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date: 26 March 2017

Conflict, Regions, and Regional Hierarchies

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Comparative regionalism constitutes a new frontier of international relations analysis that provides a more focused theoretical lens for understanding the localized phenomena dominant in international politics. However, as is often the case with a relatively new area of academic inquiry, the sub-field currently suffers from a number of challenges in conceptual agreement and operationalization conventions that have slowed progress. As area specialists and researchers in the field of comparative politics recognize the relative importance of regional spaces, the question remains how to most effectively understand how the extent to which regions, either as levels of analysis or as units unto themselves, are substantively integral to generating the outcomes studied by international relations scholars. After almost four decades of theorizing, future steps lie in clearer conceptual definitions, followed by generation of novel empirical findings that may complement, or contradict, existing international relations theories.

While some early attempts at engaging the comparative regionalism existed prior to the conclusion of the Cold War, most theorizing began at the point at which the region as a concept was able to emerge from the shadow of international relations research’s emphasis on the bipolar order of the American-Soviet rivalry. These early explorations were frequently limited to qualitative discussion of the emerging trading behaviors and political institutions, or alternatively, to the exploration of “non-Western” types of political engagement that challenged the traditional Anglo-European understanding of both international relations and the conduct of political science. Building on the backdrop of this conceptual theorizing, empirical work highlighting regional distinctions began to emerge as well. This renewed emphasis on comparing regional spaces is often undertaken from a “small-n” comparative methodological approach, to identify similarities and differences between regions, with a very specific interest in developing an understanding for the causal variations behind how the trajectories of regional spaces develop and diverge.

Finally, one of the greatest theoretical challenges of comparative regionalism is the applicability of theories designed to understand the interactions of the entire international system (with primary focus on the major powers) to more localized spaces and conflicts. This is not to claim that politics necessarily follows different rules within different regions, but instead that because regional-local contexts are sufficiently unique, the combination of causal variables present may lead to very different outcomes for many phenomena of interest that scholars seek to understand. As regional importance has risen over the past twenty years, a clear set of criteria upon which theoretical development and empirical analysis can proceed is required in order to delineate the effects of regions on states and international politics.