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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History of International Society
  • Anarchy, Order, and Society
  • Order, Justice, and Intervention
  • Beyond International Society

International Relations Theorizing International Society
Tanja Aalberts
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0147


Within International Relations (IR) theory, the notion of international society is most commonly associated with Hedley Bull’s contributions to the discipline. When discussing this notion in the 1970s, Bull was distancing himself from the predominantly American and Realist perspective on international politics as driven by power politics and egoistic materialism alone, with the only laws operating in the international realm being the law of the jungle. To the contrary, he argued, even though the international realm can be typified as anarchical—in the sense of lacking an overarching authority to define and enforce rules, norms, and law—this does not mean international politics amounts to anarchy as understood in common parlance (i.e., chaos). In contrast to the billiard-ball metaphor of international politics, states are not just individual elements in a system. In practice, there is a significant level of institutionalization of shared values, mutual understandings, and common interests within the international realm, which amounts to what Bull famously dubbed an “anarchical society.” Indeed, ethics is an integral part of world politics, and prudence and morality are not mutually exclusive. Bull was one of the founding fathers of the so-called English School, which in IR theory is generally associated with the notion of international society. Indeed, it is sometimes referred to as the international society approach. At the same time, even within the English School there are different theorizations about their flagship idea and what counts as its main institutions. Moreover, it is not only within this tradition that thinking about international society has been developed. It is widely acknowledged that Bull’s intervention to incorporate the role of norms, institutions, and culture in International Relations has been a very important and influential one for the discipline as a whole. However, it was neither the first nor the last that has been said about international society and how it can be theorized. This entry will hence focus on English School thinking, but also refer to some of the other sprouts of thinking in terms of international society in other approaches to IR theory.

General Overviews

Thinking about international society has been part of International Relations (IR) theory since the 1960s, according to some historical narratives running parallel with the establishment of the British Committee on the Theory of International Politics. Dunne 1998 and Vigezzi 2005 (cited under Modern Classics) provide insightful examinations of the British Committee. While the label English School (famously introduced in Jones 1981, cited under IR Cartography) has been criticized—for one thing because most founding fathers actually were not English—as an approach to IR it originally did have most leverage in the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent in Continental Europe. While it has been included in one of the leading textbooks on IR theory since its first edition in 1995 (Linklater 2009 is a more recent edition of this textbook), and there even is a textbook from an explicit English School perspective (Stern 2000), its position within the IR community has only become more prominent with the turn of the millennium, particularly thanks to the reconvention initiated in Buzan 2001 (cited under IR Cartography) and a discussion of its contribution to the discipline in the European Journal of International Relations (Little 2000). Apart from an insightful website on the English School hosted by the University of Leeds (see English School Resources), this has resulted in a number of edited volumes on the legacy of the English School. Buzan 2004 and Linklater and Suganami 2006 aim to formulate its parameters and research agenda. Fawn and Larkins 1996 and Bellamy 2005 reassess the English School in light of empirical developments in international politics. Finally, the contributions in Bellamy 2005 engage with the English School and its critics.

  • Bellamy, Alex J., ed. International Society and Its Critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Collection of essays by leading scholars who critically scrutinize the English School’s contribution to our understanding of international relations from different theoretical perspectives. They formulate challenges for the future research agenda. The final part of the volume reassesses international society in the post-9/11 context.

  • Buzan, Barry. From International to World Society?: English School Theory and the Social Structure of Globalisation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511616617

    Key contribution to the revisiting of the English School by broadening its original agenda to incorporate former blind spots, such as European integration, environmental security, and international political economy. Buzan also pushes more rigorous conceptualizations and a refocus to relate international society to world society. Discussed in a forum in Millennium 34.1 (2005): 156–199.

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

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230376137

    Informative historiography of the English School in relation to the British Committee on the Theory of International Politics and the work of its prominent representatives. Separate chapters are devoted to Wight, Butterfield, Bull, Vincent, and E. H. Carr. The inclusion of the last of these, while excluding the work of Charles Manning, is not uncontroversial. Discussed in a forum in Cooperation and Conflict 35.2 (2000): 193–238.

  • English School Resources. Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds.

    Website launched as part of the reconvention project of the English School. This online resource provides an important bibliography of different generations of English School authors.

  • Fawn, Rick, and Jeremy Larkins, eds. International Society after the Cold War: Anarchy and Order Reconsidered. Houndmills, UK: Macmillan, 1996.

    First published as a special issue in Millennium 21.3 (1992), this expanded volume collects leading scholars of the English School. The chapters scrutinize the theoretical and practical implications of the post–Cold War order for the concept of international society by addressing contemporary issues like European integration, environmental security, humanitarian intervention, and secessionism.

  • Linklater, Andrew. “The English School.” In Theories of International Relations. 4th ed. Edited by Scott Burchill, Andrew Linklater, Richard Devetak, et al., 86–110. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    Fairly short but very insightful introduction into the history and research agenda of the English School for the advanced undergraduate and graduate level.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511491528

    Written by two prominent scholars within the English School, this volume provides one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful overviews of the English School and its specific contributions to International Relations as an academic field. It addresses its history, its research agenda(s), and its scientific foundations.

  • Little, Richard. “The English School’s Contribution to the Study of International Relations.” European Journal of International Relations 6.3 (2000): 395–422.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354066100006003004

    Criticizing the identification of the English School as the international society approach, Little instead presents it as a heterogeneous school, which incorporates all three traditions of thought as identified in Wight 1977 (cited under Modern Classics): realism, rationalism, and revolutionism and thus transcends the divide between realism, liberalism, and constructivism.

  • Stern, Geoffrey. The Structure of International Society: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations. 2d ed. London: Pinter, 2000.

    Textbook written by a student of, inter alia, Manning, Wight, and Bull and clearly written from an English School perspective. At the same time it moves beyond that by including chapters on nonstate actors and international political economy, which were blind spots in the first generation of international society thinking.

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