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date: 16 August 2017

Defining and Operationalizing Context Through a Structural Political Geography for International Relations

Summary and Keywords

A structural understanding of the contextualized behavior of states is introduced and operationalized. Context is a central theme of the discipline of geography and identifies context specific, rather than universal, social behavior. Social behavior is both defined by and creates contexts in a constant recursive interaction. Context is defined through a geographic perspective on world-systems analysis, and we focus on the behavior of states. States are central actors because, through territorial sovereignty, they are able to define key social relations and economic flows. The idea of context is developed in a way that extends the key International Relations (IR) concepts of milieu and opportunity and willingness.

The recursive interaction between agency and context is conceptualized in a relational way as maneuver, the process by which the aggregate behavior of elites define state-level choices and behaviors that are made by considering the contextual position relative to all other states in the capitalist world-economy. In turn, the decision by any one state changes the behavior of other states so that context and state-level decisions interact and are constantly in flux. The elements of context include the position of a state in the hierarchy of the capitalist world-economy as well as regional and local interstate relations, some of which may display path dependency.

The operationalization of maneuver requires an understanding of states as signaling and learning entities and a set of modeling techniques that identify: (1) the degree of change within the system as a whole—or the degree of stability in the number and identity of states within particular positions in the hierarchy of the capitalist world-economy; (2) the maneuver of particular states—or which states change position (or not) within the hierarchy; and (3) the explanatory power of variables measuring political and economic interstate relations in explaining the maneuver behavior of particular states.

Keywords: context, geography, structure, world-systems analysis, maneuver, learning, Markov model, functional logistic models, empirical international relations theory


In the United States the academic discipline of geography is largely misunderstood by other social scientists, a much different situation than in Europe where geography is an integral part of school and university curricula. This fact requires an explanation of geography’s main contribution to theorizing and analyzing world politics and is also a vivid illustration of that contribution: Simply put, context matters. In this case, whether a social scientist is situated in Europe or the United States is a good indicator of the depth and breadth of their knowledge of geography. But what is context? Is it useful, or arguably necessary, in explaining international relations? And if context can be theorized, can it be operationalized for systematic quantitative analysis of international relations? We believe the answers to the last two questions are an emphatic “yes.” To make our case we will define context and provide an operationalization of the concept.

Just as with any other discipline, the core content, theoretical framing, and appropriate methodologies of academic geography are contested (Johnston & Sidaway, 2004; Peet, 1998). The discipline, and its numerous subdisciplines, has not been immune from the spate of handbooks, encyclopedias, and so forth that have appeared in recent years. Hence, there is no single definition of context, though the essence of the idea is quite simple. We offer a particular approach to context that is grounded in a structural approach to world politics and reflects the way international scholars have themselves approached the idea of context. Though our approach is a particular one, we believe it resonates with much empirical international relations research and provides an avenue for future inquiry.

Our argument requires a discussion of what is meant by context, and especially an understanding of what a structural definition of context entails. To make such definitions useful for international relations scholars we then show how context has been adopted within empirical international relations, what we believe are the shortcomings of the IR (international relations) usage of context, and why a structural definition of context is a useful improvement. The term maneuver is then introduced as a concept that enables IR’s focus on agency and decision-making to be connected to our argument regarding the importance of context and structure. Finally, we show the type of modeling that enables a systematic analysis of maneuver, in a way that incorporates the choices and actions of states with a conceptualization of structure and agency that is nondeterministic.

Simple Beginnings

So what is context? We will begin with two basic concepts: site and situation. Site identifies the physical attributes of a location, and situation “refers to the location of a place relative to other places and human activities” (Knox & Marston, 1998, pp. 33–34). The general concepts of site and situation have particular expression for world politics through Cohen’s definition of geopolitics “as the analysis of the interaction between, on the one hand, geographical settings and perspectives and, on the other, political processes” (Cohen, 2003, p. 12). In this definition the actors are states, and their attributes and capabilities are equivalent to the notion of site. Situation, for Cohen, is one of geographic setting, which for some critics is too limited and creates a sense of geographic determinism of continental versus maritime powers (Cohen, 2003). For example, the naval capabilities of India are only clearly understood within its geographical position at the center of the Indian Ocean (Brewster, 2014).

The overemphasis upon physical geographic features in Cohen’s definition makes it inappropriate for international relations research that aims to uncover the causal social processes that drive political behavior. At the same time, denying the role of geographic situation in political decisions leads to an understanding of politics that is too abstract. For example, Poland’s decisions regarding alliance formation can only be understood through its situation in central Europe that have defined its relationships with Russia and Germany for centuries. Hence, physical geographic setting must be part, but only part, of a conceptualization of context.

The inclusion of social processes in an understanding of situation originates from Tobler’s (1970, p. 236) classic first law of geography: “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” For international relations scholars the primary forms of relationships are political alliances, enduring rivalries, and economic ties that have been successfully operationalized under the umbrella of the Correlates of War data collection project (Sarkees & Wayman, 2010). Though this project has been very successful in explaining the behavior of states through the application of a dyadic unit of analysis, the shortcomings of such a conceptualization of actors has been recognized by the operationalization of what we can call situations that reflect a state’s position within a network of relations (Flint, Diehl, Scheffran, Vasquez, & Chi, 2009; Maoz, 2006) or in a neighborhood of states (Gleditsch, 2002, following the pioneering work of O’Loughlin & Anselin, 1992).

The network approach to international relations creates an understanding that the behavior of any particular state is enabled and constrained by the aggregate actions of all other states. Tobler’s (1970) first law of geography, as reflected in studies of dyads and triads in networks (Maoz, 2006) or the physical contiguity of neighbors (Gleditsch, 2002), suggests that those “closer” to a state will have greater influence on its behavior. Closeness, as a matter of connectivity or physical distance, is just one way to operationalize situation. The discipline of geography once defined situation as closeness, often using an abstract sense of space—or an isotropic plane—to model the behavior of actors as rational decision makers (Johnston & Sidaway, 2004). This approach to the concept of situation closely reflects the axioms of contemporary international relations. However, geographers have largely dismissed such a conceptualization. The level of abstraction both of the nature of actors, as simplified and unitary rational entities, and of their situation, in a featureless isotropic plain, did not match developments in social theory that were adopted by the vast majority of social scientists (Simandan, 2016). The challenge to the axioms of what was known in geography as the “quantitative revolution” led to a discipline-wide adoption of social theories that were influential across the social sciences (Johnston & Sidaway, 2004). The initial influence was theoretical Marxism, and though its presence has waned in geography, it still remains important. For our argument, its contribution rests in the introduction of social structure into human geography inquiry and, therefore, the conceptualization of context.

Adding Structure

The discipline of geography moved from the abstract view of space that was crucial for the analytical assumptions of the “quantitative revolution” to understandings of space that were grounded in social theories. Especially, Marxist frameworks, with their structural approach, played a crucial role in changing the paradigmatic focus of the discipline. This was particularly the case for the revival of political geography in the 1970s and 1980s. Two related structural theories dominated: a classic Marxist approach (Harvey, 1982; Cox, 1979) and, the focus of this chapter, a political geography perspective on Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis (Wallerstein, 1979; Taylor, 1981a). World-systems analysis was a (arguably the) driving force for a revitalized political geography that was desperately seeking theoretical foundation and relevance with other social sciences (Flint, 2010).

Taylor (1981a, 1981b, 1982) was the key figure behind the formulation of a political geographic perspective on world-systems analysis. He defined a political geography informed by the writings of Immanuel Wallerstein and the Annales school. For Taylor (1982), world-systems analysis provoked discussion of two key geographic concepts. The first was scale, with an ontology that moved away from concentration upon the state and toward the historical social system, specifically the capitalist world-economy. The second was the geographic concern with areal differentiation and its connection to the core, periphery, and semi-periphery hierarchy of the capitalist world-economy (Terlouw, 1992). The territorialization of core and peripheral processes within state borders led to an understanding of states holding a position within the capitalist world-economy depending on the prevalence of the two different types of processes within the borders of a state (Dezzani, 2002; Babones, 2009; Snyder & Kick, 1979; Terlouw, 1992; Quah, 1997). States are important institutions within the single capitalist world-economy because of the ability they have for partial control of flows across borders and their influence upon wages and other relations of production (Wallerstein, 1979). The scalar approach to world-systems identified states as key actors, but ones that operated within the imperatives of the world-economy (Taylor, 1981b). Hence, states can make decisions, but their choices are limited, and the range of choices is partially a function of position in the core–periphery hierarchy. The application of world-systems analysis introduces the potential for a structural definition of context (or situation) to be conceptualized as position in the broader historical social system.

World-systems analysis also provided a sense of process to political geography. Specific political actions were situated within the dynamics of the capitalist world-economy, through the application of the concept of Kondratieff waves and cycles of investment (Arrighi, 1990, 2010; Taylor, 1985; Flint & Taylor, 2011). The Kondratieff dynamic was subsequently connected to cycles of hegemony that were based on economic strength relative to all states in the system (Arrighi, 1990; Boswell & Sweat, 1991; Flint & Taylor, 2011; Thompson, 1986). The consideration of economic and political cycles introduced a temporal aspect to context. The opportunities and constraints facing a state were partially defined by the particular moment in the Kondratieff and hegemonic cycles.

The crucial role of states in territorializing economic processes and engendering competition between states created a single political-economic logic that drove the decision-making of states (Chase-Dunn, 1989). The context of state actions was a space–time context of the dynamics of Kondratieff waves and position within the core–periphery hierarchy (Flint & Taylor, 2011). The range of possible actions available to a state depended upon their capabilities, as largely defined by their position in the capitalist world-economy, and the degree of economic growth and innovation or stagnation occurring at a particular time. However, such a conceptualization emphasized structural context and limited discussion of agency or choice (as an exception see Taylor, 1993). Agency must also be operationalized to make the idea of structural, or time–space, context useful for international relations scholars. A pathway to this goal has been open for a while, and is found within the critique of structural approaches that emerged in the social sciences sometime around the 1980s.

As with other Marxist approaches, world-systems analysis created a new geographic understanding of context that emphasized that the cost–benefit rational decision making of actors should be reframed as a set of politicized behaviors that occur within a structure of power relations largely defined by the imperatives of capitalism (Peet, 1998, pp. 112–146). Over time other approaches to social theory were adopted that either challenged or ameliorated the early adoption of Marxist approaches. This trend, called the “cultural turn,” meant that contemporary Marxist analyses in geography have been reframed to become less deterministic (Cowen & Smith, 2009; Gibson-Graham, 2006; Johnston & Sidaway, 2004; Mercille, 2008).

The dilution of Marxism’s influence in human geography inquiry went hand-in-hand with challenges to structural approaches. In contemporary geography, especially understandings of power and context, the idea and role of structure became implicit rather than explicit. The unease with conceptualizing structures as causal entities existing prior to human behavior means that most geography scholars shy away from a structural approach. However, such concern fails to employ understandings of structure that incorporate the mutuality of actor and structure formation (Martin & Dennis, 2010). Reframing political structures as geopolitical constructs stresses the “construction and maintenance of settings or contexts with broad geographical scope and long-lasting implications for social behavior” (Flint, 2016). The ability of actors to act is still recognized and incorporated in to analysis, but there is recognition that there are significant constraints upon behavior. The constraints are expressed as rules and norms that are the expressions of a social structure that is, in turn, the outcome of and medium for social behavior (Martin & Dennis, 2010). Within the context of structural imperatives, the behavior of actors is dynamic and transformative: the capabilities and goals of actors change within new structurally defined contexts that are themselves the product of the aggregate behavior of actors.

Structural contexts are the venues for agency, and the relationship between structure and agent is a recursive one. Hence, the nature of structural contexts and the range of choices held by actors is somewhat fluid. The goal is to avoid the determinism of reified structures while also acknowledging the stability of structural imperatives and, therefore, the limits they set on agency. In fact, “it is precisely the ability to understand how enduring institutional patterns are generated and maintained through situated interactions that is the greatest challenge to the ‘sociological imagination’, a challenge which conventional sociology has conspicuously failed to meet” (Martin & Dennis, 2010, p. 16). Contemporary quantitative political science has been much less inclined to accept, or even recognize, this challenge. As a result it has emphasized agency over structure, and the contextual settings produced by the mutuality of agency and structure have been undertheorized.

International Relations Antecedents

Despite contemporary prioritization of agency, the idea of context has historical foundations in empirical IR. Harold and Margaret Sprout first defined the role of context in explaining the behavior of states in the 1950s and 1960s. The Sprouts called for empirical analysis that modeled the interaction between “environmental” factors and interstate politics. For the Sprouts, the environment meant a complex combination of social, geographical, and historical factors, which they called the milieu (Sprout & Sprout, 1965). Political geographers would readily identify the Sprouts’ milieu as a particular definition of context. Moreover, the Sprouts defined world politics as a limited range of options facing states. Hence, some political actions are more probable than others given the environmental situation in which they are made (termed “environmental possibilism”). Decision-making by state elites was still seen as rational, but a limited range of choices was identified within the perceived opportunities and constraints of a state’s milieu (called “cognitive behavioralism”) (Sprout & Sprout, 1957, 1965). For a fuller discussion see Radil, Flint, and Chi (2013).

The Sprout’s idea of milieu was refined to allow for the operationalization of the concept in empirical analysis. The resulting adoption of context by IR scholars came through the opportunity and willingness framework (e.g., Starr, 1978). This was a reductionist idea of milieu or context that, in practice, focused upon the relative geographic location of a state (Most & Starr, 1989; Siverson & Starr, 1991). Geographers have lamented the way that little of the complexity of the Sprouts’ concern for context has been actually reflected in the empirical analyses since their contribution (Radil et al., 2013). Starr (1978) created his concept of opportunity by building upon the Sprout and Sprout (1957) idea of environmental possibilism, to define it as the possibility of interaction between two political entities. However, the multiplicity of interacting factors within the Sprouts’ milieu was limited so that opportunity was narrowly understood as territorial adjacency. The result was an operationalization of context, as opportunity, in which “states that shared a boundary were seen as most likely to interact and the Sproutian environment, the total spectrum of social, geographical, and historical factors, had become reduced to various measures of shared boundaries between territorially defined states” (Radil et al., 2013, p. 1470). Willingness, the agency component of Starr’s (1978) framework, was based upon the Sprout and Sprout (1965) notion of cognitive behavioralism. It was an operationalization of the tangible outcomes of state-decision making, such as the formation of alliance partnerships or the maintenance of militarized rivalries (Starr, 1978; Most & Starr, 1989; Siverson & Starr, 1991).

The opportunity and willingness framework made an important contribution to empirical analyses of the diffusion of war. It was based on the idea that the decisions of states can only be fully understood through the inclusion in the analysis of the opportunities and constraints provided by specific contextual settings. However, there was also a legitimate concern with how context could be operationalized within the parameters of the Correlates of War project to enable systemic and replicable analysis that contributed to the whole field of empirical IR. The outcome was an operationalization of context that focused upon physical contiguity with neighboring states, especially immediate neighbors. The richer notion of the Sprout’s milieu was lost. The concept of willingness has also been reduced to political calculations, rather than the intersection of economic and political needs and goals that is the core of a political economy approach such as world-systems analysis. However, the fact that the notion of milieu has existed in IR literature, and kept alive, to some degree, by the idea of opportunity means the door for introducing other notions of context is slightly ajar, if one is optimistic.

Operationalizing Context

Context is the core concept for geographers, but is only useful for empirical analysis when it is operationalized. Furthermore, to enable interdisciplinary conversation such operationalization must speak to the analytical agendas of IR. Such conversation would be further enabled if the IR concepts of milieu and the related concepts of opportunity and willingness were advanced theoretically to match developments across the social sciences. A structural definition of context, we believe, is a social theoretic development of the concept of milieu, and one that can be operationalized for systematic quantitative analysis of state behavior.

When it comes to the operationalization of context for quantitative analysis, three particular concepts have proven to be useful: spatial dependency, spatial heterogeneity, and relative position. Spatial dependency is akin to the lack of independence in time-series data (Anselin, 1988). It recognizes that the value of a variable in one spatial unit is often partially dependent upon the value in neighboring spatial units. To incorporate spatial dependency in to empirical IR analysis means that the standard dyadic approach must be modified to consider the geographic proximity between the two states (O’Loughlin & Anselin, 1992). This has been adopted to a considerable degree in empirical IR (see Gleditsch, 2002), but if that is the extent of the conceptualization of context then there is a risk of a geographic determinism, or “spatial fetishism” (Smith, 1981), that denies the way mutual construction of social relations and geographic spaces (Massey, 2005).

Spatial heterogeneity is the recognition that behavior is not uniform or universal across time and space (Anselin, 1988). Instead, the situation of an actor, especially the temporal-spatial context of the space–time matrix, says a lot about the political possibilities at hand. The empirical manifestation of spatial heterogeneity is a set of spatial regimes, in which the statistical significance and even the positive or negative direction of the relationship varies across subsets of the total number of cases that are identified spatially, usually as regions (Flint, 2002). For example, Chi and Flint (2013) identified regional patterns, or spatial regimes, in the causal factors creating territorial conflicts.

The concept of relative position has become prominent with the increasing adoption of social network analysis across the social sciences, including international relations (Maoz, 2006; Hoff & Ward, 2004) and political geography (Radil et al., 2013), and collaborations between the two (Flint et al., 2009). A social network is an aggregation of social ties that are formed by the decisions of the actors in the network and, in turn, form the structural nature of the total network. Measures of connectivity and centrality of an actor in the network define their relative position that can be broadly understood as being more or less central, peripheral, or even disconnected from the network (Wasserman & Faust, 1994).

To define the context of actors in international relations requires recognizing all three of these specific understandings of context. Such a combination of concepts, if theoretically informed, would bring contextual analysis in empirical IR back to the multifaceted nature of milieu originally promoted by the Sprouts. Dependency is the role of neighborhood or physical contiguity found in Siverson and Starr’s (1991) definition of opportunity and more recently developed by Gleditsch (2002). Heterogeneity may be incorporated in two ways: the geographical sense of regional structures of behavior (Buzan & Waever, 2003), and also a structural sense of similarity in actors’ capabilities and needs depending upon their relative position within the whole structure (Dezzani, 2002; Babones, 2009; Terlouw, 1992). Rather than seeing this as a network structure, world-systems analysis would suggest that a state’s position within the core–semiperiphery–periphery hierarchy of the capitalist world-economy creates heterogeneity in capabilities and behavior. Certainly the United States, Japan, and the countries of Western Europe play a different role in world politics compared to very poor and politically weaker states. Defining the heterogeneity of states through their position in the world-economy is a way to formally recognize the inequality of states and operationalize such difference in empirical analysis.

Agency, or Siverson and Starr’s (1991) opportunity, must also be incorporated to avoid an analysis of world politics that combines geographic and structural determinism. The structure of the capitalist world-economy creates a set of imperatives, demands, expectations, and limits that constrain what is a viable politics for any given set of actors within the temporal dynamics of the system and their position within the hierarchy of the capitalist world-economy. We advance the concept of maneuver to advance the essence of the opportunity and willingness framework in a way that uses a world-systems analysis of the capitalist world-economy to define contextual settings that recognize the historical, social, economic, political, and geographic elements of context, and give a true echo to the Sprout’s idea of milieu (Sprout & Sprout, 1965).

Logic of Mobility and Maneuver

The structural approach of world-systems analysis provides a particular way to consider milieu and willingness. The world-systems approach reinterprets milieu as position within the capitalist world-economy and willingness as maneuver. The primary element of position is the core–periphery hierarchy and the particular moment within the temporal dynamics of economic (Kondratieff) and hegemonic cycles: This is the space–time matrix discussed earlier. However, it is quite possible for other elements of context, such as regional interactions and the role of immediate neighbors, to be added to investigate the full complexity of situatedness as conceived by the Sprouts. Such a complex understanding of position goes some way towards alleviating concerns of structural determinism by adding historical cultural ties, long-standing antagonisms, territorial disputes, and so forth.

Position is not a life sentence. Though the three-tier hierarchy of the capitalist world-economy is a necessary and permanent feature of the system there is room for movement for individual states. In other words, though the proportion of states that may be classified within each of the categories of core, periphery, and semi-periphery remains fixed, actual states can move up or down the hierarchy. For example, the United States entered the system as a semi-peripheral, perhaps even peripheral, state to become core. Portugal was once core but has flirted with the semi-periphery. The nature of the hierarchy is based on the operation of core and periphery processes and relations between economic activities located along multiple and interrelated value chains. These economic activities are necessarily territorialized as economic, political, and social relations are tied together in particular locations (Arrighi, 1990; Cox, 1998). The spatial scale of “location” is multifaceted leading to a complex and contingent scalar relationship that intertwines places, states, and regions (Jonas, 2013). Hence, the core–periphery hierarchy is manifested in a number of geographies that are expressed within countries and across the globe, though the state plays a crucial role. The categories of the world system hierarchy may also change within a stochastic context such that analysis may reveal significant cohorts as subsets or aggregations of the more traditional tripartite configuration (see Dezzani, 2001; Nemeth & Smith, 1985; Quah, 1997; Smith & White, 1991; Snyder & Kick, 1979). There is room for movement, but not much (Babones, 2009; Dezzani, 2002). This brings us to the concept of maneuver—or the willingness or ability of a state to change its position given the opportunity or milieu defined by its position within the capitalist world-economy and regional settings.

Maneuver is an idea born of a necessary economic instrumentalism fostered by the idea of the topological state (Taylor, 1989, pp. 164–165). Maneuver is a superior concept to mobility as the latter emphasizes purely economic outcomes that give large weight to the constraints of the structure. Maneuver is based on a more complex understanding of the state as the territorial expression of many institutions with their own goals, which, in combination, learn from the signals of other actors in the system and make calculations based on the opportunities and constraints of the system. Maneuver identifies multiple forms of agency within structural and geographic contexts, whereas mobility is seen as shifts at the scale of the structure that result in changes in position for different states. The idea of maneuver was more fully developed in terms of specific actors and their possible decisions in Taylor (1993, pp. 184–186). The nascent notions of maneuver formulated by Taylor (1989, 1993) are tied to the potential responses of capitalists within a state economy that are integrated into a larger interdependent world-economy. The logic of ceaseless capital accumulation in the world-economy means that decision makers and controllers of capital have two basic strategic options: (1) raise prices, or (2) lower wages (Taylor, 1993, p. 185). These options represent the incipient form of strategic decisions that initialized the maneuver idea for a topological model of the state.

The decision options for capitalists in a state-mediated world-economy are limited by a plethora of state decisions that govern firm behavior, trade, and labor relations among other processes of interaction and production. This chain of decision-making is path-dependent and also conditioned on existing structural forms and relations at the times of decision consideration and implementation. As such, the decisions that constitute maneuver are a complex linkage of both sequential and parallel events and policies conditioned on prevailing norms of interaction (i.e., laws, treaties, agreements, tradition, culture, behavioral norms, etc.), which may govern the success or failure of policy intended from the decisions. The outcome of these decisions may then have an effect on the relative structural position of the firm or the state that may either enhance, harm, or impart no change. Taylor’s idea of maneuver modeled the state as a collection of firms responding to profit-generating activities both within a particular state and across the border in other states in the quest for opportunity (e.g., topological state). Hence, production and movement of commodities that are both necessary and beneficial to states and firms will be influenced by capitalists’ decisions that may alter the structural position of the firm or the state in the world-economy and result in a “change of position” of the state with respect to others (Taylor, 1993, pp. 184–186). The growth of new mechanisms of production, such as cross-border commodity chains, reflects maneuver responses to the evolution of state-level decisions in an increasingly globalized world-economy (Brewer, 2011; Grinberg, 2016; Robinson, 2002, 2004).

However, capitalists are not the only decision-makers within the modern state that need specific decision instrumentalities owing to the topological nature of the modern state integrated into the world-economy. State bureaucracies and most internal political, social, and economic stakeholders must also function within a constrained decision framework. As a result, maneuver may be seen to represent the aggregate decisions that potentially result in state-level actions that can influence the relative position of the state with respect to other states in the hierarchical world-economy.

The State as the Proper Unit of Analysis

The state is the key actor within the world-economy. That is, the state is the focus of political and economic forces from within the state itself as well as forces engineering and driving change for state responses in the global and regional arenas. This perspective does not preclude other actors both within the state (e.g., political groups, national groups, economic entities, etc.), transstate (e.g., transnational and multinational corporations), and nonterritorial entities. However, the idea of maneuver is peculiar primarily to the state as it is the state that most effectively benefits from the outcomes of maneuver. Corporations, nationalistic groups, and other nonterritorial actors may engage in maneuver but the essential payoff of maneuver is garnered by states.

This issue raises the question of pertinence of agency in the world-systems context. Many actors may “play the game,” so to speak, and all require some sort of territorial arrangement to execute their goals (Harvey, 1982), but states encapsulate the greatest advantage because only states exhibit territorial capacity coupled with population, resources, the ability to legitimately project power, create policy, control borders, engage with other states, and focus institutional capacity for the greatest human welfare. As such, state behavior is more meaningful for the greatest proportion of the human ecumene with respect to any other actor or unit of analysis. The particular role of the state in the capitalist world-economy is a function of its ability to territorialize social relations. Territorial sovereignty enables political and economic elites to enact policies regarding prices and wages as part of the strategy of maneuver, making the state the instrument and unit of action within the capitalist world-economy.

The hierarchical structure of the world-economy suggests a relatively conservative framework that is quite stable over time. This stability might be perceived to be at odds with realist notions of anarchy and relative autonomy. The idea of maneuver permits a variety of economic and political solutions to the problem of geographical variation and replaces relative autonomy with locally flexible alternatives to autarky and anarchy. Using this approach, a variety of political and economic solutions are permissible under the conditions of maneuver as the state functions as intermediary with the world-economy. At the center of the maneuver idea is the state, which serves as a basis of interaction between the interior scale of territoriality and the larger external scale of the global economy and intrastate interaction. The state provides the basis of legitimation and political interaction to incorporate nonterritorial actors that require territorialized capital, infrastructure, and services. Maneuver functions precisely because there is a plethora of states that constitute a range of possible solutions all striving within a common structural framework (Agnew & Corbridge, 1995; Flint & Taylor 2011).

We outline a structural approach with process specification that will enhance the ability of the world-systems perspective to evaluate and inform studies in international relations. The Giddens’ (1984) criticism of the world-systems approach is founded on a perceived lack of rigor in ontological specification, which we hope, in part, to amend. We acknowledge the political, military, and hegemonic roles of states to act in the global arena, but we also recognize the preeminence of capitalism as an organizing principle and conservative force in preserving hierarchy (Taylor, 1996; Wallerstein, 1974, 1980). This does not imply that capitalism need be the only mechanism of economic exchange and redistribution, but it is the dominant mode of economic interaction. In addition, we actively seek to incorporate all of the potential and historically realized functions of the state in the maneuver process for the purpose of mobility and approach the problem from a synthetic rather than reductionist lens. This statement implies that we also support the contributions of Frank and Gills (1993) and Abu-Lughod (1989) that identify a longer period of development for the “modern” world system than is originally specified by Wallerstein (1974).

Signaling and “Learning”

The essential precursors whereby states engage in maneuver are signaling/perception and “learning.” There are many forms of signaling to the state or state governing agencies, such as diplomatic protest, formal treaties and compliance, relative performance in the international economy as reflected in statistical assessment, threats of civil conflict, and declarations of war, to name just a few. The manner in which we apply the term “signaling” is similar to the idea of signaling theory in evolutionary biology and political science (e.g., Banks, 1991; McCarty & Meirowitz, 2007, pp. 214–235), but is closer to the approach of dynamic Bayesian games with imperfect information. We consider states to be group-rational semantic systems capable of information processing and acting on that information to maximize economic or power advantage and, thus, position in the global hierarchy. State perception functions can be centralized and institutionalized in the state as with formal intelligence gathering agencies and also with information-collecting organizations or through nonstate and informal information gathering (Powell, 1999).

The signaling concept is specified in Modelski’s (1987) mechanism of interstate competition over hegemonic cycles. Modelski posits a Parsonian learning framework that is used to describe the ability of a state to perceive and respond to changes in secular cycles, hegemonic cycles, and immediate crises or threats. The performance of the state responding to these information inputs is a function of economic and coercion capacity as well as the presence of coping structures and the willingness to engage solutions. We can think of information flowing into a state through many channels (see Figure 1) and consider a sequence of “channels” for this information corresponding to state-level structures for information processing and decision-making.

While the traditional world-systems approach does not reinforce or provide a framework for the analysis of such strategic phenomena, the structural approach we posit does significantly account for a variety of learning processes. Learning is not necessarily just Parsonian (i.e., differentiation and phase-cycle/process), but may also be mimetic, (e.g., by states attempting to emulate core or semi-periphery successes or forced with the imposition of Rostow-type policies that reflect inherent core-behavior mimesis), and also reflect a variety of positional logics, both geographical/geopolitical and hierarchical. Our structural framework models the state as a semantic entity that uses contextual and group perceptions to balance specific bargaining postures into the decision-making process. The state, the key unit of analysis in empirical IR, is situated within contexts defined by the structural imperatives of the capitalist world-economy and conceptualized as an actor with the ability to “learn” and act within its contextualized constraints and opportunities.

The maneuver approach suggests that states can choose to selectively use external and internal inputs from a variety of actors territorialized within the state and across state boundaries and represent their interests. This process will vary over many states and will also impact the final maneuver decisions and, thus, maneuver success or failure. In other words, the process of maneuver is relational as the decision-making process of one state is partially defined by the decision-making of all other states, and the action of one state change the structural context for all other state decision-making. In this way we can combine the structural imperatives of the capitalist world-economy with consideration of both the internal state and external regional contextual setting to provide a multifaceted and multiscalar notion of the Sprouts’ milieu, one that shows that “opportunity” is a limited set of actions that can be thought of as state maneuver.

States, as containers of power and legitimacy, are used by state elites for their own purpose but also by other groups or actors seeking to engage their own interests (Flint & Taylor, 2011, p. 142). The policy instruments, interactions, and relationships formed to accomplish goals and engender conflict all convolve to influence the maneuver position of a state. As such, a variety of factors—from path dependent process effects (i.e., Markov dependence)—to internal power politics and resource factor endowments can be manipulated in a variety of ways that influence decisions, policies, and actions that result in a state’s maneuver posture. Not only endogenized factors but also global and regional processes influence the maneuver position of a state. Perceptions of hegemonic stature, as well as capital accumulation and concentration cycles, (i.e., Kondratieff cycles) may all provide input into the maneuver decision process.

State learning is ongoing as possibilities for particular action are engaged—this Parsonian learning, as described by Modelski (1987) provides opportunities for states and other elite actors and corporations to attempt to “understand” the mechanism of the world-economy and to generate alternatives that introduce enhanced efficiency further improving the outcomes of maneuver. Evolutionary learning that occurs over decades and centuries may also inform the decision basis for maneuver, or, alternatively, create a dialectic that may result in a reformulation of the gauge parameters in the decision matrix that will also influence state-level maneuver (Flint & Taylor, 2011; Modelski, 1990, 1996).

The decision for a core state to contend for hegemony is the result of positional logic inferences reflective of either current hierarchical position or a perceived trend in capabilities for hegemonic contention (Modelski, 1987, 1996). The outcome will depend on many factors, some of which have computable likelihoods. It is postulated that structural determination of these likelihoods is feasible for covariates that are effective measures of the state-level decision processes or their outcomes. As the hierarchical structure is Markov dependent between any two sequential time periods, computation of likelihoods are determined by probability counting rules and the maximum likelihood principle (Dezzani, 2002; Sayrs, 1993; Wilkinson & Tsirel, 2005). Aggregate mobility fluxes of countries across levels of the hierarchy are defined as transitions and can be assessed using probabilities or likelihood of movement. It must be clear that state transition or, mobility, is a result of maneuver processes. Thus, state maneuver results in state mobility.

Transition probabilities are used to measure state mobility as determined from hierarchical classification over a sequence of time periods and assessed for persistence or transition: this procedure provides a complete description of change and state-level movement in the system. Transition probabilities, used to analyze state-level mobility, can also be used as the basis for structural explanations of the transition process. “Explanation” is maneuver. It is expressed by covariate relationships between a measure of mobility, expressed as a probability, with process and decision measures occurs through the logistic expansion of the transition matrix and coupling mobility with structural covariates that are associated or correlated with maneuver (Dezzani, 2012).

Structural Analysis of the Hierarchical World-Economy

The basis of a system is to capture the individual changes as part of the entire system mechanism. This argument is best expressed in a defense of world history by William McNeill:

. . . Many historians, indeed, refuse to interest themselves in world history because they feel it involves so much vagueness and generality that testable statements about the past simply slip away. Such a view is quite wrong. World history depends on sources in exactly the same way as national or any other scale of history depends on sources; and the effort to corroborate or refute a particular hypothesis is the same, whether the hypothesis in question pertains to the entire world, to a civilization, to a nation or to some little village in the Pyrenees.

What constitutes adequate evidence is always problematical. One-to-one correspondence between a historian’s statements and what “really” happened is unattainable; and if it were attainable would be undesirable, since it would simply preserve the buzzing, blooming confusion of everyday experience that impinges differently on every human being, hour by hour and minute by minute. A total recording of an individual consciousness is impossible, as novelists’ experiments of the early twentieth century surely suffice to prove. What is needed—always—is a suitable shorthand: a system of terms that classifies experience into meaningful, usable, and satisfying patterns. Only so can we understand the world around us. Only by leaving things out, and lumping varying individual instances together into categories and classes of things, can we hope to navigate successfully amidst the infinitely various actual encounters humans have with one another and with the world around.

(McNeill, 1986, pp. 82–83)

With regard to empirical IR, the challenge is to operationalize the behavior of specific actors, in our case states, within broader systemic patterns and show how the behavior of an individual actor maintains and/or alters the patterns. In other words, behavior and context are recursively related, and any distinction between “opportunity” and “willingness” is false.

To deny and avoid such a false distinction between agent, structure, and context, modeling of state behavior must operationalize the fact that changes in one part of the world-economy can induce changes in another because they are connected. One way to accomplish this is to model the integrating characteristic for each part of the world-economy. Call the characteristic Ri which is a measure of the maneuverability or transition change in in each part/zone (i.e., classification for i = 1, 2,#. . .#n). Then the entire system can be described as a series of differential equations in terms of every other zonal/group component as:


That is the partial time rate of change of net change is a unique zonal function of change within zone as well as change across all other zones. This is necessary since the world-system and the world-economy represent a single interacting mechanism such that changes that occur in one subsystem induce commensurate changes in other subsystems. For the sake of argument, assume only three possible states of the world-economy as explicated in the original world-systems framework (Wallerstein, 1974). The hierarchical state classifications for the n countries under analysis are core, semi-periphery, and periphery, with indices c, s, and p, respectively. Generally speaking, the grouping of states using prevailing commonalities that reflect similar processes while permitting contexts to vary can provide for many more potential groups of states with statistically-similar characteristics even if processes may vary somewhat. Thus, this analysis is not limited to the traditional tripartite division of groups of states in the hierarchical world-economy. As such, a structural hierarchical matrix of groups reflecting similar processes creating the hierarchical structure is directly reflective of the dynamic mechanism of change. This is a particular operationalization of heterogeneity discussed earlier. Theoretically, every state could form a unique “group” reflective of its degenerate situation in the world-economy; this is, in fact the degenerate situation and states do exhibit similar characteristics across a range of criteria that are reflective of statistically significant groupings of territorial entities of the world-economy (Arrighi & Drangel, 1986; Dezzani, 2001, 2002; Fingleton, 1999; Quah, 1997, etc.).

For example, assume a valid statistical classification procedure isolates k groups of states constituting the hierarchy of the world-economy such that k ≤ n, where n is the total number of states in the study and n ≤ N with N representing the total number of possible state in the world-economy at the time of measurement. Then, the possible transition matrix may be represented as:


Where the rows exhibit the frequencies Fi*, such that i = 1,#. . .#ν‎, of states occupying the group i at time t, and the columns F*j, such that j = 1, #. . .#ν‎, of state occupying group j at time t+k, where v is some interval of time specified by the study parameters. That is, k is the time interval for which mobility or persistence is to be measured. Using this specification, any number of classes, not just the original Wallerstein tripartite hierarchy, can be employed to examine the hierarchical structure of the world-economy. The marginal totals, either row or column, represent the total states occupying the grouping at time t (for rows) or t+k (for columns).

Basic counts of the dynamics of state movement or persistence in the world-economy can be assessed directly from the transition matrix. For a complete description of movement indices in a hierarchical system over time see Boudon (1973). The proportion of mobile states among hierarchical groupings can be computed as:


where total mobility = [n−∑ Fii] and structural mobility =[n–∑ min(Fi*, F*i)] for all i. One can think of the structural mobility as the minimum number of mobile states across groupings as determined by the marginals for the time interval k. Similarly, we can call the maximum mobility as the maximum number of mobile states across hierarchical groupings for the time interval k. These counting rules operate consistently for any dimension of two groups or greater and serve as basic descriptors of the change of states across the v groupings of the hierarchical world-economy.

For the sake of brevity and simplicity we will employ the conceit of a tripartite hierarchy (e.g., Wallersteinian groupings—core, semi-periphery, and periphery), of the world-economy but note that this framework can be generalized to any number of statistically-significant classes of states producing the hierarchical structure and that the dimension of the hierarchy can change at any time (Dezzani, 2002). In other words, the operationalization of the core–periphery hierarchy does not have to be based on the territorialization of processes at the scale of the state, and certainly not as macroregions of core, periphery, and semi-periphery. Rather, and availability of data permitting, the hierarchy may be operationalized at the intrastate scale. A few simple inferences of the transition matrices will demonstrate the veracity of this generality to the reader.

For the specific case of three structural elements constituting the hierarchy of the world-economy we have:


The maximum likelihood estimates for transition probabilities that describe mobility are estimated as the quotient of the observed state frequencies with the total number of countries traversing or persisting in the particular state for the time periods considered (Fij, where i is the row index for hierarchical position at the succeeding time t and j is the column index for hierarchical position at the preceding time t−k for some interval k):


for all I = 1, 2,#. . .#,n countries.

The maximum likelihood computation produces the final Markov transition probability matrix:


The vector of occupation properties for core, semi-periphery, and periphery after the time of the estimation interval (t−k, t−i such that k > i) is:


where Pcc, Pss, Ppp are probabilities of persistence within the world-system hierarchy reflecting Pii, where i ={c, s, p}, while Pij such that i,j ={c, s, p} but i≠j. Then, a logistic formulation is derived to capture structural maneuver relationships for Markov transition probabilities for persistence (i.e., i,i), and mobility (i.e., i,j):

Pii(β, x(i,i))=exp(βx(i,i))/[1+exp(βx(i,i))](persistence)

Pij(χ, x(i,j))=exp(χx(i,j))/[1+exp(χx(i,j))](mobility)

where β‎ and χ‎ are the corresponding parameter vectors and x is the corresponding structural/covariate design matrix. The binary response likelihood function for any particular world-system Markov transition configuration is:

L=ΠqPccFcc,q(1Pcc)Fcs,q+Fcp,qPssFss,q (1Pss)Fsc,q+Fsp,qPppFpp,q(1Ppp)Fpc,q+Fps,q

Where Fij,q are the number/frequency of transitions of each type observed in the qth country. When the expectations of the logistic functions are embedded in the likelihood then the log-likelihood becomes ln(L) = L0 + L1 where L0 is the likelihood for persistence and L1 is the likelihood for mobility. For brevity, we will only illustrate functions for persistence:


Maximize L0 + L1 by Bayesian hierarchical Newton–Raphson iteration and estimate the parameter vectors β‎ and χ‎ provided the design matrix x is of full rank and the logistic for persistence and mobility can be estimated separately as there are no terms involving both parameter sets simultaneously:



Hence, there exists a feasible covariate solution set for the explanation of world-system transition which is identical to maneuver. The result of this functional explication is the derivation of the logistic function. The logistic can be used as a framework of stochastic “explanation” for persistence and/or mobility of countries across the states of the world hierarchy. As such, the logistic model permits a specific framework for the analysis of the maneuver processes that generated the mobility behavior.

The logistic function is derived from the log-likelihood for the core persistence expression and is delineated as:


So that


Validation of maneuver decisions can be evaluated by assessing the significance of parameters associated with independent variable selected to capture maneuver behavior that would “explain” the variation in the transition probabilities. This analytical framework should provide a statistically feasible assessment of maneuver behavior that might be expected to account for movement of countries in the hierarchy; hence, provide a stochastic explanation of maneuver as it results in transition probabilities (Dezzani, 2012). This approach can be reasonably extended to explicit hierarchy connection evaluations using the representation of Markov random graphs employing spatial connection matrices in the logistic (Pattison & Wasserman, 1999).

Up to now we have emphasized how the actions of one state are partially defined by its context, and how the aggregate of state actions maintain and alter structural context. In other words, we have operationalized a dynamic sense of milieu (Sprout & Sprout, 1957, 1965) or opportunity (Starr, 1978). To satisfy IR’s concentration on state level decision-making we must also operationalize behavior or “willingness” (Starr, 1978). A mixed logistic framework can be used to generalize the parameter specification and evaluate country-level behaviors with respect to persistence and/or movement in the hierarchy (Mcfadden & Train, 2000; Revelt & Train, 1998; Tsutakawa, 1988; Wang & Puterman, 1998). Choice probabilities dictating the transition rate and probabilities between time periods are induced by both structural variables which can change as secular (slow) rates over longer time periods or, alternatively, represent agent decisions responding to short-term and local contexts or, some combination of these. Thus, individual country decisions may vary significantly within a hierarchical class, and this variance can provide information on unique maneuver behaviors. Independent variables that represent maneuver processes, can be combinations of economic, political, conflict, and policy measures, while trade and capital flows may be modeled as modified Hirschmann indices measuring state-level global contribution (see Dezzani, 2001 for a description). These variables may be found in the collection of data sets in the Correlates of War project, and complementary sources. Transition probabilities would require variables that capture dynamic change in measured levels of economic and political processes or conflict/social behaviors within and across state boundaries. Through the implementation of creative and theoretically derived covariates, a variety of hypotheses evaluating persistence or transition may be evaluated.

While, the logistic framework can provide information on group average transition behaviors between time periods, the mixed logistic framework will permit the evaluation of individual countries. However, the data restrictions are more severe for the parameter estimation of the mixed logistic regression function such that


for countries I—1, 2, …,n and parameters m = 1, 2, #. . .#,k, where k is the number of covariates employed to explain the transition of persistence probability.

Markov transition matrices provide a complete description of state-level and aggregate mobility but do not explain maneuver mechanisms or processes. The logistic expansion framework, derived from the transition probability partitions, provides an analytical basis for “explaining” maneuver mechanisms through the inclusion of structural and contextual covariates, as well as components of state-level change.

This analytical framework permits both specific and general maneuver hypotheses to be evaluated. In other words, we can model the degree of persistence and change in contextual settings, as well as the individual behavior of states, and the recursive interaction between agency and context. The Markov methods provide system description for the hierarchical arrangement of the world-economy for a time interval and the logit decomposition of the transition probabilities, as persistence or mobility behaviors, coupled with functional logistic covariate analysis provide the statistical explanation of specific and general maneuver hypotheses.

Potential Problems and Issues with the Analytical Approach

As with all quantitative methodologies there is a necessity for generalization and the need to make hypotheses tractable to the data available. Models, by definition, are simplifications of reality. However, by choosing units of analysis that are meaningful at a scale for which reliable data is available, such methods can provide needed information with a resolution that is useful for both theory validation and policy analysis. These two goals are well within the capacities of the proposed method. Nevertheless, covariates in the logistic model must be shown to reflect measures of maneuver-based processes, policies, and effects; otherwise, the “explanatory” logistic model will not capture the salient features of the maneuver behavior. If the independent variables constituting the covariate effects on transition can be shown to be effective measures of maneuver behavior, then specific maneuver hypotheses can be evaluated.

Data limitations are the major issue with most global, long-term studies. Most reliable data at the state level begins in the 1950s and extends to the present. However, variable coverage can be intermittent. As such, many studies limit the number of possible cases to be included (see Dezzani, 2001, 2002). Structural criticisms which argue that the study can only be state-centered are not necessarily valid as other “actors” for which comparable data is available may be included in the structural and explanatory components of the analysis. However, the data types across actors are assumed to be complimentary. Hence, the major limitations of this approach may be data quality and availability. This is also the case, however, with most quantitative approaches to complex social science studies.


That the behavior of states, and other social actors, is context-specific is axiomatic to the discipline of geography and the ways IR scholars adopt spatial analysis. However, the idea of context has been undertheorized. The structural approach to context, using world-systems analysis, enables an extension of the Sprout and Sprout (1957, 1965) idea of milieu and Starr’s (1978) opportunity and willingness framework, in a way that better reflects the political-economy logic of the capitalist world-economy within which states act. Though our approach is structural it should be noted that the structuralism of today is very different from the structuralism of environmental determinism that ushered in modern geography. Critiques of structuralism demand a place for agency (Martin & Dennis, 2010). However, the trend in social science has emphasized agency at the expense of structure, such as the epistemology of rational choice. Poststructuralists argue that they account for structure but alter the arguments that focus on experiential units.

The idea of maneuver allows for an exploration of the possibilities of state action within the structural constraints of the capitalist world-economy. Such an approach can build upon the ideas of milieu and opportunity that have been used in IR in a number of ways. One way is by adding economic structure to the dominant emphasis upon political calculations. The other way is to expand what is meant by milieu or opportunity through the idea of contextual setting that identifies and analyzes multiple processes operating simultaneously at multiple scales (neighborhood and regional). The result is a contextualization of state actions, both economic and political, that show the ability of states to learn and act within a limited set of structurally imposed constraints. In this way, the geographic tradition of identifying the contextual setting of a social actor is blended with IR’s traditional focus on decision-making, and a world-systems analysis tradition of structural constants, or the longue durée (Braudel, 1984).

We can summarize this approach by proposing that change within the world system hierarchy is measured using the mobility of countries, as political-economic territorial entities with the capacity for growth and change conferred by such entities, across the levels of hierarchy (Agnew & Corbridge, 1995; Tilly, 1984). This movement may be rapid or slow depending on a variety of factors primarily dependent upon maneuver decisions that encompass economic actions, policy actions, diplomacy, and conflict. These actions may have both internal and external effects on country’s interaction with other actors, both territorial and nonterritorial.

Maneuver thus forms a basis for this state-level change within the hierarchy of the world-economy. Maneuver also provides the rational basis of structural inference of transition probabilities that describe structural change but provide no explanation for change. The logistic expansion of transition probabilities using process-based outcomes and effects to “measure” the relative change tied to the changing structural position provides a basis of explanation. The analytical approach consisting of the logistic expansion of the Markov transition probability matrix can provide structural models (spatially explicit), to examine specific factors in either mobility or persistence behaviors. In this way, maneuver is useful tool with a strong analytical component for the analysis of state-level change in a hierarchical world-economy. Complexities of hegemony and nonterritorial actors may also be included as the imagination of the analyst permits.

The inclusion of context, space, geography, distance, and other key concepts within the discipline of geography are a welcome sign of interdisciplinarity with an established history. However, to theoretically advance the collaboration these concepts need to be as rigorously theorized as the relations that have become axiomatic within IR, such as alliances, rivalry, and so forth. We hope this essay is a step in that direction through a theorization and operationalization of context that, though embedded within a political-economy logic, is of use to the puzzles addressed by IR scholars.


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