Indeterminacy, Uncertain Contexts and the Dual Nature of Norms

8 December 2022, 1241 EST

When it comes norm dynamics and how we theorize them, uncertainty presents something of a paradox. We study norms because we think that they matter. But if norms are inherently uncertain, then how is it possible that they constitute, constrain, and otherwise shape the behavior of global actors? Unless norms produce stable and defined expectations, then how can they have the power to structure international politics?

I answer these questions by exploring three manifestations of uncertainty in relation to the anti-impunity normnorm indeterminacynorm collision, and norm implementation in crises or changing contexts. We can think of norm indeterminacy as an internal feature (that is, a property) of norms. Norm collision and norm implementation, in contrast, are external (that is, environmental) dimensions of norms. 

(The distinction between internal and external is analytical. In practice, the two dimensions blur into one another. For example, indeterminacy feeds into uncertainty in norm implementation; shifting contexts further indeterminacy.) 

Differentiating among the three dimensions allows us to treat actors’ practices — as well as the spaces in which those practices take place — as the hinges that connect them to one another. Practices endow norms with meaning on the basis of how actors interpret contexts, and thus bridge the internal and external dimensions of uncertainty.

Internal Uncertainty

Norms are traditionally defined as shared behavioral expectations for actors with a given identity that are characterized by a sense of “oughtness”. Scholars note a number of problems with this definition, including that identities are relational, not autonomous categories that remain invariant through changes in associated normative expectations. To the extent that shared expectations are context-specific, we also cannot treat them as properties of actors that exist independently of those contexts. 

Indeterminacy makes it possible for conflicting norms to coexist

Some norms become obsolete or get replaced, while others alter over time. These changes entail shifts in what counts as compliance, which makes it difficult to see how norms can possibly structure actors’ behavior. Likewise, how can norms be unstable over the long term but apparently fixed and relatively unambiguous in the short term? Arguably, stakeholders can temporarily “stabilize” a norm by reaching compromises over its proper interpretation and implications

Norms are not just interpreted differently over time. They also vary across space. As a substantial body of research demonstrates, the same norm produces distinctive expectations in different local contexts. This may produce conflict over norms. Even if it does not, it would still seem to undermine the putative structuring power of norms.

We can start to resolve such apparent contradictions once we recognize that the very indeterminacy of norms account for their resilience in the face of disagreement, renegotiation, and even conflict.

It is a category error to assume that indeterminacy renders norms “ephemeral.” Nor does the fact that actors stabilize them via ongoing practices — notably enactment, legalization, and contestation — mean that norms lack structuring power.

All social facts are ultimately subjective, but they can still appear to actors as if they are inescapable features of political life. Authoritarian great powers often push back against, or actively attempt to subvert, human-rights norms precisely because they cannot simply ignore them. 

How can contestation generate stability? At first glance, it would seem that repeated challenges to norms would make them unstable. Contestation that engages productively with the norm (applicatoryproactive) reaffirms it. Even contestation that rejects the norm (validityreactive) reaffirms the basic existence of the norm as a ‘thing’ and can help stabilize its interpretation.

How can challenges that reject, rather than seek to renegotiate, a norm contribute to its stability? Rejecting a norm does not require public justification. But, in practice, international actors almost always explain the reasons why they refuse to abide with, or want to jettison, a norm. In the process, they assign that norm a particular meaning. Thus, as actors deny the validity (intrinsic “oughtness”) or legitimacy (procedural “oughtness”) of a norm, they help to stabilize its contextual meaning.

In other words, while the meaning of a norm is inherently indeterminate, that indeterminacy is limited by how actors discursively engage with one another over a norm’s meaning, validity, and legitimacy. This speaks of contestation as a virtue, not just for compliance, but also for the creation of shared meaning — it follows that a norm retains its structuring power even as actors contest its validity.

The trajectory of the anti-impunity norm illustrates these ideas. It was initially understood as a dimension of successful democratic transitions — as a complement to amnesties and pardons. That is no longer the case. Predominate understandings of the anti-impunity norm now view it as antithetical to amnesties and pardons. 

The watershed South African transitional justice process was in line with the earlier understanding of the anti-impunity norm. If it the same process took place today, it would contravene current expectations of what it mean to comply with the norm. Nonetheless, although human rights organizations, courts, governments, and other stakeholders have consistently contested anti-impunity, they have done so in a manner that affirms a basic — albeit underspecified — agreement about the norm’s functional domain (international crimes), the kinds of actors it applies to (such as states and international courts), and the behavior it dictates (to seek justice).

External Uncertainty

Actors routinely face situations in which different norms seem to require contradictory behavior. This further generates uncertainty about normative expectations. Such norm collisions do not always produce conflict. But they often do.

What happens when norms collide? We might expect the most robust norm prevails. That is not always the case.

The anti-impunity norm has sometimes prevailed over more established norms, such as ones stipulating that states have an obligation to ensure political order within their borders. Rather than focus on which norms are “strongest,” we should focus on how actors manage these conflicts. Indeed, it is often via such processes that norms structure behavior.

Norm indeterminacy makes it possible for apparently conflicting norms to coexist “harmoniously.” It gives stakeholders flexibility into how they interpret norms, thus allowing them to reconcile potential inconsistencies among salient norms, as well as to avoid or resolve open collisions.

Recall that cooperation and compromise in norm conflicts do not require agreement about the specific content of relevant norms. Provided that actors seek to create a new normative order (and not just to destroy the old one), they should be able cooperate and compromise with one another.

We cannot know the downstream effects of crises ex ante

The recent peace process in Colombia provides a good example. Participants clashed over how to reconcile the anti-impunity norm with the state’s obligation to ensure peace, as a commitment to anti-impunity might undermine negotiations. Multiple local and international actors, notably the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Colombian government, managed to strike a balance between the these norms that prevented one from being hollowed out in favor of the other.

As the preceding discussion implies, efforts to implement norms during crises can destabilize those norms and the broader normative frameworks within which they are embedded. Crises arise when actors face choices that, from their perspective, involve difficult tradeoffs, high levels of uncertainty, and inadequate time for deliberation.

The very existence of a crises entails at least two levels of “failure” in governing normative frameworks: first, as heuristics that simplify the choice among policy options and, second, as sources of predictability regarding how others will respond to those polices. Crises actualize potential conflicts and inconsistencies among norms.

Thus, crises invite contestation over norms, both by actors who want to uphold prevailing norms and by those who see an opportunity to undermine them.

Changing contexts also contribute to the indeterminacy of norms. As contexts shift, actors may be forced to confront a variety of questions, including which rules should govern their behavior and who has the authority to decide. Actors often address these questions by applying norms that govern adjacent issues, modifying the scope of existing norms to adapt them to changing circumstances, or some combination of the two. These approaches can reinforce the robustness of norms when they facilitate governance in the new area — or undermine the relevant norms if they make governance more difficult.

Constructivists have yet to persuasively deal with the dual nature of norms

How actors interpret their context, as well as how they respond to those interpretations, fundamentally shapes the power of norms to structure agency and behavior. For instance, norm institutionalization can empower certain actors, giving them a vested interest in the status quo. But we cannot know the downstream effects of crises and changing contexts ex ante. If actors pursue continuity, either out of self-interest or conviction, the result might be strong adherence to existing norms. In other words, norm antipreneurs would succeed in blocking substantive change to the normative order. But if norm entrepreneurs gain the upper hand, we could very well see shifts in the normative order.

The “Africa problem” of the ICC illustrates this dynamic. When the ICC issued arrest warrants for Omar al-Bashir, the then-president of Sudan, some African states openly defied the Court. The ICC and its allies — including both governments and civil-society actors — responded by doubling down on their interpretation of the anti-impunity norm. They insisted that all member states fulfill their obligations (as articulated by the ICC) under the Rome Statute.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ICC favored the continuity of institutionalized norms that empowered it. Many actors sided with the ICC, including some African states. Yet, a number of African states disagreed; they prioritized different norms, such as pan-African solidarity, and in doing so offered a different understanding of their obligations. Without compromise, this conflict could eventually weaken the anti-impunity norm. 


Neither internal nor external uncertainty necessarily undermines the structuring power of norms. As the “practice turn” emphasizes, it is a mistake to study the structuring role of norms without paying attention to their structured nature. This does not require us to abandon our experience of “norms as things.” Instead, we need to recognize that norms are malleable — that their character and effects depend upon, first, their context and, second, the choices and behavior of relevant actors. These were crucial insights of the constructivist project, yet they too often drop out of contemporary efforts to research and theorize international norms.

Indeed, constructivists have yet to persuasively deal with the dual nature of norms.

Critical constructivists focus on the structured nature of norms. They directly engage with uncertainty, but often at the cost of adequately addressing the structuring power of norms. In contrast, conventional constructivists emphasize the structuring power of norms. They usually neglect uncertainty, which is a big part of the reason why they have difficult theorizing the structured nature of norms.

If we want to understand norm dynamics, then we need to draw on insights from both critical and conventional constructivism. This requires finding a conceptual bridge between the two traditions. Otherwise, we are stuck with two parallel research agendas — which amounts to giving up on the idea that there is no way to study both norms-as-structured and norms-as-structuring at the same time.

The solution, as I have suggested, is to explore those spaces and practices where we can find clear manifestations of the dual nature of norms — that is, in formal and informal settings in which stakeholders contest norms, and where we can therefore most easily study practices of norms contestation and how they configure to stabilize, shift, validate, and undermine norms.