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.