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date: 29 June 2022

Spatiality and World Politicsfree

Spatiality and World Politicsfree

  • Duncan WeaverDuncan WeaverCrime, Terrorism and Global Security, Easton College


Space has always animated world politics, but three spatial orientations are striking. First, the Westphalian orientation deems space a sovereign power container. Second, the scalar takes recourse to the local, regional, national, and global spaces in which world politics is played out. Third, the relational deems space a (re)produced, sociohistorically contingent phenomenon that changes according to the humans occupying it and the thought, power, and resources flowing through it. Under this latter orientation, space is lived, lived in and lived through. Whilst relationality, to a degree, calls into question the received wisdoms of International Relations (IR), the fixity of sovereignty and territory remain. The orientations coexist concomitantly, reflecting the “many worlds” humankind occupies.


  • International Relations Theory
  • Political Geography
  • Political Sociology

Defining Space

From the founding of International Relations (IR) at the start of the 20th century, space was taken as given. It existed unquestioned, constituting a “truth.” Sovereignty, both internal (a state’s power to control space within its borders) and external (the international community’s recognition of sovereignty), was the currency of world politics, hoarded in states, by states, for states. Few questions were asked of what constitutes space, or spatiality; fewer were asked of their theoretical and practical implications. Space was a self-evident canvas on which world politics “took place.” Space remains “the final frontier for geographers” (Sheppard, 2006, p. 121) and IR as well. Each of the three spatial orientations—the Westphalian, scalar, and relational—coexists concomitantly; each mutually reflects the “many worlds” humankind occupies.

Whilst Chaturvedi and Painter deemed spatiality a “neglected dimension of world order” (2007, p. 376), the latter is one concept in a sea of theory. The reality is that space, or spatiality, are neglected elements of world politics. Social science witnessed growth in spatial interest during the 20th and early 21st centuries, but IR was a latecomer. Spatiality was said in 2009 to be “ongoing and not [having] yet reached . . . the mainstream of most academic disciplines” (Soja, 2009, p. 12), but nevertheless had “potential to be one of the most significant intellectual and political developments of the twenty-first century” (Soja, 2009, p. 12). It is in this context that one recalls how Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy rebranded as Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space. Heralding the spatial turn, its editors wrote: “Now is the time to think, act, engage, research, write and do . . . This journal is [now] a forum to explore the spaces of politics and the politics of space” (Daley, McCann, Mountz, & Painter, 2017, p. 3). Be this as it may, much spatial pathfinding has been, and continues to be, conducted by geographers. Within geography lies an academy and literature that talk very similarly to some IR thinkers. The priorities, investigative loci, research objects, and conceptual or theoretical orientations of geography sometimes bear such strong resemblances to IR that disciplinary borders are blurred beyond distinction.

That is not unhelpful: it demonstrates the interdisciplinary cross-pollination that so many thinkers seek and benefit from. Geographers Cloke and colleagues define spatiality as the:

spatial arrangements of relations, both between people and non-human things. The term emphasizes the production of space, i.e. how places are socially and materially created, reconfigured and experienced in the context of the changing economic, political and cultural relations between other places, people and things.

(Cloke, Crang, & Goodwin, 2014, p. 940)

Space is not only used by humans when interacting with one another and other “things.” Space is (re)produced by those interactions. In other words, what “we” (as humans) do—the way we act—influences spatial use. “Our” actions change the materiality of the space—the life domain, the (human and nonhuman) environment—“we” occupy.

Spatiality concerns the study and practice of social spatialization, “those ways in which social life literally ‘takes place’: to the opening and occupation of different sites of human action and to the differences and integrations that are socially inscribed through the production of place, space and landscape” (Gregory, 1994, p. 104). Similarly, Shields defines social spatialization as the “social construction of the spatial, which is a formation of both discursive and non-discursive elements, practices and processes” (1991, p. 7). Paasi prefers spatial socialization:

the process through which individual actors and collectivities are socialized as members of specific territorially bounded spatial entities, participate in their reproduction and “learn” collective territorial identities, narratives of shared traditions and inherent spatial images (e.g. visions regarding boundaries, regional divisions, regional identities etc.) which may be, and often are, contested. (2009, p. 226)

If one follows Gregory and Shields, one foregrounds the domains in which life occurs and molds the (human and nonhuman) environment. If one follows Paasi, one takes as the starting point life itself, and how it is rendered coherent and comprehensible through contestations of, and identifications with, space. Either way, students of world politics can, following Weinert, adopt a spatial approach via a “spatialised reading” of their research objects that unearths the “discrete geographies—natural, economic, cyberspatial, cultural, anthropic—within which humans interact” in the world (2017, p. 409).

Space is, then, the domain in which human and nonhuman existence is breathed life. It is the human and nonhuman environment in which actors act. It is a conduit (a) through which thought, resources, people, and power flow; and (b) over which actors seek control. If human geography is the “study of the spatial organisation of human activity” (Knox & Marston, 1998, p. 2), IR embraces, inter alia, the sociospatial organization of, and (non)state cooperation and conflict surrounding, human political activity in the world. Assessment of the distribution, use, and pursuit of power in the world cannot be separated from the domain in which that power is wielded.

Space is, however, not place. Places are formally established, explicitly defined locations that are entitled and labeled: they have place names. Agnew’s (1987) tripartite definition of place is useful. Place first comprises location: a precise, cartographically delineated position. Second, it encompasses locale: the fabric of a place’s existence. Third, place has a sense of place embodying its character. Space, conversely, is “more abstract than place. It gives greater weight to functional issues such as the control of territory” (Flint, 2006, pp. 2–3). This exact finding was asserted by Tuan in his work on place and space (1977, p. 6). For Tuan, “Enclosed and humanised space is place” (1977, p. 54). This distinction is repeated elsewhere, for instance, in Staeheli’s observation that if “place is grounded and particular, space is understood as abstracted from the particular” (2003, p. 159).

Three spatial orientations are evident in the literature. First, the Westphalian deems space a container of sovereignty, an incubator of state security and identity. Second, the scalar foregrounds scale in analysis, taking recourse to the local, regional, national, and global. Third, the relational casts space as (re)produced by human action. Space, under this logic, is generated and generative, never fixed, and ever contingent on the thought, resources, humans, and capital constituting it. Relationality reflects Valentine’s statement, at the turn of the 21st century, that “just as social identities [were] no longer regarded as fixed categories but . . . understood as multiple, contested and fluid, so too space [was] no longer understood as having particular fixed characteristics” (2001, p. 4). Nevertheless, whilst supplemented by the scalar and relational, the Westphalian concepts of sovereignty and territory remain. These orientations are alternative imaginaries rather than a sequence of intellectual developments. They are different lenses through which to view the world “we,” the human species, occupy.

The Westphalian Orientation

In the 1990s, Agnew and Corbridge stated that “the division of the world into territorial entities we call ‘states’ produces actors that operate on a territorial definition of space i.e. a world divided into discrete and mutually exclusive blocks of space” (1995, p. 14). The Westphalian orientation equates space with sovereign territory, the domain in which (state and citizen) life is lived, and from which power is wielded. Power flows in, from, to, and between states, under Westphalianism. The Peace of Westphalia (1648), introductory lectures state, was a birth of sovereignty. Binaries of inside/outside, domestic/alien, home/away were solidified. Borders were etched onto maps, human boundary-making contestations—foggy areas of who, when, and why—erased by the what and where of the border. Westphalia marked “a world of absolute spaces and explicit, non-overlapping boundaries . . . moral geographies of similarity and difference, inclusion and exclusion, which sharply distinguished ‘us’ from ‘them,’ amplifying the differences between the community of insiders and foreign outsiders” (Warf, 2009, p. 64).

Westphalianism’s roots can be traced to Newtonian thought. Newtonian space constituted “an exogenous coordinate grid” (Sheppard, 2006, p 122), a grid “of orthogonal space and time coordinates” (Sheppard, 2006, p. 123), a Euclidean “horizontal order of coexistent places that could be sharply delimited and compartmentalised from each other” (Ó Tuathail, 1996, p. 4). Newton has been termed a spatial “absolutist” (Arthur, 1994, p. 220), having founded classical mechanics on the premise that space is distinct from body, and time proceeds uniformly irrespective of whether anything happens in the world. Newton distinguished absolute space/time from the means by which they are measured (relative space/time, not to be confused with relationality). This is evident in his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy: “Absolute space, by its own nature without relation to anything external, always remains similar and immobile. Relative space is any mobile measure or dimension of it” (Newton, 1726/1972, in Arthur, 1994, p. 223).

There is a fixity in Newton’s absolute space, which is “immobile” and “without relation” to external forces. In drawing the absolute/relative distinction, Arthur observes:

Newton is asking us to envisage one fixed, immobile reference space, through which various bodies are moving, and along with them, certain delimited spaces defined with respect to them. A relative space is thus a delimited region of space, rather than an infinite frame, and is determined by the situation or position of surrounding bodies, which are themselves situated in immobile, absolute space. (1994, p. 223)

Such alleged immunity to change resonates with realist tendencies to (a) question the likelihood of progress in world politics, and (b) warn of how perennial truths of world politics lead history to repeat itself. State “units” exist in parity; sovereign space is perennial, fixed, and ceaseless; the only change is said to be in fluctuations in state capability, which impacts the balance of power and structure of the international system.

It should be no shock that Westphalia was signed two years before Descartes’s passing, whose “Cartesian cogito,” a “rational mind without distinct social or spatial roots” (Warf, 2009, p. 60), resulted from an ontological dualism wherein the human was:

an undivided, autonomous, rational subject with clear boundaries between “inside” and “outside,” i.e. between self and other . . . With Descartes’ cogito, vision and thought become funnelled into a spectator’s view of the world, one that rendered the emerging surfaces of modernity visible and measurable.

(Warf, 2009, p. 60)

Cartesian objectivism (Gregory, 1994, p. 36) renders space a measurable, rational(ized) expanse that can be quantified and conquered. Westphalianism echoed this, emphasizing the role of “homogenous, ordered visual fields” (Warf, 2009, p. 61) that could be appropriated by and for sovereignty. Cartesian space represents what Sassen termed “a unified spatiotemporality” (2000, p. 215). This has been said to serve Western hegemony; recall the West-centrism of most maps. Warf observes how:

projection of Western power across the globe necessitated a Cartesian conceptualisation of space as one that could be easily crossed . . . By subjecting the planet’s diverse people to . . . Western modernist rationality, cartography enfolded the world within a particular Western way of understanding, one that erected reality as a picture to be gazed upon from a distance, a totalised actuality that was ordered and structured. (2009, p. 62)

More recent foundations were laid by Schmitt (see Minca & Rowan, 2014 for a discretely spatialized assessment), whose understanding of sovereignty was clarified in 1922 in Political Theology (2005). His Concept of the Political (2007), released in 1927, casts the friend-enemy distinction as the essence of politics; it is worthwhile contemplating the inside/outside bordering implications of such distinctions. The friend-enemy distinction is said to be inherently public, not private. Personal enmity is not political. Politics entails groups, which mutually deem one another enemies, recognizing possibilities of war. Vinx notes that a Schmittian political community exists “wherever a group of people are willing to engage in political life by distinguishing themselves from outsiders through the drawing of a friend-enemy distinction” (2019, p. 5). Such distinctions are never reactive; they proactively constitute “the political identity or existence of the people” (Vinx, 2019, p. 6). Schmitt’s corollary is that clear alignments between state and citizenship are necessary. The logic is that “a state can only be legitimate if its legal boundaries embody a clear friend-enemy distinction” (Vinx, 2019, p. 6). Political communities, for Schmitt, preserve themselves and their state/citizenship alignments. But what of a world of political communities? A legitimate international order “must be able to accommodate a plurality of political communities with different, self-determined political identities” (Vinx, 2019, p. 11).

This notion that international order must accommodate plurality is evident in Schmitt’s Nomos of the Earth (2003), first published in 1950, which places the Jus Publicum Europaeum as the locus of enquiry. The Jus Publicum Europaeum related to the European public and international law governing European states from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 well into the 19th century. Schmitt celebrated it given its alleged ability to prevent absolute enmity by aligning friend-enemy distinctions with territorial boundaries. International order was said to be built on territorial division. If the civilizational currents of two opposed communities are each contained and expressed by their respective territories, the communities will spatially regulate their mutual friend-enemy distinction. Ergo all political conflict is territorial, and all politico-territorial conflict can be managed by divisions of territory ensuring states’ self-preservation (Schmitt, 2003, pp. 140–149). The principle of nonintervention is a vehicle for safeguarding territorial division and thus international order.

Schmitt is to be treated cautiously given his associations with Nazism. His postulations share affinities with early geographical attempts to understand territory. Such attempts were made, inter alia, by Ancel (1936), Curzon (1907), Hartshorne (1939), Haushofer (1932), Holdich (1916), Kjellen (1915), Mackinder (1904), and Ratzel (1897). Some of the early canon, like Schmitt, was associated with Nazism, causing early geopolitics to suffer “guilt by association” (Agnew & Corbridge, 1995, p. 1). Harvey, at a 1989 conference, “scarcely need[ed] to remind geographers of the tortured history of geopolitical thinking and practices in the twentieth century and the difficulty geographers have had in confronting the thorny issues involved” (1990, p. 430). Nonetheless, traditional understandings of sovereign space retain their influence in IR. “Territory,” Starr wrote, “provides something to fight over . . . Territory raises the stakes or value of conflict, thus raising the probability of escalation and lowering the probability of easy management” (2005, p. 398). Indeed, strategist Gray stated, in his early work, that “geography is the most fundamental factor in the foreign policy of states because it is the most permanent” (1977, p. 1).

Thus fixity resurfaces. Territory—bordered sovereign space—is a static container of state power (Agnew & Corbridge, 1995, pp. 93–94; Giddens, 1987, p. 49; Taylor, 1994), reified on the maps used and the statecraft studied by students of world politics. Tuan conjures images of the animus dominandi:

Space is a resource that yields wealth and power . . . It is worldwide a symbol of prestige. The “big man” occupies and has access to more space than lesser beings. An aggressive ego endlessly demands more room . . . The thirst for power can be insatiable . . . The collective ego of a nation has made claims for more living space at the expense of its weaker neighbours; once a nation starts on the road of successful aggrandizement it could see no compelling limit to growth short of world dominion. (1977, p. 58)

Sovereign territory legally constitutes state jurisdiction and geopolitically constitutes a bounded power repository. Given IR’s acceptance of the trope of conflict, border security surfaces as a priority. Borders fortify as well as delimit states; they constitute (literal and figurative) manifestations of sovereign sanctity. Through such lenses of “blunt state-centrism” (Paasi, 2012, p. 2303), borders constitute “dividers, edges of power containers that, after being established, were relatively stable, and . . . often glorified as ‘holy’ entities in state ideologies” (Paasi, 2012, pp. 2303–2304). Such sanctity is palpable in Berezin’s four dimensions of territory:

that fuel thicker attachments than its purely formal components would suggest. Territory is social because, independent of scale, persons inhabit it collectively; political because groups fight to preserve as well as to enlarge their space; and cultural because it contains the collective memories of its inhabitants. Territory is cognitive as well as physical, and its capacity to subjectify social, political, and cultural boundaries makes it the core of public and private identity projects. (2003, p. 7)

Westphalian space is thus heavily implicated in national self-determination and national identity.

Passing reference was made to Starr, but further discussion is merited. By the dawn of the 21st century, he made “a plea for a more explicit and extensive attention to the spatial contexts of social phenomena,” with reference to international cooperation and conflict (2003, p. 1). He saw time/space as “crucial in our study of security . . . and thus to realist models of international politics.” He sought to (a) synthesize the disparate but parallel projects of geography and IR, and (b) elucidate the practical and theoretical implications of space for world politics. He did this by operationalizing and measuring spatial indicators; quantifying territory, proximity, and state contiguity; and harnessing geographical information systems (GIS) to make sense of space in IR. He advocated GIS to measure and interrogate spatial data (2003, pp. 12–13) in order to simulate, and predict, spatial (re)configurations in world politics (2003, pp. 15–16). Starr was mindful of loss-of-strength gradients quantifying “the amount of competitive power that is lost per some unit of distance” (2005, p. 390). He heeded Zipf’s (1949) law of least effort, postulating that “units interact more with those that are closer to them and less with those farther away . . . [T]he closer units such as states are to one another, the greater their possibility for interaction” (Starr, 2005, p. 396). Power is, here, contained by territory and projected across the world; borders are vantage points from which to execute force projection, and gates that can be (and sometimes are) stormed.

Readers would be forgiven for thinking this all sounds very “Cold War.” Polarity—the harnessing and coagulation of power in and between states—underpins Westphalianism and is a realist cornerstone. Under Cold War bipolarity, two superpowers and their alliances sought to establish, expand, and consolidate their spheres of influence, on, in, and in relation to sovereign territory. On one hand, the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) projected their power centrifugally on the system. On the other, the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact projected their power across the same system. Two centrifugal forces propelled outward across international space. Two “poles” (state power repositories) subjected space to political, military, and ideological contestation. Waltz (1979) argued that, under bipolarity, the management of power in world politics is easier, as two parties can seek stability more easily than larger numbers. Consider his point that “With only two great powers, both can be expected to act to maintain the [international] system” (p. 204). By preserving the integrity of the (system of) power containers, they are maintaining themselves. Bipolarity was said to ensure relative peace in world politics (see Gaddis, 1987). Mearsheimer (1990) stood beside Waltz in positing “bipolar peace,” noting the capability equivalence of the United States and the Soviet Union, not least concerning nuclear arsenals. And undergraduate texts still tell how balance of power advocates identify “an equilibrating process that maintains peace by counterbalancing any state that seeks military superiority, distributing global power evenly through alignments or shifts by nonaligned states to one or the other opposed coalitions” (Kegley & Blanton, 2012, p. 269). For Waltz, a balance occurs when states acknowledge their situation and surroundings and adapt to changes in power configurations: if the distribution of power permits the emergence of a balance in the first place. The international system changes as state capabilities change. As such, change in world politics occurs when great powers rise and fall, with the balance of power shifting accordingly. Great powers are said to be the managers of the international system (Waltz, 1979, p. 195). The structure of the system has a confining, regulating impact on the states occupying it.

Waltz discerns bipolar systems from multipolar systems (think of a world of multiple power centers existing before or after the Cold War). After dissolution of bipolarity, confusion arose over the spatial apportionment of power in the world. On one hand, the United States might consolidate its hegemony, immune to others’ power projections, and unipolarity would emerge. On the other, the power once hoarded in superpowers would nebulously dissipate across the world. This latter logic posits that the erstwhile power contained in two heavy (East/West) counterweights “spilled” across the system, coagulating in various state poles that wield relatively equivalent (but lesser) levels of power. Such is the theory of (potentially unstable) multipolarity, against which Mearsheimer (1990) warns. Either way, polarities are Westphalian in deeming power a currency of states that is distributed in the world. Readers are encouraged, at this juncture, to acknowledge that the parameters of the polarity literature are broader than Waltz’s and Mearsheimer’s canon, crucial though that is (see De Keersmaeker, 2016; Deutsch, 1968; Deutsch & Singer, 1964; Haas, 1970; Ikenberry, 1998; Jervis, 2009; Rosecrance, 1966).

Westphalianism has its critics. Just as border lines separate states on maps, this approach delimits the insides/outsides, the “Us”/“Them” in academic and practitioner imaginations. Binaries of home/away, self/alien are said to be perpetuated by what Agnew (1994) called the territorial trap, “the privileging of a territorial conception of the state” (Agnew & Corbridge, 1995, p. 83). This trap is said to force a stasis as much in research as real-world politics. It is said to preserve at best intellectually impeding and at worst downright dangerous binaries of inside/outside (see Weaver 2020). Sharp wrote that national identity, under traditionalism:

is not . . . simply defined by what binds the members of the nation together but also . . . by defining those who exist outside as different from members of the nation. Drawing borders around territory to produce “us” and “them” . . . does not simply reflect the divisions inherent in the world but helps to create differences. (2014, p. 536)

Similar sentiment is voiced by Henderson (1997) and Newman (1999). Another line of critique is that territorial fetishization blinds thinkers to the “real world” of (non)state actors functioning through, above, below, around, and inside state borders, contributing to governance as well as government (Albert, Brock, & Wolf, 2000; Archibugi & Held, 1995; Dryzek, 1990, 2000, 2006; Falkner, 2003; Hale & Held, 2011; Hammond, Dryzek, & Pickering, 2019; Held, 1993; Hurrell, 2007; Jӧnsson, 2013; Keohane, 2011; Khagram, 2006; Payne & Samhat, 2004; Rosenau & Czempiel, 1992). Some critics sought to emancipate IR from the territorial trap, recalibrating their studies as assessments of relations between similarities and differences, universal(s) and particular(s) (Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004; Shapiro & Alker, 1996). The crux of the critique is that to deem space a mere store and preservative of sovereignty is to obscure reality and silence the (non)state actors wielding power and influence. It is, in other words, to ignore scale, the presence and utility of local, regional, national, and global spaces, and the harms and goods occupying them.

The Scalar Orientation

Globalization (see Giddens, 2002 for a thorough and accessible exegesis) called into question sovereign sanctity. To the foreground were brought interconnections and interdependencies between distant, detached (non)state actors (Warf & Arias, 2009a, p. 5). Local space(s) were deemed at one and the same time local and global. Brenner, in New State Spaces (2004), cast the subnational scale as an analytical front runner, arguing that preoccupations with the (supra)national were crowding out the equally, if not more, important strategic subnational spaces emerging. Such subnational spaces as cities and city regions were said to be pinnacles of state transformation under globalization. It was thus possible to observe dynamic interplay between the global and local. The region has cemented its leading position as a linchpin of scalar research (Counsell & Haughton, 2003; Jones & Paasi, 2017; Molema & Svensson, 2019; Paasi & Metzger, 2017; Pike, 2013; Riding & Jones, 2017). Indeed, political, economic, and cultural barriers were broken, and distances quashed, by the technological revolutions of globalization. Locales of impoverishment, underdevelopment, disengagement, structural ignorance, and vulnerability abounded, but could be explained via globalization itself: as having been—at best—left behind by “aggressively deterritorialising” globalizing processes (Gregory, 2004, p. 253), or—at worst—exploited by global quests for capital, profit, and efficiency that are captured by locales being harvested for cheap exports to which value is added, and from which value is extracted, in the Global North.

But reflections on global space are nothing new. In 1971, Abler, Adams, and Gould wrote: “Any activity we undertake which makes it easier or more difficult for people, ideas or objects to move through space has significant effects on spatial processes and the structures they produce” (1971, p. 82). They prophesied the distance-destroying hypermobility of space-time compression (Ohmae, 1996) when observing “time-space convergence” in “a shrinking world,” noting that “We can monitor this shrinkage by measuring the rates at which places on the surface of the earth approach one another in time distance” (Abler, Adams, & Gould, 1971, pp. 82–83). Three decades before the 21st century, Abler et al. pondered how to quantify spatiotemporal “shrinkage.” Think of the space race, Concorde, Shinkansen, global social media: of how they conjure images of the speed-distance-time triptych; of flows of humans, thought, resources, and (sociocultural and political as well as economic) capital traveling above, below, around, and through state borders. (Non)state actors wield power and influence in virtual space as “real” as the human and natural environment occupied by humans. The virtual is part of that environment. Consider the ease of web-based video-telecommunications and the utility of social media alerting systems: a swath of the global population can be privy to a local incident of global import, immediately after the event, via an Internet-enabled device. After all, “[t]he internet,” for Warf, “annihilates distance” (2009, p. 66). Globalization brings with it, at least to its winners, space-time compression. Hyper-immediacy catalyzes political coordination, disaggregating delineations between “real” and “virtual,” breaking barriers between “Us”/ “Them,” affording actorhood to disparate and distant actors that “hear” one another, even if they cannot always “see” one another. Disaggregation of sovereign space is characteristic of what has been termed the transnational public sphere (Fraser, 1990, 1992, 2007, 2008, 2010; Linklater, 2007). Socially networked human actors propagate socially networked spaces—conduits for community and agency—across vast distances, time zones, and borders. Virtual communities coexist with “real” (physically delineated) communities. Such spaces contribute to a burgeoning, increasingly democratized transnational public sphere in which (literally and figuratively) disparate, or distant, humans influence and act in the world.

It took time for the time-traveling, space-shrinking geography of Abler et al. to enter the mainstream. Castells (1996, 1997) conceptualized the informationally networked globe as a “space of flows.” He found linkages between disparate locations, interconnected in ceaseless flows of data, capital, and agency that helped spin a web of globalization: “By flows I understand purposeful, repetitive, programmable sequences of exchange and interaction between physically disjointed positions held by social actors” (1996, p. 412). “Flow” struck chords with Rosenau’s interdependence, wherein “international relations conducted by governments have been supplemented by relations among private individuals, groups and societies that can and do have important consequences for the course of events” (1980, p. 1). “Flow” resonated with Keohane and Nye’s interdependence comprising those “situations characterised by reciprocal effects among countries or among actors in different countries” (1977, p. 8). Under interdependence, a multiplicity of (non)state actors interact to wield power and influence inside as well as between states; distant and disparate actors overcome space and sovereignty to stimulate political change within sovereign borders. The multiplicities of actors constitute “transmission belts” (Keohane & Nye, 1977, p. 26) of knowledge and agency. “Flow” echoed Wapner’s transnational civil society, “that slice of associational life that exists above the individual and below the state, but also across [emphasis added] national boundaries” (1996, p. 4). And “flow” is evident in Ernste, van Houtum, and Zoomers’s notion of the contemporary “trans-world”: “The fact that many mobile people and migrants have become trans-mobile and trans-migrants . . . [finding] themselves neither here nor there, but in several places at the same time, has important consequences for spatial container concepts like place, nation and identities” (2009, p. 577). They argue that “increased inter-linkages between places and people are increasingly loosening and dynamising the classic triangle of territory-identity-citizenship” (Ernste et al., 2009, p. 578). But in adopting such a networked ontological position, they do not imagine borderless cosmopolises, and heed that a “borderless and placeless world does not exist” (Ernste et al., 2009, p. 578). They employ the term “trans-world” to capture “the aspect of ‘trans’ on all spatial scales and [foster] a more rich understanding of the relationship between the borders of the self and the environment or place of dwelling” (Ernste et al., 2009, p. 580).

Scalar orientation cannot be fully covered without recourse to world systems theory. Although harmonies exist with globalization, world systems theory “emerged at least 15 years before the use of globalisation as a signifier that blazed across the headlines and exploded as a subject of academic research” (Arrighi, 2005, p. 33). World systems theory takes an (inter)national approach, viewing the states system as a structural cornerstone of world politics. Wallerstein, who spearheaded (1974, 1979, 1980, 1988, 2000, 2004) world systems theory, defined a world system as a “spatial/temporal zone which cuts across many political and cultural units, [representing] an integrated zone of activity and institutions which obey certain systemic rules” (2004, p. 17). He brought a “Marxist twist” (Daddow, 2009, p. 124) to the analysis of structure and change in IR. The logic was that state behavior was and is molded by the functioning of the global capitalist economy. States are said to differ according to their positions in that economy, on a core or periphery continuum, and their behavior changes accordingly. The approach concerns itself with long-term structural change over the course of history (see Modelski, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2005). For Wallerstein, world systems analysts “have been talking about ‘globalization’ since long before the word was invented—not, however, as something new but as something that has been basic to the modern world-system ever since it began in the sixteenth century” (2004, p. 10). Robinson summarized Wallerstein’s logic deftly: “If globalization simply means the geographic extension of material and cultural exchanges then it has been going on for thousands of years, and if it means the spread and development of capitalism . . . then it has been going on for 500+ years” (2011, p. 725).

This long-term historical perspective was made evident in 1976 when Wallerstein and colleagues created the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations. Its mission statement underscores an inherently historical approach to space and structure:

We operate on two assumptions. One is that there is no structure that is not historical. In order to understand a structure one must not only know its genesis and its context; one must also assume that its form and its substance are constantly evolving. The second assumption is that no sequence of events in time is structureless, that is, fortuitous. Every event occurs within existing structures, and is affected by its constraints.

(Binghamton University, 2020)

The corollary, then, is no structure without history. The historical system is, and must be, the locus of investigation. Wallerstein observed three types of system: mini-system, world-empire, and world-economy. Mini-systems are confined, occur fleetingly in time, and cohere with subsistence economies. World-empires prevailed between the earliest manifestations of civilization and circa 1500. They functioned via provisions of tribute or surplus from otherwise self-governed communities. They have singular political boundaries. World-economies involve extensive chains of production converging via complex divisions of labor and commercial interactions. They have multiple political centers and boundaries. As Robinson observes, global capitalism is integral to this latter system:

The capitalist world-economy that emerged from circa 1500 and on expanded to cover the entire globe, absorbing in the process all existing mini-systems and world-empires, establishing market and production networks that eventually brought all peoples around the world into its logic and into a single worldwide structure. (2011, p. 728)

So globalization à la contemporary socioeconomic globalization theory is one (albeit crucial) element of this approach. The alleged subjugation of other spatial modalities by capitalist expansionism appears to evince a centrifugal force from pioneer core to frontier periphery. There is a sense of European hegemony when Robinson observes how:

Emerging capitalist elites (merchants, financiers, political elites) from Portugal, later Spain, Holland, England, France and elsewhere, expanded outward in pursuit of new economic opportunities. This expansion was made possible by the development of strong states in the “core” [emphasis added] of the emerging capitalist world-economy. (2011, p. 728)

Core and periphery are valuable concepts, with core denoting the developed centers of the world system endowed with power, and periphery denoting those parts of the world system subordinated to the core. States at the nucleus of the core are endowed with hegemony: “core states are themselves hierarchically organized around a ‘hegemon’ . . . a leading core state that exercises its political domination and control over the system and imposes rules and norms that bring it disproportionate benefits” (Robinson, 2011, p. 731).

Again, one listens for the critique that this all sounds very Westphalian, the world systems literature being replete with structures, units, hegemons, and subjugations of lesser by greater powers. But it must be noted that world systems theory began as a development theory, and at its core are concerns for “spatial/temporal zones cutting across many political and cultural units,” for macro-historical investigations into the evolution of the politico-economic world, and for the dynamic interplay between mini-systems, empires, and economies. It thus constitutes more than Westphalian statism and the confining and regulating impact of the billiard table on the billiard balls.

For this same reason, neither should the spatial configurations of the English School be unquestioningly discussed according to Westphalianism. Close readings of the English School canon, and its spatial understandings of international (and more cosmopolitan world) society, indicate that scale—particularly the ethical implications of projecting responsibility over varying distances and in relation to humans in varying states of “otherness”—arises implicitly and explicitly (Bellamy, 2005; Bull, 2002; Buzan, 2004; Dunne, 2010; Gong, 1984; Hurrell, 2007; Linklater, 1982, 1998, 2011, 2016; Linklater & Suganami, 2006; Little, 2000; Manning, 1975; Mayall, 2000; Navari, 2009; Navari & Green, 2014; Vincent, 1986; Weaver, 2018a; Weinert, 2011; Wheeler, 1996, 2000; Wight, 1991; Williams, 2005). First consider Bull’s international system/society distinction. Systems emerge “where states are in regular contact with one another, and where . . . there is interaction between them sufficient to make the behaviour of each a necessary element in the calculations of the other” (Bull, 2002, pp. 9–10). Societies emerge when a group of states, “conscious of certain common interests and common values, form a society in the sense that they conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another, and share in the working of common institutions” (Bull, 2002, p. 13). Purposefully seeking convergence, states register the risks of anarchy and try to mitigate them. Where possible, they pursue shared interests, address shared concerns, and institutionalize shared norms. In an international society, Westphalian structures of sovereignty and anarchy remain. But they are used for positive ends. A broader power panorama reveals possibilities for cooperation as well as conflict. Under system, a strictly limited projection of care and responsibility occurs across international space, on the international scale, between states. Regular interaction determines states’ calculations of one another; states adapt and alter their postures in response to their (and their counterparts’) (mis)perceptions and (mis)calculations. Under society, responsibility is projected more vociferously across international space; the extent of responsibility is greater; states deliberately and consciously converge more closely, coagulating their sovereignty, tightening their bonds, reducing their (literal and figurative) distance, and disassembling, to some lesser or greater degree, the (literal and figurative) barriers that hinder attempts to pursue shared values.

Westphalian waters are muddied, and states’ borders blurred, when one further considers the pluralist and solidarist ideal types of international society. Under less ethically ambitious pluralism, “shared values are few, and the prime focus is on devising rules for coexistence within a framework of sovereignty and non-intervention” (Buzan, 2004, p. 59). Pluralism “satisfices” in pursuing just enough order to mitigate the risks of anarchy. Coexistence rules are followed as, “like rules of the road, fidelity to them is relatively cost free but the collective benefits are enormous” (Dunne, 2010, p. 145). Such rules offer “a structure of coexistence, built on the mutual recognition of states as independent and legally equal members of society, on the unavoidable reliance on self-preservation and self-help, and on freedom to promote their own ends as subject to minimal constraints” (Dunne, 2010, p. 145). For Buzan, states’ self-interest under pluralism “stretches to cooperation in pursuit of a liveable international order, but it . . . does not require that they agree on anything beyond the basics, or that they hold any common values other than an interest in survival and the avoidance of unwanted disorder” (2004, p. 145). Pluralist society can thus be likened to an eggbox (Vincent, 1986, p. 124) affording concurrent closeness or cushioning between states, remaining close enough for multilateralism whilst still being fortified by borders. By “leaving the border open” and keeping enough scope for “beyond the basics” multilateralism, progress is not foreclosed. Good international citizenship (Gilmore, 2014; Wheeler, 1996, 2000) entails no more than a nod across the diplomatic garden fence.

Under pluralism, sovereign space is oriented at the (inter)national scale. But it can be “contracted,” and (literal and figurative) distance between states reduced. Literally, states converge and draw “closer together” in diplomatic locales, their representatives interacting in negotiating chambers, conference halls, the norm formulation spaces of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and state summits. States “closen” and cushion, opening borders to one another whilst ensuring fortification by robust border security. Figuratively, sovereign space is “contracted,” under pluralism, by the signing and implementation of multilateral agreements that codify the “rules of the road” to minimize state harm. Under pluralism, states are both saved and savior. Responsibility is projected across international space by states: not across all international space, but between some states that deliberately choose to “closen” themselves and cushion their limited interactions on particular issues, in order to render their relations less harmful. Heterogeneity is valued; pluralist society is diverse. The projection of responsibility across global space is not pursued under pluralism (and arguably neither under solidarism). This is not cosmopolis or world society (see Buzan, 2004). Cosmopolis—one earth, one humankind, one identity, one responsibility without borders (see Appiah, 2007)—is avoided. The “common” good—the “universal” good—is deemed undesirable and infeasible.

Space is stretched toward post-Westphalianism, its borders rendered less sacred, and sovereignty less hegemonic, under the solidarist ideal type of society. Solidarism is more ethically ambitious. Responsibility is projected over vaster spaces; concern is expressed for more (literally and figuratively) distant others. National interest and self-concern for one’s “own” within one’s borders are eclipsed by more expansive ethical concerns less easily hindered by territorial fortification. For Buzan, solidarism concerns “‘thick’ international societies in which a wider range of values is shared, and where the rules will be not only about coexistence, but also about the pursuit of joint gains and the management of collective problems in a range of issue-areas” (2004, p. 59). Multilateral codification of fundamental human rights have, to this extent, been deemed “the most obvious indicator of a move beyond a pluralist international society” (Dunne, 2010, p. 150). Under solidarism, citizenship, nationality, and domicile are immaterial. Human rights know no borders; responsible sovereignty dictates that states, as good international citizens, enforce human rights when they are violated (see Gilmore, 2014, 2015, 2019; Gilmore & Staples, 2019; Wheeler, 1996, 2000). The human is the referent for protection; sovereignty is harnessed for good, its currency “spent” for more ambitious (and possibly interventionist) purposes. The earlier Westphalian principle of nonintervention—such that a state must not make incursions into another’s territory—is altered: intervention into territory is mandated by the solidarist R2P (Responsibility to Protect) doctrine, under strict conditions (see Bellamy, 2009, 2015; Evans, 2005; Grono, 2006; International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, 2001; Teitt, 2009; United Nations, 2005).

Under solidarism, responsibility for human (rather than state) suffering is not projected merely within or between states. States do not converge only to lessen the burden of harm they place on one another. Responsibility is projected centrifugally across international space, states’ moral horizons expanding to bring distant and unknown human suffering within their purview. Such a position is adopted—although by no means via English School lenses—by geographer Gregory when he states that “we need to set ourselves against the unbridled arrogance that assumes that ‘We’ have the monopoly of Truth and that the world is necessarily ordered by—and around—Us” (2004, p. 262). Overcoming “unbridled arrogance” involves triumphing over, if not entirely breaking, the borders dividing “Us” and “Our” space(s) from “Them” and “Their” space(s) of otherness. Note Weinert’s observation of international common goods being pursued beyond borders:

[T]he world is comprised of discrete (worldly) spaces that have generated practices, institutions, and normative commitments endemic to them. For example, the planetary environment . . . has spawned specific epistemes, social practices, institutions, public policies, and normative dispositions characterised as “green” . . . that aim to alter human behaviour and prepare peoples to confront and manage the realities of environmental crisis, disaster and collapse by promoting an ethos of sustainability, conservation, preservation and protection, renewability, and intergenerational regard if not equity. (2017, p. 410)

Weinert’s observation coheres not only with those who deem the planet “One Earth,” a biosphere that does not cohere with the Cartesian grid (Eckersley, 1992, 2004, 2006; Hurrell, 1994; Torgerson, 1999) but also with those who assess the need and scope for a planetary governance regime in the epoch of the Anthropocene (Biermann, 2014; Biermann & Gupta, 2011; Biermann & Kim, 2020; Biermann & Lövbrand, 2019; Biermann & Pattberg, 2012; Conca, 2019; Harris, 2011; Klinke, 2012; Mason, 2005, 2008; Nicholson & Jinnah, 2016; Ostrom, 2012; Stoett, 2012; Young, 2017). Weinert’s comment echoes Woodward’s position that “ethical responsibilities are fundamentally geographical, for they take the earth as the shared context (or the ‘ground’) upon which our collective activities take—and make—place” (2014, p. 901). Not all states pursue earthly harm reduction; not all states converge on issues of human suffering; the expansion of states’ moral horizons to incorporate unknown others remains voluntarist in relying only on states’ willingness to “spend” their reserves of sovereignty collectively. Projections of responsibility across the world—be it for human or state harm reductions—do not constitute the emergence of a nascent cosmopolis, Wight’s (1991) revolutionist global space whose one humankind, whose one Earth, has emancipated itself from borders, territory, and sovereignty. The pluralist and solidarist ideal types of international society are not spaces of big-C Critical human emancipation from the shackles of state (see Booth, 1991, 2007); neither are they cosmopolitan spaces in which humans engage in unimpeded dialogue, forging their own futures for themselves and international relations without Westphalian hindrance (Archibugi & Held, 1995; Dryzek, 2006; Dryzek et al., 2019; Eckersley, 2004; Habermas, 1986; Linklater, 2002, 2005, 2009; Payne & Samhat, 2004; Torgerson, 1999). They retain sovereign structures, but render sovereignty more responsible. There is a sense of spatial compression, but it is highly selective and contingent on states voluntarily “spending” sovereignty together.

Such scalar discussions, of ethical expansion, spatial contraction, projection of responsibility, of networks and flows, of systems and societies, paint an abstract and sometimes utopian landscape. Such concepts offer valuable ideal types—heuristic devices against which to assess real-world research objects (Watkins, 1952; see Weaver, 2018a)—but such imaginaries should not be taken as given. The international common good does not serve everyone; human suffering is harbored in myriad local and national contexts. Vulnerable and impoverished locales, both in the Global North and South, do not benefit from transnational flows of wealth, thought, and people. Globalization is not global; it has winners and losers. Local and national susceptibilities are shone in stark relief when one witnesses the failure of the Millennium Development Goals (Stuart & Woodroffe, 2016) and the unending plight of the hungry, impoverished, diseased, and environmentally harmed in their local and national environments. So consider Chaturvedi and Painter’s question: “In what ways are ‘universal liberal values’ being translated into a ‘good life’ in the marginalized spaces of agrarian economies in most of Afro-Asia?” (2007, p. 389). And consider Bhabha’s poignant remark:

The global perspective in 1492 as in 1992 is the purview of power. The globe shrinks for those who own it; for the displaced or the dispossessed, the migrant or refugee, no distance is more awesome than the few feet across borders or frontiers. (1992, p. 88)

The Relational Orientation

The relational orientation is a product of radical thinking (see Duarte, 2018 for a radical intervention) that helped unravel the earlier Westphalian assumptions. Its roots can be traced to Leibniz, deeming space “a system of . . . relations” (Arthur, 1994, p. 230), a domain of the “transient, evanescent . . . lasting no longer than a moment . . . [and] merely an instantaneous order of existence” (Arthur, 1994, p. 233). Leibniz’s doctrine of marks and traces stated that:

when we consider carefully the connection of things, we can say that from all time in Alexander’s soul there are vestiges of everything that has happened to him and marks of everything that will happen to him and even traces of everything that happens in the universe, even though God alone could recognise them all.

(in Look, 2013, p. 8)

The corollary is that “substances are mind-like entities that . . . represent the universe from a unique perspective” (Look, 2013, p. 15). Such mind-like entities are termed by Leibniz monads. Space, under Leibnizian spatial logic, is monadic in aggregating, and being a manifestation of, the (human and material) connections and relations living in and through it. Without those “vestiges of everything”—without the human and material coexistence breathing life to space, space would cease to exist. For Leibniz, something is active to the extent that the source of its activity emanates from within itself: “the very substance of things consists in a force for acting and being acted upon” (Leibniz in Look, 2013, p. 11). The implications for spatiality are that space is concurrently active and passive: it is lived, lived in, and lived through; it is more than the mere sum of its constituent parts; it is more than the earlier orthogonal grid; it is more than a canvas upon which cartographers etch their lines; it is breathed life, and lives, by virtue of the human and material coexistence animating it.

Such coexistence is the subject of the more recent philosopher Heidegger’s attention. Seminal texts include his essay, first released in 1971, “Building Dwelling Thinking” (2001) and his signature Being and Time (1978). In “Building Dwelling Thinking,” Heidegger argues that humans dwell according to a “fourfold” of earth, sky, mortals, and gods. The preservation of such primordial elements is said to be “the simple nature . . . of dwelling” (2001, p. 159). To build a dwelling is to construct a space that enables human coexistence and the concomitant wholeness of life/environment, symbolized by the above elements. Dwelling (verb) and dwellings (noun) allow(s) humans to be “let be,” in pursuit of coexistence. This line of thought is rationalized by Heidegger (1978) in the concept of Dasein (there-being), a shared coexistence animating human collective life. The logic is that “each moment in a human life constitutes a kind of branch-point at which a person ‘chooses’ a kind of life, a possible way to be” (Wheeler, 2011, p. 5). To “live somewhere”—to exist in a given environment—is to be, to actively participate in, and to shape, one’s existence. Dwelling entails not mere inhabitation but belonging and familiarity. Resultantly “Dasein’s existential spatiality cannot be a matter of Dasein being located at a particular coordinate in physical, Cartesian space . . . [T]he existential spatiality of Dasein is characterised most fundamentally by what [Heidegger] calls de-severance, a bringing close” (Wheeler, 2011, p. 11). Human coexistence involves proximity and togetherness; collective life is an act of bringing close. Space, and the “things” humans touch, feel, experience, and use in space, are “gatherings of relations” (Aylesworth, 2017). Human relations breathe life to the environment(s) in which human lives are lived. Dasein is to be-with. Moreover, being is a process that perpetually unfolds, “taking” “place” continuously and dynamically. The space of human existence is, under this logic, in an equal and commensurate state of ceaseless emergence. Life, and life-space, “is certainly ‘in formation.’ It never stands still” (Weaver, 2018b, p. 5).

Coward (2008), in theorizing urbicide, followed Heidegger. Urbicide was said to entail the built environment being deliberately targeted by political violence, because the former constituted, and was in turn constituted by, inherently heterogeneous, animate, and “living” public space. The built environment is a palpable manifestation of Dasein, replete with the human and material relations and symbioses that set the life of humankind apart from that of other species. In other words, by targeting the built environment, one is targeting the “life” of the human collectivity it materializes and symbolizes: the identity, the belonging, the togetherness, the sense of selfhood. Recall the clichéd lamentation when a long-standing navigational beacon of a building is destroyed: “It was the heart of the community.” Weinert propels Coward’s logic:

[spaces] . . . assume (social) meaning and signification not merely by virtue of their tangibility, but as a consequence of the actions and relationships that occur within them and the meanings ascribed to them. Spatiality captures our understanding of physical environments as “horizons of intelligibility” that not merely orient actors’ immediate senses of the here and now, but also represent possibilities [emphasis added] of unfolding. Spatiality thus packages together individualised and collective ascriptions of meaning and significance to places, and relational processes that, by virtue of “networks of relationships,” constitute spaces. (2017, p. 414)

Weinert’s thoughts here are Heideggerian, not least because in Being and Time, the conditions for intelligibility should be analyzed according to the concept of heritage, defined as culturally conditioned structures that form horizons of intelligibility into which humans are placed, and onto which they place themselves. It is no coincidence that Weinert’s (2018) investigations have led him into the realm of heritage in world politics.

Relationality’s roots were also laid by Foucault and Lefebvre. Foucault (1971, 1986, 1998) captured, in his notion of heterotopia, a world within a world, the incongruous otherness of human coexistence. There is a sense, in heterotopia, that space is constituted by, and contingent on, human coexistence. Heterotopia is a space of concomitant difference. Lefebvre (1991, 2009) pioneered the conception of space as a socially constituted phenomenon, a product of society (see Shields, 1999). He identified space as inherently social. His tenet was that measurements and control of space were a signature of the capitalist mode of production, of capitalist appropriation (Löw, 2008, p. 27). Lefebvre (1991, p. 38; see Löw, 2008, p. 28) conceived a spatial triad of (a) spatial practice or perceived space; (b) representations of space, or conceived space; and (c) spaces of representation, or lived space. Spatial practice, firstly, is the spatiality of the everyday: quotidian behavior, the routine experiences of space. Representations of space, secondly, are the cognitive mechanisms by which space is rationalized by planners and scientists, and so on. Spaces of representation, thirdly, are the symbolic and iconographic domains in which other spatial realities and alternative worlds are revisioned, and spatial orthodoxies disrupted. There is an emancipatory undertone in the latter element. Under this triad, the space of Lefebvre is concomitantly “a collection of things and objects and of tools and the use of tools. Space makes action possible and is itself the field of action” (Löw, 2008, p. 28).

Such concomitance of the human and material gained a strong foothold in social theory as well as geography and world politics. It is evident in Giddens’s (1990) notion of the “embedding” of social relations. Giddens’s structuration theory attempts to link structures and human action, positing that societal structures are the vehicle and consequence of repeated human actions (Giddens, 1984). Giddens’s structures have been defined by Löw as the “rules and resources recursively embedded in institutions” (2008, p. 31), with institutions being cast as “formations permanently reproduced in routines” (Löw, 2008, p. 32). Löw propels Giddens’s theory further, deeming space a “relational ordering of social goods and people” that “come[s] into being only by being actively connected by human beings” (p. 35). She elucidates this relational conception through recourse to spacing and synthesis: under spacing, “space is constituted by the situating of social goods and people and/or the positioning of primarily symbolic markings in order to render ensembles of goods and people recognisable as such . . . Spacing means erection, building or positioning” (p. 35); and under synthesis, “goods and people are connected to form spaces through processes of perception, ideation, or recall” (p. 35). The symbolic and iconographic qualities of spatial (re)production were also elucidated by Björkdahl (2018) and Björkdahl and Kappler (2019).

And such generated, or generative, spatiality bears also a strong resemblance with the work of Soja, who identified and advocated (1989) a spatialized reading of social theory. His premise was that the traditional ontological supremacy of history—the temporal dimension of analysis—was being eroded by the nascent (relational) spatial dimension. His concept of thirdspace, for instance, posits “an-Other way of understanding and acting to change the spatiality of human life, a distinct mode of critical spatial awareness” (1996, p. 57). Soja revisioned Lefebvre’s trialectic of “spatial practice / representation of space / space of representation,” reformulating it as a trialectic of “perceived-conceived-lived spaces” (2009, p. 25). His tenet was that humankind consists of “intrinsically spatial as well as temporal beings, active participants in the production and reproduction of the encompassing human geographies in which we live” (2009, p. 12).

Like Soja, Harvey—a trendsetter in geography as well as political economy—followed Lefebvre in spatializing his analysis (1973a, 1973b, 1982, 1989, 1990, 1996, 2000). He (1973a) enjoined scholars to rescind absolute space, deeming understandings of space (and time) contingent on human experience. Harvey (1973b) appreciated that space is processual, observing not only how social processes mold space but how human actors seek to spatialize, and mold, social behavior. Later, Harvey (1982) observed not only how space is (re)produced by but also molds capitalism. He noted that:

space and time are inevitably . . . contested as part and parcel of processes of social change, no matter whether that change is superimposed from without (as in imperialist domination) or generated from within (as in the conflict between environmentalist and economic standards of decision-making). (1990, p. 418)

He identified how “each social formation constructs objective conceptions of space and time sufficient unto its own needs” (1990, p. 419). In demonstrating this, he examines Paris’s communards of 1871:

The communards tried to build an alternative social order not only by reoccupying the space from which they had been . . . expelled but by trying to reshape the objective social qualities of urban space itself in a nonhierarchical and communitarian image. (1990, p. 421)

Elden followed Foucault and Lefebvre in unraveling the social and processual generations of space, with particular reference to terrain and territory. Those facing his vast canon should begin with his masterful Birth of Territory (2013), which interrogates the conceptual history of territory in Western political thought, tracing the concept back to the annals of ancient history, and making sense of how the world has come to be ordered and territorially divided. The next stop should be his earlier Terror and Territory (Elden, 2009), a challenging provocation that employs the Global War on Terror as a means by which to challenge and revision understandings of territory. Elden observes, there, reconfigurations of the sovereignty/territory nexus, exposing the impact that the Global War on Terror had on the spatial configuration of world politics. Elden’s repertoire is invaluable for thinkers seeking original and critical insight into Foucault (Elden, 2001, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018; Elden & Crampton, 2007), Lefebvre (Elden, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007; Elden & Brenner, 2009), and Heidegger (Elden, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2005).

Such Heideggerian and post-Foucault/Lefebvre social appropriations of space are different—have different qualities, mores, challenges—for different humans. Such appropriations are contingent on the experiences and dispositions of the humans (a) appropriating the space; and (b) subject to, or invested in, the appropriation. This echoes Massey, who in no small part helped bring space, or spatiality, to geography. She had watched scholars “struggling to understand space . . . as constituted through the social, rather than as . . . an arena within which the social takes place [emphasis original]” (1999, p. 262). She found that “spatiality and entities such as ‘places’ are products of our (social) interactions” (1999, p. 263). She argued that “our beings, our identities, are constituted in and through . . . practices of interaction. Identities are forged in and through relations . . . In consequence they are not rooted or static, but mutable ongoing productions [emphasis added]” (Massey, 2004, p. 5). The earlier allusion to space never “sitting still” is palpable in Massey’s magnum opus, For Space, in which she describes her relational approach upon three premises: “First, that we recognise space as the product of interrelations . . . Second, that we understand space as the sphere of possibility of the existence of multiplicity in the sense of contemporaneous plurality . . . Third, that we recognise space as always under construction” (2005, p. 9). Space is conceived, firstly, as a product of interrelations in that it “does not exist prior to identities/entities and their relations” (2005, p. 10). Space constitutes an arena of heterogeneity, secondly, in that “a genuine, thorough, spatialisation of social theory and political thinking can force into the imagination a fuller recognition of the simultaneous coexistence of others with their own trajectories and their own stories to tell” (2005, p. 11). Space is thus “an open ongoing production” (2005, p. 55). Space is deemed, thirdly, ever under construction: ever “in process . . . In this open interactional space there are always connections yet to be made, juxtapositions yet to flower into interaction . . . relations which may or may not be accomplished” (2005, p. 11).

The relational orientation, then, deems space constituted by human coexistence; it is experiential and animate; it changes according to the humans appropriating it and the humans subject to its appropriation. In recognizing this, recent work operationalized relationality by tracing the evolution, malleability, and “flux” of space(s), scrutinizing how territory in particular changes according to developments in world politics (Kassymbekova, 2011; Megoran, 2010, 2012; Mostowlansky, 2014a, 2014b; Paasi, 1996, 1999, 2001; Reeves, 2011; Sassen, 2005; Shaw, 2011; Weaver, 2018b). There was recognition that territorial borders are not mere “lines or fences” (Newman & Paasi, 1998). It was for this reason that agenda setters called for critical border studies that identified, and ontologically, or epistemologically, parried, “the pathos of merely human acts to draw fixed and tangible territorial lines and to expect that no one will dare to cross them” (Parker et al., 2009, p. 582).

Paasi was one such agenda setter. His spatial ontology broadly coheres with the foregoing. He observed that territorial spaces “are always manifestations of power relations” (2003, p. 111). He found that “space and social action are inseparable. Territories are not frozen frameworks where social life occurs. Rather, they are made, given meanings, and destroyed in social and individual action. Hence they are typically contested and actively negotiated” (2003, p. 110). For Paasi, “meanings of space and the territorial uses of space are historically contingent and their histories are closely interrelated” (2003, p. 110). Paasi later wrote of “alternative spatial imaginations” that foreground “nonmobile and mobile social practices and discourses where borders—as processes, sets of sociocultural practices, symbols, institutions, and networks—are produced, reproduced, and transcended” (2012, p. 2304). Such imaginations cohere with his position that “Boundedness and territory are . . . important processes [emphasis original] embedded in the production and reproduction of social relations on various scales” (2009, p. 215). To adopt such an ontology is to accept that “the units of the global territorial system are and have always been historically contingent processes, and therefore in a perpetual state of becoming and being transformed” (2009, p. 217). Such thoughts were elucidated in Paasi and Zimmerbauer’s finding that borders are “penumbral . . . since they are not solely either ‘hard’ boundary lines or ‘fuzzy borderscapes,’ but typically manifest themselves . . . in certain practices” (2016, p. 75). Paasi and Zimmerbauer observed that borders are conceived:

increasingly as processes, institutions, and symbols that are spread widely in states (or territories) and even outside of them . . . Thus borders are not understood here as fixed, neutral lines surrounding regional spaces, but as elements that are deeply entangled with institutional and symbolic practices. (2016, p. 77)

Under this logic, penumbral borders are said to be “actively and consciously produced” as “manifestations of power that derives from agency that is not one-dimensionally located in certain powerhouses . . . but is embedded in a complex assemblage of actors, interactions, interests, negotiations, struggles and events” (2016, p. 88).

But none of these thoughts can be fully done justice without recourse to Sloterdijk (2011, 2014, 2016), whose Spheres trilogy gave a shot in the philosopher’s arm, and whose implications for IR require investigation. Sloterdijk attempted nothing less than to assess how and why humans live collectively in immunizing, secure, and securing spatial formations he terms spheres. Rejecting subject/object, nature/nurture binaries and ontologically foregrounding the relational interaction, he places as the locus of his study the human sphere of (co)existence. He is Heideggerian, conceiving spheres as spaces wherein humans create and share relations. For Klauser, a sphere is “a socially created, self-animated space, in which a commonality of experiences is rendered possible and where human beings find protective refuge” (2010, p. 329). Sloterdijk’s presupposition is that humans seek proximity to one another. His first volume, Bubbles (2011), spatializes the minutiae of human life. He begins with the womb, a symbiosis of being in the most primordial of spaces. Thus the essence of human existence, the mother-child relation, is sociospatial. Sloterdijk identifies such primordial coexistence in human relationships and manifestations of religion and spirituality. Klauser deems the bubble metaphor a “fragile space of resonance between people as we find it in symbiotic relations” (2010, p. 329). Globes (2014), Sloterdijk’s second treatise, theorizes the postnatal sphere of existence. Humans are said to emulate the womb’s security in such spheres as cities, states, and empires. Foams (2016), Sloterdijk’s third volume, assesses the contemporary Western world, whose relative territorial disaggregation was an implosion/explosion of (Western) sociospatial bubbles, a “foaming” of human coexistence in the real/virtual, fixed/mobile environments. Conjuring the present author’s memories of RBJ Walker (1992, 2009) on worlds, globes, insides, and outsides, Gielis and van Houtum observe, in their reading of Sloterdijk, that in “the multiform foamed spheres that he [Sloterdijk] describes there is no absolute inside and outside anymore” (2012, p. 801). This echoes Klauser’s four implications of Sloterdijkian foam:

A first quality is that the foam metaphor . . . stands for the intrinsic volume of each self-animated, more or less inclusive and stable, bubble of togetherness . . . Second, foam . . . captures the pluralism of contemporary world creations and sphere creations, allowing the interpretation of modern individualism as multiplicities of loosely touching cells of life-worlds. Third, the foam metaphor conveys in its core a double meaning of co-isolation and cofragility . . . Fourth, as a substance that is formed by trapping many gas bubbles in a liquid or solid material, foam . . . implies a creation process. (2010, p. 330)

At what point does world politics become philosophy? At what point does a study of the world, replete with its many spaces and spatial contestations, become a meditation on the question of human existence itself? It must be stressed that Westphalia and scale have gone nowhere; international studies is here to stay. The three orientations, it must be reiterated, are not sequential, and do not represent temporal intellectual progress. Leibniz, after all, is as much a historical icon as Newton and Descartes. In drawing upon the philosophy of (social) science, it is worth remembering that these three orientations offer complementary, competing, and alternative imaginaries of the world.


Each of the three spatial orientations offers a lens through which to observe world politics. And each coexists concomitantly with the others. First, the Westphalian imagines a world of sovereign states, their power and influence—their reserves of sovereignty—contained and confined by borders. The Westphalian world is a grid upon which cartographic lines are etched, coordinates ascribed, and the parameters of sovereign power delineated. “Lines in the sand” are drawn in this world, a system in which state units’ capabilities fluctuate, and power coagulates in varying quantities of (one, two, multiple) “poles.” Westphalian space is absolute and quantifiable, conducive to neorealists’ positivist methodological dispositions (see Hollis & Smith, 1990 for a seminal but resiliently fresh exegesis of IR’s methodological debates).

Second, the scalar attunes the analyst to differing tiers of world politics—the local, regional, national, international, and global. The student’s natural inclination is often to deploy the “shrinking world” logic of globalization in addressing scale. This has value, but a deeper and more critical look at scale opens other, sometimes richer avenues of investigation. World systems theory’s distinctions between (mini or world) system, empire, or economy offer a long-term historical perspective that, its supporters claim, eludes the “here and now” hypermobility of contemporary globalization. English School system or society distinctions, alongside the pluralist and solidarist ideal types, tell valuable lessons about how and where responsibility is projected across the world. And ecologists, as well as earth system governance scholars, would underscore the age of the Anthropocene, the wholeness of the “One Earth” playing host to the human species, and the corollary need for a governance regime at nothing less than the planetary scale.

More radical thought, finally, propelled spatiality into domains that are only beginning to be explored by discretely IR. Future scholarship would benefit from applying relationality to a broader and more challenging sample of research objects pertaining to IR. Robust empirical applications of Leibniz and Heidegger, following Coward and Weinert, are encouraged. Good work has been done by critical geographers on relational approaches to territory and borders, but the analytical horizon can and should be broadened to incorporate IR’s cornerstones of (human) conflict and cooperation.

It is worth remembering that these orientations are heuristic devices designed to shed light on real-world politics. No single orientation tells an immutable “truth” at the others’ expense. They offer complementary and competing imaginaries of the world. Despite, for instance, time/space compression, the collective pursuit of Dasein, and the “foaming” of the 21st-century Western world, recall Hirst, Thompson, and Bromley’s warning that “the bulk of the world’s population lives in closed worlds, trapped by the lottery of birth” (2009, p. 267). Paasi warns of residual “bounded spaces” that are “co-opted for political exploitation of ideas rooted ostensibly in homogeneous territorial spaces and exclusive national narratives of belonging and identity—all of which are continually reproduced in the processes of spatial socialization” (2012, p. 2306). Elsewhere, Paasi observed that “the state is still a crucial organizer of territorial spaces and creator of meaning for them, even though these spaces are becoming increasingly porous . . . [S]uch meaning-making occurs in spatial socialization and in the governmental practices that perpetually aim at making territory calculable” (2009, p. 213). Despite his relational innovations, Paasi is not blind to the fact that sovereign states “use powerful ideas of boundedness to create and maintain inclusions and exclusions, divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’” (2009, p. 223). In closing, consider the need to avoid privileging one orientation over others, given the orientations’ “co-implication” (Leitner, Sheppard, & Sziarto, 2008, p. 158). Readers would do well to assess the harmonies and discords between Westphalianism, scale, and relationality: how do they fit, and where do they experience friction, in a world wherein human (and state) life never stops taking place?


My thanks go to the reviewing and editing staff for their generous support. I am grateful to Matthew Weinert (Delaware) for commissioning this work, and for his longstanding academic assistance. Without the sanctuary afforded by Easton College, and the space and resources afforded by the University of East Anglia Library, the work would still be in its infancy. Nevertheless, any errors and omissions are mine alone.

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