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

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

Queer International Relations: A Symposium

The Disorder of Things is delighted to host a symposium on Cynthia Weber’s new book Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge. We kick off the symposium with an inaugural post from Cynthia, followed by replies over the next few days from Joan Cocks, Antke Engel, Cyril Ghosh and Dianne Otto. We will conclude the symposium with a reply from Cynthia. cw-headshot

Cynthia Weber is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex.  She has written extensively on sovereignty, intervention, and US foreign policy, as well as on feminist, gendered and sexualized understandings and organizations of international relations.

UPDATE (22/11/2016): a response from Joan Cocks.

UPDATE (23/11/2016): a response from Antke Engel.

UPDATE (24/11/2016): a response from Cyril Ghosh.

UPDATE (25/11/2016): a response from Dianne Otto.

UPDATE (27/11/2016): a response from Cynthia Weber.


What is ‘homosexuality’? Who is ‘the homosexual’? Queer Studies scholars have long engaged with these questions, as well as with a vast array of additional questions about gender variant, gender non-conforming and gender expanding people. They have done so not to answer these questions but to trace how what Michel Foucault calls the will to knowledge about ‘homosexuality’ and ‘the homosexual’ drives various hegemonic discourses of normalization. By focusing on, for example, techniques of medicalization, psychologization, and (self)disciplinization, Queer Studies scholars demonstrate how ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ subjectivities are always produced as/in relation to complex understandings of sexes, genders and sexualities, which they read intersectionally through (amongst other things) race, class and ability. What Queer Studies scholars less often do is theorize how the will to knowledge about sexualities is a specifically sovereign will that makes possible and presupposes specifically sexualized sovereign subjectivities (although see, for example, Berlant’s work on sovereignty).

International Relations (IR) scholars, in contrast, regard sovereignty as among their core concerns. This leads them to pose an alternative set of questions in their research, including: What is ‘sovereignty’?; Who is (the always presumptively male, masculinely-engendered) ‘sovereign man’?; and What arrangements of national and international politics does ‘sovereign man’ authorize? Foucauldian and other social constructivist and poststructuralist IR scholars ask these questions not to answer them but to trace how the will to knowledge about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘sovereign man’ drive various hegemonic discourses of normalization. By focusing on, for example, the social construction of nation-states as sovereign, justifications for intervention in the name of sovereignty, and sovereignly-authorized international economic distributions of wealth, these IR scholars demonstrate how ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ international subjectivities and international orders are always produced as/in relation to complex understandings of sovereignty. What IR scholars less often do is theorize how the will to knowledge about sovereignty is a specifically sexualized will that makes possible and presupposes specifically sexualized sovereign subjectivities (although see Peterson’s work).

Continue reading