The English School of international relations theory (sometimes also referred to as liberal realism, the International Society school or the British institutionalists) maintains that there is a 'society of states' at the international level, despite the condition of anarchy (that is, the lack of a global ruler or world state). The English school stands for the conviction that ideas, rather than simply material capabilities, shape the conduct of international politics, and therefore deserve analysis and critique. In this sense it is similar to constructivism, though the English School has its roots more in world history, international law and political theory, and is more open to normative approaches than is generally the case with constructivism.


International system, international society, world society

English School scholars distinguish between international system and international society. The former is a quasi-physical realm, as proximate actors interact with one another.[1] The latter is an intersubjective realm where actors are bound together through rules, norms and institutions.[1]

International system

The classical English school starts with the realist assumption of an international system that forms as soon as two or more states have a sufficient amount of interaction. It underlines the English school tradition of realism and Machtpolitik (power politics) and puts international anarchy at the center of international relations theory.[2] Hedley Bull defined the international system as being formed "when two or more have sufficient contact between them, and has sufficient impact on one another's decisions to cause them to behave as part of a whole."

International society

Hedley Bull, however, argued that states share a certain common interest (usually the "fear of unrestricted violence")[3] that lead to the development of a certain set of "rules". He thus defined an international society as existent when:

…a group of states (or, more generally, a group of independent political communities) which not merely form a system, in the sense that the behaviour of each is a necessary factor in the calculations of the others, but also have established by dialogue and consent common rules and institutions for the conduct of their relations, and recognise their common interest in maintaining these arrangements.[4]

In Bull's view, any type of society needed to have rules about restraints on the use of force, about the sanctity of agreements, and about property rights.[5] Without elements of these three there would be no society.

These rules are expressed in a set of institutions that capture the normative structure of any international society. In the classical English School these were: war, the great powers, diplomacy, the balance of power, and international law, especially in the mutual recognition of sovereignty by states. To these could be added: territoriality, nationalism, the market, and human equality. Since these rules are not legally binding and there is no ordering institutions, speaking of norms would probably be more appropriate. States that respect these basic rules form an international society. Brown and Ainley therefore define the international society as a "norm-governed relationship whose members accept that they have at least limited responsibilities towards one another and the society as a whole".[6] States thus follow their interests, but not at all costs.[7] Another way of looking at this would be through Adam Watson's term 'raison de système', a counterpoint to 'raison d'état', and defined as 'the idea that it pays to make the system work'.[8]

There are differing accounts, within the school, concerning the evolution of those ideas, some (like Martin Wight) arguing their origins can be found in the remnants of medieval conceptions of societas Christiana, and others such as Hedley Bull, in the concerns of sovereign states to safeguard and promote basic goals, especially their survival. Most English School understandings of international society blend these two together, maintaining that the contemporary society of states is partly the product of a common civilization - the Christian world of medieval Europe, and before that, the Roman Empire - and partly that of a kind of Lockean contract.

English School scholars vary in terms of the claims they make about the "thickness" of the culture of the international society is, as well as the content of international society.[5]

World society

Based on a Kantian understanding of the world, the concept of world society takes the global population as a whole as basis for a global identity. However, Buzan also argued that the concept of World Society was the "Cinderella concept of English school theory", as it received almost no conceptual development.[2]

Reexamination of traditional approaches

A great deal of the English School of thought concerns itself with the examination of traditional international theory, casting it — as Martin Wight did in his 1950s-era lectures at the London School of Economics — into three divisions (called by Barry Buzan as the English School's triad, based on Wight's three traditions):

  1. Realist (or Hobbesian, after Thomas Hobbes) and thus the concept of international system
  2. Rationalist (or Grotian, after Hugo Grotius), representing the international society
  3. Revolutionist (or Kantian, after Immanuel Kant) representing world society.

In broad terms, the English School itself has supported the rationalist or Grotian tradition, seeking a middle way (or via media) between the 'power politics' of realism and the 'utopianism' of revolutionism.

Later Wight changed his triad into a four-part division by adding Mazzini.[9]

The English School is largely a constructivist theory, emphasizing the non-deterministic nature of anarchy in international affairs that also draws on functionalism and realism. It has been argued that, "the English School embodies the notion of a middle course between practical demands and moral claims. In contrast to the realist approach, the English School maintains that states are not entangled in a permanent struggle for power and that they limit their conflicts through common rules, institutions and moral imperatives. Unlike the revolutionist tradition, the English School accepts the realist premise that the state is the primary reality of the international political system and maintains that these imperatives foreswear the replacement of the society of states by a universal community of mankind." In this manner, the English School succeeds in incorporating the salient elements of the main traditions of International Relations theory.[10]

Internal divisions

The English School is often understood to be split into two main wings, named after two categories described by Hedley Bull:

There are, however, further divisions within the school. The most obvious is that between those scholars who argue the school's approach should be historical and normative (such as Robert Jackson or Tim Dunne) and those who think it can be methodologically 'pluralist', making use of 'positivist' approaches to the field (like Barry Buzan and Richard Little).[11]

Affinities to others

The English School does have affinities:

Contemporary English School writers draw from a variety of sources:


The 'English-ness' of the school is questionable - many of its most prominent members are not English - and its intellectual origins are disputed. One view (that of Hidemi Suganami) is that its roots lie in the work of pioneering inter-war scholars like the South African Charles Manning, the founding professor of the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics. Others (especially Tim Dunne and Brunello Vigezzi) have located them in the work of the British committee on the theory of international politics, a group created in 1959 under the chairmanship of the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield, with financial aid from the Rockefeller Foundation. Both positions acknowledge the central role played by the theorists Martin Wight, Hedley Bull (an Australian teaching at the London School of Economics) and R J Vincent.

The name 'English School' was first coined by Roy Jones in an article published in the Review of International Studies in 1981, entitled "The English school - a case for closure". Some other descriptions - notably that of 'British institutionalists' (Hidemi Suganami) - have been suggested, but are not generally used. Throughout the development of the theory, the name became widely accepted, not least because it was developed almost exclusively at the London School of Economics, Cambridge and Oxford University.


According to George Washington University political scientist Martha Finnemore, who notes that she is an admirer of the English School, the English School has not been received positively in American IR scholarship because there is a lack of clarity in the methods used in English School scholarship (for example, a lack of discussion about research design), as well as a lack of clarity in the theoretical claims made by the English School. She notes that the English School is reluctant to clarify its causal claims, which she contrasts with Constructivist research in the American IR tradition where there is an emphasis on constitutive causality – "how things are constituted makes possible other things (and in that sense causes them)".[12] She also notes that the English School does not engage in hypothesis testing, and that their works mirror the detailed narratives of historians rather than typical works in the social sciences.[13]

In a 1992 review of Martin Wight's work, Keohane criticized it, saying "Wight's greatest oversight... is his neglect of the scientific or behavioral search for laws of action (or contingent generalizations) about world politics."[14]

Key works

See also


  1. ^ a b Reus-Smit, Christian (2011). "Struggles for Individual Rights and the Expansion of the International System". International Organization. 65 (2): 207–242. doi:10.1017/S0020818311000038. ISSN 1531-5088. S2CID 145668420.
  2. ^ a b Buzan, Barry (2004). From international to world society? English school theory and the social structure of globalisation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-511-18590-8.
  3. ^ Bull, Hedley (1977). The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. London: Macmillan.
  4. ^ Bull & Watson 1984, p. 1
  5. ^ a b Finnemore, Martha (1996). National Interests in International Society. Cornell University Press. p. 18. JSTOR 10.7591/j.ctt1rv61rh.
  6. ^ Brown, Chris (2009). Understanding International Relations. Basingstoke: Palgrave. pp. 48–52. ISBN 978-0-230-21311-1.
  7. ^ Dunne, Tim (1995). "The Social Construction of International Society". European Journal of International Relations. 1 (3): 367–389. doi:10.1177/1354066195001003003. S2CID 143439963.
  8. ^ Adam Watson, The Evolution of International Society, 1992, p. 14.
  9. ^ Wight, Martin (2004). Wight, Gabriele; Porter, Brian (eds.). Four Seminal Thinkers in International Theory: Machiavelli, Grotius, Kant, and Mazzini. Oxford University Press.
  10. ^ Lewkowicz, Nicolas (2010). The German Question and the International Order, 1943–48. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 9. ISBN 978-1-349-32035-6.
  11. ^ Pruszynski, S. (2013) What are the core elements of the international society approach to international relations? University of Southampton.
  12. ^ Finnemore, Martha (2001). "Exporting the English School?". Review of International Studies. 27 (3): 509–513. doi:10.1017/S0260210501005095. ISSN 1469-9044. S2CID 145103099.
  13. ^ Finnemore, Martha (1996). "Norms, Culture, and World Politics: Insights from Sociology's Institutionalism". International Organization. 50 (2): 325–347. doi:10.1017/S0020818300028587. ISSN 0020-8183. JSTOR 2704081. S2CID 3645172.
  14. ^ Keohane, Robert O. (1992). "International Theory: The Three Traditions. By Martin Wight. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1992". American Political Science Review. 86 (4): 1112–1113. doi:10.2307/1964428. ISSN 1537-5943. JSTOR 1964428. S2CID 147736666.
  15. ^ Mayall, J. (1990). Nationalism and international society. Cambridge University Press. Chicago
  16. ^ Mayall, J. (2013). World politics: Progress and its limits. John Wiley & Sons. Chicago