Against network thinking: A critique of pathological sovereignty

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This article advances a critique of network thinking and the pathological sovereignty that it gives rise to. The network is ubiquitous as a metaphor for understanding the social, economic and political dynamics of the contemporary era. Implicitly drawing on an analogy with communications infrastructures such as the telegraph or internet, the network metaphor represents global politics in terms of nodes related to one another through conduit-like links. I begin by demonstrating the widespread nature of network thinking and outline the way in which conventional metaphors structure both thinking and action. I then recreate an episodic history of network thinking in order to demonstrate the key entailments of the network metaphor. I argue that there are 4 entailments of network thinking: the prioritisation of connectivity; the identification of novel actors; deterritorialisation; and a lack of concern for contiguity and context. The article then outlines the corresponding political and ethical consequences that follow from these entailments, specifically: fantasies of precision; new threat imaginaries; unboundedness; and a failure to attend to culture and community. I contend that network thinking gives rise to a pathological sovereignty whose dual faces can be seen in drone strikes and invasive surveillance. Finally, I argue that thinking beyond the network requires us to foreground the importance of contiguity and context in understanding global politics. This article contributes both a novel theoretical framework for challenging the hegemony of network thinking as well as an ethical call for greater recognition of the harm caused by pathological sovereignty.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)440-463
Number of pages23
JournalEuropean Journal of International Relations
Issue number2
Early online date26 Apr 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2018


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