ARENA Working Papers
WP 99/31



Unpacking Social Mechanisms
Comparing Social Constructivism and Organization Theory Perspectives*

Jarle Trondal**
ARENA/Department of Political Science, University of Oslo


Whereas a constructivist turn has occurred in recent international relations theory, a institutionalist turn has occurred in organization theories of the 1980's and 1990's. Social constructivism and organization theory exhibit important similarities as regards the basic underlying social mechanisms paid heed to. Consequently, one rationale for comparing these two strands of arguments rests on the observation that (i) they address the same dependent variables - i.e. decision behaviour, identity formation and role conceptions, and (ii) that some of the underlying mechanisms explaining these variables are nearly identical. Regarding the dependent variables, this article discusses the construction of identities, role conceptions and decision behaviours amongst central government officials. Moreover, the frame of reference for the current discussion is government officials from domestic central administrative institutions participating within committees and working groups within the European Union. This frame is chosen because officials who participate in several polities simultaneously are assumed to be challenged as regards their identifications, role conceptions and modes of acting.

Keywords: constructivism; organization theory; identity; role conception; decision behaviour; EU committees.


Increasingly, organization theory perspectives are attracting attention from scholars studying European integration and processes of Europeanization of domestic institutions and processes (e.g. Bulmer 1993; Cram 1997; Egeberg and Trondal 1999; Hix 1998; Olsen 1998). More recently, however, the attention amongst social constructivist scholars has also been directed to European integration and processes of Europeanization (e.g. Journal of European Public Policy, special issue 1999). This article aims at comparing these two strands of theory. Comparing social constructivism to organization theory perspectives identifies striking similarities as regards the insights gained (cf. Berger and Luckmann 1966). Hence, I argue that the social mechanisms addressed within social constructivist accounts are largely identical, or at least strikingly similar to those posed by different organization theory perspectives. Consequently, one rationale for comparing these two strands of arguments rests on the observation that (i) they address the same dependent variables, i.e. decision behaviour, identity formation and role conceptions, and (ii) that some of the underlying mechanisms explaining these variables are nearly identical.

Both social constructivism and organization theory go largely beyond a sui generis view of social dynamics in general, and the European integration project in particular. Both bodies of literature are also cross-disciplinar in character. Still, different `schools' have crystalized within both these literatures. This article compares `modernist' constructivism within the study of international relations on the one hand (Adler 1997; Barnett 1993; Checkel 1999c; Risse 2000; Katzenstein 1996), and organization theory perspectives from political science more generally on the other. The overall rationale of comparing them is to emphasise the striking similarities existing between these to strands of theory.

Regarding the dependent variables underpinning this study, both social constructivism and organizational theory deal with the construction of identities, role conceptions and decision behaviour amongst domestic government officials. [1] When studying these variables, the frame of reference is national governmental officials participating on committees and working groups within the European Union (EU). This frame is chosen because officials who participate in several polities simultaneously are assumed to be challenged as regards their identifications, role conceptions and modes of acting. The empirical frame, focusing on dual memberships within different polities or organizations, also allows for uncovering the basic mechanisms advanced by social constructivists and by organizational theory - ultimately revealing possible similarities between the two.

This article starts by sketching briefly the social constructivist notion, its research focus and the general social mechanisms emphasised. Next, this study argues that the basic mechanisms addressed by social constructivist scholars can be translated into more general organization theory insights. The social mechanisms emphasised by the social constructivist notion can be transposed into three more basic sets of mechanisms - rational, cognitive and integrative mechanisms. Thus, the host of social mechanisms addressed by social constructivist scholars are not exclusive, and are `in no way distinct to constructivism' (Moravcsik 1999: 674). Translating social constructivist arguments into organization theory arguments shows that the social constructivist perspective fits into an integrative perspective and a cognitive organization theory perspective (March and Olsen 1995; Simon 1997)

The following study exhibits one fundamental asymmetry: Whereas the discussion of social constructivism is solely of a theoretical nature, the organization theory section introduces empirical illustrations concerning civil servants participating on EU committees. This bias is basically due to a general lack of operationalizable institutional concepts within past social constructivist literature. [2] Generally, social constructivist contributions are meta-theoretical om nature. Only occasionally are testable hypotheses addressed (Checkel 1999c). Thus, when aiming at studying under what institutional conditions social and organizational structures mould actors' identities, role conceptions and modes of acting, social constructivist literature provides only modest help (Moravcsik 1999: 670). Past research on social constructivism asks mostly whether institutions matter in this respect (e.g. Katzenstein 1996). Hence, the empirical examples outlined in the final section are derived from organization theory concepts, and are aimed at illuminating how different institutional contexts construct identities, role conceptions and modes of behaviour differently.

Thus, two research questions are traced within this article, one theoretical and one empirical: First, what are the similarities between social constructivism and orgnaizational theory regarding the basic mechanisms addressed? Secondly, do dual memberships in different polities cause different identities, role conceptions and codes of conduct to emerge, or are these features of `the self' unaffected by this duality. [3]

Social Mechanisms in Social Constructivism. Unpacking a Middle-Range Notion

Social constructivism and organization theory addresses some of the same question: how do we render intelligible the construction of the `self'? As a scholarly discipline, however, social constructivism is fairly embryonic compared to organization theory. Still, social constructivists have largely ignored important insights from past and contemporary organization theory. Only recently have such cross-disciplinary efforts been carried out (e.g. Checkel 1999b). [4] One important reason for this general lack of cross-disciplinary learning may be due to differences in levels of analysis: Whereas social constructivism and post-modernism has been mainly devoted to meta-analysis, other social theories, i.e. organization theory, are more middle-range in nature, analysing the `cogs and wheels' bringing social elements into correlation. [5] Hence, when aiming at bridging disciplinary divides, this article suggests social constructivism be perceived as a middle-range `theory' (Checkel 1998b: 325; 1999c).

Middle-range theories are basically `mechanism-driven' - the central question being which basic elements link different social phenomena together. Central to any middle-range theory is to detect scope conditions, or probability conditions, specifying `switching points' for when certain social dynamics are likely to come about and when others are less likely to materialize (Checkel 1999c: 2). In this article, actors' identities, role conceptions and codes of conduct are perceived as reflecting some underlying basic social mechanisms. In this section the notion of mechanisms in social enquiry is briefly touched upon, followed by mapping social mechanisms stressed within social constructivism.

Social mechanisms may be understood as those sets `of stable elements that provide a plausible account of how I and O are linked to one another' (Hedstrom and Swedberg 1998: 7 - original emphasis). Social mechanisms are not only those social `cogs and wheels' that bring this relationship into existence (Elster 1989), but also the `logics by which social scientists render understandable the reality they depict' (Hernes 1998: 74). The notion of social mechanisms is often paired with the principle of methodological individualism, that is, that the “elementary `causal agents' are always individual actors...” (Hedstrom and Swedberg 1998: 11). On this very premise, rationality is singled out as the central mechanism within social life. One basic problem exhibited by this methodology, however, is that mechanisms transcending the logic of consequentiality (March and Olsen 1995) `must either be ignored..., or they must be endogenized, which seems unrealistic given the current state of social theory' (Hedstrom and Swedberg 1998: 12). On the contrary, moving beyond the premise of theoretical parsimony is vital whenever this move has some overall implication for the degree of fit between theory and reality. Moving beyond methodological individualism is both compatible with the notion of middle-range theory, and conducted by social constructivist scholars. Observing several real world phenomena not fitting the model requirements in the rational choice approach, a `constructivist turn' has occurred in recent international relations (IR) theory (Checkel 1998b). This turn, however, is as much a reaction to the post-modernist body of literature as it is a reaction to the neo-liberal account. Thus, it aims at seizing a middle ground between actor-oriented and more structure-oriented approaches. In the following, a brief review of the social constructivist arguments will be provided, followed by an outline of some basic mechanisms addressed by this theoretical account.

The basic research agenda for social constructivists is directed towards endogenizing social mechanisms excluded or held constant by rational choice perspectives. The social constructivist perspective basically argues that the social context embedding actors has some fundamental implications for the behaviour, identities and roles enacted by those actors. Actors are seen as endogenised as wholes - their actions, interactions and their identities (Caderman and Daase 1998). `The identities, interests and behavior of political agents are socially constructed by collective meaning, interpretations and assumptions about the world' (Adler 1997: 324). Social context and interaction processes are seen as constraining and constituting agents at the same time (Checkel 1999a).

The social constructivist research agenda is often pictured as a middle ground between more neo-liberal, rational choice accounts and more post-modernist notions (Adler 1997). The social constructivist perspective has thus positioned itself along an agent-structure spectrum, questioning, on the meta-level, some of the ontological and epistemological assumptions advanced by neo-liberals and post-modernists. The social constructivist position in this debate focuses on a non-materialistic ontology, as do post-modernists, and on a mutual constitutive dynamic, they thus try to bridge the ontological gap between actors and structures. [6] However, whereas agency was largely ignored by post-modernism, social constructivism aims at reintroducing this concept into the analysis, emphasising embedded rationality, in addition to upholding the notion of `structure' and `social contexts'. This study does not try to argue on the meta-level, thus, leaving the ontological and epistemological discussion largely behind. This article rather stresses the general mechanisms traced within different social constructivist contributions.

In order to make a distinction between social constructivism and general organization theory perspectives, one might argue that organization theory studies how different social contexts contribute to the enactment of certain elements within a fairly fixed repertoire of identities, roles and codes of conduct. [7] Social constructivists, on the other hand, study the initial construction of identities, role conceptions and codes of conduct, thus rendering central features of the self as variables. Put differently, whereas social constructivism aims at understanding how in example roles and identities are constructed, organization theory is more geared towards understanding how pre-existing identities and roles are activated and deactivated in particular organizational contexts. Moreover, social constructivism and organization theory perspectives perceive actors as `multiple selves' (Elster 1986), consisting of a plethora of identities, roles and possibilities for action. Organization theory pictures agents as having a particular and fixed set of responses to be enacted in particular institutional contexts, whereas social constructivism analyses how different elements within this repertoire initially came about. Despite these differences, some basic similarities still have to be identified regarding the social mechanisms addressed by social constructivists and organization theorists.

As underscored in the above discussion, social contexts and social institutions are perceived as vital for both social constructivists and for organization theory perspectives. However, and somewhat misleading, it has been argued that social constructivists largely neglect institutions in their models (Pasic 1996). Wendt (1996) argues that no conceptions of interests or beliefs exist prior to interaction. Wendt's position is criticized for being context-free, ignoring the pre-socialized actor entering interaction processes. Actors are thus perceived as `tabula rasa' prior to interaction processes (Inayatullah and Blaney 1996; Pasic 1996). On the other hand, the institutional concepts addressed by social constructivists are criticized for being too vague, they “point to a `system' out there”, but they do not unpack central characteristics of this system (Pasic 1996: 88). It is therefore difficult to deduce precise implications when it comes to identities, roles and codes of conduct on the basis of the institutional concepts addressed by social constructivists. This criticism reflects a more general tendency amongst several social constructivist scholars to ignore operationalizing and conceptionalizing the social contexts within which actors operate (Inayatullah and Blaney 1996; Pasic 1996). This is not to say, however, that this body of literature ignores institutions as such.

Having outlined some basic ideas addressed by social constructivists, I now classify some of the basic mechanisms underpinning this scholarly field. The following classification of social mechanisms are suggested: (i) rational choice mechanisms, (ii) cognitive mechanisms, and (iii) integrative mechanisms. [8] This classification scheme is based upon organization theory literature. The overall rationale for advancing this particular set of social mechanisms as the basis for theoretical comparison is that these mechanisms provide different dynamics and `outcomes' as regards the construction of identities, role conceptions and modes of acting.

Rational choice mechanisms: Several contributions to the social constructivist body of literature emphasise mechanisms largely consistent with rational choice notions (Checkel 1999c: 7; Moravcsik 1999: 675). Adler (1997) discusses the impact of authoritative agents as to make certain social facts taken for granted. Furthermore, Wendt (1994 and 1996) and Checkel (1998a) discuss the importance of conscious strategies on behalf of interacting actors. Likewise, Risse and Sikkink (1999: 5) talk about instrumental adaptation and strategic bargaining. Finally, constructivists literature pays heed to the degree of conflict between interacting actors (Checkel 1999c; Wendt 1994) and the dynamics of unintended consequences (Wendt 1996; Ruggie 1998). Seen from a rational choice perspective, identities, role conceptions and codes of conduct are subject to the strategies and interests of purposeful actors. The potential for reconstructing these properties of the self, however, is limited because actors' identifications and role conceptions are held constant within rational choice models. The potential for shifting incentives when changing social contexts, on the other hand, is more likely. Identities and role conceptions, however, are perceived as constant features of the self, and thus are not affected by social interaction.

Cognitive mechanisms: Consistent with a social psychological perspective, social constructivism also draws heavily on cognitive theory focusing on cognitive schemes, cognitive evolution, lesson drawing, persuasion, deliberation and arguing as processes determined by the allocation and acquisition of information (Adler 1997; Checkel 1998a, 1998b, 1999b and 1999c; Finnemore and Sikkink 1999: 31; Klotz 1995: 32; Wendt 1994). Attention is perceived as being a scarce resource. Whereas the rational choice perspective perceives `taken-for-grantedness' as a result of conscious strategies, cognitive theory perceives this phenomena as resulting from selective exposure towards information, thus unconsciously biasing the search-processes conducted by each actor (cf. Hopf 1998). Within a cognitive perspective, organizational borderlines are seen as buffers to attention, biasing the information exposed to the decision makers (March and Olsen 1995). `Cognitive structures simplify when there is too much, and they thus allow the perceiver to reduce an enormously complex environment to a manageable number of meaningful categories' (Markus and Zajonc 1984: 143). Within a cognitive notion, organizational boundaries resemble cognitive buffers to attention and information. Organizational boundaries make it possible to decompose complex tasks into sub-tasks that can be carried out within relatively independent units of governance. Hence, organization structures contribute to the development of `cognitive short cuts' (Johnson 1987: 45). Organizational boundaries thus systematically contextualize and bias the enactment of identities, role perceptions and modes of behaviour conducted by organizational members (March 1994; Johnson 1987).

Consequently, identities, role conceptions and modes of behaviour are seen as relatively easy to mould and re-mould on the basis of organizing and reorganizing organizational structures (Nkomo and Cox jr. 1996). If organizations are organized along new constitutive lines, the members within the organization are likely to be systematically exposed to new sets of information (Schattschneider 1960). Thus, reorganizing from one principle of organization to another will alter the flow of information within the organization, ultimately changing the flow of information exposed to each decision-maker. In other words, certain stimuli tend to produce certain responses. Having internalized a multitude of identities, role perceptions and codes of conduct, certain stimuli - like organizational boundaries - will evoke or activate only a limited proportion of this repertoire of responses (Sev�n 1996). Hence, by reorganizing the set of stimuli exposed to the actor, the responses are also likely to alter systematically.

Processes of re-allocating information may, however, also result from processes where orgnaizational members change institutional affiliations: Actors changing organizational affiliations, in example moving from domestic ministries to EU institutions, are exposed to new sets of information systematically presented to them through new organizational structures. Hence, new cognitive short cuts are constructed as a result of being exposed to new sets of information within EU institutions.

Integrative mechanisms: Finally, social constructivism draws heavily on what March and Olsen (1995) call integrative mechanisms. One conclusion drawn from this perspective is that “it is almost impossible to eradicate an old identity. In this respect the world appears a `living museum' of identities and loyalties...” (Ferguson and Mansbach 1996: 36; Aggestam 1998). These properties of the self are thus seen as relatively resistant to change. This tendency towards inertia, however, is conditioned by the length of exposure to a particular norm, institution, culture, etc. The length of exposure to certain institutional contexts is assumed to impinge heavily on actors' belief systems, identities, roles and codes of conduct (Risse and Sikkink 1999; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998). [9] Intensive and protracted exposure to certain norms arguably changes the `inner self' of the actor or the institution (Checkel 1999c: 10; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998). It is further argued that the time of birth of a social organization is vital for understanding the constitution of actors' identities, role conceptions and modes of behaviour. Consistent with rational choice arguments, the way actors play out initially may constrain later moves available to the actors. Consistent with the integrative perspective, path dependency is assumed to constrain the future choice opportunities available after certain choices are made (March and Olsen 1995).

Inertia and resistance to change are explained with reference to political socialization processes (Aggestam 1998), processes of symbolic interaction (Checkel 1998b; Ruggie 1998), and communicative rationality (Price and Reus-Smith 1998; Wendt 1996). Furthermore, social constructivists focus on the degree of `cultural match' across systems (Checkel 1999a; Wendt 1996), the logic of appropriateness (Checkel 1998a; Risse 2000), argumentative persuasion (Checkel 1999c) and regulative rules (Ruggie 1998) in order to understand how different social contexts mould actors differently. Finally, we might subsume linguistic practises, religious beliefs, moral norms, demonstration effects and more general diffusion processes as mechanisms under the integrative notion (Ruggie 1998; Wendt 1996; Checkel 1999a).

* * *

One general purpose of this classification of mechanisms is to make them fit better the mechanisms addressed by different organization theory perspectives. In making this cross-theoretical comparison, similarities across theoretical and disciplinary crossroads may be highlighted, strengthening the potential for bridging gaps between them. This classification scheme also contributes to some loss of information. The classification scheme is thus outlined in the name of simplification and comparison. The next section begins by outlining some basic organization theory arguments in order to identify similarities between social constructivism and organization theory perspectives through mapping certain social mechanisms underpinning organization theory arguments. Bridging the gap between these theoretical schools of thought might contribute to bluring the distinction between them, ultimately making cross-theoretical learning possible.

Organization Theory: A Framework for Classification

Theories of public bureaucracies and organizations on the one hand, and theories of international relations on the other hand, have had a somewhat equal life-span up till now, both being born in the aftermath of the 1930's and 1940's. [10] The theoretical similarities are strong, being dominated by rationalistic and realistic perspectives in the post-World-War II period. The 1980's and 1990's, however, have witnessed a theoretical turning-point within these camps towards greater emphasis attached to contextualized and embedded social practises (Christiansen, J�rgensen and Wiener 1999; Price and Reus-Smidt 1998). Some of the possible micro-foundations underlying this theoretical turn, however, were identified earlier within organization theory than within IR theory, as manifested by Simon's celebrated work on organizations, which emphasised man's bounded rationality (Simon 1997). However, whereas Simon discovered the cognitive nature of institutions in the 1950s and 60s, March and Olsen (1995) discovered or re-discovered the integrative, inclusive nature of institutions in the 1990s.

The new-institutionalism in organizational analysis presents a multitude of perspectives, interpretations and levels of analysis (DiMaggio and Powell 1991; March and Olsen 1995; Scott 1987). One common denominator integrating this plurality is the emphasis attached to contextualized endogenous decision behaviour, identity and belongingness. People are perceived of as homo politicus as much as homo economicus. Attention is focused on the way different contexts mould behaviour, identities and roles differently. Institutions not only constrain these elements, they also contribute to constituting them (March and Olsen 1995). Organization theory perspectives aim at understanding how different organizational contexts contribute to the enactment of different identities, role conceptions and modes of acting amongst organizational members. Organization members are perceived as collections of identities, roles and modes of behaviour, and different organizational contexts are pictured as contributing to activateing some roles, identities and codes of conduct, and to de-activating others. However, the three organization perspectives outlined bellow disagree on how easily organization members are able to evoke new identities, role conceptions and codes of conduct subsequent to changing organizational contexts. They fundamentally disagree on how easily these features of the `self' can be moulded and remoulded.

In the following, social constructivism is re-analyzed under the rational, cognitive and integrative organizational perspectives. Within each perspective some comments are provided regarding processes of `Europeanization' subsequent to national governmental officials being participants on committees and working groups at the EU level of governance. Empirical studies are referred to in the analysis due to the overall lack of generalizable institutional concepts within social constructivist accounts. [11] This lack has contributed to a general deficiency of, and a “striking unwillingness” by social constructivists to set forth distinctive and empirically testable hypotheses (Moravcsik 1999: 678). Analysing EU committees allows illuminating how identities, roles and decision behaviours are affected by certain organizational structures. Central to this discussion are the cognitive and integrative organization theory perspectives, paying only modest attention to the rational choice perspective.

A Rational Choice Perspective: Committees as Arenas for Combat and Compromise.

In contrast to the cognitive and integrative perspectives outlined bellow, the aggregative rational choice perspective perceives of decision processes as products of exogenously defined preferences and strategies (Chong 1996). Decisions and organizational borders resemble `negotiated orders'. Institutional arrangements are seen as arenas for giving and taking and make no independent impact on these processes. Preferences and identities are perceived as highly static within these models, only opening up for dynamism related to actors' strategies. An aggregative perspective thus views identities and role perceptions as highly static within decision processes, while decision behaviours are seen as changing due to changing strategies. Institutional variables are at best perceived as intervening variables, not as independent variables, when explaining these changes (Aspinwall and Schneider 1998: 15).

Current literature on European integration and processes of `Europeanization' also markedly reflect this perspective, perceiving decision processes directed towards the EU as two-level games, where the `national interests' are moulded domestically and then negotiated at different arenas within the Union (Moravcsik 1998; Putnam 1988). `States first define preferences ... then they debate, bargain, or fight to particular agreements' (Moravcsik 1997: 544). Consistent with the above arguments, when domestic government officials participate within committees at the EU level, the identities and role perceptions evoked by these officials are perceived as constant features. Committees are seen as arenas for articulating and aggregating exogenously defined preferences (Polsby 1975). They are seen as meetings points where actors give-and-take - do et des (Sartori 1987: 214). Preferences, identities and belongingness are constructed prior to participation on committees. Hence, the aggregative perspective leaves no room for outlining any hypotheses as far as changes in officials' identities and role perceptions are concerned, subsequent to their participation on committees at the EU level.

A Cognitive Perspective: Committees as Agents of Simplification.

A cognitive notion of institutionalism views organization structures as complexity-reducing mechanisms. Decision-makers' attention are scarce, and the possibility of attending to all available information is limited. Hence, decision-makers need to reduce the overwhelming amounts of information so they can act. For organizational designers, one way of reducing this information-overload is to carve up the organization horizontally and vertically, thus creating buffers against certain information, certain considerations and certain stimuli. Organizational specialization thus implies systematic selection of information, which contributes to systematically biasing the conceptions of identities, roles and modes of acting evoked by the organizational members (Schattschneider 1960). One important implication derived from this argument is: Search processes conducted by organization members may be constructed and re-constructed on the basis of designing and re-designing formal organization boundaries (Egeberg 1994). When re-designing organizations, search processes conducted by the organization members alter systematically, thus amending their identities, role conceptions and codes of conduct. Consistent with this argument, if organization members change organizational affiliation over night, the cognitive perspective assumes that the identities, role conceptions and modes of acting may change `over night'. [12] This notion is in line with Wendt's assumption about the lack of pre-socialized agents: Agent's identities, roles and codes of conduct become constructed and re-constructed in the course of interaction. When actors change the context within which interaction occurs, interaction processes are assumed to change, unbiased by prior interaction-contexts. When it comes to the permanence and durability of these change processes, cognitive buffers against information may lead to limited lasting impacts on the actors.

Social constructivists have been criticized for not operationalizing or conceptualizing the institutional contexts within which actors interact (e.g. Pasic 1996: 88). Whereas several social mechanisms have been identified in the above analysis, social constructivism has been rather vague on how institutional structures condition the relative validity of different social mechanisms. [13] Only a few efforts have been devoted to specifying the institutional conditions under which different social mechanisms are likely to have primacy (cf. Checkel 1999c). Institutions have been seen as a “a `system' out there” without bringing them deeply into the analysis (Pasic 1996: 88). Hence, the social structure embedding social interaction is too often implicit in the analysis. To illuminate how different organizational settings may affect actors' identities, role perceptions and modes of acting differently, two organizational dimensions are analyzed in the following: (i) organizational principles, and (ii) the intensity of interaction within organizations. Within this study, organizational forms, and the intensity and length of participation within and across organizations are studied in order to highlight the content evoked by organizational structures, and the strength of these effects.

First, organizational forms or principles are important and basic features of organizational structures. This dimension has to do with which questions, considerations and solutions horizontally linked, and which questions and actors are systematically kept apart within organizational boundaries. Organizational forms can be drawn along various settings (Bartolini 1997). One suggestion by Luther Gulick (1937) is to separate organizations as to whether they are specialized according to a purpose principle, a process principle, a clientele principle and finally an area principle. Sufficient for the purpose here is to show how different organizational forms contribute to the enactment of different identities, role conceptions and modes of acting amongst organizational members. This study focuses on how the organizational principles underpinning the EU Commission and the Council of the European Union may affect actors' conceptions of selves, arguing that the EU Commission is organized, basically, according to a purpose principle, while the Council is largely organized according to an area principle (Egeberg and Trondal 1999). I argue that these organizational principles are likely to affect identities, role conceptions and modes of acting differently.

Organizing the EU-system according to the principle of purpose or sector, as may be observed in the EU Commission (Egeberg and Trondal 1997), may systematically evoke sectorally based modes of decision behaviour, identities and role perceptions amongst the organizational members (Bellier 1997; Egeberg 1996; Hooghe 1997; Michelmann 1978; Middlemas 1995: 242-265). Sectorally defined modes of identifying, perceiving one's roles, and acting do not necessarily imply that these properties are especially geared towards sector A or sector B, but that they are more generally oriented towards sectoral variation and differentiation (Hammond 1986). The sector logic is shown empirically to be strongest at the unit level within the EU Commission services, whereas the national, territorial logic is observed to be stronger at the Commissioner level (Egeberg 1996). This is due largely to the greater primacy of territorial principles of organization at the Commissioner level compared to the unit level. Landfried (1997) shows, however, that even at the level of the Commissioners a sectoral logic is prevalent. Different dynamics may have primacy at different hierarchical levels within the Commission structure due to different principles of organization being uppermost at different hierarchical levels. Consistent with this argument, McDonald (1998: 60-61) observes conflicting identifications amongst Commission officials, oscillating between an `esprit europ�en' and national identifications. Notwithstanding being largely functionally organized, the Commission thus contains several partially contending organizing principles.

Organizing, on the other hand, according to the area principle, as may be observed in the Council of the European Union (Egeberg and Trondal 1997), means that a territorial logic is likely to accompany modes of behaviour, identifications and senses of belonging (Kerremans 1996; Beyers and Dierickx 1997). Area-based modes of identifying, perceiving one's roles, and acting do not necessarily imply being especially geared towards area A or area B, but being more generally oriented towards geographical variation and differentiation (Hammond 1986). When entering formal meetings within Council working parties, domestic officials are frequently reminded of their role as government representatives (Egeberg 1999). National role conceptions may be evoked solely due to the quest or plea from other representatives for `national positions' on different subject matters. Changes in the Council's voting procedures towards greater use of qualified majority voting (QMV) may strengthen the area logic of the Council even further: Not having the exit option of the veto, the sheer volume of negotiation and compromise between different member states may be strengthened - enhancing the territorial and nation state dynamic within the Council structure (Hayes-Renshaw and Wallace 1997). Earlier, when unanimity was a more widespread voting-procedure in the Council, the need for negotiations and exchanges between different state representatives was lesser. Within the Council structure the element of sector specialization is most prevalent at the working party level. Even at this level, however, Egeberg (1999) shows that domestic officials act as national representatives and not solely as functional experts. Similarly, Beyers and Dierickx (1997) and Dierickx and Beyers (1998) reveal that communication networks within these working parties are largely influenced by the nationality of the officials.

When organizing a system of governance according to more than one principle, several conflicting considerations might be attended to simultaneously and thus contribute to a multi-faceted system of governance comprising multiple identities, role perceptions and codes of conduct. Furthermore, partially conflicting principles of organization are also frequently built into each organizational structure: Within the expert committees under the EU Commission a geographical principle runs parallel with the sectoral principle due to domestic representation within them. Correspondingly, a sectoral principle supplements the area principle within the working parties under the Council due to these groups being divided into sectorally-based units.

According to the cognitive perspective, exposure to new information as a result of being exposed to new organization principles, may affect the search processes and the allocation of attention by the organization members. National government officials participating on expert committees may thus be exposed to different stimuli than may officials participating on Council working parties. This difference, however, is likely to be weakened owing to contending principles of organization being present within each committee and working group, and due to the fact that several government officials frequently participate both on expert committees under the Commission and on working parties under the Council. The impact of the institutional context at the EU level is also fundamentally conditioned by the domestic institutional context, which is the primary institutional affiliation for the government officials (cf. Barnett 1993). These propositions are empirically supported by the studies of Beyers (1998), Egeberg (1999) and Hooghe (1999).

Consistent with Checkel's (1999a) focus on the match between different cultural patterns as a decisive mechanism for fusion between different `systems', organization theory pays attention to matches in organizational structures (Caporaso, Cowles and Risse 1999; March and Olsen 1995). This is important because government officials frequently participate in different organizational settings that are organized according to different underlying principles: Domestic government officials have their primary organizational affiliation at the domestic level - within the ministries or the agencies. The potential for being affected and penetrated by new information gained at the EU level is thus likely to be conditioned by the degree of organizational match between domestic organizational structures and organizational structures at the EU level. When domestic government officials participate at the EU level of governance, one central hypothesis will be: These officials will evoke the identities, role conceptions and codes of conduct at the EU level that are most compatible with the ones normally being evoked domestically. Hence, it is more likely that officials employed in sector ministries and agencies will identify themselves with sectoral expert roles and act in accordance with them, whilst officials employed in Foreign Ministries will evoke identities and roles more nationally oriented. Officials employed within sector ministries or agencies may become penetrated by institutional dynamics within expert committees under the EU Commission, while officials employed in Foreign Ministries become affected to a greater extent by institutional dynamics within the Council working parties (Trondal 1998).

Further, social constructivism and organization theory perspectives, in addition to focusing on principles of organization, also focus on the intensity of interaction or participation within organizational structures. Consistent with Finnemore and Sikkink's (1998) and Checkel's (1999b: 549 and 1999c: 10) emphasis on the length of exposure to certain normative structures, organization theory assumes a positive relationship will materialize between the duration and intensity of interaction amongst organization members and the potential for being socialized into certain roles and identity conceptions (Berger and Luckmann 1966). [14]

Expert committees and working parties at the EU level are largely collegial arrangements of a non-permanent nature, being composed largely of `part-timers' whose primary institutional allegiances are elsewhere. The socialization potential is assumed to be, and is also empirically shown to be, weaker within temporal collegial organizations compared to more permanent hierarchical organizations. This hypothesis is empirically supported within the European Parliament (Bowler and Farrell 1995; Katz 1997) and within the American Congress (Fenno 1962). Collegial organizations are characterized as being composed of members who have their main organizational affinities to other organizations, the members thus being pre-socialized when attending the collegium. Ceteris paribus, the socialization potential of the collegium, however, is assumed to be strengthened if the committee participants attend the committee often, if he or she is a senior participant, if the same participants meet regularly, and if each colleague generally devotes a major amount of time participating within the collegial setting (Dierickx and Beyers 1999). [15] Empirical evidence indicates that intensive participation [16] within collegial arrangements contributes to co-evolvement of role perceptions, belongingness and patterns of behaviour among the colleagues (e.g. Fenno 1962; `t Hart et al. 1997). Hence, intensity of participation is assumed to blur the organizational boundaries between the collegium and the `core-organization'; in this study blurring the borderlines between the EU level and the domestic central administrative branch (Risse 1996).

One important insight obtained by this cognitive account is that actors may be highly pre-socialized when entering new institutional contexts. Still, when actors change institutional contexts, the identities, role conceptions and modes of action changes relatively easily subsequent to being exposed to new information. In addition, these features of `the self' become changed and biased in particular ways. However, when membership in the `old organization' is maintained after changing organizational affiliation, the change processes are subject to inertia due to organization members' being exposed to several bodies of information simultaneously. The question of institutional inertia is dealt with more thoroughly within the integrative perspective.

An Integrative Perspective: Committees as Slow Transformers.

Moving towards an integrative organizational perspective, we move from a logic of consequensiality towards a logic of appropriateness. Whereas the cognitive perspective is based on an underlying assumption of bounded rationality, the integrative perspective is based on assumptions going beyond the logic of consequentiality (March and Olsen 1989). The central logic is matching identities and roles to particular situations. People and government officials are `multiple selves' with multiple identifications, multiple roles and multiple codes of conduct. The element to be evoked within this set of identities, roles and codes of conduct is determined by who you perceive yourself to be and the situation you perceive yourself to be embedded in. The central logic is that of matching ones repertoire of identities, roles and modes of acting to specific (institutional) situations. Seen from the cognitive and the rational perspective, decision-makers have to make guesses about future consequences and future preferences before acting; from the integrative perspective decision makers have to make guesses about (i) the nature of the situation within which they are embedded, and (ii) the appropriate responses to this `situation'.

Organizational boundaries are perceived as more than buffers to attention. They are also perceived as formal, cognitive, demographic, temporal and symbolic arrangements (Egeberg 1994: 85). They grow, blossom and die through long `historical processes of interpretation, learning and habituation' (Olsen 1995: 28). Drawing and redrawing organizational borders affectd decision behaviour not only on the basis of search-processes, but also on the basis of matching identities and role perceptions to particular situations. Within this perspective, processes of identity and role formation and the co-evolution of these elements are much more complex than perceived by the cognitive perspective. These processes involve more than the allocation and reallocation of attention. They also involve the development of self and others, of `ins' and `outs', of friends and enemies (March and Olsen 1995). Identities attached to the nation state administrations are seen as vital for the conception of the `self' and for the framing of `others', thus making redefinition of identities relatively difficult. Processes of reorganizing boundaries are thus subject to conflicts; one implication of this being that identities and role perceptions `can not be engineered and reengineered overnight' (Olsen 1995: 28).

One central question addressed within this perspective relates to which identity and role should be evoked in which situation. `What I find ... appropriate depends to some degree on who I am and how I see myself' (Risse and Sikkink 1999: 14). Problems occur, however, when guesses about the nature of the situation, and/or about appropriate responses to this `situation' are difficult to make. As seen from an integrative perspective, domestic governmental officials entering expert committees and working parties at the EU level for the first time might strive with such difficulties. The institutional context may be perceived of as new and novel to them, thus making it difficult to decide which identity and role to evoke. The situation and the appropriate response to it may seem ambiguous to the actor (March 1994: 137). Several factors might contribute to makeing the institutional context at the EU level novel and unfamiliar: the committees are physically distant from the member state, the meeting rooms are often bigger, and the setting is multi-national and multi-linguistic. The meetings within EU committees are, thus, separated in time and space from decision situations within domestic government institutions. This ambiguity regarding which identity and role to evoke in which situation easily activates a logic of recency, implying that recently evoked identities, roles and modes of behaviour are likely to be evoked again (March 1994: 70). The potential thus exists immanent for evoking identities and roles compatible to identities and roles evoked domestically. The likelihood of evoking domestic based identities and roles at the European level is assumed to be strengthened if the official is a senior governmental official with little or no prior experience of participation in international organizations or EU committees (Beyers 1998). Beyers (1998) shows that the attitudes towards European integration reflect prior national socialization experiences. Similarly, Feld and Wildgen (1975), and Scheinman and Feld (1972) indicate that processes of resocializing domestic civil servants towards an `European idea' are difficult.

On the other hand, the likelihood of evoking new identities and roles may be affected by the sheer length of participation within committees at the EU level. [17] Protracted participation is likely to render the `new' institutional context familiar to the official. What is appropriate, and which role and identity are appropriate to enact at the EU level become less ambiguous as this level becomes internalized as a part of the self. Due to intensive and protracted participation at the EU level, the likelihood of evoking these new `European' identities and roles in the domestic arena also becomes strengthened. Consistent with the logic of recency, if committee participants attend the committees often, if he or she is a senior participant, if the same participants meet regularly, and if each organizational member generally devotes a major amount of time participating within the collegial setting, the potential is strengthened that the identities and roles evoked within these committees also will be evoked when the official has arrived at their desk in the domestic ministry or agency. This argument is supported empirically by Checkel (1999b), and by Coporaso, Cowles and Risse (1999).

Regarding the permanence and the durability of these change processes, the impact of participation at the EU level is assumed to have a more lasting effect than seen from the cognitive perspective. The integrative argument is thus consistent with social constructivist notions focusing on the inertia related to changes in actors' identities and roles. These elements of the self are seen as generally resistant to change.


Whereas a constructivist turn has occurred in recent international relations theory, a institutionalist turn has occurred in organization theories in the 1980's and 1990's. Consistent with the arguments laid out in this article, the theoretical turn may be rephrased: an institutionalist turn is at present occurring in current IR theory while a constructivist turn is occurring in current organization theory. Social constructivism and organization theory exhibit important similarities when it comes to the basic underlying social mechanisms. Important internal divisions and disagreements, however, do exist within these theoretical schools of thought. Hence, any classification scheme might be drawn along different lines. This article suggests a threefold classification scheme where social mechanisms are seen as rational, cognitive and integrative.

Generally, comparing social constructivism and organization theory perspectives along this spectrum uncovers several fundamental similarities regarding the perceived `cogs and wheels' linking social phenomena together. However, the current theoretical comparison also reveals that concepts of institutional structures are more adequately operationalized within organization theory accounts than within past social constructivist literature. Hence, the social constructivist notion can neither be seen as `new' in any middle-range sense, nor does this perspective more adequately account for the construction of identities, role conceptions and codes of conduct than do organizational theory perspectives. To this end, the institutional concept is, at present, far adequately and more explicitly addressed within organization theory perspectives. Still, more recent social constructivist work pays more emphasis to social interaction within institutions (Checkel 1999c; Risse 2000). The notion of interaction is only marginally toughed upon by organizational theorists, and only presupposed by the arguments outlined here.


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* This article is financially supported by the ARENA programme (The Norwegian Research Council), University of Oslo. An erlier version of this article was presented at he National Conference in Political Science, January 11 to 13, R�ros 1999. The author is indebted to the participants at this conference.

** Departement of Political Science, University of Oslo, P.O Box 1097 Blindern, 0317 Oslo. E-mail: .

[1] Decision behaviour may be seen as processes where premises are supplied and chosen (Simon 1997). Roles may be perceived as normative expectations guiding behaviour (Barnett 1993; Scott 1995: 42; Searing 1991). Roles are something you have, while identity is something you are. In this study roles are seen as formal roles within domestic ministries and agencies, while identities are seen as the feeling of belonging to different parts of these domestic governmental organizations. The relationship between roles and identities is seen as a continuum: Having an identity is a result of internalizing the values and goals prescribed by the roles. Yet, the concept of identity is more contested intellectually than the concept of role. Within cognitive theory, identities are perceived as taking into account consequences for external groups when deciding upon alternatives and solutions (Simon 1997: 284). The `New-Institutionalism', on the other hand, perceive identities as the characters, habits of thought, senses of reality, and codes of conduct involved in a polity (March and Olsen 1995:51). Identities are properties `owned' by the self, thus being a part of the self and being indistinguishable from it. Hence, this definition is more inclusive than the cognitive one.

[2] More recent contributions to the social constructivist literature are more explicit on institutional concepts embedding social life (e.g. Checkel 1999c and 2000; Risse 2000).

[3] One vital methodological insight gained from social constructivism relates to the degree of objectivity of empirical and theoretical arguments and observations. One central concern regards the social construction of scientific `facts'. Where you stand depends to a considerable extent upon where you sit. Hence, the current analysis is conducted from an organization theory viewpoint, and by an organization theorist.

[4] Still, social constructivists have drawn heavily from the “Meyer-school” on institutional environments. Also the notion of the logic of appropriateness of March and Olsen (e.g. 1995) have heavily influenced more recent modernist social constructivist scholars (Checkel 2000; Risse 2000).

[5] Meta-analysis, however, is a more ancient characteristic of social constructivist literature. More contemporary studies apply middle-range accounts to a greater extent (Coporaso, Cowles and Risse 1999; Checkel 1999a and 1999c). Hence, the distinction between meta-analysis and middle-range analysis does not fit perfectly to the distinction between social constructivism and organization theory.

[6] It seems that social constructivists and post-modernists agree on the importance of mutual constitutive dynamics in meta-theoretical terms. When we come to actual empirical research, however, many social constructivists fix certain variables as independent variables and show how these explain variations in dependent variables (Checkel 1999c: 28). The tendency to fix certain variables, and thus to abandon the mutual constitutive logic, however, does vary between different studies.

[7] Organization theory, however, also studies change processes, that is changes in formal structures, demography, physical locations etc., of organizations. Contrary to social constructivist notions, however, the dependent variables of such process studies are not identities, role conceptions or modes of acting. On the contrary, the dependent variables are of an institutional nature.

[8] In an effort at comparing social constructivism and organizational theory, a comparative scheme is outlined in this article. This scheme, however, is somewhat misleading because a fourth mechanism is missing: the “interaction mechanism”. This mechanism has started to show up in more recent social constructivist work (Checkel 1999c; Risse 2000). This mechanism addresses processes of argumentation, deliberation, persuasion, and the like, as scope conditions affecting social life in large.

[9] Social contructivists have problems when a contending argument is introduced: One might assume that protracted exposure towards certain norms may teach actors how to de-couple talk and action - thus keeping the `inner self' largely unchanged and unaffected by ways of presenting oneself as altered (March 1984).

[10] The study of international relations, foreign policy and foreign politics, however, may be traced back to Machiavelli. Still, `the main purpose of Machiavelli was not so much to provide general analyses of the relations between states...' (Holsti 1988: 4). Only since the 1920's has this scholarly field aimed at providing more general and theoretic analyses and insights. Similarly, the study of public bureaucracies and organizations has a strong heritage back to constitutional theory of Montesquieu, and to classical administration theory of Wilson, Weber and Gulick. The research agenda of these scholars are of vital importance for today's organization theorists. Herbert Simon, in his seminal works, however, first uncovered some of the micro-foundations and mechanisms underpinning organizational dynamics.

[11] As mentioned above, however, more recent social constructivist work make more explicit arguments on the institutional context embedding social life (cf. note 3)

[12] Regarding how rapidly such change processes may occur a cognitive perspective allows for more rapid change processes than do an integrative perspective.

[13] Checkel (1999c) and Risse (2000), however, have modified this claim to some extent.

[14] Duration has to do with the time span between the first time of entry into EU committees (t1), and the time of withdrawal from EU committees (tn). Intensity has to do with the general level of engagement into the committees during this time period.

[15] This argument, lending towards neo-functionalist notions, may be conditioned by other variables. Consistent with the arguments in this article, the effect emanating from length of participation may be conditioned by different organizational principles.

[16] The notion of social interaction lays implicit within this argument. Whereas recent social constructivist work pays attention towards social interaction, organization theory pays more heed towards the institutional structures within which this interaction occurs.

[17] Cf. note 16.


[Date of publication in the ARENA Working Paper series: 15.11.1999]