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date: 16 August 2017

Sociological Institutionalism and European Integration

Summary and Keywords

Sociological institutionalism is part of the larger group of new institutionalisms, which share the basic understanding that institutions matter in social processes. Opposing a more descriptive, “old” institutionalism and a rational-choice version of institutionalism, which defends the idea that actors have the option to choose independently from a large number of attitudes, sociological institutionalists introduced the notion of logic of appropriateness, influenced by a specific strand of the sociology of organizations. This understanding, however, led to limits in the explicatory force of the approach: institutional change, as well as continued conflict and differentiated power relations among actors, could not be explained well. More recent approaches that took sociological institutionalist assumptions very seriously offered a series of possible solutions to those difficulties. While elements of rationality and power exist implicitly in different conceptualizations of sociological institutionalism, these authors explicitly brought together both actors’ rational behavior and their embeddedness in broad institutional frameworks through concentrating on the power relations that exist among agents.

Keywords: organizational sociology, sociological institutionalism, organizations, institutions, isomorphism, logic of appropriateness, regional integration, European Union (EU)


Sociological institutionalism is part of one of the many institutionalisms commonly found in the literature (Peters, 2011). Institutionalists agree on the basic assumption that institutions matter. Based on this premise, scholars countered the behaviorist paradigm prevailing in social sciences during the 1950s and 1960s, which saw the aggregated behavior of social actors and more specifically the free interplay of their interests, as the main explanatory factor behind political processes. Institutionalists criticized behaviorists for ignoring the embedded structures of political life that make up the state (Evans, Rueschemeyer, & Skocpol, 1985; March & Olsen, 1984, 1989; Berger, 1981; Hall, 1986; North, 1990) and argued that political institutions structure political life and policymaking. The main argument is that these institutions must be integrated into policy analysis as independent or intervening variables when studying the preferences of social actors and seeking to explain the results of their interactions. Institutions are more than just agents facilitating exchanges between actors or instruments to lower transaction costs. They act in their own right and develop their own action strategies.

But it is not only behaviorists that new institutionalists opposed. They also distinguished themselves from the institutionalism that dominated political science before the behaviorist revolution of the 1950s and 1960s (for a debate on this issue, see Thelen & Steinmo, 1992; Thoenig, 2003). This old form of institutionalism offered detailed studies of administrative, legal, and political structures such as ministries, agencies, or governments. Their constitutions, organograms, and internal procedures such as formal voting rules provided the subject of analysis. They were taken for granted (Riggs, 1971). The work produced in this framework is characterized by normative positioning and a juxtaposition of detailed descriptions of institutional configurations in different countries. Although it could be useful for developing an understanding of political systems in general, old institutionalism did not define categories and concepts that could actually be used to construct explanatory theoretical frameworks; it described rather than explained outcomes or results. By viewing institutions more widely as social constructs, and by taking into account the influence that institutions have on individual preferences and actions, new institutionalism has moved away from its institutional (formal, legal, descriptive, or historical) roots and became a more explanatory discipline within politics.

Two types of sociological institutionalisms emerged: the first one originating in the sociology of organizations (March & Olsen, 1989; DiMaggio & Powell, 1991); the second one examining the influence of the “world society” (Meyer, 2010) on broader cultural and ideational variables in order to explain actors’ behavior.

This article will concentrate in particular on the features of sociological institutionalism in regional integration theories, and more specifically with regard to European integration processes, predominantly situated in the first type of sociological institutionalism, stemming from the sociology of organizations. The text presents the multiple definitions of institutions in the second section, before turning to the question of what is sociological about sociological institutionalism in the third section. The fourth section then analyzes the limits of sociological institutionalism, in particular with regard to the difficulty that it has with explaining institutional change. A conclusion then draws these elements together and suggests an agenda for future research.

Institutions: Multiple Definitions

The definition of what an institution really is remains somewhat vague, leading to a situation in which every other publication adopts its own (Aspinwall & Schneider, 2000). The majority of scholars base their research on an understanding that encompasses diverse forms, such as organizations, formal and informal institutions, conventions, norms and symbols, political instruments, and procedures (North, 1990; Armstrong & Bulmer, 1998). At the most general level, institutions are “formal rules, compliance procedures, and standard operating practices that structure the relationship between individuals in various units of the polity and the economy” (Hall, 1986, p. 19). In a similar vein, two of the founding fathers of new institutionalism, David March and Johan Olsen (March & Olsen, 2006a, p. 3), define institutions as “a relatively enduring collection of rules and organized principles, embedded in structures of meaning and resources that are relatively invariant in the face of turnover of individuals and relatively resilient to the idiosyncratic preferences and expectations of individuals and changing external circumstances.” Another way of defining institutions is to distinguish between, on the one hand, formal and informal institutions, and, on the other, organizations. The term formal institutions refers to elements such as constitutions, laws, and regulations, while informal institutions refers to norms, conventions, beliefs, and ideologies. According to North (1990), while institutions are the rules of the game, organizations are the players.

These definitions allow us to consider institutions as dependent or independent variables, actors, or arenas in which debates take place. When institutions are considered as dependent variables, institutionalist approaches analyze the emergence and establishment of organizations and their internal procedures based on formal and informal rules and the ways that these rules are used by the agents in the organization. Examples of institutions as dependent variables can be found in studies of the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Central Bank, or independent regulatory agencies. Understood as independent or intervening variables, institutions are seen as parameters creating elements of order and predictability. Researching institutions as purposeful actors means identifying the role that institutions play as independent agents in processes of change, be it policies, institutions, or social, economic, or cultural structures. In studies of the European Union (EU), the research focuses on the impact of EU law, principles, conventions, programs, or ways of doing things. More generally, institutions are understood as factors that influence the cultural and social frames that influence and transform the behavior of agents at the domestic level.

These understandings of institutions can be found in all new institutionalism approaches. Now, what is specific—or, more precisely, sociological—about sociological institutionalism?

Sociological Institutionalism

As sociology concerns itself with social order, the abovementioned definitions lead us to think that the entire discipline can be said to be “institutional” (Immergut, 1998). Sociological institutionalism is a specific approach to organizational theory. States and other organized political actors are treated as organizations, offering “a broad cultural theoretical perspective on organizations and thus on politics” (Amenta & Ramsey, 2010, p. 32). In sociological institutionalism, organizational structures provide the infrastructures through which normative, cognitive, and dependence mechanisms exert their influence.

Sociological institutionalism is built upon behavioral psychology and the sociology of organizations to develop a view of individual cognition and collective decision-making within organizations. For Thoenig (2003), sociological institutionalism goes back to Philip Selznick’s study of the Tennessee Valley Authority (Selznick, 1949) in which he defines a public organization as a community “in and of itself,” and not as an authority established only to achieve specific goals. Selznick (1957, p. 17) shows that the declared ends do not necessarily lead to those that the agency actually achieves, or even seeks to achieve: “to institutionalize is to infuse with value beyond the technical requirements of the task at hand.” We find here the elements that later developed into some of the cornerstones of sociological institutionalism: values and cognitive frames that constrain individual behavior.

While sociological institutionalism derives from the different conceptualizations of organizational sociology, it has been expanded since. Two studies in particular influence sociological institutionalism: James March and Johan Olsen’s work (March & Olsen, 1984, 1989) and Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell’s edited volume from the beginning of the 1990s (DiMaggio & Powell, 1991), building upon Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Talcott Parsons.

Opposed both to the rational-choice version of institutionalism, which conceives institutions as rule systems that are rationally constructed by individuals seeking to further their material self-interest (Moe, 1987; Shepsle & Weingast, 1995), and to a purely cognitive and discursive approach to institutionalism, contemporary sociological institutionalists argue that cognitive limits on human capacities for gathering and processing information (bounded rationality) result in various coping mechanisms instead of utility-maximizing ones. Their aim is “to integrate more firmly organizational institutionalism with general sociology, (and) to place interests and power on the institutional agenda” (DiMaggio & Powell, 1991, p. 27).

For sociological institutionalists, actors rely on standard operating procedures and cognitive frames that reduce choice, and thereby structure and coordinate action. This specific institutionalism, therefore, concentrates on processes of legitimation and social reproduction, but it also insists on the fact that institutions are first and foremost products of human action (DiMaggio & Powell, 1991, p. 28). Sociological institutionalist approaches have especially stressed the socially contingent development of norms, ideas, and institutions, in both the domestic and the international arena.

What we see from this is that sociological institutionalism helps us to conceptualize two types of processes: institutional emergence and institutional life. With regard to institutional emergence, sociological institutionalists are interested in how a specific behavior or attitude comes to be considered as more legitimate or appropriate than another. This understanding of a specific behavior must be codified in order to serve as cognitive frames in which actors act. Hence, influence on actors’ decisions may stem not only from formal rules such as laws, regulations, or court decisions, but also from the fact that some choices seem more natural, plausible, appropriate, and legitimate than others.

The emergence of institutions, however, is not an incremental process without conflict. Actors’ understanding of legitimate and plausible behavior can also be ambiguous, and hence can be differently understood by actors operating within a particular context (Wiener, 2006). Contestation over a specific norm’s meaning erupts when actors are confronted with their divergent understandings of what norms enable and forbid. And it is this differentiated interpretation that allows a new institution to emerge. One particularly well known application of this understanding of institutional emergence is the norm life-cycle model of Finnemore and Sikkink (1998). According to these authors, normative understandings journey through various stages once they have been ushered into the global arena by a norm entrepreneur. In other words, normative understandings must be transformed into an institution (in this case, a norm) through individual actors. The early phase, in which norm entrepreneurs lobby for their normative understanding of a problem, is considered the norm emergence phase. During the norm emergence phase, norm entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to various actors already holding many other normative commitments. In this competitive normative environment, norm entrepreneurs strategically use rhetorical action to gain supporters (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998).

If norm entrepreneurs are successful during this initial stage, the normative idea continues its development toward becoming a full-fledged norm (or institution). However, there is nothing inevitable about this process. Normative ideas may advance through this life cycle to emerge as norms. Yet, they may also fail to emerge. Some factors vital to a normative idea’s fate include whether the international environment is ready to accept this novel idea, how well the idea coheres with the extant normative structure, and the prominence of the norm entrepreneur. Applied to the European Union, this model was used to explain the emergence and the partial consolidation of a participatory norm (or, in other words, the institution of a participatory democracy at the EU level).

At the beginning of the 1990s, a new norm seemed to emerge at the EU level, insisting on the democratic necessity of civil society participation in decision-making processes. Through the analysis of different forums in which the idea of the participatory turn emerged at the EU level, such as the Forward Studies Unit, as well as the different working groups preparing EU documents and white papers on this issue, Saurugger (2010) argued that the norm of participatory democracy at the EU level has emerged as a dynamic of normative diffusion linked to routinization, as much as for strategic reasons.

In more general terms, sociological institutionalism has allowed for analyzing legitimacy questions in the European Union more broadly. In his book on the establishment and the subsequent empowerment of the European Parliament, Rittberger (2005) shows the extent that the normative constraints experienced by political elites on both the European level (the perceived legitimacy deficit of the EU) and the domestic level (the domestically held, legitimate beliefs on representation) influenced the specific features of the European Parliament. According to research based on sociological institutionalist perspectives, the concept of legitimacy or its deficit must be understood as an intersubjective property that “operates through individuals via cognitive scripts” (Goetz & Rittberger, 2010, p. 37). It thus helps to understand that the legitimacy deficit is not an unchangeable fact, but a shared cognitive framework that structures agents’ attitudes in policymaking processes.

Applying a sociological institutionalist approach even more broadly to the process of European integration, and thus institution building, Stone Sweet, Sandholtz, and Fligstein (2001, pp. 13–14) argued that institutions are more than just payoff matrices or transaction cost–reducing devices. Institutions, once established, also provide actors with opportunities to shape the behavior of other actors, be they inside or outside the EU.

Sociological institutions have called on notions such as field, arena, domain, or sector to qualify the result of the production and reproduction of institutions (Jenson & Mérand, 2010). Neil Fligstein (2008), for example, uses the concept of field in his macrosociological perspective on European integration, describing the emerging European political space as made up of social fields wherein actors look to each other and struggle over specific stakes. Fields, he argues, are consolidating in different domains such as high-tech industry or football because EU institutions have created opportunities for enhanced social interaction, which in turn influence European citizens directly. This social institutionalist approach stresses that “the use of EU power to open opportunities for economic and social interactions across Europe changes the preferences of Europe’s citizens” (Fligstein, 2008, p. 28). Being involved in the European social context, and therefore interacting with others across national boundaries, alters identities and practices.

These explanations of the emergence of institutional structures are indeed a crucial aspect of sociological institutionalism. The bulk of sociological institutionalism, however, addresses the question of institutional functioning: the core emphasis of the approach remains the cognitive dimensions of institutions after they have been put in place. Norms, rituals, models, and conventions establish what is appropriate behavior (Amenta & Ramsey, 2010; Meyer & Rowan, 1977). In the most general sense, actors (whether individuals, organizations, companies, or states) are motivated to act appropriately, seeking legitimacy from their peers (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). Hence, interests are not exogenously built: cognitive scripts inside institutions establish what is appropriate. Actors select available means based on an imperfect, bounded, or “garbage can” rationality (Amenta & Ramsey, 2010, p. 18; Cohen, March, & Olsen, 1972). Two concepts are of particular importance in explaining the functioning of institutions: isomorphism and the logic of appropriateness.


Isomorphism results from social processes of emulation and diffusion. Actors replicate organizational models collectively sanctioned as appropriate and legitimate (DiMaggio & Powell, 1991). This idea is strongly influenced by Max Weber’s argument on bureaucracy’s tendency to converge around a rational legal format—the “iron cage” created by the bureaucratic authority. The authors identify three mechanisms of institutional isomorphic change: coercion, mimesis, and normative pressures.

Coercive isomorphism refers to pressures from actors upon which institutions are dependent. In this context, homogenization “results from both formal and informal pressures exerted on organizations by other organizations upon which they are dependent and by cultural expectations in the society within which organizations function” (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983, p. 150). Institutions conform with expectations from the outside.

According to Beckert (2010), this happens in three conditions. First, in the case of a severe national and organizational crisis and the presence of a hegemonic power that will exercise its influence, it is likely that the new institutional design will correspond to the institutional model of the external power holder. Second, after winning a war, the victorious countries have the power to dismantle existing political institutions and replace them with structures similar to their own. The takeover of companies can equally lead to situations where new structures are imposed and create new standard operating procedures. Finally, isomorphism also occurs through more subtle pressures, such as the extension of the legal regulations that a state is obliged to follow (Di Maggio & Powell, 1983, p. 154). In the European Union, this is certainly one of the most frequent processes of isomorphism. In this context, supranational EU law structures state behavior. International organizations such as the World Bank, the EU, or the International Monetary Fund use a mechanism known as conditionality in order to create isomorphism when they make credits dependent on specific reforms.

Empirically, however, isomorphism does not always happen. Isomorphic pressures based on coercion and power generally do not lead to mimetism in organizational structure. The vast literature on Europeanization and policy transfer (Radaelli, 2000; for an overview, see Saurugger, 2013a, chap. 6) has shown that legal or financial pressure from the EU does not lead to institutional homogeneity. Domestic structures reinterpret these pressures and cross-societal heterogeneity remains. This is, of course, the case with directives, a type of law, decided at the European level that must be transposed in essence at the domestic level and thus can lead to differentiated outcomes. But regulations (i.e., norms that are directly applicable at the domestic level) have exactly the same effect. More generally, homogenization fails despite a one-sided distribution of power and the clearly stated political will to achieve convergence with a specific model (Plugaru, 2015).

Mimesis, the second mechanism, occurs if institutional models are perceived as so attractive that institutional entrepreneurs actively seek to imitate them. Organizational or state actors shop around for best institutional practices. Mimesis occurs mostly through the migration of professionals from one organization to another, or through the influence of external factors fostering learning. Through professional training, actors learn the cognitive and normative frames that shape their perspectives on specific goals and the likely means to achieve them. Socialization thus leads to routines and standards, which are then diffused across national boundaries. In a context of uncertainty and limited rationality, institutions have a tendency to imitate one another. Sociological institutionalism has convincingly shown that research in this area is interested in the transfer of institutional forms such as independent agencies (Thatcher, 2011) or the European Central Bank, from the national to the European level (McNamara & Jones, 1996; Dyson & Marcussen, 2009; Jones, 2013). Studies of democratic transitions in Central and Eastern Europe have equally analyzed the extent that reforms were inspired by Western European institutional forms, brought to Central and Eastern Europe through external experts, or so-called twinning projects (Dakowska, 2003; Tulmets, 2016). Thus, common understandings are established in policymaking through processes of emulation and diffusion, and, in fact, diminishing issue complexity.

However, learning processes do not always lead to mimesis. They can lead to clear rejection, or again, continued specificity. This is the case in the field of policing, whereby American models of community policing have been imported to European countries through training seminars and police exchanges, yet the application of these models is still entirely different (de Maillard, 2009). Dobbin’s study of 19th-century railway policy in France, Britain, and the United States has shown that, despite very similar starting conditions, distinct organizational models developed in the railway industry because policymakers sought institutional solutions based on specific national regulatory styles (Dobbin, 1994; see also Immergut, 1992; Chappell, 2006)

Finally, normative pressures are mainly linked to the institutionalization of specific attitudes. Studies in this field focused on the question of why Central and Eastern European candidate countries (CEECs) complied with the so-called acquis communautaire (i.e., the complete EU legal framework) in order to adhere to the European Union (Schimmelfennig & Sedelmeier, 2005; Epstein & Sedelmeier, 2013). Normative pressure leading to institutional isomorphism was one of the central arguments of these studies, opposing a purely cost-benefit-based analysis.

Logic of Appropriateness

While isomorphism is indeed one of the underlying logics that explains why we observe a certain degree of convergence across EU policies and politics, the concept of the logic of appropriateness, developed by March and Olsen (1989), has structured EU studies even more significantly. One of the main reasons for this is that March and Olsen’s approach concentrates on actors’ behavior in the context of formally organized political institutions and democratic political order (March & Olsen, 2006b). According to the logic of appropriateness, cognitive dimensions offer frameworks, categories, and cognitive models that allow actors to interpret social phenomena. These frameworks help them understand the appropriateness of their behavior in a specific context, not simply which behavior corresponds best to their individual interests (logic of consequentialism). Contrary to rational-choice institutionalism, which focuses on the rational behavior of actors (agency-centered), models developed by the sociological variant of institutionalism use the idea that the behavior of actors is more influenced by structural conditions created by the social, cultural, and institutional climate. Thus, while actors behave rationally to increase their power, the structure in which these preferences and interests are formed has a substantial influence. “Human actors are imagined to follow rules that associate particular identities with particular situations, approaching individual opportunities for action by assessing similarities between current identities and choice dilemmas and more general concepts of self and situations. Action involves evoking an identity or role and matching the obligations of that identity or role to a specific situation. The pursuit of purpose is associated with identities more than with interests … Appropriateness need not attend to consequences, but it involves cognitive and ethical dimensions, targets, and aspirations. As a cognitive matter, appropriate action is action that is essential to a particular conception of self” (March & Olsen, 1998, p. 949).

Here, empirical research focuses particularly on the socialization processes inside the European Commission (Cini, 1996; Fouilleux, 2004), the Council (Lewis, 2005, 2007), diplomacy (Bátora, 2005), foreign and security policy (Christiansen & Tonra, 2004; Mérand, 2008), and decision-making processes more generally (Jachtenfuchs, 2001; Guiraudon, 2003), to mention but a few of a large group of studies referring to the logic of appropriateness when explaining how and why actors cooperate in the European Union. Schimmelfennig’s (2003) study on the explanation of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and EU enlargement uses sociological institutionalism as one of the explanatory approaches. According to sociological institutionalism, the CEECs’ desire to become NATO and EU members was a corollary of their identification with the Western international community and its constitutive values and norms. EU and NATO member-states accepted these accession demands based on the shared understanding of values and identity according to which CEECs must be part of the EU political community.

These analyses are based on case studies that pinpoint the cultural and cognitive links among actors. Institutions are defined primarily as standards and rules determining actors’ preferences in processes perceived as endogenous. The main assumption of sociological institutionalism is that institutions evolve through cognitive processes linked to external events. However, while external events may indeed trigger change, they must be first interpreted by actors, who are embedded in collective cognitive frameworks.

Sociological Institutionalism’s Limits

Sociological institutionalists have allowed us to understand processes of institution building and the life and diffusion of institutions throughout polices, organizations, and states. However, as Jenson and Mérand (2010) convincingly argue, sociological institutionalists have not always retained their insistence on studying mental structures (norms, conventions, and informal institutions) in conjunction with the social structures that produce them. The “norms as causal variable” approach is the basis of much of the literature on Europeanization, which argues that “European policies, norms, and the collective understandings attached to them exert adaptational pressures on domestic-level processes, because they do not resonate well with domestic norms and collective understandings” (Börzel & Risse, 2003, p. 59).

Thus, the problem identified by DiMaggio and Powell (1991) themselves, according to which sociological institutionalism must engage in a debate about an actor’s power, interests, and change, remains valid. Its focus on the autonomous influence of norms, conventions, and institutional culture downplays the dimensions of strategy and the often-conflictual nature of relations among actors engaged in the construction of these institutions. As Jenson and Mérand (2010, p. 79) underline: “The distinction between homo economicus and homo sociologicus is not, as some seem to suggest, that the former is strategic and the latter is normative; rather, it is that the strategies of homo sociologicus are always socially embedded. As such, constructivism often reads to disciplinary sociologists as if there were too many norms and not enough strategies.”

In this sense, institutions need to be seen as being built through social processes established over time, rather than merely by mechanical reproduction as sociological institutionalists sometimes implicitly seem to imply. Hence, “an institution can be a set of formal rules and informal norms that persists through time, but it is also always a pattern of social relations, which can be competitive, oppositional, and characterized by unequal power relations” (Jenson & Mérand, 2010, p. 82).

One of the reasons for this difficulty in bridging the influence of informal institutions and power relations lies in the original differentiation of the logic of appropriateness versus the logic of consequentialism (March & Olsen, 1998)—in other words, the opposition between strategy versus norms or ideas versus interests. The first is at the heart of sociological institutionalism, as we pointed out earlier in this article: Within the tradition of the logic of appropriateness, actions are seen as rule-based. The second describes behavior as the product of the calculation of one’s interest and the anticipated consequences of action, and that is the basis of rational-choice institutionalism, against which sociological institutionalism was indeed developed.

An insistence on maintaining this analytical distinction between strategy and norms does not allow one to consider that any strategy is socially embedded and, hence, that norm creation or maintenance always involves some kind of strategic calculation (Jenson, 1989, pp. 237–238; Jenson & Mérand, 2010). This difficulty led to the emergence of new conceptualizations whereby purposeful action, power, and cognitive framing are considered to be interdependent. One way to conceptualize the factors that influence the result of human interaction has emerged at the beginning of the 21st century. In his logic of arguing (or communicative action), Risse (2000) suggests considering the processes of argumentation, deliberation, and persuasion as a distinct mode of social interaction instead of opposing material (interests) and ideal variables (worldviews) being central factors influencing actor behavior and, subsequently, political outcomes. This logic occupies the middle ground between strategic bargaining (logic of consequentualism) and rule-guided behavior (logic of appropriateness). It starts from the assumption that human actors engage in truth-seeking, with the aim of reaching mutual understanding. This, however, is possible only if actors are prepared to change their worldviews, values, and interests (Risse, 2000, p. 1).

The logic of arguing must be understood as a conceptual continuum. On this continuum, we find, on the one hand, the Habermasian idea of arguing as truth-seeking behavior, and, on the other, the assumption that actors use arguments in a strategic mode to justify their identities and preferences. From this perspective, actors engaging in “rhetorical action” (Schimmelfennig, 2001) are not ready to change their own beliefs due to a “better argument.” Jobert (1998)’s distinction between debates taking place in either forums or arenas illustrates this continuum empirically. In this regard, arenas are spaces of confrontation between divergent worldviews, a sort of battleground where what matters is making a convincing argument. Forums, however, are spaces of argument where institutional compromises are negotiated. Thus, strategic behavior is framed and made possible by norms (“collective expectations about behaviour for a given identity” (Jepperson, Wendt, & Katzenstein, 1996, p. 54).

While this understanding focuses on deliberation and discourse [and has been taken up and further developed by Vivien Schmidt (2008) under the label “discursive institutionalism”], a more recent group of authors go beyond deliberation and discourse. Starting from the assumption that actors are not generally capable of distinguishing what is profitable (logic of consequentialism) from what is right (logic of appropriateness) in a given social context, actor-centered constructivists show that rational and normative behavior are two sides of the same coin: rationality is socially constructed in the same way that norms have to be strategically deployed (Schimmelfennig, 2001; Blyth, 1997, 2002; see also McNamara, 2006; Hay, 2006). In other words, motives are situational because the logic of practice is grounded in social context. This understanding allows the reintroducing of power relations into socially structured environments.

Actor-Centered Constructivism as a New Form of Sociological Institutionalism

Since the end of the 1990s, a group of scholars has attempted to accommodate the limits of previous sociological institutionalists’ explanations of comparative European and EU politics, referring to the fact that the strategic considerations of the actors involved had been largely ignored (for an overview, see Saurugger, 2013b). While these researchers agree with the general assumptions of sociological institutionalists that the individual behavior of an actor is embedded in a structure of shared beliefs and standard operating procedures, they emphasize the importance of taking into account how specific actors use these procedures. The central question to which actor-centered constructivism seeks to find an answer is precisely how much common belief structures count in policy outcomes.

It is interesting to note here that actor-centered constructivists use the term ideas rather than belief structures or paradigms, as sociological institutionalists would do. This use is mainly based on Peter Hall’s understanding of policy paradigms, defined as interpretative schemata that are internalized by politicians, state managers, or policy experts (Hay, 2006). In Hall’s words, “policy makers customarily work within a framework of ideas and standards that specifies not only the goals of policy and the kind of instruments that can be used to attain them, but also the very nature of the problems they are meant to be addressing . . . (T)his framework is embedded in the very terminology through which policy makers communicate about their work, and it is influential precisely because so much of it is taken for granted and unamenable to scrutiny as a whole” (Hall, 1993, p. 279).

The empirical questions that this approach allows us to answer are: How do ideas, or belief structures, frame interests, and how can one describe the practices of actors and the development of public policy through this framing process? When and why, for example, do European public officials evoke the neoliberal paradigm in their messages, and when and why does this idea not find its way into official documents? These questions lead to identifying the agents who pay attention to certain ideas and cognitive frames and not to others, as well as the reasons why certain decisions are made during a specific period and not others (Zahariadis, 2008). In other words: “Since structures do not come with an instruction sheet, economic ideas make such an institutional resolution possible by providing the authoritative diagnosis as to what a crisis actually is and when a given situation actually constitutes a crisis. They diagnose ‘what has gone wrong’ and ‘what is to be done’” (Blyth, 2002, p. 10; see also Hay, 1999, 2004).

These cognitive frames, however, are considered as malleable objects—they can be used for strategic purposes. The purely rhetorical use of these notions underestimates the forms of mobilization and instrumentalization to which these frames have been subject. It is, in a certain sense, rather trivial to say that these strategies are socially constructed. However, in saying this, it is important to understand that actors must create broad coalitions around common strategies in order to carry out major reforms.

Research based on this perspective is particularly important in the field of the European political economy. The main question here is why and how a convergence of beliefs around economic and political solutions to specific European problems has emerged (Hall, 1993; Blyth, 2002; Abdelal, Blyth, & Parsons, 2010; McNamara, 1998, 2006; Parsons, 2002; Jabko, 2006, 2010; Woll, 2008; Clift & Woll, 2012; Schmidt & Thatcher, 2013).

While these scholars develop different hypotheses and might not be comfortable with being called actor-centered constructivists, they agree on the basic assumption that even if the international environment confronts political leaders with a set of challenges, this does not automatically mean that the “correct” or “best” answer—which, without doubt, would solve the problem—will be forthcoming. However, where these authors differ is in the degree of independence that the carriers of ideas have. For one group of scholars, the understanding of economic, political, and social challenges, their interpretation, and their analysis is filtered by cultural and ideal structures in which political actors operate. In order to be visible, ideas must serve the interest of the dominant actors by strengthening their position in the game (Hall, 1993; McNamara, 1998; Parsons, 2002; Béland, 2009). Another group considers ideas as weapons that can be used quite independent from the position of the actor itself (Blyth, 2002; Jabko, 2006; see also Saurugger, 2013b).

However, the difficulty of showing the empirical influence of ideas or cognitive frames remains. One of the problems is to be found in the dichotomic (i.e., Janus-faced) nature of ideas (Parsons, 2002). Sometimes actors’ beliefs guide their actions, and sometimes perceived beliefs only rationalize strategies that might be chosen for other reasons. Empirically distinguishing between the two situations is rather difficult. Parsons argues that this can be done only by establishing hypotheses of causality. These hypotheses will allow process-tracing (and hence sequencing of decisions) and therefore will help to make paradigm changes to be made visible.

Actor-centered constructivism introduces sociological methods concentrating on the study of individual actors or groups of actors, which aim to help in the understanding of the power games that take place between actors in public policy. Craig Parsons, in particular, argues that in order to observe the influence of ideas, it is crucial to consider the agenda-setting power of the actors in question. In his analysis of the success of integration ideology in relation to the confederal or intergovernmental model developed by the “founding fathers” of European integration, Parsons offers a microsociological study of French debates on this issue, as well as of the interactions between European partners in the 1950s (Parsons, 2002).

The analysis of the intensified European economic regional integration process starting from the 1980s uses a similar research design (Jabko, 2006). Here, European integration is studied from the angle of economic governance. The observation is based on the dual economic and political change in Europe and on the definition of a political strategy of “market gain” developed by European actors, particularly the European Commission. This strategy is based on the idea of a common market, a concept that is sufficiently multitasking to bring together all the European actors’ ideologies around a single project: the construction of the single market and the Economic and Monetary Union, the driving force behind the European Commission’s political strategy.

This “silent revolution” in Europe over time has brought together a broad coalition of European actors. Through the use of what he calls “strategic constructivism,” Jabko emphasizes two paradoxical aspects of the European Union: the parallel emergence of intergovernmental economic governance and the strengthening of powers at the European level. According to Jabko, the European Union is not just a marketing tool serving neoliberal ideologies. The European Commission is an active agent developing a specific understanding of neoliberalism not as a homogenous paradigm, but a discursive notion allowing different interpretations and strategies guiding economic policies. Recent empirical research on the Europeanization of national courts through EU law (Mayoral & Jaremba, 2016), whereby the legal training of the lawyers and judges is used to understand why we observe a diffusion of doctrines in some cases and not in others, or studies questioning the political actorness of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), take a similar perspective (Martinsen, 2015).

With regard to questions on the CJEU’s actorness, actor-centered constructivism, based on the core elements of sociological institutionalism, allows us to understand, on the one hand, how the CJEU’s actions are embedded in the legal framework of EU law and, on the other, how the Court uses the law to position itself with regard to other actors. The Court’s rulings are based on legal interpretations of the cases—the doctrines that constrain the judges’ ability to act—but there are also strategic decisions with regard to the external political, social, and economic environment, to which the Court must respond. Hence, the Court is not simply a political activist, nor is it an “automaton agent of formalistic application” (Everson & Eisner, 2007, p. 44). Law is also part of society, beholden to extra-legal aims and values in which lawyers, legal scholars, and judges are embedded.

The CJEU is thus also an institution that socializes law professionals. Through this socialization process, it creates a specific way of making law (Scheingold, 2010; Bobek, 2013). In its rulings, we can see the doctrine and understanding of the Court’s members, judges, and advocate generals, supported by referendaires (judicial assistants), as well as the Court’s positioning with regard to other actors, such as member-states, the European Commission, the Council, or the Parliament.

Law professionals are seen to be embedded in a specific logic of appropriateness—the legal framework—whereby a common understanding of a problem or idea emerges; this understanding can in turn be used strategically by the same actors to reach particular political objectives. Hence, both the legal frames and strategic actions of the Court define the CJEU’s own political role in the EU’s wider political system. In other words, the Court is “a strategic actor, whose agenda is influenced by legal values, whether these be enshrined in the Treaty or informed by the judge’s vision of their own role, but whose rulings are also informed by the knowledge that it must come to terms with reality in order to ensure compliance” (Dehousse, 1998, p. 179; Pollack, 2016). In more general terms, this means that an actor-centered constructivist framework, based on sociological institutionalism, allows us to link the legal interpretation of EU law to the strategic (political) positioning of the Court. Judges and law professionals more widely are embedded in specific cognitive frames, based on legal doctrines that allow them to interpret law. These norms don’t solely constitute the environment in which actors are embedded (constitutive logic), but can also be seen as tools, consciously used by these same actors to attain their goals (causal logic) (Gofas & Hay, 2010).

In other words, while the legal framework in which the Court acts remains a crucial element when seeking to explain the Court’s rulings, it is its own embeddedness in this environment and its interaction with other actors—member-states, European institutions, interest groups, and nonstate actors more generally—that we must keep in mind when striving for a holistic understanding of why the Court acts as it does.

Actor-centered constructivism, and more precisely “strategic constructivism,” attempt to tackle critiques expressed by opponents of constructivist approaches, focusing both on who the carriers of cognitive frames and norms are and how their power relations shape the policy outcomes under scrutiny. Economically rationalist thinking is brought back into the analysis and linked to the use that actors make of these ideas. Agents are purposeful actors, embedded in ideational structures that they use according to their interests.


This article has discussed the development and institutionalization of sociological institutionalism in political science and, more precisely, in European regional integration studies. From its origins in organizational sociology to its application in international relations and, in particular in regional integration, sociological institutionalism has a particular appeal that lies in its capacity to explain the establishment of and the subsequent influence of institutions on social behavior. It allows us to understand that actors’ attitudes are not based on simply a cost-benefit analysis; rather, they are embedded in diverse structures that challenge and frame their behavior, both on the micro-level, such as the functioning of groups, organization, or policies, and on the macro-level, such as states or regions. In doing so, however, it has either implicitly or explicitly underestimated two central elements of institutional analysis: first, the propensity of institutions to change, and second, the power relations of actors and their capacity to act strategically. Cognitive frames, paradigms, or ways of doing things change over time. It is this change that sociological institutionalism has had difficulty explaining. Based on the research questions of how models replicate and how they frame behavior, it is not clear how change can emerge. Is it through external shock or through endogenous transformations? And what then triggers these internal changes?

It is here that actor-centered constructivism helps to develop explanations for institutional change. As actors are indeed embedded in institutional frames but also are able to use these frames for strategic reasons, it is possible to conceptualize change. The question that remains, and that needs methodological solutions, is to know how much and when power relations among actors inside institutions shift. It is not sufficient to say that they are a central element; it is also necessary to pin them down empirically. This provides a sense of the debates that might animate the different approaches within sociological institutionalism over the next decade.


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