Cover courtesy of Oxford University Press.

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Disentangling Global Governance

The Role of Method in Narrating Nonlinear Systems and Ambiguous Concepts


Whatever happened to chaos theory anyway? Its heyday seems to be over within social sciences at least. With a longer history in ‘natural’ or ‘hard’ sciences, the theory became big in social sciences in the late 80s and throughout the 90s after the bestseller Chaos: Making a New Science, by James Gleick, hit the shelves and made the theory accessible to a wider audience. Chaos theory, by way of an oversimplified explanation, is the idea that one event or moment can affect and change, potentially quite significantly, an entire system. The backdrop to this theory was an increasing appreciation of nonlinear systems, to which it was impossible to apply methods and models developed assuming linear predictable systems – the weather and techniques of forecasting being the usual go-to example. The theory helped us ‘cope’ (Smith, 2007 p.1) with nonlinear systems by giving us some language to wrangle them into intelligible submission and explanation.

Law and many other social systems are nonlinear. Grappling with how to understand legal processes, actors, histories, institutions, and practices is very much alive as a pressing research agenda today – especially the disorder associated with distributed global governance. While chaos theory made a fleeting impression on the field of law, it has mostly disappeared from our disciplinary intellectual horizons. Instead, there is a rising trend, of a new import from hard sciences, that is (supposed to be) helping us make sense of complex nonlinear systems in law and ‘social sciences’: entanglement.

In the face of this rising trend, Dimitri Van Den Meerssche successfully disentangles governance practices in the World Bank in his recently published book The World Bank’s Lawyers. It is a masterful study, rich in terms of method, inquiry, insights, and intellectual engagement. In it, he painstakingly traces performances and idea(s) of the rule of law in situ through ‘three portraits’ (p. 31) of World Bank General Counsels’ exercise of legal authority. In Van Den Meerssche’s ‘reassembling’ of how legal practices are materially and culturally constituted by three of the World Bank’s General Counsels, Ibrahim Shihata, Roberto Dañino, and Anne-Marie Leroy, he ‘adds substance to what is widely lamented as international law’s unravelling in new global governmentalities and managerial modes of decision-making’ (p. 278), making this a critical contribution to thinking about questions of international institutional law-making, risk as a governance technology, and how to research and narrate the complexities associated with these (addressed below). He demonstrates throughout, for instance, how the boundary between the political and the legal has been differently interpreted by Shihata, Dañino, and Leroy to ‘enrol’ distinctive strategic actors into vastly different normative logics, projects, and legal postures. And in so doing, he shows how, despite the ‘law’ of the World Bank, with the Articles of Agreement at its foundation, remaining virtually unchanged, the legal culture and the practice of lawyering in the Bank have been overhauled through the practice of individual General Counsels.

On Risk – ‘The New Normative Architecture’

Of particular interest was the narration of how the idea of risk has come to permeate the World Bank. The language of risk seems to be everywhere in governance discourses these days, a bit like the language of entanglement. Yet, for me at least, this discourse on risk had never been so explicitly traceable before the account offered in this book. It just existed and I knew about it, but why the ‘turn to risk’? Where did it emerge from? How was law involved? Why were lawyers thinking in terms of risk? The only other person I’d seen thinking about this topic was my colleague John Haskell, who has been particularly instructive in my thinking about risk as a new mode of governance.

Van Den Meerssche in great detail maps the shifts from traditional public international law ‘rules to principles’ and then ‘from risk avoidance to risk management’ (citing Leroy, p. 27). He achieves this by explaining the various institutional and personal postures, contextualising legal materials, such as legal opinions and memos, and accounting for, primarily through interviews, the shifting culture, expectations, and behaviours of a ‘proper’ World Bank lawyer in each of the three sections. The shift to risk as governmental technology and the deformalisation of legal practices that is encoded within it, reflects a trend taking place in global governance that seems out of reach for traditional inquiries. Yet, due to its persistence, it is critical further inquiries are made into the link between law and the concept of risk are made and the ‘turn to risk’ better mapped in global governance.

On the Limits of the Law of International Organizations 

Through this account, and reflections on law throughout, Van Den Meerssche also helps give shape to the limits of hegemonic approaches to the study of international organizations and their law. My own work has also tried to understand the disconnect between the orthodox, familiar, and well-rationalised normative architecture of the law of international organizations that is utterly incapable of explaining the realities of legal practice in contemporary global governance.

While I have used legal geography to think through these shifts, Van Den Meerssche adopts valuable ethnographic and empirical lenses. Applying these methods, the book delivers concrete insights into how law’s ‘mode of existence’ can be appreciated not only from the study of the formal sources and constitutive instruments of international organizations (‘as the sum of abstract norms’ (p. 276)) but how ‘professional postures and prototypes, aesthetic styles, institutional alliances, and technical routines’ (p. 1) affect the practice of international law. Van Den Meerssche acknowledges this might be alien for the orthodox international lawyers to read (p. 272) but I certainly hope they do engage with the book and challenge established boundaries of thought – it will make for a much richer field of knowledge and practice.

On Method

As has been hinted at already, I think method is central to this book. It reads as if it is written by someone who instinctively or intuitively understands method, but really, I think, is borne out of labour and love for method. The methods are utterly appropriate to the task at hand, marrying Latourian insights with empirical interviews. In much of the disciplinary turn to empirical legal method I have read, I have often felt it rather lacked significant insights. The true insight comes when you do something with the empirical data, which is something Van Den Meerssche does exceptionally well in The World Bank’s Lawyers.

I also appreciated the honest account in the opening pages of the original questions and expectations of the research project which were quickly dismantled in one interview with a senior lawyer at the Bank. Not only does it demonstrate how research projects change, but it epitomises the limits of existing assumptions about law and lawyering, and the frustrations and struggles presented by nonlinear, distributed systems of great complexity for researchers. This account is so accessible and teachable – it is something I will forever now recommend to PhD students.

With Van Den Meerssche’s command of over the complexity, the book has been instructive in my thinking about the concept of entanglement and also, simply, in how to tell stories about ambiguous concepts. The concept of entanglement has the potential to be overused in discourse and may do a lot of heavy lifting at times, given that practices, ideas, cultures, and behaviours are not nearly as unified at the tiniest of subatomic scales as is sometimes made out. Careful investigative work, fitting methodologies, and an eye for details and narrative can disentangle the complexity that is global governance, and Van Den Meerssche sets a new bar for such studies.

Gail Lythgoe

Gail Lythgoe teaches and researches international law and global governance and is co-director of the Manchester International Law Centre.

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