Democracy. Russia. CIS.

An introduction to the “Historical Sociology of International Relations”

Posted by democratist on September 15, 2010

15th September 2010,

Since his unexpected and premature death in late April, Democratist has continued to explore, and learn from the many works of our former teacher and mentor, Fred Halliday.

As such we have re-read a number of his books over the summer, not least Rethinking International Relations, and The World at 2000, as well as such transcripts and lectures as we have been able to find on the web.

More recently, we have been pleased to discover that Fred’s rich  intellectual legacy, and especially the theoretical approach to the academic study of International Relations (IR) that helped to found, the “Historical Sociology of International Relations” (HSIR) has continued, and is indeed flourishing under the aegis of former colleagues and students.

A good introduction to, and overview of this work is provided in the “Historical Sociology” entry in the 2010 Wiley-Blackwell International Studies Encyclopedia (Ed. Robert A Denemark), written by John Hobson, George Lawson and Justin Rosenberg.

While the intricacies of IR theory are certainly not for everyone, those who do have an interest in IR, and in its broader place within the social sciences could do far worse than have a read.

However, for those who lack the time for this (but mostly in order to improve our own understanding) we have made the following notes;

What is the Historical Sociology.  of International Relations (HSIR)?

The key theoretic insight of Historical Sociology of International Relations (HSIR) relates to the importance of Sociology for the study of International Relations (IR).

This approach takes much of its inspiration from The Sociological Imagination, a book by the American Sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959), which underscores the centrality of historically specific social structures (patterns of social relationships) for Sociology in particular, and the Social Sciences in general.

HSIR applies these insights to IR, in contrast to “realist” claims of the “autonomy” (Bull 1977) and “enduring sameness” (Waltz 1979) of international relations.

Instead, the agenda of HSIR includes such questions as how international relations are connected – both in general terms and in particular historical cases – to the basic patterning of the human world (structure), how international relations have varied across, and change across, historical time (history), and finally, the consequences of the interactive multiplicity of social orders for our conceptions of social structure and historical process (international).

As Hobson, Lawson and Rosenberg note, “In its broadest sense, Historical Sociology aims to unravel the complexity that lies behind the interaction between social action and social structures (understood as relatively fixed configurations of social relations). Hence, for advocates of HSIR, international factors are juxtaposed, conjoined and inter-related with domestic processes [my italics] with the aim of finding patterns that explain important historical processes, including the general and regional crises that provoke wars, process of state formation, varieties of capitalist development, forms of imperialism and so on.”

HSIR also rejects “realism’s” ahistoricist assumption of anarchy as a trans-historical logic, but is instead concerned with both the dynamics of change in IR, as well as the processes of continuity; with recognizing the contingency of events, alongside the identification of deep-lying structural patterns: HSIR argues for an understanding of the contingent, disruptive, constitutive impact of local events, particularities and discontinuities.

There have been three broad “waves” of HSIR;

The “First Wave” of HSIR

In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, a small number of IR scholars drew explicitly on historical-sociological insights in order to counter the direction the discipline was taking.

Scholars, led by Halliday (1987) saw Weberian (and other) Historical Sociological approaches as providing a useful means of providing an alternative. These drew on Skocpol (1979) Mann (1986) and others.

The initial link between these historical sociologists and IR theory lay in the fact that they sought to combine developments in the international realm with domestic or national social processes.

The promise of Weberian Historical Sociology (WHS) rested on four key claims;

  • WHS placed significant ontological weighting on the domestic sources of state power (unlike neo-realism and neo-liberalism).
  • Bringing state-society relations “back in” was coupled with a focus on the interaction between the national and international realms. Here, special emphais was placed on revealing how pressures from the international state system came to reshape national societies; e.g. Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions (1979).
  • Third, WHS seemed to contain the capacity to overcome the mainstream emphasis on materialist ontology – and give weight to ideology.
  • Fourth, these writers emphasied the importance of international discontinuity, in contrast to structural stasis.

However, this work gave rise to criticism concerning the way in which “first wave” Historical Sociology tended to conceptualize the international realm as one of anarchic geopolitical competition between states, and above all, on how national processes tended to be informed by a geopolitical logic derived, in turn, from the timeless presence of international anarchy.

The “Second Wave” of HSIR

The antidote that second-wave HSIR provides is an historicist approach which is able to construct a narrative while simultaneous being open to issues of contingency, unintended consequences and the importance of context. Second wave scholars have sought to transcend the tempocentrism of mainstream IR, and some first wave HSIR by examining the differing contexts that inform the conduct of “actual existing” international relations (e.g. Rosenberg’s The Empire of Civil Society (1994). They demonstrate that contemporary world politics is historically double-edged, having one foot in the past but also being, in certain respects, singular.

Neo-Weberians have demonstrated how varying state-society relations promoted distinct trade regimes (Hobson’s The Wealth of States – 1997) and have studied the ways in which forms of radical change have both constituted, and been constituted, by the broader relationship with the international realm; Halliday’s Revolution in World Politics (1999) and Lawson’s Negotiated Revolutions (2005).

Proponents share a conception of both the centrality of discontinuity, and how social structures shape international events. They seek not just to provide hostorical analysis, they also aim to generate powerful theoretic explanations.

The “Third Wave” of HSIR, towards “International Historical Sociology.” (IHS)

IHS seeks to define a core, trans-disiplinary intellectual agenda for IR. It also provides a chance to exorcise the specter of the separation of the domestic and international spheres of enquiry (one also present in “classical social analysis” – which does not attempt to introduce the effects of inter-societal coexistence and interaction into the basic conception of “development”). The consequence of which is that the “international” has be externalized from the object-domain of social theory.

Any solution to this impasse would have to involve a reformulated concept of historical development, which by incorporating  the interactive multiplicity of societies, would bring inter-societal relations and effects within the compass of social theory.

One historical sociological approach which employs this revised concept of development (and the sociological concept of the international which it enables is the “theory of uneven and combined development” first employed by Leon Trotsky (1980/1932).

This theory traces the very existence of the international to two features intrinsic to social development. On the one hand, it holds human development is at any given moment expressed in a multiplicity of differing societies: considered as a whole, it is inherently uneven. On the other hand, because these same societies co-exist concretely in space and time, they affect each other. Their individual development thus has both reproductive logics arising from their inner form and interactive logics arising from their coexistence with others: it is combined development. Recent examples include Rosenberg’s Anarchy in the Mirror of “uneven and combined development”: An open letter to Kenneth Waltz. (2010).

2 Responses to “An introduction to the “Historical Sociology of International Relations””

  1. […] problem (for Democratist at least) is that while the identification of trends makes for a solid historical-sociological approach to International Relations, the temptation to additional “speculation” […]

  2. […] historical sociological perspective Democratist would suggest that this process of revolution and democratization has […]

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