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date: 07 December 2019

English School Methodology and Methods

Summary and Keywords

Coming from an empirical historical tradition, English School theory has a strong inductive core, represented in its historical narratives, and a positive approach to international law. But its core text is strongly deductive: Hedley Bull derived the basic precept of international society from a set of logical premises to which he attached a truth value. Its methodologies have varied accordingly, between agent-centered and structure-centered approaches, and it has deployed a variety of methods in respect to each, including anthropological interpretivism with regard to agents and historical and sociological institutionalism with regard to structures. Its focus on the state and institutions means that it shares method with regime theorists, and its focus on Great Powers and great power responsibility means that it shares some methods with regard to classical realism.

Keywords: British Committee on the Theory of International Relations, Hedley Bull, international society, methodological pluralism, institutionalism, constructivism, interpretivism, structuralism, structuration


English School theorists have generally avoided discussions of methodology, even treating questions of method with some disdain. David Long and Peter Wilson (1995, p. 17) observed the “highly eclectic approach” of early English School theorists and called their period the “golden age of the amateur.” He denied (Wilson, 2008) that method is an appropriate way of characterizing English School approaches at all. James Mayall has characterized himself as a reluctant methodologist and averred that the English School is best when “it wears its methodology lightly” (Mayall, 2009, p. 209). Robert Jackson (2000) praised its neglect, arguing that the neglect of methodological issues derives from neither methodological naivety nor methodological ignorance, but rather from the School’s concern with social practice. He argued (Jackson, 2009) that analyzing social practices requires close association with those practices, while methodology distances the analyst and alienates him from his material. Jackson would consider the School’s neglect of methodology to be a positive boon.

If these are its friends, its enemies do not demur. The realist Roger Spegele (2005) observed a methodological quietism. The institutionalist Robert Keohane regretted the School’s neglect of causal propositions, or, as he termed them “contingent generalizations” (Keohane, 1992, p. 1112). The constructivist Martha Finnemore, while declaring herself a friend, complained that its members do not lay out their rules of evidence, that they neglect to specify their presuppositions and that “simply figuring out what its methods are is a challenge” (Finnemore, 2001, p. 509). The historian and British foreign policy expert Roy Jones went so far as to recommend the closure of the School on the grounds that, among other things, it encouraged a methodological sloppiness in its followers (Jones, 1981).

If proponents of the international society approach have neglected to spell out their methodological assumptions, this does not imply, however, that they do not have them, or that its pioneers did not puzzle over how to achieve their cognitive goals. Wight, in his series of essays on state-systems (1977a) aimed at an historical comparative method, a method aimed at discerning large-scale, trans-national, social understandings (a project carried forward by Adam Watson, 1992) precisely to demonstrate that there was substance to the idea of an international society. To the same end, Bull (1977) initially employed a loose form of structural-functionalism. Other English School theorists, still working in the classical vein, developed the notion of practice, involving the interrogation of the agents’ self-understandings, in order to flesh out the norms underpinning diplomatic practices (Bain, 2003; Jackson, 2000; Navari, 2011).

These different methods relate to different theoretical and methodological orientations. The idea of international society had different theoretical roots, some deductive and normative (in the formal sense: Marsh & Stoker, 1997); others inductive and historical, leading to different methodological stances— agent-centered on the part of some; structure-centered on the part of others, each of which offered a different repertoire of methods. In their various accounts of the development of international society, the English School pioneers also moved between agentic and structural explanations somewhat haphazardly, complicating their methodological stances.

In the context of reconvening the English School, these efforts have become at once broader and more focused. Tim Dunne’s association of the English School with constructivism and discourse theory (Dunne, 1995) brought in the whole panoply of interpretivist methods. Kal Holsti’s Taming the Sovereigns (2004) refocused attention to the English School’s fundamental institutions and proposed an historical institutionalist approach to norms and practices. Barry Buzan (2004), following Holsti, demanded a sheering off of the normative aspects of the school and elucidated how structures could be illuminated by reference to constructivist identities in the manner of Alexander Wendt (1999). Killian Spandler (2015) raised the question as to whether the English School was not a form of structuration theory; and structuration focuses on both agents and structures and demands an account of the processes that link them.

This article reviews these developments in four parts, beginning with a closer look at the theoretical foundations of the classical English School, in the British Committee on the theory of international relations. It proceeds to agent-oriented methodology, the different notions of the relevant agents, and the various methods that proponents of international society have recommended in relation to their favored agents, following which it considers the methods used to exposing the structures of international society. It then looks at the methodology emerging from the ISA Working Group on International Institutions that links structures and agents, as well as its method. It concludes with some observations on what the English School shares methodologically with other approaches.

Induction, Deduction, and Methodology in the British Committee

Herbert Butterfield, Martin Wight, and Hedley Bull all belonged to the same theoretical world in that each rejected the behavioral revolution, but they did so from very different theoretical perspectives. More importantly, it derives from methodology’s association with positivism, elucidated by Janik and Toulmin (1973), and the positivist quest to dominate political science, but they did so from very different perspectives. Bull’s quarrel was epistemologically based. In his defense of a classical approach (Bull, 1966), he argued that a positivist science of human affairs, in the sense of a science based on direct perception and induction, was inadequate in explanatory terms. (Though he did not spell out his epistemological position in the famous article, Bull was a philosophical realist; for philosophical realists, inquiry must start from a theoretical perspective, not with direct perception, a position he shared with Stanley Hoffmann, 1959; both rejected a purely inductive reasoning.) Wight never spelled out his objections fully, but we may detect an ontological objection. For Wight, international society was the product of both subjective and inter-subjective understandings, both generally excluded in the positivist agenda. In any event, he regarded his own enterprise to be beyond positivism and not capable of fulfillment in positivist terms (see Hall, 2006). Butterfield was an empirical historian in the recently emerging school of technical history, but with a qualitative methodological orientation. In each case, their respective approaches to theory building were quite different.

In the famous article, Bull (1966) declared for history, philosophy, and law, but his own approach was derived from his philosophical training in Australia under the logical positivism of John Anderson—that is, strictly deductive. His methodology in The Anarchical Society (Bull, 1977), the basic text laying out the English School theory, was analytical in the formal sense. Using his training in logic, he broke down the question, “What is international order?” into its logical parts and discussed each in turn. The theory was strongly normativized, in that Order was presented as a good thing (basic to human existence), and analytical in the division of Order into constitutional principles, rules of coexistence, and rules of cooperation (Bull, 1977, pp. 68–71). His notion of the forms of order—system as opposed to society—was also more deductive and analytical than inductive, as no historical form of system was ever identified. The typology of the Bullian orders varied (Bull, 1977, pp. 24–40) but would eventually settle into the triad—international system, international society, world society—each of which carried behavioral injunctions, implying a structural approach, one that would be defended as central by most English School theorists (e.g., Dunne, 2005; James, 1993; Knudsen & Navari, 2019; Mayall, 1982; Watson, 1992). Though Bull often referred to historical events, they were illustrative of the theory, not its source; and his contributions to the undoubtedly historical Expansion of International Society consisted of analytical reflections on the historical material.

Martin Wight followed a different trajectory. When he joined the British Committee, he was likewise a strictly deductive theorist, as his lectures on the Three Traditions attest. While seemingly rooted in a deep understanding of history, the lectures are in fact a top-down “experiment in classification, in typology” (Wight, 1991, p. 5); Wight invented the types—realist, rationalist, revolutionary. But in his seminal essay “Why is there no theory of international relations?” (Wight, 1966, pp. 17–35), he drew on his empirical historical training and recommended “a coherent structure of hypotheses that will provide a common explanation of phenomena”; much of the material in his Systems of States (Wight, 1977a, p. 32) is standard ethnography.

Their contemporaries in the Committee followed the historical and inductive track rather than the analytical and deductive track. The first suggestion following the seminal moment when Hedley Bull proposed that international life was not anarchic but composed into a “society of states” was “to make a prolonged study of state systems in various parts of the globe,” employing comparative method—that is an inductive methodology employing empirical study and empirical skills.1 Herbert Butterfield suggested a comparative standard in the form of a historically derived hypothesis—namely, that “a states-system can only be achieved by a tremendous conscious effort of reassembly after a political hegemony has broken down.”2 Watson developed Butterfield’s thesis into his 1992 typology of state-systems along a spectrum that moved from a collection of independent entities to hegemony, suzerainty, dominion, and empire, creating a template for comparative purposes based on the theory of rule. Developing Butterfield’s main thesis, he presented the Italian city-states as emerging out of the waning of the medieval theocracy, Westphalia, out of the failed Habsburg bid to re-establish a hegemony, and the Concert of Europe out of the near-successful French efforts to do the same.

Buzan and Little (2000) followed Watson’s lead in their International Systems in World History. Building on Bull and Watson’s (1984, p. 1) definition of an international system as “a group of independent communities . . . [in which] the behavior of each is a necessary factory in the calculation of others,” they plotted the historical development of both regional and global international systems from pre-modern times into the modern era, using a comparative historical method based, in their case, on comparative social forms. They explained the method in their article, “The Idea of ‘International System’: Theory Meets History” (Buzan & Little, 1994), published in the International Political Science Review. The Expansion of International Society (Bull & Watson, 1984) was the Committee’s second collective effort after Diplomatic Investigations (Butterfield & Wight, 1966), and it followed the historical trajectory. The focus was on the institutions and practices of international society as they had developed in Europe and were spread to the rest of the globe. It is a standard historical approach, focusing on institutions such as international law, diplomacy, and state recognition as they were globalizing in the 19th century. The various chapters display a strong agentic orientation; that is, the actors are presented as propelling the changes in question, in which they additionally display a variety of politicist and interest-driven motives.

Agentic Orientations

Navari (2009b) has explored the explanatory preferences of the classical English School theorists as they appeared in Diplomatic Investigations, the earliest work of the group, and in their discussions of foreign policy issues, recorded in Vigezzi’s (2008) history of the British Committee. Agreeing with Little and Buzan that some structural concepts are central to the English School approach, Navari observed, however, that the pioneers seemed for the most part unaware of the structural elements in their assumptions and did not employ structural concepts. Their explanations were generally in the intentional mode; that is, their explanations for events and outcomes focused on actors’ aims and intentions. She also pointed out that the classical English School thinkers distinguished between mechanistic (causal) outcomes and chosen (intentional) outcomes, and that for both Bull and Wight, an international society, as opposed to a system, was primarily the product of choices, not causes. She identified their stances as a form of participant observation, in that the group seemed to share in their subjects’ preoccupations and their vocabularies.

Wights’s focus of analysis in Systems of States is cultural traditions or in Ian Hall’s terms unit ideas (Hall, 2006), but these are carried by individual persons and movements, made the subject of collective efforts by agents, and then parlayed into institutionalized forms that guide but in no sense determine conduct. The analysis often dips down into the motives and intentions of individuals, generally political leaders

Robert Jackson (2000) followed Wight’s approach most closely. He has identified the English School’s subject deductively as codes of conduct—for Jackson, the primary purpose of English School scholarship is to interrogate the practice of states-persons to discern its normative content, which he holds to be constitutive of international order. Jackson equates order in the same manner as Wight, with publicly endorsed common norms. But the method he recommends is even more firmly rooted in standard empirical investigation and involves a combination of interviews (where possible), memoirs, and foreign office records; conducted in the light of the corpus of classical questions concerning state relations, such as, “Is this a just war?” (Jackson, 2000, pp. 77–96). Richard Little (2007b) used the same method in his study of British policy toward America during the American Civil War.

The other approach to deriving the institutions of international society is that of Peter Wilson who has recommended the methods of the Chicago School in identifying the operative norms and practices of the international order (Wilson, 2012). The primary assumption for the Chicago School was that qualitative methodologies, especially those used in naturalistic observation, were best suited for the study of urban, social phenomena. Its proponents encouraged an ethnographic approach to data, in the case of its application by Peter Wilson, to individual experiences of international phenomena, on the part of ordinary citizens as well as by Jackson’s “states-persons.”

Although their notion of the relevant actors differ (Jackson focusing on “states-persons” and Wilson on “ordinary persons”), both shared the same cognitive aim—what has been termed subjective adequacy in the anthropological literature. In terms of method, subjective adequacy requires that the analyst stay close to the subject and understand sufficiently the subject’s social referents to be able to interpret social action in terms of the subject’s understanding of his own actions. In epistemological terms, it is the English variant of the German Verstehen, sometimes referred to as the “internal point of view” (as expounded by Frost & Lechner, 2016, pp. 33–61)

The notion that the English School approximated to Verstehen was first formally proposed by Hidemi Suganami, elucidating what he called the “British mainstream approach” (Suganami, 1983, p. 2363). It met with a round of rebuttals from Marxists (Chris Brown), “real” intellectual historians (Chris Brewin), and positivists (Roy Jones).3 Jones identified a tendency to phenomenology in the approach, in effect supporting Suganami, but would proceed to argue, in what became his most quoted publication, that the “English School” as he baptized it, was a “case for closure.” None of Suganami’s objectors was able to offer as compelling a picture of the British tradition in theorizing diplomatic activity as that represented by Temperley’s History of the Peace Conference of Paris, Webster’s The Congress of Vienna, and Carr’s The Twenty Years Crisis, all considered British mainstream and all consisting of lashings of history, agency, and understandings. The question, reported by Suganami to the writer, was whether the view he originally presented (as a paper to a BISA panel in 1981) should be called the orthodox view or rather the establishment view.

The insider view gained purchase with the publication of article “The Social Construction of International Society” (Dunne, 1995), which argued that contemporary constructivists like Onuf, Wendt, and Smith and Hollis had consistently underestimated the subjectivism of theorists such as Charles Manning, Martin Wight, Hedley Bull, and Adam Watson who, he claimed, were united in their belief that states, through their interaction, reflexively formed a society. He outlined the subjectivist treatment of the institutions of international society and how it differed from the contemporary objectivism of neoliberalism and neorealism. His thesis, published as Inventing International Society (Dunne, 1998), proposed that the British Committee, presented as the root source of the English School theory, had invented the concept of International Society. The argument drew on constructivist theory, employing the method of genealogical reconstruction; that is, tracking the emergence and success of international society as an organized discourse. (A hint of genealogical reconstruction is also evident in Knudsen & Navari’s 2019 edited volume, International Organization in the Anarchical Society, where they track the emergence of the idea of a functional relationship between international organization and Bull’s fundamental institutions.)

The internal viewpoint tended to replace the outsider view more prevalent among the earlier generation of English School theorists as represented by their contributors to The Expansion of International Society. In the majority of the Expansion chapters, the agents’ actions are seen through the lenses of interests—an outsider view, since the agents may not have understood their actions in terms of interests. Mayall’s Nationalism and International Society (1990) presents nationalism, and its consequences for international order, as an ideological carapace for a variety of interest-driven motivations. Navari has resuscitated the attention to interests in her model of the relations of fundamental institutions and international organization, but with a bow to Max Weber (1946) and the concept of “ideal interests” (Knudsen & Navari, 2019, pp. 67–68).

Both are to be distinguished from the constructive view as represented by Alexander Wendt (1999). Wendt’s constructivism is a form of sociological institutionalism. Institutions and structures, including the anarchy problematic, still matter for Wendt, and they have causal properties. What he questioned is the role, respectively, of interests or power in the construction or stability of institutions. The overall theory inclines more to structuralism (see, e.g., Jepperson, Wendt, & Katzenstein, 1996; Suganami, 2002).

Structuralist Orientations

The structural side of English School theory appeared early, reflected in the British Committee’s persistent use of the term state system to describe and characterize the object of their inquiries. Initially intended to identify and characterize different modes of inter-state relationships— Martin Wight considered state systems as simply “a group of states having relations more or less permanent with one another” (Wight, 1977a, p. 22)—they were initially systemic only in the sense that they had permanent institutions—resident ambassadors, conferences, etc. But they became associated almost at once with defining and informing properties. War would be a persistent feature of all of them (“the causes of war, like the need for diplomacy . . . will remain so long as a multiplicity of governments are not reduced to one government,” Butterfield, 1966a, p. 138). Balancing power was a recurrent practice (notably within the Western state system) and took on the features of a constraining institution: “it [the balance of power] operated to preserve freedom rather than peace” (Butterfield, 1966a, p. 144). The Western state system also “came nearer than any other” to making a “structure of government”, that is, democracy, “a principle of international legitimacy” (Wight, 1977, p. 41). In method, structuralism calls for the analyst to approach a research question at the systemic or institutional level. In other words, he/she must first identify the nature of the relevant system or structure. The behavior of the actors in the system will be derived accordingly. (This approach was most scientifically expounded with reference to international relations by Kenneth Waltz (1979) and was given a formal English School twist by Barry Buzan (2011).)

These early representations are probably best understood as soft structures in the sociological sense—collective judgments embedded in institutional practices with consequent effects; but in Bull’s The Anarchical Society, they took on a harder edge. Institutions became “a set of practices and habits . . . [that] give substance and permanence to their [states] collaboration . . . and moderate their tendency to lose sight of common interests” (Bull, 1977, p. 71). A chapter is devoted to each of the five ordering institutions, at the end of which the main functions that each institution performs are summarized.

Bull denied that he had a structural functional notion of order in mind, or that “the primacy of the whole over its part [accounts] for what occurs within it” (1977, p. 75). There is some truth to his claim: Bull’s structures are built up of the interactions of individuated actors—state leaders, states, foreign offices, diplomats, etc., indicating an individualist methodology. But this is not necessarily an individualist ontology: there is no doubt that the ordering elements order; they set parameters, they limit action, and they entail obstacles that have to be overcome, all structural features (see Colin Wight, 2006, pp. 129–138). Thus the balance of power has “served to preserve the system from . . . domination by a . . . predominant power” and “provide[s] the conditions . . . upon which international order depends” (Bull, 1977, p. 107). International law embeds sovereignty and bounds the state “by common rules” (p. 40). Among Great Powers, there may be preponderance, primacy, or hegemony, but each entails patterned relationships and constitutes an arrangement with effects. So, for example, hegemony “produces a kind of order . . . [t]he lesser states in each area cannot resort to force against each other, nor can their governments be overthrown, except by leave of the hegemonial power” (pp. 215–219). Above all, there is the structural constraint of order over justice, a constraint so strong that even a collectivity of individual efforts seem impossible to overcome it. This comes close to full-blown structuralism

Bull’s 1977 account also sets forth a set of alternative structures that anticipated the triad of international system, international society, and world society. These were essentially imagined political orders, designed as thought experiments, to test the durability of the state system as constructed and to locate the sources of potential change and transformation within it, but they drew on contemporary and historical example to demonstrate that they were plausible alternatives. Thus, the new medievalism drew on the contemporary dispersal of power to regional organizations, while the World Political System drew on transnational cause groups and their activism within the UN system.

The one that Bull considered to be the most realistic alternative (“on the cards” in the mid-1970s—Bull, 1977, p. 258) was the decline of international society and its reversal to an international system. This was a situation of patterned relationships whose pattern emerged not from conscious design but from fortuitous interaction: as he termed it, “causal connections of certain sets of variable to one another” (p. 13). It is clear that he understood the bipolar nuclear balance to be more the result of an unintended stand-off than the creation of a Soviet-American sense of common interests (though the latter he reckoned played some role, Bull, 1977, p. 259). He cited the continuing ideological differences between communist and non-communist states and the growing tensions between rich industrial states and poor agricultural states as well as the consequences of a past and fears for a future war as conditions curtailing and limiting cooperative endeavors. In an international system, states lose a sense of common interests but are forced by their particular political or geographical placement to have interaction, whether they wish to or not; hence the designation as a “field of action.”

The idea of a field of action, and its association with the international system, was a borrowing from Morton Kaplan’s System and Process (1964), a work of clear structural orientation. Bull defended Kaplan’s concept in the first meeting of the BC on state-systems in January 1965, having just returned from America, and referred to it repeatedly in his 1967 Notes on the Modern International System (Vigezzi, 2005, p. 205). More significantly, he issued an apology for any previous denigration in his 1972 piece for the Australian Outlook. Vigezzi suggested that, after Bull had been seven years in Australia, returning via India, and remote from the European center, he was more inclined to consider the system of states more in terms of an international system than an international society.

Bull applied Wight’s scheme of international political thought to his structures, presenting the triad in terms of Hobbesian, Grotian, and Kantian orders, each with behavioral injunctions (1977, p. 24). He characterized the Hobbesian order as a condition of interstate conflict unmediated by rules and as a “purely distributive or zero sum game”; behavior in such a system would incline to that described by Hobbes. He suggested that the Kantian order was one of a necessary ideological conflict, which “enjoin[s] not coexistence . . . but rather the overthrow of the society of states and its replacement by a cosmopolitan society,” equally a structural concept. The Grotian imperative was to “enjoin . . . acceptance of the requirements of co-existence and co-operation” (1977, pp. 26–27). Naming his typology according to political theorists served to blur the structural orientation slightly but did not render the schema less structural. Bull’s notion of an international system would come under attack, Alan James arguing that total absence of determining rules was not possible in any entity that could be described as a state-system (James, 1993), but he did not argue against Bull’s notion of structures per se. Bull’s schema has recently been applied to the European Union, identifying it as a regional international society of the Grotian type (Diez, Manners, & Whitman, 2011).

A looser form of structural approach was presented by Richard Little, drawing directly from Bull’s three structures. Little (1998, 2009) argued that the classical theorists in the English School tradition had identified the reality of international relations with a diversity of action arenas and social structures, not merely with international society, and that these insights are embedded in English School theory. He further argued that the different forms of social structure required different methods.

Little’s schema draws three forms of structure, associated with international system, society, and world society respectively. These may be considered alternatives such that a particular international order may primarily reflect one pattern and one setting, over the others. Alternately, they may be considered as concurrent potential settings that are embedded in one another and that interact, interactions that may become complex. The main point is that each of these settings has different methods appropriate to its analysis—cost-benefit analysis in the context of a system; institutional analysis and comparative analysis in the context of a society; and, among other approaches, normative argument in the context of world society.

In consequence, Little argues, methodological pluralism is a necessary consequence and a necessary requisite of the English School approach, depending on the structure that is the focus of the particular research question.

Methodological pluralism is clearly demonstrated in the essays that make up the bulk of Theorising International Society (Navari, 2009a). Navari used a form of Verstehen to analyze the texts of the English School (ES) pioneers—an internal view that sought to understand what they were doing in their own terms. Holsti (2009, pp. 125–147), criticizing Bull’s concept of institutions, uses institutional theory; Bain’s (2009, pp. 167–188) analysis of ES historiography draws on the various historical methodologies; Roberson (2009, pp. 189–208) uses a form of structuration theory in accounting for Egypt’s reform of its legal order and its incorporation into international society. By contrast, Peter Wilson (2009, pp. 167–188) suggests the appropriateness of legal positivism in English School treatments of international law, to identify the most substantive international norms. But he also suggests a “legal aspirational” approach (legal aspirationalism identifies quasi-norms that are struggling to take on a fully legal form; the approach allows the analyst to chart a progressive development in legal norms.)

The ES idea of institutions provides yet a third notion of structure. Gerrit Gong’s 1984 Standard of Civilization, a classic in the ES canon, presents the actors responding to the situations in which they find themselves and those situations described in terms of major institutional arrangements within which the actors are, more or less, compelled to act. In Gong, a civilizational concept has invaded the corpus of international law and has been institutionalized, ordering state relations between so-called advanced and backward states, in the course of which different categories and rules come to be applied to each. He argues, convincingly, that these came to serve as the standard grid for incorporating foreign lands into the widening European system. This approach points to historical and sociological institutionalism, with a bow to the new institutionalism.

Institutionalism uses institutions as subjects of study to find, measure, and trace patterns and sequences of social, political, and even economic behaviour. Historical institutionalism focuses on change across time and space; sociological institutionalism on synchronic developments. In the international arena, institution has been used interchangeably with regime, which has been defined by Krasner (1983) as a set of explicit or implicit “principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors' expectations converge in a given issue-area.” The convergence of expectations explains the subsequent outcome in action, including new institutional formations that produce a new set of conditions around which a new convergence of expectations occurs. Decision-making and new or reformed structures are heavily influenced, if not determined, by the shape and character of previous institutional arrangements and decisions. Mayall’s Community of States (1982) and John Vincent’s Nonintervention and International Order (1974) fall into this approach

The new institutional theory is like the older institutionalism, but it highlights cultural influences on decisions and organizational processes. In the words of a leading duo of expositors, “organizations, and the individuals who populate them, are suspended in a web of values, norms, rules, beliefs, and taken-for-granted assumptions.” Whereas the old institutionalism derived structures from previous structures or institutional traditions, the web is more diffuse in the new institutional literature, more ideational, and at least partially of their own [individuals’] making. The actors are active in creating cultural products such as norms and rules as well as being influenced by them. But equally, the cultural elements define the way the world is and should be. In the concept of the Stanford School (a paradigmatic institutional approach): They provide blueprints for organizing by specifying the forms and procedures an organization of a particular type should adopt if it is to be seen as a member-in-good-standing of its class. In this tendency lies Will Bain’s Trusteeship and the Obligations of Power.

Wight, and to a lesser extent Bull, are in fact close to the new institutionalists in their views of the structure of international society. Their structures are ideational as well as organizational and material, and they are the results of collective action. There is a pervasive notion of constraints, particularly given the resilience of the notion of sovereignty, amounting even to some claims of little change—Wight detected remarkably little change in the fundamental institutions of international society bestowed by Western values over three hundred years. War remains a determinant of the system, and self-help makes war an ever-present possibility. A wide variety of historical influences are at play in the accounts, but the ones that matter are the ones that inform the secondary institutions. These can change, such as new treaty arrangements like the World Trade Organization, with its formalization of the most-favored nation rules (Holsti, 2004, pp. 225–226), or more formal organizational developments, such as the powers of the UN Security Council or the development of Responsibility to Protect. The agents can modify the arrangements, for example, formalizing great power responsibility within the Security Council, but within limits.

Barry Buzan has been the most determined of the English School structuralists, drawing a variety of structures from balance of power structures (Buzan, 1991), to different social forms underpinning different international systems (Buzan & Little, 2000), to ideological and material complexes (Buzan, 2004). His 2004 book From International to World Society crystalized the tension between agentic and interpretive approaches to international society and structural approaches (Dunne, 2005), and produced some clarification of the issues involved (Adler, 2005).

Linking Structures and Agents

While there is diversity in notions of both agents and structures in ES thought, there is a certain family resemblance in the ideas of what links them. The tradition of intellectual history is prominent in the ES; for example, Wilson (2005), Long and Wilson (1995), Hall (2006, 2016), Navari (2012), generally follows the Cambridge school of ideas in context. According to the Cambridge school, the actors or subjects are always situated in specific historical or institutional contexts, while the context acts as a set of parameters and not as determinants (for more, see Browning, 2016). The subjects display reflexivity and creativity; they do not, in the characterization of Graham Allison (1971), simply “stand where they sit.” In this model, subject and structure are linked by the political engagements and the ambitions of the actors. A similar pattern is displayed in Roberson’s account of the reform of the Egyptian legal order (Roberson, 2009). Here the process is one of legal borrowing, in which ideas and institutional reforms enter into the Egyptian political and legal system from outside, from other legal orders. The drivers of the process are politicians and lawyers within the Egyptian legal system who are choosing what elements from the emerging global order to introduce into their own legal systems in conscious efforts to throw off external controls.

These approaches not only resemble one another, they resemble structuration theory as developed by Anthony Giddens (1984). In method, structuration theory demands attention to both agents and structures, and treats structures as parameter and not as determinants. The emphasis in the theory is on institutional identities and role playing, in the sense that the actors gain much of their operational identities from the institutional roles that they play—for example, as trade negotiators, intelligence officers, officers of non-governmental organizations, prime ministers, foreign ministers, etc. But they are not simply creatures of their institutions; they have reflexivity and creativity in the manner suggested by Mark Bevir (2017). They reflect upon their roles and upon the rules of the institutions in which they are embedded. They can change the institutions and their own roles within the institutions.

Most of the links between structures and agents in the various ES approaches could, without much adjustment, be understood in terms of structuration theory. Dunne’s constructivism accords to the actors both reflexivity and creativity while giving credence to structuration’s insistence on the relevance of institutional context and the identities that institutions bestow (see, e.g., Dunne & Reus Smit, 2017; Wendt, 1999 can also be given a structuration reading). The theory of legal borrowing used by Roberson (2009) is a form of structuration theory, and structuration is anticipated by G. F. Hudson in his contribution to Diplomatic Investigations (Butterfield & Wight, 1966). Hudson’s “genuine alliances” are those with “precisely defined” commitments that allow for “obliging allies.” In this framing, obliging allies are defined by a certain nature of commitment, and they become obliging allies through the creation of that kind of commitment. So, Hudson tells us that Britain, in concluding the NATO agreement, as never before . . . has yielded her cherished freedom of action. Mayall’s nationalists become state nationalists through their reforming of economic relations through state action, changing the state in the process (Mayall, 1990). The relation is presented in a manner such that agents, identities, and institutions are often difficult to disentangle in any simple causal way.

The latest exercise to come out of the English School is unarguably an exercise in structuration. It is a study of the relations of the English School’s fundamental institutions and international organizations, carried out by Knudsen and Navari (the joint editors) with a team of young scholars, published as International Organization in the Anarchical Society (2018). The study posits a reticular relationship between fundamental institutions—that is embedded norms, values, practices, and international organizations. In the relationship, fundamental institutions not only inform but are actually reposed within international organizations, which reflect them. So, for example, the sovereignty principle has been embedded in the UN Charter as Article 2.4 and informs the provisions of the Charter throughout. The agents of international society (states, heads of states, security agencies, NGOs, etc.), are constituted in significant ways by both the fundamental institutions and the secondary organizations and are, importantly, empowered by them. At the same time, the agents are constantly involved in institutionalizing processes that constitute new agents and elaborate fundamental institutions, as well as organizational processes. The model presented by the authors (Knudsen & Navari, 2019, p. 71) traces the relevant relationships and routes of influence.

The model is heavily institutional, and arguably structural, at two levels, both at a conceptual level of agreed norms embodied in practices and at an evidential organizational level. But the dynamic elements in the theory are the practitioners, the interested agents in interaction, the actors. It is their iterations that stabilize the institutional order and that indeed institutionalize it. They institutionalize at both levels, creating new norms and principles at the fundamental or primary level of institutions and new rules and procedures at the organizational level. At the same time, it is not the sort of agentic theory that presents the agents as determining their choices on the basis of an unlocated freedom. The agency is “situated agency” (Bevir, 2017, p. 47); they have reflexivity and creativity, but in specific historical and institutional contexts; and their situatedness is related to and informed by their institutional identities in non-fortuitous and effectual ways.

This points to sociological institutionalism as the methodology and to a formal-legal method, in which the actors are clothed in legal capacities, while the emphasis of the analysis is on normative or legal innovation. Power in the model is understood as a social status with loosely defined responsibilities, as opposed to material capability alone, as is the standard approach in realist analysis. But the focus on the state as the major legally endowed actor in international society (albeit among other legally endowed actors) parallels realism’s power state as constitutive of anarchy in an international system and leads to overlapping empirical concerns. The same methodological orientation relates the English School approach to Regime Theory, also formal-legal in method.

Methodological Pluralism and Ontological Monism

English School theorists have used a variety of methods to explore and reveal the contours of international society. Navari (2013) has used legal positivism and legal aspirationalism to plot the development of a democratic norm; Gong (1984) has used historical institutionalism to reveal the force of the standard of civilization; Roberson (2009) has used a variant on structuration theory to reveal the processes involved in Egypt’s entry into international society. Mayall (2009) has used the methods of practical reasoning to understand the possibilities of progress in the international order. All this is quite permissible within the framework of a single theory, since all of these methods assume a reality separate from the analyst’s perception of it. They all assume that the analyst can stand in some degree separate from the material he/she is analyzing. It is also permissible in application to a complex system such as an international system-becoming-an-international society with world society elements. As Norgard (1989) argued, all the aspects of complex systems can only be understood through multiple methodologies.

The problem for a unified theory does not exist at the methodological level but at the level of ontology. With regard to the English School, this is the fundamental ontological distinction between philosophical idealism and philosophical realism; that is, with reference to the ES, between constructivism, understood as the creation of institutions on the basis of sentiment, hope, and invention, or realism, which accepts the necessity of grappling with a recalcitrant reality. Buzan (1993) argued that it is possible to see in the English School a basic tension between a Wightian idealist and historicist tradition and a Bullian realist and logical positivist tradition. They can borrow from one another; they can take inspiration from one another but they cannot thoroughly meld into one another. One may suppose, therefore, that not only will methodological pluralism continue to be a characteristic of the English School theory, but so too will the tussle between interpretivist approaches and structural and/or institutional approaches.


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(1.) In a paper to the British Committee of July 1961; and Vigezzi (2008), pp. 392–395.

(2.) Bull, Unpublished paper, p. 287.

(3.) At a British International Studies Association panel in 1981; and private communication from the author.