Anthropology of International Governance (AIG)
Coordinator: Birgit Müller
Mechanisms of international governance have impacts in even the remotest locations where anthropologists do research. International treaties on nature conservation, global intellectual property rights and free trade agreements — to name just a few — delineate structures of power and possibilities of action across scales of governance. As their impact came to be felt on the ground, it became part of the realities anthropologists were studying. At the same time, anthropologists who explored institutional settings as “places of power” started to look at the headquarters of international organizations, of multinational corporations and at international NGO networks, studying their meetings and negotiations. They approached them without applying an a priori normative and theoretical grid, as they would approach any other social context unknown to them. This allowed them to identify mechanisms of international governance in the multiple locations where they did fieldwork that have been largely invisible for other disciplines.
Anthropologists have begun to examine how various and often contradictory norms are produced and contested across scales through complex processes of formal and informal negotiation, mechanisms of participation and “capacity building”. Civil society organisations and representatives of indigenous communities go beyond the boundaries of the nation-states to draw attention to local problems on the international level and contribute to the emergence of global vocabularies and discourses. International actors in turn posit themselves as working on a different scale from the local, but also claim a level of expertise about the situation "on the ground”. The international is thus enmeshed with local and national processes, and although it may seek to produce a sense of transcendence, it is always concretely located. It is at these different localized settings that anthropologists are doing research at headquarters and at the different local sites, often following the actors through their networks and locals.
This network was initiated by anthropologists who study features of international governance common to many inter-governmental organizations: mechanisms of education and consultation framed in terms of partnership, instruments of control labeled as transparency and accountability. They analyzed how inter-governmental organizations (the UN System, the IMF, World Bank, International Criminal Court etc.) produce reified discourses, global norms and standards that emphasize consensus while creating ambivalence of meaning and studied the new games of power in the field of ethical politics that redefine political conflicts in terms of technical, moral and juridical standards. They came to regard inter-governmental organizations not as confined totalities but as dispositifs that draw in constantly new actors involving them as experts, interlocutors and opinion givers engaging them with forms of calculation, technical reasoning, human “capacity building”, and with non-human objects and devices. They pointed to the paradox that tales of ‘harmony’ reign in the prevalent institutional discourses as they cover up differentials of power, resources and economic interests and often add fuel to underlying conflicts.
The norms that international governance introduces at a variety of scales translate into concrete practices and affect the everyday life of citizens the world over. On all levels of governance - municipal, regional, national and international- these norms interact and may also conflict with established rules and standards. The most powerful among these norms, for example, frame the virtual and actual world of global financial exchange creating what is often seen as the natural laws of the world market. By addressing citizens directly these new mechanisms of governance bypass established institutions and rules by creating a plurality of norms that in practice shape the ways in which men and women, adults and children, creditors and debtors, humans, plants and animals act and interact. Anthropologists explore the complex links between norm production by international organizations and processes of implementation, domestication, and subversion in everyday practices by a variety of state and non-state actors. They look at how globalized norms are locally embedded or rejected, describe how institutional learning or unlearning dynamics are functioning, and how brokerage and translation work. They examine how audit cultures not only produce the governed, but also the governors, highlighting the experience of auditors as agents groomed to reproduce, but potentially positioned to resist, international structures of power.
The network had its first meeting in Paris in March 2008. The twenty researchers who came together for this event discussed methodological challenges posed by the study of international organizations: the role of the anthropologist in the organization, how to study circuits of power, the social life of documents and the words organizations use and create. A follow-up workshop was organised in Paris in June 2010 on mechanisms of global governance, where 24 anthropologists met. The anthropologists forming this network want to explore further the methodological and conceptual pathways for understanding the mobilizing and normative effects of international governance and the particular games of power that underlie it. They want to extend the network beyond the boundaries of Europe and involve colleagues not only from the US, Australia and Canada, but also from Asia, Africa and Latin America. It is thus meant to become an EASA network with a global membership.
Contact: Birgit Müller, LAIOS CNRS/EHESS, 190 Ave de France 75013 Paris, France