‘Technical Problems’ at the League of Nations and Beyond

This study was triggered by an empirical observation in the 1939 Report The Development of International Co-Operation in Economic and Social Affairs: Report of the Special Committee (League of Nations 1939). The so-called Bruce Report is the product of a Special Committee that was proposed by the League of Nation’s Secretary-General in 1939 and approved by the League’s Council at the end of May 1939. The Committee’s task was "to study and report to the forthcoming Assembly on the appropriate measures of organisation which would ensure the development and expansion of the League’s machinery for dealing with technical problems, and promote the active participation of all nations in the efforts made to solve those problems" (League of Nations 1939: 5).

In the ‘Introductory’ of the Bruce Report, the authors introduce the term “economic and social problems” as a replacement for “the phrase ‘technical problems’” (League of Nations 1939: 5). They identify the term technical problems as a term commonly used “to describe the questions with which the greater part of the League’s total activities are concerned” (ibid., 6). Yet, the authors perceive this terminology “inadequate” (ibid., 5). More broadly they criticize the distinction in “the work of the League between ‘political’ and ‘technical’ problems” and call this distinction “unfortunate” (ibid., 6). The authors of the Bruce Report are concerned that the subject matters that are captured under the term technical problems (Figure 1) “are in every country political questions, frequently the cause of internal controversy and often necessitating international negotiation” (ibid., 6). The term political questions in the League’s language is, however, “normally [used to] refer[..] to problems of political relations between States or [...] what are in each country known as ‘foreign affairs’” (ibid., 6). To acknowledge the ‘political’ nature of all those matters that are usually referred to with the linguistics sign technical problems, the authors suggest a new label: economic and social problems.

While they suggest replacing the term technical problems with economic and social problems the authors of the Bruce Report do not suggest an alternative term for problems regarding ‘the relations between States’, i.e. the term political problems in the League’s language.

It is this reflection on the term technical problems that caught my attention. Linguistic reflections in public texts are always interesting as they constitute metacommunicative expressions in which conventional language use is denaturalised. Simultaneously, they put spotlight on what is/was a naturalised, albeit ‘fragile’, use of language to begin with. To study linguistic reflections means to study condensed communicative processes, the focus on. which makes accessible past collective knowledge (Jung 1994: 17). But, of course, in the case of the Bruce Report, the authors did not just reflect on any kind of linguistic sign, which makes their linguistic reflections even more interesting. They brought to the fore a curious dichotomy that – as an explorative stroll through the League of Nations’ Archive suggests – orders the work and the world of the League of Nations more broadly. It is this dichotomy and, in particular, the concept technical problem that makes the linguistic reflections in the Bruce Report not just generally interesting but interesting for the study of ‘international economic thinkers’ and their ‘international economic thinking’.


The question that arises for me is:

How do ‘technical problems’ shape ‘international economic thinkers’ and their ‘international economic thinking’?


My study is grounded in 3 premises:

  1. I start on the premise that reality is discursively produced. Discourses structure how a phenomenon becomes meaningful and how it is brought into being through a set of practices. Discourse is not simply an individual act of talking by a subject, driven by the subject’s intention;2 discourse is a meta-individual practice.

  2. Discourses are an ensemble of ideas, concepts and categories that can be reconstructed. Such reconstruction is most fruitful if it takes into account the socio-historical and socio- political conditions under which statements are done (e.g. Hajer 2004).

  3. The term technical problems is part of a discourse that brings out the work and experts of the League of Nations (and later international organizations). This discourse is manifest in the use of the adjective technical.


Aim & approach

My aim is to reconstruct this ‘technical’-discourse (working term) in order to understand how it shapes ‘international economic thinkers’ and ‘international economic thinking’, that means, what kind of ‘international economic thinkers’ and ‘international economic thinking’ it brings out.


For this analysis I establish a text corpus that contains as many English-language League of Nations-documents containing the adjective technical as can be reasonably collected. Furthermore, I collect as much as reasonably possible English-language secondary literature (1927-1945) addressing the League of Nations and containing the adjective technical. To reconstruct the ‘technical’-discourse through this corpus, I combine selected empirical research strategies from Jung’s linguistische Diskursgeschichte (Jung 1994), Landwehr’s historische Diskursanalyse (Landwehr 2009), Hajer’s argumentative Diskursanalyse (e.g. Hajer 2004), and frame analysis, as for instance applied in the context of Busse’s Frame-Semantik (e.g. Busse, Felden and Wulf 2018). The reasoning is overall inductive. Given that the corpus is digital, both, close and distant reading is possible. R will be used for the distant reading.


  • League of Nations (1939) The Development of International Co-Operation in Economic and Social Affairs: Report of the Special Committee. Geneva.

  • Busse, Dietrich, Michaela Felden and Detmer Wulf (2018) Bedeutungs- und Begriffswissen im Recht: Frame-Analysen von Rechtsbegriffen im Deutschen. Berlin: de Gruyter.

  • Hajer, Maarten (2004) ‘Argumentative Diskursanalyse: Auf der Suche nach Koalitionen, Praktiken und Bedeutung’ in: Keller, Reiner et al (eds) Handbuch sozialwissenschaftliche Diskursanalyse. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 271-298.

  • Jung, Matthias (1994) Öffentlichkeit und Sprachwandel: Zur Geschichte des Diskurses über die Atomenergie. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.

  • Landwehr, Achim (2009) Historische Diskursanalyse. Frankfurt/M.: Campus Verlag.

  • Sluga, Glenda (2021) ‘Twentieth-Century International Economic Thinking, and the Complex History of Globalization: A New Research Programme’ EUI Working Paper HEC 2021/01.



ECOINT Senior Fellow

sabine.selchow AT eui.eu

Dr Sabine Selchow