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date: 13 June 2024

Norms and Social Constructivism in International Relationsfree

Norms and Social Constructivism in International Relationsfree

  • Matthew J. HoffmannMatthew J. HoffmannDepartment of Political Science, University of Toronto Scarborough


Social norms were conceptualized as aspects of social structure that emerged from the actions and beliefs of actors in specific communities; norms shaped those actions and beliefs by constituting actors’ identities and interests. Early constructivist work in the 1980s and early 1990s sought to establish a countervailing approach to the material and rational theories that dominated the study of international relations. Empirically oriented constructivists worked to show that shared ideas about appropriate state behavior had a significant impact on the nature and functioning of world politics. Initial constructivist studies of social norms can be divided into three areas: normative, socialization, and normative emergence. After making the case that norms matter and developing a number of theoretical frameworks to show how norms emerge, spread, and influence behavior, norms-oriented constructivists have shifted their attention to a new set of questions, and in particular compliance with the strictures of social norms and change in norms themselves. Ideas about whether actors reason about norms or through norms can be linked to behavioral logics, which provide conceptions of how actors and norms are linked. Two types of normative dynamics can be identified: the first is endogenous contestation; the second is compliance or diffusion. In order to better understand compliance with and contestation over norms either in isolation or together, it is necessary to pay more attention to the prior understanding of who is in the community. Another topic that requires further consideration in future research is the relationship between intersubjective and subjective reality.


  • International Relations Theory


This review examines the constructivist norms-oriented literature from early efforts geared at gaining acceptance in a field dominated by the neorealist/neoliberal debates, through the recent emergence of agendas focused on norm compliance and contestation. Early empirical studies of social norms tended to consider social norms as static and relatively specific social facts. This analytic move facilitated conversation and competition with rational/material theoretical competitors. More recent constructivist norms scholarship has revisited this perspective on social norms, positing a different set of normative dynamics more focused on contestation over social norms. The essay proceeds by first describing the initial establishment of constructivist norms research and critiques that flowed from the original choices made. It then turns to a discussion of two directions currently being explored in social norms research and the open questions that remain.

Establishing Constructivist Social Norms Research

Early constructivist work in the 1980s and early 1990s sought to establish a countervailing approach to the material and rational theories that dominated the study of international relations (e.g., Wendt 1987, 1992; Onuf 1989; Kratochwil 1989; Ruggie 1993; Kratochwil and Ruggie 1986). These initial works laid the theoretical foundation for an approach to world politics that included the assumption that important aspects of politics are socially constructed, a commitment to mutual constitution as an answer to the agent-structure problem, a dedication to the importance of intersubjective reality in contrast to objective/subjective realities, and a focus on ideational and identity factors in analyses of world politics.

This was a vastly different kind of theorizing than was current in the mainstream of international relations that was locked in the neorealist/neoliberal debate (e.g., Krasner 1983; Keohane 1984, 1986; Baldwin 1990; Grieco 1990). Constructivism was and remains a very different approach to world politics than its erstwhile competitors. In contrast to these other approaches, constructivism is a social theory (or family of social theories) or theory of process (Adler 1997, 2003; Checkel 1998; Wendt 1999; Hoffmann 2009), which means it necessarily lacks a priori commitments on key elements of international relations theories – the identity, nature, interests, and behavior of important actors and the structure of world politics. Instead, constructivism is held together by consensus on broader questions of social process – its position on the agent-structure problem and the primacy of the ideational and the intersubjective aspects of social life (for overviews of constructivism see Onuf 1998; Ruggie 1998; Finnemore and Sikkink 2001; Ba and Hoffmann 2003).

While early constructivist theorizing proved to be an exciting new avenue for thinking about international relations in the abstract, both constructivists and their critics were eager to see constructivist theory applied empirically. As one notable example, Keohane (1988:392) critiqued this new perspective by arguing that “the greatest weakness of the reflective school lies not in deficiencies in their critical arguments but in the lack of a clear reflective research program that could be employed by students of world politics.” At the forefront of the initial empirical push in constructivist research were the norms-oriented and identity approaches. Reviewing the complementary identity-oriented approaches is beyond the scope of this essay, but its neglect here in no way reflects the importance of this crucial aspect of constructivist theorizing (on identity see, e.g., Hall 1999; Hopf 2002).

The category of “social norm” was not an invention of constructivism. On the contrary, this analytic device has a deep history in the sociological and economic literatures. However, when defined as ideas or expectations about “appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity” (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998:891), it became an ideal conceptual tool for operationalizing processes of social construction. Social norms were conceived as aspects of social structure that emerged from the actions and beliefs of actors in specific communities and in turn norms shaped those actions and beliefs by constituting actors’ identities and interests. Social norms were considered, in many ways, the medium of mutual constitution. In addition, the use of norms to study international relations directly challenged the orthodox assumption that the international realm was one largely devoid of sociality, merely a system of power calculations and material forces (a challenge also issued by the English school; see Bull 1977). On the contrary, early, empirically oriented constructivists worked to demonstrate that shared ideas about appropriate state behavior had a profound impact on the nature and functioning of world politics.

Initial constructivist studies of social norms generally clustered into three areas. (1) Normative behavior – how an extant norm influences behavior within a community. (2) Socialization – how an extant norm or a nascent norm from one community diffuses and is internalized by actors outside that community. (3) Normative emergence – how an idea reaches intersubjective status in a community. Focusing on these elements of normative dynamics led to progress in how constructivists understood conformance with normative strictures, the spread of existing norms, and the emergence of new norms.

Conformance – how social norms as intersubjective objects stabilize expectations and even bound what is considered to be possible (Yee 1996) – was a crucial area for constructivists because without evidence of conformance with the strictures of social norms, constructivists could not demonstrate that norms mattered. Initial constructivist norm studies thus tended to focus on how behavior in a community coalesces around a norm or is reconstituted when a norm emerges. These studies were inclined to treat social norms as independent variables and show how some political behavior is made possible or constrained by such ideational factors (e.g., Barkin and Cronin 1994; Klotz 1995; Finnemore 1996, 2003; Katzenstein 1996; Legro 1996; Price 1997; Tannenwald 1999). The goal was to show how a target behavior can be accounted by considering the ideational context, how ideas and norms constitute interests, or how social norms influence actors’ understandings of the material world.

From this mainly structural perspective, social norms were conceptualized as an alternative to rationalist/materialist variables in explanations of world politics. The empirical studies in this area were diverse. Klotz (1995), for instance, chronicled how the anti-apartheid norm shaped the expectations and actions of the US towards South Africa in the 1980s. Legro (1996) provided insight on a traditional security issue by delineating how normative ideas embedded in organizational culture at the domestic level could explain puzzling (for traditional international relations theories) variation in war fighting decisions in World War II.

Studies of norm diffusion or spread moved constructivists into the area of socialization. Prominent in the initial empirical norms research in this vein were studies that examined how given norms in a particular community diffused to actors outside the community (e.g., Risse-Kappen 1994; Keck and Sikkink 1998; Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink 1999; Checkel 2001; Johnston 2001). As Johnston (2001:494) clarifies, “socialization is aimed at creating membership in a society where the intersubjective understandings of the society become taken for granted.” These studies generally began from the perspective of a single, established norm and posited mechanisms (arguing, bargaining, persuading, and learning) for how the community of norm acceptors could be enlarged (Acharya 2004). The main empirical focus tended to be on either the development of a European polity (e.g., Checkel 2001) or on attempts at socializing Southern states into (relatively) universal international norms like human rights and sovereign statehood (Finnemore 1996; Risse et al. 1999). Less explicit attention was paid to the alternative perspectives on socialization: processes by which groups are maintained, the manner in which the targets of socialization affect both the socializers and targets of socialization (see Acharya 2004; Ba 2006), or the socialization of reluctant powerful actors (Cortell and Davis 2006; Johnston 2008).

Norm emergence studies were concerned with how ideas come to achieve normative status (e.g., Nadelmann 1990; Klotz 1995; Finnemore 1996; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998) and why some ideas become norms and others do not (e.g., Cortell and Davis 1996, 2000; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998; Legro 2000; Payne 2001). Hegemony, entrepreneurial leadership, domestic context, framing, moral argument, and epistemic community actions figured prominently in these works as the impetus for emergence (Ikenberry and Kupchan 1990; Haas 1992; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998; Keck and Sikkink 1998; Risse 2000). There is significant overlap with the socialization literature here as the mechanisms by which an idea becomes a norm are not all that different from the mechanisms by which an actor outside a normative community is brought within. Prominent in this part of the literature was Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) development of the “norm life cycle” whereby normative entrepreneurs (see also Nadelmann 1990) work to persuade states of the appropriateness of a new norm and serve as a catalyst for a cascade of new normative understandings.

These initial waves of constructivist writing met the challenge issued by Keohane and played a significant role in vaulting constructivism into prominence during the 1990s and early 2000s (Checkel 1998, 2004). They demonstrated that constructivism consisted of more than a metatheoretical critique of rational/material approaches and could indeed be used to structure rigorous empirical investigations across the spectrum of issues in international relations. Constructivists provided empirical studies on a full range of topics important to the international relations discipline – both in areas largely neglected by mainstream international relations like human rights (Klotz 1995; Risse, Ropp and Sikkink 1999), development (Finnemore 1996), and areas directly relevant to mainstream concerns like security (e.g., Legro 1996; contributors to Katzenstein 1996; Price 1997; Tannenwald 1999). By the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, constructivists were engaging with both the “small number of big important things” that Waltz (1986:329, cited in Finnemore 1996:1) famously claimed for structural realism and the “large number of ‘big important things’” that other approaches ignored (Finnemore 1996:1).

However, the success of this initial wave of constructivist norms studies was built on an analytic move that would engender significant debate in the 2000s. The initial empirical norms research tended to simplify normative dynamics to facilitate analysis and dialogue with competing perspectives, treating the norms that they analyzed as relatively static entities with relatively specific meanings and strictures. Early empirical approaches did engage with normative dynamics and change (e.g., Finnemore and Sikkink 1998), but the understanding of dynamics and change was relatively circumscribed. Norms were conceptualized as having specific behavioral strictures (a relatively bounded set of appropriate behaviors) that did not change. The first wave of empirical constructivist studies tended to “freeze” norms. Wiener (2004:191, 192) notes that this “behavioralist” approach “operates with stable norms” and is best suited to “inferring and predicting behavior by referring to a particular category of norms that entail standards for behavior.” While these studies unveiled how the norms they examined contributed to dynamic political processes, they tended to hold the norms themselves constant. Even studies of norm emergence tended to treat the norms in question as relatively static – one relatively fully formed norm is replaced by a new idea that becomes a norm. The norms’ (both established and potential) meaning, constitutive properties, and behavioral strictures remain unchanged throughout the analysis (Van Kersbergen and Verbeek 2007).

From the perspective of those who work on norms, there are very good reasons to focus on static and specific norms when analyzing international relations. First, norms are relatively stable – if they were not, it would be hard to justify or observe this analytic category. While constructivists know that social norms are always being reconstituted in the dynamic interplay of agents and social structures known as mutual constitution, social norms do elicit common behavioral expectations such that they are recognizable as relatively stable shared ideas. Second, analytic tractability is necessary and is no trivial accomplishment. Allowing the meaning of social norms to vary in the course of analysis can quickly devolve into an expository morass. The goal of most norms-oriented studies in the initial wave of empirical constructivist work was to explain something about how world politics functions. Holding social norms relatively constant in order to do this was deemed an acceptable trade-off. The focus was not on analyzing norms as much as it was using norms as a device to analyze world politics. Finally, the sociology of the discipline faced by early empirical constructivist studies virtually forced constructivists to adopt a focus on static norms. To gain acceptance and make the case that constructivist ideas mattered empirically, constructivists endeavored to demonstrate how their ideational perspective could provide superior understanding and explanation of political phenomena. Put simply, social norms were treated as independent variables – explanations for varied behaviors observed in world politics.

The simplification of social norm dynamics at the foundation of the initial wave of constructivist norms writing contributed to the meteoric rise of social constructivism within the international relations literature. Yet, the analytic choices made had consequences for how norms were understood and these initial conditions significantly shaped both constructivist analysis and the kind of critiques of norms research that subsequently emerged. Critics too began to understand social norms as static and specific and this facilitated an erroneous notion that evidence of norm-breaking behavior somehow invalidated or falsified constructivist theorizing. Rebuttals to constructivist arguments used evidence of behavior that was inconsistent with the specific and unchanging strictures of norms in question to claim that nonconstructivist (usually material or rational) factors must be the driving catalyst of political behavior and outcomes (Shannon 2000).

Similarly, treating social norms as static independent variables led to calls for constructivists to define the conditions under which normative and nonnormative influences on behavior are likely to be the most important in determining behavior (Legro and Kowert 1996; Risse et al. 1999; Jacobsen 2003). Shannon (2000:294) makes a sophisticated argument along these lines, claiming that “due to the fuzzy nature of norms and situations, and due to the imperfect interpretation of such norms by human agency, oftentimes norms are what states (meaning state leaders) make of them.” Such an interpretation of constructivist thought moves him to make a familiar argument about the split between norm-based and interest-based behavioral impulses (Shannon 2000:298–302; Van Kersbergen and Verbeek 2007).

Both of these critiques run afoul of constructivist logic yet are legitimate given how norms were conceptualized in the initial wave of empirical constructivist work. Norm-breaking behavior may be evident but is only problematic for constructivist arguments if norms are specific and static. If the meaning of a norm can change or if different communities of actors adhere to different norms (or different versions of a norm), then “norm-breaking” takes on a different meaning. In addition, taking constructivist thought to its logical conclusion, there is no such thing as nonnormative behavior or pure material self-interest independent of a normative context. Certainly actors are strategic, but constructivist logic dictates that the normative context defines and shapes that strategic behavior (Muller 2004).

Beyond fueling critiques of constructivism, treating norms as static entities made it difficult for constructivists to explain normative change (ironic for an approach that rose to prominence with its critique of other theories’ inability to explain change). To be clear, constructivists have been quite good at demonstrating the replacement of one norm with another. However, this focus did little to advance understanding of how norms themselves change without necessarily being replaced (Van Kersbergen and Verbeek 2007; Hoffmann 2005; Chwieroth 2008; Sandholtz 2008).

The initial wave of empirical norms work provided a solid foundation for the newly emergent constructivist approach, but it tended to bracket the vibrant existence of norms themselves. Constructivist thought makes it clear that social norms do not exist independently of communities of actors that believe in and enact them. They are thus animated entities that strengthen, weaken, and evolve. Treating social norms as fully formed, static constructs, even for analytic convenience, underplayed this dynamism. This freezing of norms tended to make them independent from politics – as variables in political behavior. Laffey and Weldes (1997:195) warned against this when they argued that ideas “should be understood as elements of constitutive practices and relations rather than as ‘neo-positivist causal variables…’” None of this was unknown to the pioneering empirical constructivists who fleshed out the early theoretical forays into constructivist thought. They were aware of and noted the simplifications being made – caveating their work with notations about the fluid and inherently contested nature of norms. Quintessentially, Finnemore and Sikkink (1998:914) noted “the highly contingent and contested nature of normative change and normative influence” in their examination of the norm life cycle. The norms-oriented work that followed this initial burst of activity in the 2000s built upon the success that was achieved, but also changed the trajectory of research on social norms in world politics to include broader notions of norm dynamics.

Current Directions in Norms Research

Having made the case that norms matter and having developed a number of theoretical frameworks to show how norms emerge, spread, and influence behavior, normsoriented constructivists have begun to turn their attention to a new set of questions. Two have become particularly prominent – compliance with the strictures of social norms and change in norms themselves. This pivot is an interesting development in norms research for two reasons.

First, the compliance and norm change research agenda (loosely defined) is more internally focused than the previous wave of norms-oriented research. To be sure, the international relations literature still contains healthy debate and sparring between constructivism and realism/liberalism (e.g., Petrova 2003; Fehl 2004; Williams 2004; Goddard and Nexon 2005; Sørenson 2008). Yet, constructivists are beginning to define their enterprise more independently of competing approaches. In the last decade the development of constructivist thought and empirical research has been occurring more on terms defined by constructivism itself (Checkel 2004). This has led the constructivist literature away from Keohane’s (1988) original vision of a division of labor – constructivists provide insight into what the interests are, rational approaches take the analysis from there (Legro 1996). Instead, attempts at synthesis of constructivism and rationalism are now en vogue (e.g., Fearon and Wendt 2001; Schimmelfennig 2001, 2005; Checkel and Zurn 2005; Kornprobst 2007; Culpepper 2008; Kelley 2008). In addition, norms-oriented research and the constructivist literature writ large has begun to concern itself more with research questions that fall out from constructivist thought independently without as much reference to competing approaches (Checkel 2004).

Second, and more significantly, both the norm compliance and norm change research agendas engage seriously with notions of normative contestation, directly problematizing aspects of norm dynamics that tended to be held constant in earlier work. Following the initial success of empirical norms studies that established the efficacy of studying norms and showed that they mattered, current norms research explores when/where norms matter and how/when/why norms themselves change to a greater extent. This recent research speaks to and is driven by broader questions of conceptualizing the relationship between actors and norms – whether actors reason through or about social norms. Some constructivists stress reflection and consider that agents are able to reason about the various pulls on their possible behavior (either solely normative/ideational pulls or those in addition to material/strategic pulls). What agents want and who they are may be constituted by social structures, but there is never a complete sublimation of agents – they retain an ability to reason about constitutive social structures and make relatively independent behavioral choices. At the other end of the spectrum are constructivists who argue that agents reason through social structures. In other words, actors can never significantly remove themselves from their social structure to make independent judgments.

One’s position on this spectrum of reasoning about norms or reasoning through norms has consequences. Beginning with the assumption that actors reason about social norms means considering norms to be (at least somewhat) external to actors, part of their social context, but at least potentially manipulable by actors. Assuming that actors reason through social norms means beginning analysis with the understanding that the very way that actors view and understand the world is shaped by social norms. While this is obviously a false dichotomy and constructivist studies do not treat norms as exclusively internal or external to actors, the distinction matters for how scholars approach compliance and contestation. It matters if one assumes that norms are manipulable by political actors who can reason about them from an external standpoint or if norms (and social structure more generally) more fundamentally constitute actors such that they cannot stand outside the social norms that shape their interests and behaviors. The rest of this section explores this distinction in greater detail, discussing the behavioral logics at the foundation of the about/through spectrum before examining the recent compliance and contestation literatures that are developing new ideas about norm dynamics.

Behavioral Logics

Ideas about whether actors reason about norms or through norms can be linked to underlying behavioral logics that constructivists have devised and developed since the inception of the approach. Behavioral logics are concrete expressions of how mutual constitution works and what motivates actors to behave they way that they do. They serve as concrete foundations for the different conceptions of norm dynamics that are emerging in the current literature because they provide conceptions of how actors and norms are linked.

March and Olsen introduced the discipline to the notion of behavioral logics in delineating the logic of consequences and the logic of appropriateness, framing their discussion in terms of a rationalist-sociological debate (March and Olsen 1998). For March and Olsen, the logic of consequences – where agents undertake actions on the basis of rationally calculating the optimal (usually materially) course of action – remained an insufficient foundation for theorizing behavior in international relations. They posited the LoA as a corrective. Constructivists used this logic in early efforts to contrast their work with more established rationalist perspectives on world politics (see especially Finnemore 1996) because the logic of appropriateness contends that actors in world politics undertake actions that are appropriate for their particular identity. Instead of calculating what is best for improving its utility, an actor motivated by the logic of appropriateness will instead reason what actors like me should do. This logic fitted well with the commitment to mutual constitution (the notion of what is appropriate for different identities is socially constructed) and it also laid the groundwork for the norms-based challenge to strictly material explanations of world politics.

The underlying idea of the logic of appropriateness – that actors draw upon ideas about what they should do in specific situations given who they are – was consistent with social constructivism’s commitment to the causal and constitutive (Wendt 1998) effects of norms. This logic structured seminal empirical work that endeavored to show how ideational and normative factors could explain puzzles in world politics (e.g., Klotz 1995; Finnemore 1996). It was a tool for constructivists to show that ideas, norms, and morals mattered vis-à-vis rationalist variables in explanations of world political phenomena.

Yet the logic of appropriateness appears to cede the ground of purposeful, goal-oriented behavior to rationalist perspectives (whether it actually cedes this ground is an additional, and crucial question). The use of logic of appropriateness put constructivists in the curious position of having to show that norms, ideas, and identity mattered instead of material interests, which from a constructivist viewpoint is nonsensical. Some scholars have sought a way through or out of the logic of appropriateness/logic of consequences debate by following March and Olsen’s (1998) suggestions about scrutinizing the relationship between the logics, especially possible temporal sequencing of the logics, theorizing that sometimes actors calculate optimal material courses and at others they reason about their normative/identity obligations (Shannon 2000; Nielson, Tierney, and Weaver 2006; see Muller 2004 for a caution on this synthesis strategy).

Further, constructivists became more cautious about basing their analyses on the logic of appropriateness. Risse (2000:6) captured the essence of the internal critique when he noted that the logic of appropriateness “actually encompasses two different modes of social action and interaction.” In one mode, appropriate actions are internalized and become thoughtlessly enacted at times as a precursor to or foundation of strategic behavior (Risse 2000:6) – actors reasoning through social norms. In the other mode, actors actively consider their normative context in an attempt to reason about the best (appropriate) course of action – actors reasoning about social norms. Critics found this dual understanding of the logic of appropriateness wanting and thus developed additional behavioral logics that modeled differing motivations and modes of behavior more explicitly.

Risse’s (2000) and Sending’s (2002) critiques’ focus on the taken-for-granted mode of action implied the logic of appropriateness. Sending goes so far as to claim that the logic of appropriateness is incompatible with constructivist thought because it violates the tenets of mutual constitution and does not allow for change – he contends (2002:458) that in the logic of appropriateness, social structure has “objective authority” over actors, not allowing for the kind of reflection necessary for mutual constitution and change. A similar concern motivated Risse (2000) to draw on Habermas’s work with communicative action and propose a new behavioral logic that would inject agency and more purposive reflection into the process of social construction. His (2000:2) logic of arguing is designed to clarify “how actors develop a common knowledge” and how norms and ideas can have a constitutive effect while retaining the “reflection and choice” Sending (2002:458) deems necessary for mutual constitution and change. When actors follow the logic of arguing, they seek common understandings through discourse and dialogue. The logic of arguing has inspired the development of significant empirical research (e.g., Muller 2004; Bjola 2005; Leiteritz 2005; Mitzen 2005) and it is the foundation for some approaches to reasoning about social norms (the logic of consequences is also implicated in approaches that consider that actors reason about norms).

Other scholars deemed the logic of appropriateness (as well as the logics of consequences and arguing) to be too agentic to fit well with constructivist tenets. From this perspective, the logic of appropriateness, as it was developed through engagement with the logic of consequences foil, allowed the socially constructed ideational/normative world to play a role by providing cues as to what behaviors were appropriate. However, some scholars found the mode of action where actors consciously reason about what is appropriate to be a problematic foundation for constructivist thought. Scholars such as Adler (2008), Pouliot (2008), and Hopf (2002) found this reflective aspect of the logic of appropriateness to allow for too much independence between agents and structures. In other words, they worry that mutual constitution implies that actors have a difficult time stepping outside the bounds of their social/normative context to decide what is right to do. Pouliot and Adler draw on Bourdieu to develop a logic of practice and Hopf devised a logic of habit to reflect these concerns. In essence, these scholars and those who draw upon their work consider that much of behavior in world politics arises from ingrained, unconscious motivations – either habits or practices that drive precognitive behavior. Pouliot (2008:259) argues that “most of what people do in world politics, as in any other social field, does not derive from conscious deliberation or thoughtful reflection. Instead, practices are the result of inarticulate, practical knowledge that makes what is done appear ‘self-evident’ or commensenical.”

Constructivists are certainly aware that actual behavior in world politics fails to correlate exactly to what are in essence ideal typical models of behavior. Risse (2000) extended March and Olsen’s (1998) discussion of the relationship between the logics of consequences and appropriateness to a tripartite linking of three logics. He argued:

If behavior in the real social world can almost always be located in some of the intermediate spaces between the corners of the triangle, one single metatheoretical orientation will probably not capture it. Rather the controversies mainly focus on how far one can push one logic of action to account for observable practices and which logic dominates a given situation.

(Risse 2000:3)

Similarly, rather than dismissing the more agentic logics, Pouliot (2008:276) argues that the logic of practice is ontologically prior and “it is thanks to their practical sense that agents feel whether a given social context calls for instrumental rationality, norm compliance, or communicative action.”

The development of and debate over logics of behavior is the foundation of the reasoning about norms–reasoning through norms spectrum. Empirical norms studies have both drawn on these debates and fueled them with empirical data supporting different claims. Clearly this is a continuum because if agents were truly independent from or entirely dependent upon social structures, we would not be talking about constructivism. Yet, the degree to which agents are able to independently evaluate their social context (as well as their material reality as far as that goes) and act upon it is what separates different behavioral logics and it is one way that different constructivist approaches in the current “second wave” (Acharya 2004) of norms research can be differentiated. Both compliance and contestation studies have broadened our understanding of norm dynamics – allowing norms themselves to change and exploring the conditions under which norms will elicit conformance – but they do so in different ways. Compliance studies tend to fall on the side of reasoning about norms, considering how actors react to external norms and attempts at socialization, while contestation studies tend to view actors as reasoning through norms, examining how communities of norm acceptors can alter the meaning of constitutive norms through their bounded interpretations of prevailing norms and actions in line with those interpretations.

Compliance with External Norms

The current literature on compliance with social norms has taken a question that motivated the socialization studies of the 1990s – “Why do some transnational ideas and norms find greater acceptance in a particular locale than in others?” (Acharya 2004:240) – in new directions. The seminal volume edited by Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink (1999) was the fountainhead for much of this research as it provided an explicit mechanism for how a particular set of human rights norms diffused beyond the community that originally endorsed them. The Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink volume developed the spiral model that explained socialization of recalcitrant Southern states into universal human rights norms by referring to the linkages between and actions of transnational human rights activists, domestic human rights activists in the target state, and powerful Western state sponsors. In essence, they theorized norm diffusion as taking place from a community of Western states constituted by compliance with universal human rights norms to individual Southern states.

The literature that has followed this keystone research (e.g., Acharya 2004; Cortell and Davis 2005; Farrell 2005; Mastenbroek and Kaeding 2006; Kornprobst 2007; Capie 2008) moves beyond the boundaries of earlier socialization research, especially the tendency to focus on displacement of local/domestic ideas with international norms through transnational teaching (Finnemore 1996; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998; Keck and Sikkink 1998; Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink 1999) or to attribute norm diffusion to “fit” between global and local norms (Cortell and Davis 1996; Florini 1996). It examines the socialization process as more one of contestation between different normative systems and has broadened the scope of analysis to include attempts at socializing both powerful and weaker actors. In addition, rather than taking the external norm as given, recent socialization studies examine compliance with international norms as a process by which states (already normatively constituted) interact with, manipulate, and (sometimes) incorporate external ideas in a dynamic fashion. The analytic focus is shifting to the targets of socialization and the dynamic and agentic process whereby actors interact with their normative context.

The work of Cortell and Davis (2005) and Acharya (2004) are relevant examples of this type of compliance research. Cortell and Davis (2005) still invoke fit or congruence between the local context and global norms in explaining compliance with an international norm, but their twists on this theme are: (1) to examine socialization of a powerful actor – Japan; and (2) to conceive of fit not as a given, but rather the result of conscious domestic political activity. They (2005:25) note, “As domestic actors search about for new ideas to legitimate their self-interested preferences, the norms and institutions of the international system often provide them.” While Cortell and Davis do not problematize the substance of the financial liberalization norm under examination, they do attend to a neglected aspect of norm dynamics – the actions of those actors who are targeted for socialization. Acharya (2004) goes further in that he allows for the substance of international norms to be molded to fit local contexts – localization. In his study of how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its constituent states interacted with global norms, Acharya (2004:251) demonstrates that “localization does not extinguish the cognitive prior of the norm-takers but leads to its mutual inflection with external norms.” International norms are adapted to local circumstances by actors with the ability to observe and manipulate ideas from the external normative context – in so doing they alter the substance of the international norm to build congruence.

In both cases, compliance with an international norm – behaving in a way that matches the behavioral strictures of the norm – is expressly theorized and variation in compliance is explained not by pitting constructivist and rationalist/materialist variables, but by examining processes by which domestic actors interpret and manipulate international and local norms. Along with recent work on strategic social construction – the idea that norms can be deployed in the service of interests (regardless of whether those interests are pre-given or socially constructed themselves) or at least shape strategic behavior (e.g., Barnett and Coleman 2004; Muller 2004; Nielson, Tierney, and Weaver 2006; Seabrooke 2006) – the recent writing on compliance has made progress on questions left open by the initial wave of empirical norms research.

In the attempt to understand when and where norms are likely to be efficacious, these authors stake out a position on the reasoning about–reasoning through norms spectrum. They consider that actors can stand outside a normative structure to consider options. This is natural given that this work is still in the area of socialization. The compliance literature is most often concerned with the actions of actors (Japan in the Cortell and Davis piece or the Southeast Asian nations in Acharya’s work) who have yet to accept or internalize international norms (financial liberalization and cooperative security/humanitarian intervention). When interacting with external norms, the targets of socialization reason about and in some cases manipulate the social norms (international or domestic) that shape their behavior. Rather than passive receptacles, norm takers have a very active role to play in socialization and can influence the meaning of the norms that constitute the very community they are being asked to join (Ba 2006).

Contestation from Within a Normative Community

Constructivists interested in norm change have recently begun reconceiving norm dynamics in a different way and have focused on contestation within communities of norm acceptors. This aspect of the literature is more focused on how actors understand the norms that constitute them and alternatively consider how actors that reason through norms can contest and reconstruct the norms that bind communities together. Scholars working in this vein often begin by critiquing the analytic move to freeze the content of norms. Wiener (2004:198) warns us that “studying norms as ‘causes for behavior’ …leaves situations of conflicting or changing meanings of norms analytically underestimated.” Certainly norms exhibit stability, as they are recognizable by the common expectations that they structure but, paradoxically, norms are also in a constant state of dynamism and flux. Norms are born anew every day as actors instantiate them through their beliefs and actions and, as Sandholtz (2008:101) notes, “normative structures, in other words, cannot stand still.”

Undoing the freezing of norms has been based on a reimagining of social norms as generic social facts that are inherently dynamic. In eliciting conformance and stabilizing expectations norms do not and cannot define all possible behavior, especially when a norm first emerges. Instead social norms are generic rules that allow agents to behave and get along in a wide range of situations. This reimagining is not new. Giddens (1984:22) argued that social rules do not “specify all the situations which an actor might meet with, nor could [they] do so; rather, [they] provide for the generalized capacity to respond to and influence an indeterminate range of social circumstances.” Until recently this insight was often bracketed and it was assumed that norm acceptors follow the norms that structure their community relatively unproblematically. Recent studies have taken the generic nature of norms more seriously and have subsequently focused on how actors must operationalize their normative context to take specific actions (Hoffmann 2005; Van Kersbergen and Verbeek 2007; Sandholtz 2008). These works argue that norms do not provide fully specified rules for every situation, and especially not for novel situations. Instead, norms are general principles that must be translated into specific actions (Gregg 2003). Van Kersbergen and Verbeek (2007:221) go so far as to posit that this vagueness is actually designed into norms to facilitate maximum adherence.

Treating norms as generic has been at the foundation of the recent shift towards the study of contestation. As Sandholtz (2008:101) puts it “disputes about acts are at the heart of a process that continually modifies social rules. The inescapable tension between general rules and specific actions ceaselessly casts up disputes which in turn generate arguments, which then reshape both rules and conduct.” The logical chain from general norms to contestation is not long. General norms must be operationalized or translated into specific actions for specific situations. The translation requires interpretation – a subjective understanding of the intersubjective context – to decide on a behavior. The ability to apprehend what is going on inside actors “heads” to understand motivations and interpretations is currently a matter for debate (Cederman and Daase 2003; Jackson 2004; Wendt 2004; Krebs and Jackson 2007) but, that debate notwithstanding, the notion that different actors within the same normative community – i.e., a group structured by the same norm(s) – could have different and contested understandings of that norm is at the foundation of the recent work on norm contestation.

Wiener (2004:203) argues that “the interpretation of the meaning of norms, in particular, the meaning of generic sociocultural norms, cannot be assumed as stable and uncontested. On the contrary, discursive interventions contribute to challenging the meaning of norms and subsequently actors are likely to reverse previously supported political positions.” The current norm contestation literature explores processes through which actors come to understand shared norms differently, contest each other’s understandings, and how the contestation alters/reifies the norms that constitute a community of norm acceptors together (Hoffmann 2005; Van Kersbergen and Verbeek 2007; Chwieroth 2008; Sandholtz 2008). Sandholtz (2008:121) deems this to be a “built-in dynamic of change” whereby “the ever present gap between general rules and specific situations, as well as the inevitable tension between norms, creates openings for disputes.”

A number of recent studies have examined just this tension and the range of empirical topics being considered from this perspective is now quite broad. Studies of contestation and norm change have begun to examine diverse issues like organizational change in international financial institutions (Nielson, Tierney, and Weaver 2006; Chwieroth 2008); European integration (Meyer 2005; Van Kersbergen and Verbeek 2007; Dimitrakopoulos 2008); environment (Bailey 2008); election monitoring (Kelley 2008); and security (Kornprobst 2007). Sandholtz (2008) himself proposes a cyclical model to explain the evolution of norms prohibiting wartime plunder. He considers that existing norms constrain the possibilities for action, but that different understandings of those norms inevitably arise in the community of norm acceptors. Arguments over the different actions feed back and alter the meaning of the original norms. Wiener (2007) has advanced what she is calling a new logic of contestedness and has explored (2004) the dynamics of interpretation and contestation in European responses to the 2003 Iraq War. Hoffmann (2005) employs insights from the study of complex adaptation to understand how states that all accepted the norm of universal participation in climate governance came to have different subjective understandings of that norm. Contestation over variants of universal participation then had significant impact on the evolution of the universal participation norm and climate governance outcomes.

Open Questions for the Current Norms Research

The Sandholtz (2008:121) passage quoted above brings together the two types of normative dynamics discussed in this section. There is an implicit equivalence made between contestation that goes on within a normative community (generated by the “gap between general rules and specific situations”) and contestation that occurs between different normative communities (“inevitable tension between norms”). The first is endogenous contestation – actors that accept a general norm and are constituted by it nevertheless have different understandings of it or operationalize its strictures differently, leading to disputes and change in the meaning of the norm from within. The second is compliance or diffusion – actors from different normative communities seek to enlarge their communities or to hold on to extant norms in the face of external normative challenges and disputes that arise can lead to normative change in both communities. This is akin to what Krebs and Jackson (2007:43–4) describe as implication contests where actors agree on the nature of an issue, but not the policy implications and framing contests where there is fundamental disagreement about the situation at hand.

These dual visions of normative dynamics are likely related, but the norms literature has yet to describe how. On the contrary, the two parts of the norms literature described above tend to find themselves on different ends of the reasoning about norms–reasoning through norms spectrum. Perhaps this is simply a matter of what questions are being asked. One set of norm dynamics may be implied when one seeks to understand how an actor outside a normative community interacts with norms when it is the target of socialization. An alternative set of norm dynamics may be implicated when one seeks to understand change in norms themselves. However, the separation between the two kinds of norms research discussed above may ultimately be artificial. Those who study compliance realize that actors are constituted by norms and cannot fully separate themselves from their normative context. This realization was part of what prompted the serious focus on domestic political/normative contexts in much of this literature. Those who study contestation do allow for reasoning about norms, appealing to notions of interpretation to generate different understandings of a norm with a community of norm acceptors.

In addition to considering how the two types of norm dynamics are related, the current norms literature brings traditional open questions in constructivism into sharp relief. First, both types of studies may benefit from more attention to the notion of intersubjective communities and their boundaries. Intersubjective facts like social norms only exist within a community of actors that accept them. Studies of compliance and contestation must grapple with this fundamental characteristic of social norms in a more explicit way moving forward. Constructivists are often too fast and loose with the use of the term “norm” without a concomitant discussion of what the community of norm acceptors looks like and by what criteria we can identify a community of norm acceptors. Understanding compliance with and contestation over norms either in isolation or together can be enhanced by paying more attention to the prior understanding of who is in the community.

Second, at a broader level, the current norms literature is wrestling with the relationship between intersubjective and subjective reality. A paradox of social norms is their dual quality. As shared objects, they appear as external to any particular actor – actors experience norms, at least in part, as external rules. But the existence of a norm is dependent on continual enactment by communities of actors – actors thus also experience norms, at least in part, as internal rules (Hoffmann 2005). Jacobsen (2003:60) recognizes the need to theorize this relationship observing that, “constructivists of all stripes seem to agree that it is vital to theorize links between subjective experience and social/institutional structures.” The two versions of norm dynamics discussed above posit different conceptions of the intersubjective/subjective relationship, but neither has developed the final answer to this open question.


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I would like to thank Alice Ba, Robert Denemark, Phil Triadafilopoulos, and the anonymous reviewer for their helpful discussions and suggestions on this essay. In addition, the students who took POL487 in fall of 2008 at the University of Toronto provided a wonderful sounding board and inspired feedback for the development of some of the ideas in this essay.