Matthias Ecker-Ehrhardt and the (De-)legitimation Survey

The Centre’s Matthias Ecker-Ehrhardt, formerly a Senior Research Fellow, transitioned in November 2021 to the role of Senior Researcher in charge of ‘DLegS’, a collaboration between the Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research and the 6-year research program ‘Legitimacy in Global Governance (LegGov)’ at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University. Developing out of the KHK’s research stream ‘Legitimation and Delegitimation in Global Cooperation’, the project seeks to contribute to an understanding of legitimation processes through an analysis of the views that varied populations hold about global governance institutions (GGIs). The project’s concept note sums up its goals in the following way:

The core question currently addressed is which processes promote or undermine the social recognition of global governance institutions as normatively legitimate. In this context, the KHK/GCR21 explicitly focuses on individual citizens as essential instances of social legitimacy, whose support is becoming increasingly important for the success and failure of global cooperation.

Ecker-Ehrhardt has been tasked with the organization of a small team of researchers who are engaging specifically with the topic of (de)legitimation as it applies to these constellations and environments. The preliminary timetable for the project is organized into three successive modules over the span of 18 months: the ideological embeddedness of legitimacy beliefs, the digital embeddedness of global governance institution (de)legitimation (social proofs), and the legitmatory power of the nongovernmental in and of global governance institutions.

Module One engages with the question of ideology, and how one comes to identify with a given ideological viewpoint on global governance institutions. The initial data derives from wide-ranging surveys which seek to understand how global government institutions are viewed across different countries and populations. The World Values Survey Wave 7, for example, provides preliminary data from more than 70 countries and offers insight into how local populations view at least 50 different institutions. Later in the project, researchers will conduct their own survey experiments targeted at a better understanding of deviations across populations. Analysis indicates a massive amount of variation, creating a tantalizing puzzle solve. Beginning with the observation that this variation exists, the team posits that it can be explained by establishing a link between ideology and social legitimacy.

Our hypothesis is that people are interested in what kinds of values global governance institutions promote. Based on their perception of what an institution stands for, they feel something like an ideological proximity or ideological like-mindedness – that’s the common link across all countries for which we have data.

Certainly, ideology plays a major role, but it plays a different role according to given circumstances – including different degrees to which political and societal values are shared and political elites frame global governance institutions according to such values. Thus, the UN tends to be viewed as a promoter of progressive, cooperative global politics by some citizens while a threat to national sovereignty for others. These contradictions reflect a complex of legitimation mechanisms that the project’s researchers hope to understand.

Module Two investigates how social factors influence and inform opinions regarding global governance institutions, with specific reference to online social media platforms. The foundation of this module is an understanding of social cues as ‘judgmental shortcuts’ which can lead to the formation of reasoned opinions which, however, lack deeper comprehension of the underlying information about given policies or institutional processes. Ecker-Ehrhardt expands on this module’s focus in a recent paper:

In terms of specific conjectures, we first argue that citizens substantially rely on “social proof” – that is, how most of their peers perceive and evaluate GGIs – when forming opinions about GGIs in general, as well as in digital networks of communication more specifically. What is more, we argue that such reliance on peers tends to foster a polarization of public opinion on GGIs online as well as offline, due to mutually enforcing biases of social learning. The more citizens perceive others to be likeminded, the more actively they tend to articulate and share opinions towards GGIs vis-à-vis others.

According to Ecker-Ehrhardt, political communication is increasingly defined by the dynamics (and limitations) of digital spheres of communication. The implication here is that the digital sphere can provide not just the epistemological platform, but also the content with which opinions on global governance institutions are construed. Relevant knowledge about global matters can be subject to the long-acknowledged ‘echo chamber’ that is social media, where opinions are not only minted, but are also repeated and reinforced to a given audience without critical engagement with contrasting positions. In this way, ‘digital communication gives peers a much bigger role in cuing users’ attention to political issues as well as making them believe or act’.

Module Three takes a closer look at opinions related to transnational organizations and how public perception of non-state actors may be changing the way that people perceive global governance institutions. A key point of engagement for the Centre, these environments have a leading role in cross-border cooperation. Here, perception of the (il)legitimate inclusion of non-state actors in global governance is at the core of the investigation.

The project’s survey-based research approach, though still in its early stages, aims to close a gap in our understanding of legitimacy and to deepen knowledge of the influence of modern communication on legitimation and delegitimation.

Andrew Costigan


Further reading on the project:

Project Site at the Centre