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date: 17 June 2024

Global Actors: Networks, Elites, and Institutionsfree

Global Actors: Networks, Elites, and Institutionsfree

  • Mikael Rask MadsenMikael Rask MadsenDirector of the Centre for the Study of Legal Culture, University of Copenhagen
  •  and Mikkel Jarle ChristensenMikkel Jarle ChristensenFaculty of Law, Centre of Excellence for International Courts, University of Copenhagen


Over the past several decades scholars have intensively debated what factors drive globalization. Answers have ranged from the emergence of the information society and the global economy to value-conflicts embedded in different civilizations. A different yet closely related question is who is driving globalization? That is, however, much less studied, even if it is arguably key to making global governance intelligible. A whole list of actors seem to offer possible answers to the question of who the globalizers are: Are they global institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the International Criminal Court (ICC); communities of experts providing technocratic solutions; transnational networks of activists seeking to alter global and national politics by pursuing, for example, environmental or human rights agendas; or are they powerful individuals forming transnational elites taking the fate of the global society in their hands at a safe distance from ordinary politics in places such as Brussels, New York, or Davos?


  • Political Institutions
  • Political Sociology
  • Politics, Law, Judiciary
  • World Politics


Over the past several decades scholars have intensively debated what factors drive globalization. Answers have ranged from the emergence of the information society (Castells, 2000a) and the global economy (Held, McGrew, Goldblatt, & Perraton, 1999) to value-conflicts embedded in different civilizations (Huntington, 1996) to mention but a few of the best known theories. A different yet closely related question is who is driving globalization? That is, however, much less studied, even if it is arguably key to making global governance intelligible (Kauppi & Madsen, 2014). There seems to be a whole list of actors offering possible answers to the question of who the globalizers are: Are they global institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the International Criminal Court (ICC); communities of experts providing technocratic solutions; transnational networks of activists seeking to alter global and national politics by pursuing, for example, environmental or human rights agendas; or are they powerful individuals forming transnational elites taking the fate of the global society in their hands at a safe distance from ordinary politics in places such as Brussels, New York, or Davos? In this article we address each of these possible answers in terms of global or transnational networks, elites, or institutions.

Before turning to some of the most prevalent theories representing global actors, we will however first briefly unpack the very notion of global actors. It is a composite notion that refers to a specific agency acting at the global level who contributes to processes of globalization or global politics. Two key findings of contemporary scholarship can clarify this. First, it is commonly agreed that globalization has contributed to the development of new forms of public authority exercised by new global actors (Von Bogdandy & Venzke, 2012). In other words, the traditional view of public authority as tied in with the state and (democratic) politics cannot simply be transplanted into the global realm. With regard to global actors, this means that their agency has socio-political impact in terms of exercising public authority beyond the state.

Second, an ever-expanding body of research has demonstrated that approaching the global realm as an international space defined as mainly interstate relations is at odds with contemporary socio-political developments. Researchers have convincingly shown that nonstate actors play major roles in the processes of global politics—and more broadly in the construction of global society (Sassen, 2006). With regard to our object of inquiry, this means that the potential set of global actors in question is rather large, ranging from transnational grassroots organizations to multinational business corporations and international organizations. We stick to the mainstream term actors in this regard, although agents might be more precise in some instances as we imply agency in our definition in terms of their capacity to engage in social action on the global plane.

Taking these two observations together, the notion of global actors is linked to new forms of public authority at the global level and comprises a wider set of actors than what ordinary IR theory tends to consider. This is of course a particular reading of global actors as seen through the prism of political science and political sociology—other disciplines obviously emphasize different aspects, such as culture or economics rather than public authority and politics. But from the vantage point of a study of politics, global actors are those groups, institutions, or both exercising public authority beyond the state and that with the aim of influencing broader socio-political transnational spaces.

In what follows, we address global actors in terms of global or transnational networks, elites, or institutions. In each case we provide both an outline of central theoretical frameworks and exemplify it with short empirical case studies and a critique. We are not intending to provide an exhaustive introduction to the study of global actors but rather outline some of the most prevalent theories and empirical studies which have taken up the challenge of explaining what is undoubtedly a key question to not only politics, but also for understanding the role of law and economics in today’s globalizing world.


Network1 analysis, originally developed in the 1950s by sociologists, computer scientists, and mathematicians, has turned out to provide an interesting tool for understanding global actors. In social science, the three-volume analysis of the rise of the network society by Manuel Castells (2000a, 2000b, 2000c) provides the perhaps most ambitious attempt at understanding global agency by an analysis of flows of information and the (inter)connectedness of the global society. Castells links the emergence of the network society to broader social processes, including the end of Cold War bipolarity as the dominant structuring element in international politics, alongside the alleged crisis of capitalism and étatism, and the power of social movements advocating cultural, ecological, and other concerns (Castells, 2000a). At the core of the argument, as well as Castells’ empirical construction of the notion of network society, we find a focus on the merger of the opportunities provided by information technology (IT) and the contemporary movements of identity and cultural politics. The globalization of this blend of grassroots organizing, research networks, alumni networks, and issue networks has taken place interdependently with the development of information technology and to the extent that, on the one hand, it has infiltrated IT corporations’ notions of management and organization, and, on the other hand, it has made technology an integrated part of most networks. Moreover, the decentralization and denationalization of the corporation and the state—something greatly enabled by IT as well as the globalization of Western-style liberal market economy and the attributed decline of the nation-state—have helped to spread and/or widen the networks in an outsourced, subcontracted, or simply interconnected form of social organization: the network society.

Castells’ analysis of the rise of the network society clearly has mainly sociological aims but it is illustrative of the idea of the global as deeply interconnected and, as a result, less hierarchical than more traditional forms of organization. Other researchers, from political science and international studies more generally, have sought to use network approaches to understand the ways in which advocacy networks influence politics, law, and the economy at the global level. In the following, we focus on two examples of such theories: the theory of Epistemic Communities of Peter Haas and the theory Transnational Advocacy Networks of Kathryn Sikkink and Margaret Keck.

Epistemic Communities

Castells’ studies of the network society have influenced a vast body of literature that has analyzed transnational knowledge-making in more detail. Peter M. Haas’ article, Epistemic Communities and International Policy Coordination, is a seminal contribution in this respect (Haas, 1992). Although it addresses some of the same issues as Castells, the article was originally written mainly as a reaction to the dominance of systemic approaches in international relations (IR), and it is also an attempt to (re)introduce actors into the study of the international system. Haas’ basic idea is to analyze how actors—and particularly constellations of expert actors—influence international policy and policy coordination. In other words, it is an attempt at defining more precisely networked governance by experts.

Peter Haas defines an epistemic community as “a network of professionals with recognized expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain or issue-area” (Haas, 1992, p. 3). What makes the group particular is its episteme, that is, its adherence to a certain set of values and modes of validity. The notion is in fact loosely building on the observations of scientific communities, where adherence to specific methodologies as a way of generating truth is a prerequisite for its workings. Yet, as Haas points out, the notion is in fact more narrow than what is assumed in communities of scientists, where very divergent views often co-exist within the same group (Haas, 1992, p. 3, note 4). To more precisely describe the concept, Haas instead evokes Ludwig Fleck’s notion of “thought collectives” and particularly Kuhn’s standard definition of a paradigm as “an entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by members of a given community,” which “governs not a subject-matter but a group of practitioners” (Haas, 1992, p. 3, note 4). However, epistemic communities are more than simply a node in a network. They are instead “channels through which new ideas circulate from societies to governments as well as from country to country” (Haas, 1992, p. 27). These communities are not simply value-neutral networks, transmitting ideas from one place to another:

[A]n epistemic community cannot be reduced to the ideas it embodies or purveys, since these ideas are transmitted in tandem with a set of causal and principled beliefs and reflect a particular political vision. The ideas would be sterile without carriers, who function more or less as cognitive baggage handlers as well as gatekeepers governing the entry of new ideas into institutions.

(Haas, 1992, p. 27)

Epistemic communities thus consist of a collective of like-minded experts. They share not only ideas of validity and internal criteria for “truth,” but also collective policy interests and normative allegiances. Basically, the epistemic community is a group of actors who have a particular and collective expertise within a certain subject area, which they assume is of importance for more generally furthering the subject area. Following this definition, the legal profession can, for example, not be seen as an epistemic community, yet segments of the legal profession can be characterized as such in their pursuit of more specific goals using their collective knowledge and belief structures, such as human rights lawyers or international arbitrators (see, e.g., Dezalay & Garth, 1996; Madsen, 2011).

As already noted, the notion of epistemic communities was developed as a reaction to mainstream realist and systemic theories in international relations, which tend to offer but little in respect to explaining the way in which information and expert advice influence the manufacturing of international policy and regulation. According to Haas, and in line with Castells’ thesis, the impact of such communities has gradually increased due to the new forms of communication and networking that current globalizations have facilitated. Moreover, the rise and growth of these communities are an example of the proliferation of international actors that, for example, Anne-Marie Slaughter describes in her work (Slaughter, 2004). Further, they are the outcome of a more general proliferation of experts within public governance over the last some 50 years.

This development has implied a “transfer of wider and wider areas of public policy from politics to expertise,” as Harvey Brooks noted already in 1965 (cited in Haas, 1992, p. 8). A result of this development is the growing density of regulation over the same period, a phenomenon that has been transplanted to the international level and has arguably been accelerated by contemporary globalization. This process is not only a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that ever-increased regulation of national and international society necessitates more and more experts, it is also an outcome of the mere fact that globalization produces new forms of complexity and uncertainty. While traditional international interaction has been framed as the interplay of state diplomacies pursuing national interests, the new scenario increasingly requires the expertise of actors other than state diplomacies in order to solve a whole array of new issues. There is basically not only a structure of opportunities for these new actors, but also a structural demand for their services.

This clearly poses a challenge to neo-realist accounts emphasizing interstate conflict, war, and shifts in power resources and technologies as drivers of change. Different from the age of occasional gunboat diplomacy, the experts—and new forms of expert communities with normative interests—are permanent actors of the governance of globalization in subject areas as different and complex as finance, the environment, and human rights. Haas’ argument is basically that epistemic communities are somehow the “missing link” of international policy coordination and its connections to national, international, and transnational levels of law and policy have to be more fully explained. However, although certainly among the most influential contributions over the past decades, Haas’ focus on experts and expert communities has far from convinced the whole community of social scientists interested in transnational politics, law, and economics.

According to some authors, the impact of epistemic communities in transnational policy-making is in fact unsurprising and an object of only limited scholarly interest (Santos, 1995). In their view, experts are not simply playing a role because they create epistemic communities and provide information to the formal decision-makers, they are in fact themselves being influenced—even orchestrated—by hegemonic forces of the real decision-makers (Santos, 1995). What these authors are interested in is the new forms of advocacy and policy coalitions facilitated by the new infrastructures of globalization and technology in terms of alternatives and counter-hegemonic political practices. As a counterargument, one can point to the fact that these authors tend to overlook how certain expert communities have become a real force in and of themselves—that is, they are not merely doing the work of others. Moreover, this is a problem also prevalent in Haas’ theory; the two authors equally overlook how networks are dynamic and adversarial. We return to this last point in the following.

Transnational Advocacy Networks

An attempt to bridge these gaps is found in the work of Kathryn Sikkink and Margaret Keck. In her pioneering study of the rise, consolidation, and transition of the Latin America human rights network, Kathryn Sikkink has analyzed the various stages of the politics of human rights in respect to Latin American since the late 1960s (Sikkink, 1996). She demonstrates how human rights in the 1970s was created as an issue, a matter of concern shared between the South and the North, by a number of pioneering human rights NGOs, including, in particular, Amnesty International. In the second stage, 1981–1990, she argues that an expanding “network” between these groups increasingly, and more effectively, used the symbolic power of human rights in their common struggle. This period was symbolized by the launch of Americas Watch, which took human rights to a new level by professionalizing the subject and by using new media strategies. Influenced by the beginning of the democratization of Latin America, as well as more generally post-Cold War diplomatic practices, the third stage, 1990 to present, forced this network to reorganize and aim at a set of new issues related to the consolidation of democracy and human rights.

Together with Margaret Keck, Sikkink has more generally theorized this variation of “epistemic communities” in terms of “transnational advocacy networks” (TAN) (Keck & Sikkink, 1998). The latter they define as networks “organized to promote causes, principled ideas, and norms, and they often involve individuals advocating policy changes that cannot be easily linked to a rationalist understanding of their ‘interests’” (Keck & Sikkink, 1998, pp. 8–9). Although they emphasize the key role of domestic and international NGOs in this conjunction, they include a vast number of potential participants, ranging from the media and foundations to international organizations and trade unions (Keck & Sikkink, 1998, p. 9). Like Haas, they emphasize the intersubjective ties between these actors:

Groups in a network share values and frequently exchange information and services. The flow of information among actors in the network reveals a dense web of connections among these groups, both and informal. The movement of funds and services is especially notable between foundations and NGOs, and some NGOs provide service such as training for other NGOs in the same and sometimes other advocacy networks. Personnel also circulate within and among networks, as relevant players move from one to another in a version of the “revolving door”.

(Keck & Sikkink, 1998, p. 9)

Finally, they emphasize how “groups in networks create categories or frames within which to generate and organize information on which to base their campaigns” (Keck & Sikkink, 1998, p. 10).

The TAN approach is cleverly situated somewhere between network analysis and studies on social movements. It poses a set of key questions regarding the way in which advocacy networks form essential infrastructures for transnational symbolic politics such as human rights activism. Yet, as we will argue in what follows, like most network literature it has problems when it comes to explaining how symbolic politics is turned into real politics and ultimately law. Moreover, it has problems with accommodating disagreement within such networks. Basically, the network model highlights an important communication structure yet downplays the internal conflicts and skirmishes that more critical approaches, such as Bourdieusian approaches, take as their starting points (Madsen, 2011).

Like Haas’ analysis of epistemic communities, Keck and Sikkink’s approach is focused on how a set of actors or institutions subscribe to a more or less common set of ideas. The critique raised by Bourdieusian and other critical approaches is that such network accounts do not sufficiently accentuate the actual competition going on concerning the forming of this common utopia: how competitive and conflicting ideals and practices are in fact at the core of the definition and transformation of the concept. Even within the “NGO network” the competition, for example, between Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and La Fédération internationale des droits de l’homme (FIDH) has not only been central to the transformation of the idea of human rights, but it has also―over time―differentiated the positioning of these (co-)producers of the field. The latter, however, provides an important dimension for understanding the pervasiveness of contemporary human rights activism as not only the product of the political success of human rights activism in general but also the increased differentiation of this area of politics in terms of law and institutions in states and international organizations.


The study of global elites2 connects in some ways to the network approaches outlined in the previous section, notably in terms of the focus on knowledge and other resources as a key to explaining the relative power of these actors. However, the study of elites also differs, most importantly by its focus on the elite status of particular groups (material or immaterial) as an explanation of them being in a privileged position to influence global politics or law. Just as contemporary network approaches to global actors overlaps with both national studies of networks and social movement theories, global elite approaches draw on a long tradition, particularly in political sociology, of studying elites. Alexis de Tocqueville investigated the role played by legal professionals in the creation of modern American society, a markedly different role that that of the still dominant landed elites in Europe (Tocqueville, 1842). Max Weber equally was interested in elites. He famously demonstrated how the rise of the bureaucratic state and associated logic of legal rationality went hand in hand with the creation of a professional corps of jurists (Weber, 1978). Likewise, in Weber’s analysis the modern state and society developed a professionalization of politics which challenged other, previously established, forms of power and domination. However, in the work of both these pioneering political sociologists, it is stressed that what they observe is not a complete change from the domination of traditional elites to the rise of meritocratic and professional elites. Although there is a tension between different forms of elites, a key trait of many elites actors is that they are connected, are in some cases interchangeable, and tacitly use the different resources of different elites.

This relationship between the traditional and modern elites is also relevant to understanding contemporary processes of globalization. International political sociologists have demonstrated how combination of transnational professionals and more traditional power-holders (supranational capitalists, hegemonic states, etc.) not only dominate international affairs but also largely define the very territory of what is typically referred to as the international (see, e.g., Guilhot, 2005; Dezalay & Garth, 2010). In what follows, we will therefore focus on global elite actors in the double sense already identified by the founding fathers of sociology. We see elites as a select group of agency that can be defined as elites by virtue of them being superior in terms of competence (knowledge and savoir faire) and/or because they enjoy a superior status (socially, economically, or intellectually). In other words, elites are either defined relatively (they are superior to the rest of their group) or defined materially (they possess more of a given asset, whether material or symbolic, than others). Importantly, they are in both cases in a position to exercise significant power with regard to global processes—and more power than nonelites. Approaching elites this way allows us to capture, for example, both transnational capitalists and transnational professionals under the same overarching notion of global elites. In what follows, we first discuss the key conceptual question of elites and forms of power, and then turn to contemporary theories of global elites.

Elites and the Problem of Power

For an analysis of politics, global elites are mainly interesting with regard to how they exercise power and influence politics. Power, of course, is by no means a clear-cut social scientific concept and necessarily has to be understood in multiple and combined ways when analysing global elites: as expert power, cultural power, network power, economic power etc. According to Dahl, power is a relational social resource (Dahl, 1989) that some individuals and groups have access to, or that some groups and individuals have the right to use in specific ways following often implicit and informal conventions and rules (Searle, 1995; Bourdieu, 1996). These resources are all linked to social, political, and professional mechanisms of recognition of their value. They consist of a variety of different types, from the most codified like collective organizational assets tied to organizational structures and division of labor or of financial means, to more nebulous varieties of symbolic power (charisma for instance) (Kauppi, 2005). Since global elites come in different forms—from individual experts to financial dynasties—very different forms of power is being exercised by these agents.

Expert power refers to the technical and political role of individuals and groups involved in the formulation and implementation of global policies. Cultural power refers to the models of organization that shape institution-building (Meyer, Boli, Thomas, & Ramirez, 1997). Through institutional isomorphism (see also section on institutions below), the same institutional patterns and modes of decision are being adopted and adapted in very different social and economic contexts. Network power, for its part, refers to the global networks of individuals and organizations in which resources are embedded (see above on networks). These include family networks (Dezalay, 2004) as well as epistemic cultures that unite professional groups sharing a common interest as suggested by Haas (see above). Finally economic power refers to the financial capacity of certain groups. Power evolves in all these different networks and spaces where diverse types of actors operate. For this reason, it is important to briefly examine the social scientific theories that seek to define more generally what kinds of groups global (power) elites are and what kinds of social resources they have access to and deploy.

Scholars disagree on who elites are. According to the pluralist theory expounded by, for instance, Talcott Parsons and Robert Dahl (Dahl, 1961), social power (polyarchy) is dispersed and divided. The development of society is determined by democratic competition between a variety of elites, economic elites, trade unions, churches, and so on. The outcome of this competition will be equilibrium between these different interests that share a certain conception of the political game. Joseph Schumpeter’s 1950 concept of democratic elitism, however, seeks to unite the analysis of power with that of democratic principles (Schumpeter, 2013). Democracy has evolved from a system of direct popular government into a system of competition between elites for the control of the state. In contrast to the polyarchy perspective, it introduces classes and inequality in the analysis of politics and ultimately law.

The dimension of class is even more present in elite theories that underline the concentration of power and social resources in the hands of a few who are then independent of ordinary citizens. In the classical elite theories of Pareto, Mosca, and Michels, psychological differences distinguish the elites from the masses—that is, they are basically more gifted. Elite formation is a functional necessity. Organizational complexity requires a leader. Power is situated in the key political and economic institutions of a given society. Following Michels, every organization is by definition elitist: it requires specialized personnel, usage of specialized structures by the leaders, and specific psychological attributes (charisma). This idea is linked to Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy, in which the state has a quasiautonomous role in society. Weber understands power as the capacity to realize one’s will even if others oppose it. The state has the monopoly of certain forms of expertise, but contrary to Michels and his iron law of oligarchy, the state is not totally autonomous. Rather, the state is tied in a multitude of ways to society’s socio-economic structures. More recent elite theories have investigated precisely the elites active in and around the modern state. These studies include that of C. Wright Mills, particularly his landmark study on the American power elite. In contrast to Weber’s individualistic conception of power, for Mills power was essentially institutional, for instance military, political or economic (Wright Mills, 1956). C. Wright Mills defined the elites as being composed of upper middle class individuals. Powerless, the masses are conversely manipulated and exploited. Another American sociologist, William Domhoff, sought to fuse theories of class together with theories of power elites to show how a superior class controlling the large enterprises governed the United States (Domhoff, 1970). The governing class was an American business aristocracy. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has developed this idea of dominant elites in his numerous works on French society building on his concept of a field as a relational social space in which different forms of expertise compete and which is dominated by specific forms of elites (Bourdieu, 1996).

While these studies show the mechanisms by which some groups of individuals succeed in staying in power, they tend to minimize the importance of electoral politics and public opinion. The complexity of society is further simplified to an extreme, as being composed of dominant and dominated classes. In revealing the mechanisms of institutional power, most of these approaches create an impression of inevitability: the elites are unified, and the relationships they entertain with the masses are unchanging. Compared to pluralist and power elite theories of elites, Marxist theories, however, underline the links between the economic system and the political system. Those who control the means of production govern society. According to Ralph Miliband, economic dominance tends to instrumentalize political power to further its own ends (Miliband, 1983). Political conflicts are conceptualized in terms of class conflict. Antonio Gramsci, for his part, launched the term ideological hegemony to describe the functioning of the capitalist state (Gramsci, Nowell-Smith, & Hoare, 1971). The dominant classes form the ideas that make up the conscience of the masses.

Transnational Power Elites

All these theories of power and elites attempt to answer one major question: How does the unequal distribution of resources between types of elites and elites and masses affect democracy—and society? Except for some forms of Marxist theorizing, answers have mainly been sought at the level of the nation state. The challenge today is to further develop both approaches theoretically and empirically that concentrate on power but this time in a much broader context. Inequalities are produced at the global level and competition for institutional political power cannot be confined to nation states. Moreover, the connectedness of global elites is transnational in scope. Niilo Kauppi and Mikael Rask Madsen have sought to solve this problem by introducing the framework of transnational power elites with the goal of identifying the agents of new forms of power and global politics (Kauppi & Madsen, 2013). Their approach differs from many existing studies which primarily have described global elites by emphasizing how they are denationalizing themselves in pursuit of new forms of material and symbolic status.

An example of the latter is Samuel Huntington’s “Davos Man.” In his account, global elites are above all posing a threat to the coherence of the State, in his case the “American creed” (Huntington, 2005). More recently, David Rothkopf has gone further and analyzed what he terms the global “superclass” (Rothkopf, 2008). This new power elite, he estimates, has some 6.000 members who are all defined by the fact that their connections to one another are more important than their connections to their home countries. Following this definition, the Pope and leading global terrorists are all members of the same global “superclass.” Drawing on global system theory and Marxism, Leslie Sklair’s The Transnational Capitalist Class provides a striking account of a social group and structure which seeks to further the interest of global capital in ways no nation-state—or other social group—does or could possibly imagine (Sklair, 2001, p. 295). Sklair insists on the fact that this transnational social group is a class when defined in respect to the means of production and distribution. It is capitalist because it owns or controls—individually or collectively—the means of production. Thus, a transnational capitalist class is sustained by its interlocked agencies, ranging from business, bureaucracy, and professions—or, as suggested by Kauppi and Madsen, by drawing on Mills, by a nexus of interrelated transnational power elites.

A related sociological study is found in an analysis of development workers entitled The Globalizers (Jackson, 2005). In his analysis of three decades of state building in Honduras, Jackson shows how the development community functions as a close-knit network of state building assistants who themselves have become policy makers. They clearly have in common with the “Davos Men,” the global “superclass,” and the “transnational capitalist class” some traits of an epistemic community—they share international beliefs and goals within their community. Such a view ultimately draws on Peter M. Haas (see above). One might, however, question whether the transnational capitalist superclass of “Davos Men” (compare Graz, 2003) is as much an epistemic community as that of development workers. What is certain, however, is that they are all globalizers that invest in different processes of globalization.

The question Kauppi and Madsen raise is whether global elites can simply be understood in terms of denationalized globalizers as suggested particularly by Huntington and Rothkopf. In a way, these approaches seem to primarily add an elite component to existing theories and ideas of global civil society (Meyer, 2010) or cosmopolitanism (Beck, 2003). In contrast, the approach advocated by Kauppi and Madsen has more in common with Sklair’s, although they reject the strong global system perspective of Sklair. The approach is closer to the work of Yves Dezalay and Bryant Garth (2002). Whereas Dezalay and Garth might at first glance be seen as protagonists of the view of global elites as denationalizing elites, upon closer examination, the “legal cosmocrats” they have studied in diverse settings and subject areas—politics, economics, and human rights—are closely connected to national structures. In their analysis, global elites, like their historic national counterparts, are neither entirely international nor national, but rather transnational, and to varying degrees they rely on both national and international resources and capitals.

Kauppi and Madsen argue that transnational power elites consist of a variety of professional and semiprofessional groups like lawyers, economists, and security professionals who are often closely linked to more traditional elites in state and global political and financial institutions. They suggest that the operation of such elites is, for example, observable in the socio-professional structures that have had and continue to have an important but often neglected role in the structuring of global affairs. Their claim is that professional turf wars have often had a decisive impact on framing the direction and form of institution and policy building. This is in part due to the ways in which the definition of the right expert knowledge has been one of main objects of contention in professional struggles. They illustrate these processes by the construction of what they term “fields of global governance” (Kauppi & Madsen, 2014). They readily admit that this does not provide a grand theory of the transformation of global power, but they insist that the approach provides a way to unpack what is most often taken for granted in most macro approaches to global actors, namely the power of institutions.


Another way in which global actors influence politics is through institutions. All the theories mentioned so far, from epistemic communities and TAN to transnational power elites, involve institutions in different ways: institutionalized knowledge, institutionalized power, etc. In addition to these perspectives on institutions, according to many studies, these entities are also in themselves global actors. One problem with giving institutions agency is of course, as pointed out long ago by Weber, that only individuals can have intentions (Madsen, 2014a, p. 393). It is also for precisely this reason that all of the above theories focus on the individual or groupings of individuals as a way to also explain more institutional power. The power exercised by institutions has been a focal point of social science since its inception. While Weber and Marx were both skeptical towards institutions (or organizations) and saw them mainly as vehicles of authority or class interests (Marx, 2012), Emile Durkheim’s sociology focused on the pivotal role of institutions as organizers of social life (Durkheim, 1984). Institutions gave authority and direction to the forms of morality that guided individual life and thus maintained the order of society. This focus on the integrative role of institutions has been replicated in scholarship on institutions as global actors.

There is no shortage of this type of scholarship. On the contrary, macro-theoretical approaches to institutions have been perhaps the most prevalent way of studying global actors. However, the conceptual line between singular institutions and larger multi-institutional entities such as the EU sometimes seen as global actors themselves (Bretherton & Vogler, 1999; Hettne & Söderbaum, 2005) has not been drawn very precisely. But as the debates in the preceding sections have demonstrated, a perspective in which the entire EU system or similar entities are seen as one solitary actor will face problems with explaining the agency of such organizations. This core problem is also reproduced in less system-oriented studies of concrete institutions as global actors. In fact, most of the previously outlined studies of networks and elites attempt implicitly or explicitly to challenge institutionalist approaches to global actors on the grounds that they confuse the formal existence of institutions with their actual impact.

As follows from the discussion of other global actors above, institutions are themselves composed of different elite professionals and consequently driven by competing normative perspectives on the ideal role of the institution itself. Additionally, institutions are hardly sealed-off entities that develop through their own unique dynamics. They are situated in larger spaces in which other global actors, such as transnational networks, contentiously co-define their role in a competitive process driven by different forms of expertise.

Importantly, however, the fact that an institution can be disaggregated into different stakeholders and must be contextualized among its constituents in a wider field does not imply that institutions do not have distinct impact as global actors. On the contrary, the formal legal personality of institutions gives them a presence that has political and social ramifications: Under the right circumstances the formal creation of international institutions helps format global spaces and forms a structuring force in processes of globalization (but see discussion of de jure and de facto authority in Alter, Helfer, & Madsen, 2016). As such institutions themselves become, in the definition of this article, global actors whose very presence on the international scene are central to understanding how global spaces of politics, law, and economy were created and have transformed, as well as how they work. This is reflected in the literature where analyses of institutions have been among the most dominant approaches across different fields of scholarship. While the theoretical foundation of these approaches vary, resulting in different perspectives on institutions as global actors, a number of highly influential studies, particularly in international relations (IR) but also in other disciplines such as law, have taken these entities as their starting point.

Approaches to institutions as global actors can roughly be divided into three categories. These approaches have been formed around classical IR positions of functionalism and realism as well as historical institutionalism. In what follows, we present each of these three perspectives and their relationships. As part of the critique of each perspective, in each subsection we will use the example of the International Criminal Court to demonstrate how each perspective yields very different insights on institutions as global actors and consequently gives rise to various forms of contestation from other studies of global actors such as those discussed in the preceding sections.


Functionalist studies have been prominent as explanatory models for the birth and development of international institutions and, at a later stage, as to explain their role as global actors. In international relations, this perspective was developed in the aftermath of the Second World War by, among others, David Mitrany, who saw the emergence of a world federation as a function of the development of strong independent states for whom the development of new forms of cooperation simply made sense (Mitrany, 1948). Building theoretically, although not always explicitly, on perspectives spearheaded by Talcott Parsons (1937), functionalism aims to understand the impact of institutions as social systems with established sets of rules, forms of knowledge and preferred patterns of action through which they strive to influence the environment in which they are situated, normatively as well as practically. In this perspective, the EU institutions, for instance, have been analyzed as a global actor through the activities they engage in. The EU institutions are typically seen as carrying certain values and ideas of governance that they seek to transpose onto the global scene (Hettne & Söderbaum, 2005; Howorth, 2010). Functionalism has been criticized, not least by its theoretical counterweight organized around realism, for being overly proscriptive and normative in its analyses of institutions as global actors as tied to the official doctrine and concrete output, whether political, legal, or economic, produced by these entities. Despite this criticism, functionalist perspectives have remained a strong undercurrent in the scholarship.

Outside of IR studies, this is the case not least in legal scholarship of institutions as global actors, most often international courts. This scholarship is often doubly functionalist: they regard courts as systems that provide a specific legal output and use their own academic expertise to theorized and further develop this output by building an academic discipline around it. This perspective is often mirrored in the position these scholars hold in the wider field. An emblematic example of such actors is Antonio Cassese, an eminent scholar of international law who became the first president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993 (Cassese, 2008). From a critical sociological perspective of elites that challenges functionalism, Cassese’s trajectory also exemplifies how elites are drawn to institutions as they provide access to new forms of relative and material status tied to the control of institutionalized resources and technologies and simultaneously how such groups have used a combination of expertise, here mainly legal and academic, to expand their role as elites into other professional markets (Christensen, 2015a).

Many functionalist scholars, often with a legal profile, have seen the emergence of the ICC, the world’s very first permanent international criminal court, as simply a reflection of the functional need to create an institution able to adjudicate criminal responsibility for gross violations of human rights (Bassiouni, 1996). Although the larger political space in which this court was founded has also been included in analyses (Schabas, 2011), functionalist perspectives have become an ingrained part of the founding mythology of the ICC. However, from the perspective of elite studies, as well as analyses of the networks active in this process, it is clear that this mythology was in fact a collective construction of the many forces that invested in international criminal law from the mid-1990s.


Realist studies were formed quite explicitly in opposition to functionalism, a position it sees as ultimately naïve and unable to capture the essentially political nature of institutions as global actors. In contrast, these studies—which build on realist and neo-realist theories most often associated with IR theory (Keohane, 1971)—see institutions as global actors, but reverse the perspective found in functionalism to situate them in a context defined particularly by the dominant actors in world affairs, including nation states and powerful international organizations such as NATO. As a result, the agency of institutions is constricted to the space left open and essentially defined by politics (Shapiro, 2002). This does not leave much wiggle room for institutions as global actors as international contexts, in this perspective, are most often dominated by the power relations of raw politics as inscribed, for instance, in interstate relations. The cornerstone of realist approaches remains how the relative power balance between self-interested and antagonistic actors functions as a determining factor for what role these institutions can play as global actors.

Returning to the example of the ICC, realist scholars have pointed out how this new global actor remains defined by its political context. This context is characterized by national states that have remained skeptical towards the ICC, most prominently the US, which signed but later rescind the Rome Statute (Bosco, 2014). In this wider context, realist studies have seen the ICC itself as an institution whose very design and consequently potential impact as a global actor is structured by international politics as driven by the strongest states (Roach, 2006). They have moreover examined the much wider constituency of stakeholders in ICC, an example being the recent pushback against the ICC from African states (Hansen, 2013). Although few would deny that the political dimension is a strong structuring factor in the life and potential impact of institutions on the global scene, the neo-realist approach has been criticized for not being able to adequately capture the more subtle but potentially hugely influential strategies devised by these global actors and the networks that opposed them (Clarke, 2009). Similar dynamics have also been pointed out in the case of the Yugoslav tribunal in which realist approaches (Bass, 2000; Hazan, 2004) related to analyzing the emergence of these institutions might have outlined the political playing field for this court, but could not capture the subtle mechanisms through which this institution eventually secured cooperation on a global scene of politics and thus paved the way for the creation of new and original case law (Peskin, 2008).

Historical Institutionalism

In contrast to both formalism and different forms of neo-realism, historical institutionalism builds on the development of institutions themselves. This perspective is not completely unrelated to either formalism of realism and in fact incorporates elements of both, namely how political space formats institutions and how institutions themselves co-create their boundaries by following their own internal logic. To explain the development of this logic, the institution is studied in a wider field in which its foundational dynamics helps define how it evolves, something that is also referred to as path dependency. In other words, the path dependency of institutions is shaped by their political mandate, as well as by the organizational formats, normative preferences, and professional balances inscribed in them. For historical institutionalism an important insight is that institutions do not just develop in isolation from other institutions. On the contrary, over time similar organizational formats and rules have circulated through institutional isomorphism and helped create institutions that are different but nonetheless build on similar key features (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983).

The explanatory model of institutional isomorphism that situates institutions in wider fields has also formed the basis for analyzing the creation of new international institutions and their development. Building on this perspective, scholars have demonstrated how institutions helped create regional forms of integration in the EU (Stone Sweet, Sandholtz, & Fligstein, 2001) as well as how these institutions became part of a larger global economy (Fligstein, 1996) where European institutions compete not only amongst themselves but also with other global actors (Djelic, 2008; Fligstein, 2010). Building on a perspective that situates individual institutions in a larger organizational field, these studies are related to other social science approaches that focus on the relations between stakeholders, such as in transnational elite studies inspired by Bourdieu (Madsen, 2011). However, in contrast to these studies, in which elites and other social groups form the empirical core, historical institutionalism hinges analytically on the relations between institutions and their environment.

To understand the contribution of these scholars, we once again return briefly to the ICC in what will also serve to conclude this article on institutions as global actors. Using terminology similar to historical institutionalism, but partly building on more sociological tool sets (Christensen, 2015b) the ICC has been analyzed as an institution characterized by its organizational formats, which were partly adopted and partly differentiated from the earlier ad hoc tribunals (Ambach & Rackwitz, 2013; Meierhenrich, 2013). The institutionalization of the core crimes dealt with by the ICC has also been analyzed as a reflection of a wider global culture inscribed into new institutions at an international level (Lechner & Boli, 2005). Although the emergence of a specific world culture around the ICC is perhaps debatable, scholars focusing on social movements have pointed to the wider field of stakeholders as an explanatory framework for understanding how the core crimes dealt with by this court were catapulted onto the international agenda (Glasius, 2006). Additionally, as sociologists have stressed, the elites active in these courts (Hagan, 2003; Hagan, Levi, & Ferrales, 2006) were central power brokers in the evolution of these institutions and the development of a field of stakeholders around them (Christensen, 2015a). As this scholarship has further demonstrated, these groups formed an integral part of the social and professional DNA of institutions and helped guide their direction as global actors.

Institutions are composite entities whose concrete agency is crisscrossed with that of networks and elites that are formed around institutions. Due to their formal status and political mandate, the material status of elites is also tied to access to institutions and institutional power. As such, institutions are always both a result of the practices of other forms of agency and pivotal agents themselves, as they mediate access to symbolic and material status that can be reinvested on the global stage through the very technologies embedded in institutions. Far from all institutions, even highly internationalized ones, are able to wield power as global actors. However, as vehicles of material and symbolic power, institutions form an important element of global regulation and politics alongside the networks and elites also engaged in these spaces.


With the emergence of contemporary globalization, often used as a very broad term denoting a broad variety of different phenomena, a new set of global or transnational actors developed. Precisely the study of these global actors enables analyses of the actual networks, elites, and institutions that drive globalization. Any investigation of the processes and practices that constitute this global space will come across the actors involved in defining them. As such, studying networks, elites, and institutions also provides a look into the very engines that drive globalization. Through their different and often conflicting perspectives on what the global is supposed to entail, the global itself becomes a contentious space in which different actors champion their own ideas and ideals.

The different studies of networks, elites, and institutions as global actors have contributed unique insights into the internationalized spaces of politics, law, and economy, to name only the most obvious, which emerged with the globalizing processes that gained momentum in the 1990s. Outside of these contributions, the specific approaches involved in the study of global agents collectively demonstrate how these agents are constantly intermingled. One theoretical insight to be gained from this is that the global itself is composed of and driven by different forms of actors: transnational networks have influenced the direction of many global fields and often formed around its institutions, while the role and impact of elites to a certain extent hinges on their access to institutions that themselves tend to create globalized elites.

Different forms of scholarship have crafted perspectives that are theoretically able to capture the concurrent streams of actors that collectively shape global spaces of politics, law, and economy. One is different forms of systems theory inspired by functionalism that aim to capture the global as composed of different systems (Teubner, 1996; Thornhill, 2014). These perspectives, however, underplay the importance and impact of global actors. Focusing on the system as an entity, agency all but disappears. Competing perspectives that can capture the role of different global actors as well as the space that binds them together have been developed around the notion of social fields inspired by Bourdieu. In very different forms related to the study elites as well as institutions this concept has helped scholars situate global actors in relation to the space they are trying to influence. While these studies have focused on different forms of global actors as investigated in this article, the success of their perspective depends being able to capture how power and authority are constructed by and through a nexus of networks, elites, and institutions. Ultimately, these global actors operate in the same space and the relation between them is pivotal for understanding the form and impact of the global processes they cooperate and compete to define.


This research was funded by Danish National Research Foundation Grant No. DNRF105 and conducted under the auspices of iCourts, the Danish National Research Foundation’s Centre of Excellence for International Courts.


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  • 1. This section on networks, epistemic communities, and transnational advocacy networks is a modified version of the analysis found in M. R. Madsen (2014b).

  • 2. This section draws on a longer essay on global elites published as M. R. Madsen and N. Kauppi (2015).