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

Freeing the Pluralist Imagination, or on the wisdom of escaping Weber’s “Iron Cage”

This is the second in a series of posts by several of us at The Disorder Of Things on Patrick Thaddeus Jackson‘s The Conduct Of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and Its Implications for the Study of World Politics. Paul started things off with his post setting up Jackson’s methodology of politics in order to ask important questions about the politics of Jackson’s methodology. The next few weeks will see further posts, followed by a reply by Jackson himself.

Update (3 Feb): Nick’s post is now up, to learn about material monism and the philosophical power of beards read it here.

Update (17 Feb): Meera’s post is now online, in which she threatens the stability of the matrix.


A broad definition of science, by design, does not provide us with any standards for good research, or indeed any specific advice for how to go about doing research, beyond the two basic admonitions to focus on factual knowledge of the world, and to separate this activity logically and conceptually from the promulgation of normative judgments and partisan-political stances. (25)

Patrick Jackson, The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations

My comments on Jackson’s book need to be put in a personal context. I have no interest in claiming the title of “science” for my work or “scientist” for myself. Further, I do not consider my primary vocation the production of empirical knowledge. Instead, my work is “normative” and focused, most broadly, on how we think about the ethical dimension of world politics. Finally, I do not self-identify as a participant in the discipline of “International Relations,” nor as a “political scientist;” the tradition of scholarly work identified as “International Relations” is compromised by its statist foundations and the historically positivist pretensions that motivated the move to a science of politics are unsustainable in my estimation.

This raises an obvious question: why am I commenting on a book about the conduct of scientific inquiry in International Relations (IR)?

A Personal Anecdote

While at a conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia, I had an argument with my friend, Laust Schouenborg, about the nature of social science. Sitting in a Soviet-era housing block converted into a budget hotel, watching the sun go down behind the park, I was rhetorically ejected from academia.

Our argument began when Laust, after reading Chris Brown’s International Relations Theory: New Normative Approaches, suggested (contra Brown) that because there are no standards of what constitutes a “good” normative argument, the study of ethics had no place in IR, and that scholars concerned with making arguments about how politics should be, had no place in academia.[1] The modern university is a place for scientific study and those who were not practicing science should, he claimed, be relegated to the political and cultural spheres.

This line of reasoning shocked me, but it was only the culmination of a disciplining process I experienced in my first two years as a PhD student in the International Relations Department at the LSE. Even as many members of faculty supported my work, I was constantly asked why I was studying in an IR department and some “colleagues” suggested that my research was value-less as scientific work – whatever its virtues as polemic or sermon.[2]

These experiences have left me with two abiding intellectual concerns about the conduct of social inquiry. The first is to challenge the institutional privilege bestowed upon those conducting their inquiry as “science.” On this concern, Jackson and I share considerable ground, as his critique of exclusive definitions of scientific inquiry deflates dominant pretensions and advocates for a more inclusive study of world politics. And I must give credit where it is due: Jackson doesn’t suggest that my kind be thrown from the ivory tower – just given separate offices. The second concern is deeper and more contentious: to challenge the notion that the ethical questions that interest me can and should be separated from scientific inquiry into world politics. On this point Jackson and I share less ground, and for this reason the bulk of my comments will focus on how and why Jackson separates the “scientific” and the “normative” in his pluralist approach to IR.

Aside from satisfying very personal concerns, I offer this response to Jackson’s book because his generous orientation, stated most forcefully in the concluding chapter, invites engagement. Along with analyzing Jackson’s essentially Weberian account of a pluralist science of IR, and suggesting that a fuller account of social inquiry should bring together ethical and empirical inquiry, my most substantive critique is that the pluralism Jackson defends is partial and continues to discipline the study of world politics in an unsustainable way – a critique that, if correct, undermines a central aim of his project.

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