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Finnemore and Sikkink: International norm dynamics and political change

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Finnemore and Sikkink. 1998. International norm dynamics and political change. International Organization 52 (autumn): 887-917.


  • Ideational concerns have been a traditional concern of political science, though they were largely absent during the behavioral revolution and the subsequent infatuation with microeconomics. Now, they have been brought back in with an increased scientific rigor (due to insights from behavioral and microeconomic research).
  • The central difficulty of ideational theories is how to explain change (not stability). The authors outline a "life cycle" of norms.
  • "The processes of social construction and strategic bargaining are deeply intertwined." (911)


  • This section is mostly just an argument that norms matter. Along the way, they commit a class constructivist mistake: gross tautology. "Slaveholders and many nonslaveholders believed that slavery was appropriate behavior; without that belief, the institution of slavery would not have been possible." [So in other words, slavery is evidence of a norm that led to slavery.]

THE LIFE CYCLE OF A NORM (see table on pg 898):

  1. "Norm emergence." Norm entrepreneurs arise (randomly) with a conviction that something must be changed. These norms use existing organizations and norms as a platform from which to proselytize (e.g. UN declarations), framing their issue to reach a broader audience. In Stage 1, then, states adopt norms for domestic political reasons. If enough states adopt the new norm, a "tipping point" is reached, and we move to stage 2.
  2. "Norm cascade." In stage 2, states adopt norms in response to international pressure--even if there is no domestic coalition pressing for adoption of the norm. They do this to enhance domestic legitimacy [comment: seems to imply domestic demand], conformity [b/c leaders don't want to stick out], and esteem needs [because being shamed as non-conformists by the int'l community makes them feel bad]. We need more psychological research to consider how this works [apparently].
  3. "Norm internalization." Over time, we internalize these norms. Professionals press for codification and universal adherance. Eventually, conformity becomes so natural that we cease to even notice the presence of a norm.
  1. "Legitimacy": affects timing. States may adopt norms if their domestic legitimacy wavers. [I like Moravcsik's argument better: if your power wavers, you adopt norms that perpetuate your ideology.]
  2. "Prominence": norms held by prominent states (e.g. powerful states, war victors) are likely to be adopted (e.g. liberalism, capitalism post cold-war).
  3. "Intrinsic qualities": some intrinsic qualities of a norm may make it more likely to be adopted (but the authors advise caution on this line of argument). Essentially, we're all slowly becoming hippies. We value universalism; individualism; voluntaristic authority; rational progress; and world citizenship. Keck and Sikkink make an argument that norms about bodily harm against vulnerable groups and legal equality of opportunity will be more appealing cross-nationally.
  4. "Adjacency": If the norm is like an existing norm, or somehow derivable from it.
  5. "World time": A depression or shock can lead states to look for new norms; the end of a war can lead states to adopt the victor's norms.


  • Materialism, instrumental utility maximization vs "logic of appropriateness" [the action itself is good], choice [do we choose to follow a norm, or is it simply "internalized"?], and persuasion [there aren't really any good theories about how we get persuaded].
  • It's not a debate between rational choice and constructivism, as many constructivist theories define only preferences but outline highly rational means of achieving them.
  • "The debates also do not divide norms researchers into two tidy camps. Researchers may marry ideational ontologies with rational choice; they may examine reasoned choice among conflicting "appropriate" behaviors; they may examine highly instrumental and strategic interactions designed to construct new standards of appropriateness, as most studies of norm entrepreneurs do; and they may generally find themselves cross-cut in ways that are refreshing and, we hope, stimulate new kinds of conversations."


  • The authors leave themselves wide open to a criticism similar to Moravcsik's (2000): when they compare constructivism and "rational choice," they focus on third-image rational choice. But what of second-image rationality? I can accept that stage 1 is driven by domestic political pressure--but why aren't the later stages also driven by domestic pressure? The same domestic coalition that convinced their state to adopt a new norm in stage 1, can now support only those politicians who will pressure other states to adopt similar norms (stage 2). Similarly, citizens within norm-accepting states will press for codification of the new norms (new laws, new trade policies and practices), which leads both to internalization of the norm and further diffusion of it (stage 3).
  • In my view, Keck and Sikkink make progress; their "boomerang effect" shows how this article's stages 1, 2, and 3 might all be driven by similar domestic political factors: if norm entrepreneurs succeed in one state but struggle in another, the strugglers network with the succeeders (in a TAN) to effect pressure on the strugglers' state. My point: I don't see why a rational theory of state policy (domestic and foreign) can't explain both why a state adopts a new norm and why it pressures others to do the same. Although norm entrepreneurs may adopt their cause for non-rational reasons, a rational theory of political behavior can explain perfectly well how they proceed.