Those who approach IR with the belief in an International Society stress the importance of a range of imperatives in the conduct of international politics: independence, security, order and justice.  There are elements of both Realist and Liberal thinking in this approach, but essentially the Rationalism described by Martin Wight, which stresses a Grotian tradition, lies at its core. Hedley Bull’s ‘Anarchical Society’ is a classic work in this mould and a great deal of writing on IR from this approach reflects the subtle mixture of optimism and pessimism that determines the nature of the modern international system.

Social constructivism also takes issue with the rationalist foundations of the realist/ liberal traditions and sees theory as constructing the social world we live in. Alex Wendt’s Social Theory of International Politics maintains some of international relations central assumptions about anarchy – but takes issues with the conclusions that realists draw about what necessarily follows. Rather than a Hobbesian security dilemma, anarchy is “what states make of it”.

Seminar Questions:

  1. What elements of ‘society’ are in evidence within the international system and do they combine to justify reference to something called ‘international society’?
  2. Discuss and evaluate Hedley Bull’s concept of international society.
  3. Outline examples of international society in history. Has international society been the rule or the exception? What other forms of (hierarchical) organization at the international level existed (and continue to exist)?
  4. Why did social constructivism become so compelling in the 1990s? What are its main tenets?
  5. Outline the key differences between normative and positive theory and give examples of each. Which of the main branches is best suited to explain contemporary international relations?
  6. Is anarchy really what states make of it?


*Jackson and Sorensen, Introduction to International Relations, Chapter 5 and 6

*Dunne et al., International Relations Theories, Chapter 7 and 10.

*Burchill et al. Theories of International Relations, Chapter 4 and 8.

*Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics,” International Organization 46 (1992), pp. 391-425.

Martin Wight, “Why is there No International Relations Theory?” in Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in the Theory of International Politics, ed. Herbert Butterfield and Martin Wight, Unwin University Books, 1966

Benedict Kingsbury and Adam Roberts, “Grotian Thought in International Relations” in Hedley Bull, Benedict Kingsbury and Adam Roberts (Eds), Hugo Grotius and International Relations, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Baylis, Smith and Owens, The Globalisation of World Politics, Chapter 2 and 9

Jeffrey T. Checkel, “The Constructivist Turn in International Relations Theory,” World Politics 50:2 (January 1998), pp. 324-348.

Christian Reus-Smit, "The Constitutional Structure of International Society and the Nature of Fundamental Institutions," International Organization 51:4 (Autumn 1997), pp. 555-590.

Suggested movie: I can’t think of one for this week. How about we all just watch Star Wars? (But not the new ones).