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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .


Constructing World Culture: International Nongovernmental Organizations Since 1875
John Boli & George M.Thomas

(Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1999)
363pp. Index. Hb.: 35.00; ISBN 0-8047-3421-6. Pb.: 11.95; ISBN 0-8047-3422-4.



The essays in this collection do not mention ethnic conflict and that is why they should interest people who work in this field.

Each of the essays argue that traditional theories of international relations which focus primarily on states should be supplemented by research on international "culture" as it is formed through the activities and practices of International Non-governmental Organizations (INGO's). From environmental groups, to women's movements, Esperanto, and the Red Cross, among other areas, these essays document an international stage where non-state actors play active roles and form effective coalitions. To support their arguments, the essays make a case for the overarching contributions and nature of international culture. This is where their conclusions are troubling.

While the editors acknowledge that increased global contact does not necessarily mean peace, they include conflict only to the extent that universal values and particular communities form a dialectic which in the end strengthens "humanity." For them, every individual is a potential actor on an international stage whose value rests in rational solutions to social problems and firm commitment to furthering the "grand human project" (40). Such an ethical valuation of international culture fits in with the idealistic self-rationalization of many INGO's, but fails to take stock of the silence, closed doors, and self-indulgent hand-wringing of the "international community" that accompanied the slaughter of Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Bosnians and Rwandans--to name only a few of the atrocities that have scarred this century. In today's tally for the contest of violence versus "humanity," its anyone's game.

By all means, research on INGO's is a necessary addition to more traditionally state-centered theories of international relations. But this research should not rest on the same assumptions that foreground its object of analysis--that more internationalism equals unmitigated progress. The editors conclude the text by hoping that their work "raises more questions than it answers" (300). I believe it does and hope that even more questions follow, because without these questions the challenges of "world polity" could easily fade into a mere alias for self-congratulation.


Bridget Conley
Binghamton University




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