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The English School Meets the Chicago School: The Case for a Grounded Theory of International Institutions


  • Earlier versions of this paper were presented to the annual convention, British International Studies Association, Cambridge, 2007; research workshops at the LSE in 2010 and 2011; and the Institute for Policy Research, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Center, 2012. I am grateful for the helpful comments received, in particular from Mats Berdal, Barry Buzan, Richard Campanaro, Marco Cesa, Jens Meierhenrich, and three anonymous referees of this journal.


Wilson, Peter. (2012) The English School Meets the Chicago School: The Case for a Grounded Theory of International Institutions. International Studies Review, doi: 10.1111/misr.12001
© 2012 International Studies Association

The concept of primary international institutions is a core idea of the English School and central to those scholars from Bull to Buzan who have sought to take it in a more sociological direction. Yet the English School has traditionally found it difficult to define and identify with consistency the institutions of international society. A group of scholars, here called the “new institutionalists,” have recently sought to address this problem by devising tighter definitions and applying them more rigorously. But different understandings and lists of institutions continue to proliferate. The source of the problem is the reliance on “stipulative” definitions, drawn from an increasingly abstract theoretical literature. The problem is compounded by the new institutionalists’ employment of social structural and other “outsider” methods of social research. This article argues that it is only possible to empirically ground institutions, a task on which all agree, by returning to the interpretive “insider” approach traditionally associated with the school—but employing it in a much more rigorous way. To this end it makes the case for a “grounded theory” of international institutions inspired by Chicago School sociology.