Why Comply? Constructivism, Social Norms and the Study of International Institutions

This paper argues that social constructivism suffers from a lack of micro-level, social agency theory; it attempts to fill this lacuna by analyzing state actor compliance with human rights regimes.

ARENA Working Paper 24/1999 (html)

Jeffrey T. Checkel

Constructivists need a theory of social choice. While these scholars have been good at exploring the macro-foundations of politics and state behavior -- rules, norms, culture, political discourse -- less attention has been paid to underlying causal mechanisms of choice, that is, how agents take action within these structures. The result has been a micro-, process-, decisionmaking- gap in all too many studies. I address this lacuna, specifically asking why actors abide by the norms embedded in regimes and international institutions. To date, scholars have proposed two, competing answers to this compliance puzzle. On the one hand, regime theorists and students of international bargaining emphasize instrumental motives and material factors, while neglecting the social and interaction contexts of compliance; on the other, constructivists stress the role of social structures in compliance decisions, while failing to develop a robust and multi-faceted theory of agency. Both schools might thus benefit from greater dialogue; to this end, I suggest how a focus on argumentative persuasion and social learning not only theorizes the agency/interaction nexus in a more meaningful manner, but also broadens, empirically, our understanding of why social actors comply. These insights are illustrated by exploring why state agents comply with norms promoted by the European human rights regime.

Tags: socialization, institutions, international regimes, methodological issues, supranationalism, fundamental/human rights
Published Nov. 9, 2010 10:52 AM