Epistemic Orders and Global Governance

Christian Bueger
University of Copenhagen
Twitter: @c_bueger

Annabelle Littoz-Monnet
Geneva Graduate Institute
Twitter: @AnnabelleLittoz

Synopsis: The authors argue to take note of the fundamental re-organization of knowledge production for global governance. Developing the concept of epistemic orders, they show how epistemic foundations have transformed in three waves. While wave 1 centered on the state, and wave 2 on international organization, wave 3 stands for the centrality of proprietary knowledge production by companies and their foundations. The authors argue that moving to such a macroscopic understanding helps us grasp why and how the problems of global governance come to be identified, delineated, and acted upon.

Keywords: Epistemic orders; epistemic foundations; global governance

That knowledge and global politics are co-constitutive is a well-known argument made by functionalists in International Relations (IR) and those following in their footsteps. In the 1970s and 80s, scholars such as Ernst Haas (1980) and John Ruggie (1975) first showed how experts define policy problems and thereby influence the formation of national interests as well as the rise of international regimes.

Studies drawing on the epistemic community framework formulated by Peter M Haas and Emanuel Adler, and those investigating transnational advocacy networks, think tanks, and knowledge networks advanced these arguments, demonstrating how expertise shapes the conditions of global governance. Such insights provided a welcome alternative to analyses of great power dynamics or global institutions that pay scant attention to the epistemic.

Since these pathbreaking works on the primacy of the epistemic in global politics, a rich array of authors has investigated practices of knowledge production, as well as epistemic artefacts, such as documents, indicators, models, and projections.

Drawing on insights from ethnography and science and technology studies, research has become increasingly fine-grained. This has led to a good understanding of the diverse micro-mechanisms and practices through which knowledge is produced, assembled, and strongly entangled with the governance of issue domains.

Yet, we argue that those insights need to be taken further. If by now we know a great deal about micro-dynamics of knowledge production, we need to rethink how the micro relates to larger structural developments.

We should also go beyond the study of how particular issues or issue domains are governed, and investigate more transversal developments that affect the arts of knowing and governing at the global level. To foster such an understanding, we must switch scale, reconnect the micro to the macro, and investigate what we term epistemic orders.

By epistemic orders, we refer to those larger structural conditions and long-term patterns, whether more ideational or material, that shape knowledge production. Paying attention to epistemic orders provides us with new understandings of how the problems or “objects” of global governance are constructed, delineated and eventually governed.

As we will now show, three larger waves of epistemic ordering can be observed in the modern international system. A wave in which expertise is in the hand of states, a wave in which international organizations have become key epistemic infrastructures, and finally a wave in which knowledge production is increasingly privatized, fragmented, and dispersed.

In adopting the metaphor of waves, we do not suggest that each form of ordering equates to a clearly distinguishable historical epoch. Rather, they overlap in important ways and there is no clear breaking point.

We explore each wave in further detail and conclude with a reflection on how the current epistemic order shapes and delimits global governance.

Wave 1: Sovereign Knowledge Production
The link between state formation and knowledge production has been widely studied by historians of science, political scientists and sociologists alike. With the rise of “modernity” alongside the expansion of the welfare state and bureaucracy, state formation and knowledge production have been strongly intertwined.

States required knowledge, whether statistics, maps, or other forms of socio-scientific expertise, for population and territorial control. Technical and specialized knowledge generated by state funded universities and the expertise of modern bureaucracies were essential for governing, whether domestically or for external affairs.

For Foucault (1991), knowing populations and intervening in them cannot, in fact, be separated. Desrosières points out that the development of statistics was intrinsically associated with the state’s need to govern (2002, 16). Scott, for his part, brilliantly argued that modern states have begun using science and technology to construct “state maps of legibility” (1999, 3), which become a central tenet of state interventions. Pre-modern states, by contrast, were “partially blind,” as they did not know much about the populations they sought to govern (Scott 1999, 2).

Thus, the production of standardized and quantified knowledge was central to the formation of the state. But, at the same time, the state bureaucracy, with its capacity to collect and assemble large amounts of information, also made the production of such knowledge possible.

Similarly, academic knowledge, foreign policy, and diplomacy have evolved in a strongly intersected fashion. The expertise informing politics was therefore either state funded or based on national interests, as shown by Ido Oren (2003), in his seminal investigation on how the early International Relations discipline intersected with United States foreign policy interests.

Reversely, scholars have also acted as policy advisors, thus shaping Western states’ diplomatic practices. Consider, for instance, the role of university-based scholars such as Carl Schmitt, E.H. Carr, David Mitrany, and Alfred Thayer Mahan in shaping the foreign policies of Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Even within the discipline of IR, when Haas wrote on epistemic communities in the 1980s, he did so on the basis of state-centric understandings. The policymakers and negotiators he had in mind were state representatives, not the bureaucrats of international organizations. Although he indicated that “knowledge” might be a transnational resource, expertise and its translation were still seen as a national matter. It was because expertise could shape national policy-makers preferences, that it could play a role in fostering international coordination. This is the key structuring principle of the first epistemic ordering wave. Such understandings mirrored the central role of the state in the production and assembling of expertise.

From the vantage point of this first epistemic ordering wave, the state essentially structured the production of expertise and policy-relevant knowledge production.

Wave 2: International Bureaucracies and Knowledge Production
As we know, the post-World War 2 era saw a significant expansion in international institutions and regimes, increasingly covering all aspects of international life. As international organizations (IOs) increasingly gained agency and power independent of states, they also started to produce statistics, comparisons, and standards of all sorts. This expansion signaled a significant shift in epistemic orders, as expertise was no longer just provided by states, but also by international bureaucracies.

Thus, as scholars have started to study IOs, they have rightly noticed that knowledge is intrinsic to their power. International bureaucrats have largely invested in the development of in-house expertise, producing reports, indicators, statistical knowledge, big data, and even “best practices” meant to be guiding action throughout the globe.

Enacting expertise is at the core of IOs’ rational-legal authority. In the absence of democratic sources of legitimacy, international bureaucrats legitimize their agendas by claiming they are “evidence-based,” whether in the fields of health, climate, education, or development aid.

The mobilization of expertise has also been at the core of IO efforts to technicalize and depoliticize global issues. Barnett and Finnemore have accurately observed that by “emphasizing the objective nature of their knowledge, staff of IOs are able to present themselves as technocrats whose advice is unaffected by partisan squabbles” (2004, 24).

In education, for instance, the OECD and the European Commission have decontextualized and technicalized their agendas, fashioning discourses that see education solely from an economic perspective as neutral (Grek 2009). In global health, the “needs” of populations are presented as a given whilst global recommendations taking the form of technical guidelines are said to be based on “the best available evidence” (Littoz-Monnet and Uribe 2023).

Knowledge and expertise are, thus, intrinsic to global ways of governing. Claims to knowledge have made it possible for international bureaucracies to govern at distance. It is through the production of unique and comparative knowledge of reality that IOs produce the world and norm it in specific fashions. This has been well captured by scholars who have widely discussed how knowledge, technologies, and numbers normalize thought and behavior, delineating the realm of options seen as possible or feasible in global or domestic arenas of governance.

Such insights point to the transnationalization of expertise. While IOs have not replaced states as possessors of expertise, they have become key producers of global expertise. Yet, focusing quasi-exclusively on IOs misses the way they are themselves increasingly embedded in machineries of knowledge production that involve a complex web of actors, sites, and infrastructures (Littoz-Monnet 2022).

Wave 3: The Commodification of Knowledge
In what we call the third wave of epistemic ordering, sites of knowledge production are increasingly located outside of formal institutions, whether IOs or states.

This shift has occurred firstly as the global governance agenda of the 1980s and 1990s made it a priority to allow non-state actors – industry, civil society and activists – to participate in negotiations, developing what IOs have labeled as multi-stakeholderism (Raymond and Denardis 2015). Fashioned as more inclusive but also more effective, multi-stakeholderism has made it possible for private actors, large advocacy organizations, as well as transnational networks to emerge as core sites of global governance. Increasingly, those global non-governmental and private entities have started to produce knowledge seen as expert, in areas such as human rights, education or development, to name a few.

Second, public de-investments in universities and research as well as a growing economic valuation of scientific knowledge have made it possible for large companies and the philanthropies of the global commercial elite to position themselves as knowledge producers. Thus, a large share of research and expertise activities are today funded by companies, consultants, philanthropists, or their offspring organizations.

The privatization and commodification of knowledge production can be observed across issue areas. In the field of security, for instance, scholars have thoroughly discussed the way private security companies produce the expertise that delineates how foreign ministries see problems (Leander 2005). In domains such as cyber security, maritime security, or critical infrastructure protection, the role of private actors is particularly pertinent (Bueger and Liebetrau 2023).

In global health, consultants do not only advise IOs on specific issues, but even tell them how to carry out their organizational reforms (Hanrieder and Eckl 2022). Philanthropists have also come to create their own data centers, producing metrics, cost-calculations, and projections of all sorts that shape how global health is understood and acted upon.

More and more, sites of knowledge production thus sit outside formal institutions. As such, they seem increasingly dispersed, both spatially and organizationally. Yet, while it might be true that knowledge centers increasingly emerge in unexpected, informal forms and sites, their apparent dispersion also hides a novel form of concentration, where private research and knowledge centers come to sit at the core of global knowledge-making processes.

Thinking Global Governance with Epistemic Waves
The three waves provide us with an understanding of how the epistemic conditions of global governance have been changing. Of course, such waves are analytical constructs. In practice, the production of knowledge is dispersed across sites and levels of governance in each of these waves of epistemic ordering. Thus, even when knowledge production was most strongly enmeshed with the formation of the modern state, transnational networks and early IOs, such as the League of Nations, already produced highly specialized knowledge.

In addition, the global and the local, as well as the public and the private, are often strongly entangled. Consequently, it becomes difficult to distinguish where knowledge is coming from and how is it assembled. Yet, identifying the waves helps us grasp significant tendencies in the way conditions of knowledge production have evolved.

Making sense of these shifts is crucial. The epistemic conditions that characterize each of these waves shape what comes to be seen as an object or problem of global governance in the first place. Problems are not just there to be addressed by IOs or other global governors. They need to be seen and made visible. “Climate,” for example, only emerged as a visible and governable problem in a specific socio-political context, after specific measurements captured a change in temperature levels (Bentley 2017).

In addition, epistemic conditions also establish how problems are made sense of, making certain solutions seem valid and relevant, while discrediting others. It is only in a privatized epistemic ordering, for instance, that the education of girls can been seen as a “productivity issue,” or that the effect of global interventions is measured in terms of “returns on investment.”

Moreover, epistemic orders shape how fundamental concepts of global governance, like security, sovereignty or even the common good, are conceived. For example, when philanthropists become core producers of knowledge while at the same time pursuing claims of “effective altruism,” they themselves come to define what the common good is and how to achieve it. Similarly, in an epistemic order in which private sites of knowledge production become central, business interests might come to define what is a threat to national security and what is not.

The core question for IR is not, any longer, what makes cooperation to solve a problem possible. Instead, we ought to focus on those conditions, processes, and practices delineating what comes to be seen as a problem and the way such problems are made sense of – what Foucault and others refer to as the “problematization” of social reality.

In focusing on epistemic orderings, we reintegrate considerations of how the micro and the macro intersect in processes of knowledge production, shedding light on how micro-moves often sustain, but sometimes disrupt larger structural conditions. We also emphasize the necessity of examining processes of sense-making and knowledge-making, rather than questions of collaboration and effectiveness. This lens makes it possible to reflect on our understandings of what needs to be governed, opening up the realm of our reflections on global governance, the kinds of problems it should be tackling, and the objectives it is meant to be pursuing.

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