Agency, Structure and the Power of Global Health Networks

Document Type : Editorial


1 Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD, USA

2 Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, DC, USA


Global health networks—webs of individuals and organizations linked by a shared concern for a particular condition—have proliferated over the past quarter century. In a recent editorial in this journal, I presented evidence that their effectiveness in addressing four challenges—problem definition, positioning, coalitionbuilding and governance—shapes their ability to influence policy. The editorial prompted five thoughtful commentaries that reflected on these and other challenges.
In this follow-up editorial, I build on the commentaries to suggest ways of advancing research on global health networks. I argue that investigators would do well to consider three social theory-influenced global governance debates pertaining to agency—the capacity of individuals and organizations to act autonomously amidst structural constraints. The three debates concern the relationship between agency and structure, the power of ideas vis-à-vis interests and material capabilities, and the level of influence of non-state actors in a global governance system that most scholars identify as state-dominated. Drawing on these debates, I argue that rather than presume global health network influence, we need to find more robust ways to investigate their effects. I argue also that rather than juxtapose agency and structure, ideas and interests and non-state and state power, it would be more productive to consider the ways in which these elements are intertwined.


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