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Cross-Posting from the global norms blog

In my last blog post, I quickly presented a preliminary, quantitative look at our textbook corpus.  From that perspective, it appeared as though there has been little change over the last four decades regarding how textbook authors evaluate international institutions. While we did find some less relevant evidence of a Westphalian frame of evaluations, we saw that evaluations based on the Post-Westphalian principle of democracy remained relatively stable. This somewhat contradicts what we expected to find, especially after having read numerous papers on how democracy has become a very important principle in international politics and a yardstick for measuring the quality of international institutions. Therefore, a second, more qualitative, look at our data seems necessary.

A second, qualitative look – What about democracy?

For this second look, we compiled a corpus of statements out of our initial textbook corpus. This second corpus comprised all statements that included one of the key words we qualified as essential for questions of democracy (i.e. democracy, participation, transparency and accountability). The statements were subsequently read and interpreted by two team members. The goal of this exercise was to identify specific uses of the words and to trace changes in the meanings of the democratic concepts mentioned above. Here’s what we found:

First, democracy as such is referred to in a variety of ways. Foremost, international institutions are evaluated as agents that influence the democratic constitution of their member states, e.g. when democratic political systems are a prerequisite for membership in the institution. Furthermore, democracy is often referred to as a normative value that should be attached to political power. However, statements that evaluated international institutions directly due to their democratic quality were relatively rare. Only 9 of the 71 books we read make such references. Yet, even in these books, what is meant by the term democracy varies from democracy as equality, via democracy as decentralized government to democracy as empowerment. Consequently, for the textbooks we analyzed, it is neither clear if democracy should be a yardstick for international institutions, nor what such a yardstick should look like, i.e. what democracy should mean.

Second, we found an interesting shift in evaluations where authors wrote about participation. Participation is used in both a functional and representational logic. For the first type of arguments, participation of different actors should help the institution effectively manage its governance problems. Yet, for the second type of arguments, it is not important for which ends specific groups of actors may participate, but their participation is regarded as something good in itself because it increases the representativeness of the institutions. Both kinds of arguments are used in very recent books while textbooks from the early 1970s and 1980s rarely argue with the representational logic. The same trend is visible when looking at which actors are supposed to participate. In the early years, those participating often were experts and well-trained NGOs, while in more recent decades, the participation of previously excluded groups like women and natives was much more of an issue.

Third, concerning accountability and transparency, we also found some interesting movement. Comparable to what we found when discussing participation, transparency and accountability as concepts are extended to a growing group of actors. When discussing who should be accountable and transparent, only in recent decades do we read that not only states but also international institutions are measured with this standard. On a second dimension, we see the same trend when authors discuss to whom institutions should be accountable and transparent. Again, it is not only states as principals of institutions that are perceived as relevant but also a growing number of non-state actors.

Interpretation and next steps

What do we make of these findings? Concerning our initial research questions, at least three points can be retained:

  1. We found that the range of actors that are relevant for the perceived legitimacy of international institutions has expanded over the years. In particular, this applies to non-state actors that were previously marginalized and represent groups of individuals that are affected by global rule making.
  2. Representation is more of a concern for evaluations of international institutions today than it used to be. This is particularly visible when issues of participation are discussed.
  3. There is a growing tendency to evaluate international institutions with democratic yardsticks. This trend is particularly visible when looking at how international institutions are described as actors that should be accountable and transparent.

Yet, these results need to be interpreted in relation to our earlier findings, i.e. that these trends are not large, numerically visible phenomena. What do you think about our interpretations? Do these results sound plausible to you given your own research and/or experiences? As always, we welcome your opinion in the comments or via e-mail.

In the next phases of our research project, we will further investigate if these findings can be reproduced in other parts of the legitimation/legitimacy discourses of international institutions. One of our next blog posts will present our plans for 2012, so stay tuned.

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Tobias Weise


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Tobias Weise

political scientist, university administration specialist

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