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Magic Mirror on the Wall, who in the World is Legitimate After All? Legitimacy Claims of International Institutions

The legitimacy of international institutions is a contested issue both in terms of concept formation and empirical evidence and attracts attention from across the political sciences. The present contribution posits a relational concept of legitimacy that includes self-justification of rulers on the one hand, and legitimacy beliefs of the ruled on the other hand. By taking a top-down perspective, our conceptual section explores an underdeveloped aspect in the field of legitimacy research. We posit that the analysis of political elites’ self-legitimations can considerably contribute to our understanding of governing activities and provide a more thorough picture of legitimation processes. These practices play a key role in transforming mere power into popularly accepted, stable authority and have an essentially communicative nature. Hence, self-legitimations are amenable to discourse analysis. In this conjunction, the paper assumes that the media functions as a discursive battleground creating a space for positive or negative evaluations of political orders, including affirmative contributions of the representatives of challenged organizations themselves. The conceptual and theoretical link between legitimacy, self-legitimizing practices, and discourse analysis is further developed in the first section of the paper.

Subsequently, our conceptualization of self-legitimizing practices is empirically exemplified. Our explorative study of self-legitimating statements of representatives of three major international institutions (EU, G8, and UN) in media discourses is based on a large qualitative data-set which analyzes legitimacy discourses in two high-quality newspapers in four Western democracies (GB, US, DE, and CH) over a period of ten years (1998-2007). Our empirical findings demonstrate that international institutions’ formal representatives and member states actively take part in the process of legitimation. Hence, global governance arrangements are not only objects of legitimacy demands, but at the same time cultivators of their own legitimacy.

No. 169/2013
Dominika Biegon
Jennifer Gronau
Henning Schmidtke

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