World polity or world society?

November 17, 2013

I get asked:  What’s the difference between world polity theory and world society theory?

The short answer:  They refer to the same intellectual tradition.  The term “world polity” came first.  But, the term “world society” is a bit broader and arguably more apt, so some people have shifted over to it.

The long answer:  World society theory is fairly new, as sociological theories go.  The terminology is still evolving as the ideas develop and as people explore different imageries to convey the ideas.

World society theory is (or was) called many different things:  world polity theory, world culture theory, institutional theory, neo-institutionalism, the “Meyerian” perspective, the Meyer school, and the Stanford school.  Of course, institutionalism is another can of worms, because it can mean a lot of different things.

The term world polity was used in foundational works (e.g., Thomas et al 1987) and it pretty much stuck.  When people like Finnemore translated the ideas to political science, that’s the label they used.  

A subsequent foundational paper, the Meyer et al. 1997 AJS paper, shifted to a new language:  “World Society and the Nation State”

I was talking with John Meyer and Wade Cole last week, and asked about that change in language.  To briefly summarize:  In the 1970s and 1980s, John was struggling to think about the rapid spread of state policies and structures.  The process appeared to be both global (as opposed to processes operating within national societies) and also social/political (as opposed to part of the world economy).  So he invoked the idea of a world polity, to draw argue for something beyond national societies and the global economy.

Research over the 1980s and 1990s unpacked a range of social, cultural, and organizational processes operating at the world level:  lots of discourse and culture, all sorts of associational and professional activity, and tons of organizations (especially INGOs).  At that point, it seemed more natural to talk about a world society as opposed to the narrower idea of polity (political system).

I used “world polity” up through my dissertation and sometimes afterward.  So did lots of others.  The Drori et. al book, published in 2003, is titled Science in the Modern World Polity.  Why did I switch later on?  Mainly practical reasons:  the term “world polity” confuses a lot of people.  In a couple of instances, copyeditors couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and just changed it to “world policy”.  I’ve gotten lots of blank stares, especially when teaching.  The term “world society” conveys a tiny bit more.  Even if people don’t know the theory, the name gives them the gist of it… or something closer to it.

But, switching to “world society” comes with costs.  World polity theory has more name recognition, and many continue to publish using the label.  Who knows what will ultimately catch on?  Perhaps something else altogether!  And, in the meantime people keep asking me about the  difference between world polity and world society…

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2 Responses to “World polity or world society?”

  1. Christina Parker Says:

    So some do some call it world culture as well? The naming is indeed confusing! I’m trying to figure out whether to call it polity or culture in my grad research paper. My professor has kind of flip flopped on the naming, so I’m having a bit of trouble

    • Evan Schofer Says:

      Yes. The world polity/world society perspective takes seriously the idea that culture profoundly shapes social activity… and argues that the contemporary world increasingly has something like a common global culture. (This is not to say that everyone believes the exact same thing. But some ideas or cultural understandings are shared on a large scale, especially compared to prior centuries. Human Rights is an example people often bring up.)

      Anyhow, some people have focused on this, and referred to the perspective as “world culture theory”.

      But, people also use the labels “world culture” or “global culture” to refer to other stuff (e.g., the work of Roland Robertson or George Ritzer).


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