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Lateral Relations in World Politics: Rethinking Interactions and Change among Fields, Systems, and Sectors

Davies, T. R. ORCID: 0000-0003-1047-9628 & Peña, A. (2022). Lateral Relations in World Politics: Rethinking Interactions and Change among Fields, Systems, and Sectors. International Studies Review, 24(4), doi: 10.1093/isr/viac048


Scholarship drawing from a wide array of perspectives including field theoretical and functional differentiation approaches has shed increasing light on the sectoral dimensions of world politics. In contrast to dominant approaches emphasizing hierarchy and power in relations between global fields, this article offers a novel interpretive framework for understanding how diverse fields, systems or sectors may interact and facilitate change in world politics beyond the operation of established hierarchies and power dynamics. Taking forward the previously under-utilized concept of symbolically generalized media of communication, this article elucidates two processes of international political change by which different fields, systems or sectors may transform world politics. The first process, lateral retreat, is illustrated with reference to the case study of the Protestant Reformation, in which internal changes in the religious field facilitated the development of an increasingly autonomous political domain. The second process, lateral penetration, is illustrated with reference to the international political response to the climate change and Covid-19 crises, in which the scientific sector contributed towards transformed political priorities and associated hierarchies, at least in the short term. These diverse cases are used to indicate the broad potential scope of application of the concept of symbolically generalized media of communication to enrich relational theorizing in the study of international relations, and to improve understanding of diverse dynamics of international political change missed in traditional power- (and anarchy-) centric accounts.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: © The Author(s) (2022). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Studies Association. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted reuse, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Publisher Keywords: relationalism, fields, systems, Palabras clave, relacionalismo, campos, sistemas, Mots clés, relationalisme, domaines, systèmes
Subjects: J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
J Political Science > JC Political theory
J Political Science > JZ International relations
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs > International Politics
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