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Sociology 2:

Class 14: World Polity Theory

Copyright 2010 by Evan

Do not copy or distribute without
Exams graded
Will be returned in section next week
Todays Class:
Wrap up World-System Theory (WST)
Also called dependency theory
World Polity Theory (WPT)
Also called Neo-institutional theory institutional theory, or
world society theory
Review: Theories of
General perspectives on the economy
Adam Smith
Sociological theories
Modernization theory
World Systems Theory (WST) / dependency theory
World polity theory (WPT) / institutional theory
Political Science
Institutionalism (Political science) /
Review: Modernization Theory
Argument: All societies naturally pass
through certain stages of development
All societies start out as traditional economies
Based on subsistence farming, hunting/gathering, etc
Then, they have an industrial revolution
Eventually, they become modern high-tech
Modernization involved multiple shifts:
Economy: Shift to higher levels of industrialization
Institutions: Rise of modern government, legal
systems, education systems, etc.
People: Creation of modern persons
Shift away from traditional values, toward science, etc
Review: Modernization Theory
1. It is very Eurocentric / Western-centric
Assumes that the West represents the ideal
De-values other societies, cultural traditions
2. Modernization theory focuses on a single
country, ignores global dynamics
Assumes that success/failure is due to internal
Rather than relation to others: domination & competition
3. Modernization theory is unable to explain
the persistent poverty found in many
Review: World-System Theory
Key Definitions:
Core: the rich, developed countries
Also: west; metropolitan countries; developed world
Periphery: poor, dependent nations
Also: underdeveloped countries; satellites;
Semi-periphery: semi-industrialized
Dependency: The vulnerable state of being
exploited by core countries
They depend on the core for trade, investment, loans,
technology, etc. (related term: underdevelopment).
Review: World-System Theory
World-System Theory: We need to study the
entire global economy as a world system
We cant understand the fate of a single country, without
understanding how it fits into the overall system
Countries are rich or poor because of their position
relative to others in the global capitalist system.
Argument: Europe (the core) was able to
prosper by exploiting resources from other
The great success of Europe and the failures in the non-
West werent just a coincidence
Europe became wealthy by maintaining economic &
military dominance over other nations
Exploited nations will never modernize as long as they
are oppressed by Western nations.
Review: World-System Theory
Question: How does WST differ from
other analysis of economic
Both agree that economics = important
But, economists often view the world
economy positively (or neutrally)
Ex: Ricardo thought trade was overall beneficial
Ex: Many economists think globalization
reduces poverty compared to a world without
WST argues that globalization perpetuates
Review: World-System Theory
In contrast, WST argues that the global
economic system is inherently unfair
Economic power of core countries and MNCs is
so great that the periphery will always be
The idea that governments and international
institutions can make the system fair is an
Governments and international institutions (e.g., the
WTO) will always reflect interests of capitalists
Therefore, WST scholars are pessimistic about the role
of global governance in solving social problems
Consequently, the system must be
substantially reorganized or overthrown.
Review: World-System Theory
How does WST view international
Answer: They do not affect the
fundamental economic positions of core
and periphery
Claim: Most IGOs and INGOs are created by core
countries, and will never fundamentally undermine
the dominance of the core
IGOs and INGOs tend to perpetuate core dominance
Example: WTO has not given big concessions to
The only thing that could help would be
organizations representing the peripheral countries
against the core!
World-System Theory (WST)
Question: Is world-system theory right?
WST makes many claims. There is no simple answer
1. Analysis of Latin America is generally
thought to be compelling
2. Rapid industrialization of South Korea,
Taiwan, etc = major exceptions to WST
3. Evidence on foreign/trade investment =
mixed, but often contradict WST
Some studies find effects consistent with WST, but
many do not.
World-System Theory (WST)
Criticisms of WST:
1. Research findings are mixed at best
The specific WST predictions about sources of
global inequality/poverty have often been
It is true that there is horrible poverty in the
But: Are people worse off than if there was no global
economy? That is less clear.
World-System Theory (WST)
2. WST doesnt make clear predictions
After the fact, almost any action can be interpreted
as serving the interests of global capitalists
Example: The Montreal Protocol on CFC
An environmental treaty addressing pollution
First, the core didnt sign it WST scholars said:
See, the core is using its power to avoid the
Later, when the core signed it, WST scholars said:
See, the core has ensnared the peripheral
countries in a treaty that will keep them in
A theory that can fit any evidence is not so useful.
World-System Theory (WST)
3. Reverse causality
WST argues: Countries that are
dependent on the core of the world
capitalist system will be trapped into a
state of underdevelopment
BUT, maybe it works the other way around
Poverty produced dependent relations in the
first place
Poor countries cant produce high-tech goods,
so they trade commodities (e.g., bananas)
But, this doesnt necessarily mean that trading
bananas made those countries poorer or
trapped them into poverty.
World Polity Theory (WPT)
A very different theory of the global system
Emphasizes culture, not economy
World Polity Theory was also a response to
modernization theory
The expectation that countries will march through
stages of development
Key observation: While countries differ a lot in their
level of development, many aspects of their
governments look quite similar
World Polity Theory argues that this conformity reflects
the existence of a common global culture
Which shapes how elites set up their governments, societies.
World Polity Theory (WPT)
Question: Why do people vote?
Lets think about individuals, rather than states
Conventional Answer: They want to maximize
their power and interests
Realism is an interest-based theory of action
Thus, they go and vote for candidates that will enact
favorable policies
Is that what is going on in peoples heads?
Do they really think: Heh, heh, heh Ill be rich!?
In fact, a single vote rarely matters why do people
World Polity Theory (WPT)
One alternative to interest-based action:
Action is governed by culture and social norms
A very different view: People vote because
they are supposed to
We live in a society in which voting is highly valued
Example: Some of the biggest predictors of voting
include: whether friends or parents vote
If you are surrounded by voters (and pro-voting norms) you
are more likely to vote.
World Polity Theory (WPT)
How does culture affect us?
1. By providing norms
Norms indicate proper behavior in a given situation
You could come to class wearing scuba gear but
norms discourage it.
In fact, we rarely consider actions that are against
World Polity Theory (WPT)
2. By providing scripts
Scripts are taken-for-granted recipes for behavior
that we share and understand
Example: If you are interested in courting someone,
you ask them on a date
You do not show up at their house with 2 oxen and ask their
fathers permission to marry
People in a common culture generally follow similar
World Polity Theory (WPT)
3. By providing cognitive models
Cognitive models or maps are mental frameworks
or blueprints that people share
Example: Suppose you were chosen to set up a new
school How would you design it?
How many grades? What subjects? How big would
classes be? When would the school year be?
World Polity Theory (WPT)
Note: Most ideas are drawn from a familiar
model of the school
Would you teach by apprenticeship? Keep boys and
girls separate? Teach classes on astrology? Probably
In the language of social psychology: We all
possess a similar cognitive model or map of a
It is that which we take for granted.
World Polity Theory (WPT)
Question: Is it possible that there is (or is
becoming) a globally shared culture that
influences the governments of the world?
Are there common cognitive maps that they use to
design their schools? Their societies?
If so, where might those common norms and models
come from?
World Polity Theory (WPT)
Polity = associations and activities of the
public/political sphere
Example: Alexis de Toqueville studied the
American polity in the 19th century
He didnt just examine the state he also examined
associational life (NGOs) and American culture
He observed: The American state was weak (at the
time); associational life shaped politics and society.
World Polity Theory (WPT)
The World Polity = political structures,
associations, & culture in the international
Observation: There is no strong world state
Rather, there are associations (IGOs, NGOs)
Observation: Participants in the international
system share a common culture
IGOs and NGOs are typically run by people educated
in Western-style tradition, believe in common things
Example: Democracy, economic growth, education,
World Polity Theory
World Polity Theory developed in response
to modernization theory, WST, and realism
Modernization theory predicted that poor, agricultural
societies would be different from modern ones
Example: Agricultural societies should have different
educational systems (e.g., focused on farming)
Example: WST predicts that governments of
peripheral countries would mainly address commodity
World Polity Theory
Key observation: Societies were rapidly
becoming more similar in terms of
government and policies
Called isomorphism
Ex: Agricultural countries DIDNT create different
educational systems
They adopted systems similar to rich Western countries
Ex: Countries also adopted similar legal systems,
population and health policies, environmental laws,
World Polity Theory (WPT)
Question: Why did poor agricultural
countries adopt the same kinds of policies as
rich ones?
Central Claim: Features of the state derive from
worldwide models, constructed and propagated
through global cultural and associational processes
Meyer et al., p. 84
World Polity Theory (WPT)
Key Claim: WPT suggests that states govern
on the basis of cognitive models
Cognitive models come from the culture and society
around them:
Associations, IGOs, NGOs, and other states make up a
world society or world polity
IGOs and NGOs convey models of how to govern
Example: World bank conveys models of economic
governance; UNESCO suggests educational advice;
Amnesty International suggests human rights policies.
Trends in Environmental Protection

Source: Frank et al. 2000

World Polity Theory (WPT)
The (partial) success of global
environmentalism is seen as evidence in
support of WPT
Nations appear to conform to new global norms
Interest-based theories (WST & realism) have more
difficulty explaining global environmentalism.
World Polity Theory (WPT)
How does WPT view international
They play a key role: sustaining and promulgating a
common culture to nations around the world
Greenpeace, UNEP, and other international
organizations convey norms about what nations
should do to protect the environment
Note: International organizations dont have
power. They cant force states to do anything
Nor does every single country obey the norms
But, over time norms have a major effect on behavior.
World Polity Theory (WPT)
Worldwide models define appropriate
constitutions, goals, organization charts,
ministry structures, and policies Nation-
states are imagined communities drawing on
models that are lodged at the world level.
Meyer et al., p. 88
Island example: What if a new territory were
How would IGOs, INGOs, & global culture reshape it?
World Polity Theory (WPT)
WPT represents a corrective, emphasizing
the influence of norms and culture not
the social sciences are reluctant to acknowledge
patterns of influence and conformity that cannot
be explained solely as matters of power or
functional rationality.
(Meyer et al. p. 84).
World Polity Theory (WPT)
Issue: Is World Polity Theory right?
World polity theory is a new theory
Controversial, but growing fast
1. World Polity research on isomorphism in
government policy is considered compelling
World polity research now dominates in some areas
Evolutions of education systems around the world
Understanding the success of the environmental movement
Also, lots of work on trends regarding human rights
2. World Polity Theorists were first to realize the
importance of INGOs in driving social change
Other perspectives tended to ignore them
World Polity Theory (WPT)
Issue: Is World Polity Theory right?
3. The ideas behind WPT have garnered
support in other areas
Called neo-institutional theory
Especially the study of organizations
This suggests potential so people are working
to apply its ideas to global issues.
World Polity Theory (WPT)
Criticisms of World Polity Theory
1. It doesnt address power
This is intentional: WPT represents a corrective,
emphasizing the influence of norms and culture
the social sciences are reluctant to acknowledge patterns
of influence and conformity that cannot be explained solely
as matters of power or functional rationality.
But, colonial relations were historically important in
defining Western ideas as the dominant world
Also, current global trends reflect US hegemony
WPT scholars point out that US doesnt always benefit (e.g.,
when countries conform to US models of education)
But, still it seems like power may be important.
World Polity Theory (WPT)
Criticisms of World Polity Theory
2. It doesnt sufficiently address actors
or agency
Again, this is an intentional goal of the theory
which has come under criticism
Theory implies we are all controlled by a wider
Builds on Durkheims ideas of collective
Where is room for agency? How can it explain
variability in the world?
World Polity Theory (WPT)
Criticisms of WPT:
3. WPT explains government policies
but not life on the ground
Conformity to world culture may be strategic
(to garner foreign aid) or very thin
Ex: China may pretend to conform to global
norms but in fact that is just a faade
Interests, rather than culture are really driving
WPT scholars have begun responding to this
criticism but the issue is still being debated
World Polity Theory (WPT)
Bottom line:
WPT is a fascinating theory offers a
whole new lens to view the world
A very useful lens that explains some things that
other theories cant
Also very useful for understanding organizations
May be helpful if you start working for a big company
But, people interested in power/inequality find
it very frustrating
It doesnt directly address the issues they care most about
Plus, it is a newer perspective more evidence
needed to fully evaluate it.