Definitions, distributions and functions in our globalised world

State of Global Power
13 January 2015

This essay considers the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the World Social Forum (WSF) as example enactments and representations of a global field of power.


The essay draws on 42 interviews with participants in these forums who hold capitals that are valued beyond national, social, economic and cultural boundaries. The implications of this work are that it is possible for multi-stakeholder dialogue to be enacted at a global level in order to pursue new worlds.

Strength is in the heterogeneity of voices in the global field of power, with turning points in politics and economics opening up spaces for new, subversive yet legitimate actors to be heard. Despite contradictions and dilemmas, those who are engaged in the struggle to subvert existing dominance are slowly and surely having some effect. The new worlds may emerge through the influence of discordant experiences between individuals who see the world from different perspectives.


The literature on globalisation is vast and multidisciplinary, from how to do more and better to critically highlighting the inequalities perpetuated by globalising political and economic thought and actions. One area of literature examines global power enacted through the people who operate at a global level by virtue of the work they do. Existing research frequently reveals the dominance of the economic in multiple global processes, including the political, directing the systems and conventions that regulate ‘how things are’ in the world.

For example, there are representatives of trade, politics and civil society who are positioned to act and influence across societies and these people have been theorised as collectively symbolising a “global ruling class” (Robinson & Harris, 2000), a “field of transnational relations” (Garsten & Jacobsson, 2007), or a “transnational capitalist class” (Sklair, 2012). A problem with this is the potential for a great deal of power to be concentrated with a relatively small number of unified individuals.

One of the ways in which these individuals are enabled and empowered to create partnerships, alliances and consensus-driven activity is through the existence of global meetings and forums. Participants act as change agents through these and I have spent the last two years, through my doctoral research, exploring how, why and to what effect they act in two global forums: the World Social Forum (WSF) and the World Economic Forum (WEF).

What comes next in this essay is therefore a further contribution to the debates on global power. Using Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the field of power (Bourdieu, 1996) I suggest the presence of such a field at a global level, with WSF and WEF as example enactments and representations of a global field of power.

The struggle between economic and cultural capital particularly characterises Bourdieu’s notion of the field of power. This idea enables us to appreciate the opportunities for individuals to struggle and challenge to provoke global level socio-economic change. I argue that there are individuals who marshal forms of capital (Bourdieu, 1986) other than economic, for example, knowledge and social capital, in order to enable them to offer legitimate but subversive positions.

By expanding the notion of change agents beyond those who are imbued with this status through their corporate and/or political positions, and moving beyond the unifying concept of class, it is possible to see the importance of the power relations between individuals for global social, political and/or economic effects.