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UCL-GGI Symposium: Towards a Third Generation of Global Governance Research and Practice

On 12-13 November 2015, we hosted an International Symposium on Global Governance at the UCL Institute of Global Governance. This two-day event sought to advance understanding of global governance scholarship by bringing together some of the world’s leading academics working in the field to share their insights on what is an evolving school of thought. Despite its relevance to key processes underlying the major global public policy questions of our age, the contours of ‘global governance’ remain contested, with few claiming it constitutes a theory or established field of study. The broad aims of the symposium were to clarify these contours and identify some common analytical tools to be applied to the study of global governance scholarship. What transpired were truly enlightening discussions which will set a course for further innovation in global governance research.

Global governance as a subject can be thought of as a mode of inquiry that seeks to transcend or dissolve the boundaries between disciplinary silos and establish a broad conceptual tent under which insights from various fields can be incorporated to further our understanding of how the world works. Of particular concern is recognition of a wider array of influential actors (beyond nation states) on the global stage than has traditionally been recognised, the density of interrelationships among these actors, and a desire to understand diverse sources of authority, mechanisms and micro-processes through which global public policy across various substantive fields is stewarded, formulated, and delivered.

In terms of a research agenda, there was wide agreement on the need to explore the relationship between the global and the local, which includes tracing out the connection between institutional and sociological processes and their impact on the ground. Global governance has profound effects on the lives of people and societies, for good and ill. Echoing James Rosenau’s earlier call for analysts to pay attention to the “glocal”, this mode of engagement involves, in particular, understanding what global governance means to those on the receiving end of it (the supposed “beneficiaries” and “targets”) as well as recognising that it will affect different groups of people, whether defined by region, gender or other cleavages, in myriad ways.

The importance of pro-empirical and anti-reductionist research in progressing our understanding of global governance was also stressed by the discussants. Disciplines such as anthropology and sociology have much to contribute in this regard, as they can provide insights and research to help trace the connections between the global and local, and get to grips with the impact of global governance on the ground. It was perhaps surprising how thin the evidence-base actually is on evaluating the impact of global governance instruments such as voluntary private regulatory standards.

A point of conceptual divergence emerged between those who sought to define global governance as relating to a particular moment, characterised by the density and reach of institutional arrangements and prominence of non-state actors, and those who view global governance as the sum of all governance arrangements of any period, which would allow the concept to be historicised. This divergence is, however, reconcilable. All participants agreed that a narrow state-centric model of world politics was untenable in light of the contemporary dynamics of world politics. This observation is likely to be applicable, to varying degrees, to earlier eras of world social ordering. International history scholars have an important role to play in historicising global governance and probing its ability to travel across time. As one participant put it, it is odd but arguably true that there was much more a sense of the global in the 1940s than there is today. In turn, it is in the 1970s that globalisation became a reality.

A further challenge for global governance scholarship is how to incorporate, even foreground, geopolitics and power into our understanding of cause and effect across substantive governance domains, such as security and trade, but also more traditionally marginal fields including health, human rights, and migration. The importance of geopolitics in a world politics of shifting power is indisputable. The challenge laid down to the next generation of global governance scholars is how to accommodate this important dimension without repeating the mistakes of earlier international relations scholars. One way to proceed might be to depart from the premise that global governance as a subfield emerged in a particular geopolitical moment. We must therefore account for changes in the geopolitical environment in our analysis of global governance, perhaps treating geopolitics as a variable under which global governance arrangements become more or less prevalent.

Together with colleagues at UCL and beyond, the GGI is dedicated to advancing a research agenda on global governance which seeks to integrate insights across a theoretically and empirically-rich second generation of scholarship. This will ground a powerful third generation of global governance scholarship, distinguished by a concern for the complexity and dynamism of global public policy-making and delivery in the 21st century. The symposium has proven to be an invaluable launching pad for what we hope will be a major intellectual contribution to the advancement of global governance scholarship and practice. At its core is an effort to place global governance as a mode of inquiry on firm foundations, promoting a pluralistic, anti-reductionist and pro-empiricist agenda which can serve as a platform for exchange from across all relevant disciplines. We would like to thank all speakers and attendees for contributing to what was a fascinating, absorbing and thought-provoking symposium that fully lived up to the ideals of intellectual inquiry we aim to embody here at the UCL Global Governance Institute.

More information on this research agenda can be found here:

David Coen and Tom Pegram, ‘Wanted: A Third Generation of Global Governance Research’, Governance, vol. 28(4), October 2015, 417-420.

Tom Pegram and Michele Acuto, ‘Introduction: Global Governance and the Theoretical Interregnum’, Millennium, vol. 43(2), January 2015, pp. 584-597.

* Co-written with Rob Rix, GGI Research Assistant.

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