Project Leaders

  • Jacqueline Best, Associate Professor, School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa
  • Alexandra Gheciu, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

No matter where we look, the public seems to be playing an increasingly important role in our lives. This is particularly striking given that, after a couple of decades of neo-liberal governance that extolled the virtues of the private sphere (particularly the market), many experts thought that the public—and particularly the state—had irrevocably lost its once privileged position in the world. Take, for instance, the recent examples of state intervention to address the financial crisis largely perceived as the outcome of the reckless behaviour of private actors (primarily financial institutions). Or consider the ways in which the transnational flows of goods, people and services have been subjected to unprecedented levels of monitoring by public authorities—suffice it to mention the new security arrangements at airports—in a situation in which states and intergovernmental international organizations fear that such flows could facilitate the operations of terrorist and criminal organizations. Finally, let us recall the multitude of government, UN and EU-sponsored efforts to create a more effective system of environmental governance that would, among other things, significantly change the ways in which private corporations conduct their business.

Based on all these (and many other) examples, we could be very tempted to conclude that, after a couple of decades of neo-liberal governance, the public is back with a vengeance. But is it? Yes, and no. As this project argues, the public is back, but not as we knew it.

Although there has been much discussion among International Relations scholars about the extent to which the relationship between public and private in global governance is changing, much of that attention has been focused on the rising role of private governance, authority, and actors. This project focuses instead on the other side of the equation: our interest is primarily in the transformation of the public dimension of governance in the era of globalization. As we analyze that transformation, we advance two major claims: first, that the public is beginning to play a more significant role in global governance, but, second, that it takes a rather different form than has traditionally been understood in IR theory. We suggest that unless we transcend conventional wisdom about the category of public, we cannot understand the dynamics and consequences of its apparent return. Rather than a bounded realm or space, we argue, the public must be conceptualized as a collection of culturally-specific social practices.

We suggest that the present reconstitution of the public dimension of governance can be seen as a moment of disruption—partially in response to the perceived limitations of neo-liberal ideas and practices of the public that were prominent in previous years. Contributors to this project provide somewhat different answers in response to the question, “what has changed?” but they agree that recent transformations—for instance, the global financial crisis, changes in the field of security after 9/11, and climate change—have all challenged previously taken-for-granted boundaries between the public and private, not through a renewed turn to private authority, nor through a straightforward return of the state, but rather through the development of a more fluid and contested set of public practices.


  • Jacqueline Best, University of Ottawa (co-editor)
  • Alexandra Gheciu, University of Ottawa (co-editor)
  • Rita Abrahamsen, University of Ottawa
  • Deborah Avant, University of Denver
  • Steven Bernstein, University of Toronto
  • Virgina Haufler, University of Maryland
  • Eric Helleiner, University of Waterloo
  • Anna Leander, Copenhagen Business School
  • Matthew Paterson, University of Ottawa
  • Tony Porter, McMaster University
  • Michael C. Williams, University of Ottawa