In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section State Theory in International Relations

  • Introduction
  • History of Ideas
  • Origin of State-Systems Thinking

International Relations State Theory in International Relations
Lucas G. Freire, Marjo Koivisto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0128


The state is one of the most used terms in international relations (IR) theory, and yet IR scholars influenced by both sociology and political philosophy have complained that the state and the states-system have been inadequately theorized in the field. What does the discipline mean when referring to the state? Why should state theorizing be part of IR at all? Need all state theorizing in IR be “state-centric”? There are two kinds of thinking about the state and the states-system in IR. One strand examines the history of thought about the purpose of the state and the states-system as political communities. Another explains the causes of events and transformations in the state and the states-system. These two approaches to studying the state largely translate to (1) political theory about the state and the states-system, and (2) social scientific theories of the state and the states-system in IR. Recently, both traditions have been significantly revisited in IR, and new productive synergies are emerging.

History of Ideas

Political thought has witnessed a renewed interest in the history and analysis of the idea of states-system. In the discipline of IR several explanations have emerged, especially after the so-called post-positivist debate, that try to account for the conceptual origins of states-system theory (see Origin of State Systems Thinking). However, more recently, IR scholars have been in closer dialogue with political theorists in trying to provide a more historically contextualized and less stylized interpretation of early theories of the states-system (e.g., Bazzoli 1990 and Boucher 1998). This material on the diversity of states is also understood in light of studies on the theme of coherence of political communities in political thought with special reference to theories of perpetual peace (Aksu 2008). Collections introducing this material can be found in Brown, et al. 2002 and Luard 1992. Discussions on methods and theories of interpretation in IR often make reference to B. F. Skinner and Michel Foucault. Keene 2005, Jahn 2006, and Inayatullah and Blaney 2004 are excellent introductions to the topic.

  • Aksu, Esref, ed. Early Notions of Global Governance: Selected Eighteenth-Century Proposals for “Perpetual Peace.” Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 2008.

    This recent collection contains unabridged texts by Penn, Saint-Pierre, Rousseau, Bentham, Kant, and others, with a general discussion in the introduction. For research purposes, the respective main critical editions of the key works are obviously the most recommended.

  • Bazzoli, Maurizio. Il piccolo stato nell’età moderna: Studi su un concetto della politica internazionale tra XVI e XVIII secolo. Milan: Jaca, 1990.

    Narrates the historical formation of the notion of “small” and “middle” powers in early modern Europe with reference to international aspects. Looks not only at the context of the Italian Peninsula, but also at German sources and the French and American Revolutions.

  • Boucher, David. Political Theories of International Relations: From Thucydides to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Covers a wide range of writers on positive and normative issues. Develops specific and contextualized commentary on historical writing on the state and how it operates and should operate. Recommended as a textbook in conjunction with primary texts.

  • Brown, Chris, Terry Nardin, and Nicholas Rengger, eds. International Relations in Political Thought: Texts from the Ancient Greeks to the First World War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511808784

    A collection of selected texts on several aspects of political theory dealing with the “international.” Contains comments of a synthetic character and each text is introduced with short remarks. Also contains an introduction on the use of political theory in IR.

  • Inayatullah, Naeem, and David Blaney. International Relations and the Problem of Difference. London: Routledge, 2004.

    Traces the origins of early modern states-system theories to the constitution of difference based on the “colonial encounter.” Provides a critical reading of subsequent theoretical IR and political theory and practice.

  • Jahn, Beate, ed. Classical Theory in International Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511491429

    Discusses “classical theory” in light of current pertinent philosophical and normative debates in IR. Includes a study on the influence of Kant’s political philosophy in the field.

  • Keene, Edward. International Political Thought: A Historical Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005.

    Provides a narrative of the historical formation of international political thought in the West in an account that is also sensitive to alternative traditions. Much of the argument traces the definition of “borders” in international political thought back to its philosophical and cultural roots.

  • Luard, Evan, ed. Basic Texts in International Relations: The Evolution of Ideas about International Society. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992.

    An eclectic collection of texts selected and introduced by a former diplomat. The materials are sourced from several traditions, and organized in terms of the topics they address.

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