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date: 22 February 2018

Transformations of War: Perspectives from International Political Sociology

Summary and Keywords

The reality of war has always been connected with political, economic, and social dynamics, as opposed to the notion that it is held within the confines of the battlefield. International political sociologists argue that practices of war and peace are positioned at the crux of institutional continuities and societal change, and that it is wrong to presuppose a dichotomy between the domestic and the international. As a result, scholars have become interested in the study of warfare, which, apart from military history, encompasses various themes such as the nature of human conflict and issues of defense policy, logistics, operations, and strategic planning. One particular study is International Political Sociology (IPS), a field of research that is concerned with how wars draw boundaries, how they influence political authority and trajectories of power, and how these are integrated in the global sphere. Meanwhile, International Relations (IR) is a formal subject that addresses the origin of war, how it impacts the dealings of the international system, and the institutional arrangements that might restrict or enhance war as a determinant of state relations. The study of International Relations is rife with various analytical perspectives, from realism to neo-realism and liberal internationalism, all of which exhibit how war continues to have a central place in scholarly disciplines.

Keywords: war, International Political Sociology, International Relations, political authority, international system, realism, neo-realism, liberal internationalism


Wars are no longer confined to the battlefield context, with well-defined military forces facing similarly organized opponents engaged in mutual destruction within a confined space and limited duration. Any sociologically informed understanding recognizes that war was never thus, but rather always situated in social, economic, and political dynamics that went far beyond the battlefield, being influenced by and having implications for social transformation. The international political sociologist would start with the premise that practices of war and peace are situated in wider discursive and institutional continuities and are implicated in societal change. Equally significant from the outset is a rejection of perspectives that assume a clear-cut dividing line between the domestic and the international. The practice of war might be used to draw and redraw boundaries: how these are drawn, where and whence they are manifest, how they impact on trajectories of power and political authority, and how these in turn are, in late modernity, articulated in global terms, are all examples of the substantial questions that form the research remit of the International Political Sociology (IPS) specialist. We might therefore appreciate sociological writings that focus on war and the state; however, as International Relations (IR) scholars, we are equally interested in how war is articulated in discursive and institutional practices, how it is implicated in transformations of the “international,” and how these in turn are implicated in the emergence of complex and fragmented terrains of violence that are increasingly transnational and manifest variously in what might be referred to as global space.

International Relations, from its very outset as a formal discipline, has been engaged with the question of war, its origins, how it relates to the distribution of power in the international system, and the institutional arrangements that might ameliorate or limit war as a determinant of relations between states. The history of thought in International Relations is replete with engagements with war, so that from realism to neo-realism, liberal internationalism to more recent critical perspectives, war continues to have a central place in our discipline. However, apart from neo-realist perspectives that might be interested in the relationship between war and changes in the structure of the international system (from bipolarity to multipolarity, for example), many of these other perspectives tend to focus on the place of war, for example, in the constitution of identity, in relation to gender differences, ethics, and historically in liberal internationalism, how war might be regulated through international institutions, and the properties of domestic regimes of governance. The IPS specialist might engage with these perspectives, but approaches the subject in a number of distinct ways that have to be defined in order to appreciate the specificity of inquiry and research program that IPS brings to the discipline.

The specificities of the international political sociologist are substantive and methodological. The substantive difference is that IPS is interested in how war, understood as political violence, relates to social change and vice versa. More specifically, the issues that concern the IPS specialist focus on discursive and institutional dynamics that enable or feed into war, and on how war, in turn, comes to constitute the sociopolitical space, its discourses and institutions. While the military apparatus of the state and the various transformations, specifically the technological, matter to IPS, it is important to recognize from the outset that states are not the only social formations of interest in IPS. At the core is the use of violent force as a form of practice, the mechanisms that enable it and its various forms of articulation, and how such forms are in turn implicated in the constitution and reconstitution of the discourses and institutions that define society. Again, substantially, while the history of IPS might turn to the historical sociologists whose focus is on the Western European state, the contemporary IPS specialist would not seek to limit their investigations to the state, but would locate the lens specifically on the international, and the various ways in which the international comes to be a far more complex arena of interactions than that assumed by the realists of conventional approaches. Violence as a form of political practice is hence of interest in this context precisely because it is seen to be implicated in and influenced by the social, economic, juridical, and political dynamics of the international as a distinct location of politics.

Methodologically, international political sociology focuses on practices, both discursive and non-discursive, of situated agents. The question centers on how violence as a form of political practice is implicated in the constitution and transformation of subjectivity and institutional formations, including the state and state systems, but also beyond in relation to the wider matrices of social and political life. The method therefore is always based on the historical and the empirical, where the latter is focused on practices understood to be situated in, and constitutive of, institutional continuities. The international political sociologist hence possesses a historical sensibility, one that understands practices not in the formulaic representations of the rational actor model, but rather as being shaped in the discourses and institutions of social and political formations and in turn transformed through practices. The historical is therefore always present in the event, though how the historical is treated ranges from authors who place emphasis on the empirical to those engaged with social and political theory where a historical sensibility is situated within a theoretical and philosophical trajectory in what is generally referred to as “Continental philosophy.” What is important to highlight is that, for the international political sociologist, the historical/empirical and the philosophical/theoretical are not conceived as a dualism, but are rather treated as being mutually reinforcing as tools for critical engagement. The issue is not about adding one discipline to another, but rather asking questions relating to what a political sociology does to our conceptions of the international and how the latter in turn impacts on discourses around the social and the political (Bigo and Walker 2007).

There is, then, a substantive and a methodological specificity to the international political sociologist and her or his research program on war and the condition of peace. However, there is a third specificity, which, while being related to the substantive and the methodological, is nevertheless so formative and influential in relation to the intellectual project that is international political sociology, that it has to be considered at the outset of this specifically IPS set of reflections on questions of war and peace. This third element is temporal in definition and yet has had monumental geopolitical ramifications. Just as sociology developed as a discipline focused on modern society, so too the legacies of modernity in International Relations inform the interests of the IPS specialist. Modernity as such, and its late modern articulations, become – indeed are – of paramount interest. As Zygmunt Bauman (1992:54–5) highlights, while “from its birth, sociology was an adjunct of modernity,” so too it has had to subject its formative discourses to close scrutiny as its assumptions of uniformity, whether of structure or subjectivity, have come to be challenged by recognitions of a more “fluid, changeable social setting.” To ask the question “How is war implicated in the transformation of the institutions of modernity, namely the state and the international?” is, or indeed should be, the substantial occupation for IPS and its advocates. To understand war, peace, and transformations thereof is to appreciate, firstly, the historical trajectory that implicates war in the formation of modernity, its location in the West, and the projection of its power globally through colonialism and imperialism; and secondly, to unravel the place of war in relation to late modern manifestations of modern institutions, modern subjectivity, and modern discourses, and their implications in different sociopolitical and cultural locations.

The title of this essay suggests a historical trajectory that leads, in linear fashion, from a distant past wherein wars took place that were somehow different from those of the present. However, such a linear representation is clearly rejected in a discourse that seeks to problematize the present; that exactly sees the historical variously articulated in the present. Temporal distinctions are assumed to possess their own characteristics, distinguished in terms of knowledge systems, modes of organization and institutions, political authority, discursive practices, and forms of communication (Bartelsen 1995). Such temporal distinctions might be suggestive of discontinuity, of clear-cut limits and boundaries; there is, at the same time, an emphasis on continuity, so that the discourses and practices of the past are acknowledged in all their deeply rooted effects. There is, then, a historical sensibility that informs the international political sociologist even as the primary interest is in modernity and its legacies in late modernity.

The starting point of this contribution is to locate war and peace in the trajectories of the modern period and to ask questions that primarily relate political violence and the discourses of peace to the modern period and its contemporary legacies and transformations. As will become evident, IPS draws its resources from sociology and political theory as well as international theory. Given this wide remit, it would be impossible for a piece such as this to provide a comprehensive account of how each of these has contributed to our understanding. Some judgment must therefore be made as to how this particular perspective approaches the subject matter at hand and what limits it places upon itself, while at the same time highlighting the foremost issues of concern in our reflections on war and peace. Given the substantial and methodological distinctions discussed above, the aim here will be to limit this exposition to particular discourses surrounding the practice of war, its location in relation to the discourses and institutions of modernity, and its late modern manifestations. The point is to enable reflection on how war has played a major role in the formation of the discourses and institutions of modernity, just as the practice of war has itself been subject to the various manifestations – not least technological, but also involving transformed power relations – associated with this period. Clearly, late modernity (what some refer to as postmodernity) presents challenges to any uniform conception of how war relates to change in conceptions of political authority and its locations, power and its trajectories, and the different sociopolitical, economic, and cultural spaces associated with globalized relations.

The question of “peace” is often approached from a normative perspective. However, the international political sociologist understands that just as “war” is a discursive formation that is subject to contestation, so too “peace” and any distinction between the two is also a form of boundary drawing that has manifest implications for explorations of the politics of peace and war and who it is that is conferred primacy in practices that seek to “legislate for peace.” As will be highlighted in the last section of this essay, debates centered on “peace” are framed around the so-called liberal peace project and its critics (Richmond 2005).

The Meaning of War in International Political Sociology

One of the main reference points for the international political sociologist is the historical sociology of the modern state and the relationship between what Charles Tilly (1985) famously refers to as “war-making and state-making.” The history of the European state and hence European conceptions of sovereignty, political authority, the state’s relations with society and social change and how these might relate to war tend to form the substantial focus for authors of interest to the international political sociologist, from Charles Tilly to Michel Foucault. What is significant in these writings and others, irrespective of their differences, is the starting assumption that war is a distinctly societal phenomenon, emergent from conditions and practices in distinct social formations, while being at the same time constitutive of their sedimentation and transformation. Just as society is implicated in the form that war takes – its conduct and narratives – so too is war implicated in the social, political, and economic matrixes of life. Clearly, the history of the modern European state is also implicated in the colonial legacy, and this is in turn present in the Eurocentric biases of the disciplines, namely sociology and International Relations. The remit of any “critical” discourse is clearly to move toward understanding the place of war, not just in the trajectories of European and North American power, but also in the constitution of political community in the formerly colonized and postcolonial world. No critical account of contemporary interventionism and so-called state building can be complete without exploring the impact of the colonial legacy and its postcolonial manifestations.

How any particular war is represented in discourse is always replete with potential contestation. As many critical, post-structural, and feminist theorists have argued, language is implicated in the construction of the world and representational practices in turn relate to power. In so acknowledging the nexus of power/knowledge, we might start by highlighting an understanding of war as a political form of violence related variously to the sociopolitical, the economic, and the juridical. However, others in the sociological tradition might prefer a reference to war as a militarized form of violence where the emphasis is on the military as an institution and militarization as a process that reflects the permeation of the military in all its institutional, discursive, and normative elements into socioeconomic and political institutions. The challenge for the international political sociologist is to reveal how war relates to the social, economic, and political manifestations of the international and transformations thereof. However, the challenge is also to reveal the “discursive formations” (Foucault 1997) surrounding war: how war and its legitimization are formed in discursive practices.

There are a number of representations of war that are suggestive of attempts variously to characterize its temporal and spatial limits, its protagonists, and their place in the distribution of power in the contingencies of global politics. International political sociologists engaged currently in investigating war, its transformations, and relations with the international highlight certain historical figures as formative baselines for their inquiries. Any suggestion of influential historical voices is itself subject to contestation, for such an exercise is clearly implicated in defining limits and reifying certain authors over others. However, there are formative elements in the classical literature that continue to structure and inform inquiry and shape discourses on war in International Political Sociology. When looked at in terms of trajectories of thought, Clausewitz is clearly pertinent in relation to transformations in the conduct of war; Weber in relation to transformations centered on the location of political authority and the state and how such transformations impact on the spatial articulation of war and its limits; and Marx in relation to the role that capitalism continues to play in militarism and the global military order. However, we might also point to Hobbes and Kant in contemporary liberal renditions on war and certainly, as will be evident below, in Foucauldian-inspired critiques of liberalism. Given the diversity of formative voices contained in contemporary renditions of war written from the perspective of an international political sociologist, what follows is by necessity confined to themes suggestive of a distinctive research program that places emphasis on how transformations in war as a form of practice relate to sociopolitical change.

Clausewitz’s recognition that war is situated in and indeed is both enabled and constrained by political and social forces immediately points the lens at questions relating, for example, to how social transformation impacts on the conduct of war. In a statement that contains resonances to the present, Clausewitz (1982:387) suggests that while a “general theory” of war might be desirable, historical transformation requires us to “show how each period has had its own peculiar forms of War, its own restrictive conditions, and its own prejudices.” Recognizing the impact of the French Revolution and subsequent wars in the Napoleonic era, Clausewitz highlights the implications when war becomes “an affair of the people,” enabling mobilization for total war and inaugurating a “new” form of war that was no longer restricted to the sovereign’s capacity to raise mercenary forces. The historical contingencies of war and its modes of articulation is a theme that continues to have paramount significance in contemporary writings on war. For contemporary international political sociologists (as will be highlighted later in this essay), questions of interest stem from the recognition that the terrain of the international, and hence of war, is no longer confined to the nation as such, but is distinctly transnational and globalized, and no longer defined by the Clausewitzian “trinity of state, army and people” (Shaw 2000:173; 2003:19–21). Though war is no longer conceived in Clausewitzian terms, the shift in itself requires critical engagement with Clausewitz’s legacies in our understanding of war, as variously shown by authors as diverse as Mary Kaldor (1999), writing in recent times from a distinctly liberal cosmopolitan perspective, and Julian Reid (2003), writing from a post-structural Foucauldian perspective.

The “war and society” perspective (Barkawi 2006:50) thus is captured by an international political sociology approach that sees war not simply as a product of rational decision making, but as constitutively related to society and social transformation. The societal aspect of war suggests that it is deeply rooted in institutional forms that constitute war’s conditions of possibility, both material and discursive. War therefore is not simply injurious (Scarry 1985), nor is it simply about instrumental rationality, for this is always subject to constraint by the moderating influence of “social institutions,” as recognized in Kenneth Waltz’s (1959) reading of Clausewitz. War, moreover, is a product of conflict and constructions of enmity and is deeply implicated in the constitution of discourses of inclusion and exclusion (Jabri 1996). Even in Clausewitz’s most instrumentalist rendition of war, his debt to German romanticism emerges when he sees war as constitutive of a certain form of subjectivity, namely masculinity, and a certain form of political community, namely the nation (Pick 1993).

War is not merely injurious, nor is it merely instrumental, but is also constitutive of social formations and subjectivities. While war’s character in relation to the social domain has received much intellectual focus, primarily from historical sociologists, as we will see below, the latter aspect of war – namely its constitutive character in relation to subjectivity – has received little interest from the canons of sociology or of International Relations. However, if we steer the lens toward feminist discourse, Marxist-informed discourse, or the postcolonial, we see revealed the place of political violence, and hence war, in the constitution respectively of the masculine subject, the subject of class struggle, and the colonized subject (Jabri 2007a). In relation to the latter two, names that come to the fore include Sorel (1999), writing of the emergence of an emancipated working class through violent struggle; Walter Benjamin (1996), whose Critique of Violence is certainly indebted to Sorel; and Franz Fanon (1967), in relation to the emergence of the colonized subject through struggle against colonialism. Feminist voices from Virginia Woolf (1938), to Simone de Beauvoir (1984) to contemporary IR feminists such as Cynthia Enloe (2000; 2004) and Jean Bethke Elshtain (1987), have always engaged with the place of war in the constitution of the masculine subject and as the underpinning dynamic behind gender inequalities.

War is also constitutively related to the modern state: not simply in relation to the state’s control over organized violence, but more widely in terms of its role in practices of control implicated in the sedimentation of exclusionary practices (Neocleous 2003). As will become clear later, late modern transformations in war are related to transformations associated with the state in globalized social, economic, and political relations. Such transformations have implications not only for the state as the source of legitimacy in the enactment of violence, but for the ability of the modern state to contain and therefore to control political violence. As a form of social organization, the state, when conceived in international terms, is not the uniform entity assumed in relation to European modernity, but rather reveals, as shown by postcolonial critiques, differential capacities and indeed differential sovereignties (Barkawi and Laffey 2006; Grovogui 2006). Nowhere does this become more apparent than in the oft-repeated definition of the modern state provided by Weber, a definition that is at once both evocative and complicit in the concealment of what might be referred to as the differential in statehood. For Weber (1978:56), “a compulsory political organization with continuous operations will be called a ‘state’ in so far as its administrative staff successfully upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order.” As will be seen later, this conception of the modern state underpins assumptions relating to interventions in states deemed to have “failed” and informs late modern conceptions of the “liberal peace” in terms of “state building.” As highlighted by Walker (1993:56), while Weber’s conception of the state informs later (realist) renditions on the state and the modern international, what is significant is his understanding of modernity as “an intensifying clash between instrumental rationality and the realm of substantive values.” While conventional accounts thus might point to Weber’s definition of the territorial state, it is indeed this “paradox of modernity” that more forcefully informs our contemporary engagements with interventionist wars claimed in the name of “modernity” and “civilization.”

The emergent hegemony of instrumental rationality we see revealed through Weber raises questions relating to capitalism as an “institutional cluster” (Giddens 1985) constitutive of modernity. While the state and transformations in political authority are crucial for an international political sociology of war, as formative for a perspective that focuses on war, the state, and modernity is the relationship between the emergence and development of capitalism and transformations of war in European society and its projections of power globally. While Marx himself engaged little with the question of war, his analytics provide significant, if somewhat contested, insight into the relationship between capital accumulation and expansionist war. Hans Joas (2003:130) suggests that Marxist-Leninist renditions relate capitalism as such to war: “A violent and expansive character is ascribed to capitalism” and “capitalism inexorably drifts into an imperialist stage …” While Marx engaged with the question of war primarily through Engels, of greater interest to the international political sociologist interested in the intricate relationship between war as practice and capitalism are analyses that go to the heart of Marx’s rendition on capitalism as opposed to his rather cursory foray into the subject of war. In relation to the emergence of social conflict, Marx’s crucial salience is revealed when he writes of “primitive accumulation” and the “forcible expropriation of the people” at the start of capitalism, which Marx dates to the sixteenth century (Marx 1976:881). For authors inspired by Marx the imperative is to illustrate the relationship between contemporary global neoliberal practices, war, and forceful expropriation. David Harvey (2003:137–82), for example, engages with Marx’s conception of “primitive accumulation” in order to relate what he refers to as “accumulation by dispossession” with colonial incursions of the past and the “new imperialism” of the present.

The meaning of war for the international political sociologist can incorporate, therefore, the following elements: war is recognized as constitutively injurious and corporeal; it is meaningful in terms of violent conflict involving enmity; and the violence constitutive of war is deemed to be distinctly political, assuming contest in the public sphere over material and authoritative resources, and involving entities that engage in political mobilization. War is hence also societal, being constitutive of and enabled by subjectivities and social formations that locate war as political violence in intimate proximity not just to the discursive and institutional continuities of social and political life, but more intimately in relation to subjectivity and emergent forms of political community. While, as we will see below, this constitutive role of war is, in historical sociology, often conceived in terms of the modern state, what I have suggested is that the constitutive role of war must also be read in relation to the subject of politics, the subject engaged in conflict and struggle, as theorized in relation to the working class or the colonized subject. While this latter element is suggested here as an aspect in an international political sociology research program, it is the constitutive place of war in relation to the modern state, in modernity, and in relation to late modern transformations that will occupy the rest of this essay.

War and Modernity

Hans Joas (2003) attributes what he sees as the absence of war in the canons of sociology to the influence of “modernization theory,” specifically as this is articulated in liberal as well as Marxist thinking in the discipline. For Joas, both Kantian liberalism and its assumptions relating to the pacifying remit of law within the republican constitution, and free trade liberalism associated with Adam Smith, have had profound influence on assumptions relating to modernity and the gradual extraction of war from the social and the political. While liberalism’s associations with war and peace are possibly the most significant issues currently engaging the international political sociologist (see, for example, Richmond 2005; Chandler 2006; Jabri 2007a), given liberalism’s recent engagements in interventionist war, what is significant to highlight at this stage is that while liberalism associates modernity with peace, critical thought recognizes modernity’s darker side (Adorno and Horkheimer 1979; Bauman 1989).

For Giddens (1985:121), the “modern world has been shaped through the intersection of capitalism, industrialism and the nation-state system,” where the nation-state is defined as a “set of institutional forms of governance maintaining an administrative monopoly over a territory with demarcated boundaries (borders), its rule being sanctioned by law and direct control of the means of internal and external violence.” Given the historically close association of these institutional formations (Dandeker 1990), the relative neglect of the subject of violence and its place in the constitution of the modern state becomes even more surprising. While another Compendium essay deals directly with the historical sociology of the state, the variability of the state as a coherent administrative unity backed up with control over the means of violence, both internal and external, is of paramount significance when considering transformations in war and peace. Moreover, if we consider the institutional architecture of modernity, with its focus on the state and its remit in the control and surveillance of populations, on capitalism as the structure of the international political economy, and the emergence of industrialism as the driving force behind the expansion of capitalism, we begin to appreciate the tensions that emerge when the international intersects with the transnational workings of a capitalist political economy, its associated movements, and the relationship that these movements have with the boundaries constitutive of the “international.” Such tensions, as we will see when we consider war and late modernity, become even more profound and salient when considered in relation to that other boundary-defying category, namely “humanity” and the discourses that inscribe it onto the terrain of the international.

If there is a common feature that links research programs within the IPS perspective it is an interest in how the practices of today, including war, are imbued with history, in all its discourses and deeply embedded institutions. So when we seek to unravel the relationship between violence and modernity, we can ask questions like “Why were European states prone to war?,” as Michael Mann (2006) does, or “How did war impact on state formation in European societies?,” as Charles Tilly (1990) does. As the latter shows in his histories of the modern European state, war making and state making are intricately related and both in turn feed into the story of modernity, its institutions and subjects. This focus on war and the modern European state must not be confused with realist accounts of interstate relations; for the international political sociologist does not start with the state as given, but is, rather, interested in the mechanisms and practices that feed into state formation and how these mechanisms and practices are themselves implicated in how the “international” comes to be shaped. As succinctly articulated by Michael Mann (2006:550):

I am still exploring what is uniquely European, and so it is a logical extension of my earlier work. Along with Charles Tilly, I stressed the role of war in the development of European modernity, especially in state-formation. Then I moved to the obvious next question: why were they so warlike, so much better at killing people than anyone else? It is also obviously a sociological and a non-Realist question. What is called the ‘Westphalian system’ and assumed by Realists to characterize all modern interstate systems was actually peculiarly European, the product of an unusually warlike society and culture, one that saw a longer-term process of imperialism by which bigger European states swallowed up smaller ones, right across the world. Imperialism was the second miraculous (though probably undesirable) quality of the Europeans, the dark side, perhaps, of more conventional views of the European Miracle.

Clearly, the trajectory of European history is contested terrain. Nevertheless, the point is that unraveling this history, the complex intersections of power, and the constitution of social formations, reveals the wider canvass of modernity and the dynamics that constitute the development of liberal capitalist societies and their place in wider, global, relations of power and domination.

The story of liberal modernity and war provided by historical sociologists like Mann, Tilly, and Giddens differs substantially from that elaborated by liberal internationalist perspectives that relate modernity and modernization as a process with “peace.” The historical sociologist seeks to treat the question of modernity’s complex relationship to war and peace as one that must be subjected to historical investigation. The liberal internationalist draws upon certain strands of Enlightenment philosophy, primarily Kant’s, to normatively argue the case for modernity’s association with peace. The disjuncture between these two narratives is both substantially significant as well as pointing at different forms and styles of investigation and discourse. Where the former treats modernity as a distinct social, economic, and political juncture in history, the latter’s remit is largely ahistorical, characterized as it is by the “application” of particular philosophical traditions – in this case, the liberal tradition – to measurements of the occurrence of war between states (Doyle 1997).

To recognize the significance of such diverse interpretations of modernity, both as a temporal moment in history, and as defining of historical developments in geopolitical space, is exactly to appreciate the contributions of international political sociology as a perspective in International Relations, a perspective that, as indicated earlier in this essay, rejects ahistorical accounts of the modern, of the international, and indeed of the political. The question of war, peace, and modernity is hence a historical question and not a normative one. Modernity is recognized as a complex array of institutional forms and discourses and not simply a set of rational philosophical treatises extracted from contingent sociopolitical matrixes. As pointed out by Philip K. Lawrence (1999:3–4): “the philosophical representations of modernity, which are now usually referred to as Enlightenment narratives, mask and disguise a concrete socioeconomic-cultural form. Thus here, modernity is viewed essentially as a structural organization of state, economy, society and culture; a power-complex and a mode of consciousness.” For Lawrence (1999:34), drawing variously on Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, amongst others, the combined forces of the “remorseless pursuit of technological innovation,” the celebration of “scientific advance as the essence of ‘progress,’” and a self-legislating instrumentalist nineteenth century worldview “blind to its historical specificity” provided a “charter for violence, especially against non-western peoples,” though reflected too in the development of mass armies and the strategic thinking that informed the Napoleonic wars. The point that Lawrence seeks to make is that military innovation was the essential driver behind industrialism and emerging conceptions of progress, generating in its wake the “ideational and material structures of modernity” wherein “modernization” became the legitimizing force behind colonial violence (Gregory 2004).

The historical trajectory of modernity is hence understandable in relation to the emergence of innovations in military power, a form of power that came to be instrumental in the development of the European nation-state and the projection of its power globally. The processes implicated in the relationship between war and modernity do not provide direct causal connections between specific innovations in military technology or indeed specific forms of relationships between economic entrepreneurs and political authority, but rather provide an indication of the ingredients that reveal the place of war in modernity and the global legacies that continue to have their impact today. The consolidation of state power thus is related not just to the development of organized armed forces, but to the increasing specialization and rationalization of administrative institutions, coupled with the emergence of the “nation-state” and a capitalist international political economy. Reading Charles Tilly’s investigations into the intimate relationship between war making and state making, Mann’s conception of the “sources of social power,” and Giddens’s Foucauldian-inspired appreciation of the place of disciplinarity and surveillance in the emergence of the modern state provide indicators not just of state formation but of contemporary conflicts in postcolonial states and how these are related not simply to the internal dynamics of these societies, but to forces that have historically sought to shape and govern their locations in the international and its constitutive structures of domination and subordination.

That practices associated with war are intimately related to operations of power is nowhere more fruitfully revealed than in Michel Foucault’s analytics, where the picture of liberal modernity we witness is replete with the presence of war and its permeation of the seemingly routine and the everyday. A number of authors writing in the “genre” of international political sociology are influenced primarily by Michel Foucault’s analytics of war and power (see, for example, Dillon and Reid 2009; Reid 2006a; Jabri 2007a; 2007b; Dillon and Neal 2008). Foucault’s interpretation of war, as we will see below, is one that incorporates its corporeal effects, in the production of militarized, disciplined subjects amenable to control and surveillance practices as well as being rendered utilizable in the war machine, while highlighting the permeation of war and its categories into the bureaucratic machinery of the state. Where Discipline and Punish (Foucault 1977) reveals the silent (and pacifying) imprint of war upon the body through “military sciences” and the workings of other disciplinary techniques, writing later in The History of Sexuality (1978) and powerfully present in his lecture series, Society Must be Defended (2003), the imprint of war emerges in relation to population, a biopolitical terrain now subject to technologies of government wherein populations come to be divided in terms of race. The workings of liberal governmentality are here powerfully revealed, inspiring works in international political sociology that reveal liberalism’s association with war as a practice of government and with race as constitutively present in the liberal “government” of populations (see, in addition to the above, Stoler 1995; Helliwell and Hindess 2002).

Shifting the lens from what he refers to as the “philosophico-juridical discourse of law and sovereignty” and toward the “historico-political discourse of war,” Foucault seeks to place emphasis on practices of war and how these are implicated in the “civic peace” assumed by liberal thought. The point to stress is that war understood in Foucauldian terms blurs the boundary between war and peace, the battlefield and the social realm. As Julian Reid points out, “[t]his is the great paradox and crisis of political modernity that Foucault identifies in The History of Sexuality. Modernity is characterized by a type of society that has sought refuge from the indeterminacy of life, its radical undecidability, in techniques of discipline, regulation, and normalization, which in turn have exacerbated unprecedented forms of warfare intersocially” (Reid 2006a:150).

Late modernity, the contemporary era described variously in terms of fragmentation, complexity, and a terrain of the “international,” the articulation of which cannot be confined within any uniform rendition of the political community, reveals the ways in which violence is implicated in redrawing the boundaries of sociopolitical space. The discursive formations that emerge in seeking to make sense of late modern war refer to global wars, transnational wars, humanitarian wars, and even cosmopolitan wars, so that the social terrain upon which war makes its imprint is now globally conceived, incorporating humanity at large, and often in the name of peace.

War, Peace, and Late Modernity

As is clear from the previous sections, there is a distinctiveness to how the international political sociologist interprets war and, by implication, peace. The focus is on war as a set of practices situated in and constitutive of social change so that violence is not extracted from the social sphere, but is, rather, implicated in the formation and constitution of its discourses and institutions. As we saw above, modernity’s ideational and material structures – a conception of reason that has a universal remit reinforced by ideas of progress driven by increasingly sophisticated modes of militarization and administration – provided the conditions of possibility for the consolidation of power internally and the projection of power externally, into other societies. We might be tempted to treat questions of war and peace in terms of the specificities of particular conflicts, their grievances, choices of agents, and outcomes. However, the point for the international political sociologist is to unravel the forces that enable, that generate, that, in other words, provide the conditions of possibility for the forms of violence we see today, from ethnic cleansing, to genocidal wars, to wars of intervention and occupation, to more dispersed forms of violence enacted by non-state actors as well state involvement in clandestine operations. The transformations of late modern social, economic, and political life are as related to modalities of violence in late modernity as their modern precedents were formative of and enabled by the conditions of modernity. The continuities are all too apparent, for the violent practices of the late modern appear in themselves to be legacies of a formative past.

As has been shown by a number of authors discussed above, modernity rests uneasily with war and peace, so that its legacies are at once both violent and replete with optimistic philosophies that see reason itself as the legislator for peace, moving into locales of violence with recipes for conflict resolution and societal transformations guaranteeing the end of violent conflict. However, any assumed universal remit is by definition also acquisitive, so that the dialectics of the modern re-emerge, so that high technology warfare, and the discourses that render it in civilizational terms, are reminiscent of the colonial wars of the past, except that in late modernity they are articulated in the form of humanitarianism and the rescue of populations (Chandler 2006). Similarly, where we witness the breakdown of states, in the Balkans and in sub-Saharan Africa, we see once again the constitutive part that violence plays in state formation, now defined on newly ethnicized grounds, where social power comes to be defined in terms of the control of the resources available to whomsoever comes to control the facilities that the state provides (Mann 2005). However, just as there are continuities with the past, the discontinuities are all too apparent. War is no longer confined to the battlefield context but permeates society, and comes to form another aspect in the control of populations.

Some, like Mary Kaldor (1999), prefer to talk of the emergence of “new wars,” while others, like Hardt and Negri (2005), suggest that the wars of the present are akin to policing operations. Others still, more interested in technological transformation and its implications for the discourses and practices of war, focus on “network wars” (Der Derian 2009). The overwhelming connection between the modern and the late modern is the central place that liberalism occupies, whether as a force behind liberal interventionism and the so-called “liberal peace project” (Richmond 2005), or as the “model” that underpins the unfinished project of modernity itself.

In thinking about transformations of war and peace in the context of the late modern, the first starting point for any social and political inquiry is the assumption that the institutions of modernity, the state, the capitalist order, the rise of bureaucracy and disciplinary society are not confined to their point of origin, namely Europe, but are, in the postcolonial context, experienced across the globe – not in direct translation, but in all the culturally, politically, and economically contingent matrices of life outside the West. The link between modernity, violence, and the colonial legacy are clearly shown by authors such as Nicholas Higgins (2004) and Enrique Dussel (1998). The second starting assumption, borrowed from social theorists like Giddens (1991), is an understanding of globalization that stresses the “intensification” of the institutions of modernity coupled with empirical observations relating to the complex interconnections between economic, political, and cultural aspects of global life. No understanding of the place of war and conceptions of peace is possible without some appreciation of the global transformations that define late modernity, transformations that point the lens at the relationship between economic globalization, locations of political authority, and global governance. These are themes that frame understandings of contemporary violent conflicts, inform ideas relating to responses to violence, which in turn raise fundamental questions relating to the structure of the international and the location of political authority therein. For the international political sociologist interested in the transformations of war and peace, how political violence is implicated in and informed by what in late modernity, in a global socioeconomic as well as a juridico-political context, is of fundamental significance. A number of authors engage with the implications of late modern forms of war and transformations in the juridical and political context of the international (for example, Hardt and Negri 2000; Barkawi 2006; Walker 2006; Douzinas 2007).

For the international political sociologist, the temporal and the spatial aspects of wars are of interest precisely because they point to how the violence of transnational networks or of states engaged in the enactment of violence transnationally and globally relates to global social and political change, and specifically how such wars are implicated in late modern expressions and practices related to identities, borders, and the sociopolitical and juridical framing of the international. A contemporary author like Mary Kaldor seeks to distinguish between the “old” wars of interstate conflict and what she calls “new wars” – conflicts that emerged in the post–Cold War era: transnational, militia-based, and drawing on the resources of a globalized arena in perpetuating violence directed mainly at civilian populations, purportedly in the name of ethnically drawn identities, but largely motivated by economic gain. As Kaldor (2002:164) highlights: “The point of the violence is not so much directed against the enemy; rather, the aim is to expand the networks of extremism […] battles are rare, and violence is directed against civilians […] Violations of humanitarian and human rights law are not the side effect of war but the central methodology of new wars.” Interpreted in relation to modernity and its institutions, these so-called “new wars” appear to suggest the unraveling of the modern state and the dismantling somehow of distinctions and dichotomies that inform modern institutions and modern consciousness; namely, the distinction between the private and the public, the legal and the illegal, the inside and the outside, and hence the reshaping of political space from the modern secular and toward ethnically defined exclusions as the basis of social power. Despite the many controversies surrounding Kaldor’s use of the term “new” to describe the conflicts of the Balkans or of sub-Saharan Africa (Malesevic 2008), what is significant in her analyses for the present context is that our research program is drawn to the ways in which the institutions of modernity are not only being rearticulated in these instances, but that such rearticulation is itself deeply embedded in the legacies of modernity and the different ways in which these legacies continue to be negotiated, at times with extreme violent means (Duffield 2002).

The context of war is no longer the international system of sovereign states, nor is the temporality of war confined to the battlefield context, involving clearly bounded antagonists. Even the historical trajectory of European wars suggests that the confinement of war to clearly bounded political entities, namely states, interacting within an international system of states defined primarily through the balance of capabilities, denied the societal complexities associated with the intersection of militarism, capitalism, industrialism, and the increasing bureaucratization of government. Even so, the wars of the late modern era, as witnessed in the conflicts of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, are conditioned by a globalized, highly interconnected terrain where the agents of violence act not just locally, though most of their violence is directed at local populations, but also transnationally, across state boundaries. The territorial boundaries of the state are no longer the limit, the juridical and political break on resources and capacities. The dynamics of late modern warfare provide us with indicators of how those engaged in war draw upon the global arena, and, crucially, in doing so come to reconstitute the global as a sociopolitical space.

The reconstitution of the global as a sociopolitical space is also significant in relation to late modernity’s wars of intervention, conducted primarily by Western states in the name of humanitarianism. These are interpreted by many authors in International Relations as “liberal wars,” fought for the rescue of populations from genocidal wars, ethnic cleansing, and gross violations of human rights. Such interpretations are contentious on a number of grounds, primary among which is that many on the realist as well as the critical side of the discipline would interpret such invocations of humanity simply as the expressions of power now globally rendered. What characterizes these wars above all else is that they have relied on high technology warfare, often directed at the infrastructure of target societies, and conducted at high altitude so that risk is minimized (Shaw 2002). A number of discursive constructs have been used to describe such wars, from the “western way of war” to “humane warfare” to “liberal wars” to “cosmopolitan wars” (Coker 2001; Freedman 2005; Fine 2006). The link to Kantian cosmopolitan ideals and contemporary aspirations toward their juridical articulation is most clearly represented in Habermas’s (1997) renditions on the emergence of cosmopolitan law and the idea is that wars might legitimately be conducted in the name of human rights as constitutive moments in its realization.

A number of authors refer variously to “global war” (Hardt and Negri 2005), “global matrix of war” (Jabri 2007a), “network wars” (Der Derian 2009), in recognition of the implications of globalized economic, social, and political relations for political violence. Zygmunt Bauman (2001) distinguishes between “globalizing wars” and “globalization-induced wars,” where the former refer to “wars conducted as a rule in the name of the not yet existent but postulated ‘international community’, represented in practice by ad hoc, mostly regional, coalitions of interested partners,” while the latter are “aimed at the establishment of viable local totalities in the void left by the collapse of past structures, and strive to reassert the lost meaning of space.” While the former seek to constitute a relocated sovereign authority, now globally rendered, through the practice of war, the latter point to the reassertion of the local and the particular, utilizing violence in the effort to reconstitute community often in contexts of extremes of violence, including genocide, directed at other communities constructed as enemies. The clear historical/empirical question is how the two forms of war that Bauman suggests are a product of globalization relate to each other.

Hardt and Negri (2005), perhaps more than any other authors interested in the implications of late modern war in the redrawing of the international, seek to provide a theoretical framework to capture the totality of what they refer to as “global war.” Drawing on Michel Foucault’s understanding of the trajectory of power in liberalism – a trajectory that witnesses, as indicated earlier, its transformation from sovereignty, to disciplinarity, to biopower – Hardt and Negri argue that late modern articulations of power are biopolitical, encompassing the category of population and its management, and that the spatiality of the biopolitical is the entirety of the globe. Just as the biopolitical form of power is global in reach, suggestive of a global sovereign, namely empire, so too any war comes to be encompassed in this totality, perpetual and internal to a global sociopolitical space. Where modernity, through the state, sought to pacify war internally while relegating it instrumentally to the external relations of states, the postmodern era, according to Hardt and Negri, hails a new era wherein war is “a general phenomenon, global and interminable,” suggestive of a general state of exception. In this global war, there are no enemies as such; rather war is akin to policing operations conducted in the name of “humanity” as a whole. War is the articulation of biopower globally rendered by what they refer to as “imperial sovereignty” in the name of the global population at large. Local conflicts come to constitute not the “civil wars” of old, confined within the special terrain of the state, but are rather “imperial civil wars” that are conditioned by this “global imperial system.” The formative antagonism in Hardt and Negri’s “global war” is between the network forces of empire and the networks of others where these others are engaged directly or indirectly in combat with the forces of empire.

The dissolution of distinctions in the picture that Hardt and Negri draw of “global war,” while challenging in its usage of Foucault’s understandings of biopower, Agamben’s understanding of the exception and its generalized form in global terms, and Deleuzian conceptions of rhizomatic space, nevertheless is problematic for any international political sociologist seeking to delve into the specificities of war as practice, situated within, enabled by, and constitutive of a global sociopolitical matrix of discourses and institutions. While war, as argued earlier in this essay, is indeed constitutive of political space and the (re)location of authority, the question is how, in the realm of practices, war might be conceived as simply another tool, a technology, in the control and government of populations.

Asking the question of how war comes to be implicated in the government of populations is enabled, at least for the present author, by Michel Foucault and his understanding of the trajectories of power in modern society. War in its Foucauldian sense is always, and by definition, societal, permeating society and running through its institutions. War in this sense is no longer conceived as being temporally and spatially confined; rather, it can constitute diverse practices, thereby blurring the boundary between war and peace, war and security, the zone of war and the social order. However, it is in the context of biopower, the government of the life of populations, that Foucault helps us to unravel the operations of war in late modernity. In a highly prescient and important statement, Foucault (1978) states:

Wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital. It is as managers of life and survival, of bodies and the race, that so many regimes have been able to wage so many wars, causing so many men to be killed.

War is, in this reading, biopolitical, defined in terms of survival, and such survival relates to populations conceived racially.

When war shifts its presence, from the confined temporal and spatial limits defined by the state and its relations with other states, and toward the generality and indeterminacy of population, of humanity at large, it somehow appears to move, according to Bauman, beyond regulation, beyond the certainties that modernity sought to establish. When we conceive of power through a lens informed by Foucault’s analytics, when we can appreciate the intersection of forms of power in late modernity – the triptych suggested by Foucault comes to mind here: sovereign power, the discipline of bodies, and the government of populations – we can thus open out the research program in international political sociology, so that practices of war come to be revealed in all their microcosmic manifestations, transnational in their spatial articulation, defiant of boundaries, and challenging of distinctions formative of modernity’s discourses and institutions. Far from diminishing the historical significance of these forms, the question, or indeed set of questions, relate to how political violence is used to govern populations, from their interactions to their very self-definition. This research program is at once both macrocosmic, asking questions related to the transformation of the international, its institutions and subjectivities, interested in the locations of agency and political authority, and microcosmic, delving into the minutiae of practices, from secret incarcerations to the policing of borders, to racialized and culturalized constructions of enmity, to the blurring of boundaries between the public and the private with all the juridical ramifications that such blurring means, to the construction of hierarchical conceptions of worthiness, to the relationship between globalizing wars and the extraction of politics from the social space.

The paradox revealed in Michel Foucault, the ever-presence of war in the space of peace, is indeed the paradox of modernity itself, so that the very term “peace” loses its meaning unless it is located in relation to war as a form of social practice. The “civic peace” assumed in liberal modernity is revealed in all its war-like manifestations as modern power makes its imprint upon bodies and populations and as late modern extensions of power globally draw exactly on war in efforts at the redrawing of boundaries, of societies, and of the international as a distinct location of politics. From the “liberal peace project,” which stresses “peacebuilding operations,” to Habermasian notions of peace through (cosmopolitan) law, we see not simply the specter of war, but its actuality in all its disciplining and biopolitical operations.

Future Directions for Research

As is evident from this discussion, the international political sociology of war is interdisciplinary in its orientation, drawing from sociology, political theory, and law in an effort to reveal war as a set of practices situated in discursive and institutional sociopolitical spaces and indeed constitutive of such spaces. Given this wide remit, the intellectual challenge is to somehow draw boundaries around the discussion, and no doubt such an operation itself reveals the prejudices of the author as she or he writes. Responsive to this wide terrain and at the same time reflecting on the purpose of a Compendium essay, the priority that emerged was one that sought to achieve two tasks: the first being to provide a representative review of the relevant literature; the second seeking to elaborate a distinct research program that might be seen as emergent and dominant in the discourses that occupy international political sociology as it is practiced in the International Studies Association.

Reluctant to identify distinct “schools of thought” in international political sociology, the aim here was to discuss the transformations of war in the context of modernity and late modernity. While some authors primarily rely on historical sociologists such as Mann and Tilly, others writing of the place of war in modernity and its late modern manifestations draw on the writings of Michel Foucault. While the former might be seen as historical sociologists of the modern state and the place of organized force in relation to the state, the latter’s primary contribution relates to the workings of modern power, its trajectories, and its articulation in disciplinary and biopolitical forms and the place of war therein. As we have seen, some within the historical sociology of the state also rely on a Foucauldian understanding of the development of disciplinary societies.

Finally, what connects the authors highlighted in this piece is an interest in the problematization of modernity, so that, unlike liberal philosophical renditions that have historically associated modernity variously with “progress,” “civilization,” and “peace,” war is revealed in all its presence in the discourses and institutions of modernity, now globally rendered. The research program highlighted here points to a number of continuities with an older literature concerned with the emergence of modernity and modern institutions and the place of war therein. Given our contemporary interest variously in the colonial legacy, the postcolonial condition, rearticulations of sovereignty and political authority, the emergence of “new” forms of imperial rule, formative political and social theoretical questions emerge in relation to the nexus between Marxist, post-structural, and postcolonial thought, and authors such as Spivak (1999) and Chatterjee (2004) are of crucial significance in this respect.

In addition to developing our conceptual and theoretical base, historical continuities with contemporary forms of war and their relationship with practices of security are also constitutive of our research program. As indicated in the previous pages, war is no longer confined to its traditional battlefield context, but permeates lived experience from the routine of daily life to the temporal and spatial articulation of emergency and catastrophe (see, for example, Aradau and Munster 2007). Questions relating to the intersection between the routine and the extraordinary, the mundane practices of government and violence perpetrated against individual bodies and populations (Butler 2004), are of paramount significance, theoretically in terms of the implications of such practices for the relationship between violence and the political, and empirically in how this relationship comes to be framed and articulated in different temporal and spatial settings, from the local to the transnational. Violent inscriptions of bodies and populations are historically racially defined (Doty 1996) and continue to be so in the present, so that the seeming routine of practices of security comes at once to constitute targets as enemies, raising questions relating to the locations of war as a form of practice implicated in the government of populations. Liberalism, liberal wars, the liberal government of populations, and implications for the sphere of the international therefore are core issues for the international political sociologist engaged with the question of war, society and modernity.


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The European Commission funded project Challenge: The Changing Landscape of Liberty and Security in Europe reflects European-based scholarship on war and security practices and their implications for liberal democracy in Europe and beyond. For a teaching resource reflecting aspects of research conducted in this project, see Huysmans, J. and Ragazzi (eds) Liberty and Security, Multi-media teaching and Training Module, Challenge (forthcoming 2009). At, accessed July 2009.

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