Episode 8. David Grewal on Network Power

The evolving global order has liberalized trade in goods, capital, ideas, and, to a lesser extent, people within a multilateral and market-oriented framework. Debates on globalization have focused on the question of whether this order is morally defensible.

The arguments are as diverse as they are forceful. Some decry the order entirely, or claim that at the very least it is much inferior to alternative forms of globalization. Others object that is coercively imposed by powerful, affluent countries—a new and pernicious kind of imperial control. Even apparently voluntary processes, such as learning English or joining the World Trade Organization, are viewed as the result of the use of power of a morally problematic sort. Still others have rushed to defend globalization in its current form, arguing that it is certainly the best that can be feasibly be hoped for, at least for now. These enthusiasts argue that increasing globalization is developing not through the use of power, but through the free choices of people and countries throughout the world.

How is one to make sense of this debate and evaluate these claims? Today on Public Ethics Radio, we discuss globalization with David Grewal of Harvard University.

To explain how power can be at work in apparently voluntary processes, Grewal introduces the concept of “network power.” He argues that this dynamic drives many key aspects of globalization. A network is united via a standard: a shared norm or convention that enables coordination among its users, such as a language. A widely used standard is more valuable than a less used one, simply because it governs access to a larger network of people.

The idea of network power generalizes this fact to describe globalization as the rise to global dominance of standards that have achieved critical mass in language, high technology, trade, law, and many other areas. It also characterizes the rise to dominance of a successful standard as involving a form of power.

While these new standards allow for global coordination, they also eclipse local standards, rendering them unviable to the extent that they prove incompatible with dominant ones. Therefore many of the choices driving globalization are only formally free and, in fact, are constrained because the network power of a dominant standard makes it the only effectively available option. It is this dynamic that generates much of the resentment against globalization and the criticism that it reflects a new imperialism. Grewal discusses various strategies for coping better with network power.

David Grewal, is a graduate of Yale Law School and is author of Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization, published in 2008 by Yale University Press. He has been elected recently to the Harvard Society of Fellows, which he will join formally in the summer of 2009. He also recently presented material from his book at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Click here to download the episode (30:23, 7.3 mb, MP3), or click on the online media player below. You can also download the transcript.


The literature on globalization is incredibly rich. Here are a selection of readings for readers interested in learning more about the concepts discussed in today’s episode (all of which require subscriptions, unfortunately):

On to the episode itself.

For starters, 77 percent of Mac owners use MS Word, according to Macworld.

David mentions the social theorists Karl Marx and Max Weber. For more on them, check out their entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Marx, Weber.

For more on language death, you can start with the Wikipedia entry, and then move on to David Crystal‘s book.

David discusses the World Trade Organization (WTO) in some depth. There’s far too much out there to summarize it well here, although I should mention that Christian has a great book on trade and labor standards with Sanjay Reddy. Otherwise, you can start by comparing the real WTO page with this great spoof.

Ditto for the MAI, or Multilateral Agreement on Investment, although there’s no spoof. The skeptical group Public Citizen maintains a page of critiques.

Also, FYI, the GATT, or General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, is the predecessor agreement to the WTO. The trade agreements represented by the GATT and WTO have evolved through various “rounds” of trade agreements, the latest being (nominally) conducted in Doha, Qatar—thus receiving the name of Doha Round.

1 Comment

Filed under Episodes

One response to “Episode 8. David Grewal on Network Power

  1. yrumpala

    For a work-in-progress which uses a network perspective to rebuild a political project better suited to a globalized world , see also :


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