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World Polity or World Society?

Delineating the Statist and Societal Dimensions of the Global Institutional System

Wade M. Cole
Department of Sociology
University of Utah
380 S. 1530 E., Room 301
Salt Lake City, UT 841102
(801) 585-5930

January 19, 2013

Comments welcome, but do not cite or quote without permission

World Polity or World Society?

Delineating the Statist and Societal Dimensions of the Global Institutional System

The world society/polity research program has grown tremendously over the past three decades
(for canonical statements of this approach, see Thomas, Meyer, Ramirez, and Boli 1987 and
Meyer, Boli, Thomas, and Ramirez 1997; for synthetic overviews, see Jepperson 2002a and
Drori and Krcken 2009). According to this perspective, social actors of all kindsstates,
individuals, and organizationsare embedded in and shaped by a global cultural, social, and
political environment, resulting in a great deal of decoupled isomorphism or structural
homogeneity among them.
Scholars in this tradition have amassed an impressive stock of empirical evidence in support of
their theoretical perspective. Despite obvious differences and rampant inequalities among
societies, institutions, policies, and even outcomes in a variety of domains tend to converge on
common models. Government ministries (Kim, Jang, and Hwang 2002), constitutions (Boli
1987a; Beck, Drori, and Meyer 2012), mass and higher education systems (Meyer, Ramirez, and
Soysal 1992; Schofer and Meyer 2005), curricular content (Benavot, Cha, Kamens, Meyer, and
Wong 1991; Bromley, Meyer, and Ramirez 2012; Frank and Gabler 2006; Frank, Wong, Meyer,
and Ramirez 2000; McEneaney and Meyer 2000; Meyer, Kamens, and Benavot 1992),
environmental policies (Frank, Hironaka, and Schofer 2000; Schofer and Hironaka 2005),
management principles (Drori, Meyer, and Hwang 2006), legal structures (Boyle and Meyer
1998), and citizenship rights (Ramirez, Soysal, and Shanahan 1997) have all coalesced around
universal scripts and standardized templates.
At the same time, the empirical as well as the theoretical literature is conceptually imprecise in
one fundamental respect: the very terms by which the perspective is calledworld society and
world polityare used interchangeably and indiscriminately. This practice conflates distinct
concepts that refer to different aspects of the global institutional order. In this paper, I suggest the
utility of distinguishing between the global society and polity.
I propose, first, that the term world polity be reserved for the state-centric dimensions of the
global institutional system. The polity, in this view, includes not only states and interstate
relations, but also the organizations (i.e., intergovernmental organizations) and regimes
(Krasner 1982) that states create and in which they participate. Conversely, world society is the
domain of non-state (and non-economic) actorsit comprises, for lack of a better term, a global
civil society populated by international nongovernmental organizations (Boli and Thomas
1999), transnational activists (Keck and Sikkink 1998), and the like. Although these two aspects
of the global institutional system co-exist and co-mingle, the system itself has become much less
state-centric over time. Global civil society is exponentially more vibrant today than it was even
half a century ago. At the same time, the global polity and society have become increasingly
interpenetrated after World War II.
Defining World Polity and World Society

Before setting out to elaborate a proposed conceptual and theoretical distinction between the
world polity and world society, it is first necessary to consider how these terms are defined in the
extant literature.
World Polity
John Meyer coined the term world polity in 1980 to describe a global
system of creating value through the collective conferral of authority. . . . It includes state
action, as is conventional, but also other forms of collective action that might in the
modern social scientific lexicon be dismissed as merely cultural. The rules involved
may be formed and located in collective cultural or religious processes, but are now often
located in state action. (Meyer [1980] 1987:44)
Although this definition refers obliquely to non-statist forms of collective action, early global
institutionalist theorizing focused almost exclusively on the stateits origins, structures, and
actions (Thomas and Meyer 1984). Even world culture itself, the product of collective
processes stretching back to medieval Europe, was thought to operate in and through states.1
Preliminary definitions and expositions of the global institutionalist system therefore had a
distinctly statist flavor.
Early work in the world polity tradition emphasized the geographical expansion and structural
intensification of state structures (Meyer 1987; Boli 1987b; Thomas and Meyer 1984). These
efforts were seen as a corrective on overly economistic and militaristic analyses of globalization
(see, e.g., Meyer 1982). Meyers approach represented a radical departure from work that viewed
states as enmeshed in systems of unequal capitalist exchange (Wallerstein 1974) or military
competition (Tilly 1992). For example, as Europeans colonized the globe, they did more than
incorporate peripheral zones into the expanding global market; they also established the
foundations for the modern nation-state system.2 Colonies, after World War II, became sovereign
(and strikingly isomorphic) nation-states in their own right, so that today virtually the entire
landmass of the globe is divided into mutually exclusive and exhaustive national jurisdictions
(Strang 1990, 1991).
World Society
Whereas preliminary institutionalist statements and studies emphasized how the world polity
organizes more and more social value in the state (Meyer [1980] 1987:48), later efforts paid

The world culture concept, while not my primary focus here, is nevertheless central to the world polity/society
perspective. World culture comprises an array of ontological frameworks, cognitive blueprints, and normative
prescriptions that (1) specify the core identities, capacities, and purposes of social actors; (2) provide these actors
with schemata for making sense of the world; and (3) set parameters around what is proper or even thinkable in a
given historical moment (Lechner and Boli 2005). It is embodied, expressed, conveyed, and purveyed by
international nongovernmental and governmental organizations (Boli and Thomas 1999; Drori 2005). Thus, world
culture operates in and underlies both the world polity and world society.
Prior to his 1980 statement on the world polity, Meyer subsumed the same general ideas under the generic
world system label (Meyer and Hannan 1979). The term world polity was no doubt coined in part to distinguish
the institutionalist perspective from Wallerststeins global economic approach.

greater attention to the role of non-state entities in the global institutional system. The focus
shifted away from the state as such and toward the collective actorsrationalized othersthat
constitute, organize, instruct, and advise states (Meyer, Boli, Thomas, and Ramirez 1997; Meyer
1999). These others include international nongovernmental organizations (Boli and Thomas
1999), epistemic communities (Haas 1992), and consultants of all stripes. Other civil society
entitiesperhaps less rationalized (because they lack the requisite disinterested posture) but
no less importantinclude principled transnational advocacy networks (Keck and Sikkink 1998)
that give voice to subnational groups and pressure states to acknowledge and respect these
groups rights.
Individuals also began to take center stage in global institutionalist thought. Meyers ([1980]
1987:45, 61) original description of the world polity emphasized that the two great constructed
primordial social units of the modern world are the individual and the nation-state, but that the
modern state, perhaps even more than the modern individual, is given legitimated primordial
status in the world polity. The dialectical tension between individuals and states was resolved,
according to Ramirez and Boli (1987), in the mythology of citizenship. This synthesis,
however, gave individuals standing and status only as members of their respective nation-states;
it was wrought within a distinctly state-centric framework.
As the global institutional system became less statist and more societal in nature, there was a
marked shift from the logic of citizenship to that of personhood (Bromley, Meyer, and Ramirez
2012; Ramirez 2006; Soysal 1994). Individuals are no longer defined exclusively, or even
primarily, in terms of their national identities; rather, they legitimately assert a wide array of
identities and lay claim to universal, deterritorialized rights (Frank and Meyer 2002; Meyer
and Jepperson 2000; Meyer 2009; Soysal 1994). They are empowered to act autonomously of
and even, sometimes, directly againststates.
With the transition from a state-centric world polity to a more ontologically diverse and
expansive world society after World War II, a plethora of non-state actors burst onto the scene.
The global institutional system grew to include not only newly decolonized states (Strang 1990,
1991) and individuals with rights and standing independent of state membership (Soysal 1994),
but also racial and ethnic groups (Kingsbury 1992; Olzak 2006), nongovernmental organizations
(Boli and Thomas 1997, 1999; Schofer and Fourcade-Gourichas 1999), and transnational
regimes (Krasner 1982; Donnelly 1986; Meyer, Frank, Hironaka, Schofer, and Tuma 1997).
Whereas international politics was once the sole domain of sovereign nation-states and their
agents, a panoply of civil society actors now play active roles in global affairs.
This decidedly less state-centric view of the global institutionalist system was articulated in an
influential 1997 paper, World Society and the Nation-State (Meyer, Boli, et al. 1997),
whereupon the term world society began to displace world polity in the literature. Figure 1 plots
the usage of these terms over time, beginning with Meyers foundational statement on The
World Polity and the Authority of the Nation-State in 1980.3 Although use of both terms was
quite sparse until the mid-1990s, world polity was clearly preferred during the early period.

The trends are based on a Google Scholar search for the number of scholarly items that use the terms world
polity and/or world society in each year. To ensure that only the global institutional literature is reflected in these
counts, I also included search terms for John Meyer, John W. Meyer, or Meyer, John.

After 1997, world society became the term du jour, in some years outnumbering the use of
world polity by a factor of four-to-one.
Figure 1 also shows that both terms are often referenced in the same study. My own reading of
this literature suggests that, in these instances, the terms are used merely to situate work within a
single approach that happens to go by two names, rather than to describe different features of the
global institutional system. For example, Schofers (2003) analysis of the expansion of science
proceeds from the core argument . . . that national societies are surrounded by and embedded in
trans-national organizations, culture, and discourse, often referred to as world society or the
world polity. The terms, in this usage, are treated as synonymous and hence interchangeable.
The terminological shift depicted in Figure 1 was certainly not invested with any deep meaning
among practitioners. In their overview of global institutionalist lines of thought, Drori and
Krcken (2009: 17) note that:
In spite of the emphasis on the notion of world society, the label for Meyers comparative
work as late as 2003 was world polity. The subsequent terminological shiftfrom
highlighting the polity to emphasizing societydoes not represent a shift of the basic
tenets of the approach. Rather, it reflects the roots of world society theory in the
intellectual context of American sociology: Meyers hesitation to employ the term
society comes as a reaction to the pre-1960 grand theories and from the post-1960
sociological rush to regard society as an aggregation of individuals.
I argue that the lexical change from world polity to world society was in fact accompanied by an
implicit conceptual reorientation that is worth explicating and preserving.
Adumbrating the Distinction
Few scholars make a conceptual distinction between the state-centric and non-statist aspects of
the global institutional system. Schofer (2003:738) alludes to it; he points out that the social
networks and shared culture that preceded international organizations constituted an earlier
world polity. He referred to the early global institutional system a world society because that
term connotes a lesser degree of centralized organizational structure.4 Rather than peg the
polity/society distinction to the degree of centralization or organizational structuration in the
external environment, I emphasize the extent to which the systemor different aspects of the
systemis dominated by nation-states. Contemporary world society, after all, is highly
structured by dense networks of international nongovernmental organizations. Alternatively, the
world polity can be quite decentralized, as it was prior to the widespread development of
intergovernmental organizations after World War II.
Beckfield (2008:422) also flirted with the notion of a world polity/society distinction. He
references, in a footnote, the existence of an international civil society that is counterpoised
to the interstate system and the international market economy. But his primary focus was on
the interstate system (world polity) and market economy (world system) to the exclusion of

Nevertheless, Schofer (2003:738) noted that in the broader neoinstitutional literature, world polity and world
society are virtually synonymous.

international civil society. He writes: Characterization of the world polity as flat contrasts with
the vision of the world system as a hierarchical network of nation-states bound by competitive,
unequal relations (p. 424). Thus, while Beckfield delineated the system of juridically equal
nation-states from the international market-based economya delineation that global
institutionalists have emphasized from the beginninghe obscured the distinction between the
world polity and society. He does mention, again in a footnote, that his focus on
intergovernmental organizations masks the multidimensionality of the world polity, which also
consists of international nongovernmental organizations. I wish to amplify this distinction
between the intergovernmental or statist polity and the nongovernmental or non-statist society.
Scholars who take Hedley Bulls (1977) English school as a point of departure have
distinguished more forcefully the statist and non-statist dimensions of the world system. Buzan
(2004:1), for example, defines international society as a clearly bounded subject focused on the
elements of society that states from among themselves, but notes that world society implies
something that reaches well beyond the state towards more cosmopolitan images of how
humankind is, or should be, organized. Similarly, Clark (2007:22) treats international society as
a system of states, but defines world society as the non-state social world that takes a
transnational form, and is distinct from the society of states. He argues that, since the nineteenth
century, world society has become increasingly autonomous from international society, although
the two societies are mutually reinforcing. World society, he writes, needed international
society to give some juridical basis to its norms, and to enforce them; at the same time,
international society began to acknowledge merit in extending the scope of its traditional norms,
to accommodate those arising from world society (p. 33). The world polity/society distinction I
propose would enable global institutional scholars to address similar issues within their own
theoretical and empirical framework.
The Global Institutional Systems Statist and Societal Dimensions
The core difference between the world polity and world society analogizes the distinction
between state and society, a distinction that, perhaps ironically, has been quite central in
comparative global institutional theorizing and research (e.g., Jepperson 2002b; Dobbin 1994;
Meyer 1983; Schofer and Fourcade-Gourichas 1999; Soysal 1994; see also Nettl 1968; Badie
and Birnbaum 1983). Jepperson (2002b) has clearly articulated this distinction. Statist visions,
he says, locate collective authority in a differentiated, insulated, and charismatic organizational
center, whereas more societal visions locate purpose and authority in society at large
(Jepperson 2002b:66).
A similar distinction can be made with respect to the statist and societal dimensions of global
institutional system. Global institutionalists frequently invoke Tocquevilles description of the
early American polity to describe the basic features of the contemporary global institutional
system. Meyer, Boli, Thomas, and Ramirez (1997:145) drew a parallel between the cultural and
associational life in the nearly stateless American society of the 1830s and contemporary world
society, whose operation through peculiarly cultural and associational processes depends
heavily on its statelessness. Earlier, Strang and Meyer (1993:503) suggested that the existence
of structurally isomorphic states and organizations in world society is analogous to the
homogeneity of individuals and groups in early American civil society, as noted by Tocqueville.

And more recently, in discussing the proliferation of organizations in world society, Meyer,
Drori, and Hwang (2006) cited Tocquevilles musings on the tendency of Americans to establish
associations of all shapes and sizes.
The multitude and multiplicity of associations in early American society intrigued Tocqueville
because they filled a void that did not exist in his native France. In the United States, where the
central government was weak, civil society organized itself (Badie and Birnbaum 1983).
Conversely, in France, a strong bureaucratic state insisted on the maintenance of direct ties with
its citizens, unobstructed by intervening commitments or organizational memberships (Bendix
[1964] 1996; Jepperson 2002b; more classically, Rousseau). The tendency of individuals to
organize was therefore comparatively much weaker in statist France than in stateless America.
Likewise, in some hypothetical global institutional system with a central state, the propensity of
world society to organize itself would presumably be much weaker than it is today (Meyer, Boli,
et al. 1997).
The Tocquevillian analogy is indeed apt, as it nicely captures the stateless nature of world
societyin the absence of a global state, organizations of all shapes and sizes have been
established. But the analogy has overlooked a key point. Although the collective political order
in nineteenth-century America was indeed quite weak, the federal subunitsthe stateswere
not. As the primordial sovereigns of the federal union, states figured prominently in the
American polity, much as nation-states are the primary political units in the world polity. (And in
the United States, states rights discourses resemble the grumblings of politicians who bemoan
the usurpation of national sovereignty by international regimes such as the United Nations.) If
contemporary world society is reminiscent of Americas vibrant civil society, the stateless world
polity recalls, in shadowy fashion, early Americas decentralized political structure.5
The analogy extends yet further. Much as the U.S. federal government has grown appreciably
over time, the world polity has expanded and become densely structurated. Intergovernmental
organizations were rare before 1920 (Boli and Lechner 2001). Absent these organizational
carriers and conduits, world-cultural ideas and institutions diffused via direct linkages among
states themselves. Schofer (2003), for example, showed that scientific associations spread
throughout the pre-World War II polity in a variety of ways. First, colonization directly
facilitated the transmission of organizational models and practices from core to periphery.
Metropolitan powers transplanted practices and institutions to the colonies, and colonial elites
who studied in metropolitan universities brought core ideas home with them. Second, scientific
associations were actively promoted by itinerant elites or gentlemen who, like the high priests
of medieval Christendom, were not bound by place or secular allegiances. Third, diplomatic ties
among sovereign states also served as important conduits for diffusion.
In addition to these nodal mechanisms of diffusion, self-conscious emulationwhat DiMaggio
and Powell (1983) called mimetic isomorphismwas also common. Countries that existed

Within this decentralized political structure, states are formally equal members of the American union; as such,
they enjoy equal representation in the Senate. In practice, however, states are far from equal. This fact is
demonstrated each presidential election season, when candidates focus their attention and resources on states with
large numbers of electoral votes. The juxtaposition of de jure equality and de facto inequality also characterizes the
world polity.

outside the ambit of the European-based polity, but that aspired to become full-fledged members
of it, strategically imitated European nation states. Examples abound: Peter the Greats
modernizing reforms in Russia, including his decision to move the capital to the European
region of his country; the Tanzimat reforms of the Ottoman Empire, wherein the government
reorganized its legal, financial, educational, and military systems along self-consciously
European lines; and Meiji Japan, which cobbled together a Frankensteinian state based on
English, French, Prussian, and American models. Nodal contacts shaped these borrowings.
Japan, according to Schofer (2003:740), drew most upon those nations with whom it had
direct ties via diplomatic exchange, trade relations, and missionary contacts.
Direct interstate linkages continue to form an integral part of contemporary world polity, but
these linkages have assumed new forms in the postwar era. Slaughter (2004) argues that patterns
of direct interaction and intellectual exchange among states increasingly occur among their
disaggregated subcomponents. High court judges from different countries meet regularly to
discuss relevant case law, which facilitates the diffusion of legal norms. Legislators and
parliamentarians also network informally with their counterparts abroad. Such disaggregation
makes it difficult to entertain the notion, common among theorists of a realist bent, that states
exist as highly integrated and unitary actors.
The world polity is also structured by dependence networks (Goodliffe and Hawkins 2009), or
the security, trade, and organizational relations among nations. These networks have proven
quite influential. For instance, Goodliffe and Hawkins (2009) showed that countries were more
likely to support the International Criminal Courtan institution that violates core tenets of
national sovereigntyif their key trade partners also supported the institution. Along similar
lines, Torfason and Ingram (2010) found that military alliances facilitate the diffusion of
democratic reforms.
Despite the continuing importance of direct interstate linkages in the world polity, Schofer
(2003:751) concluded that as world society became structured in concrete international
associations after 1945, direct ties among nations mattered somewhat less. Horizontal ties
among nation-states are increasingly supplemented by vertical ties between states and
international organizations. These organizational linkages serve as receptor sites (Frank,
Hironaka, and Schofer 2000: 96) that receive, decode, and transmit signals from world society
to national actors. They also represent network nodes that connect different countries to one
another (Hughes, Peterson, Harrison, and Paxton 2009; Torfason and Ingram 2010), thus
providing a new second-order form of interstate linkage.
Although much recent work has focused on nongovernmental or world society organizations
(Boli and Thomas 1999), intergovernmental organizationsworld polity institutions par
excellenceremain important purveyors of world culture. In a recent study, Torfason and
Ingram (2010:356) concluded that the network forged between states through their joint
memberships in intergovernmental organizations was a primary conduit for the diffusion of
democratic norms and institutions. What mattered in this case were not only the kinds of
organization-to-country ties most often emphasized by global institutionalist scholars (i.e., how
many organizational memberships a country has), but also the bilateral country-to-country ties
that occur within the structural and interpretive frameworks provided by intergovernmental

organizations. Organizational memberships influence countries directly, but they also provide
formal arenas for interstate communication and diffusion (see also Hughes, Peterson, Harrison,
and Paxton 2009).
Interpersonal linkages also promote diffusion. Clark and Hall (2011:871) argue that international
migration and telecommunications are an important sector of the world polity. Migrants, they
contend, carry world-cultural norms and scripts across national borders. Cross-national telephone
traffic, too, serves as an important conduit for diffusion. I suggest, however, that these kinds of
informal networks are best described as forming part of world society, rather than the world
polity. Migration and telephone conversations belong to the more private, civil society
dimensions of the global institutional system, rather than to the systems more statist elements.
Indeed, the states growing inability to curb these cross-border movements of people and ideas is
often regarded as an indicator of diminished state sovereignty in a globalizing world (Krasner
Akin to the effect of migration patterns, Tsutsui and Wotipka (2004) found that tourist flows
positively influenced citizens level of involvement in human rights INGOs by diffusing human
rights norms and connecting domestic publics with external activists. In this particular case,
international travel, nongovernmental organizations, and transnational advocacy networks
combined to form a non-statist nexus of the world society.
Quite apart from the importance of interstate, organizational, and interpersonal networks to
diffusion, world culture is also lodged in what John Meyer has called the social ether. The
norms, models, and scripts that constitute social reality are often so highly theorized (Strang and
Meyer 1993) that they no longer depend on nodal linkages for their diffusion and adoption. In
Durkheimian fashion (Meyer 2009), world-cultural influences become increasingly diffuse and
indirect. Policies and practices are assimilated by states (and other social actors) as if by osmosis
through acculturative processes, in addition to the more direct mechanisms of socialization and
coercion (Goodman and Jinks 2004). The global institutional system, in other words, is not
merely an organizational field through which structures and practices spread (DiMaggio and
Powell 1983). It is also a highly institutionalized environment or sacred canopy that shapes the
identities, structures, and purposes of social actors in highly disembedded fashion (Meyer, Boli,
et al. 1997).
Diffuse effects of this sort abound. They help explain, among other things, the dramatic increases
in school enrollments we witness among countries without mandatory attendance laws (Ramirez
and Boli 1987); the rapid postwar expansion of higher education enrollments via the processes of
global democratization, scientization, and structuration, net of direct national-level
characteristics and effects (Schofer and Meyer 2005); the drift toward improved environmental
outcomes in the absence of formal policy changes designed to protect the environment (Schofer
and Hironaka 2005); the higher wages for nonunionized workers in regions and industries with
strong unions (Western and Rosenfeld 2011); the uptick in reports of rape in countries that have
not undertaken rape-law reforms (Frank, Hardinge, and Wosick-Correa 2009); and the positive
effect of international human rights treaties among non-ratifying countries (Cole 2012a). The
shift is from a world polity structured primarily by interstate linkages and toward a world society

in which diffuse cultural and multifaceted associational dynamics figure much more
Toward an Explicit Conceptual and Operational Distinction
If Tocquevilles observations about nineteenth-century America have provided a useful
touchstone in describing the basic contours of contemporary world society, I suggest that T. H.
Marshalls inquiry into the nature of citizenship offers an illuminating way to think about the
coexistence of the world polity and society. Marshall ([1950] 1992) grappled with the tension
between the legal equality and socioeconomic inequality of citizens. In much the same way,
contemporary nation-states are constituted as juridically equal actors despite gross economic
inequalities and widespread variation in their structural capacities (Jackson and Rosberg 1982;
McNeely 1995; Krasner 1999; Hironaka 2005). The world polity is premised on the (fictitious)
principle of sovereign equality among recognized states. Not all countries, of course, are created
equal, even with respect to legal or juridical status. Although the United Nations functions as a
membership club for nominally equal states (McNeely 1995)in much the same way that
citizenship serves as a membership club for nominally equal citizens (Brubaker 1992)some
countries (e.g., permanent Security Council members) enjoy a privileged primus-inter-pares
status. Still, the fiction endures.
The Marshallian analogy can also be extended to highlight diachronic changes in the
geographical scope and organizing principles of the global institutional system. Much as
citizenship was extended to subpopulationsmen without property, women, minorities
incrementally, so that today citizenship is a uniform status that extends to all members in a
polity, membership in the world polity was originally restricted in all but a few exceptional cases
to European states but has since been extended to countries with starkly disparate cultural
traditions and levels of economic development. Membership in the polity, before World War II,
was predicated on the notion of civilization. According to Keal (2003:103), prominent
international jurists such as Oppenheim and Westlake opined that to enter the international
society of civilised states non-European entities had to meet the requirements of the standard
set by European states. These standards produced an early wave of isomorphic changes in state
structures, as the Westernizing reforms of Petrine Russia, Tanzimat Ottoman Empire, and Meiji
Japan attest.
All this changed after World War II. Sovereign equality, not civilizational purity, is the postwar
politys organizing principle. Just as the correlation between whiteness and citizenship status
within Western nations declined over time, so too did the correlation between whiteness and
sovereign statehood within the world polity (Cairns 2000:41). But in neither casefor citizens or
for statesdid the extension of formal equality lead to the eradication of substantive inequality.
Far from it: the conferral of sovereignty to the newly decolonized countries of sub-Saharan
Africa, in particular, gave rise to a host of juridically equal but structurally weak states plagued
by civil war (Jackson and Rosberg 1982; Hironaka 2005).
Beckfields (2003) analysis of inequality in the density of countries linkages to international
organizations is apposite in this context. Beckfield found that cross-national variability in
international nongovernmental organization (INGO) ties greatly eclipses variability in

intergovernmental organization (IGO) memberships. States, that is, are much more evenly
integrated into IGOs than are the societies in INGOs (Beckfield 2003:418). He concluded that
wealthy, Western, and core states are tied to far more INGOs vis--vis their counterparts in
poor, non-Western, and peripheral states. But these economic and civilizational factors are much
less important with respect to the number of states IGO memberships. He draws several
conclusions from his findings (Beckfield 2003:418). Consistent with the global institutionalist
emphasis on isomorphic processes, he posits that there may be less inequality in IGO ties than
in INGO ties because states resemble each other more than do societies. State institutions are
structurally (and ritualistically) similar, but formal institutions are often decoupled from onthe-ground realities. He also offers a more realist interpretation: the world culture constructed
by IGOs is less susceptible to domination by the core/West than that constructed by INGOs.
The fact that rich, core, Western states fail to exclude poor, peripheral, non-Western states from
existing IGOs suggests that less powerful states use IGOs to balance against their powerful
I offer an alternative interpretation. Inequality in IGO ties is relatively low not only because
states are structurally isomorphic, as Beckfield suggests, but also because they are constituted as
(formally) equal members of the international community. Status equality, in turn, translates into
greater levels of equality in the density of states organizational ties within the world polity.
National societies, conversely, are economically unequal and culturally dissimilar, which
produces striking disparities in their organizational ties to world society.
In short, IGO memberships provide a useful measure of a states participation in the world
polity, whereas INGO linkages tap the extent of its embeddedness in the world society. This
distinction is often implicit is the empirical literature, as illustrated by several recent studies of
the international human rights regime. In their analysis of human rights treaty ratification,
Wotipka and Tsutsui (2008:742) include IGO memberships to measure the impact of
governments desire to look legitimate in intergovernmental arenas and INGO linkages to
measure the influence of global civil society. In a related analysis of human rights
organizations, Tsutsui and Wotipka (2004:589) attempt to sort out the different roles of intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations in global political processes. Global human
rights ideas pose a threat to governmental actors because they tend to constrain state behavior in
domestic political affairs. Nongovernmental actors, on the other hand, are less concerned about
state sovereignty. IGOs, in other words, represent the interests of states, whereas INGOs
represent societal interests.
This argument echoes Boyle and Thompsons (2001) analysis of individual abuse claims
submitted to the European Commission on Human Rights. They found that the number of claims
emanating from a country increased as the number of INGO ties increased, but decreased as a
function of IGO ties. INGOs, they surmised, produce a civil society that is particularly active
with respect to global issues (p. 329). INGOs help define new forms of human rights abuse,
monitor existing abuses, and assist individuals who wish to bring claims against states. IGOs, on
the other hand, assign paramount importance (p. 329) to the principle of state sovereignty.
Because human rights norms pose a fundamental challenge to state sovereigntynamely, the
ability of states to exclude external actors and influences from internal affairs (Krasner 1999)
IGOs are associated with lower rates of individual claims making.

Despite their different roles and functions in the global institutional system, IGOs and INGOs
frequently belong to the same extended networks. Human rights treaties that authorize
individuals to petition human rights bodies for redress of grievances (Boyle and Thompson 2001;
Cole 2006) offer a telling example. Here, a treaty regime (to which only states can belong)
creates an oversight committee (an IGO) to receive complaints from individuals (acting
independently of and against their respective nation-states) who are often assisted by advocacy
groups (such as INGOs) that are themselves linked (via transnational activist networks) to
similar organizations around the world. In this fashion, the world polity and society have become
highly interpenetrated over time.
In another example of interpenetration, the United Nations has formalized the participation of
civil society organizations from its inception. Article 71 of the U.N. Charter provides that the
Economic and Social Council may make suitable arrangements for consultation with nongovernmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence. As of
September 2010, nearly 2,400 nongovernmental organizations enjoy consultative status in the
United Nations.6 Through this mechanism, world society organizations participate actively in the
world politys most prominent IGO.
Additional Considerations on Operationalization
How might analysts begin to operationalize the distinction between the world polity and society
in empirical research? One solution is simply to treat IGO memberships and INGO linkages as
measures of distinct concepts: a states degree of embeddedness, respectively, in the world polity
and world society. Institutionalists often neglect to link these concepts to their respective
operational measuresIGOs as measuring the impact of the world polity, and INGOs as tapping
the influence of world society. More often than not, analysts indiscriminately use both measures
together, or either measure in isolation, to tap membership in a coherent world polity/society.
Even more problematically, they sometimes combine the two measures into a single index (e.g.,
Cole 2005; Schofer and Hironaka 2005; Frank, Hironaka, and Schofer 2000). I suggest that these
measures be kept distinct, and that they be interpreted as tapping different dimensions of the
global institutional system.7
Recent research shows, for example, that states participation in the world polity via IGO
memberships reduces levels of political mobilization and violence among ethnic groups, whereas
INGO linkages serve to exacerbate inter-ethnic conflict (Olzak 2006; Koenig and Dierkes 2011).
Here, then, is a case where intergovernmental (i.e., statist) and nongovernmental (i.e., societal)
organizations exert contradictory effects on a given outcome. (accessed December 19, 2011).

As noted previously, Beckfield (2003) concluded that core countries and Western nations belong to significantly
more INGOs than do their economically peripheral and non-Western counterparts. To capture the unique world
society influence of INGO linkages, it may be necessary to residualize country-level INGO memberships by
partialling out the effects of economic development, world-systems status, and civilizational membership (see, e.g.,
Cole 2012b).


Likewise, measures such as international migration, telephone traffic, and tourist flows (Clark
and Hall 2011; Tsutsui and Wotipka 2004) have already been used to operationalize important
dimensions of world society linkages and networks, just as dependence networks, interstate
linkages, and diplomatic exchanges (Goodliffe and Hawkins 2009; Slaughter 2004; Torfason and
Ingram 2010) currently tap elements of world polity integration. All that remains is to make
these dimensions conceptually and theoretically explicit.
In addition to these standard measures, the KOF Index of Globalization (Dreher 2006) offers
another way to measure states embeddedness in the world polity and society. This index
measures the economic, political, and social dimensions of globalization. The economic
component pertains to the level of a countrys integration into the global capitalist system, which
is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss.8 The political component is a reasonable measure of
a states embeddedness in world polity: it indexes IGO memberships, participation in U.N.
Security Council missions, ratification of international treaties, and the number of embassies in a
country. Finally, the social component includes measures of interpersonal contact (e.g.,
telephone traffic, international tourism, foreign population) and cultural proximity (number of
McDonalds franchises, number of Ikea stores, and trade in books). This index overlaps
substantially with global institutionalist understandings of world society.9
Table 1 presents correlations among the KOF economic, social, and political globalization
indices and several other measures: INGO linkages, IGO memberships, GDP per capita, and a
dummy variable for Western countries. As with Beckfields (2003) analysis of IGO and INGO
ties, aggregate economic wealth correlates more or less strongly with the various dimensions of
globalization. Of the three globalization indices, the social dimension is highly correlated with
GDP per capita (r = .760), followed by economic globalization (r = .589) and political
globalization (r = .486). Similar, albeit less pronounced, associations characterize the
relationship between Western status and social, economic, and political globalization (r = .644,
.555, and .433, respectively). Western and wealthy countries are also more dominant in INGOs
than in IGOs (Beckfield 2003). INGO linkages correlate with GDP per capita at r = .689,
compared with r = .497 for IGO memberships. Similarly, Western status correlates with INGO
linkages and IGO memberships at r = .576 and .391, respectively.
These correlations suggest that the social globalization index and INGO linkages tap a common
underlying dimensionworld society embeddednesswhereas the political globalization index
and IGO memberships correspond to a different dimensionworld polity integration. Indeed,

The economic globalization index comprises a variety of measures on trade, foreign direct investment, taxes,
import barriers, and the like. This index would allow researchers to address world-systemslike dynamics alongside
global institutional processes transpiring in the world polity and society.
Admittedly, the cultural proximity dimension corresponds more closely with world societys expressive as
opposed to constitutive dimensions (Meyer, Boli, and Thomas 1987; Jepperson and Swidler 1994; Meyer 1999; Boli
and Lechner 2001). Culture, in the global institutionalist sense, is fundamentally constitutive: it is less a set of
values and norms, and more a set of cognitive models defining the nature, purpose, resources, technologies, controls,
and sovereignty of the proper nation-state (Meyer 1999:123). Sewell (1992) invokes the example of language to
elucidate the distinction. Rules of grammar and syntax form the constitutive elements of language (langue), whereas
the poetry, prose, and spontaneous speech created under the rubric of those rules (parole) is quintessentially
expressive. People routinely speak without contemplating or even comprehending formal grammatical or syntactical
rules, which illustrates the often tacit and taken-for-granted nature of constitutive culture.


the correlations of social globalization with INGOs and political globalization with IGOs are
quite strong (r = .701 for the former and .785 for the latter).10 Future work in the world polity/
society domain would do well to link their operational measures more explicitly to different
conceptual dimensions of the global institutional system.
Since its initial formulation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the world polity/society approach
has grown into a full-scale research program. Several generations of scholars have analyzed the
dramatic expansion of the global institutional system, particularly since World War II, as well as
its effects on national societies. The approach is theoretically sophisticated and empirically
rigorous. Nevertheless, I have argued that it would benefit from a clearer and more forceful
distinction between its statist and non-statist dimensions.
Such a distinction between world polity and world society, already implicit in much of the
literature, would serve a number of important purposes. First and foremost, it would facilitate the
identification of different causal mechanisms at work in the global institutional system. Research
demonstrates that countries have become increasingly isomorphic over time with respect to
formal policies and structures. Analysts are also beginning to show that world-cultural influences
penetrate deep into countries to affect their practices. Often left ambiguous, however, is whether
these influences are carried through interstate, organizational (whether intergovernmental or
nongovernmental), and/or interpersonal networks. Distinguishing between world polity and
world society mechanisms of diffusion and influence can sharpen our understanding of global
institutional processes.
Distinguishing polity from society can also help elucidate tensions within the global institutional
system. Under what conditions do the statist and non-statist dimensions of this system reinforce
one another? Whenand whydo they work at cross-purposes? The complex relationship
between state sovereignty and human rights is one prominent example of the tension between
polity and society. Sovereignty is, of course, a property of national states and a Grundnorm of
the world polity. Human rights principles, in contrast, are designed to protect individuals and
vulnerable groups from the arbitrary exercise of state sovereignty. Civil society agents
transnational advocacy groups, nongovernmental organizations, and even aggrieved individuals
themselveshave deftly marshaled these principles to criticize and delegitimate abuses
perpetrated by states. At the same time, in the absence of a single, overarching, integrated world
state, human rights continue to depend on national states for their protection and implementation.
Highlighting conceptual and substantive differences between the world polity and world society
can enable researchers to gain traction in explaining these kinds of dialectical dynamics.
Just as important, the world polity/society distinction can nurture a more historically attuned
rendition of global institutionalism. With very few exceptions, work in this tradition has focused
overwhelmingly on the post-World War II period, when world-cultural processes in both the
world polity and world society intensified dramatically and became increasingly interpenetrated.
But a world polityas well as a nascent world societyclearly antedated the mid-twentieth

The strong correlation between political globalization and IGO memberships makes sense, given that IGO
memberships contribute approximately one-fourth of the variation in the KOF political index (Dreher 2006).


century. It is also true, however, that the global institutional system has become less resolutely
statist during the postwar era: global civil society has thickened and strengthened tremendously
over the past five or six decades (Boli and Thomas 1999; Schofer 2003). Delineating between the
more statist and societal dimensions of the world system can give us a better foundation for
understanding how it emerged and has transformed over time.
Here, then, is a case in which greater conceptual specificity has the potential to yield new
theoretical insights without imposing onerous methodological burdens. Indeed, existing
measures can be easily redeployed or freshly interpreted in ways that give force to the world
polity/world society distinction, thereby improving the ability of researchers to explicate the
diverse processes, mechanisms, and influences that operate within the global institutional system.


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"World society" alone



"World polity" alone



Source: Google Scholar. Search terms: world polity, world society, world polity AND world society with
John Meyer OR John W. Meyer OR Meyer, John. Search restricted to the Social Sciences, Arts, and
Humanities database.

Figure 1.
Trends in the use of world polity and world society in scholarly work, 1980-2010


Table 1. Correlations among different dimensions of globalization







GDP per capita


Western country



INGO linkages




IGO memberships





Economic globalization






Social globalization







Political globalization