The introduction of Luhmann’s System Theory to International Relations has been long overdue. In the last few years, articles by Donnelly (2012) and Buzan and Albert (2010) have started to discuss the application of the concept of differentiation to International Relations theory, and an edited book by Albert et al. (2010) has examined how systemic thought can reinvigorate the study of world politics. This article welcomes and continues these developments by proposing a Luhmannian reinterpretation of the evolution and functioning of governance via standards. The article argues that standardisation — involving the proliferation of standards but also of standardised instruments such as rankings, indicators and benchmarks — can be understood as a mechanism of political steering in a growingly differentiated (world) society. By considering standardisation as a systemic adaptation of the political system to a multifunctional environment, this article contests conventional economistic and power-based explanations where the ‘standardisation turn’ in global governance is a mere consequence of neoliberal globalisation, power struggles among states or some type of hegemonic logic. In this manner, the article suggests that Luhmann’s Systems Theory can provide a more encompassing framework to understand the operation of standards as an extension of politics beyond territory, and to frame the challenges of governing an increasingly complex world.
© The Authors 2014. This is an author produced version of a paper accepted for publication in European Journal of International Relations. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher's self-archiving policy.