‘Indian Migration and Empire’: comment by Sanjay Seth

The third response in our symposium on Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State is by Sanjay Seth, who is Professor of Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Marxist Theory and Nationalist Politics: The Case of Colonial India (Sage, 1995), Subject Lessons: The Western Education of Colonial India (Duke University Press, 2007 and Oxford University Press, 2008) and, most recently, Beyond Reason: Postcolonial Theory and the Social Sciences (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Radhika’s Indian Migration and Empire is subtitled ‘A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State’, and part of the book’s argument is that while it is assumed that control of migration ‘is a defining, definitive, unchanging, and unchangeable element of (state) sovereignty’ (p. 7), in fact control of migration within the British empire occurred late and helped to produce state sovereignty. In making this argument Radhika traces how, in the wake of the abolition of slavery in 1834, the British empire played an active role in facilitating the movement of its Indian citizens into its ex-slave plantation colonies as much needed indentured labour, and developed elaborate governmental machinery to do so; by contrast, the movement of peoples other than indentured labourers within the British empire was largely unregulated and not constrained. It was in fact the white dominions of the empire that sought to restrict and regulate the entry of non-white imperial subjects, finally achieving their aim following the Komagata Maru incident in 1914. It was only after this that the freedom of British subjects to move from one part of the empire to another was abandoned, and a passport system allowing race-based restriction was introduced. Mongia concludes, ‘control over mobility does not occur after the formation of the nation-state … the very development of the nation-state occurred, in part, to control mobility across the axis of the nation/race’ (p. 139, emphasis in original). The modern sovereign state thus has a colonial and imperial genealogy.

komagata maru

This book is a distinguished addition to a growing literature that requires us to recognise that the conventional picture of the sovereign state as the foundation of certain practices has things the wrong way around. Another recent example is Tarak Barkawi’s Soldiers of Empire (2017), which similarly challenges the assumption that modern wars between states have been fought by the armies of these states, such that we may assume a ‘sovereign territorial package of state, army, and society’. In fact, this has been the exception rather than the rule. The armies that fought in most of the colonial campaigns of the coloniser countries, and in the world wars, were imperial armies, most notably in the cases of France and Britain. The British Indian army numbered some one million men during World War I, and 10% of the soldiers who fought for the British Empire in this war were in the British Indian army; in World War II the Indian army comprised more than two million members and operated across three continents. The nation-state army is in significant measure an outcome of World War II, rather than the basis of it and the mode in which it was fought; it was only well after that war that national armies and sovereign states became isomorphous, and thus, as Barkawi colourfully expresses it, this war ‘consumed one world order and spat out another’.

Although her book crosses many disciplinary boundaries, Radhika writes, I think, above all as a historian (as do I, though interestingly, we are respectively in departments of sociology and politics), and part of the strength of the book is the varied and dispersed archive upon which it is able to draw. But the import of her argument, as she recognises and seeks to develop it, applies to all disciplines and forms of intellectual activity which take the sovereign, territorial state as a given – that is to say, almost all social science and humanities disciplines.

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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