Cross-Posting from the global norms blog

Welcome back to the global norms blog. In this post, I will briefly discuss some findings of our first phase. In our first study, we were looking at a selection of academic textbooks to find out how textbook authors evaluate international institutions and how these evaluations have changed over time.

Why textbooks and how we look at them

We think that academic textbooks are interesting sources to identify changes in the normative environment for two reasons. First, authors who write textbooks for university students usually have the goal of providing a wide overview of their field of expertise. Good textbooks therefore often present multiple theoretical approaches, points of view and opinions when discussing historical and current issues. This rich way of describing issues to students produces a wide variety of evaluations of international institutions (at least more than common articles in journals and newspapers do). Second, textbooks have a certain impact on their audience. If one agrees that the books we read in university in some way shape how we think about the world, then the textbooks that we look at also tell us something about the world beyond academia. Here, it is future social elites who are especially influenced by evaluations presented in textbooks and whose own cognitive scripts are partially referenced to textbooks.

In our first phase, we looked at evaluations of international institutions in the fields of international environment, human rights and security politics. To select relevant textbooks, we looked for books in university library catalogues and internet book search engines. The results were then narrowed down as we evaluated how well they fit our understanding of introductory textbooks, how large their impact on the discipline is, and if they were available in a German library. After this exercise, we had a list of seventy-one books written in English, German and French for our analysis (see the list here). Our selection method presents us with a certain bias toward male, western and especially Anglo-Saxon evaluations of international institutions.

While reading the books, we were looking at three kinds of statements: (i) evaluative statements that either explicitly or implicitly include an evaluation of an international institution; (ii) proposals for new international institutions that make sufficiently clear what would be ‘good’ about such institutions; and (iii) critiques of proposals for a new international institution. In total, this resulted in about three thousand evaluative statements.

A first quantitative look – Westphalia to Post-Westphalia?

For a first, quantitative look, we were especially interested in how the shares of evaluations that are based on particular normative understandings of global governance have changed over time. Our research project focuses on normative evaluations that can be grouped into two categories: Westphalian or Post-Westphalian norms of governance. Under Westphalian norms, international political rules are considered to be legitimate if they have been agreed upon by states that are recognized as members of the international system and if these rules have been decided upon without coercion. However, under Post-Westphalian norms, it is legitimate representatives of interests that should decide about rules in inclusive, transparent, accountable and deliberative decision-making processes.

In the textbooks, we found a number of statements that can be grouped together as frames. Each frame has a certain footing for evaluating international institutions. Only a small proportion of the statements can be classified as belonging to Post-Westphalian norms in the sense that the normative footing of an evaluative statement is either democracy or some notion of world society. Under the democracy frame, we summarize all evaluations that make democracy or a particular democratic value their primary standard of evaluation. In contrast, the world society label comprises those statements that focus either on the well-being of individuals (as opposed to states) or on the global community as a normative reference point. Looking at our data, we can see that the Post-Westphalian frames are used more often in environmental politics textbooks than in textbooks from the other two issue areas. Over time, however, the use of this frame appears relatively stable across all three issue areas.

In contrast, evaluations based on Westphalian norms are initially stronger – and particularly strong in textbooks on security politics – but become less frequent over time. They basically include all those evaluations that make references to sovereignty as an important normative basis of international institutions. Some of the evaluations thus revolve around the notion that international institutions give expression to ideas of sovereign statehood and the related idea of sovereign equality and should therefore – if anything – be an instrument to realize national sovereignty. Accordingly, international institutions ought to be evaluated positively wherever they respect, support and help to fully realize national sovereignty and/or sovereign equality. Numerically, we can see that textbook authors decreasingly refer to Westphalian norms over time, indicating that sovereignty-based values appear to be less important to authors in recent decades than in the 1970s and 1980s. While the relative share of sovereignty-based evaluations differs across issue areas, the temporal trend seems robust across all three areas.

Third, functionality is the most often used evaluative basis for international institutions. We understand the functionality frame as a category that comprises evaluations based on the explicit or implicit acknowledgement that international institutions are necessary to solve collective problems, and that they ought to be evaluated on the basis of how well they meet this necessity. Hence, international institutions are good if they make a significant contribution to solving the policy problems that have given rise to their creation, and they ought to be revisited if they do not. Functionality arguments are at the heart of most evaluative statements in all three issue areas and throughout all four decades. Moreover, their relative share increases slightly over time.

What’s next?

To sum up, we found less change than we had expected to find. The literature on global norm change is full with references to an expansion of democratic norms from the national to the global realm of politics. In academic textbooks, we found this effect to be marginal, at least on a quantitative basis. This finding could be caused by various methodological difficulties we experienced during the analysis. In particular, it has been very hard to develop a consistent coding procedure for the highly interpretative questions we asked to the evaluations discovered in the textbooks. In my next post, I will therefore take a second, more qualitative, look at the data to see if the meanings of what authors refer to when speaking about democracy have changed over time.

So, what do you think about all this? Do you have any ad-hoc explanations for the less than expected increase in Post-Westphalian norms? Does your research show similar or contradictory results? We would be glad to hear that in the comments or in your e-mails. By the way, this post is based on a paper that we are currently preparing for publication. If you want a more thorough look at our argument, please let us know.

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Tobias Weise



Tobias Weise

university management specialist

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