Reply

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.

Let me begin by focusing on one misinterpretation that, granted, is very easy to make given the conventional understanding of functionalism in the social sciences. This is the understanding of functionalism as an explanatory device. As Cornelia rightly stresses, it is an understanding rooted in British anthropology and the notion that social institutions sustain larger societal imperatives of order, equilibrium or stability. Although Hedley Bull was adamant that he was not a structural functionalist, it nevertheless appeared to be exactly the line of explanatory reasoning he adopted when he claimed that the five institutions of international society helped support the three fundamental goals or objectives of any society.[i]

To be absolutely clear, there is no explanatory content in my functional framework, as Erik accurately notes. I do not claim that the social institutions captured by my functional categories promote order, stability or anything of that kind. The understanding of functionalism I adopt in the book is just one of differentiation; the idea that it is possible to inductively distinguish between different forms of functionally-defined activities. For example, that going fishing is a different activity from reading a book, although both may also be captured by the more encompassing functional category termed ‘leisure activities’ (for fishermen and scholars, these activities may of course also be functionally categorised as ‘work’). As I argue in the book, the functional categories constitute a new basic grid for understanding social relations. They are an approach to cutting up the ‘social whole’ that is in front of us.

Now, this is also why my framework does not initially give us a handle on understanding and explaining change in and of institutions. This is Ben’s concern (and Erik’s), and he is absolutely right in that. At the moment, I have no concrete plans to develop that kind of theory. Those who are interested in that would do well to follow Ben’s suggestions, as well as to draw on the work of Holsti[ii] that Cornelia also makes reference to. The core value of my framework, as I discussed in the introduction to this symposium, is mainly that it responds to the ‘comparativist challenge’: how to compare societies across history and across cultures and regions of the whole world in an as objective fashion as possible, without being beholden to the specific social characteristics of one particular historical era or a specific culture (notably modern Western history). Cornelia puts a nice spin on this. The goal of the framework

is to produce thick pictures of institutionalisations in exotic societies along political and social categories sufficiently specific to capture what those institutionalisations might have meant in the societies in which they appeared, but which are specified in a way that makes them intelligible to us.      

Setting aside the misinterpretation regarding the (functional) explanatory content of my theoretical framework, there are other legitimate concerns regarding the functionalism I do embrace. One such concern is related to the question of where the functions come from. How did I ‘discover’ them? Both Erik and Cornelia touch on this. This is a very complicated question, and I am not sure that these brief remarks do justice to it. I will start by quoting Erik’s observation, which neatly connects to the explanation issue just discussed:

There is no given way in which the world must be and there is consequently no particular way in which it must be divided. There are no concepts, taxonomies or basic grids out there in the world. Instead you divide, conceptualize and taxonomize for a certain purpose, in order to explain a certain thing. Ontology is theory-dependent.

Cornelia makes a similar point by drawing on Weber’s claim that ideal-types are about selecting the parts of reality that are important to us, also implying purpose. Personally, I am just not convinced by these arguments. Not yet at least. And it may come down to our perhaps different understanding of human nature and possibly philosophy of science. I think there is such a thing as categorising just for the sake of it, perhaps linked to an innate human curiosity and interest in exploring the world around us. When I observe small children trying to make sense of the world, or just playing in the world, I think I see the purest expression of this. What different shapes are there, what colors, what sounds and so on. And to me, that innate and basic drive to categorise is also at the heart of science. A traditional functionalist might object here that the ability to categorise is an expression of the functional survival needs of our species, including small children. Perhaps. But does that invalidate the conclusion that small children categorise and cut up the ‘social’ and ’physical whole’ without any immediate purpose or goal, and that they are eventually better at bending that world to their will as a consequence? I do not think so. Therefore, I do think it is possible to engage in scientific categorisation without having a clear purpose or stated objective. My functional categories should be understood against this background.

That said, I did in fact have a clear purpose in formulating my functional categories: they were supposed to be an answer to the comparativist challenge. They should help us compare societies across time and space. And that returns us to the problem of how I ‘discovered’ the categories. Cornelia appears to argue that the categories are partly biased towards Westphalia, because my initial engagement was with English School (ES) scholars. However, that interpretation downplays some significant steps in the development of my argument. It is true that I started with a number of ES scholars back in my 2011 piece in International Relations, but the core thrust of that piece was precisely to challenge their Western-centrism and to construct an alternative set of categories that could travel across time.[iii] In the book, I went much further and engaged with the lists of functional categories proposed by a range of prominent IR scholars, anthropologists and sociologists. Several of these lists had been constructed to cover all of human history on this planet and most went decidedly beyond the modern West.

Have I arrived at the best list of functional categories? Yale states that they ‘are perhaps as good as we can do and better than most’. And I think that is precisely the point. My list is difficult to conclusively falsify, as noted by Erik, and can only really be judged in comparison with its alternatives. Are the alternatives as well suited to travel across time and space? This is the foundation for my core critique of the state and stage models. Granted, these do not represent a functional list, but they are the main theoretical alternative in the social sciences for comparing across time and space. And my argument is that they are not a good alternative, because they cannot travel. The characteristics associated with each are fundamentally biased towards modern Western political experience.

It is important to note at the same time that my list of functional categories is not final, and that it does gravitate towards the political dimensions, or functional areas, of human life on this planet. Arguably, the different functional categories can be further sub-divided into more specific categories and/or they can be aggregated into larger more encompassing categories. This is an invitation to all curious social scientists out there: go play!

I will, though, recognise and emphasise Erik’s important point that once you start looking for functions or types of activity, you tend to see them everywhere. It is indeed very hard to delimit the boundaries, if you will, of a function and provide a cast-iron definition. Nevertheless, I will challenge the potential objection that I was bound to find my four functions everywhere I looked. My list of categories was revised several times in the course of writing this book and is different from the one that appeared in the 2011 piece in International Relations. This was because I became convinced that some functions could in fact not travel across time and space; they were not there in all the societies I looked at.

Another central issue that several of the contributors touch upon is the status and execution of the three case studies. Ben, for example, notes that it would have been beneficial to have been treated to a more thorough engagement with the different historiographical debates. Erik makes a similar point, but also crucially suggests that the absence of this might have had some serious consequences for how I interpreted (or misinterpreted) the meaning of certain historical events. To be perfectly frank, it is very likely that I have made both errors of fact and interpretation. Here I rely on the ‘Michael Mann defence’ that is in the book: when these mistakes are discovered and corrected, are they enough to invalidate my overall conclusions? Probably not. I will also say that it is not everything that I read on the different cases that eventually appeared in the book. I read widely, but made selective decisions regarding presentation to illustrate institutions falling within each functional category. Moreover, I tended to side with more recent literature/interpretations. At the end of the day, though, Ben and Erik are of course right. It would have been better with a more thorough examination of each case, requiring more time than I spent, and probably resulting in a multi-volume work rather than the relatively thin book that we are discussing in this symposium.

I would like to end with a question posed by Ben:

This is probably where I agree the most with Schouenborg. We should not speak of states before the state.  But does it follow that we should lift the focus away from the political unit altogether in favor of social institutions? Or would we be better served using the framework he outlines so well in IIWH to supplement a focus on a political unit through a concept with much less conceptual baggage than the state, for instance the polity?

I personally like the concept of polities, and Yale easily detects that in his contribution. If we want to speak about (and compare) political units or corporate social actors across history, the polity concept, with its different parts, allows us to do that pretty well. I, at least, have not come across a better alternative. And in principle there is nothing that prevents us from marrying the concept of polities to the social institutions framework I propose in the book. In fact, in the book I state that my approach to an extent combines the two, while my focus is first and foremost on social institutions as understood by the ES and as recognised across the social sciences. However, as an intellectual exercise, I believe it is valuable to dispense with a core focus on units, because it has been so prevalent in the IR discipline up to today (mostly, it seems to me, to this discipline’s disadvantage). So to be clear, there is nothing wrong with being interested in units. But, for the sake of intellectual curiosity, if nothing else, why not start with social institutions going forward?

I realise that in making these final remarks, I also highlight another of Erik’s concerns, namely that I am a card-carrying member of the ES (I don’t have a card, but I am a paying member of the ES ISA section). While I do think that ‘social institutions’ is a concept that resonates across the social sciences, I am conscious of the possibility that some of the moves I make in the book are conditioned by ES debates and perhaps hard to access for outsiders. Here I must plead guilty to a certain degree of intellectual blindness, for better or worse.


[i] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (London: Macmillan, 1977).

[ii] Kalevi J. Holsti, Taming the Sovereigns: Institutional Change in International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[iii] Laust Schouenborg, “A New Institutionalism? The English School as International Sociological Theory,” International Relations 25, no. 1 (March 1, 2011): 26–44.

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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 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.

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

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