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Jens Greve (Universität Bielefeld)

Perspectives on the global field


In the 1960s and the 1970s a number of authors, such as Raymond Aron (1966), Wilbert E. Moore (1966), Karl Kaiser (1969), Alex Inkeles (1975), Joseph S. Nye and Robert O. Keohane (1971), criticized social sciences research for focussing on the nation state as if it were the most natural unit for sociological analysis. In their view, this outlook leads to a distorted perspective that neglects transnational forms of social structures and processes. These authors were already highlighting then aspects that have today come to be considered as characteristics of globalisation, such as increasing global interconnectedness through information technology, tourism, world trade, foreign investments and the growing number of international governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

In the past, these authors only formed a minority. However, this situation changed markedly with the surge of globalisation literature during the 90s. A similar situation characterizes the notion and theories of world society. These theories were elaborated during the 70s by Niklas Luhmann and by Peter Heintz, and at the beginning of the 80s by John Meyer and his colleagues. However, the notion of world society has only recently achieved prominence - often in the context of discussions centred on globalisation (Beck 2002).

The purpose of this paper is twofold. The first part addresses the difference between the globalisation approaches and the world society approach. The second part of the paper offers a critique of both globalisation approaches and theories of world society. In addition to the perspective developed by globalisation approaches it is useful to consider the global field as a field of emergent institutional structures. In contradistinction to the theories of world society, however, it is useful to understand these structures as social forms which are given only to a limited extent.

(1) According to John Meyer and his colleagues (Meyer et al. 1997) the concept world society denotes the fact that since 1945 a world-wide consensus has emerged concerning the role of individuals, organizations and states as central actors, the value of political participation, of economic growth, of science, and of education. These values in turn shape the actions and identities of the actors. The assumption that a world culture exists is derived from the observation that although conditions within individual nations are often very different, institutional structures are often broadly similar. Because this similarity cannot be explained by internal conditions, the world polity perspective maintains that homogenization is the consequence of a world culture consisting of models for appropriate behaviour.

Luhmann’s conception of world society is conspicuously different. According to him society is the most encompassing social system, defined as the totality of all communication within reach of every other communication. Unlike Parsons and Meyer, for Luhmann world society is not defined by common values. For Luhmann, the emergence of world society as global connectedness of communication is the consequence of functional differentiation (Luhmann 1982: 298). Thus, world society is primarily a functionally differentiated society; other forms of differentiation do still exist, but only as secondary forms. Given the reality of functional differentiation, a notion of society that is only linked to the nation state becomes untenable because the boundaries of the functionally differentiated systems do not coincide with national boundaries (Luhmann 1982: 298).

If we contrast these two conceptions of world society with the globalisation outlook, we can find some crucial differences. There are two ways in which globalisation is predominantly conceptualised (Guillén 2001). According to the first reading, globalisation means a process of intensifying, accelerating and densifying of transnational connectedness. According to the second reading, globalisation means a qualitative transformation of space and time relations. If one stresses the idea of global connectedness, there is a certain similarity here with Luhmann’s conception of world society, because globalisation theory, at least implicitly, presupposes that a global communicative connectivity already exists. However, there are two decisive dissimilarities between the perspectives of globalisation conceptions and world society theories.

Firstly, globalisation theories mainly conceive of the world as a field of transactions but do not offer a notion of what makes the world as a whole an object with properties of its own. Thus globalisation theory avoids the concept of society, which world society theories apply to the global level. Secondly, whereas the globalisation outlook mainly conceives of the world as a sum of interactions spreading across the globe, the world society perspective also looks from above and explains the structures of the world through the “Eigenstructures” (Stichweh) of the world as a whole. In the case of Meyer it is world culture that shapes the institutional structures and the actions of organizations and persons around the world. In the case of Luhmann it is functional differentiation that provides the structural constraints for forms of regional differentiation (Luhmann 1974: 145).

(2) The second section of the paper offers a kind of dialectical critique of both world society theory and globalisation theory. What is missing in globalisation theory is a notion which designates the qualitative change that can be observed within global relations, and which has been accelerating since 1945. What is required, therefore, is a concept of “global institutions” indicating the emergence of institutions that now shape the forms of events throughout the world. However, in contrast to the world society approach we are of the opinion that these global structures are given only to a limited extent. Global institutions are those institutions that are globally accepted as valid norms of behaviour, e.g. (1) the use of money as a medium of exchange; (2) the nation state as the universal principle of political organization; (3) education as a universally acknowledged aim of individual and collective development; (4) global standardizations of time and of the postal system.

The extremely small number of existing global institutions emphasizes the shortcomings of world society theories, because these theories cannot account for the extremely large number of institutions that are not global. Luhmann has countered this argument with the following consideration. Regional differences throughout the globe do not disprove the existence of a world society. The opposite, he maintains, is true: these differences actually prove the existence of world society because regional differences have to be understood as reactions to the dominant principle of functional differentiation (Luhmann 1997: 810). The drawback of this argument is that it still needs to be validated. In addition, there are many institutions which it seems less plausible to consider as world institutions. The process of European integration is a case in point because it has to be understood as a consequence of regional circumstances.

The same point applies to Meyer’s concept of world polity. Here regional variation can be understood as a decoupling of institutional form und the internal realities of nation states, e.g. states sign international conventions without accepting them as rules actually applying to their behaviour (Meyer et al. 1997: 154). But here the same point applies: the way in which, and the degree to which decoupling occurs cannot be derived from the conventions itself.

Firstly, as a consequence, we are faced with a paradox. If world society consists of globally accepted institutions, this means that there are events and institutions which are not part of world society. There are two ways to resolve this paradox. On the one hand, one may accept that the world is broader than world society; on the other hand, one may avoid the idea that world society means global culture or the principle of functional differentiation.

Secondly, the concept of world society does not account for the plurality of worlds that emerge within the processes of globalisation (Rosenau 2003). Given this plurality of worlds associated with the processes of globalisation it becomes doubtful whether one may conceive of the resulting patterns as one entity. Meyer’s view that world culture is inherently a culture marked by conflicting principles can be understood as a partial reply to such an objection (Meyer et al. 1997: 168f.). But in effect this reiterates the point: what exactly is the unity circumscribed by these conflicting principles? With regard to Luhmann the same point can be derived by looking at an unsolved question inherent in Luhmann’s conception of the world. For him “world” denotes the horizon contained in every communication. (Luhmann 1982: 298; Luhmann 1997: 145ff.) What finally remains unclear in Luhmann’s conception is why the sum of all communications within reach of all others should form one world, given that every communication entails its own horizon.

Thirdly, the processes of globalisation, i.e. intensifications of global connectedness, are inherently innovating. The concept of globalization refers precisely to this dynamic. Even if new institutions result from the perception and reception of global institutions, the dynamic of new institutions cannot be derived from a set of cultural forms or a predominant logic such as functional differentiation.


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