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.