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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: March 2017

Preface and Acknowledgements


The following investigation extends the argument for a comparative sociology of states-systems that was developed in the final chapter of The Problem of Harm in World Politics: Theoretical Investigations (Cambridge 2011). A central aim is to analyse the extent to which agreed standards of self-restraint that were linked with shared conceptions of civility or civilization have shaped the development of Western states-systems. A related objective is to determine whether the dominant patterns of self-restraint in the contemporary international system are radically different from those that existed in the preceding arrangements. It is to show what modern standards of restraint owe to their predecessors and to begin to explain the key differences.

The inquiry is designed to advance Martin Wight's comparative approach to states-systems by drawing on the considerable resources of Eliasian or process sociology. The latter provided a provisional explanation of how modern Europeans came to regard themselves as more ‘civilized’ than their medieval forebears and more ‘advanced’ than surrounding ‘barbarians’. The general pattern of social development was said to be evident in an overall decline in the level of interpersonal violence over approximately five centuries, and in an attendant growing aversion to pain and suffering. It identified changes in what is permissible and what is forbidden within state-organized societies. The argument was that continuity rather than change has been the norm in the relations between political communities. In several publications, Elias referred to mounting pressures on societies to resolve their differences peacefully and to collaborate to deal with the problems of interconnectedness that faced them all. He described the ways in which the idea of civilization had shaped modern Western attitudes to violence including genocide. What was missing, however, and is still in need of elaboration, is an account of how far changing conceptions of permissible and impermissible violence are evident not only within modern nation-states but in the relations between them.

Elias wrote extensively about civilizing processes but paid little attention to international societies of states including the modern one. He did not see them as particular forms of social and political integration with distinctive civilizing processes and standards of restraint.

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