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The study of international organizations (IOs) has been described as lacking theoretical depth. However, the field actually has a more solid theoretical foundation than some of its critics allege. Moreover, the variety of approaches has entailed multifaceted knowledge of the internal workings as well as the global effects of IOs. Three theoretical traditions have emerged, dealing with institutions, organization, and governance. Institutional analysis has a central position in political science. In the study of domestic institutions, three major schools—rational choice institutionalism, historical institutionalism, and sociological institutionalism—have emerged. Organization theory represents a change of focus from the ideational structures studied by institutionalists to more material and human structures. Whereas both institutional and organizational approaches were originally formulated for domestic structures, institutionalists have been more receptive to exploring domestic-international analogies and contrasts. Even if both institutional and organization theories pay attention to process— institutionalizing rules and practices as well as organizing collective entities are long-term processes— IO studies inspired by these approaches tend to focus on relatively stable structures, asking questions concerning the establishment, persistence or change, and impact of international institutions and organizations. A third, more recent perspective focuses on continuous processes of governance, involving international organizations as well as other types of actors.


Ralph G. Carter and James M. Scott

Institutions have long been an important focus of foreign policy analysis. This is due to the fact that foreign policy is made and implemented by individuals acting within structured institutions of the state, and their foreign policy behavior is affected by the nature of those institutional structures and the roles they generate. At the heart of any institutional approach is the intersection of agency and structure. Institutions tend to influence actors more than actors influence them, and their impact is independent of the regime type or the decision making actors. Decision makers both react to and impact the external setting of decision making and the setting internal to the state in which decision making occurs. That internal setting includes social structures and the roles they generate for decision making actors to play. There are three types of decision units: structures featuring a predominant leader, a small group, or a coalition of multiple autonomous groups. The leader most commonly associated with foreign policy making is the head of the government. Other institutional roles include the head of state and military leaders. However, even when a predominant leader exists, most foreign policy decisions are shaped by small groups. There are five types of small groups: leader–staff groups, leader–autonomous groups, leader–delegate groups, autonomous groups, and delegate groups. Decision units marked by multiple autonomous units include other executive and non-executive branch actors as well. These actors include ministries, legislatures, and courts and councils.