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World Polity Theory (Synopsis and Analysis)


Globalization is the growth and enactment of world culture. Since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, a rationalized world institutional and cultural order has crystallized that consists of universally applicable models that shape states, organizations, and individual identities (J. Meyer et al., "World Society and the Nation-State," Am. J. of Soc. 1997) . Conceptions of progress, sovereignty, rights, and the like, have acquired great authority, structure the actions of states and individuals, and provide a common framework for global disputes.

World culture has deep roots in European tradition--the rational structure and content of medieval Christendom, the state system devised in 1648, and enlightened universalism in science and philosophy. Yet its more immediate antecedents lie in the nineteenth century. Public officials, private organizations, and intellectuals, primarily in the West, elaborated ideas of state sovereignty, individual rights, and rational progress that in principle were universally valid. Movements arose in defense of such ideas; international meetings served to lend them authority. More than just the aggregate result of individual profit-seeking or political competition, international life acquired a cultural structure. After World War II, this structure became pervasive. Accordingly, states at very different economic levels adopted common precepts and established common institutions (e.g., formal public education), regardless of their actual usefulness-leading to "isomorphism." Far from being the prime movers on the international scene, states in fact derived much of their structure and authority from being embedded in a larger system, a world polity consisting of common legitimating models. But states are not the only globally enacted model. For example, notions of citizenship and individuality spread across traditional cultural boundaries as well. More and more organizations, from scientific associations to feminist groups, from standard-setting bodies to environmental movements, helped to elaborate and implement this common world culture.

By the end of the twentieth century, world culture had crystallized as the constitutive element in world society, a set of scripts to be followed anywhere. This culture has in fact been widely enacted. No longer the preserve of the West, it has become a common heritage, institutionalized across the globe and supported by many transnational groups. But it cannot claim global consensus; regions differ, for example, in their interpretation of core notions such as individual rights. Nor is world culture free from contradiction; in fact, it contains values such as freedom and equality that are necessarily in tension. Enacting global models will not lead to a completely homogeneous world, if only because institutionalization under different conditions will produce significant local variation. World culture actually produces new conflicts, for when many believe they live in one world under universally valid principles, they are bound to be critical of state actions that deviate from global norms. Since the state of the world is always bound to fall short of high global standards, world culture actually encourages the discovery of new social problems. But the worldwide recognition of problems, ranging from global warming to corruption to genital mutilation, is a sign of world culture's current strength. In a diverse, conflictual, and decentralized world, it provides common models for thinking and acting.


Definition. A polity is a "system of creating value through the collective conferral of authority" (Meyer 1980: 111-2). The system is constituted by a set of rules, also called frames or models. Actors in the system are "entities constructed and motivated by enveloping frames" (Boli and Thomas 1997: 172). The world polity contains no single actor or institution defining what is valuable for the world as a whole. "Instead of a central actor, the culture of world society allocates responsible and authoritative actorhood to nation-states" (Meyer et al. 1997: 169). Their authority is rooted in a world culture: a set of universally applicable models that define who are legitimate actors in world society, what goals they can pursue and how they can pursue them. While world polity models define sovereign states as key actors, enabling authorities to construct collective goals and devise the means or programs to produce them, state officials are not the only ones engaged in such authoritative creation of value (1980: 112).

Key feature. The enactment of global models creates considerable institutional similarity among differently situated states. "[W]orld society models shape nation-state identities, structures, and behavior via worldwide cultural and associational processes . . . . As creatures of exogenous world culture, states are ritualized actors marked by intensive decoupling and a good deal more structuration than would occur if they were responsive only to local, cultural, functional, or power processes" (Meyer et al. 1997: 173).

Origin. Medieval Christendom provided exemplars of rational organization and crystallized the notion of the person as an individual. The late-nineteenth century was a period of intense world polity innovation, with many organizations elaborating transnational rules that increasingly bound individual states. After 1945, world culture expanded further through the work of numerous international organizations. "The development and impact of global sociocultural structuration greatly intensified with the creation of a central world organizational frame at the end of World War II" (1980: 163). "The colossal disaster of World War II may have been a key factor in the rise of global models of nationally organized progress and justice, and the Cold War may well have intensified the forces pushing human development to the global level" (1997: 174).

Structure. The world cultural order consists of models defining actors (e.g., nation-state, individual), purposes (e.g., development, progress), and principles (e.g., human rights, justice). Four main "elements of collective world society" contribute to and implement the tenets of this order: international governmental organizations, especially those in the UN system; nation-states, which engage in copying that leads to diffusion; voluntary associations in many different fields, some operating as social movements; and scientists and professionals, as experts whose own authority derives from world-cultural principles (1997: 162-6).

How it works.

  • World culture constitutes states as rationalized actors--i.e., entities that are systematically organized and operate according to formal rules. "[I]n world culture the nation-state is defined as a fundamental and strongly legitimated unit of action. Because world culture is highly rationalized and universalistic, nation-states form as rationalized actors" (1997: 153). States invariably present themselves in this way. They all claim the key features of rational state actors--territory, sovereign authority, and so on. Once properly constituted, states tend to maintain their sovereign status: the identity system is highly stable (1997: 159).
  • World culture exerts pressure toward isomorphism. Institutionalization of world models leads to structural similarity. Thus, nation-states adopt similar constitutional forms, public educational systems, policies on women's rights and the environment, etc. (1997: 152-3).
  • States are structured to a degree and in a manner that is unrelated to their actual needs and circumstances, leading to the "decoupling of general values from practical action" (1997: 155). Such decoupling between "formal models and observable practices" characterizes all rationalized actors, but in the case of the world polity weaker actors such as peripheral nation-states may exhibit more. For example, they may "do a good deal of symbolic educational reform via national policies and control systems, but they have more difficulty bringing change into the classroom" (1997: 155).
  • International nongovernmental organizations represent, carry out, and elaborate global principles. They are "built on world-cultural principles of universalism, individualism, rational voluntaristic authority, progress, and world citizenship" (Boli and Thomas 1997: 187).
  • Within nation-states, "[w]orld-society ideology . . . . directly licenses a variety of organized interests and functions" (Meyer et al.1997: 160). For example, environmental groups may hold states accountable, or nationalist groups may claim legitimacy, in terms of world-cultural principles. Global models sustain many domestic actors.

How it changes.

  • In stateless world society, no single authoritative actor can control culture. Such lack of exclusive control creates ample room for innovation (1997: 169)
  • Pursuit of similar goals by similar states leads to intense competition. "The greater the number of entities . . . . that pursue similar interests requiring similar resources, the more the entities will come into conflict with each other and develop theories of one another as sources of social ills" (1997: 170).
  • World society legitimates different kinds of actors--individuals, states, interest groups, and international organizations. These are bound to come into conflict. A case in point is the tension between claims to equality by individuals and state justifications for specialization that produce inequality, or particular groups may claim a right to cultural distinction and autonomy against state pressure toward homogenization (1997: 171).
  • Much change stems from "the dynamism that is generated by the rampant inconsistencies and conflicts within world culture itself," especially "contradictions inherent in widely varied cultural goods: equality versus liberty, progress versus justice," and the like (1997: 172). Different ways to ways to resolve those tensions lead to different variants of world-cultural models.
  • World-cultural standards "create strong expectations regarding global integration and propriety"and therefore "can easily provoke world-societal reactions seeking to put things right" when individuals, companies, or states violate those standards (1997: 175). Identifying such violations (torture, waste dumping, corruption, etc.) as "social problems" can lead to reform.
  • More concretely, non-governmental organizations can be a force for change: "In mobilizing around and elaborating world-cultural principles, INGOs lobby, criticize, and convince states to act on those principles" (Boli and Thomas: 187).


Boli, John and George M. Thomas. 1997. "World Culture in the World Polity." American Sociological Review 62(2): 171-190.

Meyer, John W. 1980. "The World Polity and the Authority of the Nation-State." Pp. 109-137 in A. Bergesen (ed.), Studies of the Modern World-System. New York: Academic Press.

Meyer, John W., John Boli, George M. Thomas, and Francisco O. Ramirez. 1997. "World Society and the Nation-State." American Journal of Sociology 103(1): 144-181.

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