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How activists use benchmarks: Reformist and revolutionary benchmarks for global economic justice


Non-governmental organisations use benchmarks as a form of symbolic violence to place political pressure on firms, states, and international organisations. The development of benchmarks requires three elements: (1) salience, that the community of concern is aware of the issue and views it as important; (2) will, that activists and issue entrepreneurs will carry the message forward; and (3) expertise, that benchmarks created can be defended as accurate representations of what is happening on the issue of concern. We contrast two types of benchmarking cycles where salience, will, and expertise are put to the test. The first is a reformist benchmarking cycle where organisations defer to experts to create a benchmark that conforms with the broader system of politico-economic norms. The second is a revolutionary benchmarking cycle driven by expert-activists that seek to contest strong vested interests and challenge established politico-economic norms. Differentiating these cycles provides insights into how activists work through organisations and with expert networks, as well as how campaigns on complex economic issues can be mounted and sustained.

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We thank André Broome, Jacob Hasselbalch, Joel Quirk, Katharine Teague, and the reviewers and editors of the RIS for their generous feedback on earlier drafts of this article.

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1 Bourdieu, Pierre, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990); Bourdieu, Pierre, Masculine Domination, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).

2 Abbott, Andrew, The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

3 Bourdieu, Pierre, ‘The social space and the genesis of groups’, Theory and Society, 14:6 (1985), pp. 723724 (p. 732).

4 As argued by Larner, Wendy and Heron, Richard Le, ‘Global benchmarking: Participating “at a distance” in the globalizing economy’, in Wendy Larner and William Walters (eds), Global Governmentality: Governing International Spaces (London. Routledge, 2004), pp. 212232. See also, Fougner, Tore, ‘Neoliberal governance of states: the role of competitiveness indexing and country benchmarking’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 37:2 (2008), pp. 303326.

5 Higgins, Winton and Hallström, Kristina Tamm, ‘Standardization, globalization and rationalities of government’, Organization, 14:5 (2007), pp. 685704. See also, Hansen, Hans Krause and Salskov-Iversen, Dorte, ‘Remodeling the transnational political realm: Partnerships, benchmarking schemes and the digitalization of governance’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 30:2 (2005), pp. 141164, as well as Gibbon, Peter and Henriksen, Lasse Folke, ‘A standard fit for neoliberalism’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 52:2 (2012), pp. 275307. Benchmarks are commonly put forward by private actors who can make claims to expert authority, such as in areas like international accounting. See Büthe, Tim and Mattli, Walter, The New Global Rulers: The Privatization of Regulation in the World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011). An excellent case of how accounting standards are actually implemented can be found in Thiemann, Matthias, ‘The impact of meta-standardization upon standards convergence: the case of the international accounting standard for off-balance-sheet financing’, Business & Politics (2013), DOI 10.1515/bap-2012-0011.

6 Espeland, Wendy and Sauder, Michael, ‘Rankings and reactivity: How public measures recreate social worlds’, American Journal of Sociology, 113:1 (2007), pp. 140.

7 Broome, André and Quirk, Joel, ‘Governing the world at a distance: the practice of global benchmarking’, Review of International Studies, 41:5 (2015), pp. 819841.

8 This concept is often considered the very core of Bourdieu’s approach, see Emirbayer, Mustafa, ‘Tilly and Bourdieu’, The American Sociologist, 41:4 (2010), pp. 400422 (p. 412).

9 Bourdieu, , The Logic of Practice, p. 127.

10 Ibid., pp. 133–4.

11 See, in particular, Wong, Wendy A., Internal Affairs: How the Structure of NGOs Transforms Human Rights (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).

12 See, for example, the Geneva-based Human Accountability Partnership benchmarks for assessing accountability in humanitarian crises: Human Accountability Partnership, ‘The 2010 HAP Standard in Accountablity and Quality Management’ (Geneva: HAP, 2010), available at: {}.

13 On claims to authority see Sending, Ole Jacob, The Politics of Expertise: Competing for Authority in Global Governance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015). On scientific expertise and career experience see Henriksen, Lasse Folke, ‘The global network of biofuel sustainability standard-setters’, Environmental Politics, 24:1 (2015), pp. 115137.

14 Collingwood, Vivien, ‘Non-governmental organisations, power and legitimacy in international society’, Review of International Studies, 32:3 (2006), pp. 439454.

15 Bourdieu, Pierre, The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996). Applied to international political economy see, in particular, Eagleton-Pierce, Matthew, Symbolic Power in the World Trade Organization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

16 Keck, Margaret E. and Sikkink, Kathryn, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).

17 Finnemore, Martha and Sikkink, Kathryn, ‘International norm dynamics and political change’, International Organization, 52:4 (1998), pp. 887917.

18 Wendy A. Wong, Internal Affairs; see also Carpenter, R. Charli, ‘Setting the advocacy agenda: Theorizing issue emergence and nonemergence in transnational advocacy networks’, International Studies Quarterly, 51:1 (2007), pp. 99120.

19 Cooley, Alexander and James, Ron, ‘The NGO scramble: Organizational insecurity and the political economy of transnational action’, International Security, 27:1 (2002), pp. 539; Hertel, Shareen, Unexpected Power: Conflict and Change among Transnational Activists (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).

20 Bloodgood, Elizabeth A., ‘The interest group analogy: International non-governmental advocacy organizations in international politics’, Review of International Studies, 37:1 (2011), pp. 128; Yanacopulos, Helen, ‘The strategies that bind: NGO coalitions and their influence’, Global Networks, 5:1 (2005), pp. 93110. See also Stroup, Sarah S., Borders Among Activists: International NGOs in the United States, Britain, and France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).

21 Hopgood, Stephen, Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006); Dauvergne, Peter and LeBaron, Genevieve, Protest Inc: The Corporatization of Activism (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2014).

22 Bourdieu, Pierre, The Rules of Art: The Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), p. 358, fn. 14.

23 Tarrow, Sidney, The New Transnational Activism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 194.

24 Greenwood, Royston and Suddaby, Roy, ‘Institutional entrepreneurship in mature fields: the big five accounting firms’, The Academy of Management Journal, 49:1 (2006), pp. 2748.

25 See, in particular, Suddaby, Roy and Viale, Thierry, ‘Professionals and field-level change: Institutional work and the professional project’, Current Sociology, 59:4 (2011), pp. 423442.

26 Seabrooke, Leonard and Wigan, Duncan, Global Tax Battles: The Fight to Govern Corporate and Elite Wealth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

27 Hopgood, Stephen, Keepers of the Flame, pp. 133134.

28 Carpenter, R. Charli, ‘Vetting the advocacy agenda: Networks, centrality and the paradox of weapons norms’, International Organization, 65:1 (2011), pp. 69102.

29 Schurman, Rachel, ‘Fighting frankenfoods: Industry structures and the efficacy of the anti-biotech movement in Western Europe’, Social Problems, 51:2 (2004), pp. 243268.

30 Raynolds, Laura, ‘Mainstreaming fair trade coffee: From partnership to traceability’, World Development, 37:6 (2009), pp. 10831093; Gendron, Cordine, Bisaillon, Véronique, and Ana Isabel Otero Rance, ‘The institutionalization of fair trade: More than just a degraded form of social action’, Journal of Business Ethics, 86:1 (2009), pp. 6379.

31 Hutchens, Anna, Changing Big Business: The Globalization of the Fair Trade Movement (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2009).

32 Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking, available at: {} accessed 10 October 2014.

33 Issue selection follows who can control issues in professional and organisational networks, see: Henriksen, Lasse Folke and Seabrooke, Leonard, ‘Transnational organizing: Issue professionals in environmental sustainability networks’ (2016), Organization, DOI: 10.1177/1350508415609140.

34 Wendy Wong, Internal Affairs.

35 Pattberg, Philipp, ‘The institutionalization of private governance: How business and nonprofit organizations agree on transnational rules’, Governance, 18:4 (2005), pp. 589610. See also, Fransen, Luc, Corporate Social Responsibility and Global Labour Standards: Firms and Activists in the Making of Private Regulation (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012).

36 This can also occur via the formation of expert groups that reject benchmarks that challenge the conventional terms of debate, see Seabrooke, Leonard and Tsingou, Eleni, ‘Distinctions, affiliations, and professional knowledge in financial reform expert groups’, Journal of European Public Policy, 21:3 (2014), pp. 389407.

37 Gutterman, Ellen, ‘The legitimacy of transnational NGOs: Lessons from the experience of transparency international in France and Germany’, Review of International Studies, 40:2 (2014), pp. 391418.

38 For example, former US President Jimmy Carter joined the advisory board in 1998. More generally, see Larmour, Peter, ‘Civilizing techniques: Transparency international and the spread of anti-corruption’, in Brett Bowden and Leonard Seabrooke (eds), Global Standards of Market Civilization (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 95106.

39 McCoy, Jennifer L. and Heckel, Heather, ‘The emergence of a global anti-corruption norm’, International Politics, 38:1 (2001), pp. 6590.

40 Wang, Hongying and Rosenau, James T., ‘Transparency international and corruption as an issue of global governance’, Global Governance, 7:1 (2001), pp. 2549 (p. 41).

41 OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions (Paris, OECD, 2011).

42 See also Kim, Hun Joon and Sharman, J. C., ‘Accounts and accountability: Corruption, human rights, and individual accountability norms’, International Organization, 68:2 (2014), pp. 417448.

43 Transparency International, ‘Corruption Perceptions Index 2013: In Detail’, available at: {}.

44 Larmour, , ‘Civilizing techniques’, p. 104.

45 In 2008, the World Bank’s ‘Control of Corruption’ indicator was based on the 11 sources used by TI in the same year and an additional 14 based on the perceptions of experts and opinion polls. See Tanzi, Vito, ‘Corruption Around the World: Causes, Consequences, Scope and Cures’, international Monetary Fund, Department of Fiscal Affairs, WP98/63 (Washington, IMF, 1998); Rohwer, Anja, ‘Measuring corruption: a comparison between the transparency international’s corruption perceptions index and the World Bank’s worldwide governance indicators’, CESifo DICE Report, 7:3 (2009), pp. 4252. For the WGI, see {}.

46 Hawthorne, Omar, ‘Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index: “best flawed” measure on Corruption?’ (unpublished mimeo, 2013), available at: {}.

47 For a critique of the CPI see Cobham, Alex, ‘Corrupting perceptions: Why transparency international’s flagship corruption index falls short’, Foreign Policy (22 July 2013).

48 Jennifer Morgan, former head of WWF’s climate change programme quoted in ‘As The Gold Standard celebrates its 10th anniversary, it is expanding its reach beyond carbon’, available at: {}.

49 Interview Gold Standard Foundation CEO.

50 Ibid.

51 ‘The Gold Standard – Background and Overview’ (The Gold Standard, July 2003), available at: {}.

52 ‘The Gold Standard Requirements’ were supported by large firms active in the carbon credit market such as Firstclimate, Climatecare, and BNP Paribas and consultancies such as Ecofys, Tüv Südand Tricorona. Available at: {}.

53 Hansen, Hans Krause and Mühlen-Schulte, Arthur, ‘The power of numbers in global governance’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 15:4 (2012), pp. 455465.

54 On ‘identity switching’ among expert-activists, see Seabrooke, Leonard and Wigan, Duncan, ‘Emergent Entrepreneurs in Transnational Advocacy Networks: Professional Mobilization in the Fight for Global Tax Justice’, GR:EEN Working Paper No. 42, Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation, University of Warwick (December 2013).

55 Royston Greenwood and Roy Suddaby, ‘Institutional entrepreneurship in mature fields’.

56 Interview, TJN representative, 2014.

57 See Sharman, J. C., Havens in a Storm: The Struggle for Global Tax Regulation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

58 McIntyre, M. J., ‘How to end the charade of information exchange’, Tax Notes International, 56:4 (2009), pp. 255268; Meinzer, Markus, ‘The Creeping Futility of the Global Forum’s Peer Reviews’, Tax Justice Briefing (London: TJN, 2012), available at: {}.

59 See Eccleston, Richard, The Dynamics of Global Economic Governance: The Financial Crisis, the OECD, and the Politics of International Tax Cooperation (London: Edward Elgar, 2013); Palan, Ronen and Wigan, Duncan, ‘Herding cats and taming tax havens: the US strategy of “not in my backyard”’, Global Policy, 5:3 (2014), pp. 334343.

60 ActionAid, ‘Tax Responsibility: An Investor Guide’ (Chard: ActionAid, 2013), p. 2.

61 See: {} for the 2013 FSI.

62 Gordon, Richard, ‘Tax Havens and Their Use By United States Taxpayers - An Overview’ (US Treasury: Washington, DC, 1981).

63 Meinzer, Markus, ‘White Paper on the FSI 2011. Where to Draw the Line? Identifying secrecy jurisdictions for applied research’ (London: Tax Justice Network), available at: {}.

64 Findley, Michael G., Nielson, Daniel L., and Sharman, J. C., Global Shell Games: Experiments in Transnational Relations, Crime, and Terrorism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

65 Tax Justice Network, ‘Financial Secrecy Index’, available at: {} accessed 10 September 2014.

66 Picciotto, Sol, International Business Taxation: A Study in the Internationalization of Business Regulation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

67 Wojcik, Dariusz, ‘Where governance fails: Advanced business services and the offshore world’, Progress in Human Geography, 37:3 (2013), pp. 330347.

68 Seabrooke, Leonard and Wigan, Duncan, ‘Global wealth chains in the international political economy’, Review of International Political Economy, 21:1 (2014), pp. 257263.

69 O’Hare, Sean, ‘Jersey Slams Financial Secrecy Index as “nonsensical”’, The Telegraph (4 October 2011), available at: {}.

70 Smallwood, Aaron, ‘An Analysis of the Efficacy of the Tax Justice Network’s Methodology in Constructing a Secrecy Index’ (Cayman Finance, 2014).

72 On how international organisations make issues and members ‘legible’ see Broome, André and Seabrooke, Leonard, ‘Seeing like an international organization’, New Political Economy, 17:1 (2012), pp. 116.

73 Saint-Amans, Pascal, ‘Pascal Saint-Amans finds his stride in Owens’s shoes’, International Tax Review, 23:1 (2012), p. 27.

74 Christensen, John, ‘OECD should step aside and let the UN tackle tax havens’, International Tax Review (2 November 2011), available at: {} accessed 10 September 2014.

75 Roodman, David, ‘The Commitment to Development Index: 2013 Edition’ (Washington, Centre for Global Development, 2013), available at: {}.

76 Basel Institute on Governance, ‘The Basel AML Index 2013’ (Basel: Basel Institute for Governance, 2012), available at: {}.

77 ‘The Basel AML Index: Country Risk Ranking’ (Basel Institute on Governance, 2014), available at: {}; Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, ‘Bribery and Corruption Awareness Handbook for Tax Examiners and Tax Auditors’ (OECD, Paris 2013); ‘Nachhaltigkeitsratings: Bankanleihen’ (Hannover: imug, 2014), available at: {}; ‘Oekom Country Rating: Methodology’ (Munich: oekom, 2014), available at: {} accessed 10 September 2014.

78 Meinzer, Markus, ‘White Paper on the FSI 2011’, p. 4.

79 Kyle Pomperleau and Andrew Lundeen, ‘International Tax Competitiveness Index’ (Washington, Tax Foundation, 2014), available at: {}. In general see Isaac Martin, Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

80 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, ‘Trade and Development Report, 2014’ (Geneva: UNCTAD, 2014), p. 172.

81 Those perceived as ‘knowing well’ have a better chance of surviving these contests, see: Seabrooke, Leonard and Wigan, Duncan, ‘Powering ideas through expertise: Professionals in global tax battles’, Journal of European Public Policy, 23:3 (2016), forthcoming.

82 The exemplar here is Dezalay, Yves and Garth, Bryant G., The Internationalization of Palace Wars: Lawyers, Economists, and the Contest to Transform Latin American States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

83 Madsen, Mikael Rask, ‘Reflexivity and the construction of the international object: the case of human rights’, International Political Sociology, 5:3 (2011), pp. 259275; and Pouliot, Vincent, ‘The logic of practicality: a theory of practice of security communities’, International Organization, 62:2 (2008), pp. 257288.

* We thank André Broome, Jacob Hasselbalch, Joel Quirk, Katharine Teague, and the reviewers and editors of the RIS for their generous feedback on earlier drafts of this article.

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