In recent years, the study of global governance has made much progress in charting the variety of ways in which rules, norms and decisions are produced in the global realm. Yet while this work exhibits processes and institutional structures quite unlike traditional international organizations – and very different from those we know from the domestic sphere – much of the conceptual apparatus of the field remains bound up with traditional models. In theorizing authority, compliance, accountability, legitimacy or law, the focus is typically on ‘solid’ structures: norms and institutions of a relatively fixed and distinct nature, understood as producing independent effects on states and other actors. This orientation not only leaves out of sight large parts of governance beyond the state, but also tends to obscure the analytical, normative and institutional challenges we are facing. In this project I inquire into whether an explicit focus on ‘liquid authority’ might provide a better frame. Liquidity in this context is understood in four inter-related dimensions: informality, ideationality, dynamism, and multiplicity. In its extreme form, it is reflected in governance processes without a clear center, dispersed over a multitude of actors and institutions (public and private) without a formal ascription of authority, never bundled in an identifiable decision, and achieving effects through uncoercive, often nudging or ideational means. The project aims to explore the concept of authority, the shape of liquid governance, and implications for legitimacy and accountability of a turn towards ‘liquid authority’.
I developed first ideas on ‘liquid authority’ in the 2012 Dasturzada Dr Jal Pavry Memorial Lecture in International Relations at the University of Oxford (audio). In October 2013, I presented some more developed thoughts in a lecture at the Goethe University of Frankfurt (Main) (video). In January 2014, I convened a workshop on the topic at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (programme). In 2016, a first version of the general idea came out as ‘Authority, Solid and Liquid, in the Postnational Sphere’, in M. del Mar & R. Cotterrell, eds., Transnational Legal Authority, Edward Elgar, 25-48, 2016 (Full text, SSRN). A fuller development has appeared in 2017 in a symposium I edited on the topic in International Theory, with additional contributions by Julia Black, Kate and Terry Macdonald, Ole Jacob Sending, and Michael Zuern. The symposium is available here. My framing paper is here and can also be accessed in a pre-publication version here.