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Between philosophy and social science: Harm and its object in International Relations

  • Alex Hoseason (a1)


As a discipline, IR returns repeatedly to the ‘problem of harm’; debating what harm is or should mean. Exploring the discipline through this lens allows us to understand it as contributing to a broader process of negotiation centred on harm as a principle of restraint. However, existing accounts of what harm means for IR are challenged by the scale and visibility of large-scale harm. This article attempts to push beyond recent accounts of harm by Linklater and Mitchell by examining their respective framings of the relationship between harm and its explanation in IR. Building on their limitations, I propose a framework centred on arguments for ontological realism and structure as a focus for explanation. The resulting ontology sustains the concerns of both while: (a) more fully characterising the relationship between explanation and values in IR; and (b) providing a more adequate account of the role of abstraction. In developing upon existing accounts, this article seeks to provide a stronger ground for the analysis of harm in IR. More broadly, it contributes to contemporary debates centred on the relationship between ontology and values with a view to clarifying the nature of explanation in IR as a social science.


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*Correspondence to: Dr Alex Hoseason, Languages and Social Sciences, Aston University, Birmingham B4 7ET. Author’s email address:


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1 Linklater, Andrew, The Problem of Harm in World Politics: Theoretical Investigations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Mitchell, Audra, ‘Only human? A worldly approach to security’, Security Dialogue, 45:1 (2014), pp. 521 .

2 Cox, Robert, ‘Social forces, states and world orders: Beyond International Relations theory’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 10:2 (1981), pp. 126155 .

3 Linklater, The Problem of Harm in World Politics, p. 23; Mitchell, ‘Only human?’, p. 15.

4 Ibid., p. ix; Mitchell, ‘Only human?’, p. 6.

5 Hamilton, Scott, ‘A genealogy of metatheory in IR: How “ontology” emerged from the inter-paradigm debate’, International Theory, 9:1 (2017), pp. 136170 .

6 Ashworth, Lucian, ‘Where are the idealists in interwar International Relations?’, Review of International Studies, 32:2 (2006), pp. 291308 .

7 Ibid.

8 Bull, Hedley, ‘The twenty years’ crisis thirty years on’, International Journal, 24:4 (1969), p. 627 ; Bull, Hedley, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (3rd edn, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

9 Ashley, Richard, ‘The poverty of neorealism’, International Organization, 38:2 (1984), pp. 225286 ; Enloe, Cynthia, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (new edn, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Linklater, Andrew, Transformation of Political Community: Ethical Foundations of the Post-Westphalian Era (London: Polity Press, 1998).

10 Thaddeus Jackson, Patrick, ‘Must international studies be a science?’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 43:3 (2015), pp. 942965 .

11 Bruno Latour, ‘Facing Gaia: a new enquiry into natural religion’, The Gifford Lectures (2015).

12 Beardsworth, Richard, ‘The future of critical philosophy and world politics’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 34:1 (2005), pp. 201235 .

13 Buzan, Barry, From International to World Society: English School Theory and the Social Structure of Globalisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

14 Linklater, The Problem of Harm in World Politics, p. 29.

15 Ibid., p. 181.

16 Linklater, Andrew, ‘Citizenship, humanity and cosmopolitan harm conventions’, International Political Science Review, 22:3 (2001), pp. 261277 .

17 Kilminster, Richard, ‘Norbert Elias’s post-philosophical sociology: From “critique” to relative detachment’, The Sociological Review, 59:1 (2011), pp. 91116 .

18 Linklater, The Problem of Harm in World Politics, p. 40.

19 Ibid., p. 187.

20 Linklater, Andrew, ‘The problem of harm in world politics: Implications for the sociology of states-systems’, International Affairs, 78:2 (2002), pp. 319338 ; Linklater, Andrew, ‘Norbert Elias, the “civilizing process” and the sociology of International Relations”, International Politics, 41:1 (2004), pp. 335 ; Linklater, Andrew, ‘Towards a sociology of global morals with an “emancipatory intent”’, Review of International Studies, 33:1 (2007b), pp. 135150 ; Linklater, The Problem of Harm in World Politics; Andrew Linklater, ‘Process sociology and International Relations’, in Norbert Elias and Figurational Research: Processual Thinking in Sociology (London: Blackwell, 2011).

21 Linklater, The Problem of Harm in World Politics, p. 211.

22 Linklater, ‘Norbert Elias, the “civilizing process” and the sociology of International Relations’, p. 4.

23 Elias, Norbert, What Is Sociology?, trans. Stephen Mennell and Grace Morrissey (London: Hutchinson, 1978), p. 71 .

24 Mennell, Stephen, ‘Decivilising processes: Theoretical significance and some lines of research’, International Sociology, 5:2 (1990), pp. 205223 .

25 Linklater, The Problem of Harm in World Politics, p. 235.

26 Linklater, ‘Towards a sociology of global morals’.

27 Linklater, ‘Andrew Linklater reviews Stephen Mennell’, in Figurations: Newsletter of the Norbert Elias Foundation, 29 (Amsterdam: Norbert Elias Foundation, 2008), pp. 3–6; Elias, Norbert, ‘Problems of involvement and detachment’, The British Journal of Sociology, 7:3 (1956), pp. 226252 ; Kilminster, ‘Norbert Elias’s post-philosophical sociology’; Saramago, Andre, ‘Problems of orientation and control: Marx, Elias and the involvement–detachment balance in figurational sociology’, Human Figurations, 4:2 (2015).

28 Mennell, Stephen, Norbert Elias: An Introduction (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 1998).

29 Eric Dunning and Jason Hughes, Norbert Elias and Modern Sociology: Knowledge, Interdependence, Power, Process (UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), p. 14.

30 Elias, ‘Problems of involvement and detachment’.

31 Linklater, The Problem of Harm in World Politics, p. 23; Linklater, ‘Andrew Linklater reviews Stephen Mennell’.

32 See the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility (2004).

33 Mitchell, ‘Only human?’, p. 7.

34 Ibid., p. 8.

35 Ibid., p. 5.

36 Linklater, Andrew, ‘Global civilizing processes and the ambiguities of human interconnectedness’, European Journal of International Relations, 16:2 (2010), pp. 155178 ; Nicholas Wheeler, Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002).

37 Ibid.

38 Paterson, Matthew, Understanding Global Environmental Politics: Domination, Accumulation, Resistance (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001); Mitchell, Audra, ‘Thinking without the “circle”: Marine plastic and global ethics’, Political Geography, 47 (July 2015), pp. 7785 .

39 Mitchell, ‘Only human?’, p. 4.

40 Ibid., p. 7.

41 Burke, Anthony et al., ‘Planet politics: a manifesto from the end of IR’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 44:3 (2016), pp. 499523 .

42 Graeber, David, ‘Radical alterity is just another way of saying “reality”: a reply to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 5:2 (2015), pp. 141 .

43 Mitchell, ‘Only human?’, p. 7.

44 In line with Latour, Bruno, We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1993).

45 Drawing on Bennett’s vitalist ontology. Ibid., p. 12.

46 Ibid., p. 13.

47 Ibid.

48 Mitchell, ‘Only human?’, p. 11.

49 Norbert Elias, The Symbol Theory (London: Sage, 1991), p. 146.

50 In political terms, this has centred on the lack of a global subject that might gain any purchase on irreducibly global problems. See Beardsworth, Richard, ‘Towards a critical concept of the statesperson’, Journal of International Political Theory, 13:1 (2017), pp. 100121 .

51 Linklater, ‘Global civilizing processes and the ambiguities of human interconnectedness’.

52 Mitchell, ‘Only human?’, p. 15. Mitchell’s has also attempted to address this in the context of what Iain M. Banks has termed ‘outside context problems’. See Mitchell, Audra, ‘Is IR going extinct?’, European Journal of International Relations, 23:1 (2016), pp. 325 . Also see Banks, Iain M., Excession (London: Orbit, 1997).

53 Mitchell, ‘Only human?’, p. 16.

54 Ibid., p. 13.

55 Mennell, Norbert Elias: An Introduction

56 Kilminster, Richard, Norbert Elias: Post-Philosophical Sociology (London: Routledge, 2007).

57 Elias, What is Sociology?.

58 See the debate between Dunne and Kilminster in History of the Human Sciences, 27:3 and 27:5 (2014), and between Walsh and Kilminster, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 44:2 (2014) and 45:44 (2015).

59 Elias, ‘Problems of involvement and detachment’; Saramago, ‘Problems of orientation and control’.

60 Dunning and Hughes, Norbert Elias and Modern Sociology, p. 14.

61 Max Horkheimer, Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, trans G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer, and John Torpey (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993).

62 See the Journal of International Relations and Development, 20:4 (2017); Colin Wight, ‘A manifesto for scientific realism in IR: Assuming the can-opener won’t work!’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 35:2 (2007), pp. 379–98.

63 Kilminster, Norbert Elias: Post-Philosophical Sociology, p. 132; Linklater, ‘Towards a sociology of global morals’, p. 138.

64 Mitchell, ‘Thinking without the “circle”’.

65 Bhaskar, Roy, ‘Forms of realism’, Philosophica, 15:1 (1975), pp. 99127 .

66 Bhaskar, Roy, A Realist Theory of Science (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 47 .

67 Mitchell, ‘Thinking without the “circle”’.

68 Archer, Margaret, Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Walsh, ‘Is a post-philosophical sociology possible?’.

69 Kurki, Milja, Causation in International Relations: Reclaiming Causal Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 220 .

70 Ibid.

71 Linklater, The Problem of Harm in World Politics, p. 73.

72 Kekes, John, ‘Cruelty and liberalism’, Ethics, 106:4 (1996), pp. 834844 .

73 Dunning, Eric and Mennell, Stephen, ‘Elias on Germany, Nazism and the Holocaust: On the balance between “civilizing” and “decivilizing” trends in the social development of Western Europe’, The British Journal of Sociology, 49:3 (1998), pp. 339357 .

74 Mitchell, ‘Only human?’, p. 12.

75 Mitchell, ‘Thinking without the “circle”’.

76 Rosenberg, Justin, ‘International relations in the prison of political science’, International Relations, 30:2 (2016), pp. 127153 .

77 Linklater, ‘Norbert Elias, the “civilizing process” and the sociology of International Relations’; Mitchell, ‘Thinking without the “circle”’. This is not to reduce the various forms of co-becoming that both highlight to a purely scientific-realist frame, but rather that emergence is a key component in situating the objects a science frames as ‘its’ object. My argument is limited to a defensible social scientific core to an IR oriented towards the problem of harm and are intentionally minimalist in this regard. My thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.

78 Bhaskar, Roy and Harre, Rom, ‘How to change reality’, in Jose Lopez (ed), After Postmodernism: An Introduction to Critical Realism (London: Athlone Press, 2001).

79 Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism, p. 42.

80 Bhaskar, Roy, Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom (London: Verso, 1993), p. 125 . Necessity here draws upon Mackie’s influential definition of INUS conditions, which constitute ‘Insufficient but Necessary parts of a condition which is itself Unnecessary but Sufficient’ for their effects. See Mackie, J. L., ‘Causes and conditions’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 2:4 (1965), pp. 245264 .

81 Mitchell, ‘Only human?’, p. 13.

82 Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism, p. 133.

83 Bhaskar and Harre, ‘How to change reality’.

84 Harding, Sandra, ‘Rethinking standpoint epistemology: What is “strong objectivity?”’, The Centennial Review, 36:3 (1992), pp. 437470 .

85 Collier, Andrew, Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhakshar’s Philopsophy (London: Verso, 1994), p. 54 .

86 Lawson, Tony, ‘Abstraction’, in Margaret Archer, Roy Bhaskar, Andrew Collier, Tony Lawson, and Alan Norrie (eds), Critical Realism: Essential Readings (London: Routledge, 1998).

87 Sohn-Rethel, Alfred, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology (London: Macmillan, 1978).

88 Sayer, Andrew, Method in Social Science (2nd edn, London: Routledge, 2010), p. 87 .

89 Ollman, Bertell, Dialectical Investigations (London: Routledge), pp. 3978 .

90 See the debate in Feminist Economics, vol. 5 (1999, nos 2/3) and vol. 9 (2003, No. 1). On new materialism, see van Ingen, Michiel, ‘Beyond the nature/culture divide? The contradictions of Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman ’, Journal of Critical Realism, 15:5 (2016), pp. 530542 .

91 Mitchell, ‘Only human?’, p. 11.

92 Brown, Andrew, Slater, Gary, and Spencer, David A., ‘Driven to abstraction? Critical Realism and the search for the “inner connection” of social phenomena’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 26:6 (2002), pp. 773788 .

93 Mitchell, ‘Thinking without the “circle”’.

94 Collier, Critical Realism, p. 54.

95 Archer, Margaret, The Reflexive Imperative in Late Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

96 Beardsworth, ‘The future of critical philosophy’, p. 223.

97 Hartwig, Mervyn, ‘“Orthodox” Critical Realism and the Critical Realist embrace’, Journal of Critical Realism, 8:2 (2009), pp. 233257 .

98 Beardsworth, ‘Towards a critical concept of the statesperson’, p. 112.

99 Harding, ‘Rethinking standpoint epistemology’, p. 438.

100 Collier, Critical Realism, p. 171.

101 Curry, Neil, ‘Critical Realism: Beyond the Marxism/Post-Marxism divide’, in Critical Realism and Marxism (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 126 .

102 Linklater, The Problem of Harm in World Politics, p. 229.


Between philosophy and social science: Harm and its object in International Relations

  • Alex Hoseason (a1)


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