Polity vs society, the substantive issue

I brought up the question of “world polity theory” vs. “world society theory” as an issue of labeling.  In a nutshell, they refer to the same theoretical tradition within sociology.

But, there is also a substantive issue here.  A polity is not the same as a society.  Polity refers more narrowly to a formal political system and its associated authority structures.  Society encompasses much more than the polity, and many definitions stress elements that are outside of the formal political sphere, such as private association or even shared culture.

This raises several important questions for world society scholars:

  • Are global social phenomena best characterized as a polity?  Or a society?  Both?
  • Can one make a distinction between the world polity versus a broader world society?  Can they be measured independently?  One obvious contrast would be between intergovernmental structures (IGOs and treaties) and “global civil society” or INGOs.
  • Has the structure of the world society changed over time?  Is there more of a world society now, compared to just an interstate system?

I’ve thought about this a fair bit, heavily influenced by Ron Jepperson’s outstanding work on polity types.  For instance, Anglo-American dominance seems very obviously associated with the expansion of associational or “societal” activity in the international realm.  One could imagine a counterfactual world of French hegemony, where you wouldn’t find so many INGOs or other “societal” elements — it would be closer to a pure inter-state system.

Last week Wade Cole mentioned that he had also thought about the issue a little.  Well, Wade appears to have a gift for understatement.  He sent along a paper, and it is clear that he has thought about the issue a lot!  Wade agreed to let me post the draft, which does a great job of clarifying the issues at hand:  Cole World Polity vs World Society.pdf

Wade provides an incredibly lucid discussion of the policy vs. society distinction, and sets out a research agenda to explore the issue further.  Be sure to check out his paper!

By the way:  These substantive issues do have implications for how to label the perspective.  I think all the research on global culture, INGOs, and the like, are suggestive of a world society, not only a world polity (inter-state system).  So, I prefer “world society theory” on substantive grounds.

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World polity or world society?

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…

Wes Longhofer Defends

Last but not least, Wes Longhofer defended yesterday!  Woohoo!  Wes is the first student I’ve worked with from beginning to end, so it was especially rewarding to see it all come together.

Wes’s dissertation, “Foundations of Global Giving”, examines the recent explosion of globally-oriented philanthropic foundations, as well as their consequences for a variety of outcomes.  He also has a chapter on individual participation in charitable organizations, which turn out to be affected by world society variables (in addition to conventional predictors).

Philanthropy isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, and sometimes it has taken transnational forms (from missionary work to the Ford Foundation).  Yet, Wes argues we are seeing a new kind of liberal/American-style philanthropy emerging and becoming institutionalized in world society.  The argument parallels work by John Meyer and Ho-Kyu Hwang on recent changes in the development regime, where models of progress become increasingly Anglo/liberal, locating the key to progress in individuals and their aggregations (e.g., NGOs) rather than states or other collectivities.  Philanthropy is increasingly organized along global (neo-)liberal lines, generating a distinctive new flavor.  Instead of missionaries or the Ford Foundation, we get lots of INGOs and global philanthropic networks, pushing all sorts of new “social ventures” worldwide.

It goes without saying that the dissertation had some diffusion analyses — in this case models of the global expansion of philanthropic foundations (at least one type of them).  It is sort of a rite of passage — everyone in the world polity/world society tradition has to model diffusion at some point or another.  And, there have to be INGOs.  Lots and lots of INGOs.

Wes also examines the effects of foundations on national-level outcomes using statistical data.  Foundations, it seems, have concrete consequences.  Environmental foundations affect some measures of environmental degradation; medical foundations affect some kinds of medical outcomes (e.g., vaccinations), and so on.  Some of the effects are mediated by the size of the state, with bigger effects where the state is smaller.  In a world frequently typified by loose coupling, these direct consequences of foundations are actually kind of surprising…

Wes’s defense was a nation-wide phenomenon, with Liz (co-chair) and Michael Goldman in Minnesota, me and Ann Skyping in from the West Coast, and Michael Barnett on the East Coast.  The defense was particularly lively, with the Michaels doing a great job of pushing back on the world society perspective, in a manner that was thought-provoking and constructive.  It is always great when people ask the hard questions…  I think of it as a sign of respect.  You don’t push people if you know they can’t hold their own.  Anyhow, it made for a fun defense (especially for those of us, who weren’t actually in the hot seat!).

Congratulations, Wes, on a job well done!!!

p.s. Wes won some serious style-points for dedicating his dissertation to their newborn, who is appallingly cute by all accounts:  “For our beautiful daughter, Harper, whose first smiles came as I put this dissertation to bed — an event I chalk up to correlation, not causation.”

Karen Robinson Defends

OK, still catching up on old news…  We’ve had a bunch of defenses at UCI, starting with Karen Robinson a few months ago.

Karen’s dissertation looks at the rise of choice in university curricula over the past century.  Classically, universities offered rigid “courses of study” — specific sequences of topics, from which students could not deviate.  Or, there were exam-based programs, again affording no options to students.

This, of course, has given way to a world where students choose among myriad elective courses, and even design their own majors to address their highly individualized interests and preferences.

Karen does a wonderful job of telling an intertwined story — that the rise of individualism writ large is bound up with celebration of individualism and choice in university curricula.  On one hand, the university is a fantastic site to interrogate the nature of modern individualism (she has some amazing qualitative material). On the other hand, Karen argues that the university, itself, is a primary locus for the institutionalization and promulgation of individualism in modern societies.  Obviously, this historical shift is related to the rise of students as consumers, but she resists a simple story that student “demand” drives the expansion of choice.  Rather, Karen compellingly argues that the imagery of demand is just one facet of a sweeping cultural shift toward greater individualism in society.

David Frank chaired the committee, and you can see his influence in the massive data collection that Karen undertook.  (David is rather zealous — some would say crazy — when it comes to data.)  She examined university course catalogs over an entire century, focusing mostly on American universities (including elite, land-grant, religious, and historically black universities and colleges).  She also has a comparative chapter that examines diverse cases across the world — and shows that the rise of individualism and choice in university curricula is a global phenomenon.

Congratulations, Karen!

You can get a flavor of the project from Karen’s solo-authored paper in Sociological Forum, which came out in the September issue:  “The Rise of Choice in the U.S. University and College: 1910–2005“.  Congrats on that, too!

Meyer Annual Review

John Meyer wrote a terrific review paper entitled “World Society, Institutional Theories, and the Actor.”  It can be downloaded here.

It is John’s most refined, clear statement about institutional theory to date.  A definite “must-read.”

The review draws a contrast between cultural/phenomenological institutionalisms — which treat actors as socially constructed — versus “realist” institutionalisms which tend not to.  In John’s imagery, one might think of individuals or organizations as “stage actors” (who enact scripts) as opposed to a more conventional social-scientific or economistic view of actors with a priori preferences.

As a student in the 1990s, I can remember wading through “Ontology and Rationalization in the Modern Western Cultural Account”.  I spent quite a long time puzzling through that sweeping, profound, and sometimes cryptic chapter.  Reading this new review, I can’t help but be amazed at how much John’s vision has grown and become more clear.  The core ideas were already there in the 1987 chapter, but there was much fleshing-out to be done.

An excerpt from the 2010 review:

The Modern Social Order

“Under the cultural and associational conditions outlined above, the outlines of modern society become clear.  The scriptwriting Others of the world prescribe agentic actorhood for individual persons.  And they prescribed very agentic actorhood for the organizations and nation-states built by these persons.  Actorhood means the enhanced standing of the entities involved and their empowered comprehension of the scientized and rationalized environment in which they are to act.” p. 9

I included this excerpt partly because it is impressive to have see anyone try to sum up the entire modern social system in a paragraph.  Also, it shows that John still has the ability to be simultaneously sweeping, profound, and cryptic.  🙂

Human Rights: Myth and Consequences?

Wade sent me and Ann some of his recent work on human rights.  He’s got some great papers, including one coming out in the AJS.  More congrats to Wade!  He’s really on a roll!

Anyhow, the papers take on a really important issue:  the conditions under which global institutions actually have meaningful consequences, versus being loosely coupled.  It is a really important direction for world society research.  (Ann and I have a paper in Social Forces that looks at environmental outcomes… and are thinking about doing more research along these lines.)

The AJS paper is entitled “Human Rights as Myth and Ceremony?  Reevaluating the Effectiveness of Human Rights Treaties.”  The paper addresses recent work, including a widely cited AJS paper by Emilie Hafner-Burton and Kiyo Tsutsui, showing that treaty signing is negatively associated with subsequent practices.  The literature concludes that treaties are “just talk”, or that treaties only matter in highly specific contexts.

Wade’s paper improves on the literature in two ways:  1) He delves much more into the substance of the treaties, looking at specific amendments and optional provisions that nations might sign — which might affect specific kinds of human rights outcomes; and 2) He addresses the possibility that treaty signing itself may be endogenous, via an instrumental variables model.

The AJS paper shows that nations making stronger treaty commitments tend to improve on various measures of human rights.  So, HR treaties do matter after all, it seems…  Go world polity!

The second paper, “Decoupling Reconsidered: Accounting for the Implementation Gap in Human Rights Treaties” looks at the state-level factors associated with loose coupling.  The paper is really terrific and deserves a close read.  But, in a nutshell, stable regimes are more likely to successfully implement treaties.  This fits really well with Ann’s prior work on weak states…  which often commit huge atrocities in the context of extreme disorder or civil conflict.  In other words, loose coupling probably isn’t “strategic” window dressing, but rather reflects the very limited state capacities of many countries.

Wade is looking for feedback as he revises the paper, so check it out:  Wade Cole Decoupling Reconsidered.pdf  Actually, knowing him, you’d better hurry with comments… I’m sure it will be in print soon!  🙂

Jepperson Meyer: Levels of Analysis

I was able to convince Ron to let me post another outstanding paper, co-authored with John Meyer.

Jepperson Meyer Levels of Analysis 1.10.2010.pdf

The paper discusses the role of macro-level processes in social explanations — and in particular argues against the idea that macro-level explanations must be mediated by individual-level dynamics.

One of the challenges to neo-institutional research is the dominance of individual-centric imageries and ways of thinking that permeate Western, and especially American, culture.  This paper is a wonderful antidote.  It provides helpful alternative imageries that are more macro in nature, and offers some smart criticisms of the methodological individualism that pervades much sociological research.

The paper revisits Weber’s Protestant Ethic, an exemplar of individual-level mediation of macro-social processes. Ron and John make the point that many scholars — and even Weber himself — imagined a much more complex process, which often involved direct macro-level effects unmediated by individual-level dynamics.

Sometimes — e.g., in journal reviews — I am chided for failing to address the individual-level mechanisms or “microfoundations” of macro-institutional processes. Ron and John’s paper does a great job of reminding us that such attention to micro-processes is not always necessary or relevant, and certainly shouldn’t be held up as a “requirement” for good research. (I, of course, think that attention to micro-dynamics can be extremely valuable. I just don’t always want to do such research, myself.)