The Status of Status in World Politics

Author: Paul K. MacDonald and Joseph M. Parent


What is status? How does it work? What effects does it tend to have? A new wave of scholarship on status in international relations has converged on a central definition of status, several causal pathways, and the claim that the pursuit of status tends to produce conflict. The authors take stock of the status literature and argue that this convergence is not only a sign of progress, but also an obstacle to it. They find that the consensus definition conceals critical contradictions between standing and membership, that its causal pathways are promising but often in tension with each other, and that the literature may be overlooking the ways in which status can help states avoid conflict and promote cooperation under certain conditions.

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Summary of Books Reviewed

The four books under review have the same essential purpose: to highlight how status matters in world politics. In Status and the Challenge of Rising Powers, Steven Ward argues that status provides the most compelling explanation for why rising powers pursue revisionist foreign policies designed to overturn existing international orders (pp. 3–4). In The Struggle for Recognition in International Relations: Status, Revisionism, and Rising Powers, Michelle Murray contends that the failure to recognize rising powers’ status claims is the primary cause of spirals of competition and conflict during power transitions (pp. 14–17). In Fighting for Status: Hierarchy and Conflict in World Politics, Jonathan Renshon demonstrates that states frequently fight with one another to improve their standing within particular status communities (pp. 21–25). In Quest for Status: Chinese and Russian Foreign Policy, Deborah Welch Larson and Alexei Shevchenko maintain that it is the pursuit of status, more than wealth or power, which drives the foreign policy choices of great powers, such as Russia and China (pp. 14–16).

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What is Status? The Concept and Its Complications

Unlike many social science concepts, status is not essentially contested. The building blocks of status are well understood: there exists a set of collectively valued attributes in world politics, states occupy different positions on these valued attributes, and high-status states have different rights and responsibilities than low-status ones. Despite surface agreement, however, the works considered here reveal significant differences. This is most striking in two related areas: whether status should refer primarily to standing or membership and whether status is best captured using quantitative or qualitative methods. We consider each in turn.

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Originally published by Paul K. MacDonald and Joseph M. Parent at on March 16, 2021.