IR’s Hidden Worlds

Photo by Doug88888 licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Photo by Doug88888 licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

IR’s Hidden Worlds

The concept of ‘world’  is used almost everywhere in the academic literature on IR, but few of us ask what it means. For instance, what is a world? What does it mean to inhabit a world, to destroy or protect one?  Is there a ‘real’ world that exists independently of humans, or is world a product of human thought and action?  Is there ‘a’ world, or multiple worlds? Whose (or what’s) world(s) are they, and where are their boundaries?  The idea of world is used in discussion of IR in ways that assume very different answers to all of these questions (and many more). It is almost always taken for granted, as a generic term or ‘wallpaper’ concept: something that everyone is expected to understand, but which always seems to evade definition.

Examples of the various understandings of ‘world’ in IR can be found in the introduction to a recent special edition of the European Journal of International Relations  entitled ‘The End of IR Theory?’   As its title suggests, the article, and the special edition it precedes, is about IR theory’s proliferation, pluralisation and its potential demise (at least in its ‘meta-narrative’ forms). But this article is (secretly) also about the concept of ‘world’ – a term that is used 45 times in the 22-page article, and in numerous ways. Since it offers a panoramic view of the discipline, this article provides a useful cross-section of how the concept of ‘world’ is understood in the many theories and ‘schools’ that make up IR. Here are a few of the ways ‘world’ is invoked, either by the authors of the article or within the discourses they analyse:

As a generic (but implicit) object

This is probably the most common use of the term ‘world’: to refer to a generic ‘out there’ that humans must grapple with. For instance, we might talk about the need to ‘make sense of the world’ or to ‘understand the world’ – meaning the general set of circumstances in which we (humans) find ourselves. In this article, the term  ‘world’ is used generically to talk about the things which theories try to explain.

As a categorical reference based on scale/level of analysis

The article also refers to the idea of ‘world politics’ which is, depending on how you look at it, either a sub-discipline or an umbrella discipline for IR. When used in this way, the term ‘world’ refers to an indicator of scale or, in IR terms, a level of analysis. It usually indicates something beyond the international (that is, outside of the relations between sovereign nation states) which crosses traditional boundaries (such as state borders) and involves multiple actors and factors. So, for instance, the issue of pollution or economic globalization might be considered issues in ‘world’ politics because they exceed all other categories (domestic, international, etc). In this case, ‘world’ is used to categories beings and events that don’t seem to meet the criteria of more specific categories or are simply so large that they overspill these categories.

As an objective phenomena against which theory can be tested:

As the article suggests, there are a great number of empiricist theories in IR (and other disciplines) that treat ‘the world’ as an objective realm against which theories can be derived and tested. The article explores different ‘lenses’ that have been used to examine ‘the world’ (as if it were a piece of matter beneath a microscope or perhaps a telescope) and the help “social actors navigate their way through social events and processes” (411). ‘The world’ is also seen as a kind of centrifugal point around which different theoretical perspectives  find common ground. It may even act as a foil against which theories can be judged – that is, in terms of  whether they have high or low “‘relevance’ to the real world”  (414). The authors claim that some IR theorists treat ‘the world’ as a ‘real’ entity that “exists independently of ideas, values, behaviours and experiences” (415) and, as such, can be used to measure the accuracy of different ideas or lenses. In these kinds of theories, ‘world’ is ‘the (real) world’: an ideal, objective piece of equipment in the laboratory of human knowledge production. It can, to some extent, affect the run of things, in that it can be used to judge the worth of theories and perhaps change how they are formulated. But for the most part it remains an inert set of objects, alienated from human thought and action and instrumentalized by them.

As something constructed by theory (and the people who do theory)

Also common in IR are theories that view ‘world’ not as a given, objective phenomenon but rather as something constructed by humans ideas, actions and interactions (‘constructivist’ theories). From this general perspective, there is no one ‘real world’, but rather a range of worlds constructed and accessed differently, depending on one’s perspective, beliefs, cultural context and other factors that shape human subjectivity. The authors of the article in question come down somewhere in the middle on this: they claim that “the best kind of theory both helps us see the world in particular kinds of ways, and hence constructs the world we see (and make)” (408). But they also warn against ‘dogmatism’ that leads people to treat their theories as if they were immune – that is, as if confrontation with ‘the world’ can’t alter it. This approach treats world as a ‘real’ thing, albeit one that is made by humans. Indeed, the authors suggest that “In order for IR to fulfil its promise as a discipline that ‘makes a difference’ to the world we have to bring theory and the world together: to use the world as the raw material of theory” (408). In other words, according to these authors, ‘world’ is something that humans need to work on, using theories as their tools.  Similarly, in Marxian IR (and Marxian theory more generally), the goal of theory is “not to idly interpret the world ‘but to change it’” (410). Once again, ‘world’ is framed as something separate from the scope of human being and action, and as material to be instrumentalized by it.

As something to be mastered in order to make our way through it

A closely related idea is that (the) world is a complex and vaguely threatening phenomena that always evades human understanding and control. The standard assumption is that humans and their theories need to ‘rationalize, explain and master’ it (here, the authors quote Karl Popper). For theorists such as Waltz, the authors claim, IR theory is a “simplifying device that abstracts from the world in order to locate and identify key factors of interest” (410). So, not only ‘world’ and ‘theory’ are treated as separate forces that act on each other – so are ‘world’ and ‘IR’. From this perspective, ‘world’ and the realm of IR are not co-extensive. Instead, IR and its theories are tools used to extract elements of ‘the world’ and bring them under human control. ‘The world’, then, is outside of IR, something that exceeds it but acts as its basis.  From this perspective, the job of IR theory and theorists is to grasp hold of as much of ‘the world’ as possible and open it to human projects.

A world, and many worlds

It’s very common for theorists (in IR and elsewhere) to refer to ‘the’ world in a generic sense(as if there were ‘a’ single, unified, bounded) world,  and to  ‘worlds’ (as if there were multiple worlds) – and often in the course of the same argument!  Indeed, the article discussed here highlights IR theories that refer to ‘the world’ in the ways outlined above, but also ones that point to ‘social’ and ‘natural’ worlds (411). The second approach suggests not only that there are multiple worlds, but also that there are fundamentally different at the ontological level (that is, that they represent different forms of being, and encompass different kinds of beings). It also opens the question of whether these worlds are bounded (and how we might find their boundaries), how whether and when they overlap, and whether they persist through time or transform themselves away (this is a particularly important issue when we’re talking about ‘socially constructed’ worlds)

So, just one article – which wasn’t even intended to be about world(s) – shows us how central this concept is to IR. But it also reflects the range of different ways in which the concept is used, and how firmly it is pressed into the background of these discussions. In all of the instances mentioned above, ‘world’ is simply taken for granted: the focus is on what humans can and should do with ‘it’.

I want to stop treating ‘world’ as part of a detached background and to develop a framework for thinking about it in positive normative and ethical terms. This means thinking about world as something that humans co-constitute with other beings, and as the primary locus of harm in the international sphere.  The authors of the article discussed in this post claim that What is often missing in accounts of constitutive theory that claim ‘we construct the social world’ is any analysis, or specification, of who the ‘we’ is” (411). True, but it’s equally (if not more) important to ask what (the) ‘world’ is.

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