International Relations World Polity School
Didem Buhari Gulmez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0019


The world polity school (also known as world society, world culture, or Stanford school of sociological institutionalism) was founded in the 1970s by John W. Meyer, a Stanford University sociologist, who asked important questions of direct relevance to international relations (IR), such as: Why are similar policies, methods, and concepts adopted by dissimilar states despite local and national divergences in terms of both capability and power, especially when there is no centrally organized global authority that could sanction free riding? How can we explain the exponential rise of nongovernmental activities and organization at the transnational and global level? Why do states embrace reforms that seem to counter the nationalist logic of interest-maximization, trigger strong public opposition, and are highly unlikely to be implemented? The research findings published by Meyer and his students (including, for instance, David John Frank, Elizabeth Heger Boyle, Ann Hironaka, Evan Schofer, Kiyoteru Tsutsui, John Boli, George Thomas, Gili Drori, Yasemin Soysal, and Francisco Ramirez) suggest that the world polity school is a critique of three traditions in IR: modernization, world-systems theory (WST), and rational choice institutionalism. The world polity school embraces constructivist ontology in terms of defining state identity and interests as constructed by emerging “global scripts,” which are enacted in the global nongovernmental forums. In other words, international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) act as “scriptwriters” for nation-states that seek external legitimation to consolidate their very actorhood in the world political arena. While modernization approaches fail to account for increasing isomorphisms in state policies and institutions in areas covering education, environment, human rights, and citizenship policies among others, interest-based accounts provided by WST and rational choice institutionalism do not explain the rise and role of INGOs. This article introduces the main books representing world polity research, the core themes, and the theoretical and conceptual innovations of world polity theory. It covers works that discuss the world polity studies’ contributions to international relations, to studies of global governance, national sovereignty, international organizations and social movements, human rights, conflict and security, and European regionalism. It puts forward some critical works that suggest refining world polity theory from different angles and also lists some institutes and networks that promote world polity research.


Since the 1970s, the world polity school has produced a number of important books that can be used as textbooks to explain what world polity is, how it evolves, and how it transforms the nation-state. The compilation of John W. Meyer’s path-breaking writings, Krücken and Drori 2009, introduces the main findings and debates of the world polity school. Boli and Thomas 1999, Lechner and Boli 2005, and Lechner 2009 explain the systemic trends associated with world polity in the post-1945 era. Drori, et al. 2006 focuses on modern organization and the spread of global standards in formal organizing. Students of world polity research can also benefit from Soysal 1994, Boyle 2002, and Drori, et al. 2003, which investigate the structural effects of world polity pertaining to immigration, women’s rights, and the expansion of science, respectively.

  • Boli, John, and George M. Thomas, eds. Constructing World Culture: International Non-governmental Organizations since 1875. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

    Based on an extensive research about the structure and activities of international nongovernmental organizations, this volume explains the models of world polity through selected case studies, namely environmentalism, the women’s movement, world language (Esperanto), the rules of war, technical standards, population control, development ends and strategies, and the scientizing of society.

  • Boyle, Elizabeth Heger. Female Genital Cutting: Cultural Conflict in the Global Community. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

    Studying national policies toward female genital cutting in Egypt, Tanzania, and the United States, the book highlights the uneven effects of different world polity models (national sovereignty and human/gender rights) on different groups and individuals. An exemplary work for its sensitivity to “bottom-up” processes and individual accounts of world polity.

  • Drori, Gili S., John W. Meyer, and Hokyu Hwang, eds. Globalization and Organization. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    With detailed case studies, and a strong interdisciplinary appeal, this organizational sociology textbook lays out the world polity dimension of modern organization and deals with the spread of global standards in business education, international management, accounting, corporate responsibility, human resources, and universities.

  • Drori, Gili, John W. Meyer, Francisco O. Ramirez, and Evan Schofer, eds. Science in the Modern World Polity: Institutionalization and Globalization. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.

    This edited volume explains how scientific thinking has become a central element of the modern world polity. It discusses the emergence and expansion of world polity and how to study it. It opposes the conventional thinking based on functionalism and rational choice in explaining state behavior and social movements.

  • Krücken, Georg, and Gili S. Drori, eds. World Society: The Writings of John W. Meyer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Compilation of must-read articles that represent world polity research conducted by John W. Meyer and his students since the 1970s. Can be used as a textbook on world polity theory. Includes previous publications applying the world polity approach to different areas such as human rights, European integration, nation-states, law, and the environment.

  • Lechner, Frank J. Globalization: The Making of World Society. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    Expands on Lechner and Boli 2005. Focuses on how world polity intertwines with local and traditional actors. Provides case studies on global economy, food, media, sport, governance, welfare system, migration, justice, inequality, environment, and civil society and concludes that the globalizing world operates as if it is a single place.

  • Lechner, Frank J., and John Boli. World Culture: Origins and Consequences. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470775868

    A comprehensive account of world polity: its origins, institutionalization, internal contradictions, contestations, and its differential impact on nation-states. Studying the Olympic games, global economy, law, governance and infrastructure, the authors correct “top-down” accounts of world polity as unified and hegemonic.

  • Soysal, Yasemin Nuhoglu. Limits of Citizenship: Migrants and Postnational Membership in Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

    This book studies the expanding rights of migrant workers in core European countries and the prevailing rational choice accounts that explain the advancement of migrant rights with the parochial interests of the host countries; it demonstrates that Europe is under the constitutive effects of world polity.

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