Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-8448b6f56d-gtxcr Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-04-17T21:56:42.930Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

1 - Cognitive Evolution and World Ordering

Opening New Vistas

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 November 2021

Piki Ish-Shalom
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Markus Kornprobst
University of Vienna
Vincent Pouliot
McGill University, Montréal


This chapter provides an overview of how Adler’s social theory of cognitive evolution helps us study international orders. First, we compare and contrast world ordering theory with its main alternatives in International Relations, starting with Ikenberry’s. Second, we elaborate on the key building blocks of cognitive evolution theory, including evolution and process, communities of practice, creativity and learning, social order and bounded progress. Third and finally, we raise a number of critical questions about Adler’s theory, in order to chart new avenues for future research. We ask about the role of material forces, the interaction of multiple orders, the conceptualization of power and agency, the place of communication and the normative extensions that the theory suggests. We conclude by presenting the following chapters in the book.

Theorizing World Orders
Cognitive Evolution and Beyond
, pp. 1 - 34
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021

International Relations (IR) scholars have researched international orders for many decades. Every major school of thought produced frequently cited works on the topic, including Realism,Footnote 1 English School,Footnote 2 Liberalism,Footnote 3 Critical Approaches,Footnote 4 FeminismFootnote 5 and Constructivism.Footnote 6 Recently, interest in studying international orders has been surging to entirely new levels. In 2018, the journal International Affairs dedicated its annual special issue to the topic “Ordering the World? Liberal Internationalism in Theory and Practice.” The International Studies Review followed suit with a special issue on changing international orders, featuring no less than nineteen articles. In 2021, International Organization celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary with a special issue on “Challenges to the Liberal World Order.” The latter title gives away what drives most of the surging scholarly interest: a hunch that the resilience of international ordering we have grown accustomed to remains no longer as unchallenged as it once may have been.

Emanuel Adler’s recent World Ordering: A Social Theory of Cognitive Evolution is a highly welcome contribution to current debates. The book pushes us toward adapting our (meta-)theoretical toolboxes for studying processes of world ordering. Departures from the existing literature are rather pronounced. Most remarkably, Adler does not write about one single and static world order, but analyzes multiple and simultaneous processes of world ordering. These are underwritten by cognitive evolution, which describes changing landscapes of practices. About a decade ago, Adler likened cognitive evolution to “an evolutionary collective-learning process that explains how communities of practice establish themselves, how their background knowledge diffuses and becomes institutionalized, how their members’ expectations and dispositions become preferentially selected, and how social structure spreads.”Footnote 7 His 2019 book links cognitive evolution firmly to world ordering.

The purpose of this edited volume is to discuss how Adler’s social theory of cognitive evolution helps us study international orders. This introduction provides an overview of his innovative ideas for researching world ordering, locates these in Adler’s own “cognitive evolution” – so to say – as a scholar of world politics, and proposes vistas for doing research that extend his theory of world ordering. We proceed in four steps. First, we discuss the similarities and differences between Adler’s thoughts on world ordering on the one hand and the existing literature on the other. Second, we unpack the building blocks of his theory of cognitive evolution. Third, we open up vistas for further research out of our critical discussion of Adler’s (meta-)theoretical framework. Finally, we provide an overview of the chapters of this book, which follow-up on the vistas we sketch.

Theories of International Order

In this section, we seek to locate Adler’s theory of world ordering in terms of its main alternatives on offer in IR. This exercise helps us identify a number of key innovations, as well as zoom in on areas of debate among scholars. Throughout, we use Ikenberry’s seminal theory of international orderFootnote 8 as our main foil, although we also touch on other IR works where relevant. The section is organized around five main questions, which overlap with the three interrogations that Adler mentions in opening his book:Footnote 9

  1. 1) What is order?

  2. 2) How is order created?

  3. 3) How does order reproduce and change?

  4. 4) What is international order made of?

  5. 5) Where is the international order headed?

The first three questions deal with social ontology and are not limited to world politics; whereas the latter two concern the international realm specifically, including its contemporary evolution. Table 1.1 summarizes the main elements of our comparison.

Table 1.1 Comparing theories of international orders

What is order?Settled rules (stable, unique)Configurations of practices (in flux, multiple)
How is order created?Material domination; rational bargain; functional institutionsSocial emergence within communities of practice
How does order reproduce and change?Rational interest, coercion and path dependenceIntegrative effects of jointly enacted practices; practical reflexivity
What is the international order made of?Open trade and rules to limit the exercise of powerClashing communities of liberal and nationalist practices
Where is the international order headed?Authority crisis under control due to low barriers to entry for challengersContingent balance of practices between liberal and nationalist modes of action

1) What is Order?

In past decades IR scholars have espoused a variety of ontologies when it comes to theorizing order. The key issue here is to determine what social orders are made of. In IR, major alternatives include:

  • order as a balance of power (in the form of a distribution of capabilities);Footnote 10

  • order as material hegemony;Footnote 11

  • order as a set of functional institutions and regimes;Footnote 12

  • order as a structure of norms, moral purposes and identities;Footnote 13

  • order as a combination of coercion and legitimacy;Footnote 14

  • order as a structure of institutional relationships;Footnote 15

  • order as a dominant economic and technological mode of productionFootnote 16 and

  • order as a settled pattern of action geared toward certain goals such as the preservation of sovereignty.Footnote 17

Adler’s social ontology departs from all these conceptions, as it conceives of order as based on the joint enactment of practices. Let us contrast his theory with that of Ikenberry, which is centered on rules and institutions. Similar to other internationalist writings, Ikenberry conceives of order as “settled rules and arrangements.”Footnote 18 At any given point, one may identify a set of rules of the game that are relatively stable within a social configuration. Agents know these rules and, as will become clear later, generally feel an interest in upholding them.

Contrast this understanding of order with Adler’s, which is premised on practice theory. For him, social orders are “configurations of practices that organize social life.”Footnote 19 Social groupings coalesce around a set of ways of doing things, which stabilize expectations and relationships. As such, for Adler any social order may be located along a continuum between interconnectedness and dissociation. Indeed, the integrative effects of practices are never complete, not only because some practices are much more competitive than others, but also because communities of practice overlap with one another, generating friction and possibly conflict.

Two critical implications follow. First, contrary to Ikenberry and other conceptions prevalent in IR, Adler likens order to flux– not to stability. In Ikenberry, the rules of the game are “settled.” More broadly, in the functionalist logic order is an equilibrium solution to collaboration problems. By contrast, for Adler “social orders are in a permanent state of nonequilibrium.”Footnote 20 In the complexity ontology, order obtains “through fluctuations.” We will return to the theme of change later, but for the time being, the second implication needs to be parsed out: if order is process, that is, if no social order is ever “congealed” or stable, then we need to open the door to the multiplicity of orders. In Ikenberry and others, the emphasis is generally on one dominant order, although some contestation is allowed around the edges.Footnote 21 Adler makes the opposite postulate: at any moment in time, there are several overlapping orders, some clashing and other mutually reinforcing. The multiple orders “constantly change”Footnote 22 and are never set for good – a point that begs the questions of creation, reproduction and change.

2) How is Order Created?

In IR, the dominant approach to the creation of international order is what Ikenberry calls the “political control model.”Footnote 23 According to this view, rules and institutions are “tools” in the hands of states to achieve their objectives. We find this starting point in both realism (e.g., hegemonic stability theory)Footnote 24 and liberal internationalism.Footnote 25 In the former case, order is the creation of the powerful, and it serves to foster its dominant interests. In the latter case, order is designed by its participants to help resolve collective action problems. Interestingly, Ikenberry’s own theory combines both insights. On the one hand, order is imposed by the strong, generally the winner(s) of a major war. This is the vertical or “hegemonic” aspect of order. Other participants buy into the imposed rules of the game in order to benefit from public goods, as well as to limit the use of arbitrary power by the hegemon. The latter amounts to the constitutional or horizontal dimension of order.Footnote 26 On the other hand, Ikenberry also acknowledges the functionalist logic, according to which rules serve to resolve collective action problems.Footnote 27

The key point is that in IR order is generally thought of as volitional or intentional. Order is designed, by dominant countries or by the whole of participants, in order to effect some purposes. Adler considerably nuances this understanding, to emphasize the evolutionary dimension of social order. For him, social orders are primarily socially emergent; the result of the joint enactment of practices. That does not preclude, however, a key role for reflexivity in the making of social orders: actors learn and seek to improve their conditions on that basis (more on this later). But it is a different kind of agency, flowing from the joint enactment of practices, as opposed to the expression of preferences. As Adler explains: “International social orders are neither purely spontaneous and detached from practitioners’ dispositions and expectations nor the exclusive result of human design. They result from emergent processes within communities of practice.”Footnote 28

The key question thus becomes “why some international practices end up being adopted rather than others.”Footnote 29 As for Ikenberry, Adler does introduce agency in the form of power. But he operates from a deeply different understanding than the ones usually on offer in IR, which center on material capabilities (primarily economic and military). Without denying the importance of such factors, Adler mainly focuses on the attachment of meaning, primarily in the form of deontic power, which is the glue that dynamically holds together the community of practice, but also performative power (which rests on the credible enactment of practice) and practical authority (which revolves around the struggle for competence, as well as epistemic knowledge, such as values and norms, making-up practices). Adler then adds a number of other social forces, ranging from dominant discourse to functionality through identity, in order to explain the particular shape that configurations of practice (orders) take at a particular point in space and time. Altogether, these factors drive what is arguably the most distinctive contribution of World Ordering to the question of order: explaining how practices spread within and across communities of practice.

3) How does Order Reproduce and Change?

We have already established that for Ikenberry, orders are created through coercion and rational interest or, to use his own words, “command” and “consent.”Footnote 30 Actors comply because it is in their interest to do so, in order to control the hegemon (or, reversely, to enact domination), to benefit from global public goods, as well as to deal with institutional artifacts such as sunk costs and adaptation. As equilibrium, order maintains itself so long as it resolves collective action problems. As a structure of power, alternatively, it reproduces to the extent that it reflects the distribution of material capabilities in the system. Thus, changes in the dominant actors, or in the nature of collaboration problems, are likely to lead to a new order, even though path dependence produces strong stabilizing effects (more on this later).

Adler gets to the problem of reproduction and change from the opposite angle. Remember that according to his theory, order is constantly in flux; it never stands still. Asking how order changes, then, is misplaced; the real question has to do with how practices are stable enough, locally, to (temporarily) fix a social order. Stability, here, is nothing but appearance; it rests on tons of political work and agency. The joint enactment of practices produces a number of integrative effects, in the form of mutual expectations, for instance. This is what explains continuity, according to Adler: “the intersubjective legitimacy of social orders is associated neither with utilitarian-functional considerations nor with the mere fact of their embeddedness in institutions. Foremost, it rests with practices’ capacity to create interconnectedness and practitioners’ mutual commitment to their practices.”Footnote 31

Here it is critical to confront the typical understanding of compliance in IR with Adler’s. As he explains, whether one uses rational choice theory (logic of consequences) or normative constructivism (logic of appropriateness), ultimately the logic of compliance is one of rule-following. Order comes first (in the form of settled rules); then compliance follows (rule-following) and the order gets reproduced. By contrast, for Adler orders results from “enacting rules.”Footnote 32 It is practice that comes first; order follows from joint performance, because of the socially integrative effects that it generates.Footnote 33 In a sense, we could say that, compared to the usual trio of explanations for compliance in IR (coercion; interest; legitimacy),Footnote 34 Adler suggests a fourth, complementary one, centered on the mutual accountability that practitioners party to a community of practice feel toward one another due to joint enactment and open social interaction.

In Adler’s theory, then, a key engine of change comes from “liminars,”Footnote 35 that is, actors that are located on the periphery or at the intersection of communities of practice. More broadly, because practice comes first, orders are always in the process of being made and remade. But this does not lead to instability – on the contrary. As Adler explains: “Fluctuations, such as practice learning, negotiation, and contestation, keep social orders in a metastable state.”Footnote 36 This is where politics enter the picture the most clearly. Whereas conventional wisdom generally associates politics with change, Adler connects it to stability: “Politics,” he writes, concerns how agents “strive either to keep social orders metastable or to bring about their evolution.”Footnote 37

Overall, then, evolutionary as Adler’s theory of world ordering may be, he nonetheless gives pride of place to intentionality and value judgments as the bases for innovation or creative variation.Footnote 38 Agency connects to change in three main ways: (1) learning within communities of practice (negotiation and contestation of meanings); (2) competition between communities (with some having preferential growth over others) and (3) the invention of new actors. Ultimately, then, agency is central to the reproduction and transformation of social orders, but it is a form of agency that is based neither on instrumental calculation nor on deep internalization, but rather on practical reflexivity: “Practitioners make value judgments about their performance and its outcomes, and if disenchanted, intentionally act differently from before.”Footnote 39 Social orders are always up for grabs at the individual level; but communities of practice tend to impose constraints on such volatility.

4) What is the International Order Made of?

We now switch gear and move from first-order to second-order issues, focusing on world politics per se. What do the different conceptions of order – including its creation, reproduction and change – have to say about the international realm? What, if anything, is particular to this level of analysis compared to other social spheres? A classic answer to this question comes from Bull, according to whom the preservation of sovereignty is the basic goal that all participants to the international order share. Fittingly, his definition of international order rests on this specificity – “a pattern of activity that sustains the elementary goals of the society of states.”Footnote 40 The peculiar institutions of international society, such as war, diplomacy, international law and the balance of power, are all geared toward the logic of state sovereignty. Note that there is nothing liberal about Bull’s notion of the international order: in “the absence of social solidarity,” he writes, only “common interests” can provide a stable foundation.

By contrast, Ikenberry explicitly qualifies the post-1945 international order as a liberal one. Like Bull (and contrary to Adler, see later), Ikenberry focuses on states and states alone. But the substance of the rules that comprise the international order is more specific than for Bull. Beyond the preservation of sovereignty, a liberal order is distinct in that it is “open” and “rules-based.” Openness for Ikenberry primarily refers to “trade and exchange on the basis of mutual gain”;Footnote 41 whereas a rules-based order is “at least partially autonomous from the exercise of state power.”Footnote 42 Horizontal as both characteristics may be, liberal orders also admit variation along the vertical dimension. According to Ikenberry, for instance, the American-led international order is a hybrid form in which multilateralism combines with patron–client relationships, power balance and hierarchy. Put differently, there is one liberal order, structured around open rules, but it can accommodate hierarchical deviations.

Adler’s notion of international order differs in significant ways, beginning with the fact that it admits a plurality of overlapping orders. His theory of world ordering also challenges state centrism, putting communities of practice (which may comprise not only powerful states but also any other kind of actor) in the driver’s seat. What helps qualify the orders under study are the key practices around which communities converge. Adler suggests thinking of international orders as fluctuating along a continuum bordered by nationalism at one end and liberalism at the other. What he calls “global anchoring practices”Footnote 43 are dominant modes of action that help distinguish one order from the others (although they always overlap in some ways). Nationalistic practices, for instance, include mercantilism, power politics, populism and immigration controls. By contrast, liberal practices cover regional integration, free trade, multilateralism and international law. In our current era, Adler observes, liberal and nationalistic communities of practice clash through the enactment of these contending practices, generating fluctuations and contradictions.

The fact that “[c]ognitive evolution theory suggests a concept of multiple international social orders”Footnote 44 significantly transforms our understanding of international orders, as well as their evolution. As Adler explains: “Existing and emerging international social orders can be superimposed for extended periods of time when the existing order has not yet evolved but the emerging order has still not taken hold.”Footnote 45 In order to capture this flux, he coins the concept of “balance of practices,” in which clashing modes of action coexist and often rub against one another. Adler gives the example of the European Union’s response to the ongoing refugee crisis, in which liberal and nationalistic practices compete as part of the policymaking process. In addition, Adler’s theory helps capture the infinite nature of international orders, which “have never covered the entire globe and have always been a matter of perspective and context.”Footnote 46 Instead of unicity and homogeneity, then, we have an international realm characterized by multiplicity and heterogeneity at every step of the way.

5) Where is International Order Headed?

The final question that we address regards the current state and prospects of the international liberal order. Ikenberry’s Liberal Leviathan makes a relatively sanguine appraisal here: the liberal international order is undergoing an “authority crisis,” due to “shifts in power, contested norms of sovereignty, threats related to nonstate actors, and the scope of participating states.”Footnote 47 That said, Ikenberry rushes to add, the resilience of the order remains unprecedented, primarily because of low barriers to entry, which facilitate the integration of challengers. In addition, the absence of a real contender to the liberal order helps maintain it even in the face of its authority crisis: “Appealing alternatives to an open and rule-based order simply have not crystallized.”Footnote 48

As we have already seen, Adler rejects such an assumption of unicity for the liberal international order: “Even at the height of American power after World War II, and after the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989,” he writes, “international order consisted of a plurality of international social orders.”Footnote 49 Put differently, the liberal order has never been dominant to the point of displacing entirely its alternatives. That said, Adler and Ikenberry do agree that the liberal order is currently enduring a serious crisis. For the former, however, it is difficult to predict how competing communities of practice will feature in the making and remaking of international orders. Contrary to Ikenberry, then, it is not the substance of the liberal order, as much as the productive effect of practices and the competition between communities of practice, that are likely to determine the fate of multilateralism and open trade.

How can we conjecture about the future of the liberal order, then? While Adler provides analytically general mechanisms that operate in any social realm, Holsti suggests a series of requirements that are peculiar to the international realm of sovereign states.Footnote 50 On top of legitimacy, he argues that international order requires a system of governance, the possibility of assimilation, a deterrent system, conflict-resolving procedures, a consensus on war, procedures for peaceful change and some anticipation of future issues. These are, in fact, the conditions for stability in the international society. For Holsti, the post-World War II order suffers from insufficient mechanisms of deterrence, peaceful change and anticipation, a problem that has, and continues to, put its resilience to test. This argument, however, does not take into account the specificities of the current period, including the rise of nationalism across the globe.

Adler, for his part, understands the fate of the liberal order in terms of its main alternative, the nationalist one. His claim, which is partly indeterminate, is that “[f]luctuations of practices (particularly contestation of the present social order) may be approaching a sociocognitive threshold. If it gets crossed, Europe’s social order could tip and evolve.”Footnote 51 In order to tell where the liberal international order is headed, then, we need to study – empirically – the balance of practices that currently structure these two communities. Equipped with Adler’s mechanisms of change, centered around performative power, learning and competition, we may not predict the future, but we can certainly better understand its making.

Adler does not stop with recognizing the contingency of world ordering, however. His theory is also explicitly normative. Practitioners have a responsibility in the evolution of international orders: their practices are better, in the normative sense, when they are based on an acknowledgment of our common humanity. A Theory of World Ordering, then, not only puts forward a conceptual apparatus in which norms feature prominently, as in Reus-Smit or, to a lesser extent, Ikenberry. It also suggests that global practices can evolve toward the better – nondeterministic as these normative processes may be (more on this later).

The Building Blocks of Cognitive Evolution Theory

Now that we have located Adler’s theory in the IR literature on international orders, we want to parse out the key components of his (meta-)theoretical framework. Adler’s social theory of cognitive evolution is built on six core building blocks: (1) evolution and process; (2) social learning, agency and background knowledge; (3) practices and communities of practice; (4) creativity, reflexivity and deontic power; (5) social order and multiplicity and (6) bounded progress. This section discusses each of them in turn.

Evolution and Process

Adler’s theory is based on evolutionary logic. Evolution describes the incremental process of social transformation. This is the key parallel between cognitive evolution and biological evolution. Notwithstanding their fundamental differences, the worlds that social scientists and natural scientists seek to understand do share a crucial feature: they are constantly changing. Beyond this similarity, there are also major differences between cognitive and biological evolution, starting with agency. Cognitive evolution is underpinned by agential processes. Political actors do certain things rather than others, and this makes the social world evolve in certain ways rather than others. Adler divides the process of cognitive evolution into three main phases: innovation, selection and diffusion.Footnote 52 Overall, the evolutionary metaphor is persuasive for two reasons: first, it shifts the analytical focus to the institutional environment, where the selection process takes place; and second, it points out that the process lacks a necessary direction. History and the evolution of ideas are not teleological processes guided by a supreme entity.

Adler’s emphases on becoming and agency hang together. In the social world, the former cannot be explained without scrutinizing the latter. Equally important, Adler asserts that we cannot make sense of agency without taking a close look at the evolution of the social world. This kind of ontology requires not only an epistemology that helps make sense of change but also one that does not reduce the study of change to linear causal relationships. Adler, therefore, settles on what may be described as a pragmatist epistemology. Early American pragmatists, especially Peirce, James and Dewey feature prominently in his thinking, as do Mead, Toulmin and D. Campbell. Furthermore, Adler borrows from complexity theory and from Popper. The former is an important source of inspiration for him primarily because it is all about nonlinear relationships. For his part, Popper tried to grapple with something that makes Adler wonder too: there is not just a material world; there are also subjective and intersubjective worlds. It is Popper’s epistemological ideas on these worlds that Adler is particularly interested in.

“Becoming” lies at the center of Adler’s thinking about international politics and the social world. Taking his cue from Heraclitus, he starts from the premise that one can never cross the same river twice. For Adler “the idea of ‘becoming’ considers everything to be in flux, as a permanent process of change and evolution, even that which appears to be static.”Footnote 53 This is a critical point for Adler, because in his view order happens through fluctuations (see earlier). Evolutionary logic is key because it paves the way to a thoroughly processual understanding of the social. The social world – interacting with the material world – is never carved into stone. It evolves.

In line with his ontology of becoming, Adler assumes that orders evolve. Not only do orders never stand still for portrait, but the kind of change to be understood is evolution rather than distribution (or redistribution), transformation or friction.Footnote 54 Material changes are connected to changes of order, for example, through external shocks. At the same time, order can also be meta-stable. But even meta-stability involves evolution, insofar as it is generated through expansion. Meta-stability, defined by Adler “as practices’ continuity in a stable state of flow below a sociocognitive threshold,”Footnote 55 is akin to resilience.Footnote 56 Communities of practice (more on this later) expand to other geographical and/or institutional environments. Echoing the literature on resilience,Footnote 57 this phenomenon is not about order staying exactly the same. It is about order being adapted over and over.

Social Learning, Agency and Background Knowledge

In Adler’s theory, evolution is cognitive in the sense that it describes a process of social learning. Put differently, it is knowledge, especially background knowledge, which varies here. Accordingly, for Adler “learning means the evolution of background knowledge (intersubjective knowledge and discourse that adopt the form of human dispositions and practices).”Footnote 58 Here the connections to American pragmatism should be clear. Adler’s understanding of pragmatism includes a careful theoretical engagement with constitutive and causal relationships. This sets him apart from epistemological postulates of “following the actors.”Footnote 59 Adler vows not just to follow how actors cognitively cope with the world in a particular set of circumstances. He aims for uncovering generalizable processes through which agents figure out what to do, how this affects the social context that constitutes them, and vice versa.

Thus, learning describes the acquisition, transformation and invention of knowledge. For Adler, learning occurs primarily – though not exclusively – via experience. Even more importantly, learning is social in that it occurs via joint participation in practice (more on this later). This is the agentic dimension of Adler’s theory: people’s ideas change because they do things together. He works from a socially thick notion of agency, which is very different from the focus on individual beliefs or perceptions that one often finds in social science. For Adler, agents “manage” selection according to their own agential plans, which are formed socially, intersubjectively and within an institutional structure. At least in that sense, learning and development are not purely arbitrary, and furthermore the agents and structures are not separated.

How do orders evolve into certain directions rather than others? The short answer to this is: agency! Very few IR theorists have gone at such great length to address agency. Adler lists no less than seven attributes of the concept.Footnote 60 The most important one – something akin to his Menschenbild (image of human beings) – is creativity. This is an analytical clue he borrows from Joas.Footnote 61 In Adler’s thought, context and creativity do not exclude one another. On the very contrary, context prompts agents to be creative.

Adler’s understanding of cognitive evolution is informed by, but also goes beyond, what he labels Giddens’ “social functionalism” as well as Elster’s individualism and intentionalism. It is also quite removed from various established strands of institutionalism such as historical institutionalism and rational choice institutionalism. Adler elaborates much more on agency and change than Giddens does, and, in contrast to the British social theorist, he relies on the concept of practices in order to overcome the dualism of structure and agency.Footnote 62 Adler borrows considerably from the insightful questions that Elster asks about agency, but he rejects his eventual conclusion, that is, to settle for a focus on individual actors who act fully intentionally. Finally, while Adler is very interested in institutions, he criticizes historical institutionalism for reasons not all that dissimilar from his critique of Giddens. Relying too much on structural forces (path dependency), it is unclear where change should come from. His criticism against rational choice institutionalism echoes his remarks about Elster: Adler is skeptical about individualist and fully intentional accounts of agency.

For Adler, neither structure nor agency is ontologically prior. They affect one another in profound ways. While this is an argument about an aurea mediocritas (golden middle), it is important to underline that he puts more emphasis on agency than most IR theorists. This, of course, applies to systemic theories of IR, no matter whether they conceptualize structure in materialFootnote 63 or ideationalFootnote 64 terms. Yet it also applies to early studies on normsFootnote 65 in which norms were assumed to weigh heavily on political agency, poststructuralist workFootnote 66 and Gramsci-inspired researchFootnote 67 in which intersubjectivities of domination leave little room for agency to overcome radical inequality, and even literature that draws on Bourdieu.Footnote 68 In Adler’s work, the concept of practices features as prominently as in Bourdieu. He also draws from Bourdieu’s understandings of the field, doxa and habitus to a considerable extent. But he rejects Bourdieu’s theory of agency as being too restrictive.

Practices and Communities of Practice

For Adler, the social gets manifested in practices, defined as “knowledge-constituted, meaningful patterns of socially recognized activity embedded in communities, routines and organizations that structure experience.”Footnote 69 As he writes, “we know and understand through action and practice.”Footnote 70 This is because practices “structure consciousness.”Footnote 71 Their role is not causal but constitutive, by establishing a common platform for interaction: “rather than rules mechanistically ‘telling’ people what to practice, background knowledge works by enabling linguistic and perceptual interpretations, thus, by structuring consciousness.” It is interesting to note how Adler’s persistent interest in ideas fashioned his current understanding of practices. Unlike certain accounts of habitus, in Adler’s hands practices bear the cognitive features of ideas, subject to learning, cognitive evolution and judgment. Those reflective cognitions mark humans as thinking agents, working relentlessly and consciously toward change and normative progress.

By analogy, think of a group of practitioners as being akin to a field of sunflowers. In general, the flowers look in the same direction – that of the sun, even though there always are a few plants defying the pattern for a variety of reasons. Human beings are similarly oriented by practice. Practices provide ready templates for action, which exert a centripetal force on practitioners. People need not use them all the time or always in the exact same way, but as a general rule, they will refer to them, if only because it makes social interaction possible in the first place. In the theory of cognitive evolution, then, collective-background knowledge creates the propensity for similar action.Footnote 72

As such, practices are fundamentally social in nature. And because they produce “interconnectedness,” practices lead to horizontal integration, which is – in contrast to vertical integration – conducive to learning.Footnote 73 For Adler, communities of practice are the agents of change. They play a crucial role in “meaning investment”Footnote 74 that can transform even the most deeply held “background knowledge.” Put differently, social learning – the essence of cognitive evolution – happens by way of communities of practice. Knowledge moves around and morphs via the joint participation in practices. This stands in opposition to what Adler calls the “‘bucket’ view of learning, in which people add knowledge and skills to the mind as if it were a bucket.”Footnote 75

The concept of communities of practice does a number of important things for Adler. Most centrally, it provides him with a vehicle for social learning. Social learning happens by way of communities of practice. Since these communities overlap, agents are never part of just one community. What Wenger refers to as boundary objects, that is, “artefacts, documents, terms, concepts, and other forms of reification,”Footnote 76 crisscross. This makes actors engage in brokering and translation. Brokering means that agents “introduce elements of one practice into another.” Translation is “relating things that were previously different.”Footnote 77 These overlaps also obtain at the global level: boundary regions, for instance, are productive spaces in terms of cognitive evolution.

Communities of practice are also important because, beyond being the crucible of learning, they also favor, to a variable extent, mobilization and collective action. For instance, a community’s material and organizational capabilities help explain the differential rate of success that its practices enjoy, both within it and on its outside. As such, communities of practice “compete with other communities for the successful institutionalization of their practices.”Footnote 78 A key part of the theory precisely seeks to explain the differential rate of success that various communities obtain.

Creativity, Reflexivity and Deontic Power

Joint participation is at the source of creativity, which Adler, taking his cue from Joas, conceives as a collective process. New knowledge is the product of interaction, which enables reflexivity and the problematization of existing background knowledge. Nothing comes out de novo.Footnote 79

In line with his epistemology, Adler aims for a detailed theoretical specification of agential processes. He identifies four of them: “practice-driven changes,” “apprenticeship through learning,” “agents’ reflexivity and judgment” and “social power.”Footnote 80 Through these processes, which are “inherently intertwined,” actors come to learn together. Practice-driven changes naturalize new background knowledge “through self-fulfilling expectations.” Apprenticeships change identities around. Judgment is of key importance. Actors denaturalize the old, for example, by delegitimizing it. This entails moving from habit to reflection. Change, according to Adler, involves reflective dimensions (alongside non-reflected ones).

How does new knowledge develop into a practice? Adler’s answer to this question is selective retention. There are two kinds of selective retentions. Horizontal retention happens via expansion. Communities of practice expand further geographically or organizationally. Vertical retention is about inheritance. Actors pass on practices to one another. Thus, some may be new practitioners but they use (at least a considerable amount of) established practices. Selective retention is a particular kind of institutionalization. It is not the kind of institutional design that many scholars address, but rather the reification of social institutions as social practices. Adler again borrows from Wenger to argue that while designed institutions matter, ultimately it is practice that matters more.Footnote 81 This kind of institutionalization has, according to Adler, something to do with layering and conversion. The former is about grafting “new elements onto an otherwise stable institutional framework.” The latter is more far-reaching. It is about the “adoption of new goals or the incorporations of new groups into the coalitions on which institutions are founded.”Footnote 82 Adler hints here at something like rules of the game.

Agency naturally leads to the issue of power. As we have seen earlier, Adler conceives of power in two main ways: performative and deontic. To start with the former, he writes that “[p]erformative power is the capacity to present a dramatic and credible performance on the world stage.”Footnote 83 In the dramaturgical tradition of Jeffrey Alexander, Adler is interested in the constitution of society via practice, that is, competent performance. In this scheme, “[p]erformative power means using the contingency of interpretations and performances.”Footnote 84 When it comes to the deontic face of power, Adler builds on Searle and focuses on the assignment of status and function to things, institutions and people. Deontic power is unequally distributed not only among practitioners but also between communities. This facilitates the diffusion of some background knowledge over other. As he explains, rights, duties, obligations, requirements, permissions, authorization and entitlements become stabilized by means of practice.Footnote 85

This is where Adler’s theory of cognitive evolution has a decidedly normative bent. In line with Rouse, mutual accountability is what allows practitioners to go on, to interact collaboratively or competitively around a variety of projects.Footnote 86 This deontic process explains how society comes together, including on the international stage. But the deontic power of practice also describes how normative change becomes possible, by allowing practitioners to reflect, critique and justify certain ways of doing things over others.

Social Order and Multiplicity

As discussed in the first section of this chapter, for Adler international order is not just one order but consists of a configuration of international social orders. In other words, social orders are multiple: coexisting, clashing or alternatively mutually reinforcing. In a coauthored Reference Adler and Greve2009 article, Adler explored the overlap between distinct repertoires of security practices, for instance, security community and balance of power practices cohabiting in the very same regional space in the form of a “balance of practices.” Emphasizing the heterogeneity of international order, Adler and Greve argued that different systems of governance coexist and overlap,Footnote 87 sometimes intentionally but often as historically contingent patterns. Later on, in 2010, Adler built on Eisenstadt’s concept of “multiple modernities” as another instantiation of the fluidity and inchoateness of social orders as patterns of practices. Obama’s nuclear disarmament agenda, which Adler discussed in a Reference Adler, Dunne and Flockhart2013 chapter, similarly combines realpolitik practices with the global governance repertoire. This is what social orders look like in practice.

Orders, which are akin to fields, are constituted by communities of practice. In Adler’s process ontology of “order through fluctuations,” “social orders originate and derive from, and are incessantly being constituted by, practices.” Cognitive evolution happens through the joining of, and competition between, communities of practice, which are the vehicles and sites of learning and innovation. Because cognition is social, based on interaction and engagement with practice, creativity is a socially emergent collective process. Here we see how the concept of practice provides Adler with an endogenous explanation for change and transformation. At the same time, resilience is also a product of contestation. This, of course, echoes complexity theory, from which Adler has taken inspiration for about half a century.

Thus, on top of agency and learning there are structural elements in the theory as well. By presuming the multiplicity of social orders, Adler locates a source of change in the inevitable friction between social configurations. Communities of practice bump into one another, and practitioners often participate in several of them at the same time. Reflexivity is made possible by such interference. And while “‘friction’ between orders promotes change,” crises for their part act as “cognitive punches.”Footnote 88 They form the structural context of creativity and reflexivity.

Multiplicity is important because for Adler changes emerge out of “liminar situations,” which spark “cognitive thresholds.” Of particular interest are the boundaries between these orders. Following Wenger, Adler directs our analytical gaze toward studying these boundaries.Footnote 89 To put this simply, actors are never just steeped in one context but always in several ones. Practices overlap. So do communities of practice and, thus, social orders. As Adler explains, “we should consider world order to be a constellation and landscape of practice fields and communities of practice, some of which overlap, others which complement and depend on each other, and still others which are in contestation … Cutting across multiple international social orders, however, are global anchoring practices [which] straddle a spectrum between interconnectedness and disassociation.”Footnote 90 For the former, Adler lists multilateral diplomacy and international contractual law; and national security, mercantilism and populist policy for the latter.

Better Practices and Bounded Progress

In 2005, Adler endorsed a communitarian multilateralism,Footnote 91 or cooperation of the like-minded, in effecting progress in world politics. His normative theory got even more explicit in his discussion of the European civilization and liberal practices.Footnote 92 In these works, Adler explicitly supports postmodern practices such as the elimination of borders and postnational citizenship, while also calling for more “relational practices” (e.g., self-restraint) to serve as “cultural roundabouts” for encountering the Other in world politics. As he concluded in 2010: “To my mind, practices of self-restraint and mutual tolerance are not only better practices than colonialism and imperialism – they also suggest the opportunity to establish civilizational encounters on mutual dignity and respect.”Footnote 93 In this way, Adler comes full circle in his book. By emphasizing the deontic power of practice, he weaves together the analytical and the normative dimensions of world politics. Mutual accountability is what allows practitioners to go on, to interact collaboratively or competitively around a variety of projects. This deontic process explains how society comes together, including on the international stage. But the deontic power of practice also describes how normative change becomes possible, by allowing practitioners to reflect, critique and justify certain ways of doing things over others. This is, perhaps, the destination that Adler has pursued for his entire career – spanning the divide between explaining and effecting political change.

Coming full circle means that Adler revisits his former engagement with the notion of progress and also examines how progress conforms with cognitive evolution. As was analyzed earlier, for Adler the attractiveness of evolution as metaphor is, among other things, in its not being teleological. Evolution as we came to know it depends on contingencies, and it lacks any predestined direction. This is surely different from how we usually think of progress: as the opposite of random change, in being intended and directional. Thus, Adler has to come up with a theoretical framework combining the two distinct notions in relative comfort. He offers a fruitful middle ground that transcends what appears to be unbridgeable dichotomy between the analytical and the normative. Understanding “practices as the repositories of ethical collective knowledge,”Footnote 94 Adler goes on to develop a network of novel concepts that together help him overcome problematic dichotomies, such as positive approaches versus normative approaches, communitarianism versus cosmopolitanism, transcendental versus immanent values, the Enlightenment idea of progress versus normative relativism, practice versus discourse and interconnectedness versus disassociation.

The concepts that take center stage in Adler’s normative/political theory are “better practices” and “bounded progress,” along with “common humanity” and “realist humanism.” In tune with his Dewey-inspired pragmatist ethics, he defines better practices as “those that carry in their background knowledge constitutive ethical values about common humanity’s worth and are emergent in practice, namely practice (and practitioners) are creative of ethical values.”Footnote 95 Pragmatism enables Adler to ground values in the practices and their communities, as well as in the background knowledge surrounding practices. It also allows him to avoid overly meta-ethical discussions: values and practices are united together and provide the justifications for each other. Values are endowed with quality, which in its turn means value. True, there is in here a bit of circularity, but from a pragmatist perspective this circularity means that ends are shaped in “processes of ends deliberation” and “in response to concrete dilemmas.”Footnote 96 Circularity is resolved by theoretically turning to deliberation and thus practically to the intersubjective process of social construction. Moreover, the pragmatic moves allow Adler to conceive practices as endowed with deontic power, as the driving force of cognitive evolution directing common humanity in bounded progress. Progress can then conform with cognitive evolution because the above-mentioned conceptual schemata reconceptualizes it as bounded; that is, as “neither deterministic, unconditional, and teleological, a concept of progress usually associated with the Enlightenment idea of progress, nor relativist, as in anything goes, or as in ‘good’ is whatever I say it is.”Footnote 97

None of this means that progress is guaranteed. On the contrary, all we can say is that although “progress may not happen, it still can happen.”Footnote 98 Bounded progress occurs in this torturous and nonlinear process, otherwise known as human history through which better practices carried in and by communities of practice “spread, both horizontally and vertically, perhaps even to the global level, they constitute propensities for individuals’, peoples’, and states’ moving away from inequality, authoritarian rule, war, and human rights abuses.” Those better practices are infused with collective knowledge of a common humanity and they place the quality of human life as a primary entitlement to which we are all entitled, being members of common humanity. Those better practices, while not guaranteed, can still happen and evolve “away from international policies that cause war, poverty, and human rights violations” toward, that is, the “better angels” of “our social orders.”Footnote 99

Critical Questions and Extensions for Research

Innovative as it may be, Adler’s social theory of cognitive evolution also raises a number of questions to be taken up by the community of IR scholars and beyond. One of the strengths of the book is that it succeeds in opening “new vistas” for studying world ordering. This section, engaging critically with Adler’s descriptive, explanatory and normative theorizing, identifies seven key avenues for further research.

First, how exactly do social orders relate to one another? Adler seems to assume that they overlap and form horizontal relations. But we probably need more research into these relations. Some orders are related to one another while others are not. What is more, some orders that are related to one another may do so horizontally but others may do so vertically.Footnote 100 We may encounter subordinate and superordinate orders. Something like a diplomatic field may amount to a meta-order in this complex constellation. Related, how are orders constituted within? What about contestation and differentiation within an order, and, thus, within a community of practice? This is an important question because Adler pays close attention to boundaries. If there are important boundaries within a field, this should also prompt the creativity of agents and it should have repercussions for change. To put this differently, orders vary and some variations may make change more likely. This is a point that Krause makes convincingly for the study of fields.Footnote 101

Second, how exactly does the material world shape cognitive evolution? Adler insists on the role of the physical world but he does not supply specific mechanisms. For example, Wendt argues that material conditions impact ideas at two main levels: they define the physical limits of possibility, and they help define the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action.Footnote 102 For his part, Adler refers to “assemblage” as “emergent unities of ‘things’ and ‘sayings’, which come together in a single context and respect the heterogeneity of their components”Footnote 103 – for example, the wasp and the orchid. But how do matter and knowledge come together in a social assemblage? What is more, what is the role of power and capacity here? Adler writes that “[p]ower is also associated with communities of practice’s material and institutional resources, for instance, objects and technology that a community of practice shares.”Footnote 104 By implication, power is not only performative and deontic, but also material, yet the connections between the three are in need of further clarification.

Third and related, why do some players have more deontic power than others? As Guzzini argues (this volume), the problem with any power argument is that it explains cause in terms of its effects: a powerful actor is one who exerts influence over others. But can we describe the power landscape otherwise than via its effects? If we are to avoid the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, this would seem to be an analytical requirement. Adler writes that “[t]he reason that practices and the background knowledge bound with them possess deontic power is easy to see: practicing or knowing in practice means to competently act on the basis of status-functions, which are collectively created, recognized, and legitimized by a community of practice.”Footnote 105 Critics may find the argument a bit tautological.

Adler argues that a key to cognitive evolution is to explain “how communities of practice establish themselves preferentially.” One way in which they do so is by wielding superior deontic power. But where do they get that power from? In other words, what are the sources of deontic power, other than successful performance, which it instantiates? How does one cultivate, or alternatively, lose such power? Is it possible for deontic power to be inefficient and if so why? And how can we operationalize deontic power? More broadly, in practice what is the difference between deontic power and what Adler calls epistemic practical authority? Last but not least, how do power and interests, as well as power and ideas, intersect and implicate each other?

Indeed, taking his cue from Wenger, Adler understands practice as the vehicle of horizontal social integration: shared patterns of doing things bring people together in the form of joint enactment. Correct as this insight may be, it is not entirely clear how it relates to another aspect of practice, by which (in)competent performances foster vertical integration. Here practice pits people against one another, as part of an agonistic process of struggle over defining and molding the world and its unstable meanings. Of course, both views are probably correct, capturing complementary dimensions of social life. The challenge consists in understanding the competing effects of practice on social order and integration. For instance, while it is true that the mutual accountability upon which practice rests brings communities together, its mechanisms of reputation and peer recognition also generate friction and stratification dynamics. Can we square this circle, and if so, how?

Fourth, if reflectivity and creativity are the (agentic) engines of cognitive evolution, how can we determine the specific directions in which they move social orders? Put differently, what makes agents “tick”? This, of course, is one of the most difficult questions social scientists ask. Adler provides us with four different agential mechanisms and a number of related concepts, ranging from creativity to selective retention, from habit to reflection, from transaction to practices and so on. Different perspectives on cognitive evolution may rearrange these mechanisms and concepts somewhat differently. They may also part ways with some mechanisms and some concepts, moving, for example, away from reflexivity or even further toward it.

Adler argues that reflexivity emerges out of liminar situations; but aren’t multiple orders always in tension? This is an important issue because liminar situations are arguably the norm rather than the exception. By implication, actors consistently find themselves in a potential cognitive crisis in which they need to resolve epistemic tensions. If that is the case, what explains that reflexivity is not more prevalent than it actually is in the world? Adler writes that “practices are also creative. Practitioners, through understanding, interpretation, imagination, and experimentation.”Footnote 106 But then, what are the differences between reflexivity, creativity and judgment?

Furthermore, what can Adler’s mechanism tell us about the substance of change, that is, the specific content of background knowledge that wins the day? Overall it seems fair to say that Adler specifies why actors are sometimes able to “think outside of the box”; yet he does not tell us what these outside-of-the-box ideas will be. For instance, he writes that “variation from a cognitive-evolutionary perspective is always creative … creative variation arises from the contingency of social life, rather than only from intentions and choices.” The best we can say is that cognitive evolution is likely to point in the direction of those actors and communities that exert the most deontic power. But as we just explained, it is not clear that we can specify ex ante who these powerful players are; we often have to wait until change has occurred before we know.

Adler also suggests that “change is nonlinear and dynamic: social orders evolve pushed by past practices and pulled by future practices.”Footnote 107 But what does it mean, exactly, to say that future practices pull current ones? Here the critical link is provided by the notion of expectations, which Adler theorizes as a key component of human dispositions. Human beings formulate plans; these plans are informed by the past, concern the future and are acted upon here and now: “Action is ‘pushed’ by the past from background knowledge dispositions, but is also ‘pulled’ toward the future with foresight, anticipation, and expectations.”Footnote 108

Fifth, what role does communication play in cognitive evolution? If learning takes place via joint participation, then chances are that the participants will communicate, tacitly and/or explicitly, with each other along the way. Instead of a broader concept or set of concepts addressing communication, Adler relies on a narrow one, that is, performances. While discussing performances, however, the authors he cites firmly link performances to other aspects of communication. For all the differences in the arguments they put forward, this similarity applies to Dewey, Alexander as well as Boltanski and Thévenot.Footnote 109 While picking a certain aspect of communication at the expense of others is fully in line with current IR theorizing,Footnote 110 we are not sure whether it is entirely in sync with a social theory of cognitive evolution.

Authors taking the multiple aspects of communication seriously have long pointed out the importance of liminal spaces. This applies especially to Bakhtin.Footnote 111 His work provides important clues for how communication and liminal spaces hang together. Indeed, another promising starting point for developing a fuller understanding of communication is Adler’s own previous work, for instance, when he engages with Deutsch and his transactionalist understanding of communication,Footnote 112 writes about narrativesFootnote 113 and does empirical work on seminar diplomacy.Footnote 114

Sixth, more work remains to be done about what triggers the seven mechanisms of cognitive evolution that Adler theorizes. Following Elster, mechanisms are conceived of as propensities and potentials, which need to be sparked in order to produce their effects. In Adler’s theory, it is not always clear what exactly these triggers are. We know that crises give “cognitive punches,” but we do not know how to specify crises ex ante, that is to say, prior to becoming an opening for change. For example, there are four agentic mechanisms of cognitive evolution: (1) practice-driven changes in dispositions and expectations; (2) transactions, negotiation and contestation processes; (3) socially generated reflection and judgment and (4) practitioners’ usage of material and sociocultural environments (deontic power). The connections and overlap between these agentic processes are not always easy to pin down, especially when it comes to empirical operationalization.

The same goes, although perhaps to a lesser extent, for the “three sociocultural mechanisms” of cognitive evolution: (1) endogenous collective learning within communities of practice; (2) competition among them and (3) innovation of communities (“invention of new actors”). How do these structural, macro forces interact with the processes of agency? More to the point, how do they connect to what Adler calls the mechanisms of socio-cognitive evolution – epistemic practical authority of communities of practice and meaning fixation by practices? In this overabundance of social mechanisms, the empirical researcher is a bit at loss in order to trace changes in international orders.

Seventh, there are normative issues awaiting further reflection. Throughout his writings Adler explored the power of ideas in their various facets and mechanisms. As a constructivist, he is keenly aware of the relationships between ideas and power, so much so that he develops the notion of epistemic security, “the validity of what we can collectively consider as knowledge.” Yet Adler spends less time pondering the complementary critical sensitivity of the obverse relations: that between power and ideas. For instance, how do hegemonic actors influence the working of epistemic communities, and even more deeply the constitution of ideas, intersubjective knowledge, background knowledge and knowledge as being manifested in practices and in communities of practice? It is not that Adler is oblivious to the possibility that ideas create wrong and even evil. He knows history well enough to be aware of this possibility (and this is another source for his attempt to weave together normative and explanatory theories). But the development of ideas and the selection process – that is, cognitive evolution – at points glosses over the many ways in which power and interest meddle in the life of ideas.

From a more critical perspective, a perspective committed to the emancipatory potential of ideas, ideas need not be some neutral apparatus, fitting and serving a universal purpose. Interestingly enough, Adler argues with Bernstein that authority is involved in the constitution of epistemes.Footnote 115 Add this to his correct observation that constructivism lacks a theory of politics,Footnote 116 and what we get is a major gap to be filled. One way would be to embrace the full potential of critical theory and explore in depth the constitutive relations of ideas and power, which are reciprocal and mutual. Theorizing these relations would open the door to a fruitful constructivist theory of politics and to a fuller understanding of the relations between multiple potential progresses and cognitive evolution.

Chapter Overview

The contributors to this book explore different vistas for researching world ordering by engaging with Adler’s work at the meta-theoretical, conceptual and/or analytical-normative level(s). In Chapter 2, Stefano Guzzini zooms in on power, observing some inconsistencies in the way that Adler borrows from John Searle’s and Jeffrey Alexander’s respective social theories. Because he equates power with agency rather than with structural domination, argues Guzzini, Adler ends up overburdening what the concept of power can deliver, especially in light of his communitarian political theory and process ontology. In Chapter 3, Alena Drieschova looks into the nexus between the material and the ideational. Linking New Materialism to cognitive evolution, she seeks to move beyond the New Materialism’s fixation on macro-historical theorization of changes of international order on the one hand, and the social theory of cognitive evolution’s heavy reliance on ideas and practices on the other. Drieschova’s chapter elaborates on how functionality and aesthetics can operate as material criteria for selective retention, and highlights the relevance of network memory for the kinds of information that are stored and, therefore, retained.

In Chapter 4, Simon Frankel Pratt criticizes Adler’s social theory of cognitive evolution for the lack of an explicit phenomenology. Pratt addresses this lacuna by drawing on the philosophy of John Dewey and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, thus moving Adler’s theory from strict pragmatism to one more informed by phenomenology. Pratt’s reasoning is that a phenomenological elaboration of cognitive evolution makes significant contributions to several debates in the field of IR, including those on micro-foundations, ontological security and materiality. Chapter 5, by Maïka Sondarjee, looks for clues about discourses in Adler’s theoretical framework. Fully agreeing with Adler’s meta-theoretical focus on evolution, Sondarjee criticizes the theory for sidelining the meaning-making repercussions of discourse. In order to make a case for the salience of narratives, she develops an argument for how narratives could be included in the social theory of cognitive evolution, using the World Bank and participatory development practices as a case study. In Chapter 6, then, Peter M. Haas starts by asking the question of where the agents are in Adler’s theory. His vehicle for answering this question is comparing the social theory of cognitive evolution with their past collaborative work on epistemic communities. Haas, empirically focusing on global environmental governance, concludes that cognitive evolution is heavily shaped by epistemic communities.

In the final two substantive chapters, Beverly Crawford Ames and Christian Reus-Smit engage with an analytical-normative theme that has always been crucial for the discipline of IR in general and Adler’s work in particular, that is, progress. Is progress possible in international politics? If so, how? Crawford’s chapter focuses on the evolution of the refugee regime. Applying the theory of cognitive evolution, she contends that there has been, despite some setbacks, an overall pattern of progress for much of the twentieth century. At the same time, however, she cautions that post-truth undermines what Adler refers to as “epistemological security” and identifies as a driving force for progress. Reus-Smit also engages with the issue of progress but his means for doing so are different. Looking back to Adler’s often-cited 1997 article “Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics,”Footnote 117 he asks whether Adler succeeds in holding the middle ground that he advocates. Applying English School theorizing on interpreting the middle ground, Reus-Smit contends that there are notable tensions between how Adler used to pursue the middle ground in his past work and how he does so in the social theory of cognitive evolution. Reus-Smit also contends that both avenues struggle to arrive at a sound normative account.

The book concludes with a commentary by Emanuel Adler, which engages with the vistas for studying world ordering that are explored in this book, as well as with the criticisms raised by contributors. In a new and exclusive extension of his thinking, Adler then develops a rough sketch of what a theory of politics looks like, from a cognitive evolution perspective, using the concept of practical democracy as an anchor, and the case of artificial intelligence as an illustration.


9 The three questions that structure World Ordering are: (1) where do orders come from?; (2) why do they take the shape they do? and (3) how do they change? (p. 2).

19 Adler also speaks of “fields” and “landscapes” of practices (Reference Adler2019, 6).

21 For example, Reus-Smit’s “autarkic states” (Reference Reus-Smit1999).

26 This is an intriguing commonality between Ikenberry and Adler: both acknowledge the mixed nature of order (horizontal and vertical), although ultimately Adler is far more interested in the former than in the latter.

30 Ikenberry adds a third mechanism, balance, but it is not central to his theory.

72 Footnote Ibid., 166–67.

82 Thelen quoted in Reference AdlerAdler 2019, 258.

83 Footnote Ibid., 18–19.

104 Footnote Ibid., 175.

105 Footnote Ibid., 236.

108 Reference AdlerAdler 2019, 212. Note that even the label “social theory of cognitive evolution” suggests bridging the gap between cognitive psychology (“cognitive evolution”) and constructivism (“social theory”). Recent works trying to do so include Reference LebowLebow (2008), Reference HymansHymans (2010) and Reference KornprobstKornprobst (2019).


Adler, Emanuel. 1991. Cognitive Evolution: A Dynamic Approach for the Study of International Relations and their Progress. In Progress in Postwar International Relations, edited by Adler, Emanuel and Crawford, Beverly, 4388. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
Adler, Emanuel. 1992. Europe’s New Security Order: A Pluralistic Security Community. In The Future of European Security, edited by Crawford, Beverly, 287326. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Adler, Emanuel. 1997a. Imagined (Security) Communities: Cognitive Regions in International Relations. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 26(2): 249–77.Google Scholar
Adler, Emanuel. 1997b. Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics. European Journal of International Relations 3(3): 319–63.Google Scholar
Adler, Emanuel. 2005. Communitarian International Relations: The Epistemic Foundations of International Relations. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
Adler, Emanuel. 2008. The Spread of Security Communities: Communities of Practice, Self-Restraint, and NATO’s Post-Cold War Transformation. European Journal of International Relations 14(2): 195230.Google Scholar
Adler, Emanuel. 2010. Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t: Performative Power and the Strategy of Conventional and Nuclear Defusing. Security Studies 19(2): 199229.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Adler, Emanuel. 2013. Resilient Liberal International Practices. In Liberal World Orders, edited by Dunne, Tim and Flockhart, Trine, 5368. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Adler, Emanuel. 2019. World Ordering: A Social Theory of Cognitive Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Adler, Emanuel and Bernstein, Steven. 2005. Knowledge in Power: The Epistemic Construction of Global Governance. In Power and Global Governance, edited by Barnett, Michael and Duvall, Raymond, 294318. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Adler, Emanuel and Crawford, Beverly. 2006. Normative Power: The European Practice of Region-Building and the Case of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. In The Convergence of Civilizations: Constructing a Mediterranean Region, edited by Adler, Emanuel, Bicchi, Federica, Crawford, Beverly and Del Sarto, Raffaella, 347. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
Adler, Emanuel and Greve, Patricia. 2009. When Security Community Meets Balance of Power: Overlapping Regional Mechanisms of Security Governance. Review of International Studies 35(S1): 5984.Google Scholar
Alexander, Jeffrey C. 2004. Cultural Pragmatics: Social Performance between Ritual and Strategy. Sociological Theory 22(4): 527–73.Google Scholar
Armitage, Derek. 2008. Governance and the Commons in a Multi-level World. International Journal of the Commons 2(1): 732.Google Scholar
Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1986. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, translated by V. W. McGee. Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
Berger, T. 1996. Norms, Identity, and National Security in Germany and Japan. In The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics, edited by Katzenstein, Peter J., 317–56. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
Bernstein, Richard. 1991. The New Constellation: The Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity⁄Postmodernity. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
Boltanski, Luc and Thévenot, Laurent. 2006. On Justification: Economies of Worth. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bourbeau, Philippe. 2018. On Resilience: Genealogy, Logics, and World Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bull, Hedley. 1977. The Anarchical Society: A Study of World Politics. New York: Colombia University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cox, Robert W. 1981. Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 10(2): 126–55.Google Scholar
Cox, Robert. 1986. States, Social Forces and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory. In Neorealism and Its Critics, edited by Keohane, Robert, 204–54. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
Dewey, John. 1925. Experience and Nature. Chicago: Open Court.Google Scholar
Dewey, John. 1934. A Common Faith. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Fligstein, Neil and McAdam, Doug. 2015. A Theory of Fields. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1972. Wahrheit und Methode. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr.Google Scholar
Gill, Stephen R. and Law, David. 1989. Global Hegemony and the Structural Power of Capital. International Studies Quarterly 33(4): 475–99.Google Scholar
Gilpin, Robert. 1981. War and Change in World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Hall, Rodney Bruce. 1999. National Collective Identity: Social Constructs and International Systems. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
Holsti, Kalevi J. 1991. Peace and War: Armed Conflicts and International Order, 1648–1989. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Hopf, Ted. 2010. The Logic of Habit in International Relations. European Journal of International Relations 16(4): 539–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hymans, Jacques E. C. 2010. The Arrival of Psychological Constructivism. International Theory 2(3): 461–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ikenberry, G. John. 2001. After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Ikenberry, G. John. 2011. Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Joas, Hans. 1996. Die Kreativität des Handelns. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.Google Scholar
Keohane, Robert O. 1984. After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Keohane, Robert O. and Nye, Joseph S.. 1977. Power and Interdependence. Boston: Little, Brown.Google Scholar
Kornprobst, Markus. 2019. Co-managing International Crises: Judgements and Justifications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Kornprobst, Markus and Senn, Martin. 2016. A Rhetorical Field Theory: Background, Communication, and Change. British Journal of Politics and International Relations 18(2): 300–17.Google Scholar
Krasner, Stephen D. 1983a. International Regimes. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
Krasner, Stephen D. 1983b. Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables. In International Regimes, edited by Krasner, Stephen D., 195232. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
Krause, Monika. 2017. How Fields Vary. British Journal of Sociology 69(1): 322.Google Scholar
Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Lebow, Richard Ned. 2008. A Cultural Theory of International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Modelski, George. 1978. The Long Cycle of Global Politics and the Nation-State. Comparative Studies in Society and History 20(2): 214–35.Google Scholar
Neumann, Iver B. 2007. “A Speech That the Entire Ministry May Stand For,” Or: Why Diplomats Never Produce Anything New. International Political Sociology 1(2): 183200.Google Scholar
Nexon, Daniel H. 2009. The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Paul, T. V. 2017. Recasting Statecraft: International Relations and Strategies of Peaceful Change. International Studies Quarterly 61(1): 113.Google Scholar
Phillips, Andrew. 2010. War, Religion and Empire: The Transformation of International Orders. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pouliot, Vincent. 2016. International Pecking Orders: The Politics and Practice of Multilateral Diplomacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Reus-Smit, Christian. 1999. The Moral Purpose of the State: Culture, Social Identity, and Institutional Rationality in International Relations. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Root, Hilton L. 2017. Network Assemblage of Regime Stability and Resilience: Comparing Europe and China. Journal of Institutional Economics 13(3): 523–48.Google Scholar
Rouse, Joseph. 2007. Social Practices and Normativity. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 37(1): 4656.Google Scholar
Ruggie, John Gerard. 1993. Territoriality and Beyond: Problematizing Modernity in International Relations. International Organization 47(1): 139–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schmidt, Vivien A. 2016. The Roots of Neo-liberal Resilience: Explaining Continuity and Change in Background Ideas in Europe’s Political Economy. British Journal of Politics and International Relations 18(2): 318–34.Google Scholar
Tickner, Ann J. 2001. Gendering World Politics: Issues and Approaches in the Post-Cold War World. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
Walker, Rob B. J. 1993. Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1974. The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System: Concepts for Comparative Analysis. Comparative Studies in Society and History 16(4): 387415.Google Scholar
Waltz, Kenneth. 1979. Theory of International Relations. Reading: Addison-Wesley.Google Scholar
Wendt, Alexander. 1999. Social Theory of International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wendt, Alexander. 2000. On the Via Media: A Response to the Critics. Review of International Studies 26(1): 165–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wenger, Etienne. 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Wight, Martin. 1977. Systems of States. Leicester: Leicester University Press.Google Scholar
Young, Oran R. 1999. The Effectiveness of International Environmental Regimes: Causal Connections and Behavioral Mechanisms. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Figure 0

Table 1.1 Comparing theories of international orders

Save book to Kindle

To save this book to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save book to Dropbox

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats