International Society, Securitization, and an English School Map of the World

Published on Theory Talks, /#35, by Barry Buzan, December 19, 2009.

Few thinkers have shown to be as capable as Barry Buzan of continuously impacting the direction of debates in IR theory (see als IR theory’s Homepage). From regional security complexes to the English School approach to IR as being about international society, and from hegemony to securitization: Buzan’s name will appear on your reading list. It is therefore an honor for Theory Talks to present this comprehensive Talk with professor Buzan. In this Talk, Buzan – amongst others – discusses theory as thinking-tools, describes the contemporary regionalization of international society, and sketches an English School map of the world.

Q.: What is, according to you, the biggest challenge / principal debate in current IR? What is your position or answer to this challenge / in this debate? 

A.: I think the biggest challenge is a dual one, namely, to reconnect international relations with world history and sociology. First, why connect IR to world history? Unless you have some understanding of how thinking about IR sits with world history, you are in a sort of Westphalian box which you can’t get out of. How has this grown? Most IR theory presupposes the particular conditions of Westphalia, that is, the world is divided in its entirety into sovereign and autonomous boxes named ‘states’. How we understand current international relations through that statist lens is simply not supported by much of world history, neither when you go back in European history nor if you look at other places in the world. So by confronting IR with world history, we can re-think many of the limitations of the theoretical underpinnings that now structure our understanding of the world.

One can then ask the second question: why link IR to sociology? The answer to that question is a little more complex, but fundamentally rests on the premise (adopted, for instance, by the English School) of international society. If you adopt the notion that international society is the point of focus rather than international politics as limited to states, then a sociological outlook seems the most apt thinking tool, rather than the statist perspective of IR. If IR is about international society, that is, about social relations at the global level, then what’s the difference between IR and a sort of global sociology? Yet sociologists—with one or two exceptions—have not occupied the territory of international society, nor have IR scholars generally attempted to build upon a sociological outlook to international relations.

Since I see these two challenges (connecting IR to history and to sociology) as central, my work has gravitated increasingly towards the English School (which builds on the work of, for instance, Hedley Bull) over the last fifteen years or so, because that seems to be a good place to construct such a meeting ground.

Q.: How did you arrive at where you currently are in IR? … (full long interview text).

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