Poststructural/postmodern international relations (IR) is a mode of critical thinking and analysis that joined disciplinary conversations during the 1980s and, despite the dismissive reception it has initially faced, it is a vibrant and expanding area of research within the field today. Providing a radical critique of politics in modernity, it is less a new paradigm or theory. Instead, it is better described as “a critical attitude” that focuses on the question of representation and explores the ways in which dominant framings of world politics produce and reproduce relations of power: how they legitimate certain forms of action while marginalizing other ways of being, thinking, and acting. To elaborate the insights of poststructuralism/postmodernism, the article starts off by situating the emergence of these critical perspectives within the disciplinary context and visits the debates and controversies it has elicited. This discussion is followed by an elaboration of the major themes and concepts of poststructural/postmodern thought such as subjectivity, language, text, and power. The convergences and divergences between poststructuralism and its precursor—structuralism—is an underlying theme that is noted in this article. The third and fourth sections make central the epistemological and ontological challenges that poststructuralism/postmodernism poses to disciplinary knowledge production on world politics. While the former focuses on how central categories of IR such as state and sovereignty, violence, and war were problematized and reconceptualized, the latter attends to the poststructuralist/postmodern attempts to articulate a different political imaginary and develop an alternative conceptual language to think the international beyond the confines of the paradigm of sovereignty and the modern subject. The article concludes with a brief look at the future directions for poststructural/postmodern investigations.
Poststructuralism and Postmodernism in International Relations
The International System–International Society Distinction
Tim Dunne and Richard Little
The central feature of the English School is now usually considered to be its commitment to the proposition that international relations (IR) take place within an international society of shared norms and some shared values. However, an exclusive focus on norms has the effect of denuding the school of the more pluralistic dimensions that were advocated by some of the founding members of the British Committee on the Theory of International Politics. Hedley Bull, in particular, stressed that to account for international order it is necessary to view IR from three divergent perspectives: the international system, the international society, and world society. The early British Committee discussions, directed toward delineating the “fundamentals” of international theory, used the terms international society, international system, and states system interchangeably. But the idea of a states system was distinctive to the emerging English School. A distinguishing marker of the English School is the claim that not only is there a need to accommodate societal norms in theoretical accounts of world politics, but that there is also a systemic logic, and that these analytics together have explanatory power in considering how the world hangs together. The essential elements of the school’s thinking were most fully and effectively realized in The Expansion of the International Society, the central work where the international system–international society distinction is employed. This grand narrative represents a crucial contribution to the field of IR but one that has been very generally underappreciated across the discipline. To generate a deeper understanding of the two concepts, it is clear that much more research needs to be carried out on international societies and systems around the world.
Governmentality and Biopolitics
Benjamin J. Muller
Governmentality and biopolitics has emerged as a chief source of scholarship and debate within contemporary international relations (IR), particularly among those involved in the sub-disciplines, Critical Security Studies and International Political Sociology. Governmentality, first and foremost, is a term coined by philosopher Michel Foucault, and refers to the way in which the state exercises control over, or governs, the body of its populace. Meanwhile, biopolitics, which was coined by Rudolf Kjellén, is an intersectional field between biology and politics. In contemporary US political science studies, usage of the term biopolitics is mostly divided between a poststructuralist group using the meaning assigned by Michel Foucault (denoting social and political power over life), and another group who uses it to denote studies relating biology and political science. The foci of literatures on governmentality and biopolitics are particularly agreeable to many scholars critical of traditional IR scholarship and its distinct articulation of “world politics.” The shifty nature of both concepts, as defined by Michel Foucault and the subsequent use by various scholars, presents challenges to setting any specific account of these terms; yet the blurriness of these concepts is what makes them productive, contrary to the zero-sum, rationalist accounts of power and behavior so central to much of conventional IR.
Mercantilist and Realist Perspectives on the Global Political Economy
Daniel W. Drezner
Mercantilism and realism would appear to go hand in glove with each other. If realism represents both a systemic worldview and explanatory model for world politics, then mercantilism would appear to be the paradigm’s default foreign economic policy doctrine. And, to be sure, there are obvious and strong areas of overlap. Both paradigms stress the autonomous role of the state—and warn against capture by particularistic interests. Both also stress the conditioning effects of the distribution of power in defining national economic interests. Despite these constants, however, over time, the two approaches diverged more and more. Most modern-day writers who sympathize with mercantilism do so from perspectives ranging from left-leaning social democracy to more radical Gramscian critiques. Realists, on the other hand, have tended to gravitate towards the conservative, Burkean side of the political spectrum. While realists and mercantilists might agree on the role that power plays in the global economy, they do not necessarily agree on the normative implications of that insight. Paradoxically, as realism has acquired a more “scientific” cast, it has become less influential in international political economy (IPE) scholarship. For realism to maintain its relevancy in IPE, it must reacquire its deftness in incorporating nonstructural variables into its explanatory framework. The paradigm retains some useful predictive power for how systemic political variables affect global economic outcomes, but it is of little use in discussing the reverse causal effects.
Race(ing) International Relations: A Critical Overview of Postcolonial Feminism in International Relations
Geeta Chowdhry and L.H.M. Ling
Postcolonial feminism in international relations (PFIR) is a disciplinary field devoted to the study of world politics as a site of power relations shaped by colonization. PFIR combines postcolonial and feminist insights to explore questions such as how the stratum of elite power intersects with subterranean layers of colonization to produce our contemporary world politics; how these interrelationships between race, gender, sex, and class inform matrices of power in world politics; and how we account for elite and subaltern agency and resistance to the hegemonic sphere of world politics. PFIR is similar to Marxism, constructivism, and postmodernism in that they all posit that the masses underwrite hegemonic rule and, in so doing, ultimately have the means to do away with it. One difference is that PFIR emanates from the position of the subaltern; more specifically, the colonized’s colonized such as women, children, the illiterate, the poor, the landless, and the voiceless. Three major components are involved in PFIR in its analysis of world politics: culture, politics, and material structures. Also, eight common foci emerge in PFIR: intersectionality, representation, and power; materiality; relationality; multiplicity; intersubjectivity; contrapuntality; complicity; and resistance and accountability. PFIR gives rise to two interrelated projects: an empirical inquiry into the construction and exercise of power in daily life, and theory building that reflects this empirical base. A future challenge for PFIR is to elucidate how we can transform, not just alleviate, the hegemonies that persist around the world.
A review of introductory international relations, international studies, and global studies textbooks reveals that each field defines itself differently: one in terms of its central focus on the diplomatic and strategic relations of states, the second more broadly by including transnational transactions of all kinds, and the third focusing on globalization as both an object of analysis and a lens through which to view nearly all phenomena. However, in reading past the definitional chapters there are clear overlaps—most notably with regard to each introductory textbook’s treatment of globalization. Close examination of recently published introductory textbooks and those well into multiple editions reveals that globalization is treated as a fundamental aspect of each of the three fields. While both International Relations (IR) and International Studies (IS) scholars have contributed significantly to further broadening of both IR and IS in order to become increasingly “global,” other scholars have moved to create a new field of study called Global Studies (GS). This new field of GS developed in the 1990s as scholars from multiple disciplines began to study the many dimensions of globalization. While globalization remains an essentially contested concept, most scholars accept as uncontroversial that it refers to the many strings that connect the world such that pulling on one string in one place will make a change somewhere else. Globalization’s central dynamics include interconnectivity, reconfiguration of space and time, and enhanced mobility. GS is the only field that places the contested concept of globalization at the center of its intellectual initiative.
Order and Justice
Order and justice are deeply intertwined in English School writing. The central concern of the English School is with the problem of order and with the question: To what extent does the inherited political framework provided by the international society of states continue to provide an adequate basis for world order? This kind of question links closely with the debates on international institutions and global governance that have been so prominent since the end of the Cold War. But the English School focus is less on theoretical understanding of particular institutions and more on assessing the overall character of institutionalization in world politics, the normative commitments inherent in different ways of governing the globe, and the adequacy of historical and existing interstate institutions for meeting practical and normative challenges. There are four specific themes that are central to the pluralist wing of English School writing on order and justice. The first theme concerns power and the conditions of order, while the second concerns diversity and value conflict. Meanwhile, a third theme emerges from the idea that moral values should, so far as possible, be kept out of international life and of particular international institutions. Finally, the fourth theme concerns the argument that international society has the potential not just to help manage international conduct in a restrained way but also to create the conditions for a more legitimate and morally more ambitious political community to emerge. As power diffuses away from the Western, liberal developed core, and as the intractability of the international system to liberal prescriptions becomes more evident, so one can detect new changes in the way in which global justice is understood.
Diplomacy and Revolution
The relationship between diplomacy and revolution is often intertwined with the broader issue of the international dimensions of revolution. Diplomacy can offer important insights into both the historical evolution of world order and its evolving functional and normative needs. In other words, the most important dimension of diplomacy, beyond its concrete symbolic and pragmatic operational value, is its very existence as raison de système. A number of scholarly works that explore the link between revolution and the international arena have given rise to a minority subfield of scholarly research and debate which is particularly vibrant and plural. Three basic lines of research can be identified: case studies undertaken by historians and area studies scholars that focus on the international dimensions surrounding particular revolutions; comparative political studies that address the international implications of revolutions by departing from a more comprehensive theoretical framework but still based in comprehensive case studies; and more theoretically comprehensive literature which, in addition to careful case studies, aims to provide a general and far-reaching explanatory theoretical framework on the relationship between revolution and long-term historical change from different perspectives: English school international theory, neorealism, world systems analysis, postmarxism, or constructivism. In a context of growing inequality and global exploitation, the international dimension of revolutions is receiving renewed attention from scholars using innovative critical theoretical approaches.
Information Technologies and the Global Political Economy
Jeffrey A. Hart
Information and communications technologies (ICTs) constitute a potentially transformative force in world politics. The industries associated with these technologies are growing rapidly, and some have argued that their importance in the overall economy at both the national and global levels increased in recent decades. ICT industries include both goods producers and service providers. ICT manufacturing includes all the goods-producing industries that use semiconductor components, such as consumer electronics, the computer industry, the telecommunications equipment industry, and industrial and military electronics. Within each of these groups, there are sub-industries that specialize in particular segments of the market. The services side of ICTs is also very large in terms of revenues and employment, and is growing rapidly. ICT services include, among others, the software industry, telecommunications services, data processing, and web-based information services. Many scholars argue that the importance of ICT industries goes beyond the revenues and employment generated in the industries themselves, however. ICTs may also be transformative in that they reduce transaction and communications costs in the overall economy. They make possible new forms of organization of human activity, especially as globalization and digitalization is progressing rapidly in the recent decades. Such processes have attracted the attention of international relations scholars, as they have been focusing on international regimes governing ICT-related activities in the past decade.
Critical geopolitics is concerned with the geographical assumptions and designations that underlie the making of world politics. The goal of critical geopolitics is to elucidate and explain how political actors spatialize international politics and represent it as a “world” characterized by particular types of places. Eschewing the traditional question of how geography does or can influence politics, critical geopolitics foregrounds “the politics of the geographical specification of politics.” By questioning the assumptions that underpin geopolitical claims, critical geopolitics has evolved from its roots in the poststructuralist, feminist, and postcolonial critique of traditional geopolitics into a major subfield of mainstream human geography. This essay shows that much of critical geopolitics problematizes the statist conceptions of power in social sciences, a conceptualization that John Agnew has called the “territorial trap.” Along with political geography more generally, critical geopolitics argues that spatiality is not confined to territoriality. The discursive construction of social reality is shaped by specific political agents, including intellectuals of statecraft. In addition to the scholarship that draws empirically on the rhetorical strategies of intellectuals of statecraft, there is also a rich body of work on popular geopolitics, and more specifically on resistance geopolitics or anti-geopolitics. Another emerging field of inquiry within critical geopolitics is feminist geopolitics, which shifts the focus from the operations of elite agents to the constructions of political subjects in everyday political practice. Clearly, the heterogeneity of critical geopolitics is central to its vibrancy and success.
Linguistic Models in International Studies
Gavan Duffy and Sean Miskell
International Studies (IS) generally refers to the specific university degrees and courses which are concerned with the study of the major political, economic, social, and cultural issues that dominate the international agenda. The terms and concepts of IS and international relations (IR) are strongly related; however, IR focuses more directly on the relationship between countries, whereas IS can encompass all phenomena which are globally oriented. Since the artifacts of world politics—international laws and treaties, foreign policies, diplomatic exchanges, military plans, and journalistic accounts—are usually presented in textual and/or verbal form, it is only natural to examine international political mechanism via linguistic models. Automatic content analysis is more and more becoming an accepted research method in social science. In political science, researchers are using party manifestos and transcripts of political speeches to analyze the positions of different actors. But while analysts are accustomed to incorporating manifestos, speeches, media reports, and other documents as evidence in their studies, few approach the task with the same level of understanding and sophistication as when applying other, more quantitative methods. Indeed, while recent innovations in statistical analysis have lent significant precision to the study of political texts, these advances have vastly outstripped those in the interpretive field.
Geographic Perspectives on World-Systems Theory
World-systems theory is a multidisciplinary, macro-scale approach to world history and social change which emphasizes the world-system as the primary (but not exclusive) unit of social analysis. “World-system” refers to the inter-regional and transnational division of labor, which divides the world into core countries, semi-periphery countries, and the periphery countries. Though intrinsically geographical, world-systems perspectives did not receive geographers’ attention until the 1980s, mostly in economic and political geography. Nevertheless, geographers have made important contributions in shaping world-systems perspectives through theoretical development and critique, particularly in the understanding of urban processes, states, and geopolitics. The world-systems theory can be considered as a sub-discipline of the study of political geography. Although sharing many of the theories, methods, and interests as human geography, political geography has a particular interest in territory, the state, power, and boundaries (including borders), across a range of scales from the body to the planet. Political geography has extended the scope of traditional political science approaches by acknowledging that the exercise of power is not restricted to states and bureaucracies, but is part of everyday life. This has resulted in the concerns of political geography increasingly overlapping with those of other sub-disciplines such as economic geography, and, particularly, with those of social and cultural geography in relation to the study of the politics of place.
World Trade Law
Marc D. Froese
After World War II, a body of rules and institutions have emerged for the purpose of regulating global flows of goods and services. These are known as world trade law, classified under international economic law, an expanding body of transnational regulatory treaties and institutions. World trade law has evolved within the global trading system following the Second World War, beginning with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which came into force in 1948. The most-favored nation and national treatment principles are the most prominent principles that give world trade law its distinctive form. The World Trade Organization (WTO) provides a vast store of literature, which covers the waterfront of legal and political issues that animate the global political economy of trade. The WTO’s predecessor, the GATT, also contributed extensively to the growing body of literature on world trade law. The WTO’s inclusion of agreements on the liberalization of services, investment, and intellectual property have begun lively debates about the possible trajectories of governance in new issue areas, such as anti-dumping and intellectual property rights. In addition to the issues raised by the inclusion of many small economies in the institutions of global trade governance, the rise of world trade law has simultaneously highlighted the many areas of importance to national publics in developed economies where trade overlaps with social priorities.
Norms and Social Constructivism in International Relations
Matthew J. Hoffmann
Social norms were conceptualized as aspects of social structure that emerged from the actions and beliefs of actors in specific communities; norms shaped those actions and beliefs by constituting actors’ identities and interests. Early constructivist work in the 1980s and early 1990s sought to establish a countervailing approach to the material and rational theories that dominated the study of international relations. Empirically oriented constructivists worked to show that shared ideas about appropriate state behavior had a significant impact on the nature and functioning of world politics. Initial constructivist studies of social norms can be divided into three areas: normative, socialization, and normative emergence. After making the case that norms matter and developing a number of theoretical frameworks to show how norms emerge, spread, and influence behavior, norms-oriented constructivists have shifted their attention to a new set of questions, and in particular compliance with the strictures of social norms and change in norms themselves. Ideas about whether actors reason about norms or through norms can be linked to behavioral logics, which provide conceptions of how actors and norms are linked. Two types of normative dynamics can be identified: the first is endogenous contestation; the second is compliance or diffusion. In order to better understand compliance with and contestation over norms either in isolation or together, it is necessary to pay more attention to the prior understanding of who is in the community. Another topic that requires further consideration in future research is the relationship between intersubjective and subjective reality.
Inter-Organizational Relations: Five Theoretical Approaches
The number of organizations involved in world politics has long been increasing and so has, consequently, the number of relations among them. For scholars of international studies, it is of central importance to examine these inter-organizational relations. The state-centrism in international relations, however, impeded the discipline’s engagement with this phenomenon for some decades. It was only in the mid-2000s that this began to change. Since then, the study of inter-organizational relations in world politics has mostly drawn on five theoretical approaches: sociological neo-institutionalism, resource dependence, network accounts, regime complexity, and classical pragmatism. These approaches will be introduced; for the sake of comparability, all five are presented in the same way, by carving out their theoretical tradition and key concepts, their core argument and causal logic, as well as their understandings of organizations and how they relate. Each presentation offers a brief look at how the respective approach has been applied.
Systemic Theories of Conflict
Karen A. Rasler and William R. Thompson
There are various approaches, both simple and complex, to systemic conflict. The simpler ones include balance of power, polarity, concentration, polarization, and democratization. More complex systemic approaches to conflict range from power transition and relative power cycle to leadership long cycle and world-systems. Some of these programs continue to generate scholarly interest and produce new findings, while others have been beset with little activity. Yet, none of these research programs have captured enough scholarly attention to be fully “mainstreamed.” That is, they have not been co-opted as central interpretations of international politics. The theoretical literature on simpler approaches to systemic conflict persists today but was more common prior to the mid-1970s. Since systemic analyses were not well developed in the first two or three decades after World War II, scholars grappled with what systemic analyses meant. One question is whether we should differentiate between a global system and its multiple regional subsystems. Complex systemic research programs have declined in analytical popularity after peaking in the 1980s, in large part because perceptions of the world situation changed in the 1990s. Whether “traditional” system dynamics will regain its lost status in light of the globalization processes perceived to be at work remains unclear, but there is cause for optimism about the future contributions of systemic theory as research programs in this area have expanded to include new topics and issues, along with new theoretical developments in other areas that will be pertinent to systemic perspectives.
Historical Sociology and International Relations: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Large-Scale Historical Change and Global Order
Besnik Pula and Yannis A. Stivachtis
Historical Sociology (HS) is a subfield of sociology studying the structures and processes that have shaped important features of the modern world, including the development of the rational bureaucratic state, the emergence of capitalism, international institutions and trade, transnational forces, revolutions, and warfare. HS differs from other approaches in sociology given its distinction between routine social activities and transformative moments that fundamentally reshape social structures and institutions. Within international relations, the relevance of history in the field’s study has been highly disputed. In fact, mainstream international relations (IR)—Neorealism and Liberalism—has downplayed the importance of history. Nevertheless, World History (WH) and HS have exercised a significant degree of influence over certain theoretical approaches to the study of international relations. The history of HS can be traced back to the Enlightenment period and the belief that it was possible to improve the human condition by unmaking and remaking human institutions. HS was then taken up by a second wave of historical sociologists who were asking questions about political power and the state, paving the way for greater engagement between IR and sociology. Third wave HS, meanwhile, emerged from a questioning of received theoretical paradigms, and was thus characterized by theoretical and methodological revisions, but only minor and incremental changes to the research agenda of second wave Historical Sociology.
The Colonial Encounter and Its Legacy
José da Mota-Lopes
The current scholarship on European colonialism may be divided into two approaches: colonial studies, sometimes referred to as a political-economy approach, and postcolonial studies, also known as “postcolonialism” or “subaltern studies.” Whereas the field of colonial studies appeared with the emergence of colonialism, the second emerged with decolonization, the national liberation armed struggles, and the political, formal, or institutional collapse of colonialism. The two approaches became or appeared as protests against very similar circumstances and critically complemented one another, but they soon tended to follow parallel and very different trajectories. Three basic conceptual references offer important insights not only about the geostrategic, historical, and socioeconomic trajectories of colonialism but also on its cultural evolvement and its present consequences: colonial encounter, colonial situation, and colonial legacy. In addition, the field of colonial or postcolonial studies today may give rise to three major evolvements in the near future. The first consists in the recovery of what started to be the initial subject matter of postcolonialism. The second arises from the requirement of a return to the political, historical, and economic origins of postcolonialist studies. Finally, it will perhaps be at the point of conjunction of world-systems analysis with postcolonial studies that a fundamental problem affecting our world will find the beginning of a possible solution. The combined application of world-systems analysis and postcolonial studies is a promising intellectual instrument for confronting the in-depth influence of Eurocentrism or Euro-American universalism in the current practice and teaching of the social sciences.
Formal International Institutions and the Regulation of Flows of Goods and Services
Marc D. Froese
Trade governance rests upon certain economic assumptions and the ensuing political compromises made possible by the growth of an incremental legal consensus. The main economic assumptions are that trade will deliver upon the objectives of socio-economic development, stable, long-term employment opportunities and poverty reduction. These assumptions are theoretically sound, but are increasingly challenged by the complex political realities of global trade. The study of trade in the field of international political economy (IPE) has deep roots in the postwar disciplines of economics and political science. The literature on the history of trade regulation places the current system, with its emphasis on the legitimizing imprimatur of political power and the significance of binding treaty, into a more nuanced context in which present practices, while sometimes novel, are frequently older than most policy makers realize. In the two decades since the finalization of the Uruguay Round and the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), a host of significant issues have arisen as scholars and policy makers attempt to implement the WTO’s mandate and navigate the political waters of trade regulation as it relates to domestic law and policy. These include the set of issues raised by the broadening of trade regulation post-Uruguay Round to include trade related intellectual property rights and trade in services, the contentious issue of trade and economic development, and the issue of WTO reform.
Legal Perspectives in IR and the Role of Latin America
Juliana Peixoto Batista
The room for dialogue between international law (IL) and international relations (IR) is vast. Since the emergence of the liberal world order in the 20th century, there is a growing closeness between IL and IR approaches. Latin America played a significant role in this process, helping to shape the liberal world order. Despite the fact that liberal approaches to IR and IL promote the most self-evident interdisciplinary dialogue, there is a growing intersection field in critical approaches to IR and IL that should be further explored, and Latin America also has a role to play in that cross-fertilization process. By analyzing critical approaches, the narrative in both disciplines can be expanded, bringing a Global South perspective to the mainstream debate. How did IL scholars read changes in the international system from the second half of the 20th century? How did IR scholars read changes in the role of IL in the international system at the beginning of the 21st century? What is the role of Latin America and its contribution to these changes? With this in mind, intersection spaces can be revealed where room for conceptual, methodological, and collaborative work can be explored.