Interrogating the language that gives meaning to IR theories and practice


Concepts are socially and linguistically constructed and used for multiple purposes, such as justifying war in the name of democracy; or, using the idea of democracy to resist Western intervention and influence. In this fascinating and novel edited collection, Piki Ish-Shalom and his team of authors interrogate the “conceptions of concepts” in international relations. Using theoretical frameworks from Gramsci and Bourdieu, among others, the authors show that not interrogating the meaning of the language we use to talk about international relations obscures the way we understand (or portray) IR. The authors examine self-determination, winning in war, avoidance of war, military design and reform agenda, vagueness in political discourse, “blue economy,” friendship, and finally, the very idea of the “international community” itself. As the author asserts, Bourdieu’s sociology of field and Gramsci’s political theory combined “offer us a sociopolitical theory of relations of power and domination concealed by doxic knowledge and taken-for-granted rules, in which essential contested concepts and political-serving conceptions can and do play an important role.”

Piki Ish-Shalom is the A. Ephraim and Shirley Diamond Family Chair in International Relations and Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

“It makes a difference how we name things. Attaching names makes different understandings possible, mobilizes frames and emotions, and authorizes hierarchies, expertise, and behavior. Concepts interact with the reality they allegedly only represent. There is politics going into conceptualization and resulting from it. Ish-Shalom's very fine collection analyzes what concepts do when they are at work. They show how concepts connect the world of practitioners and the world of observers. In its many illustrations, the volume not only captures the power of concepts but also the resulting responsibility when defining, framing, and propagating them.”
—Stefano Guzzini, Uppsala University & PUC-Rio de Janeiro

- Stefano Guzzini

“This volume shows what possibilities are opened when we give up the futile project of trying to exhaustively define important concepts in advance or in the abstract, and instead take seriously the various efforts of actors to use concepts to do particular kinds of political work in the world. Commonplaces like ‘the international community’ and ‘war’ are here revealed as meaningful materials for action rather than mere instruments for a scholarly end. This is social construction at its finest.”
—Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, American University

- Patrick Thaddeus Jackson

“In the field of International Relations, we are pretty sure that concepts convey meaning but disagree on what they mean. What we haven’t thought through sufficiently is how contestation over concepts produces a meaningful world. This book goes a long way toward filling the void with fresh (and contestable) meaning.”
—Nicholas Onuf, Florida International University

- Nicholas Onuf, Florida International University

"This is an ambitious, inspiring and informative volume, which will be useful for educational purposes. ...Anyone eager to understand the role of concepts in political contexts will benefit from reading this book." 
International Affairs

- Aleksandra Spalinska