In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Society

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Historical Roots of the English School
  • The Developing Agenda
  • Contemporary Debates
  • Historical Studies of the English School

International Relations International Society
Nick Rengger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0063


“International society” is a term of art introduced into the study of international relations largely by a group of scholars working in the United Kingdom in the 1950s and 1960s, often referred to as the “English School” of international relations—and was in part clearly an attempt to distinguish their emphasis from the emphasis on the international system very prevalent in international-relations scholarship in the United States at that time. It was derived from the historical and legal study of human interactions that had its origins in the growth of the diplomatic system in Europe (and later elsewhere) after the 15th century; works of 17th- and 18th-century thinkers such as Hugo Grotius (b. 1583–d. 1645), Samuel Pufendorf (b. 1632–d. 1694), and Emmerich de Vattel (b. 1714–d. 1767); and the growth and codification of international law during the 19th century. Other thinkers who influenced the school would include the international lawyers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, nationalist writers such as Mazzini and, of course—though largely negatively—Niccolo Machiavelli and Karl Marx. While the English School has perhaps been the most influential group of theorists to have developed the notion of international society, it has not been the only one. Some constructivist writers, such as Alexander Wendt; some communitarian writers, such as Amitai Etzioni; and some radical scholars of world politics, such as Richard Falk, have also used the notion of international society in more or less different ways. And the English school has also influenced writers whose broad philosophical approach is very different, such as James Der Derian whose thesis, later published as On Diplomacy, was supervised by Hedley Bull. This bibliography will focus principally on the English School approach to international society but will also draw attention to other accounts where they vary with, challenge, or enrich, in important ways, the English School approach.

General Overviews

The idea of international society—as an essential part of the idea of a European states system and different from the notion of system that gained currency in US scholarship during the 1940s and 1950s—developed largely in the United Kingdom during the 1950s and 1960s. In particular it is central to the work of Martin Wight (Butterfield and Wight 1966, Wight 1977). It emphasizes the centrality of historical, legal, and philosophical (and, in Wight’s case, theological) frames of reference for the study of international relations. Wight developed it in conjunction with a group of scholars at the London School of Economics, where he taught in the 1950s, and a more dispersed group that he was in regular contact with, the British Committee on the Theory of International Politics, convened initially by Herbert Butterfield and chaired in turn by Butterfield, Wight, Hedley Bull, and Adam Watson between 1954 and 1984. There is considerable controversy as to which of the two groups was more influential in shaping the idea of international society (Linklater and Suganami 2006, Vigezzi 2005, Dunne 1998). Often during the 1970s and 1980s it was termed the “classical” theory of international relations to distinguish it from the methodological—largely positivistic—style favored by many in the United States (see Forsyth 1978). The term “English School,” as a collective term for the idea of international society and those who propagated it, first appeared much later in an article by Roy Jones (Jones 1981) that was in fact strongly critical of these ideas. Perhaps the central idea of tying the idea of international society to the notion of a Grotian tradition is also present in Wight and the early work of Bull (See Bull’s essay in Butterfield and Wight 1966), but the central text that, perhaps more than any other, crystallized the idea of international society as the central organizing idea of the English school was Bull’s The Anarchical Society (Bull 1977). Bull also developed the notion that international society was susceptible to both “pluralist” and “solidarist” interpretations, where “pluralism” is taken to represent the idea of a society of equal states with little or no common purposes, saving only the maintenance of the society itself, and “solidarism” assumes a much more integrationist pathway of notions of international society.

  • Bull, Hedley. The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. London: Macmillan, 1977.

    The locus classicus of English School accounts of international society and probably the single most influential book of the entire English School. Bull takes Wight’s notion of international society and develops it both historically and in terms of contemporary international relations. Also examines the principal “institutions” of international society—according to Bull, the balance of power, diplomacy, international law, war, and the great powers. Considers alternative models of world order, principally a disarmed world, a world government (a topic in which he criticizes his friend Richard Falk), and “a new medievalism.”

  • Butterfield, Herbert, and Martin Wight, eds. Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in the Theory of International Politics. London: Allen & Unwin, 1966.

    Especially significant here are Wight’s two essays, “Why Is There No International Theory?” and “Western Values in International relations,” and Hedley Bull’s essay “Society and Anarchy in International Relations,” all of which lay out the essential elements of the English School approach to international society that was to be refined and developed in subsequent years.

  • Dunne, Tim. Inventing International Society: A History of the English School. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1998.

    The first attempt to tell the story of the English School as essentially the construction of the British Committee on the Theory of International Politics. Much criticized by some, including Hidemi Suganami, who thinks that Dunne does not give enough attention to other figures at the London School of Economics and includes a number of figures (such as E. H. Carr) who had little real influence on the committee.

  • Forsyth, Murray. “The Classical Theory of International Relations.” Political Studies 26 (1978): 411–416.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.1978.tb01306.x

    A superb overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the school, by a sympathetic observer, cast as a review of Bull 1977. Forsyth is very much in agreement with Bull about the character of international society but thinks that Bull pays less attention than he might to the moral and conceptual foundations of this society.

  • Jones, Roy E. “The English School of International Relations: A Case for Closure.” Review of International Studies 7.1 (1981): 1–13.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0260210500115086

    Jones’s article attacking the “school” he effectively named, principally for not having a coherent conception of method and for ignoring, rather than engaging with, the newer more “scientific” methods that were increasingly being used in the study of international relations.

  • Linklater, Andrew, and Hidemi Suganami. The English School of International Relations: A Contemporary Reassessment. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511491528

    The most detailed and thoughtful general overview of the origins, history, and trajectory of the English school by two eminent and well-disposed scholars.

  • Vigezzi, Brunello. The British Committee on the Theory of International Politics (1954–1984): The Rediscovery of History. Milan: Edizioni Unicopli, 2005.

    A superbly detailed account of the origins, history, and trajectory of the British Committee, with an almost complete history of the meetings of the school and the interrelations of the members of the committee. Argues that the fundamental point of the school was the centrality of history as a mode of knowledge for international relations.

  • Wight, Martin. Systems of States. Edited by Hedley Bull. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1977.

    A collection of Wight’s previously unpublished papers, all originally given to meetings of the British Committee, and edited and introduced by Bull in 1977. Especially important for Wight’s notion of international society are chapters 1, 4, and 5. In chapter 1, De Systamatibus Civitatum (a phrase he traces to Pufendorf), he traces the basic understanding of a “system of states” as a society, and in chapters 4 and 5 he traces the idea’s cultural, temporal, and geographic limits.

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