010, in order to designate a political position that he rejected. In Noys’ account, accelerationism is the idea that things have to get worse before they can get better. The only way out of capitalism is the way through. The more abstract, violent, inhuman, contradictory, and destructive capitalism becomes, the closer it gets to tearing itself apart. Such a vision derives, ultimately, from the famous account of capitalism’s inherent dynamism in the Communist Manifesto. For Marx and Engels, capitalism is characterized by “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Far from deploring such developments, Marx and Engels see them as necessary preconditions for the overthrow of capitalism itself.

The trouble with accelerationism, according to Noys, is that it celebrates “uncertainty and agitation” as revolutionary in its own right. It doesn’t have any vision of a future beyond disruption. In the 1970s, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that we need, not to withdraw from capitalism, but “to go still further… in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization,” At the same time, Jean-François Lyotard exults over capitalism’s “insane pulsions” and “mutant intensities.‟ By the 1990s, Nick Land ecstatically anticipates the dissolution of humanity, as the result of “an invasion from the future” by the “cyberpositively escalating technovirus” of finance capital. Today, transhumanists see Bitcoin, derivatives, algorithmic trading, and artificial intelligence as tools for destroying the social order altogether, and for freeing themselves from the limits of the State, of collectivity, and even of mortality and finitude. This is what happens when “creative destruction” – as Joseph Schumpeter calls it, in his right-wing appropriation of Marx – is valued in and of itself.

In 2013, responding to all these currents, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams published their “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” In this text, they seek to reclaim accelerationism as a genuine project for the left – one that can pick up the tools of capitalist modernity, and detourn them to liberatory ends. This is not a matter of celebrating disruption for its own sake; Srnicek and Williams emphatically reject Nick Land’s “myopic yet hypnotising belief that capitalist speed alone could generate a global transition towards unparalleled technological singularity.” Instead, Srnicek and Williams return to Marx’s own suggestion that Continue reading

The Science Question in International Studies: PTJ, CoI and follow-ups

Science Montage

From the beloved xkcd

Long time TDOT readers may recall the first ever book symposium we hosted, on Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations. PTJ’s argument regarding the status of ‘science’, epistemology, methodology and reflexivity has continued to generate vibrant and wide-ranging discussion in the discipline. At last year’s Millennium Conference on Method, Methodology and Innovation, PTJ’s keynote speech extended an argument regarding the distinctiveness of scientific knowledge, but argued that international studies did not have to be a science. Responses from Iver Neumann, Mark Salter, Nicola Chelotti, Laura Sjoberg and myself were invited in the follow-up special issue of the journal.

I’ve made my contribution accessible via, but here’s a sneak preview: Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: Abstraction, Authenticity, Objection

Our traditional post-conference binge series returns, with posts on talks given at the International Studies Association conference (this one was in Toronto, in March 2014).

Far Side Anthropologists

0. Prelude

Since our theme is accidental fieldwork, I will begin with an account of my accident. In the course of a PhD thesis mainly on concepts, theories and narratives of wartime sexual violence, I spent three and a half weeks in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. That time barely deserves the term ‘fieldwork’, but it wasn’t desk work, and it wasn’t familiar. Working partly for an NGO, I spoke principally to agents of the humanitarian international, from ActionAid to various branches of the UN. I was partly working for others, and partly scoping out a more in-depth period of fieldwork, one that never materialised. I socialised in the same bars as those internationals, and sat by the same hotel pools. But I did not then seek to interrogate their peculiar brand of international practice. Nor have I returned to it since.

Perhaps this accounts for why my over-riding sense was one of discomfort. At some level I expected that my time away would enrich the thesis by locating my abstractions in concrete situations and real persons. Perhaps I would experience what so many seem to, and fall for the location itself, returning again and again, and slowly acquiring language, cultural cues, a taste for the food and the air. Instead I felt strangely detached, and implicated in performances not of my choosing (the expert, the knowing colleague, the route to international support, the disaster tourist). I returned more attached to conceptual inquiry, and more suspicious (I was already quite suspicious) of appeals to ‘the real world’ and its informants. My disconnection (from other ‘internationals’, from locals, from Goma itself) became clearer sometime later, sitting in a hotel suite at an ISA panel, listening to others talk about the same place, and some of the same buildings, in terms of their own discomfort and dislocation.

1. Narrative Is A Metacode

Not all representations of the field are alike. Let us distinguish three. Continue reading

Living Knowledge Traditions and the Priestly Caste of the Western Academy


The Western Academy, especially in its social science and humanities wings, incorporates as a priestly caste. Perhaps Kant is the first high priest of this caste when he argues for the Aufklärer to become a corporate entity equivalent to the hierocracy and nobility but exceptional in its duty to provide a truly public service of reasoning. The psalm of this priestly caste is “have the courage to use your own understanding”, its catechism: to singularly possess and hold aloft the flame of revelation, known as science, or, nowadays, the modern episteme. Even Marx holds the flame aloft when he takes Hegel’s Philosopher, who breathes world spirit, and makes him inhabit the skin of the Communist.

This priestly caste, as it founds the church of modernity, is instantly and integrally involved in founding a broader colonial division of labour.  These new priests conjure up the traditional/modern divide by the use of history –  differentiating old and new European Western societies – and by the use of anthropology (later, sociology too), by differentiating the colonized from the colonized. The living knowledge traditions of the colonized are pronounced dead on arrival in the present. And their cosmologies, philosophies, social practices – are entombed into opaque “cultures” the contents of which can only be clearly illuminated by the keepers of the flame. 


Ultimately this mapping of difference works through race, gender and class coordinates so that even the “poor” living in the West, as well as un-mastered women and single mothers intersect with (post-)colonized subjects to become part of this opacity. The episteme of the Western Academy thus differentiates between the knowers and the known.

In this respect, the modern episteme is as seminal as gunboats to the maintenance of colonial difference. Key to this difference is not just the attribution of extra-ordinary exploitation, oppression and dispossession to colonized peoples but also their epistemic erasure, i.e., the outlawing of the possibility and desirability of intentional self-determining community amongst the colonized and their post-colonized descendents. It is in the colonial world and not Europe where Europeans develop the art of objectifying peoples into populations such that the basic competency of the colonized to self-define is deemed absent by the instruments and mores of European sanctioned international law. Postcolonial populations have only been able to become peoples under very specific conditionalities; and many who make the transition become the new police of colonial difference. Those who fall between or prefer a third way become the ungoverned, or ungovernable.

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(Dis)Embodied Methodology in International Political Economy

Nicki Smith

Following some previous discussion on similar themes, a guest post by Nicola Smith. Nicki is Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Birmingham and has published on a diversity of issues surrounding globalisation and social justice. She is currently writing a monograph on Queer Sexual Economies for Palgrave and has published articles in Sexualities, Third World Quarterly and the British Journal of Politics and International Relations. Other related publications include Body/State and Queer Sex Work. The following piece has been developed as part of a book project on methods in critical International Political Economy, edited by Johnna Montgomerie, and a version of it was recently presented at the semi-plenary session on ‘The body in/and international relations’ at the 8th Pan-European Conference on International Relations in Warsaw.

The Book of Life - Brain and Body - Zone of Civilization

There was a time when I understood International Political Economy (IPE) to mean ‘bodies of thought’ (realism, liberalism, Marxism, etc.) and so, not knowing which body to have, I tried each of them on for size. Realism didn’t fit (too tight); liberalism felt wrong (unethically-sourced materials); Marxism looked good (but I lacked the discipline to maintain it). Social constructivism suited my friends and felt pretty comfortable, so this was the body I decided to have. As a social constructivist, I did a lot of work on ideas (‘discourse’) and thought a lot about other bodies of thought. But what I didn’t do was to engage in thought about bodies. Bodies didn’t seem to happen in IPE; they appeared to exist somewhere else entirely, to be accessed only via metaphor (as in the above description) but always somewhere ‘over there’, never as the living, breathing stuff of the discipline. Bodies – or so I assumed – were off the cards.

In other contexts, though, I was thinking a lot about bodies: from the personal (‘will my body be able to produce another body, a child?’) to the professional (‘do I under-perform in job interviews because I gesticulate wildly when nervous?’) and the political, too (‘the government should de-criminalise the sale of sexual services’). Indeed, while I was writing a PhD and then monograph about states and markets – globalisation, economic development and social justice in the Irish Republic – it was bodies that I loved talking, reading, arguing about. I just didn’t see them as ‘IPE’.

In fact, bodies had been there all along; I hadn’t seen them because I hadn’t been looking.

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