Norms have never been absent from the study of international politics, but the sweeping “ideational turn” in the 1980s and 1990s brought them back as a central theoretical concern in the field. Much theorizing about norms has focused on how they create social structure, standards of appropriateness, and stability in international politics. Recent empirical research on norms, in contrast, has examined their role in creating political change, but change processes have been less well-theorized. We induce from this research a variety of theoretical arguments and testable hypotheses about the role of norms in political change. We argue that norms evolve in a three-stage “life cycle” of emergence, “norm cascades,” and internalization, and that each stage is governed by different motives, mechanisms, and behavioral logics. We also highlight the rational and strategic nature of many social construction processes and argue that theoretical progress will only be made by placing attention on the connections between norms and rationality rather than by opposing the two.
Martha Finnemore is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, Washington, D. C.
Kathryn Sikkink is Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.