International Relations Comparative Regionalism
Fredrik Söderbaum
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0301


Comparative regionalism refers to the study of (“world”) regions and regionalism in comparative perspective. The field emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, and the keyword was “regional integration,” which reflected the dominance of European integration theory and practice. Although the early debate—later referred to as “old regionalism”—took comparison seriously, a general belief emerged that regionalism in the rest of the world deviated from the European integration experience. After a general decline of regionalism in the 1970s and 1980s, the phenomenon reemerged after the end of the Cold War. The explosion of literature on regionalism in the 1990s and early 2000s—often referred to as “new regionalism”—emphasized that regionalism was a global and multidimensional phenomenon, involving both state and nonstate actors across a growing number of policy fields and in a variety of forms and institutional designs. The research field remained fragmented in the 1990s and early 2000s, characterized by rivalries and a lack of dialogue between theoretical and methodological standpoints as well as regional and thematic specializations. Since the latter half of the 2000s, the intellectual landscape changed again and comparative regionalism has consolidated as a research field, with greater acceptance of contrasting theoretical and methodological perspectives and with more advanced comparisons across both regions and policy fields. The result has been that the research field is no longer structured in a hub-and-spoke fashion around Europe versus the rest. By implication, the concept of regional integration has been subsumed under a broader and more general conceptual umbrella, and it has become established to refer to the research field as comparative regionalism.

General Overviews

The return of regionalism in the 1990s triggered an intense debate about “old” and “new” regionalism (see Väyrynen 2003 for an overview). During this period, many scholars concentrated on regional organizations in comparative perspective and frequently considered Europe to be the most advanced case, which reflected the continuities from old regionalism and a general preference for “regional integration” (for an example, see Laursen 2010). In contrast, many proponents of “new regionalism” challenged Euro-dominance, advocating more pluralistic theoretical approaches and a simultaneous focus on both state and nonstate actors within both formal and informal institutions. See Shaw, et al. 2012 for a wide-ranging contribution to the new regionalism. An authoritative piece, Hettne 2005, written by one of the founders of the new regionalism, claims that the distinction between old and new regionalism often has been exaggerated or even misused. Hettne argues that after more than two decades of new regionalism it is time to think in more general terms—in terms of comparative regionalism. A further strengthening of the research field would not be possible without greater interaction and cross-fertilization between specialists in European integration and specialists in non-Western regionalism. Telò 2009 and Warleigh-Lack, et al. 2011 are two interesting edited contributions written by leading authors from both camps. Since the mid-2010s, comparative regionalism has consolidated as a field of study, evidenced by a series of publications by leading authors, such as Acharya 2012; Börzel and Risse 2016; Engel, et al. 2017; and Söderbaum 2016.

  • Acharya, Amitav. “Comparative Regionalism: A Field Whose Time Has Come?” In Special Issue: Regionalism in a Changing World: Perspectives from Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. Edited by Lorenzo Fioramonti. The International Spectator 47.1 (2012): 3–15.

    DOI: 10.1080/03932729.2012.655004

    Agenda-setting contribution by one of the most influential authors in the field that explains what distinguishes the current interest in regions and regionalism from earlier approaches and waves.

  • Börzel, Tanja, and Thomas Risse, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Regionalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    One of the most impressive and comprehensive books in the field of comparative regionalism. The twenty-seven chapters by authoritative authors are structured in four parts: approaches, regional orders, policy fields, and regional institutions. The volume will serve as a reference source for both scholars and students for many years. A limitation is that the book does not yet exist in paperback. However, the book and individual chapters are available online in libraries subscribing to Oxford Handbooks.

  • Engel, Ulf, Heidrun Zinecker, Frank Mattheis, Antje Dietze, and Thomas Plötze, eds. The New Politics of Regionalism: Perspectives from Africa, Latin America and Asia Pacific. London: Routledge, 2017.

    Contributors analyze how regional configurations around the world unfold as political responses to a changing global order. The book explicitly challenges conceptual Eurocentrism and approaches regionalism beyond declared objectives. A key objective is to examine how regionalism reterritorializes spaces and asserts sovereignties in response to globalization, with an empirical focus on Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific.

  • Hettne, Björn. “Beyond the ‘New Regionalism.’” New Political Economy 10.4 (2005): 543–571.

    DOI: 10.1080/13563460500344484

    One of the most influential scholars in the field in the 1990s and 2000s provides a wide-ranging overview of the field, looking beyond the new regionalism toward comparative regionalism. This piece provides an accessible overview of Hettne’s thinking and the new regionalism approach.

  • Laursen, Finn, ed. Comparative Regional Integration: Europe and Beyond. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010.

    Comprehensive edited book covering all regional integration efforts in all major parts of the world. The key objectives are to explain variation and to compare the European Union (EU) with other regions around the world.

  • Shaw, Timothy, Andrew Grant, and Scarlett Cornelissen, eds. The Ashgate Research Companion to Regionalisms. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012.

    Comprehensive volume of twenty-one chapters coverring a range of approaches and types of formal and informal regionalisms across a range of cases and policy fields. Aimed at both scholars and students and published within the International Political Economy of New Regionalisms series (originally launched by Ashgate Publishing).

  • Söderbaum, Fredrik. Rethinking Regionalism. London: Macmillan Education, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-57303-2

    Wide-ranging book tackling the intellectual, theoretical, and methodological rivalries in the field and providing new answers to why and how regionalism evolves and consolidates, how it can be compared, and its significance to various policy fields in a changing world. Aimed at both scholars and students and suited for teaching purposes.

  • Telò, Mario, ed. European Union and New Regionalism: Competing Regionalism and Global Governance in a Post-hegemonic Era. 2d ed. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009.

    Popular and well-known volume that focuses on competing models of regionalism around the world and the role of the European Union. Includes contributions from many leading authors from both European studies and specialists from the rest of the world. Updated and improved in several editions and useful for teaching purposes.

  • Väyrynen, Raimo. “Regionalism: Old and New.” International Studies Review 5.1 (2003): 25–51.

    DOI: 10.1111/1521-9488.501002

    A thorough and much cited review of the debates in old and new regionalism, focusing, in particular, on regional economic integration and security regionalism.

  • Warleigh-Lack, Alex, Nick Robinson, and Ben Rosamond, eds. New Regionalism and the European Union: Dialogues, Comparisons and New Research Directions. London: Routledge, 2011.

    This book challenges the polarization between EU and non-EU specialists. In addition to a useful introduction and framework by the editors, leading experts from both camps offer a series of case studies on regionalism within Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America.

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