Institut für Weltgesellschaft
Institute for World Society Studies
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Institute for World SocietyPfeilAbout the RTG
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Research Training Group


World politics: The emergence of political arenas and modes of observation in world society


Research Training Group (GRK 2225/1) at Bielefeld University, funded by the German Research Council

Start date: 01 October 2017

The Research Training Group (RTG) is a scheme in which Principal Investigators at Bielefeld University work closely together with doctoral and post-doctoral researchers who pursue their doctoral and post-doctoral research projects at Bielefeld University within the thematic purview of the Group.

The RTG`s working language is English. The German Research Council will be funding 10 doctoral researchers and 1 post-doctoral researcher. The positions will be advertised in early 2017 and selection will be through a competitive process during the spring of 2017. Doctoral researchers will receive contracts as research associates (65% of salary level E13) for three years and are expected to complete their dissertations during that time. The post-doctoral researcher will receive a contract as research associate (100% of salary level E13) for five years and is expected to complete her or his post-doctoral project during that time.

RTG researchers cooperate closely in a dense research environment, commonly participating in regular Research Classes. There is a supervisory scheme with dense reporting deadlines for doctoral researchers in order to ensure timely completion of the dissertations. Doctoral students are also require to participate in a small number of PhD courses.

Participating researchers are expected to contribute to and co-organize a number of workshops during their tenure at the RTG, particularly involving a range of international cooperation partners. Some funding is available for short research visits abroad and for participating in conferences.

Below is an outline of the RTG`s profile, research program, research streams, and the qualification program.

The RTG seeks to foster inter-disciplinary cooperation across a number of disciplines, most notably Political Science/International Relations, Sociology, History, and Legal Studies.

Its Principal Investigators are:
Professor Mathias Albert (Political Science/IR; Speaker)
Professor Ulrike Davy (Law)
Professor Angelika Epple (History)
Professor Thomas Faist (Sociology)
Professor Alexandra Kaasch (Political Science/Sociology)
Dr Martin Koch (Political Science/IR)
Professor Franz Mayer (Law)
Professor Detlef Sack (Political Science)
Professor Willibald Steinmetz (History)
Professor Andreas Vasilache (Political Science/IR)
Professor Tobias Werron (Sociology)

Associate PIs are:
Professor Boris Holzer (Sociology, University of Constance)
Professor George Lawson (IR; LSE)

Profile of the Research Training Group
World politics is characterized by a tremendous degree and speed of change. The RTG starts with a definition of world politics at first set in the context of theories of world society. World politics is seen as a specific kind of politics that emerges historically as an ongoing differentiation of the political system of world society. World politics thus is not conceived to emerge `on top´ of a political system composed by the sum of nation-state politics. Rather, world politics, like domestic or functionally defined (e.g. economic, environmental, security etc.) realms of politics, is part of a political system of world society. This is a theoretically `narrow´ understanding that is, first of all, intended to be different from often unspecific, and often contradictory, uses of the term in the discipline of International Relations. In the context of this RTG, `world politics´ includes the realms of inter- and transnational politics, but world politics is not conceived as the top layer in a `sandwich´ model of politics, but as a specific kind of politics within the political system, being often more functionally distinct from other kinds of politics rather than different by virtue of occupying a different level. However, while the starting point of understanding world politics might be theoretically specific, a main task of the RTG is to critically scrutinize that starting point. This cannot be achieved by discussions about theory alone, but by retaining theoretical openness in the light of research results.

Across a range of different academic disciplines, the study of world politics has become more differentiated and more prominent. International Relations have expanded to cover the social conditions of world politics (social constructivism, international political sociology), as well as its historical underpinnings. History has developed a research tradition of `global history´ and has engaged with the history of global/translocal interconnections, emphasizing that the genesis of world order cannot be understood by adding national historiographies. Legal studies have investigated whether and to what extent the evolution of law beyond the state has given rise to (pockets of) constitutionalism beyond the state. Sociological research is interested in different aspects of the establishment of global networks and structures, as well as in the possibility to reflect on those in the context of theories of global or world society.

The research training group `World politics: The emergence of political arenas and modes of observation in world society´ builds on these scholarly debates. Its particular focus is on capturing world politics as emerging historically in a wider social context. One of the RTG´s unique and innovative features is a strong orientation towards common theoretical reflection while retaining theoretical openness. Thematic concentration is be achieved by bundling doctoral and postdoctoral research projects into two research streams that are related to each other, yet characterized by specific foci on the emergence of world politics. The aim is to generate work that to a significant degree crosses disciplinary boundaries. This includes introducing doctoral researchers to the approaches of neighboring disciplines, and to foster real debate between various theories of world society, global history approaches, and other pertinent contributions from IR, legal, and sociological theory.
Research Program - Core research idea
The Research Training Group (RTG) examines the emergence of world politics as an arena for political action, communication and observation. Situated in a broadly understood, interdisciplinary field of international political sociology, it regards world politics both as a specific form of organizing relations among political actors, and as a framework of political communication, observation and comparison - among states as well as other actors. The RTG investigates the mechanisms and forces, as well as the struggles and resistances, that have led to the establishment of world politics as a specific form of politics that does not sit somehow `above´ nation-states, but in fact emerges concurrently with the modern form of the (nation) state and the normative ordering principle of sovereign equality that, in turn, is enshrined in the evolving law of nations (international law). In this context, the RTG adopts, and critically reflects on, a world society perspective, in order to analyze and explain the dynamics that underlie the processes of modern state formation on the one hand, and the structuration of the global political field in which states are embedded on the other hand. Rather than aiming to develop a model of state-formation by reconstructing particular histories of state-building, the RTG inquires how the emergence of world politics has been (and still is) both a corollary of, and a precondition for, the constitution of modern states.

The starting and common theoretical point of reference for the RTG is an understanding of world politics according to a theory of world society. World politics is a specific form of politics that does not somehow sit `above´ other forms (e.g. environmental, British, Bavarian, local etc.), but is differentiated from these other forms in more functional terms. Nonetheless, the RTG remains open towards other theoretical approaches, as well as for theoretical assumptions being challenged in debates about theory and in the light of the results of empirical research. Thus, the theoretical starting point does not pre-determine the shape and structure of world politics as a field in which manifold political processes take place. The designation of world politics as both a `field´ and an `arena´ is intended to signal this openness, and the fact that the exact characteristics of what is emerging does not only depend on the kinds of structures that have formed, but also on how they are observed.

`Emergence´ does not refer to a finished process. Thus, we expect the research program of the RTG to attract both dissertation projects with a more historical focus as well as projects with a more contemporary focus. `Emergence´ entails the idea that world politics is characterized and formed by varying densities of different kinds of interaction over time, but is also an ongoing experimenting with different forms of organization. It points to processes that are characterized by different kinds and intensities of struggle, mobilization, and contestation.

World politics does not - as is particularly sometimes suggested in narratives referring to the Peace of Westphalia - emerge in a social (and historical) vacuum. To account for its social environment, the RTG conceives world politics as the result of processes of social differentiation. Unlike the approach still prevalent in International Relations and neighboring disciplines, world politics is not conceptualized as something located on a level somehow `above´ local, national, regional etc. politics. Rather, world politics is analyzed as a distinct form next to other forms of politics, mirroring an internal differentiation of the political system. Tangible features of that differentiation include the emergence of political roles dedicated to world-political communication and the emergence of a world public opinion that cannot be understood as the sum of national public spheres. Such an approach remains open for empirically observing different forms of social differentiation within world politics (for example, the segmented order of sovereign states, the core-periphery order of empires, the stratified order of great vs. small powers etc.). While the RTG places the emergence and evolution of world politics in the context of a wider social environment, it remains open to different specifications of this environment. Theories of world society or accounts of global history are the obvious candidates for identifying and analyzing that social environment. It is a central integrative task and objective of the RTG to reflect on the relative merits of different theories of world society and accounts of global history particularly in the light of research on the emergence of world politics. These theories and accounts, as well as the dialogue between them, serve as theoretical-conceptual reference points for the RTG. The RTG is designed in a way that requires doctoral researchers to reflect on their work in the light of these theoretical discussions and to contribute to them, but is also designed so as to facilitate theoretical discussions in close conjunction with postdoctoral researchers and PIs, and thus are not an additional burden for individual projects.
Research Streams
Research in the RTG is primarily organized in two research streams, respectively defined by an angle of inquiry more oriented towards the consolidation and transformation of structures and norms in modes of organizing world politics, and an angle more oriented towards semantics and the construction of meaning more broadly in modes of observing world politics. Both research streams are by no means conceived in exclusive terms. Their distinction is one of analytical nature, and they necessarily refer and relate to each other.

The first research stream is concerned with changing patterns of interaction among states and other types of actors (most notably international governmental and non-governmental organizations, but also companies, mass media etc.) in modes of organizing world politics. That includes issues such as the transformation of a state system tied together by dynastic relations to a system based on formal membership as well as the role of stabilized forms of diplomatic protocol and routinized interaction at Congresses particularly after 1815. Another major transformation to be considered is the coexistence of, as well as the entanglement and competition between, different logics of colonial/imperial rule on a global scale, the management of the European system of states through the coordination among great powers, and the emerging notion of the equality of sovereign states. The process of this coexistence and competition pertains to the emerging and developing structures of the world political system. In this context, both international organizations as well as non-governmental actors play an important role not only as a structural feature of the world political system in its own right, but also in their role as agents that legitimize or contest the emergence of new states. Finally, the emergence of the modern system of world politics is never merely an issue of coordination between major actors, but always accompanied by debates about the possibility of governing the world (universal statehood, global empire, etc.), and it is indeed possible to describe the congress system of the nineteenth century as an early form of global governance.

The RTG´s second research stream complements this perspective with a view on changing modes of observation in world politics. Interaction and the formation of structures that are analyzed in the first research stream do not take place in a social vacuum. World politics exists because there is communication about world politics. This basic `constructivist´ assumption means that semantics, symbols, rituals, narratives etc. are necessary for the `making´ of world politics. Semantics, symbols, rituals or narratives provide descriptions of world politics, such as notions of the international order, mankind, or human rights. These descriptions may then inform observations by actors as they try to make sense of world politics. Our inquiries focus, for example, on how states or other actors observe one another and how they are observed by third parties. Descriptions and modes of observation must be understood as both a corollary of, as well as a complement to, structural changes. For novel kinds of political entities and relations to emerge, the entities need to be recognized in the first place and relations need to be cultivated. These processes of recognition and cultivation of relations are in turn underpinned by, and themselves support, specific semantics (for example the shift from semantics of responsibility of the great powers towards semantics of international community, or from semantics of colonial exploitation to semantics of national or regional identities independent from Europe). Individual projects will, for instance, address how entities (states, organizations, private actors) began to document and act upon their observations of other entities, and how statistical observation of military or economic capacities played a role in this. Projects will also address the making of descriptions and struggles over their validity and legitimacy.

While each research stream privileges a distinct perspective, substantive overlaps are expected to be significant and are highly welcome. Both lines of research will be pursued with a strong emphasis on theoretically grounded empirical research, with varying degrees of emphasis on historical and comparative research. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries will be of particular relevance for such an endeavor, as interaction and mutual observation have not only intensified during this time period, but also changed dramatically due to technological innovations in communication and transport as well as in military capacities. It is a major aim of the RTG to trace those changes and to analyze how the structure of world politics has been shaped by those innovations.

With its emphasis on politics as a field of world society, the RTG is designed to host and stimulate research from the perspective of the `world society paradigm´, which primarily draws on modern systems theory and the theory of social differentiation, but also on the analytical tools provided by sociological neo-institutionalism and world polity theory. It expands and deepens scholarship on world society and world politics by combining a systematic sociological perspective with historical analysis. In doing so, it remains explicitly open to questioning its theoretical starting point in the light of historical analysis. While a focus is on the `expansion´ of the international system of states - both in the sense of geographical extension as well as in the sense of the density of its organization - during the nineteenth century and up until the big waves of decolonization during the twentieth century, it remains also open for work in relation to the wave of newly-forming states after the breakup of the Soviet Union or later instances of state formation. In pursuing this work, it is a central part of the research agenda to address both inclusive and exclusive effects of the emergence of a world-political field. Thus, the `expansion of international society´ always entailed the displacement of alternative (non-Western and other Western) forms of order formation in world society, and particularly also leading to many instances of ethnic exclusion. In addition, after the establishment of certain global structural parameters (i.e. a system of sovereign states), emerging structures, descriptions and modes of observation tended to perpetuate such displacements even within the established parameters of a `global West´. This in turn led to counter-movements ranging from the bloc of non-aligned states during the Cold War and specific forms of post-colonial state formation, over protest movements in the name of a `global civil society´, to attempts to replace central indicators such as the GDP with alternatives.

In terms of research fields and disciplines, the RTG covers International Relations (IR) as a distinct sub-discipline of political science, and particularly IR´s relatively new sub-field of international political sociology. It approaches this subject by enlisting a range of approaches from IR/political science, sociology, history, and law. To the field of IR it adds an understanding of the historically contingent and relatively recent character of international politics, participating in and thematically expanding the recent turn towards historical sociology more generally and the role of the nineteenth century in forming modern international relations in particular. To sociology it adds an understanding of international relations as a specific form of social relations largely ignored by the discipline thus far. The exchange between world society and global history approaches is of particular interest as both these approaches have not engaged in substantive dialogue yet, although world society approaches obviously depend on a historically deep account of social evolution, and global history still requires more comprehensive theoretical accounts of change. Legal scholars tend to focus on those fields where substantive normative structuring has taken place (e.g. human rights, lex mercatoria) but struggle to get a grip on a global social system that does not seem to rely on the kind of systematic and encompassing normative order that nation-states provide.
Qualification Program
The main goal of the RTG´s qualification program is to foster the timely completion of high-quality doctoral dissertations and prepare doctoral students for careers within and beyond academia. Beyond this core aim, the qualification program is designed to ensure that doctoral students gain specific advantages by being integrated in an international research environment right from the start of their doctoral research projects. English is the RTG´s working language. Doctoral students are encouraged and partly required to be active in publishing the results of their own work, particularly also in order to `advertise´ their research in the relevant research communities. While retaining a solid footing in their home discipline, they are also actively encouraged and partly required to present and discuss their work in a research environment in Bielefeld oriented towards interdisciplinarity.

The RTG´s qualification program seeks to support doctoral researchers in producing excellent dissertations in a limited amount of time. In addition, it aims to provide the doctoral researchers with a range of qualifications that not only enhance the quality of their dissertations, but foster inter-disciplinary, international, and collaborative orientation, so as to also provide them with distinctive markers in a competitive job market. Particularly, the qualification program will support doctoral research

  • through a study program that allows for discussing individual research projects in a collaborative environment as well as enhancing individual skills;
  • through a closely-knit local research environment that encourages doctoral researchers to elaborate on aspects of their research in single-authored and collaborative form, with a clear aim of publishing some results before the completion of the doctoral dissertation;
  • through the encouragement of disciplinary excellence through inter-disciplinary exposure and reflection;
  • through continuous and intensive exchange and engagement with individual partners and an international research environment.

In terms of concrete measures the qualification program consists of the following main elements:
  • The study program.
  • The facilitation of theoretical reflection, publication activities and collaborative workshops.
  • The incorporation of international cooperation partners, as well as international research visits and conference presentations by doctoral researchers.
  • The support of inter-disciplinary activities.