Adaptation and the Norm Life Cycle

Chapter 1 asserts a norms-based and complex systems explanation for the dynamic nature of global responses in ozone depletion and climate change: the transition to universal participation in the ozone depletion issue, the lock-in around universal participation in the initial climate change negotiations, and the contestation over universal participation in the 1990s. Addressing the puzzle of participation and providing an accounting of the governance of ozone depletion and climate change requires fully grasping how the United States and the international community came to understand the requirements for these global environmental problems. While perhaps plausible on its face (and certainly more plausible than the problematic alternatives discussed in chapter 2), the constructivist/complex systems explanation remains merely an interesting hypothesis until rigorously assessed. As noted in chapter 1, the first step toward this assessment is to operationalize the argument theoretically—to build a verbal framework that explains the observed transitions in global responses over time.

There are two components to the verbal framework. The first is the norm life cycle (NLC) drawn from the constructivist literature.1 The NLC explains norm emergence and norm evolution, focusing on the role that norm entrepreneurs play in catalyzing norm dynamics. This macro process provides an overarching view on norm dynamics. The second component is the process of complex adaptation drawn from complexity theory. The NLC is a sophisticated overview of norm dynamics, but it lacks micro-foundations—a theory of agentic action. Complex adaptation provides such a micro process, an adaptive model of actor behavior that explains the relationship between actors and norms. Taken together the NLC and complex adaptation provide a full accounting for norm emergence and change over time, presenting a detailed explanation for the emergence and evolution of participation norms in ozone depletion and climate change.

I begin with a discussion of norms and the NLC, describing both the theoretical foundations for the NLC as well as the process itself. I also discuss what is missing in the NLC. This leads to an examination of complex adaptation and how the insights of a complex systems approach are both compatible with constructivism and useful for enhancing the NLC. Finally, I present the full verbal model and its explanation of the transitions in participation requirements in the ozone depletion and climate change negotiations.


Approaching norm emergence and change requires a firm grasp of the characteristics of norms and the behavioral logic of social constructivism. What follows is not a full-scale review of the nuances of social construc-tivist thought.2 Instead, it is a condensed discussion that describes the foundations of the NLC.

Norms and Constructivist Behavioral Logic

Scholars of virtually every theoretical, methodological, and epistemologi-cal bent use norms in some way to explain or describe behavior at all levels of politics.3 This creates confusion when different scholars define and use the concept in very different ways.4 Constructivists tend to consider norms as standards "of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity."5 Norms thus explicitly shape agents' interests, identities, and behaviors. Beyond this baseline definition other crucial characteristics include:6

• Compliance with the standard or strategy throughout (most of) a population. Norms exist when actors follow the "rule" that the norm dictates. A norm for universal participation exists when all states participate.

• Stabilization of expectations around the standard—shared expectations. Norms structure what agents understand about the world around them. A universal participation norm leads states to expect that all states will participate.

• Self-reinforcement. Once established, social structures exhibit stability as norms elicit self-reinforcing behavior and eventually may be institutionalized and taken for granted.7

For constructivists, these social norms are not objective aspects of the world, nor do they exist only in the minds of individual agents. Norms are intersubjective phenomena that are instantiated through actors' behaviors and beliefs.8 A focus on intersubjective reality distinguishes social constructivism from other approaches to world politics. Constructivists, with diverse beliefs about the world, have in common a philosophy that "the manner in which the material world shapes and is shaped by human action and interaction depends on dynamic normative and epistemic interpretations of the material world."9 Thus, there is a world of meanings and knowledge as well as an objective, material world.10 This intersubjective world—a world of shared knowledge where objects require human agreement to exist—is where the important governance "action" takes place.

Knowledge structures or intersubjective meanings (or norms) enable practices or actions. For instance, norms of participation structure states' understanding of ozone depletion and climate change, enabling their strategies and behaviors. Actor behavior can only be understood (both by actors and observers) and is only undertaken within an intersubjective context of shared knowledge about the world. Agents exist and act in a world where limits and possibilities are bounded and defined by intersubjective meanings or knowledge structures. Intersubjective meanings render actions, "plausible or implausible, acceptable or unacceptable, conceivable or inconceivable, respectable or disreputable."11 Agents' understandings of the world, and thus their actions are necessarily enabled/constrained by the structured institutions, collective meanings, or normative social context in which they are embedded.12

Social norms thus do more than influence actors' behaviors; they fundamentally shape the very conditions for action. Hence, social norms are integral to constructivist behavioral logic—the logic of appropriate-ness.13 Actions are based upon institutional, moral, or normative standards—preferences and interests themselves are shaped by what is considered appropriate.14 As James March and Johan Olsen argue, "Action is often based more on identifying the normatively appropriate behavior than on calculating the return expected from alternative choices."15 As norms put boundaries on appropriate behavior they have an elemental role in determining the behavior of actors. Participation norms put boundaries on possible global responses—shaping the behavior of states in the governance processes for ozone depletion and climate change.

The Norm Life Cycle

A brief description of norms and constructivist behavioral logic does not constitute an explanation for the observed transitions in global responses. Operationalizing the argument asserted in chapter 1 requires understanding norm emergence and change as well. Finnemore and Sikkink provide a potential mechanism for norm emergence and evolution in the NLC. They posit a process of four linked stages: entrepreneurial action; formation of a critical mass; norm cascade; and internalization.

They begin by positing a catalytic role for norm entrepreneurs in fostering norm emergence. Norm entrepreneurs are agents (individuals in Finnemore and Sikkink's treatment, though organizations and states could play this role as well) that, dissatisfied with the social context, advocate different ideas about appropriate behavior from organizational platforms that give their ideas credence. Norm entrepreneurs work to persuade other agents to alter their behavior in accordance with the norm entrepreneur's ideas of appropriate behavior. They attempt to alter other agents' perceptions of the social context—alter what an agent thinks is appropriate behavior. How this alteration takes place is currently a matter for debate among constructivists.16 For now it is enough to acknowledge that norm entrepreneurs are engaged in changing agents' minds or preferences or altering the set of rules that agents might follow.

When a critical mass of agents has accepted the new ideas as appropriate, then, Finnemore and Sikkink claim, a norm has emerged—as intersubjective phenomena, norms must be followed in order to exist.17 From a complex systems viewpoint, this could be viewed as a driven threshold system.18 The norm entrepreneurs provide a constant input of ideas into the system and work to change the behavior of agents. When the number of agents accepting the new ideas crosses a threshold a norm cascade ensues. In the cascade stage, the norm acceptance rate rapidly increases—Finnemore and Sikkink describe it as a contagion.19 Multiple agents, outside the critical mass, now begin to accept the appropriateness of the behavior for which the new norm calls. The final stage in the cycle is internalization. The norm is taken for granted, and conformance with its dictates is no longer (or at least rarely) questioned.20

Three points need to be emphasized about this framework. First, it is an evolutionary framework. Change in some agents alters the context, driving change in other agents as all strive to do "well"—act appropriately. Second, it provides a mechanism for norm emergence—norm entrepreneurs supply the ideas that would be norms. Finally, within this framework we see the seeds for norm change as well as emergence. Finnemore and Sikkink make clear that norm entrepreneurs always propose norms within a social context already characterized by norms: "[Efforts to promote a new norm take place within the standards of 'appropriateness' defined by prior norms."21 According to their framework, innovation is produced endogenously by norm entrepreneurs whose ideas (or at least the plausibility of them) must be shaped by the structural characteristics of the intersubjective world in which they live. As Manicas argues, "[E]ven the effort to consciously and deliberately abolish a structure and constitute new ones must use materials which are at hand as the legacy of previous structurations."22 Established norms change when norm entrepreneurs convince agents to change their standards of appropriateness.

This framework presents a broad-brush look at norm emergence and change. It gives us a first cut at explaining the transition from one established norm (North-only participation in ozone depletion) to another (universal participation in ozone depletion and climate change).

What Is Missing in the NLC?

Constructivism is an inherently dynamic view of the world. The notion of mutual constitution of agents and structures upon which it rests puts all the parts of social life in motion. Agents are dynamic, as their wants, actions, and even perceptions are affected by the changing (sometimes slowly) context in which they find themselves (their intersubjective environment constitutes them). Structures are also dynamic as the rules of the game and notions of appropriateness are instantiated only by the actions and interactions of the agents—even status quo or robust structures require continual action in their reproduction. Articulating such a dynamic perspective has been no easy task for constructivists.

In fact, friendly critics of constructivism (often from within con-structivist ranks) have noted deficiencies in the move from the overarching philosophy of mutual constitution to the construction of analytic frameworks for studying empirical puzzles. The most important of these critiques tend to cluster around the lack of mechanisms describing how agents interact with the rules and norms that compose their social context. Essential to empirical studies is discerning both how agents come to understand social structure (how structure constitutes agents) and how agent practices create social structure. As Jeff Checkel points out, "[C]on-structivism, while good at the macro foundations of behavior and identity (norms, social context), is weak on the micro level. It fails to explore systematically how norms connect with agents."23 Similarly, Iain Johnston argues, "[I]t is unclear how exactly pro-normative behavior is elicited once the models of 'appropriate behavior' are displayed or communicated to agents at the unit-level."24

Constructivists are still struggling with the micro-macro relation-ship.25 The key lacuna is discerning the relationship between social structures and agency. The NLC is an important step in the right direction as a sophisticated macro process that connects agents and structures through the concept of entrepreneurship. Of course, leadership or entre-preneurship is a far from novel concept in political science.26 Entrepre-neurship is a popular factor for explaining solutions to collective action problems, equilibrium choice, the emergence of cooperation, as well as norms. Yet despite the intuitive notion that entrepreneurs play a role in establishing and altering normative structures and the existence of insightful empirical work, constructivists have been criticized for failing to definitively demonstrate how agents forge norms and how norm entrepreneurs actually influence norm dynamics. The NLC is a leap forward in explaining this process, but it has yet to be fully explored.

In addition, while the norm life cycle provides an overarching framework for examining the emergence, influence, and evolution of norms, Finnemore and Sikkink left open micro processes—the manner through which an agent accepts, decides to use, and internalizes an entrepreneur's suggestion.27 The NLC lacks an explicit theory of agentic action. This critique is not limited to the NLC, as some observers question the compatibility of the logic of appropriateness with individual action and norm change in general. Sending claims that the logic of appropriateness is "untenable as a theory of individual action" and unable to account for change in norms.28

In their search for satisfactory mechanisms for agent action and the connections between social norms (or social structures more generally) and actors, constructivists have advocated for persuasion, socialization, social networks, social learning, and socioevolution.29 Unfortunately, these processes are too often specific to empirical accounts and are difficult to generalize beyond specific cases. In fact, all of these processes may be at work. What is missing is a generic mechanism that links social norms and agents. How does the norm become part of an actors' understanding of the world? How do actors choose behavior operating under a logic of appropriateness? How did states come to understand the norm of universal participation?

When we say that an agent has internalized a norm, or that the agent learned, or an agent is being socialized/persuaded, we need to have a general sense of what this means at the micro level. We need to generi-cally link the external rules (norms) with agents' internal understanding in a way that can account for persuasion, socialization, social learning, and others. We need an approach that explicitly models that actor-norm connections and feedback processes inherent in the NLC. Complexity theory and its complex adaptive process is one such approach.


Importing ideas from the natural sciences is not necessarily a popular undertaking in international relations. However, complexity theory enjoys the advantage of being philosophically similar to constructivism. It is not like other imports because it is not like other natural science approaches. Complexity theory rejects Newtonian, reductionist, linear thinking and is instead interested in understanding irreducible, path-dependent systems with history.30 Complexity theory is focused on understanding the processes taking place within complex systems. It contains ideas as to how evolving, adaptive agents interact with each other and with their context, altering both in the process. It contains specific processes useful in enhancing a framework to structure inquiry into the dynamics of global responses to ozone depletion and climate change.31

Complexity theory is a product of interdisciplinary problem solving. Scholars from such diverse disciplines as economics, physics, genetics, ecology, and computer science found that the problems they were encountering had some broad similarities. As John Holland notes, "We are learning . . . that the mechanisms that mediate these systems [a variety of complex systems] are much more alike than surface observations would suggest."32 Essentially, these scholars were confronted with and began examining systems where simple33 agents interacting cause the emergence of complex, irreducible macroscopic behaviors/structures. One key aspect of these systems is that agents interact or coevolve with the environment in which they exist and with the other agents in the system to continually reproduce the environment or system. In this way the systems evolve to "nowhere."34 Complexity theory is a framework for exploring the dynamics of that kind of phenomena. It can be thought of as a theory of process—the process of complex adaptation at work in complex systems, whether they are immune systems, economies, ecosystems, societies, or political systems.

Complexity theorists have pursued understanding of these similar systems through both analytical and computational methods and have discerned multiple characteristics, patterns, and processes inherent in complex adaptive systems.35 CAS are composed of multiple, heterogeneous agents. The patterns evident in CAS are a result of agent interactions.36 There is a lack of centralized control in CAS. CAS are not in equilibrium. The list of characteristics (which could be used to describe the international system) can go on. However, this is not designed to be a comprehensive exploration of CAS. Instead, I specifically draw upon a subset of complexity theory's insights—a description of adaptive agents and the process of complex adaptation—in an effort to improve the NLC with an explanation of microprocesses.

Complex adaptation is a feedback process between adaptive agents and a dynamic context. It proceeds in clear stages and the adaptive model of agents is embedded within these stages:

• Adaptive agents are defined by internal rule models or schemata.37 These rule models represent the agent's internal (or subjective) understanding of the world around them. The rule models encapsulate the experience of the agent and they drive agent behavior. With the rule models, the agents perceive and define their situation, predict the consequences of action, and act. In most applications of adaptive agents, the rules are behavioral, but they can also represent identities, interests, and goals.

• The actions that adaptive agents undertake and the interactions in which they participate reproduce/alter their context. Macro patterns, or social structures in our case, emerge from the actions and interactions of the agents. In complex adaptation, macro patterns are discussed as emergent properties of the system.38

• The agents' context is not passive, however. In a complex adaptive system, the context influences agents' internal rule models through co-evolutionary processes. When some agents change their behavior this alters the context for the other agents. A new context "forces" agents to alter their rule models as the context determines what rules, goals, and interests are appropriate.39 Adaptive agents are always trying to fit with their context. When their rules (or subjective understandings) are appropriate for their context, the agents fit and are successful. When their rules do not fit, the agents are not successful.

• Adaptation in this coevolutionary process is facilitated by evaluations of agent behavior. This can take place in two ways.

• In some treatments of CAS, agents are endowed with hardwired, unchanging rules, and evolution is at the population level. In other words, agents that have rules that do not fit with the context are selected out of the population. This is similar to natural selection and fits with a neorealist perspective on world politics.

• In other treatments individual agents evaluate their own behavior and rule models and can alter their own rule models. This is more relevant for a discussion of mutual constitution. Agents evaluate outcomes, or the results of actions and assess the fitness of their rule models.40 Internal rule models are strengthened, weakened, changed, or kept in relation to the evaluations.

• Macro patterns produced by agent actions and interactions do more than constrain potential actions; they become incorporated, through the evaluation process, into the agents' rule mod-els.41 In this way an agent's context shapes her internal rule models—her interests, identity, and behavior—while the agent's actions feed back and affect her context.

What a CAS perspective provides is a model of agent behavior and a feedback process that dynamically links the internal understandings that agents have of their context with the context itself. The similarities to the social constructivist notion of mutual constitution are striking. Agents behave and alter structure (social norms), which in turn alters the agents. Complexity theory, however, offers a more detailed description of the processes inherent within and between agents and the processes that link agents and structures. Especially important are rule models, coevolution, and evaluation.

As noted, internal rule models define the agents in complex systems. This assumption or description of agents is based on recognizing that human beings are much better at inductive reasoning than they are at deductive reasoning. As Arthur notes:

Modern psychology tells us that as humans we are only moderately good at deductive logic, and we make only moderate use of it. But we are superb at seeing or recognizing or matching patterns—behaviors that confer obvious evolutionary benefits. In problems of complication then, we look for patterns; and we simplify the problem by using these to construct temporary internal models or hypotheses or schemata to work with.42

The rule models, then, are learned from experience and are used to anticipate the future. Murray Gell-Mann notes that the experience of the agent is embedded in the rule models.43 This is highly compatible with some views of behavior in political science as well. March and Olsen, for instance, note that "The results and inferences of past experience are stored in standard operating procedures, professional rules, and the elementary rules of thumb of a practical person."44

Rule models enable agents to describe situations they find themselves in, predict the consequences of behavior, and prescribe courses of action.45 The rules are, in essence, the identity and history of the agent. They encapsulate what agents understand about their world—how the world works, what they want, who they are, and how they should behave. These rule models represent a way to make concrete the internal understandings of social structure needed to fully specify the NLC. The rule models are a tangible concept for representing the understandings that states had of necessary participation in ozone depletion and climate change. Explaining the transition in global responses also requires that the internal understandings have the potential to change. In complex adaptation internal rule models are not static.46 Because, in the case of individual adaptation or learning, the rule models are determined by the experience of the agent, they change over time as an agent's interactions and contexts change. Altering rule models is a matter of adapting to a context, coevolving with other agents and the social context. However, as the context that agents in a complex system face is dynamically created by agent actions and interactions, there is no set utility or means to optimize their rules. Agents are adapting or evolving in an ever-changing environment (rather than optimizing on some objective, equilibrium basis) and new rules and changes in rules can come internally or externally.47 Agents' internal rule models coevolve with their social context— a context that their actions and interactions have created.

Thus, agents are not adapting to a social context in a vacuum—they are adapting to a reality that is shaped by interactions with other agents doing the same thing. The agents coevolve with each other and with their social context. Stuart Kauffman describes coevolution as the process whereby, "as we evolve, so do our competitors; to remain fit, we must adapt to their adaptations."48 Agents occupy "niches" that are created by the existence and actions of other agents. In essence, they are constrained by their environment, while also altering their environment. This is, again, not a foreign concept to political scientists. Rosenau observes that "[e]ach organism's adaptive actions. . . . can pose an adaptive problem for those with which it is interactive."49 In the ozone depletion and climate change cases, if some states change their participation behavior, this alters the context within which other states are embedded.

Perhaps the most important aspect of complex adaptation for the NLC is the notion of evaluation—important because through evaluation, social norms shape (constitute) agents. And unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), complexity theory does not rigorously circumscribe how agents evaluate outcomes. In essence, complexity theory leaves evaluation at a very general level. The agents do something, either implicitly or explicitly, to determine whether the outcome was good or not—whether goals (which can be implicit or explicit) were met.50 As I will discuss below, in computer simulations of CAS, this is not a large obstacle because the computer modeling environment forces the theorist to define quantitative measures for evaluation. It becomes a numerical exercise. It is less clear how evaluation takes place in political life. The work on persuasion and socialization currently underway in constructivism is illuminating potential evaluation processes in specific issues.

I suspect that evaluation will take place in varied manners in different agents and different issues.51 There is almost certainly no one process of evaluation, though domestic politics is a key aspect of evaluation of state rule models. This is precisely why it may prove fortunate that complexity theory leaves open the details of evaluation. In complex adaptation, evaluation is simply a matter of negative evaluation weakening rule models, leading to their discard, or positive evaluation strengthening rule models, leading to further use.

As simple as this is, it is founded solidly in psychology. Andrew Betz et al. impart the findings of the social influence literature and argue that a person can be socially influenced when "one has a weak belief in the veridi-cality of one's own position."52 In addition, Karl Dieter Opp argues that "the higher the net utility of a recurrent behavior pattern—compared with the net utility of other behavioral alternatives, the greater is the intrinsic value of this behavior, or equivalently, the stronger are the preferences with regard to this behavior."53 The rule models are given credit when evaluations are positive and credit is taken away when the evaluations are negative.54 Obviously, how the positive or negative evaluations are arrived at and communicated is important. In the next section I provide some thoughts for how we might think about this in the ozone depletion and climate change cases, as these processes are case-dependent.

A CAS perspective provides a simple, explicit model of agent behavior currently missing in constructivist thought—an adaptive model—as well as a relatively simple feedback process connecting agents and their context—complex adaptation.55 Agents act on the basis of rules. Their actions affect their context (social norms). That context in turn alters agents' internal rule models as the agents evaluate their actions and incorporate their experience into their rules.

Of course, the actual experience of political agents in world politics is anything but simple. The process by which states, for instance, decide what they want is enormously complex and influenced by multiple international and domestic factors. This is especially true when states address inherently normative or moral issues such as apartheid, weapons taboos, global environmental governance, and humanitarian intervention.56 The simplicity inherent in the adaptive agent model and complex adaptation is, ironically, an advantage precisely because of the complicated nature of world politics. Using the concepts of complex adaptation to model agents, their interactions, and their mutually constitutive relationship with their social context allows one to begin with a relatively simple framework— one that is general and not content-bound—into which can be placed the complicated details and content of the situations and relationships being investigated. The simplicity of the adaptive model and complex adaptation process provides a flexible backbone or foundation for structuring inquiry into the GG of ozone depletion and climate change.


To be clear, a CAS perspective does not replace the NLC; rather the processes inherent in a CAS perspective represent a way to clarify the details of agentic action within the NLC. CAS complements the macro process of the NLC with a micro process of agency. However, the validity of this assertion and the compatibility of complex adaptation and constructivism are not immediately apparent to all observers. Complexity theory is most often associated with highly mathematical concepts and computer models, while constructivists have concentrated on the role of norms, ideas, and values— often inherently nonmathematical concepts. Fortunately, constructivism and complexity theory are compatible on a number of levels.

Despite arising from vastly different intellectual lineages, complexity theory and constructivism exhibit strikingly similar worldviews. Similarities are found in the approaches' views on history, teleology, change, and agents. At their core, both approaches deny that interesting systems are simple, linear, or Newtonian. In Newtonian systems, the whole can be understood by examining the parts. However, social and many natural systems cannot be understood solely by breaking them down into smaller parts. As Daniel Stein has argued, "[T]he behavior we're interested in evaporates when we try to reduce the system to a simpler, better-understood one."57 This fundamentally different way to view the world is common to both approaches, and it leads to similar consequences in both.

The Role of History

Path dependence and the critical importance of history are hallmarks of complexity theory.58 Complex adaptive systems are sensitive to initial conditions and these conditions can put systems on historical paths.59 The path or history of the system is crucial precisely because the trajectories are indeterminate—prior actions (history) determine the path. Construc-tivists posit this same type of historical dependence. Giddens discusses it in terms of unintended consequences, and argues that "human history is created by intentional activities, but is not an intended project."60 The unintended consequences of action, which serve to reify/alter structures, put history on a path, closing off some avenues and opening others. As a short example of the similar philosophies present in the two approaches, compare these two quotations about the importance of history. The first is from a constructivist's study of the chemical weapons taboo and the second is from a complexity theorist's study of the economy.

As the result of the marriage of chance occurrences, fortuitous connections, and reinterpretations, the purposes and forms of moral structures often change to embody values different from those that animated their origins.61

Under increasing returns, by contrast, [allocation of resources] becomes path dependent. It is nonergodic—many outcomes are possible, and heterogeneities, small individisibilites, or chance meetings become magnified by positive feedbacks to 'tip' the system into the actual outcome "selected." History becomes all-important.62

Evolutionary Approaches and Teleology

The importance of history is intimately related to a common commitment to nonteleological thinking. Giddens makes a strong statement against teleology in his critique of "evolutionary" approaches to social theory.63 The entire constructivist enterprise is held together in part by a commitment to showing how "natural" or "obvious" or "superior" structures or social facts are actually socially constructed and often heavily influenced by historical contingency, rather than a law-like progression toward some end.64 Complexity theory is no different, though it is an evolutionary approach. Holland, as noted above, considers the evolution of complex adaptive systems to be going nowhere.65 Because agent interactions always alter the playing field for new behavior and adaptation, there is no such thing as evolving toward some global maximum—all adaptations are local and contextual both in terms of time and space, and fitness is always an endogenous criterion. In complexity theory, the process of complex adaptation is general, not the progression of a system through stages, and there is no movement toward some objective criterion of fitness. As Scott Page puts it, "If we are headed toward an equilibrium (other than heat death) someone keeps moving the darned thing."66


The two approaches also have similar ideas about change. Complexity theorists and constructivists both conceive the sources of change to be ubiquitous and endogenous to the systems being studied. Constructivism arose in part because traditional theories of international politics were so poor at explaining change.67 As Cohen argues, "[A]ll historical practices and circumstances are subject to change."68 Anarchy, and indeed all of world politics, is what agents make of it.69 In complexity theory formulations, agents, in trying to improve their lot and achieve their goals (whatever those goals may be), are constantly altering the context in which they are embedded with their practices and interactions. Holland notes that complex adaptive systems constitute a "moving target."70 Both approaches contend that agent practices create the environments or structures within which agents are embedded. In this sense these systems evolve to "nowhere" because there is no set equilibrium or natural path of progression. Systems are path dependent and their paths—their histories—result from the constant interaction between and constitution of agents and structures.


Perhaps most important are the approaches' common conceptions of agents. Both constructivism and complexity theory consider that agents are driven by internal models of reality, and are generally adaptive.

Internal Rule Models

Both approaches similarly consider agents to be rule-driven entities where the rules allow agents to perceive their world and decide upon actions. Agents in constructivism are not structural automatons. Instead, they have an internal (subjective) understanding of their intersubjective reality. Jutta Weldes argues that agents (as state officials) "create broad representations . . . of the nature of the international system and the place of their state in that system."71 They populate their representations of the world with objects (states, self, institutions, etc.) and give those objects identities via their previous experience.72

Social norms (as social structures) thus must be conceived in two related ways. They are real (intersubjective), external facts to a singular agent when multiple agents follow their dictates. Manicas argues that because structures "exist as legacies of previous structurations, they are 'outside' the individual, external facticities."73 However, they also exist as subjective models of the world, internal to agents, affecting the way they view the world and take actions within it. Giddens notes that actors "routinely and for the most part without fuss—maintain a continuing 'theoretical understanding' of the grounds of their activity."74 Though structures may seem to be solely external, they persist, "between instances of social reproduction only as 'memory-traces' sustained by knowledgeable social agents."75 An interesting way to conceive of this comes from Wayne Sandholtz. He posits that "rules and standards exist as social facts [and hence external to agents]; ideas, understandings, and expectations exist in individual minds."76

Social norms are "out there"; individual agents can feel their effects and from an individual agent's perspective the rules are objective, external facts. Universal participation is a real fact of life in the governance of ozone depletion and climate change. However, the rules are also "in there" in that an individual agent has an understanding or model of the structures in her "head." Each state knows that universal participation defines ozone depletion and climate change. Subjective understandings of intersubjective phenomena drive, through domestic political processes, the behavior that (re)produces the external and intersubjectively real structures, which in turn are interpreted.77 There is constant interplay or mutual constitution between the structures that form the external reality for the agent and the internal models of that external reality through which agents make decisions and take action.

These internal models are compatible with the notion of internal rule models from the study of complex adaptive systems—from which agent-based modeling techniques are drawn—and schemata from social psychology.78 In complexity theory, rule models, in that they encapsulate the experience of the agent, contain "pictures" or blueprints of the context they find themselves in—they are subjective understandings of the agent's social context. Social agents are in a social environment, and thus the "pictures" found in those rule models contain social structures.

In both cases, internal models allow for change because they are not structurally determined—they are shaped by intersubjective social norms, but there is no one-to-one correspondence between social structures and internal models. This is what allows for the norm slippage observed in the latter climate change negotiations. What each states "knows" about universal participation may be slightly off from what other states know.

In addition, in both complexity theory and constructivism, the rules do not specify behavior for every conceivable situation in which agents find themselves. Instead, the internal rules allow agents to undertake generalized responses to stimuli and to thus construct responses to new situations.79 Holland argues that internal rule models are composed of "building blocks" or concepts that allow agents to recognize a variety of situations.80 The rules allow agents to reason by analogy in unfamiliar circumstances. Anthony Giddens similarly argues that social rules of procedure for going on in life (or for constructing a representation of the world) do not "specify all the situations which an actor might meet with, nor could [they] do so; rather, [they] provide for the generalized capacity to respond to and influence an indeterminate range of social circumstances."81

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