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date: 24 September 2017

Theories of International Norm Contestation: Structure and Outcomes

Summary and Keywords

First-generation constructivist theories argue that international norms are constitutive and regulative—that they shape state behaviors and promote international cooperation. Theories focus on the life-cycle of international norms and probe their impact on cooperation across a range of issue areas. However, a new generation of scholarship has identified the potential for contestation and challenge in international norm development and maintenance. Critical constructivist theory recognizes powerful roles for agency and alternative definitions of norm parameters and compliance.

Norm contestation can occur in multiple ways. First, critical constructivists recognize the norm development process itself can involve significant struggles over the definitions and prescriptions of normative architectures. Second, state leaders sometimes challenge the definition and prescriptions that flow from established normative architectures, and they may engage in contestation over the validity or justification of the norm or application in international institutions. Third, some norms may not become internalized in standard ways at the state level due to alternative patterns of norm diffusion and localization. Fourth, norm strength also can be affected by the actions of rival advocacy coalitions in processes of contestation.

While contestation represents a vibrant research program today, critics charge that it suffers from significant limitations. No single theory of norm change or contestation has emerged as dominant in the first decade of research, and scholars are just beginning to grapple with whether greater attention should be devoted to contestation during norm development or localization/diffusion challenges. In addition, the concept of norm change raises an ontological debate about whether norms are static or dynamic in nature, and how best to study the cyclical development of norms (or norm change over time). A discussion of areas for further research and empirical testing of norm contestation theories is also presented.

Keywords: international norms, contestation, agency, diffusion, empirical international relations theory, antipreneurship


Theories of international norms have helped define a vibrant research program in constructivism. First-generation scholarship argued that international norms are constitutive and regulative—that they shape state behaviors and promote international cooperation. Studies focused on the life-cycle of international norms and probed their impact on cooperation across a range of issue areas. However, a new generation of critical constructivist scholarship theorizes norm contestation and challenges in international norm development and maintenance. Agency and contestation may play a much more important role in norm development, implementation, maintenance, and compliance than previously allowed. Such inquiries raise important questions about what constitutes a norm “core” and raise the potential for great synthesis between liberal (i.e., agency focused) and constructivist approaches in norm studies.

Contemporary theories of international norm contestation are explored in this article, with particular attention to three dimensions of the scholarship. First, critical constructivist propositions are considered regarding norm diffusion, norm change, opposition, and noncompliance. Greatly influenced by the European school, this work includes a recognition of potential for contestedness, norm change, and identification of pathways for changes over time. Second, theories of agency in norm contestation are considered, including the identification of a broader number of actors engaged in norm development and norm change and the process of strategic social construction. These works include new studies of “norm antipreneurship” and rival advocacy coalitions in contestation. Third, applications of these theories in diverse contexts are explored, with particular attention to advancement of empirical international relations theory, and identifies promising areas for future research. This approach also captures ways that constructivism in the second-generation appears to be moving away from normative inspirations from sociology and toward advancing a set of testable generalizations that can be examined through some combination of quantitative and qualitative methods. Emerging dialogues on critical norm theory offer the potential for scholarly consensus and cumulation of mid-range theory with empirical foundations.

Critical Constructivism and Norm Contestation

Norm theory was first developed in sociology to study the origins of individual and group behavior (Jackson, 1965; Santos & van der Linden, 2016; Sherif, 1936). International relations scholars later adapted social constructivist theory to account for the ideational foundations of state behaviors such as international cooperation. To first-generation social constructivists in international relations such as John Ruggie (1998), constructivism is “about human consciousness and its role in international life” (p. 878). Alexander Wendt (1992) characterizes social constructivism as defining state identities and interests as “socially constructed by knowledgeable practice” (p. 392). Interests and identity are considered mutually constitutive: As described by Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink (2001), constructivism defines an actor’s identity as shaped by the system of which they are a part, and their identity, in turn, shapes their behavior. Given the breadth of this approach in the first decade after the Cold War and its focus on ideational factors that shape human interactions, constructivism quickly emerged as a leading contender to neorealism (Finnemore & Sikkink, 2001; Price & Reus-Smit, 1998).

Norm theory became a centerpiece of first-generation constructivism in international relations. Finnemore and Sikkink define norms as “a standard of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity” (1998, p. 891). Norms can provide a “logic of appropriateness” (March & Olsen, 1998, p. 951), and define legitimate social purposes that constrain or enable actors’ behavior. Norms influence the choices made by international actors across a range of issues from trade and finance to dispute resolution and health and security. Thus, they are understood as “intersubjective beliefs about the social and natural world that define actors, their situations, and the possibilities of action” (Wendt, 1995, p. 73).

Constructivists also chart the emergence of new norms, how they develop over time, and how they constitute and affect state behavior (e.g., through shaming or public pressure). Studies typically focus on grassroots activism by agents such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to build societal pressure for norms through “moral consciousness-raising” (Acharya, 1999; Tannenwald, 2007, p. 13). Because norms represent “shared expectations about appropriate behavior held by a community” that derive from a combination of beliefs, standards of behavior, international conventions, and decision-making procedures (Hopf, 1998, p. 14), they are characterized as both regulative and constitutive. Transnational legal theorists add that norms that intersect with international legal structures can foster significant pressure for state compliance (Goldsmith & Posner, 2005; Koh et al., 1997; Kratochwil, 1989).

The Norm Life-Cycle Model

Finnemore and Sikkink’s norm life-cycle model offers a definitive first-generation constructivist approach to study international cooperation. It features three stages of norm life: emergence, broad acceptance (also referred to as a “norm cascade”), and internalization (1998, p. 895). According to Finnemore and Sikkink (1998, pp. 896–899; Nadelmann, 1990, pp. 479–526), “norm entrepreneurs” drive development of the normative architecture. These are actors who “set out to alter the prevailing normative order according to certain ideas or norms that they deem more suitable” (Wunderlich, 2013, p. 37). The first stage represents the nascent development of the norm, often from domestic origin and discourse. Norms are described as developing from the grassroots level through “different social processes and logics of action” which affect actors’ behaviors (1998, p. 895). “Norms do not appear out of thin air,” Finnemore and Sikkink contend, but rather they “are actively built by agents.” Those primary agents are norm entrepreneurs, “who attempt to convince a critical mass of states (norm leaders) to embrace new norms” (1998, p. 897).

Finnemore and Sikkink (1998) describe the transition to the second stage of the model as “characterized more by a dynamic of imitation as the norm leaders attempt to socialize other states to become norm followers . . . norm cascades [occur] through a combination of pressure for conformity, desire to enhance international legitimation, and the desire of state leaders to enhance their self-esteem” (p. 893). This could be interpreted as a phase in which norms appear to “stick” in the international community through a process of cross-national “moral consciousness-raising” and “institutionalization and habitualization” (Risse & Sikkink, 1999, p. 5).

Achieving the third stage of the norm life cycle represents norm internalization, typically involving a transition for actors from following a “logic of consequence” (as described by rationalism) to a new collective understanding based on the “logic of appropriateness” (sociological institutionalism). In this context, “norms acquire a taken-for-granted quality and are no longer a matter of broad public debate” (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, p. 896). As March and Olsen (1998) argue, the state interaction becomes “organized by sets of shared meanings and practices that come to be taken as given. Political actors act and organize themselves in accordance with rules and practices that are socially constructed, publicly known, anticipated and accepted.” This new, communitarian perspective reflects “the routine way in which people do what they are supposed to do” (1998, p. 30). According to this logic, institutional cooperation and identities are mutually constitutive, providing legitimacy and reinforcement for positive practices; in such an environment, defection would be unexpected (Checkel, 1999; Risse, 2000).

The life-cycle model has had a powerful influence on scholarly understanding of norm development. For example, Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink extended these ideas to advance a five-stage spiral model of the “socialization process of human rights norms.” This model was designed to highlight not only the progressive influence of transnational advocacy movements to shape international norms but also how the network of human rights agreements impacts the normalization of state policy through internalization in society (Risse, & Sikkink, 1999). Authors have begun to explore the potential for variability in the degree of implementation or norm conformity. Scholars have also extended the model in creative ways, including Ingebritsen’s (1998) work on how Scandinavian states have become norm entrepreneurs in promoting global humanitarian causes and conflict resolution. At the same time, others, such as Krook and True (2012), argue that the life cycles of international norms should be critically analyzed in terms of their constitutive effects on solutions to issues such as gender inequity in world politics.

However, while the contributions of first-generation constructivist scholarship have been indispensible in providing an ideational dimension to the modern study of international relations, they do not account well for some alternative state behaviors (Lantis, 2017). For example, first-generation models focus on norm development and “life,” but they do not capture dynamics of state challenges to international standards, especially efforts by traditional norm stewards to change the meaning of a norm or rules within multilateral frameworks. Finnemore and Sikkink (1998) acknowledge, “the problem for constructivists [is] the same problem facing realists: explaining change. In an ideational international structure, idea shifts and norm shifts are the main vehicles for system transformation. Norm shifts are to the ideational theorist what changes in the balance of power are to the realist” (p. 894). Matthew Hoffman (2010) suggests that the traditional literature has been guilty of “freezing” norms conceptually

Theories of Norm Contestation

An emerging, second-generation of critical constructivist approaches identifies the importance of opposition in norm discourses. These studies embrace the principle of contestedness in international discourse, as originally advanced by Tully (2002), Reus-Smit (2007), and other normative political theorists. Whereas first-generation constructivism favors regulative and constitutive effects, critical constructivists argue that the very legitimacy of norms hinges on contestation and dialogue over their viability (Wiener, 2014). This work characterizes norms as products of strategic social construction and pays more systematic attention to the role of agency in norm diffusion processes. It also recognizes the potential for norm decay, as well as unintended consequences of normative evolution (Heller, Kahl, & Pisoiu, 2012; Müller & Wunderlich, 2013). Effectively, this assessment represents an attempt to conceptualize social practices involved in norm diffusion, internalization, and compliance.

Scholars Rodger Payne and Antje Wiener offered influential early works on contestation. Payne (2001) examines how framing a new norm to connect it to a preexisting, widely accepted norm could be highly contested. Drawing on field studies, he notes the challenges that labor unions and human rights activists had in the face of economic liberalism. In 2004, Wiener published work on contested compliance that focused on identifying ways that “social change occurs as a result of discursive interventions uttered by both norm setters and norm followers.” Counter to the idea that norms simply diffused whole and unchanged to all member states, Wiener argues that often the content and scope of the norm itself changed as both the norm setters and the (intended) norm followers engaged in contestation (2004, pp. 191–192). Wiener (2014) defines contestation as a “social practice [that] entails objection to specific issues that matter to people”; in “international relations, contestation . . . involves the range of social practices which explicity express disapproval” of norms (p. 3). Norms may entail validity via a legal framework that stipulates them (constitution, treaty) and have achieved social facticity (appearing as appropriate to a group). Yet, successful norm diffusion depends on an additional third dimension of cultural validation. This represents an interpretive approach that is reflexive, relational, and historical (Giddens, 1979; Tilly, 1975; Tully, 2002). Among its major contributions is to allow comparative studies of norm means and applications of contingencies to a socially constructed model of norm development.

These arguments have helped to define a decade of critical constructivist scholarship. For example, Wiener and Uwe Puetter (2009) argue that before a norm’s validity is established, and in the absence of a previously established meaning in use, actors are often unwilling to follow it as expected. Norm entrepreneurs attempting to make other states adopt not just the proposed norm, but also the proposed norm meaning, typically use the same policy tools used to persuade states to become norm followers. Entrepreneurs use these tools to change the utility function of a state in such a way that becoming a norm follower becomes a rational decision. However, other actors may use these same tools to the opposite effect. They may try to persuade or force a state to either disregard a norm, or to attach a meaning different from what is originally intended by the norm entrepreneur (Wiener & Puetter, 2009). In addition, Antje Wiener’s A Theory of Contestation (2014) explores the “legitimacy gap” between the levels of contestation of fundamental norms and standardized procedure, advancing scholarly understandings of norm contestation, norm meaning, and validity.

The Agent-Structure Debate and Norm Strength

Theories of norm contestation raise important issues for the agent-structure debate in international relations and questions about the nature of implications of contestation for norm strength. Whereas first-generation studies of norms focus on development, diffusion, and the constraints imposed by norms on state behaviors, critical constructivism adopts different operating assumptions. First-generation scholarship tends to explore positive cases of norm development, implementation, and success; second-generation critical constructivism focuses on negative cases, or instances in which norms may be challenged, rejected, or modified by leaders or governments (Adamson, 2005; de Nevers, 2007). The logic of norm internalization simply infers that state interests will shift to comply with the norm. This leaves some questions related to agency open, including how exactly are international norms maintained, and by whom?

Critical constructivist theory recognizes that a broad array of agents can be engaged in both norm development and norm change, and it devotes greater attention to the process of strategic social construction, maintenance of norms, and analysis of the evolutionary nature of norms. For example, Wiener argues that norms have a “dual quality . . . as both structuring and social constructed through interaction in a context” (2007, p. 49). Not only do entrepreneurs play a role in norm development, Wiener said, they sometimes attempt to change the structural landscape as a function of their perception of strategic advantages or even their own “principled beliefs” (2007, p. 7). Critical constructivist studies also recognize the potential for what Müller and Wunderlich (2013) call natural “norm dynamics,” including on “the central role of norm contestedness/contestability for the dynamic evolution of norms and regimes” (p. 4; Wiener, 2009). Some scholars describe norms as processional in nature, inherently and thus continuously contested—indeed, that their meanings may change in differing contexts and over time. The proposition that norms may still be subject to debate raises important questions about their constitutive and regulative qualities.

However, contemporary scholarship does not agree on practices of contestation, nor on its implications for norm robustness. Some political scientists frame contestation as struggle leading to the demise of norm frames. For example, McKeown (2009) and Sikkink (2013) describe the torture prohibitionary norm as eroding, and Panke and Petersohn (2012) offer an account of what they term the “death” of the antimercenary norm in modern warfare. Critics and policy makers alike also have engaged in fascinating debates over whether the “responsibility to protect” norm that was so celebrated by the United Nations is, in fact, enduring heavy contestation from a variety of state and non-state actors. For Panke and Petersohn, contestation is defined as active non-compliance with norms, which is not sanctioned, that triggers norm erosion (2012, p. 726). Rosert and Schirmbeck (2007) also focus on norm erosion in public discourse, where “norm challengers” can trigger domino effects that may bring down traditional normative architectures (p. 280).

In contrast, Wiener describes the potential for contestation to positively impact norms. Norm discourse and refinement is not only healthy, she argues, it is vital for the continued life and success of these architectures. Deliberation over norm meanings is necessary to produce norm legitimacy by sorting out the normative baggage brought to bear in international encounters” (2010, p. 337; 2014). Disputes over the legitimacy of normative and legal constraints can help strengthen international norms. Wiener argues, “different modes of contestation indicate that as an interactive social practices, contestation may be performed either explicitly (by contention, objection, questioning, or deliberation) or implicitly (through neglect, negation or disregard). As a social activity that involves discursive and critical engagement with norms of governance, whether voiced or voiceless, contestation is constitutive for social change, for it always involves a critical redress of the rules of the game” (2014, pp. 1–2). Thus, a primary goal of discourse in contestation is to fill the “legitimacy gap between fundamental norms and standarised procedures” through regular exchanges of views. With such opportunities, “norms represent the legitimating core of global governance” (2014, p. 19).

Wiener and Puetter (2009) describe three main types of validity as contributing to and influencing a state’s understanding of norms: formal validity, social validity, and cultural validity. The differences between these factors is a function of the multilevel nature of diplomacy, and each form of validity is part of a continuous cycle that lends itself to the establishment of each other form. In this model, each of these types of validity has a particular stage at which actors work to establish it, and during which, it is vulnerable to being contested. These windows of opportunity occur during the time period before validity becomes well established. During the establishment of formal validity, norm entrepreneurs first begin to establish a standard norm meaning. To accomplish this, a norm entrepreneur will attempt to persuade or force other states to adopt their norm “meaning-in-use” as it is codified and integrated into the international system. This integration into the international system provides a strong basis for the validity of the norm. Additionally, the negotiation process through which this codification occurs provides a significant opportunity for state’s leaders to be socialized and gain a shared view of the norm meaning. Though the socialization of state leaders and representatives provides a powerful basis for norm validity, this is still dependent upon the second factor, social recognition. Formal validity can be contested during any stage in the norm life cycle. However, in A Theory of Contestation (2014), Wiener notes that this is most likely to occur during the initial negotiations of international agreements and treaties, or the “constituting phase.” Once a norm has been established in the international community, it becomes much more difficult to challenge the formal validity.

Deitelhoff and Zimmermann’s (2013, 2016) model of different types of contestation and their effects on the strength of norms (what they term “robustness”) further refines Wiener’s position on norm development. They argue there are two major types of norm contestation—applicatory contestation or validity/justificatory contestation—with differential impact on norm robustness. Struggles over application focus on clarifying the appropriateness of norms for given situations and designating which actions or responses the norm requires in certain situations. Applicatory contestations “are a normal practice” where new contexts or events regularly provoke “specifications with regard to the type of situation to which a norm applies and how it needs to be applied (what behavior it demands of its addressees)” (2013, p. 4). Deitelhoff and Zimmermann contend applicatory contestations—dialogues regarding opportunities and challenges for norm frames help to define contexts within which norm appropriate actions should be undertaken—foster stronger norms. And although norms are dependent on applicatory discourses, not all are dependent to the same degree. The more precise a norm is (i.e., the more unequivocal its obligatory claims are), the less it is likely to provoke applicatory discourses (Badescu & Weiss, 2010). Similarly, the more norms formulate positive duties (which demand proactive behavior by actors), the more applicatory discourses are to be expected, while negative duties (which demand that actors refrain from a certain behavior) should correspond to fewer applicatory discourses.

In contrast, norm justificatory discourses directly challenge the core of a norm and thus its general validity “by questioning whether the normative claims involved are righteous” (Deitelhoff & Zimmermann, 2016). Deitelhoff and Zimmermann conclude, “If it becomes unclear to actors what a norm consists of and if its content is at all legitimate, then norm violations would hardly be recognizable and therefore liable to criticism as true ‘violations.’ Thus, justificatory discourses principally involve a radicalization dynamic since they always question why a certain normative obligation should be upheld and thereby tend to transcend given communities and their shared understandings. This is why they are often portrayed as discourses based on the universalization principle (2016, p. 11).”

Finally, contemporary scholarship on international practices also explores norm validity and contestation. Adler and Pouilot’s International Practices (2011) and related work also highlights processes of norm change. They argue norm meaning can thus be seen “as structured by practices . . . [that] are reproduced, changed, and reinforced by international action and interaction” (2011, p. 2). Drawing on insights from poststructuralism (Foucault, Der Derian, and Shapiro), Adler and Pouliot contend practices highlight the push–pull dynamics of agency and structure, as well as practical versus rational decision dynamics. Constructivist foundations for this approach include Onuf’s work on the power of “deeds” in international relations and practical reasoning dynamics highlighted by Friedrich Kratochwil (1989) and Reus-Smit (2007, 1999). International practices are understood as “competent performances . . . socially meaningful patterns of action which in being performed more or less competently simultaneously embody act out and possibly reify background knowledge and discourse in and out of the material world.” These become the sinews connecting structure and agency—or the “dynamic material and ideational processes that enable structures to be stable or to evolve, and agents to reproduce or transform structures” (2011, p. 6). Practices are thus the performance of actions that help define, and constitute, historical paths. In this context, they are both extensions and manifestations of international norms (Tholens & Gross, 2015).

Empirical Testing of Norm Contestation Theories

The emerging scholarship on norm contestation has begun to define specific areas of investigation and conduct empirical testing. To date, at least four different schools of literature on contestation have emerged. First, the norm development process itself involves significant struggles over the definitions and prescriptions of normative architectures, and second-generation critical constructivists have called for more attention to these processes. Second, state leaders sometimes challenge the definition and prescriptions that flow from established normative architectures, and they may engage in contestation over the validity or justification of the norm or application in international institutions. Third, some norms may not become internalized in standard ways at the state level due to alternative patterns of norm diffusion and localization. Fourth, norm strength also can be affected by the actions of rival advocacy coalitions in processes of contestation, where norm entrepreneurs may clash with “antipreneurs” (Bloomfield & Scott, 2017). These four emerging areas of scholarship are discussed further below, and progress in empirical testing is evaluated.

Contestation in Development

First, the norm development process itself can involve significant struggles over the definitions and prescriptions of normative architectures. Models of norm development (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998; Klotz, 1995, 1999) have recognized the contentious nature of establishing norm architectures, but they tend to view these as positive and progressive toward a larger goal. State and nonstate actors attempt to codify principles into widely accepted norms. Those promoting norm strains must argue effectively for precedents to entrench that norm. For example, Audie Klotz (1995) explores the articulation of the norm of racial equality and identifies the role of nonstate and state actors in developing an international sanctions regime against the apartheid regime of South Africa. She argues the case study “illustrates empirically one of the fundamental theoretical claims of a constructivist theory of international relations: norms are constitutive components of both the internationals system and states’ interests” (1995, p. 460).

Contemporary critical constructivists argue the norm development process itself is rife with contestation, which, in turn, impacts internalization and compliance. For example, Clifford Bob (2012) examines how Western civil society actors such as evangelical Christian groups and the U.S. gun lobby have worked together with groups in the developing world to contest the development of so-called liberal norms. This model portrays contestation as occurring among global, transnational networks of civil society actors to promote liberal norms in the toleration of homosexuality and gun control. Along with McKeown’s (2009) analysis of support for torture in the George W. Bush administration, this study represents works that critically reexamine the liberal bias in the first-generation norm dynamics literature. Bob’s exploration of antagonistic normative communities (or coalitions of “strange bedfellows”) highlights the challenge of contestation in norm development and maintenance. It takes well-recognized norm entrepreneurial strategies of framing and grafting, and applies them to coalitions focused on illiberal norm development. “For every persuasive tactic, [the rival networks] deploy a dissuasive one,” Bob asserts. “Does a resonant frame bring opponents to their knees? No. They pull out the hammer and smash it to smithereens . . . Nor do foes bow down to proposed norms grafted onto well-established principles. They break out the chainsaw and lop off the tender splice—or cut away the underlying doctrine” (2012, p. 29). Far from the first-generation vision of progressive norm development from the grassroots up, this approach focuses on rivalry and challenge.

At the core of contestation models of norm development is the notion that warring coalitions are essentially “rival entrepreneurs.” In Bob’s (2017) subsequent analysis of the norm against assassination/targeted killing (ATK), he asserts that the interaction between state and civil society actors reflects an ongoing, iterative process. Evidence in state behaviour and discourse shows that ATK norm has “inched its way into international acceptance” (Bob, 2017, p. 73). This, too, demonstrates a pattern of rival networks and coalition building in development of illiberal norms: “Like the human rights and environmental norms on which so much scholarly attention has focused, this norm was promoted by a network of normative entrepreneurs, NGOs, think-tanks, and states” (Bob, 2017, p. 77). Drawing on empirical evidence of contestation, he portrays rival networks of states, NGOs, and scholars as engaged in struggle over interpretation of the nature and meaning of the ATK norm.

Validity and Applicatory Contestation

Second, critical constructivists argue state leaders often challenge the definition and prescriptions that flow from established normative architectures. They may engage in contestation over the validity or justification of the norm, application in international institutions, or the meaning-in-use of a norm (Deitelhoff & Zimmermann, 2013, 2016; Hoffman, 2010). These works examine contestation between actors who support development of a new norm and those who call for changes but disagree over the scope and content of normative limits. This implies that contestation typically occurs between actors from within the same normative community who compete over interpretations of norm meaning.

Wiener (2014) presents a theory of “contestedness as a meta-organising principle of global governance.” She identifies a legitimacy gap between “fundamental norms” (e.g., sovereign responsibility for citizens’ human rights and oceanic environmental sustainability) which are typically not highly contested, and the “standardised procedures” or means of implementing these norms (i.e., military intervention to prevent atrocities, enforcing fishing net mesh-sizes, etc.), which are often highly controversial and contested (2014, p. 10). Regular contestation for involved stakeholders should be recognized as an “institutionalized routine to counter the potential conflict [generated by the legitimacy gap].” The intermediate norms produced by this sort of institutionalized bargaining procedure would have greater legitimacy and global governance would become more effective and more inclusive (Wiener, 2014, pp. 74–77).

Theories of norm contestation have established foundations for hypothesis testing. For example, Deitelhoff and Zimmermann (2013) explore the strength of their model of justificatory and applicability contestation through case studies of the development of the responsibility to protect (R2P) and the ban of commercial whaling. Here, they assert there are two different trajectories at work. In the case of R2P, they argue that there is actually an applicatory contestation underway, not a debate about the fundamental principles of the responsibility for states to protect their peoples against major human rights violations and for the international community to step in if states fail in this responsibility (Brunnée & Toope, 2006). The consensual adoption of the R2P at the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2005 seemed to signal international resolve on this norm. Conversely, in the case of whaling they find disagreements by vested players in the International Whaling Commission on the justificatory foundations of a whaling ban. The result has been an eroding normative architecture. They conclude that applicatory discourses can actually strengthen a norm since “they give rise to learning processes among addressees regarding the claims that a norm involves, i.e. the meaning of these claims” (2013, p. 16). Contestation may serve as a “discursive anchor” in political debates that shapes political alternatives and revitalizes the validity of norms for its members.

Norm Diffusion and Localization

Third, critical constructivists argue that some norms may not become internalized in standard ways at the state level due to alternative patterns of norm diffusion and localization (Capie, 2008; Cortell & Davis, 2005). Amitav Acharya (2004) examines resistance to norm change but focuses on diffusion as the answer to compliance problems. In 2004, Acharya studied resistance in the ASEAN region to global norm development. He argues that internalization is better understood as “localization,” in that state actors respond to external normative pressure by adapting new norms to fit their preexisting local normative frameworks. This school examines “the socialization process as more one of contestation between different normative systems” (Hoffman, 2010, p. 8).

Norm contestation may also take the form of rejection of norms at the local level. In contrast to Wiener and Deitelhoff and Zimmermann, Acharya’s arguments about challenges to the norm of humanitarian intervention (the responsibility to protect) in countries in the ASEAN region focuses on the idea of external imposition of norms and the resistance that understandably can follow. In the ASEAN region, states have often refused to accept the legitimacy of external pressures regarding human rights abuses. Acharya argues that Asia developed a more noninterventionist posture through its own form of localization—the humanitarian norm failed to diffuse effectively because did not mesh with existing norms of sovereignty in the region (2004, p. 278). Acharya also advances the concept of norm subsidiarity, whereby local actors establish rules and norms of their own designed to counter international pressures (2011). Acharya demonstrates that governments were not simply rejecting new norms, they were invoking prior normative constructs (2011, p. 102). Contestation is thus more than simply rejection, it represents a reformulation of localization in reference (and deference) to preexisting global norms. Acharya’s (2013) norm circulation extends these ideas in a framework to study the forces of localization and subsidiarity.

Finally, Betts and Orchard (2014) and colleagues conduct an empirical investigation of variation in patterns of norm institutionalization—joining Acharya and a growing number of scholars who recognize that local interests shape norm patterns (Percy, 2007). Arguing that most scholarship seems to accept the first-generation logic of norm diffusion, they contend, “institutionalization leaves open a significant puzzle for scholars of international norms—states that have the same levels of institutionalization may nevertheless exhibit significant variation on how those norms play out in practice” (2014, p. 1). Just because two states have signed or ratified the same international norms, or similarly incorporated them within domestic law, Betts and Orchard contend, “does not necessarily mean that they will be similarly implemented. This analytical gap matters.” Critical weaknesses in existing norm theory include assumptions that international institutionalization equals compliance and that norm content remains static (2014, p. 2). Betts and Orchard direct an analysis of nearly a dozen comparative case studies, ranging from adaptation of norms on refugees and transnational advocacy and accountability related to the Rome Statute and war crimes to the antimercenary norm and implementation of the norm for need-based humanitarian assistance in civil wars. They and their colleagues identify ideational, institutional, and material factors that may shape discourse and pathways of norm transference from international institutions to state laws. The study finds evidence for the importance of Wiener’s notion of meaning-in-use to highlight how international norms are not simply “grafted” on to national and local contexts but can come to mean different things when combined with preexisting cultural and historical context” (2014, p. 14). They also identify material and institutional constraints on policymaking and implementation, reflecting variations in constitutional frameworks and national history and politics and specific identities and roles in the system.


Another school of critical constructivism contends that state “antipreneurs” develop innovative strategies to challenge existing normative architectures. For example, Jonas Claes (2012) categorizes players in the R2P debate as “advocates” and “rejectionists,” with the latter group speaking out against new initiatives in multilateral settings, demanding renegotiation, and denying that consensus has ever been achieved. Antipreneurs may be individuals, rival advocacy coalitions, or states that defend normative status quos in processes of contestation (Bloomfield & Scott, 2017; Bob, 2012; Sandholtz & Stiles, 2009; Widmaier & Park, 2012). They attempt to defend norms against challenges to “validity claims inherent in any causal or normative statement and seek a communicative consensus about their understanding of a situation as well as justifications for the principles and norms guiding their action” (Risse, 2000, p. 7). As Michael Barnett suggests, “the normative structure that constitutes and constrains actors also provides the wellspring for social practices and allows for strategic action” which might be “designed to rewrite the cultural landscape to legitimate foreign policy change” (1999, p. 6). Thus, scholars contend, social processes of contestation may contribute to the evolution of a surprisingly dynamic normative structure (Alter & Meunier, 2009).

Bloomfield and Scott’s pathbreaking work (2017) on norm antipreneurship defines a new research program in this spirit. Their studies help bridge constructivist and neoliberal accounts of state behavior by attending more to agency. Counter to the “excessive focus” on norm entrepreneurs in the life-cycle model, Bloomfield and Scott argue that the study of norm antipreneurs or revisionists will help rebalance the norm dynamics literature by adding dimensions of study of norm entrepreneurship. Their research program presents empirical evidence from nearly a dozen case studies of antipreneurship in action. They find that both elites and nongovernmental organizations play roles in contending coalitions seeking influence on policy outcomes and institutional cooperation. In some cases, antipreneurs resist advancements creatively by refining status quo norms and proposing them in opposition to the entrepreneur’s new norm. But the very act of engaging in creative or critical discourse itself tends to change dynamic understandings of norms. In select circumstances of “normative flux,” actors may say they agree on the need for a new norm while disagreeing on its content or application.

Antipreneurs have at least two avenues for strategic obstruction of normative development or implementation. First, Bloomfield and Scott argue, antipreneurs may “refute claims that the entrenched normative status produces morally problematic outcomes.” There is an advantage in inertia. That is, there are different ways possible for opponents of change to suggest high costs and uncertainty. Bloomfield and Scott suggest that techniques be divided into two categories, the first of which was strategies of discursive promotion or maneuvering. In other cases, antipreneurs seek to undermine new norms through disruption and claims of inefficiency (2017, pp. 240–244). Institutional contexts and domestic political constraints can help provide antipreneurs with opportunities to delay and/or deliberately sow confusion, hoping antipreneurial inertia trumps entrepreneurial momentum. The most obvious is the deployment of frustrating or delaying tactics. In the case of contestation over the outer space norm, for example, the United States denied that there was an issue to address and stopped talking about issues that had previously been on the agenda (Lantis, 2017). Zahava (2017) identified similar tactics in debates over abolishing nuclear weapons, and Bloomfield shows how antipreneurs have tried to stifle debate about R2P. Empirical studies show that antipreneurs use multiple techniques for influence, such as “counter-framing” (Adachi on cluster-munitions, 2017), “fact-based reasoning” (Campbell-Verduyn, 2017), and “ungrafting” (Bob on targeted assassination, 2017).

Conclusion and Directions for Future Research

This essay has examined a range of recent advancements in norm contestation theory. It has addressed three dimensions of scholarship in greater depth, including critical constructivist propositions regarding norm diffusion, norm change, opposition, and noncompliance, theories of agency in norm contestation, and applications of these theories in diverse contests. The essay also charts how critical constructivist theory in the second-generation appears to be experiencing an ontological shift. This includes not only a transition of perspectives on agency and change processes, but also the move toward advancing a set of testable generalizations that can be examined through numerical operationalization, case studies, or some combination of quantitative and qualitative methods.

Limitations of norm contestation theory include debates over theoretical assumptions, ontological differences, and challenges associated with different units of analysis and mechanisms of norm change. For example, no single theory of norm change or contestation has emerged as dominant in the first decade of research, and scholars are just beginning to grapple with whether greater attention should be devoted to contestation during norm development or localization/diffusion challenges. In addition, the concept of norm change raises an ontological debate about whether norms are static or dynamic in nature, and how best to study the cyclical development of norms (or norm change over time). Third, studies of processes of contestation also have not yet empirically determined the role of discourse and persuasion in redefinition and constructive norm substitution.

In many ways, the debate about whether norm contestation undermines or strengthens normative architectures captures the spirit of these challenges. Studies to date suggest significant variation in the impact of contestation on norm robustness (Deitelhoff & Zimmermann, 2016; McKeown, 2009; Wiener, 2014). Newer works (Bloomfield & Scott, 2017; Lantis & Wunderlich, unpublished manuscript, 2017; Sandholtz, 2008) suggest that the relationship between contestation and norm strength may be further mitigated by key characteristics of norm clusters. For instance, Lantis and Wunderlich (unpublished manuscript, 2017) contend cohesive norm clusters embedded in international institutions and law may be especially resilient. Less institutionalized norms may be most vulnerable to contestation and robustness challenges. Regime theorists have analyzed such embeddedness of institutions in larger normative frameworks under the heading “institutional nesting” (Young, 1996, p. 3). Orchard and Betts (2014) also posit a link between institutionalization and norm strength. Yet, more scholarly attention is needed to explain how institutions can fill the “legitimacy gap between fundamental norms and standardized procedures” (Wiener, 2009) and promote stakeholder engagement.

Recent advances in social network theory also may inform studies of norm cluster resiliency (Avant & Westerwinter, 2016). Avant and Heger (2014, p. 2) argue, “much of the governance that goes on in today’s world is accomplished by various networks including some combination of national bureaucrats, intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), NGOs, transnational corporations, business associations, and civil society organizations . . . these new networks of governing are crucial parts of global and local politics.” Further exploration of the characteristics of networks, principles, and the distribution of links between nodes is warranted. Questions remain over measurement of cohesive and densely institutionalized norm clusters and the role they play in global governance structures. Additional work tracing the processes of contestation discourses in comparative perspective will contribute to the literature. Works should further explore specific characteristics of norm clusters (or scope conditions) that may help buoy norms against contestation. While robustness of individual norms may change, synergistic linkages between norms in a cluster and institutionalized debates about their relative importance may help promote overall longevity.

Recent advances in norm contestation theory such as the focus on rival coalitions and norm antipreneurship also offer promise to advance scholarly understanding. Notably, Bloomfield’s suggestions that antipreneurs have an edge in contestation—that they “may enjoy asymmetrical advantages when defending the normative status quo in some international issue-areas”—requires further study (2017, p. 23). Additional distinctions about the role of antipreneurs, such as the assertion they may be more likely to emerge as norm stewards in highly technical policy areas, and whether governmental or nongovernmental actors are more effective in contesting norms, raise interesting questions.

Assuming that the goal of second-generation theorizing on contestation is the establishment of a more systematic research agenda—to heighten its analytical utility by defining meanings and categorizing patterns of social practice—the current foundations of critical constructivist work on compliance seem strong. However, scholars have also identified exciting avenues for further exploration. Empirical testing and refinement of second-generation approaches in international norm theory offer a great deal of promise for the future.


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