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What Is World Society?

World society theory spans sociology and international relations, the United States, Europe, and China. Everyone has their own idea of what world society should be, but few people want to know what it actually is. That’s what my co-author John H.S. Aberg and I set out to do in a recent article in the journal International Theory, published under the unabashedly grandiloquent title “Globalization and the Rise of Integrated World Society: Deterritorialization, Structural Power, and the Endogenization of International Society.” The article has been attracting a lot of attention and is now available free via open access:

There is a widespread feeling that globalization represents a major system change that has or should have brought world society to the forefront of international relations theory. Nonetheless, world society remains an amorphous and undertheorized concept, and its potential role in shaping the structure of the international society of states has scarcely been raised. In this article, my collaborator and I build on Barry Buzan’s master concept of ‘integrated’ world society (‘a label to describe the merger of world and interstate society’) to locate the integration of world society in the globalization of social networks. Following the advice of Buzan himself and of John Williams, we use conceptual frameworks from international political economy to systematically explore the structure of integrated world society along six dimensions derived from Michael Mann and Susan Strange: military/security, political, economic/production, credit, knowledge, and ideological.

Our empirical survey suggests that, on each of these dimensions, power has centralized as it has globalized, generating steep global hierarchies in world society that are similar to those that characterize national societies. The centrality of the United States in the networks of world society makes it in effect the ‘central state’ of a new kind of international society that is endogenized within integrated world society.

International relations theorists have long assumed that international society would be strongest when power is evenly distributed throughout the world, but the contrast between the high nineteenth century Concert of Europe and today’s hierarchical international society strongly suggests that they have been wrong. International society seems to be much more effective now than it was then, though it is today much farther from being a society of equals. It is effective because it is supported by a much more robust – though much less equal – world society.

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