Implementation And European Integration A Review Essay

Social Construction and Integration*

Jeffrey T. Checkel
ARENA, University of Oslo




Social construction, which has made key contributions to contemporary international relations (IR) and institutional theorizing, has yet to make significant in-roads among scholars of integration. This is unfortunate, for it has privileged methodological individualism in the study of European institutions -- either in its strict (rational-choice institutionalism) or more loose (historical institutionalist) versions. As a result, too much debate has focused on which institutions matter in the integration process, and not on how they have effects. This paper examines the latter, arguing that a sociological and social constructivist understanding of institutions as constitutive can significantly broaden the methodological tools we bring to the study of integration; it will also help us explore how, or, indeed, whether, integration is affecting fundamental actor identities, and not simply constraining strategy or behaviour.

The essay has five parts. It begins by briefly clarifying the differences among rational choice, historical and sociological institutionalism; fundamentally, it is ontology, and not epistemology, that distinguishes these schools. Second, I review the literature on European integration, demonstrating how much of it, including work of prominent historical institutionalists and proponents of multi-level governance, is premised on methodologically individualist assumptions. Third, the epistemological and ontological bases of an alternative, social constructivist understanding of European institutions are advanced. Here, I critically assess recent constructivist work in IR, demonstrating its promise to students of integration, but also warning of pitfalls to avoid. Fourth, I show how a social constructivist cut at institutions, when compared to theoretical competitors, captures different -- and, indeed, important -- aspects of the European project. The conclusion argues that Europeanists should not be content simply "to pull off the shelf" constructivist insights; rather, they should address key lacunae in contemporary social constructivism. This will require greater attention to middle-range theory development and research design, as well as a new round of interdisciplinary exchange, in this case, between constructivists and cognitive/social


Much of the European integration process can be modelled as strategic exchange between autonomous political agents with fixed interests. At the same time, much of it cannot. Constitutive dynamics of social learning, socialization, routinization and normative diffusion, all of which address fundamental issues of agent identity and interests, are not adequately captured by strategic exchange or other models adhering to strict forms of methodological individualism. Indeed, when it comes to these processes of interest and identity formation, the empirical reality of integration is outstripping our theoretical models for understanding it. Put differently, the dominant institutionalisms in studies of integration -- rational choice and historical -- need to be supplemented by a more sociological understanding of institutions that stresses their constitutive, identity-forming roles.

After addressing definitional issues and briefly reviewing the literature on integration, I argue that social construction, a growing and vibrant literature in contemporary international relations, can help students of integration theorize and empirically explore these neglected questions of interest and identity. I demonstrate how a social constructivist cut at institutions explains key aspects of the European project -- social learning and normative diffusion -- better than its rationalist competitors, with the practical goal being to elaborate the specific methods and data requirements for such work. In the conclusion, I shift to a more conceptual level, arguing that Europeanists can and should contribute to the further theoretical development of constructivism.

Before proceeding, two comments are in order. First, the essay’s fundamental premise is that research on integration should be problem, and not method, driven; the goal is to encourage dialogue and bridge-building between rationalists and social constructivists. By itself, each school explains important elements of the integration process; working together, or at least side-by-side, they will more fully capture the range of institutional dynamics at work in contemporary Europe. Indeed, too many constructivists are themselves method-driven, ignoring the obvious empirical fact that much of every day social interaction is about strategic exchange and self-interested behaviour. [1]

Second and following on the above, the constructivism favored in this essay belongs to what has been called its modernist branch. These scholars, who combine an ontological stance critical of methodological individualism with a loosely causal epistemology, are thus well placed, within the integration literature, "to seize the middle ground" -- staking out a position between positivist and agent-centered rational choice, on the one hand, and interpretative and structure-centered postmodernism on the other. [2]

Institutions -- Thick and Thin

Of the many institutionalisms floating around these days in economics, political science and sociology, I need briefly to discuss three: rational choice institutionalism, historical institutionalism, and sociological institutionalism. For rational choice scholars, institutions are thin: At most, they are a constraint on the behaviour of self-interested actors -- be they interest groups or unitary states in IR. They are a strategic context that provides incentives or information, thus influencing the strategies agents employ to attain given ends. In this thin conception, institutions are a structure that actors run into, go "ouch," and then recalculate how, in the present of the structure, to achieve their interests; they are an intervening variable. [3]

For historical institutionalists, institutions get thicker, but only in a long-term historical perspective. In the near-term here and now, they are thin -- structuring the game of politics and providing incentives for instrumentally motivated actors to rethink their strategies; they are a constraint on behaviour. Over the longer term, however, institutions can have deeper effects on actors as strategies, initially adopted for self-interested reasons, get locked into and institutionalized in politics. Institutions thus can be both intervening and independent variables. [4]

Sociological institutionalists are unabashedly thick institutionalists. Not only in the distant future, but in the near-term, institutions constitute actors and their interests. What exactly does it mean for institutions to constitute? It is to suggest they can provide agents with understandings of their interests and identities. This occurs through interaction between agents and structures -- mutual constitution, to IR scholars. The effects of institutions thus reach much deeper; they do not simply constrain behaviour. As variables, institutions become independent -- and strongly so. [5]

Two examples help clarify this sociological logic. In international politics, sovereignty is a constitutive institution. It is the background and foundation that makes possible and legitimizes a whole range of state interests, and proscribes others. Within Europe, consider the norms embedded within its contemporary rights regime. They are an institution in the thick sense: In many policy areas regarding human rights and the rule of law, they prescribe acceptable and legitimate behaviours and interests for states. Of course, a key question is how, through what mechanisms and processes, social norms have constitutive effects -- a point addressed below. [6]

Thus, as one moves from rational choice to sociological institutionalism, the effects of institutions changes. For rational choice and historical institutionalism, the focus is on behaviour, instrumental self-interest, strategies; sociologists, in contrast, emphasize the prescriptive, proscriptive, legitimizing role of institutions. Underlying these distinctions are two radically different theories, or logics, of action.

Rational choice scholars and many historical institutionalists posit a model of human action based on utility maximization, where an agent, when confronted with various options, picks the one that best serves his/her objectives and interests. Much rational choice scholarship, as well as some historical institutionalists, also make assumptions about the content of these interests, typically, material goods such as power or wealth. Interests are therefore given a priori and exogenously. Structures and institutions constrain the choices and behaviour of pre-existing individuals/agents, who operate under a logic of consequences (means-ends calculations). [7]

Sociological institutionalists favour a very different model, one in which strategic, utility maximization is replaced by rule-governed action, where logics of appropriateness, derived from social norms, prevail. Such logics involve reasoning by analogy and metaphor, not about ends and means. Under them, agents ask "What kind of situation is this?" and "What should I do now?" -- with social institutions and norms helping provide the answers. Institutions therefore constitute agents, providing them with understandings of interests. [8]

In research and theorizing about institutions, should one of these logics be favored, serving as the baseline? The answer here is "no," for ultimately this is an empirical question. No doubt, there are many situations and aspects of European integration where agents operate under a means-end logic of consequences (meetings of the European Council or the hard-headed interstate bargaining that features prominently in intergovernmentalist accounts). At the same time, a less static perspective reminds us that much social interaction involves dynamics of learning and socialization, where the behaviour of individuals and states comes to be governed by certain logics of appropriateness (informal communication in working groups of the Council of Ministers, European-level policy networks centered on the Commission). Unfortunately, these latter logics, while equally compelling and plausible, have received little systematic theoretical attention in political science or in studies of Europeanization. [9]

Institutions and Europeanization

To students of international politics well versed in the never-ending neorealist-neoliberal controversy, the debates over Europeanization and European integration produce an eery feeling of deja vu. On the one hand, the discussion has helped advocates of opposing approaches sharpen their central arguments and claims; similar intellectual clarifications have occurred over the past decade in the debate between neorealists and neoliberals in IR.

At the same time and in a more negative sense, the debate over Europeanization, like any academic discourse, has emphasized certain methods and actors at the expense of others. To my reading, much of the discussion has been about institutions -- be they encompassing governance or federal structures, historically constructed organizational and policy legacies, or, more narrowly, bodies of the European Union (EU) such as the Commission or European Council. Moreover, in most cases, the analysis is about how such institutions structure the game of politics, provide information, facilitate side payments or create incentives for agents to choose certain strategies.

Such an emphasis, however, comes at a cost. It shortchanges the role institutions can play in politics, or, more to the point, in European integration. In particular, their constitutive role, typically stressed by sociologists, is neglected. If the neo-debate in contemporary IR can be accused of neglecting fundamental issues of identity formation, then much of the current discussion about European integration can be accused of bracketing this constitutive dimension of institutions.

I develop this critique by briefly examining the controversy between proponents of multi-level governance and historical institutionalists on the one hand, and intergovernmentalists on the other. Among the former, I include supranational institutionalists and some neofunctionalists; rational choice theorists and neorealists are grouped with the latter. The purpose is not to provide yet another review of this debate; others have done that much better than I could. Rather, my concern is the conceptualization of institutions in these analyses. [10]

Beginning with intergovernmentalists, their conception of institutions is clear, consistent and very thin. Because these scholars are self-conscious about their theoretical and methodological foundations, it is easy to comprehend immediately the brand of institutionalism on offer. Moravcsik's carefully argued work is a case in point. Institutions at the European level are an arena for strategic interaction and bargaining; by facilitating credible commitments and side payments, they help self-interested states attain efficient bargaining outcomes. Moreover, EU institutions -- typically the Council of Ministers or European Council for intergovernmentalists -- have little or no autonomy; the preferences of the large and powerful member states prevail. Thus, at most, institutions shape the strategic environment of states. [11]

In more recent work, Moravcsik has added a theory of national preference formation to his earlier intergovernmentalist approach. Given this move, an important question -- for my purposes -- is the role of domestic institutions. Do they provide actors with understandings of their interests? Hardly, for the institutions here, at the national level, are as thin as they are internationally. The preferences of social groups are "aggregated through political institutions"; the latter have no independent causal role. This should come as no surprise as Moravcsik's domestic model simply imports the rational choice microfoundations of neoliberal regime theory to the national level. [12]

The portrayal of EU institutions in game theoretic, rational choice and neorealist work differs little from that sketched above. Garrett and Weingast, for example, draw upon theories of incomplete information and incomplete contracting to offer a sophisticated analysis of the role played by institutions in the construction of the EU's internal market. The use of such approaches allows them to address puzzles left unanswered by standard rational choice models, which assume, unrealistically, that emergent cooperative arrangements represent uniquely efficient solutions to the problems faced by states.

However, the rationalist foundation that undergirds their preferred theories leads these scholars, like intergovernmentalists, to conceptualize institutions in very thin terms. Indeed, EU institutions are constructed by the most powerful member states -- in an instrumental fashion -- to promote their interests. Over time, these bodies will at most coordinate the behaviour and expectations of member states. Recent neorealist work on the Union differs little on this score, viewing EU bodies as a strategic environment constructed, in this case, by weaker states to constrain the choices and behaviour of the more powerful. [13]

How do proponents of supranational institutionalism, multi-level governance and historical institutionalists conceptualize EU institutions? One would think quite differently -- given the great amount of heat and fire in their debate with intergovernmentalists. However, this often turns out not to be the case. To begin, consider the work of Sandholtz. While he argues the need to endogenize interest formation, it is not at all clear that institutions play any meaningful role in this process. In his research on telecommunications, the Maastricht treaty and EU membership, he portrays Union organs as helping states overcome collective action problems and, more generally, affecting the calculations, behaviours and strategies of self-interested domestic actors.

Not surprisingly, given this thin conception of institutions, his three "direct influences" of the EU on "national interest formation" are all captured and explained by variants of rational choice institutionalism. In turn, this suggests Sandholtz is not so much analyzing the impact of institutions on national interests, but how they affect the strategies employed by member states in the pursuit of given interests. [14]

Proponents of multi-level governance, while adding a new and important institutional layer to neofunctionalist and intergovernmentalist arguments, do not challenge the rationalist microfoundations of either school. Consistent with such an approach, these scholars typically argue that their perspective supplements the state-centered, high-politics focus of intergovernmentalism by considering subnational actors and other points in the policy process. [15]

Through richly detailed studies, this literature has convincingly shown that multi-level governance is a reality in a variety of policy areas. However, it has not paid sufficient attention to the role of institutions in this process; moreover, the institutional analysis on offer is largely predicated on rational choice foundations. The dominant institutional metaphor and empirical focus is institutions as constraint; they induce actors to adopt certain strategies or shape their behaviour.

While early work by proponents of multi-level governance tended toward the descriptive, more recent studies are self-consciously theoretical. This theoretical base, consistent with my observations, is solidly rational choice -- theories of transaction costs and informational asymmetries, as well as principal-agent frameworks. In sum, the fight these scholars pick with intergovernmentalists is more about which institutions matter than about how they have effects. [16]

Finally, one has historical institutionalist work on the European Union. This recent addition to EU studies is best exemplified by the work of Paul Pierson. As noted earlier, this branch of institutionalism sits, somewhat uneasily, between rational choice and sociological institutionalism. However, Pierson's version moves it decisively closer to rational choice scholarship; one result is a very thin conception of institutions. His discussion, within the context of the EU, of unanticipated consequences, adaptive learning, institutional barriers to reform, sunk costs and exit costs is entirely consistent with -- and, in fact, premised on -- rational choice. EU institutions are thus all about constraint and incentives. While Pierson should be commended for providing solid rational choice microfoundations to a largely descriptive historical institutionalist literature, the costs are significant.

Indeed, he essentially severs the bridge that links parts of that same literature to a sociological or thick understanding of institutions. Put differently, Pierson is entirely correct to assert that the "path to European integration has embedded member states in a dense institutional environment"; however, he provides us with only a limited set of methodological tools for understanding exactly how that dense environment matters. [17]

In nearly all the work reviewed above, one can deduce a dominant mechanism that links European institutions to agents. Simply put, the former provide information and resources to the latter, who then alter behaviour and strategies. Even in those rare instances where the development of autonomous and potentially constitutive European-level institutions is the focus of study, they are still viewed as information-providers that at best alter agent calculations. [18]

In sum, what is wrong with all this institutional analysis on Europeanization? Nothing. Rather, the proper question is "What is missing here?" In virtually all the foregoing, institutions are at best intervening variables. Missing is a thick institutional argument, derived from sociology, that demonstrates how European institutions can constitute the identities and interests of member states and groups within them.

Social Construction and Institutional Analysis

In this section, I develop an institutional approach that addresses the above-noted gaps, and do so by drawing upon a growing and vibrant body of international relations scholarship: social constructivism. As presently elaborated, constructivism -- at least the modernist branch of concern here -- is an argument about institutions, one which builds upon the insights of sociological institutionalism. It is thus well suited, in a conceptual sense, for expanding our repertoire of institutional frameworks for explaining European integration. Below, I first define a constructivist approach to politics and, then, note several problems in recent empirical work -- problems that Europeanists will want to avoid. [19]

Social Construction -- Overview. While constructivism has been developed primarily as a response and critique of mainstream IR theorizing, there is nothing in the method that limits its application to that particular -- international political -- sphere. Constructivism is concerned not with specific IR theories or levels of analysis, but with underlying conceptions of how the social and political world works. It is not a theory, but an approach to social inquiry based on two assumptions: (1) the environment in which agents/states take action is social as well as material; and (2) this setting can provide agents/states with understandings of their interests (constitute them). Put differently, these scholars question the materialism and methodological individualism upon which much contemporary political science scholarship has been built. [20]

The first assumption reflects a view that material structures, beyond certain biological necessities, are given meaning only by the social context through which they are interpreted. Consider nuclear weapons -- the ultimate material capability. Constructivists argue that it is not such weapons themselves that matter. After all, the US worries very little about the large quantity of nuclear weapons held by the British; however, the possibility that North Korea might come to possess just one or two generates tremendous concern. [21]

The second assumption addresses the basic nature of human agents and states, in particular, their relation to broader structural environments. Constructivists emphasize a process of interaction between agents and structures; the ontology is one of mutual constitution, where neither unit of analysis -- agents or structures -- is reduced to the other and made ontologically primitive. This opens up what for most theorists is the black box of interest and identity formation; state/agent interests emerge from and are endogenous to interaction with structures. [22]

Constructivists thus question the methodological individualism that underpins much contemporary theorizing. This agent-centered view asserts that all social phenomena are explicable in ways that only involve individual agents and their goals and actions; the starting point of the analysis is actors (states) with given properties. Ontologically, the result is to reduce one unit of analysis -- structures -- to the other -- agents. [23]

It is important to note that the constructivists reviewed here do not reject explanatory analysis or causal explanation; their quarrel with mainstream theories is ontological, not epistemological. The last point is key for it suggests constructivism has the potential to bridge the still vast divide separating mainstream theorists from proponents of more discursive and interpretative methods. With the latter, constructivists share many substantive concerns (role of identity and discourse, say) and a similar ontological stance; with the former, they share a largely common epistemology. [24]

To illuminate these differences between constructivists and other schools, it is helpful to explore their understanding of central terms. Consider norms -- a concept that has gained much currency in comparative and IR scholarship over the past decade. Many theorists sees norms playing an influential role in certain issue areas. Yet, they are still a superstructure built on a material base; at best norms serve a regulative function, helping actors with given interests maximize utility. Agents (states) create structures (norms and institutions). [25]

For constructivists, norms are collective understandings that make behavioural claims on actors. Their effects reach deeper: They constitute actor identities and interests, and do not simply regulate behaviour. As explanatory variables, their status moves from intervening to independent. Norms are no longer a superstructure on a material base; rather, they are helping to create and define that base. For constructivists, agents (states) and structures (global norms) are interacting; they are mutually constituted. [26]

Taken together, these three moves by constructivists -- their questioning of methodological individualism and materialism, along with a continuing commitment to explanatory modes of analysis -- have brought a breath of fresh air to thinking about politics, and done so in ways accessible to nearly all scholars. By aspiring to more than interpretation and thick description, their particular brand of institutional analysis offers much to rational choice and historical institutionalists studying Europe: All three schools, for the most part, are talking the same language. [27]

In sum, social constructivists remind us that the study of politics -- or integration -- is not just about actors with fixed preferences who interact via a process of strategic exchange. Rather, they seek to explain theoretically both the content of actor identities/preferences and the modes of social interaction -- so evident in everyday life -- where something else aside from strategic exchange is taking place. To put the point somewhat differently, constructivism is not just the endogenous study of preferences; it also seeks to develop alternative models of action and socialization.

Social Construction -- The Challenges Ahead. However, if Europeanists are fruitfully to utilize constructivist insights, they should best avoid repeating problems extant in the current theoretical work. Here, I highlight the three most important: neglect of agency; failure to explain is a systematic way what it means for an agent to be constituted by broader social structures; and insufficient attention to theory development and research design.

First, in seeking to break with the methodological individualism of much contemporary political science, constructivists have gone too far in the opposite direction, failing to theorize in any meaningful sense the role of agency. As a result, despite their ontological commitment to a process-oriented vision of social reality ("mutual constitution"), they have largely ignored and failed to model the specific mechanisms through which social institutions such as norms connect to agents. [28]

Second and related, there is a lack of clarity on the meaning of constitute, with at least two definitions employed in the literature. In many cases, it is used in an enabling sense, where the emergence of norms and institutions makes possible new repertoires of action and behaviour, or empowers new categories of social actors. This meaning has been invoked most often in constructivist work on the global diffusion of human rights norms, where the appearance of such new knowledge structures gradually reconstitutes the interests of key agents (the US, say) or empowers and helps create new domestic and transnational groups that oppose particular regimes and policies. Used in this manner, constitute has a prolonged temporal dimension -- typically playing out over several decades. [29]

Another definition, however, suggests a more limited temporal perspective, where a social institution (norm, say) constitutes an agent by providing him/her with new understandings of interests regarding a particular policy issue. Unfortunately, these accounts are less clear on how this near-term process of constitution happens. Allusions to social learning and socialization are strong, but ultimately underspecified; as a result, constructivists have missed an opportunity to build bridges to rational choice scholars. In fact, upon closer examination, part of this constructivist socialization dynamic often involves consequential calculation by purposeful agents. Of course, from a problem-driven perspective, there is nothing wrong with that state of affairs; however, it does muddy the waters, making less clear the uniquely constructivist value-added. Nevertheless, as this second understanding of constitute is more amenable to operationalization and empirical research, I emphasize it below. [30]

Third, constructivists must pay more attention to theory development and research design if their nascent research program is to advance. On design, there has been a tendency to ignore cases where "the dog does not bark" -- that is, where the outcome of interest (identity change, say) does not occur. Methodologically, scholars have thus frequently selected on the dependent variable. Compounding this problem has been a research strategy where "N" all too often "= 1." As much of the integration literature is prone to precisely the same problems, it behooves Europeanists, as they execute their own constructivist turn, not to repeat them. [31]

On theory development, one "straw man" needs immediately to be slain. The goal of much mainstream IR theorizing is not the development of general theory of the covering-law sort. While some aspire to such goals, many do not; rather, they seek to develop so-called middle-range theory that accounts for the contingent and historical nature of international political change. The list of middle-range theories (and theorists) is large and growing: work on comparative foreign policy by Alexander George, James Rosenau and others; the literature linking domestic structures to international-political and foreign-policy change (Katzenstein, Risse); recent work on the democratic peace; research linking the global economy to processes of domestic political change (Gourevitch, Haggard, Milner), etc. These scholars have advanced complex, multi-variate arguments and, typically, have applied them to multiple (qualitative) cases. The result is middle-range theory: It is contingent, historically-bounded, but "travels," being applicable in contexts other than those for which it was originally designed. [32]

Social constructivists should also aspire to such (modest) theoretical goals, developing middle-range constructivist theories of the democratic peace or, in the European context, of intergovernmental bargaining and European institutions (see below). Nothing in constructivism precludes a focus on particular actors (states, say) or levels of analysis. While middle-range theory is not without drawbacks, its advantages are numerous. Indeed, by integrating rich empirical data with theoretically-driven arguments, it often generates the intellectual tensions and synergies that help push forward research programs. [33]

Constructivism and the Dynamics of European Integration

Constructivism has the potential to contribute to the study of integration in various areas. Below, I consider two: learning and socialization processes at the European level; and the soft or normative side of Europeanization at the national level. In each case, I explore what a constructivist approach entails, how it could be carried out empirically and its value added compared to existing work on integration. I also address and counter the argument that selection bias limits my ability to generalize. The section concludes by noting how a constructivist approach to integration can build upon and systematize theoretical arguments and descriptive insights advanced by a growing number of Europeanists; I also argue the whole exercise is not one of re-inventing the wheel.

Learning and Socialization. What does it mean for an agent to learn? Complex social learning involves a process whereby actors, through interaction with broader institutional contexts (norms or discursive structures), acquire new interests and preferences -- in the absence of obvious material incentives. Put differently, agent interests and identities are shaped through interaction. So defined, social learning involves a break with strict forms of methodological individualism. This type of learning needs to be distinguished, analytically, from the simple sort, where agents acquire new information, alter strategies, but then pursue given, fixed interests; simple learning, of course, can be captured by methodological-individualist/rationalist accounts. [34]

Consider small group settings: It is intuitively obvious that there are times when agents acquire new preferences through interaction in such contexts. This is not to deny periods of strategic exchange, where self-interested actors seek to maximize utility; yet, to emphasize the latter dynamic to the near exclusion of the former is an odd distortion of social reality. Now, the perhaps appropriate response is "so what?" In an abstract sense, it readily can be appreciated that social learning takes place at certain times, but how can one conceptualize and empirically explore whether and when it occurs? Luckily, there is a growing literature in contemporary IR -- work by constructivists, students of epistemic communities and empirically oriented learning theorists -- that performs precisely this theoretical/empirical combination. More specifically, this research suggests a number of hypotheses on when social learning occurs; these could be translated to empirical work conducted at the European level.

* Social learning is more likely in groups where individuals share common professional backgrounds -- for example, where all/most group members are lawyers or, say, European central bankers.

* Social learning is more likely where the group feels itself in a crisis or is faced with clear and incontrovertible evidence of policy failure.

* Social learning is more likely where a group meets repeatedly and there is high density of interaction among participants.

* Social learning is more likely when a group is insulated from direct political pressure and exposure. [35]

These hypotheses are just a start; they require further elaboration and operationalization. For example, can a crisis situation be specified a priori, and not in a post-hoc fashion as is typically done? When is the density of interaction among group participants sufficiently high for a switch to occur from strategic exchange to interactive learning? These are difficult issues, but they are only being raised because a first round of theoretical/empirical literature exists. Europeanists could build upon and contribute to this work -- for example, by exploring and theorizing the impact, if any, of different EU voting rules (unanimity, qualified majority voting) on these group dynamics.

The deductions also point to a powerful role for communication in constructivist research. However, in keeping with this essay’s attempted bridging function, it is a role between that of the rationalists’ cheap talk, where agents (typically) possess complete information and are (always) instrumentally motivated, and the post-modernists’ discourse analyses, where agents seem oddly powerless and without motivation. Yet, this role itself requires further unpackaging: Underlying my communication/learning arguments are implicit theories of persuasion and argumentation, which have been the subject of extensive study by cognitive/social psychologists. [36]

What are the data requirements for research based on the above hypotheses? Essentially, you need to read things and talk with people. The latter requires structured interviews with group participants; the interviews should all employ a similar protocol, asking questions that tap both individual preferences and motivations, as well as group dynamics. The former, ideally, requires access to informal minutes of meetings or, second best, the diaries or memoirs of participants. As a check on these first two data streams, one can search for local media/TV interviews with group participants. This method of triangulation is fairly standard in qualitative research; it both reduces reliance on any one data source (interviewees, after all, may often dissimulate) and increases confidence in the overall validity of your inferences. [37]

For students of integration, is this a feasible undertaking? Drawing upon my own work in progress, I suggest the answer is "yes." In a larger project, I am studying the appearance and consolidation of new European citizenship norms; an important concern is to explain, at the European level, whether and how new understandings of citizenship are emerging. To date, my focus has been on Strasbourg and the Council of Europe (CE), for this has been where the more serious, substantive work has occurred. When the CE is trying to develop new policy, it often sets up "committees of experts" under the Committee of Ministers, the intergovernmental body that sits atop the Council’s decisionmaking hierarchy. In a sense, then, these committees are the functional equivalent of the working groups of the EU’s Council of Ministers.

I have been examining the Committee of Experts on Nationality, the group that was charged with revising earlier European understandings of citizenship that dated from the 1960s. My particular interest was to describe and explain what occurred in this group as it met over a four year period: For example, why did it revise existing understandings on dual citizenship to remove the strict prohibition that had previously existed at the European level? To address such issues, I did the following. First, three rounds of field work were conducted in Strasbourg; during these trips, I interviewed various individuals who served on the Committee -- members of the Council Secretariat and experts. Second, I conducted interviews in several member-state capitals, meeting with national representatives to the committee of experts. Third, as a cross-check on interview data, more recently I was granted access to the confidential meeting summaries of the Committee.

This was a considerable amount of work, but the pay off has been high. Over time, particular individuals clearly shifted from what they viewed as a strategic bargaining game (for example, seeking side payments to advance given interests) to a process where basic preferences were rethought. This shift was particularly evident on the question of dual citizenship, where a growing number of committee members came to view the existing prohibition as simply wrong. Processes of persuasion and learning were key, and such dynamics were greatly facilitated by a growing sense of policy failure -- the number of dual nationals was climbing rapidly despite the existing prohibition -- and the committee’s insulation from publicity and overt political pressure. Indeed, the committee benefited from the public perception of Strasbourg as a quiet backwater of Europeanization -- with the real action occurring in Brussels. This allowed it to meet and work out revised understandings on citizenship prior to any overt politicization of its work. Given that the CE is a more intergovernmental body than the EU, one where member states and their interests should figure prominently, my case is a hard one for demonstrating social learning dynamics. They are thus all the more likely in Brussels.

The point of this example is not to dismiss rationalist accounts of strategic bargaining. Rather, it is to note the value added of a middle-range constructivist supplement to these more standard portrayals: It led me to ask new questions and employ a different set of research techniques. The result was to broaden our understanding of what, precisely, is going on at the European level. [38]

Socialization/Diffusion Pathways. As noted earlier, constructivists view norms as shared, collective understandings that make behavioural claims on actors. When thinking about norms in the EU context, two issues must be addressed: (1) through what process do they arise at the European level; and (2) how do such norms, once they reach the national level, interact with and socialize agents. Now, the distinction between European and national levels is false, as multiple feedback loops cut across them; at the same time, the dichotomy can be justified analytically as it helps one unpack and think through different stages in the process of European norm formation. In what follows, I am less interested in formal legal norms developed and promulgated, for example, by the European Court of Justice; a growing body of literature in both law and political science already addresses such understandings and their impact. Rather, the constructivist value added comes from its focus on the less formalized, but pervasive social norms that are always a part of social interaction. [39]

On the first issue -- the process of norm development -- constructivists have theorized about and provided empirical evidence for the importance of three dynamics. First, individual agency is central: Well-placed individuals with entrepreneurial skills can often turn their individual beliefs into broader, shared understandings. The importance of this particular factor has been documented in case studies covering nearly a 100 year period and a multitude of international organizations and other transnational movements. In the literature, these individuals are typically referred to as moral entrepreneurs. [40]

Second, such entrepreneurs are especially successful in turning individually held ideas into broader normative beliefs when so-called policy windows are open. This means the larger group, in which the entrepreneur operates, faces a puzzle/problem that has no clear answer, or is new and unknown. In this situation, fixed preferences often break down as agents engage in cognitive information searches. While the policy-window concept was first elaborated by public policy (agenda setting) and organizational theorists (garbage-can models), it was only more recently that constructivists applied its insights in the international realm to explain norm formation. [41]

Third, processes of social learning and socialization (see previous section) are crucial for furthering the norm creation process first begun by individual agents exploiting open policy windows. The basic point is that individual agency is insufficient to create durable social norms. A brief example clarifies the point. In the mid-1980s, several close advisers to Soviet leader Gorbachev played the part of entrepreneurs seeking to advance new ideas about international politics. In the near-term, such individually held beliefs, which were influential in shaping Gorbachev’s own preferences, were decisive for bringing the Cold War to a dramatic, peaceful and unexpected end. Yet, once the USSR collapsed and Gorbachev was swept from power, these ideas largely vanished, as many analysts of Russian foreign behaviour have noted. Put differently, absent social learning among a larger group of actors -- that is, the development of norms -- the particular ideas held by specific agents had no real staying power. [42]

When and if new European norms emerge, one must still theorize about the mechanisms through which they diffuse to particular national settings and (perhaps) socialize agents. Here, constructivists have identified two dominant diffusion pathways: "bottom-up" societal mobilization and "top-down" elite learning. In the first case, non-state actors and policy networks are united in their support for norms; they then mobilize and coerce decisionmakers to change state policy. Norms are not necessarily internalized by the elites. The activities of Greenpeace or any number of European non-governmental organizations (NGOs) exemplify this political pressure mechanism. [43]

The second diffusion mechanism identified by constructivists is more top-down in nature. Social learning, not political pressure, leads agents -- typically elite decisionmakers -- to adopt prescriptions embodied in norms; they become internalized and constitute a set of shared intersubjective understandings that make behavioural claims. This process is based on notions of complex learning drawn from cognitive and social psychology, where individuals, when exposed to the prescriptions embodied in norms, adopt new interests. [44]

A key challenge is to develop predictions for when one or the other of these mechanisms is likely to be at work. To date, constructivists have been silent on this issue; however, my work on European citizenship norms suggests a possibility. I hypothesize that the structure of state-society relations -- domestic structure -- predicts likely diffusion pathways, with four categories of such structures identified: liberal, corporatist, statist and state-above-society. From these, I deduce and predict cross-national variation in the mechanisms -- social mobilization and elite learning -- through which norms are empowered.

In making these arguments, I draw upon research by students of domestic structures and historical institutionalists. These scholars study how institutions (state bureaucracies, so-called intermediate associations linking state and society) structure the game of politics and, more important, policymaking within countries; their approach should be helpful in thinking more systematically about the process through which European norms are empowered in the domestic arena. [45]

A brief example highlights the utility of the approach as well as the attendant data requirements. In the project on European citizenship norms, I have explored whether and in what way they diffused to several European states, including the Federal Republic of Germany. Consider this German case. I first did research on the basic structure of state-society relations in the country; like many others, I concluded that the polity is corporatist. That is, it possesses a decentralized state and centralized society, with a dense policy network connecting the two parts; both state and society are participants in policymaking, which is consensual and incremental.

Given this coding of the German structure, I next advanced predictions on the expected process whereby norms would have constitutive effects, arguing that societal pressure would be the primary and elite learning the secondary mechanism empowering European norms in Germany. The logic is as follows. In a corporatist domestic structure, state decisionmakers play a greater role in bringing about normative change than in the liberal case, where policymakers are constantly pressured by social actors; however, this does not mean they impose their preferences on a pliant populace. A hallmark of corporatism is the policy networks connecting state and society, with the latter still accorded an important role in decisionmaking. In this setting, I thus hypothesize that it is both societal pressure (primary) and elite learning (secondary) that lead to norm empowerment.

With these predictions in hand, I then conducted extensive field work in the Federal Republic. To date, this research has confirmed my working hypotheses: Emerging European norms on citizenship are diffusing and being empowered in Germany primary via the mobilization of societal pressure from below; social learning at the elite level has been secondary. More specifically, these norms are connecting to a wide variety of social groups and individuals: NGOs favoring the integration of Germany’s large resident foreigner population; activists in the churches and trade union; and immigrant groups. At the decisionmaking level, one finds isolated evidence of elites learning new preferences from the norms (for example, a small group of Christian Democratic Bundestag deputies). [46]

Two streams of evidence are important for establishing the presence of these diffusion mechanisms , as well as their relative weighting. Most important were structured interviews with a wide range of actors -- both societal and state. As at the European level, these discussions were designed to probe the degree to which agent preferences were changing and the motivations for such change. However, as the rationalists remind us, talk is cheap. Therefore, as a cross-check on the interview data, I consulted a wide-range of primary documentation -- official summaries of Bundestag debates, media analyses, and interviews given in newspapers or on TV.

What is the value-added of all this work? It convincingly demonstrates that a rational-choice institutionalist understanding of the role norms play in social life (norms as constraint) missed an important part of the story in the Federal Republic. I indeed found instances where domestic agents simply felt constrained by the European norms (for example, a number of officials in the Federal Interior Ministry); yet, in many other cases, I uncovered evidence of non-strategic social learning where agents, in the norm’s presence, acquired new understandings of interests. Clearly, much theoretical work remains to be done -- in particular, elaborating scope conditions for when norms have constraining as opposed to constitutive effects. Addressing this latter point is crucial, for, again, the obvious empirical fact is that norms do not always constitute. And while some constructivists may not like it, such investigations will require renewed theoretical attention to agency (see concluding section).

Selection Bias? Perhaps, though, my sociological arguments about the constitutive role of institutions only work because of the particular organization and policy area from which I drew empirical examples: the Council of Europe and human rights. Such analysis is largely irrelevant for the European Union -- a special type of institution with very different policy domains. Selection bias, in other words, limits my ability to generalize. Two responses counter such a critique.

First, there are well-established theoretical reasons for suspecting that Europe, especially Western Europe, is a most likely case for international institutions to have constitutive effects. Most important, it is an institutionally dense environment, one where theorists predict high levels of transnational and international normative activity. This logic, precisely because it is a particular way of viewing the social world, is in principle equally applicable to a variety of European institutions -- whether their focus is human rights (CE) or political and economic affairs (EU). [47]

Second, assume, despite the foregoing, that differences in policy domains do matter. That is, arguments about social learning or the constitutive effects of European norms just do not work when applied to the EU. After all, the process of European integration has largely been about market integration, where national and transnational business interests have played key roles. Such groups are quite different in structure and goals from the actors of civil society -- domestic NGOs, churches -- highlighted in many of my examples. However, if the institutional (enhanced role of European Parliament) and substantive (third pillar of justice and home affairs) innovations of Maastricht and Amsterdam continue to evolve, new actors and policy issues are increasingly likely to make themselves felt within the EU. [48]

In fact, human rights pressure groups have begun utilizing the European Parliament as a means for generating precisely the sort of normative pressure-from-below documented in my CE example. Moreover, immigration, which is now on the third pillar agenda, is an issue where previous studies have documented the extensive degree to which European state interests are constituted by broader international norms. On the related issues of citizenship and racism, recent work establishes that the 1996-97 Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) saw extensive mobilization by NGOs and other transnational movements, and their qualitatively different, when compared to the past, interaction with EU institutions, as well as the IGC itself. Thus, even if differences in policy domains are important, these are presently being blurred if not erased. [49]

Summary. My purpose in the foregoing was constructive. The goal was not to dismiss rational choice or historical institutionalist work on integration; those literatures are rich and offer many insights. Yet, because of their adherence to variants of methodological individualism, certain analytic/empirical issues -- interest and identity formation, most importantly -- are bracketed. A more sociological and constructivist understanding of institutions as constitutive allows one to address such questions. Constructivism, however, need not and, indeed, should not be viewed as terra incognita to Europeanists. In fact, a constructivist cut at integration is already evident, albeit implicitly, in both theoretical and empirical/descriptive studies.

Theoretically, one has the recent work of Olsen, Kohler-Koch and Fligstein. Olsen’s writing, including that on the EU, has been concerned with broader institutional environments -- how they provide the very basis of action for political agents, how they lead to rule-governed behaviour, which may supplant instrumental, strategic calculation, and how they promote learning. Yet, he has failed to explicate, in a theoretical sense, the processes through which such institutional dynamics occur. The constructivist work reviewed above suggests a number of ways these micro-macro linkages could be developed in a specifically European context. [50]

Much of the analysis in recent work by Kohler-Koch and Knodt is also premised on sociological assumptions -- in particular, their exploration of the domestic normative impact of EU institutions, where they do not simply constrain, but constitute agents and their preferences. Unfortunately, this argument is much less clear about the process through which, and the conditions under which, EU norms have such effects. Here, constructivist hypotheses on the mechanisms through which national-level socialization and social learning occur might be relevant. [51]

Fligstein is also interested in constitutive dynamics, but in contrast to Kohler-Koch and Knodt, the focus is on Brussels. In his work on the Commission, he argues that, under certain conditions marked by crisis and uncertainty, it can play an entrepreneurial role helping culturally construct political action. Less clear, however, are the specific processes through which such construction takes place, as well as his theoretical understanding of agency’s role. All the same, this analytic move hints at rich possibilities for a dialogue with those social constructivists who theorize the role of individual agency, entrepreneurs and policy windows in their work on normative change. [52]

Empirically, the last decade has seen an explosion of work on institutional fusion, policy networks, comitology and informal communication patterns centered upon and generated by EU institutions. While this research is extraordinarily rich in a descriptive sense, it is often undertheorized. To be fair, solid empirical work is often a prerequisite for theory building. All the same, more attention to theory would help these scholars systematize their implicitly sociological view of institutions -- and constructivism has much to offer here.

Consider three examples. Wessels, Rometsch and their collaborators have made a powerful and well-documented case for institutional fusion within the EU context, where the density of interaction between European and national institutions is such that old distinctions between the two levels no longer hold. These analysts ascribe an important symbolic and identity-shaping role to institutions -- to constructivists, a constitutive role. Yet, they are silent, theoretically, on when, how and why such identity formation occurs, which leads them to advance an underspecified convergence thesis, where "the constitutional and institutional set-up of [EU] member states will converge towards one common model." Given that constructivists have already begun to specify scope conditions regarding institutions and identity change, the potential for theoretical cross-fertilization would seem significant. [53]

In a second example, recent work by Beyers and Dierickx on the EU Council and its working groups suggests that informal communication is key for understanding their operation. Yet, this research, despite its empirical richness, brackets a crucial theoretical question: Under what conditions -- if at all -- does this communication lead political agents away from situations of strategic exchange and into those marked by social learning and communicative action? For both theoretical (debates over the consequences of integration) and policy reasons (explaining when and why member-state interests change), this issue is fundamental. However, because of their reliance on a methodologically individualist ontology, Beyers and Dierickx seem simply unaware that they are in fact well placed to address it. The point is not that they get the story wrong; rather, it is incomplete. And constructivism, with its concern for modelling modes of social interaction beyond strategic exchange, could provide analytic tools for filling out the picture. [54]

Research on so-called comitology represents a third example where constructivist theorizing and empirical integration studies could profitably interact. Comitology refers to the complex set of committee rules that have evolved to implement EU policy and procedures; the system stems from a 1987 European Council decision in which member states made clear their unwillingness to lose control of the implementation process -- in particular, by ceding too much power to the Commission. These committees, by member-state dictate, are composed of government representatives and, occasionally, additional experts; yet, the growing empirical literature on them notes how these representatives must often turn elsewhere for information and, more important, interpretation. Indeed, two analysts argue that "scientific evidence" is accepted as the most valid currency for "effecting convincing arguments" in comitology. [55]

The last point suggests a link to my earlier hypotheses on small groups, communication and social learning. On the one hand, discursive argumentation, committee-level learning and its accompanying preference change do not necessarily lead to a reconstitution of member state interests, for comitology, after all, involves only policy implementation. Yet, it is well known among students of public policy that implementation is often the making of policy by other means; moreover, learning and deliberative arguing of this sort cannot be captured by standard strategic exchange models. Constructivist deductions on the role of common backgrounds, crisis, density of interaction, etc, could thus be readily exploited by Europeanists to explore more systematically the conditions under which European committees do indeed, through learning and argumentation, socialize their participants. [56]

A final issue is not so much one of new theoretical directions for analyses of integration, but, instead, a look back. Simply put, is my call for bringing constructivist insights to bear on the study of the EU a short-sighted reinventing of the neo-functionalist wheel? After all, over 30 years ago, Haas and others were writing about the identity-shaping effects of the European project. Indeed, collective identity was to emerge via a "process whereby political actors in several distinct national settings are persuaded to shift their loyalties, expectations and political activities towards a new center, whose institutions possess or demand jurisdiction over the pre-existing nation-states." [57]

While references to social learning and socialization are evident in the work of many early neofunctionalists and regional integration theorists, the differences with constructivism are significant. Most important, the latter is not a general substantive theory that predicts constant learning or a growing sense of collective identity; rather, its aspirations are more modest. As currently being developed, it is a middle-range theoretical approach seeking to elaborate scope conditions for better understanding precisely when collective identity formation occurs. Constructivism is thus agnostic as to whether the endpoint of social interaction is greater common interests and identity. Neofunctionalists, at least implicity, were not neutral on this question; there was a clear normative element to their scholarship. [58]

In addition, despite the strong allusions to identity formation and change, neofunctionalists failed to develop explicit microfoundations that moved them beyond an agent-centered view of social interaction. In fact, their is a strong element of rational choice in their research. While considerable work remains, constructivists are attempting to elaborate such alternative foundations -- their stress on logics of appropriateness and communicative action, for example. [59]


Instead of summarizing, this concluding section highlights two theoretical puzzles, both of which were implicit in much of the foregoing: variance in socialization/diffusion pathways linking the European and national levels (process), and variance in national-level norm-driven learning and socialization (outcome). If Europeanists structure their research to address these lacunae, they will not only demonstrate constructivism’s utility for explicating key aspects of the integration process; more important, they will contribute to its on-going consolidation as a research program in contemporary IR theory.

Process/Scope-Conditions. A first factor predicting variance in socialization pathways might go under the label bringing institutions back in. While this is sure to produce instantaneous groans among readers, the point, analytically, is an important one. Constructivists seem to have left their institutional insights "at the water’s edge," reminding us that institutions -- internationally or regionally -- matter in ways political science has too often neglected, but failing to think through their equally important role at the national level. Earlier, I suggested one such role: Historically constructed domestic political institutions shape the pattern of interaction between state and society in a systematic way across countries.

I argued that it was precisely the structure of state-society relations that predicted variance in the two dominant socialization pathways uncovered by constructivists. In a liberal polity such as the US, with strong societal inputs to policymaking, the more probable socialization mechanism is the bottom-up, mobilization one; in centralized regimes, where the gap between state and society is large -- contemporary Ukraine, say -- the more likely pathway is top-down. In countries with a more complex relation between state and society (Germany and Russia), I predict a combination of the two socialization pathways. Essentially, an argument of this type introduces domestic institutions as an intervening variable, one that structures and channels the socialization process; it tells a researcher where to look for socialization dynamics in a particular national setting. [60]

Beyond political institutions, other research suggests two additional factors explaining variance in national-level socialization pathways. The first is well-known to students of comparative foreign-policy and public policy: issue area. The argument is that certain policy areas are more likely to witness social mobilization. When it comes to human rights, say, it would be surprising not to find such mobilization at work. In contrast, normative socialization on more technocratic and obscure topics -- for example, security or the intricacies of regulatory reform -- might be expected to occur largely at the level of elites.

In fact, much of the constructivist literature supports such a hypothesis. In studies of global human rights, general environmental and racial-equality norms, these scholars uncover more evidence of bottom-up socialization. However, research on the spread of international security, welfare or specific (and hence technocratic) environmental norms suggests a much greater role for elite socialization and learning as a key mechanism linking the international and national levels. Given that much of the European project centered around the EU has been and remains a technocratic one controlled and shaped by elites, one might a priori hypothesize that the top-down, elite socialization dynamic would be more relevant in that context. [61]

A final factor highlights not a norm’s substantive content, but the degree to which it contains prescriptive guidance -- "robustness." An international or regional norm is robust if it embodies clear prescriptions, which provide guidance to agents as they develop preferences and interests on a issue; in turn, clear prescriptions imply a degree of shared consensus at the regional/systemic level. Thus, high levels of both specificity and intersubjective agreement are indicators of a robust norm. A priori, one might hypothesize that robust norms, precisely because they are held by a meaningful number of the relevant international/regional actors and would thus be carried by broader transnational networks, are more likely to generate societal mobilization at the national level. For example, elsewhere I have argued it is precisely the lack of normative robustness in the Maastricht Treaty’s European citizenship provisions that explains their inability to generate any serious social mobilization in Germany. [62]

Having identified three factors, the analytic challenge is to relate them. Note that the latter two -- norm content and robustness -- are external to the state, while the first -- structure of domestic institutions -- is internal to it. My hunch is that internal will trump external in predicting socialization pathways, with a good test being to pick a case where the external variables predict bottom-up, societal mobilization, while the structure of domestic institutions favors top-down socialization. The requisite combination would be to study the socialization of domestic agents to human rights norms in a country where the gap separating state and society is large. My Ukrainian citizenship case, which arguably fits these criteria, provides preliminary confirmation that the internal/domestic do indeed dominate. [63]

Towards a Constructivist Theory of Learning and Socialization. There is an emerging debate on the relation of constructivism to rational choice, one to which Europeanists can contribute. Indeed, when one reads across the literature, a number of different claims are advanced -- for example, that constructivism, by endogenizing interest formation, supplements rational choice; or, more ambitiously, that it represents an alternative approach to social interaction, one based on a theory of action -- a logic of appropriateness -- different from that on which rational choice is premised -- a logic of consequences. [64]

This essay has argued that constructivism is not just about the inductive study of interest/identity formation, where it would provide the raw material for the standard rationalist "two-step." Rather, it represents an attempt to theorize and empirically explore an approach to social action and socialization that moves beyond and supplements the one advanced by rational choice. Such a stand is motivated by nothing more than a simple empirical fact: In the real, here and now social world, there is often something going on that cannot meaningfully be reduced to strategic exchange among self-interested actors or rational adaptation to external constraints. [65]

The devil, however, is in the theoretical details. An empirically grounded constructivist theory of socialization and learning must model the process by which norms connect to agents, advancing hypotheses for the conditions under which they constitute or constrain them. Just because rationalists fall back on "as if" assumptions to bracket questions of process does not mean that social constructivists should do the same. [66]

A start at such a theory would specify structural pre-conditions, that is the likelihood that agents in a particular national setting will be receptive to socialization by prescriptions embodied in a norm. Both theoretical logic as well as accumulating empirical evidence suggest that the fit between international and domestic normative structures will play a key role here. To theorize this interaction, I revisit the domestic institutional variable highlighted above and extend the analysis to a deeper level, employing a synthesis of sociological and historical institutionalism. The former, with its focus on the constitutive nature of institutions, alerts one to the presence of a domestic normative dimension. The latter, with its stress on processes of institutionalization, demonstrates how these domestic norms gain political saliency and causal influence, thus acting as a filter or block to regional/systemic norms. This is one way of modeling the insights of those few analysts who highlight the potential conflict between norms at differing levels. Specifically, where there is a mismatch or lack of cultural match between regional/systemic and institutionalized domestic norms in a given policy area, I would predict a drastic slowing in the socialization process at the agent level. [67]

In turn, this prediction is premised on an analytic move from structure to process. The presence of such domestic normative barriers will lead to a break-down in (constructivist) complex learning due to cognitive dissonance or framing problems, a dynamic seemingly at work in many contemporary settings. Put more formally, in this situation of conflicting norms, complex learning is less likely than the simple sort. Since the latter can be captured by rationalist accounts, there is nothing uniquely constructivist in normative socialization under such conditions. Conversely, where European/systemic norms face lower domestic normative barriers, the likelihood of agent acceptance of and (complex) learning from the former is increased. [68]

Here, my analysis intersects and complements that of constructivists interested in longer-term normative socialization. In particular, these scholars might argue that processes of argumentation and persuasion will gradually reduce both normative barriers and breakdowns in learning. While such dynamics are theoretically possible, the empirical challenge of documenting them is daunting, particularly if one avoids the use of "as if" assumptions at the level of agents. The empirical problem is especially acute for those constructivists who invoke Habermas’ (normative) theory of communicative action to explain the (real world) behavior of agents, for the former provides one with little sense of "the various social mechanisms that might help us better to understand how social systems and individuals’ actions mesh." [69]

The foregoing is only a start at developing a distinctively constructivist theory of socialization and social learning; much work remains; indeed, the analysis remains at too aggregate a level, arguing, in essence, for a fit between regional/international and dominant domestic norms. Yet, even in those instances where the mismatch is great, one still finds evidence of constructivist agent-level learning and socialization. This suggests the (deductive) structural first cut is best viewed as a base line, which is then supplemented with more contingent factors that emerge (inductively) from on-going empirical research.

In any case, my many references to learning, role conflict, cognitive dissonance and framing suggest that as constructivists begin to model the micro-foundations of normative socialization, the benefits of an exchange with cognitive/social psychology would be great. Absent such a move, these scholars will have no real understanding of how domestic agents in the near-term here and now are socialized by European or systemic norms. The result will be to cede this promising ground to the rationalists, which would be a pity. [70]

* * *

My arguments throughout this essay were based on an obvious but too often neglected truism about our social world: The most interesting puzzles lie at the nexus where structure and agency intersect. Put differently, the real action, theoretically and empirically, is where norms, discourses, language and material capabilities interact with motivation, social learning and preferences -- be it in international or European regional politics. Research traditions such as rational choice, postmodernism and, more recently, large parts of constructivism, which occupy endpoints in the agent-structure debate, have life easy: They can ignore this messy middle ground. Yet, the true challenge for both rationalists and their opponents is to model and explore this complex interface; doing so, however, will require that social constructivists meet the other party half way, which means, as this paper has argued, paying greater attention to agency/micro-foundations and thinking more systematically about theory and research design. [71]

As one scholar recently put it, "regional integration studies could uncharitably be criticized for providing a refuge to homeless ideas." While constructivism is certainly not homeless, Europeanists should resist the temptation simply to pull it off the shelf, giving it a comfortable European home in yet another N=1, noncumulable case study. Rather, these scholars have the opportunity -- given their immensely rich data set -- to push forward one of the most exciting debates in contemporary international and political theory. [72]


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This article presents some key research questions and discusses some advancements and controversies in the field of implementation studies in the European Union. In addition to calling for the further development of reliable quantitative indicators, the article suggests three issues worth considering. First, research could benefit from paying increased attention to the processes shaping the goals and aspirations in European implementation. Second, we should increase attention to the interplay between different explanatory mechanisms and in particular to the crucial roles of ambiguities and domestic capabilities. Finally, we should increase our interest into the study of outcomes and goal achievements, and thereby also offer critical and refreshing views on the dynamics of the actual European integration, as well as link this branch of research to the general research on legitimacy and democracy in Europe.

Suggested Citation

  • Ulf Sverdrup, 2005. "Implementation and European integration: A review essay," ARENA Working Papers 25, ARENA.
  • Handle: RePEc:erp:arenax:p0205


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