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The New Structuralism in International Relations and its Discontents: Prefatory Remarks

February 7, 2013

Some years back I participated in a series of workshops that culminated in a book on New Systems Theories of World Politics (value priced at $115). PM and I have been working, somewhat haphazardly, on a review essay dealing with contemporary imperial formations that deals with what I’ve called the “New Hierarchy Studies.” There’s also a draft blog post hiding somewhere or other on that subject. But I think that renewed interest in hierarchy might better be characterized by, for lack of a better term, the “New Structuralism” movement in International Relations.

Thomas Oatley’s recent posts exemplify a major trajectory of the new structuralism. The first revisits his “Reductionist Gamble” article in International Organization. In his account of why he feels compelled to devote blogspace to explaining his argument, he notes:

It has been met with some puzzlement and it has been misunderstood. I can understand both reactions, as the paper asks people to think differently about the world, and yet it does so by using terms and concepts in ways that depart from more typical usage. I say reductionism, and people hear Waltz. I say system, people here system level.

The problem, as I see it, isn’t just a matter of Waltz’s use of terms like “system,” “structure,” and “reductionism” dominating analytical discourse in the field. Waltz’s use of these terms aren’t even very well understood. They’ve been ripped from their historical and intellectual context. They’ve become fetishized, such that Waltz’s interventions in older disputes now enjoy ex ante definitional status. The importation of social-theoretic alternatives during the 1980s and 1990s should have improved matters, but in the end they’ve only muddled the conceptual waters.

Whatever the specific etiology, we’ve reached a point where the disconnect between “international theory” and “empirical work” may be more problematic than the much-discussed theory-practice divide. Middle-range theory, methodology, and so-called “high theory” no longer coexist in the same space — my sense is that we can get two of them together, but not all three. And thus it isn’t any wonder that decontextualized terminology from 1960s and 1970s debates about structural functionalism, cybernetic theory, and other interlocutors continue to underpin how the majority of scholars in the field engage with “international theory.”

The net result is a growing critical mass of work in the “new structuralism” that occupies a strange place in the field. For example, we have a growing number of importations of social-network analysis (SNA) that apply the toolkit without adequate attention to the social ontologies of world politics that might follow from doing so — let alone how those fit within enduring arguments about international theory writ large. Work that is much more self-aware (and here I’m thinking of Oatley’s, among others), on the other hand, operates in a middle-range theoretical ecosystem that tends to mute, or at least muddle, the more radical implications for how we conceptualize international politics. On the other hand, most (but not all of the) theorists of the new structuralism are operating in a “high theory” ecosystem that isn’t terribly friendly to (or able to make sense) of what’s happening just a few conference rooms away. There are very few people who are both able to, and interested in, bridging these kinds of divides.

Well, that didn’t make much sense. Oh, well. Maybe I’ll take another stab at this in the future.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.