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Anthropology of the World Trade Organization

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Anthropology of the World Trade Organization

The aim of this project is to carry on an anthropology of transnational governance, based on an intensive survey made by an international group of researchers within the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In the context of globalisation, the nature, the role and the power of international organisations has become a crucial issue. In the field of economics, the WTO, whose purpose it is to liberalize global trade by putting into effect a system of rules designed to ensure free trade in goods, is hardly a well- known organisation. Although arguments for or against free trade are more and more common, we have only superficial knowledge of how this organisation really functions, what negotiations it initiates or how disputes between its members are settled.

This is why we propose to carry out field research designed to make its workings better known, taking into account the trans-national and intercultural character of this organisation.

We plan to concentrate on the WTO’s most characteristic features:

I. Multiculturalism

Our task is to observe how civil servants approach these issues and how the organisation’s own cultural diversity expresses itself. The WTO differs from the other organisations that have been studied by the social sciences in being a multicultural body. It lies at the crossroads of different administrative traditions. It is this diversity and the way that it is expressed in the day-to-day work of civil servants that is of particular interest to us. To explain the complexity of the WTO and its changing nature, we must study all facets of its multiculturalism. In so doing, one may come to understand from the inside what globalisation means in practice. The conjunction of these different approaches in the day-to-day workings of the secretariat and and of the national delegations is an essential element. We see how different cultural identities interact; this process, which results in the implementation of common rules governing international trade, is part of a broader community effort in a context where special interests do not necessarily merge into a general will. The complex relationship between cultural specificity and shared purpose will be at the heart of our investigation.

II. Negotiation

Any observer of the WTO and its workings cannot fail to be struck by the importance it gives to negotiation. Negotiation is indispensable if the world is to reach the objective of free trade espoused by the original members of the WTO. It can be observed on several distinct levels. The intergovernmental level is the tip of the iceberg: much of the work is done at a lower level in the negotiating groups. The secretariat is involved at all levels. It is thus necessary, in order to understand from the inside how the organisation operates, to study actual dossiers, to see how the civil servants carry out their work and how the various points of view confront each other in the negotiation process. This implies simultaneously studying the activity as carried out at different sites and highlighting the main parameters involved in the process.

We shall take into account the diversity of the actors, without focussing on any single level of negotiation. We shall also examine the articulation between the political, diplomatic and more narrowly economic dimensions of negotiation. To this end, observation of how the organisation actually works and interviews with the various protagonists will give us direct information and help us to understand the phenomenon of trans-nationalism.

III Attitudes towards trade

It is well known that the notion of trade plays a fundamental role in this organisation whose stated aim is “to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible”. The sometimes acrimonious debates over differing conceptions of equity have, during ministerial conferences, made the WTO a public place, a world-wide forum where very different interpretations of what constitutes “free” trade flows confront each other. Thus the WTO is truly a political arena, if by ‘political’ we mean a debate about the ‘global city’- an open world in which the frontiers that impede the functioning of the world economy must be eliminated. Other dimensions come into play but tend to be obscured when trade is viewed only in economic terms. These other facets, however, make the WTO an especially interesting place from the point of view of understanding the role of governmentality in moving from a local or national scale to a global one.

IV. Consensus

The WTO differs from most other large international organisations in the importance it attaches to consensus. The decisions of the WTO require the unanimity of its members. This confers a strong legitimacy on decisions. The need for consensus hence renders all negotiation lengthy and laborious.
How is one to achieve consensus on the trans-national level? What is the role of the secretariat in the quest for consensus? If we are to anlayse this process in all its complexity, we should be aware of the emergence of coalitions of countries with common interests.


How in practice can fieldwork within the WTO be carried out successfully? Our approach implies complete immersion in the organisation. Like anthropologists studying remote societies, we plan to carry out real fieldwork within the various parts of the WTO. The principle of our research is not to impose a pre-existing grid of interpretation on the problems but to listen to what is being said and thought within the organisation and to elaborate working hypotheses based on this listening process. The fieldwork will focus on the delegations organisation’s secretariat. It will take, as a point of departure, the daily routine of the delegations and of the secretariat; interviews will be held with the protagonists. Collection of empirical data in this way will comprise the research base. This method implies that the researchers will familiarise themselves with the dossiers treated and have an aptitude for observing the material and intellectual aspects of the functioning of the WTO. It also calls for interaction with the people, because this interaction will enable us to achieve significant results.

Composition of the team

The team includes anthropologists from several regions of the world - Latin America, North America, Asia and Europe – whose tasks will be to study the diversity of the problems and provide a cross-fertilization of views on the organisation.

- Marc Abélès, France, Professor, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (France);

- Máximo Badaró, Argentina, Professor, Universidad Nacional de San Martín (Argentina);

- Linda Dematteo, France, PostDoc, Laboratoire d’Anthropologie des Institutions et des Organisations Sociales (EHESS-CNRS, France);

- Paul Dima Ehongo, Cameroun, Associate Researcher, Université de Paris I (France)

- Jae Aileen Chung, Corea Professor, University of Aalen (Germany).

- Cai Hua, China, Professor, University of Beijin (China);

- George Marcus, United Sates, Professor, University of California, Irvine (USA);

- Mariella Pandolfi, Italy, Professor, University of Montreal (Canada).

- Phillip Rousseau, Canada, Doctorant, University of Montreal (Canada).

Duration of research : 3 years

Funding of the research : Agence Nationale de la Recherche, France

Prof. Marc Abélès, LAIOS

EHESS, 54 boulevard Raspail 75006 Paris

Tel : 33149542198

Fax : 33149542190

Email: marc.abeles at