Anarchy and International Relations: A Reconsideration

By Jonathan Havercroft and Alex Prichard. Jonathan Havercroft is Associate Professor in International Political Theory at the University of Southampton (Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by Jonathan here.


What is anarchy? Despite its centrality to the self-image of the discipline of International Relations, few have critically enquired into the essence of this concept.  Most still deploy textbook definitions, namely that anarchy is the absence of rulers, of a centralized authority, or a system of self-help. This basic understanding of anarchy is largely uncontested. However, by contrast, the study of the purported causal effects of anarchy, rather than the meaning of the concept itself, has arguably shaped the evolution of the discipline over the last fifty years at least. Debates between classical and neo-realists, and between neo-realists and neo-liberals, revolved around understanding ‘order without an orderer and organizational effects where formal organisation is lacking’.

The rejection of the terms of these two debates, including a rejection of anarchy, was central to the evolution of normative and critical IR theory. Anarchy was synonymous with statism, with the absence of morality, and what Jo Freeman called, in a different context, ‘the tyranny of structurelessness’, where hierarchies and domination proliferated in the absence of formal institutions. Elsewhere, the analytical virtue of anarchy was itself questioned, such that to focus on anarchy was itself a problematic collusion with the gendered and Eurocentric legacies of modernity. Barry Buzan and Richard Little (2001) argued that IR’s failure to speak beyond the confines of our own academic and intellectual silos was primarily a function of the discipline’s ‘anarchophilia’. IR has had little influence, they argued, because our core concept has had such little traction outside the neo-neo debates that have shaped so much of the discipline, but little else.

Yet despite this extensive debate, few have taken the time to interrogate the concept’s plural meanings, to see what the consequences might be if anarchy itself were defined differently. This paucity of critical conceptual analysis is surely a function of how uncontested the meaning of this concept has been, despite its centrality to the field.

In a recently published special issue of the Journal of International Political Theory we seek to puff at the glowing embers of this debate. Our aim is to take stock of, examine, and reconsider the concept of anarchy, and its place in the study and practice of international relations. We contest mainstream conceptualizations of anarchy by drawing upon original research in political philosophy, medieval history, pluralist theory, history of political thought, and of course, IR theory. The aim is to investigate how differing conceptions of anarchy can advance the study of world politics. Our conclusion is that there are a range of ways in which anarchy can be defined, deployed, and perhaps even appropriated by IR theorists, and that ‘the anarchy problématique’ has plenty of life in it yet.