Robert W. Cox's method of historical structures redux

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Sinclair, Timothy J. (2016)

This article argues that Cox's Method of Historical Structures (MHS), although a highly useful tool for understanding the world, should be adapted to make it more effective as a framework for understanding world order in the twenty-first century. The advent of the method helped rejuvenate critical scholarship in international relations and international political economy during the 1980s. It offered a way out of the excessively structural approaches that had dominated critical thinking in the 1960s and 1970s. Cox's method enabled the unpacking of a structure, so that the components that made up any particular configuration could be considered analytically. Providing guidance on how to look at an historical order, and how to consider the component features of that structure, proved to be a revelation for many critical scholars of international relations. Surprisingly, given Cox's highlighting of the distinction between critical and problem-solving theory introduced in the same Millennium article, what really distinguishes Cox's approach, and why it has had the impact it has, is the pragmatism of the method. The MHS offers the possibility of a more closely reasoned analysis of world order than was previously available. It was the practical and somewhat systematic quality of the MHS that made it influential because it offered to facilitate empirical research by critical scholars. Thirty-five years on, the Method looks less satisfactory and this article offers some suggestions for its development.
  • References (5)

    Bieler, Andreas and Adam David Morton, “The Gordian Knot of Agency-Structure in International Relations: A Neo-Gramscian Perspective.” European Journal of International Relations. Volume 7, Number 1, 2001, pp. 5-35.

    Cox, Robert W. “Social Forces, States, and World Order: Beyond International Relations Theory (1981).” Robert W. Cox with Timothy J. Sinclair. Approaches to World Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    ___. Gramsci, “Hegemony, and International Relations: An Essay in Method (1983).” Robert W. Cox with Timothy J. Sinclair. Approaches to World Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    ___. Production, Power, and World Order: Social Forces in the Making of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

    ___. Universal Foreigner: The Individual and the World. Singapore: World Scientific, 2013.

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