“I was from an early age intrigued by a global world” – 5in10 with Jan Aart Scholte
Since 2013, Jan Aart Scholte holds the faculty chair in peace and development at the School of Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg (Sweden). He had several visiting positions, for example at Cornell University (USA), Jawaharlal Nehru University (India), Mbarara University of Science and Technology (Uganda), and Moscow State University (Russia). In 2010, he obtained an honorary doctorate from the University of Gothenburg (Sweden). His research covers globalization, global governance, civil society in global politics, global democracy, and methodologies of global studies (e.g. Building Global Democracy? Civil Society and Accountable Global Governance, Globalization: A Critical Introduction). Since 2008, he coordinates an international project on “Building Global Democracy”, addressing subjects such as conceptualizing global democracy, learning for global democracy, greater inclusion in global politics, structural redistribution for global democracy, and transcultural constructions of global legitimacy.
What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
As a child I was curious about everything, but in relation to my future professional vocation it is maybe interesting that I was from an early age intrigued by a global world. I was constantly reading about faraway places, drawing world maps, exploring cultural differences, making imaginary airline timetables, and so on.
How would you explain your research – and what motivates it – to a stranger in an elevator?
My research explores what it means to live in a global world, that is, in a society where people can have direct and significant connections with one another wherever on planet earth they might be located. More particularly I investigate how a global world is governed: that is, what norms and rules organise social relations on a planetary scale. The research also examines the implications of this “global governance” for the possibilities to realise democracy, justice and peace.
Over the last few years you have been particularly engaged with the question of “internet governance”. One of your main arguments is that we are faced with a case of “structured polycentrism”. What do you mean by that?
“Structured polycentrism” is my phrase for summarising how governance operates in today’s more global world. “Polycentrism” (or “many centres”) indicates that regulation happens through complex networks that interlink multiple institutional actors. “Structured” indicates that, although these networks may appear quite messy on the surface, they are when viewed more deeply quite ordered, showing quite consistent geopolitical, social and cultural power hierarchies. So certain regions, classes and life-worlds tend to dominate, whether one is examining the governance of global Internet, global health, global finance, etc.
What can the internet teach us about the workings of governance in the global world of our times?
Governance of the internet shows structured polycentrism in practice. Many institutions are involved in making, implementing and enforcing rules for the global Internet. The agencies have varying global, regional, national and local remits; and they draw from public and private sectors. Policymaking for the Internet is scattered over many places in continually evolving arrangements. The institutions often have overlapping mandates and unclear hierarchies of authority, with no one holding ultimate control and responsibility. At the same time this apparent “mess” is not as messy as it might first appear. For example, Euro-American regions, propertied classes and western-rationalist mindsets are quite dominant across the polycentrism and give the seeming disorder quite some “structure”.
Do we need future research on the internet – and if so, what would you wish for the further development of this research field?
Of course, the Internet is a vital infrastructure for the contemporary global world. It is crucial to understand how these major channels of social relations operate and what challenges and possibilities they hold for living good lives. So much research is needed to make sense of and shape the Internet: in terms of conceptualisation, empirical investigation, normative assessment, and policy development.