The Quality of Norms is What Actors Make of It: Critical Constructivist Research on Norms

Antje Wiener, Uwe Puetter
Content Type
Journal Article
The Journal of International Law and International Relations
Issue Number
Publication Date
Winter 2009
Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto
What actors make of norms matters, in particular, in situations of crisis when the contextual conditions for norm interpretation are enhanced. That is, situations of crisis add an additional factor of pressure next to the conditions of normative contingency and moving the social practice of governance. beyond the boundaries of modern states. The addition of time requires fast decisions thus leaving little room for deliberation about a norm's meaning. Contrary to the expectation that based on an increasing constitutional quality in beyond‐the‐state contexts, actors can build on and refer to a set of formally and informally shared principles for information and guidance in designing common action and policies, we hold that norm interpretation in international relations is challenged by the absence of cultural background information. If this observation holds, it follows that the often observed constitutional quality beyond the state which includes the formalization of the role of international norms through treaties and agreements, the dense web of international negotiation forums and enhanced possibilities of iterated interaction in the global realm is not necessarily conducive to the shared interpretation of norms in an international setting. While this constitutional quality has been acknowledged and reflected by the concepts of disaggregated network governance, a global community of courts, or as sites of struggle, paradoxically, the very process of norm proliferation and the increasing acknowledgement of the power of norms in international relations and decisions that are taken bring the contested nature of norms to the fore—thus demanding a fresh look at norm applications. Research on norms, therefore, needs to better understand the inherently contested quality of norms that stems from and is closely interrelated with the very processes of norm application. A key theme throughout this special issue is that theoretical approaches to the study of norms need to generate a more encompassing and substantive definition of norms, allowing researchers to study and understand them in a context‐specific manner. We argue that only such an approach can account for the role of contestation as an integral part of the processes by which specific policy options are derived. This poses both a conceptual and empirical challenge.