Skip to main content

International society is to international system as world society is to …? Systemic and societal processes in English School theory

Abstract

This article argues that the distinction between international system and international society within the English School of International Relations theory, originally put forward by Bull and Watson, should not be abandoned. The distinction is shown to correspond to complementary etic and emic approaches to the study of social reality. The former approach is most appropriate for studying the unintended emergence of patterns of social organisation, the latter approach for the study of intersubjective negotiations over shared rules and norms within a bounded social context. Elaborating, rather than eliminating, the notion of international system suggests the adoption of the concept of ‘world system’ to complement the English School’s concept of world society. Drawing on the neo-Weberian sociology of Mann and Tilly, the article suggests that the concept of world system is not only theoretically coherent but also congruent with conceptualisations of large-scale change offered by contemporary world historians and historical sociologists.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. The key stage in Wendt’s argument occurs when he attempts to pull the rug from under the feet of materialist theories by arguing that all socially constructed relationships and structures are ideational in character (Wendt 1999: 93–96). Acceptance of this argument reduces materialist theories such as Marxism and neo-realism to ‘rump materialist’ theories concerned with the properties of physical artefacts. But Wendt’s approach stacks the deck against these approaches by focusing on social ontology rather than on the goals towards which social action is directed.

  2. The discussion presented in this article focuses primarily on systemic processes that escape the intersubjective awareness of actors because they operate on large socio-spatial and temporal scales. But processes requiring explanation in etic terms may also operate on very small, sub-individual scales. Psychological research on the automaticity of mental processes suggests that the subjective, emic accounts that agents offer as explanation for their actions may be highly misleading (Bargh and Chartrand 1999). Thus, if the mind is opaque to itself, etic explanations may be necessary to supplement and correct emic accounts of even small-scale, face-to-face, norm-governed social interactions. I am grateful to one of my anonymous reviewers for pointing out this set of possibilities.

  3. For example, the Frankfurt School critical theory might be said to operate according to a methodology that begins with an emic account of a mode of human consciousness, before moving to an immanent critique in terms of the concepts of that mode of consciousness and, finally, to an etic account of how that mode of consciousness mystifies the real social relationships that have given rise to it (Geuss 1981; Linklater 1990; Weber 2005).

  4. Wendt does attempt to distinguish constitutive explanation from causal explanation (Wendt 1999: 77–78). However, within the scientific realist methodology that Wendt adopts, constitution is not separate from causation; the way in which structures and entities are constituted determines their causal powers and propensities (Jackson 2011: 107).

  5. The anthropomorphisation here is intentional. Wendt holds that states can be considered persons with their own beliefs and agency, if not mental states (Wendt 2004).

  6. This is not to say that an etic approach can only be used to examine systemic processes; rather, etic approaches are particularly well-suited to do so.

  7. Tilly provides a summary of his position — which, rather unusually, is presented in verse — in a review essay on the work of James C. Scott (Tilly 1991).

  8. Tilly states the point eloquently: ‘Paradoxically, the belief in societies as overarching social structures with their own logic dovetails neatly with the belief in the socially conditioned mental event as the prime link between person and society’ (Tilly 1984: 26).

  9. See Fukuyama (2011) for a contemporary version of this liberal account of the rise of capitalism and the rule of law in the West.

  10. Burton (1972: 36) also wants to distinguish between ‘interstate’ relations and the overall ‘cobweb’ of human social interactions. This thought-experiment involves imagining all transnational transactions and links, ‘a mass of cobwebs superimposed on one another, strands converging at some points more than others, and being concentrated between some points more than between others’ (Burton 1972: 43).

  11. Unfortunately, Buzan does not elaborate on his reasons for resisting both Wallerstein’s view that there is one single world society (the capitalist world system) and Mann’s position that society is a misleading concept.

  12. From a similar perspective, Linklater (2009) has suggested that scholars of international relations should set themselves the task of developing macro-historical accounts of human interconnectedness.

  13. ‘World-systems analysis means first of all the substitution of a unit of analysis called the “world-system” for the standard unit of analysis, which was the nation state’ (Wallerstein 2004: 16).

  14. Possibly due to the effects of the Black Death, spread by the Mongols and by the Eurasian trade network (McNeill and McNeill 2003: 120; Morris 2010: 398–99). This might represent one significant example of wholly physical interaction between groups of human beings resulting in major social change.

  15. The role of Portugal is accorded major significance by theorists of the long-cycle leadership perspective (Devezas and Modelski 2006).

  16. It would be remiss not to acknowledge the obvious and important point that such system-building efforts were often bloody and involved the destruction of other societies and extended interhuman systems.

References

  • Abu-Lughod, Janet L. (1989) Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250–1350, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ashley, Richard K. (1984) ‘The Poverty of Neorealism’, International Organisation 38 (2): 225–86.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bargh, John A. and Tanya L. Chartrand (1999) ‘The Unbearable Automaticity of Being’, American Psychologist 54 (7): 462–79.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bartelson, Jens (2009) Visions of World Community, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Beckfield, Jason (2003) ‘Inequality in the World Polity: The Structure of International Organisation’, American Sociological Review 68 (3): 401–24.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Braudel, Fernand (1983) Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century, Vol. II, the Wheels of Commerce, London: William Collins and Sons.

    Google Scholar 

  • Braudel, Fernand (1984) Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century, Vol. III, the Perspective of the World, London: William Collins and Sons.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bull, Hedley (1977/2002) The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, 3rd edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Burton, John W. (1972) World Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Buzan, Barry (2001) ‘The English School: An Underexploited Resource in IR’, Review of International Studies 27 (3): 471–88.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Buzan, Barry (2004) From International to World Society? English School theory and the Social Structure of Globalisation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Buzan, Barry and Mathias Albert (2010) ‘Differentiation: A Sociological Approach to International Relations Theory’, European Journal of International Relations 16 (3): 315–37.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Buzan, Barry and Ana Gonzalez-Peleaz, (eds) (2009) ‘The Middle-East through English School theory’, in International Society and the Middle East: English School theory at the Regional Level, 24–44, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Buzan, Barry and Richard Little (2001) ‘Why International Relations Has Failed as an Intellectual Project and What to Do about It’, Millennium 30 (1): 19–39.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Christian, David (2004) Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, London: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cox, Robert (1981) ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory’, Millennium – Journal of International Studies 10 (2): 126–55.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Darwin, John (2007) After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400–2000, London: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  • DeLanda, Manuel (2006) A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity, London: Continuum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Denemark, Robert (1999) ‘World System History: From Traditional International Politics to the Study of Global Relations’, International Studies Review 1 (2): 43–75.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Devezas, Tassaleno and George Modelski (2006) ‘The Portuguese as System-Builders in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries: A Case Study on the Role of Technology in the Evolution of the World System’, Globalizations 3 (4): 507–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Paul Rabinow (1982) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Brighton: Harvester.

    Google Scholar 

  • Elster, Jon (2007) Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Frost, Mervyn (1996) Ethics in International Relations: A Constitutive Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Fukuyama, Francis (2011) The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, London: Profile.

    Google Scholar 

  • Geuss, Raymond (1981) The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hanagan, Michael and Chris Tilly (2010) ‘Cities, States, Trust, and Rule: New Departures from the Work of Charles Tilly’, Theory and Society 39 (3/4): 245–63.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harris, Marvin (1980) Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture, New York: Vintage Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hollis, Martin and Steve Smith (1990) Explaining and Understanding International Relations, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hurrell, Andrew (2007) On Global Order: Power, Values, and the Constitution of International Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Hutchings, Kimberly (1999) International Political Theory: Rethinking Ethics in a Global Era, London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Inglis, David (2011) ‘Mapping Global Consciousness: Portuguese Imperialism and the Forging of Modern Global Sensibilities’, Globalizations 8 (5): 687–702.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus (2011) The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and Its Implications for the Study of World Politics, Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus and Daniel H Nexon (1999) ‘Relations before States: Substance, Process and the Study of World Politics’, European Journal of International Relations 5 (3): 291–332.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jackson, Robert (2000) The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kaufman, Stuart J., Richard Little and William C Wohlforth (2007) The Balance of Power in World History, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1963) Structural Anthropology, London: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Linklater, Andrew (1990) Beyond Realism and Marxism: Critical Theory and International Relations, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Linklater, Andrew (2009) ‘Human Interconnectedness’, International Relations 23 (3): 481–97.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Linklater, Andrew and Hidemi Suganami (2006) The English School of International Relations: A Contemporary Reassessment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Little, Richard (2000) ‘The English School’s Contribution to the Study of International Relations’, European Journal of International Relations 6 (3): 395–422.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Little, Richard (2007) The Balance of Power in International Relations: Metaphors, Myths and Models, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Mann, Michael (1986) The Sources of Social Power, Volume I: A History of Power from the Beginning to 1760 AD, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Mann, Michael (1993) The Sources of Social Power, Volume II: The Rise of Classes and Nation States, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Mann, Michael (1997) ‘Has Globalization Ended the Rise and Rise of the Nation-State?’ Review of International Political Economy 4 (3): 472–96.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McNeill, John Robert and William H. McNeill (2003) The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

    Google Scholar 

  • Meyer, John (2007) ‘Globalization: Theory and Trends’, International Journal of Comparative Sociology 48 (4): 261–73.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Morris, Ian (2010) Why the West Rules for Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal about the Future, London: Profile Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Onuf, Nicholas Greenwood (1989) World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relations, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Reus-Smit, Christian (1999) The Moral Purpose of the State: Culture, Social Identity, and Institutional Rationality in International Relations, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sassen, Saskia (2007) Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, Oxford: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Scott, James C (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, London: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sgard, Jerome, Eric Brousseau and Yves Schemeil (2008) ‘Sovereignty without Borders: On Individual Rights, the Delegation to Rule, and Globalization’, European University Institute Working Paper, RSCAS 2011/28.

  • Skinner, Quentin, ed. (2002) ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, in Visions of Politics, Vol. I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sklair, Leslie (1995) Sociology of the Global System, 2nd edn. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf.

    Google Scholar 

  • Spruyt, Hendrik (1994) The Sovereign State and Its Competitors, Chichester: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Spruyt, Hendrik (2001) ‘Diversity or Uniformity in the Modern World? Answers from Evolutionary Theory, Learning, and Social Adaptation’, in William R. Thompson, ed., Evolutionary Interpretations of World Politics, 110–32, London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tilly, Charles (1984) Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tilly, Charles (1991) ‘Domination, Compliance, Resistance … Discourse’, Sociological Forum 6 (3): 593–602.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tilly, Charles (1992) Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1992, Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tilly, Charles (1993) European Revolutions, 1492–1992, Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tilly, Charles (1998) Durable Inequality, Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tilly, Charles (2001) ‘Relational Origins of Inequality’, Anthropological Theory 1 (3): 355–72.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tilly, Charles (2008) Explaining Social Processes, Boulder: Paradigm Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tilly, Charles (2010) ‘Cities, States, and Trust Networks: Chapter 1 of Cities and States in World History’, Theory and Society 39 (3/4): 265–80.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • van der Pijl, Kees (1998) Transnational Classes and International Relations, London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wallerstein, Immanuel (1974) The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century, London: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wallerstein, Immanuel (2004) World-Systems Analysis, London: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Waltz, Kenneth (1979) Theory of International Politics, MA: McGraw-Hill.

    Google Scholar 

  • Watson, Adam (1992) The Evolution of International Society: A Comparative Historical Analysis, London: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Weber, Martin (2005) ‘The Critical Social Theory of the Frankfurt School and the “Social Turn” in IR’, Review of International Studies 31 (1): 195–209.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wendt, Alexander (1993) ‘Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics’, International Organisation 46 (2): 391–425.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wendt, Alexander (1999) Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Wendt, Alexander (2004) ‘The State as a Person in International Theory’, Review of International Studies 30 (2): 289–316.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Winch, Peter (1958) The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

A draft of this article was presented at the 2012 annual meeting of the British International Studies Association in Edinburgh. Earlier versions of the article were improved by constructive feedback offered by Ronnie Hjorth, three anonymous reviewers and the editors of the Journal of International Relations and Development.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Lees, N. International society is to international system as world society is to …? Systemic and societal processes in English School theory. J Int Relat Dev 19, 285–311 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1057/jird.2014.20

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/jird.2014.20

Keywords

  • emic
  • English School
  • etic
  • historical sociology
  • international society
  • international system