World Society Theories in Comparison

(Last modified August 2012)

A collaborative project with the Institute for World Society Studies at Bielefeld University, examining macrosociological concepts whose focus of analysis lies at the global level.

Many macrosociological theories challenge and dispute the idea that there are strictly separable nation-states and independent development trajectories of individual societies. Their perspective runs much wider than state actors and collective decision-making. In clear distinction to atomistic concepts, they assert that regional and local circumstances cannot be properly understood without taking consideration of social order-forming processes at the global level. In this aspect they depart fundamentally from traditional sociological theories, which look to definable state-territorial entities and the concomitant problems.

Since the early 1970s a multitude of concepts of translocal social existence have emerged in a wide range of research fields and disciplines, the most prominent being 1) the interdependency and world system theories of Peter Heintz and Immanuel Wallerstein 2) the world polity theory of the research group led by John W. Meyer, 3) Niklas Luhmann's world society theory, and 4) since the 1980s the globalization theories of reflexive modernization proposed by Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck, to name but a few conceptually autonomous macrosociological theories. For all their heterogeneity, all these macrosociological world society theories share a common denominator in locating the focus of analysis not in the nation-state but at the global level.

This research project focuses primarily on the concepts put forward by Meyer and Luhmann, who argue that a de facto world society has emerged as an autonomous plane of reality within the structural frame of reference for all social processes. While determining subordinate social levels, this sphere of reality is itself created by the consolidation of the "world society."

Whereas classical sociology derives social order-forming processes from specific human needs or social problems, Meyer and Luhmann dispense completely with the category of anthropologization and postulate instead that order structures emerge inherently through processes of routinization and habitualization. Correspondingly, the process of social reproduction is led not by conscious goal-setting, considerations of rationality, or internalization of value and norms but rather by an orientation on specific practices and the associated assumptions concerning normality and knowledge, which are in turn manifested in expectations, routines, and behavioral standardizations.

Whereas the neoinstitutionalistic perspective of world culture theory sees an accelerating process of global integration and isomorphy, system theory reverses the direction of determination. In place of global diffusion of socio-structural patterns, Luhmann identifies the contradictory logics of a multitude of functionally differentiated sub-systems. This shifts the frame and context of analysis to difference-amplifying effects rather than homogeneity-inducing processes.

With respect to the different emphases concerning world society dynamics and their repercussions, the research interest consists in investigating these diverging perspectives in two respects: 1.) A general comparison clearly contrasting the conceptual, methodological, and empirical orientations of the two macrosociologies in order to identify the possibilities and limits of compatibility; 2.) An intra-theoretical investigation in each case to cast light on the weaknesses and deficits of the respective concept and explore the potentials for development.

In relation to the neoinstitutionalism implied by the world polity approach this affects for example the (decoupling and interaction) relationship of global diffusion processes to the regional and local acquisition practice of global structural imperatives. Analogously, with respect to system theory, the question arises to what extent one can speak at all of a full realization of functional differentiation in the world society. Where do the boundaries of functional dynamics run and what cultural and tradition-based preconditions are determining or counteracting?

The project seeks to make a contribution to describing the autonomization and globalization dynamics of individual function systems (e.g. financial and economic system, political and legal system) in order to hone the understanding of the relationship between functional systems and other structural aspects of the world society such as organizations, world events, networks, or epistemic communities. The next step after that would be to discuss to what extent these different processes of "world socialization" can be understood "in the whole" and reconceptualized.