"Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization" by David Singh Grewal [Full Text]

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 23.1 (Spring 2009)

March 26, 2009

Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization

Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization, David Singh Grewal (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008), 416 pp., $30 cloth, $18 paper.

Stefano Guzzini (Reviewer)

David Singh Grewal's book is motivated by a paradox: many of the actors who try to join global processes are the same actors who complain about the dominating effects of globalization. Why, then, do they consent to being constrained? To better understand this paradox, according to Grewal, we need to understand globalization as a process in which we participate by choice but not necessarily voluntarily—one in which we are increasingly pushed into a "game of social coordination" (p. 2), where common standards allow more effective coordination, yet also entrap us in their pull for convergence.

Globalization, writes Grewal, is "the disruptive and uneven process by which we come to share common standards after the eclipse of distance" (p. 20). Standards are a type of convention, a "shared norm or practice" facilitating cooperation in a network (p. 32). Yet the collective effect of interdependent individual choices can reach a tipping point where one standard—if widely accessible, but neither flexible nor easily compatible with other standards—starts to crowd out the alternatives. In these circumstances, staying with a different standard imposes too high a cost for the individual actor—hence, although joining the dominant standard is an active choice of the individual (p. 26, emphasis in original), which Grewal calls "free," it is not thereby also a voluntary choice (pp. 109–11). In other words, signing up to a standard is an act of conscious choice without consent. The dynamics driving this process of convergence is what Grewal calls "network power" (p. 106). Network power is visible in such different fields as technology (for example, in the dominance of Microsoft's operating systems), trade (international organizations, such as the WTO, and their standards), and culture (English as a lingua franca).

To be able to perceive such networkpower domination, certain conceptual moves are necessary (which Grewal takes mainly from Steven Lukes's authoritative study Power: A Radical View, first published in 1974). Power, on Grewal's account, is not necessarily hierarchical or based on coercion: it may be diffuse and non-intentional, and should be conceived as working impersonally through structures, such as networks defined by shared standards. Nevertheless, the author argues that such an analysis is compatible with methodological individualism, which aims at explaining and understanding social phenomena as the mere aggregation of decisions by individuals, because, if I read correctly, it is ultimately our individual "desire to cooperate with others" that is the driving force behind network power (p. 172).

In a third step, Grewal links this empirical and conceptual discussion to moral 78 recent books on ethics and international affairs theory, where an analysis of domination meets a normative concern centered on freedom. Freedom is related here to the safeguarding of an individual’s interests and identity, both of which can be negatively affected by network power in its pressuring for behavioral and cultural homogenization. Furthermore, the dynamics of dominating standards amount to a form of "systematic private power" (p. 189), which tends to (privately) enclose what otherwise amounts to common goods that might be publicly available. Grewal argues that it is therefore morally imperative that politics reassert itself—as difficult as this may be in decentralized international affairs—by creating and protecting a transnational public sphere that reclaims authority over globalization's convergence dynamics (that is, over network power) in order to open up alternative options for the individual (and hence freer choice), a more widely beneficial control of the commons, and a pluralistic recognition of cultural difference.

None of these ideas are really new on their own. For instance, when Grewal discusses globalization, showing how the last turn in our rationalist modernization increases both our capacities and our level of entrapment, he openly refers back to Max Weber's metaphor of the iron cage, which Weber surely saw as an international, and not just national, dynamic of competitive convergence. Meanwhile, Grewal's normative call for the protection of a transnational public space is clearly in line with a republican tradition in political philosophy, substantially developed by Jürgen Habermas and others. On the conceptual level, defenses of a methodological individualist position in power analysis have recently been proposed by the author Keith Dowding, among others, and also from a more heterodox position like that of Peter Morriss.

It should be noted that the book's emphasis on agency as choice leaves untouched an understanding of agency as habitual action (as in Weber or Pierre Bourdieu, for example). Equally, Grewal does not address the critiques of methodological individualism, including those made by Lukes himself. One can consciously decide ("choose," in Grewal's terminology) on a certain action in the course of following a rule one was not consciously aware of: the explanatory weight for understanding this action is in this case on the rule, not on the reasons given for the choice—the intersubjective, not the individualist, element drives the explanation. Finally, Grewal admits to avoiding certain foundational issues in the agency-structure debate (pp. 68–69) or in a theory of justice (p. 143), which would move those debates forward.

But if the individual ideas contained in Network Power are rarely novel (and if some of them remain underexplored), the book's major contribution is in bringing these ideas together. Grewal does well to organize his argument around the concept of power. Power analysis falls at the crossroads of at least two domains of inquiry that follow different logics, social theory and political theory/philosophy, and two levels of analysis, the individual and the social. Political theorists are interested in power for understanding order and rule (on the macro level) or freedom and autonomy (on the micro level). Social theorists use power for understanding domination and hierarchy (macro) or influence and causality, if not agency (micro). Hence, a book that wishes to understand the interaction between globalization and freedom, the "politics" of recent books on ethics and international affairs 79 globalization, as it were, finds itself immediately on the turf of power analysis. In turn, any analysis of power will inevitably touch these different domains in social and political theory, although many scholars avoid addressing them at the same time. Not shying away from an explicit discussion of these connections, elucidating the diverse literature of power in an accessible way, and competently reenvisioning it through a single lens that allows a focused understanding of globalization are Network Power's major achievements.

—STEFANO GUZZINI The reviewer is Professor of Government at Uppsala University and Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen. He is working on a forthcoming book, Power Analysis and International Relations.