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

The Limits of Semantic Ambiguity: A response to Steve Fuller

‘Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny’

Mahatma Gandhi

I was at a seminar once, presenting an early version of some research on popular culture and world politics. During the question & answer period, a colleague – a distinguished scholar in literary studies and creative writing – asserted, quite forcefully, that I should reconsider my use of the concept of narrative. It didn’t belong in my scholarship, he argued, it was a concept with a history and a trajectory and its home was in literature not International Relations, the oddly ill-disciplined discipline in which I have found myself. My colleague raised his voice during this exchange, became somewhat upset. His emotional register, his irrational response to my naïve and perhaps clumsy use of a concept he had spent decades working on: he behaved like a woman.

Academics in general are such emotional creatures. We might speak, in fact, of ‘academic feminisation’. They’re so invested in their work, and the good ones are so committed to their students: they nurture, they foster talent and possibility, they provide guidance and professional socialisation. They act like women. They respond irrationally to criticisms of work, or the complaint that a concept is being misappropriated; or they focus on some perceived ‘injustice’ rather than take an argument at face value and use logic to refute it. Hysterical responses are not uncommon…

… It is clear, I hope, that the above paragraphs are deliberately ridiculous. In no scholarly outlet, one would hope, would such a flagrantly reductive and offensive set of gender stereotypes find a platform. And yet Steve Fuller was able to publish an article recently on the multi-author blog Sociological Imagination that used flagrantly reductive and offensive stereotypes about autism to support an argument about ‘semantic ambiguity’ in sociology. I want to respond here to both Fuller’s blog post, and his defence of said post – both in the comments and on Twitter – in which he essentially ‘doubles down’ on his original position. Continue reading

What is This Thing Called IR? A View from Howard U

This is the fourth post in our symposium on Vitalis’ White World Order, Black Power Politics. Naeem’s post is here, and Nivi’s is here. Further responses, including from the author are to follow…


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It was a party for DAAD-funded scholars from all over Germany and our hosts at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg invited to us a historical costume play.  It was childish, and therefore well-suited for us international Stipendiat/inn/en, many of whom still struggled with basic German: some students and faculty dressed up as famous scholars from various periods in the university’s 500-year history and said a few things about themselves.  I have now forgotten all of the names but one: Anton Wilhelm Amo. A West African slave of a German duke who in 1734 successfully defended a dissertation in Halle’s philosophy department. The (black) guy who played Amo spoke loudly and clearly, but I recall turning to the (black) DAADer sitting next to me, a fellow poli sci student from France: “1734?” “That’s what I heard, too”, she said, “1734.”

Since this was in the era of the (dial-up) Internet, a few days later I was able to learn more about this Amo fellow, including the details eluded in the university play. Vitalis’ latest book, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Cornell, 2015) is a powerful reminder of another lesson I learned then: that work by non-white scholars tends to be “denied”–that is, ignored, temporized, ornamentalized and outright purged [1]. How many students of international law or of the German Enlightenment today know anything about Amo’s “On the Right of Moors in Europe” (1729)?  Not many given that the essay has been lost to history, probably because its copies were deemed unworthy of those meticulously maintained rare book collections.  And this is a huge loss given the relevance of historical “rights of Moors” debates for the constitution of “Europe.”

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Continue reading

Modernity Is Everything; Empires Are Everywhere

JMulich_squareJeppe Mulich brings us the third post in our forum on The Global Transformation by Buzan and Lawson. Jeppe is a doctoral candidate at the Department of History at New York University. He works on comparative empires, global history, and colonialism in world politics. His research on regionalism, law, and intercolonial networks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been published in the Journal of Global History and in the anthology The Uses of Space in Early Modern History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

The authors’ original post, Julian’s response, Jamie’s response and the authors’ rejoinder are now live.


Let me start off by stressing that The Global Transformation is a fantastic book. Buzan and Lawson manage to pack a host of information and analysis into a relatively short and very readable book, while at the same time keeping their fundamental argument sharp and coherent. It is one of those works that leave you wondering why it has not already been written, particularly in a discipline so intent on retelling the wrong stories over and over again.[1] It is also, incidentally, a book that strongly argues in favor of the relevance of my own field, something that any aspiring scholar should welcome with open arms. With this in mind, my comments and critiques in the following piece might come off as nitpicky, but if they do this is only because I agree with so very much of Buzan and Lawson’s core argument. I am not trying to offer a counterargument or even a corrective to their account, but rather a few friendly jabs and perhaps an opening for further research into and discussion of some of the wider themes and implications of this important book.

I will primarily provide comments on the book from the perspective of a historian, with the theoretical underpinnings which that classification implies. My comments are divided into three broad sections. The first section will deal with issues of thinking in time, in particular how to date the type of global shifts that Buzan and Lawson are interested it and, related to this, how to disentangle the historical forces of change and continuity. The second section will delve more into the specific substance of the global transformation – namely the notion of modernity and the potential problems and benefits of using this nebulous concept. The third section will focus more on a particular part of the puzzle of the nineteenth century – that of colonial configurations and the multitude of state-forms emerging at this time – and consider this phenomenon vis-à-vis Buzan and Lawson’s treatment of rational state-building.

Periodization and Eurocentric Narratives

BelleyWhile Hobsbawm (1962) introduced the idea of a long nineteenth century more than half a century ago, in the first of his three books covering the period from 1789 to 1914, the past decade and a half has witnessed a resurgence of interest among historians and historical sociologists. Unlike Hobsbawm’s work, which focused almost entirely on events and developments within Europe, many of these new accounts are in various ways attempting to grapple with the inherent Eurocentrism of earlier histories. Such projects are often accomplished by telling decidedly global stories of the nineteenth century, with the most widely read example being C. A. Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, joined in the past year by Jürgen Osterhammel’s 1000-page behemoth The Transformation of the World.[2]

What the works of Bayly, Osterhammel, and Buzan and Lawson have in common is their focus on the transformative nature of the nineteenth century, apparent with just a cursory glance at their titles. While these authors might be interested in a certain kind of big history, their work focuses on shifts, breaks, origins, and turning points – not on continuities and long trajectories. This is in many ways true for most academic history, which often ends up as an exhausting chase to find the origins of specific phenomena or practices or, when coupled with the peculiar obsession with modernity, an endless argument over when and where the first example of a truly modern state/revolution/economy/philosophy/society/ideology/science/war should be found. Increasingly relegated to the sidelines are the crotchety old contrarians who insist that nothing much ever changed anyhow.[3] Continue reading

Reading across the ‘Colour Line’: Texts, Traditions, and Academic Solidarity

ShowFullImageA guest post by Prof Gurminder K Bhambra, University of Warwick

Four incidents in the last week have caused me to check the calendar and confirm that I hadn’t accidentally time-travelled back a generation. Debates on which I had believed there to have been some (positive) movement over the last couple of decades seem to have made such little impact on many colleagues that it was as if the earlier debates had never happened. I outline the first three incidents briefly before going on to discuss the fourth in greater detail; I do so in order to reflect on their implications and consequences for academic work and engagement.

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bebop-2014-flyer-names-low-resA community statement was circulated by colleagues in Germany protesting against the development of an academic programme of Black Studies that did not include Black scholars or thinkers or engage with Black scholarship. It seems astonishing, in 2015, to have to rehearse the arguments, again, about why setting up a programme addressing the distinct experiences of a particular group of people and not including people – academics, activists, and others – who have had such experiences and have produced scholarship articulating that experience is problematic. Just so that people don’t misunderstand me here: I am NOT saying that only people with the experience can ever study or talk about such experiences. However, I am saying that to set up a programme for study without the participation of people whose experiences and writing are putatively central to it is problematic. There has been so much discussion on this topic that to repeat the mistakes of earlier times seems deliberately willful and it is this willfulness that requires to be addressed.

Since starting to write this piece, the director of the programme has disbanded it, apparently temporarily, in favour of an open debate about how to move forward in light of the criticisms being raised. Instead of disbanding, why not restructure on the basis of the criticisms and by taking them into account? They are not new.

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europeislamSecondly, the professional association that I consider to be my academic ‘home’ has advertised its forthcoming annual conference theme as ‘Fragmented Societies: Migrating Peoples’. As another colleague suggested, why not just call it ‘Migrating Peoples Fragmenting Societies’ and do away with the niceties and apparent distance created through the use of the colon. Thus far, there has been no response from the professional association to the suggestion that the wording of the conference theme be changed to avoid it sounding like a UKIP-sponsored conference.

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The third incident involves the setting up of expert panels at an international conference where all the experts chosen are from north America. There is not a single all-male panel; but all the panelists on all four panels are white. When concern about this was expressed on social media, one response was:

“Moronic tokenism, mk 2. Not satisfied with gender equality on panels at XXX? Rant about people’s skin colour instead”

Continue reading

Closet Postcolonialists? On Buzan and Lawson’s Global Transformation

julianaugust13This is the second post in our symposium on The Global Transformation by Buzan and Lawson. We are delighted to welcome Julian Go, Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies at Boston University, and Editor of Political Power and Social Theory. Julian’s recent books include American Empire and the Politics of Meaning (Duke University Press, 2008) and Patterns of Empire: the British and American Empires, 1688 to Present (Cambridge University Press, 2011), both of which have won numerous prestigious awards in various disciplines. He is currently working on a manuscript provisionally entitled Postcolonial Theory and Social Thought and a volume on Global Historical Sociology co-edited with George Lawson.

Update: Jeppe’s response, Jamie’s response and the authors’ rejoinder are now also live. Original post here.


In this magisterial work, Buzan and Lawson make two overarching claims: 1. the nineteenth century saw a fundamental “global transformation” in the “international order”, creating the essential aspects of the “global modernity” we inhabit today, and 2. disciplinary IR needs to recognize this transformation and reconfigure its identity and agenda accordingly. As a historical sociologist, I feel less certain about judging the second claim but more certain about the first. Was there a fundamental transformation in the nineteenth century that has shaped our contemporary global modernity? Yes. And Buzan and Lawson painstakingly and persuasively chart this transformation like none other.

What, then, to say about this important book – a book, by the way, which every serious historical social scientist needs to read? A book which, in my estimation, belongs among the great works of historical sociology like those of Wallerstein, Tilly, and Mann? Pushed to say something critical, I will instead say something didactic. More precisely, I will comment on two things: the relative absence of theory and the remarkable presence of empire. Put differently: what is the theoretical frame or theoretical considerations mobilized in the work? And why isn’t empire the fundamental organizing analytic category? Or, put simply: are Buzan and Lawson closet postcolonialists? Continue reading

The Global Transformation: The Making of the Modern World

This guest post by Barry Buzan and George Lawson marks the beginning of a symposium on their book The Global Transformation: History, Modernity and the Making of International Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Barry is a Fellow of the British Academy, Emeritus Professor in the LSE Department of International Relations and a Senior Fellow at LSE IDEAS. He was formerly Montague Burton professor in the Department of International Relations, LSE. Among his books are, with Richard Little, International Systems in World History (2000); with Ole Wæver, Regions and Powers (2003); From International to World Society? (2004); with Lene Hansen, The Evolution of International Security Studies (2009); and An Introduction to the English School of International Relations (2014). George Lawson is an Associate Professor of International Relations at LSE. His research focuses on the interface between International Relations and Historical Sociology, and on processes of radical change, most notably revolutions. He is the author of Negotiated Revolutions (2005) and the editor (with Chris Armbruster and Michael Cox) of The Global 1989 (2010).

Team BG

Update: Julian’s response, Jeppe’s response, Jamie’s response and the authors’ rejoinder are now live.


The core argument of The Global Transformation is straightforward: during the 19th century, a ‘global transformation’ remade the basic structure of international order. This transformation involved a complex configuration of industrialization, rational state-building, and ideologies of progress. What do we mean by these terms?

  • By industrialization we mean both the commercialization of agriculture and the two-stage industrial revolution, which together both shrank the planet and generated an intensely connected system of global capitalism. The extension of capitalism brought new opportunities for accumulating power, not least because of the close relationship between industrialization and dispossession. Indeed, industrialization in some places (such as Britain) was deeply interwoven with the forceful de-industrialization of others (such as India).
  • By rational state-building, we mean the process by which administrative and bureaucratic competences were accumulated and ‘caged’ within national territories. This process was not pristine. Rather, as we show in the book, processes of rational state-building and imperialism were co-implicated – most 19th century nation-states in the West were imperial nation-states, and imperialism ‘over there’ fed into rational state-building ‘at home’: the modern, professional civil service was formed in India before being exported to Britain; techniques of surveillance, such as fingerprinting and file cards, were developed in colonies and subsequently imported by the metropoles; cartographic techniques used to map colonial spaces were reimported into Europe to serve as the basis for territorial claims,. Domestically, rational states provided facilitative institutional frameworks for the development of industry, technological innovations, weaponry and science; abroad, they provided sustenance for imperial policies. Both functions were underpinned by ‘ideologies of progress’.
  • By ‘ideologies of progress’, we mean assemblages of beliefs, concepts and values that address how polities, economies and cultural orders relate to each other, how individuals and groups fit into these assemblages, and how human collectivities should be governed. In the book, we highlight the impact of four such ideologies: liberalism, socialism, nationalism and ‘scientific racism’, all of which were rooted in ideas of classification, improvement, control and progress (including ‘scientific racism’, many of whose proponents favoured a ‘forward policy’ in which European imperialism was hardened, both to safeguard white gains and to combat miscegenation with ‘backward’ peoples). Again, there was a dark side to these ideologies (and not just with ‘scientific racism’) – the promise of progress was linked closely to a ‘standard of civilization’ which served as the legitimating currency for coercive practices against ‘barbarians’ (understood as peoples with an urban ‘high culture’ – the ‘Oriental Despotisms’ of the Ottomans, Indians, Chinese, etc.) and ‘savages’ (understood as peoples without an urban ‘high culture’ – virtually everyone else). These ideas ended the long dominance of the dynastic state and defined the social framework of modernity. Nothing of comparable weight has come into being since, so these ideas, and the interplay amongst them, not only defined the dynamics of legitimacy and conflict during the 20th century, but continue to dominate the 21st

The three components of the global transformation were mutually reinforcing. Continue reading