How does global political “norm” change work?

March 17, 2008

We have been studying the lessons learned from the Ottawa campaign in order to evaluate whether a similar formula could be adopted to advocate for other human security agenda items. For example, I suggested in this blog post that students think about the potential for success of efforts to convince the international community to adopt a new legal norm of state responsibility for civilian victims of war using the landmines campaign as a model.

Yet, one thing that has been missing in our discussions (and in the human security literature) is a description of the mechanism of change that enables new norms or ideas to take hold. Tim Harford (author of the The Undercover Economist) recently reviewed two of the more popularly debated ideas about how change works in this Slate article. Its interesting to try to apply these theories in trying to understand whether human security advocates can replicate the success of the landmines campaign in other areas.

Malcolm Gladwell argues for the importance of “connectors” or change-makers as key to the “tipping point,” the crucial point when new ideas take hold (read the New Yorker article here that inspired his book on the subject). The ICBL’s Jody Williams or Canada’s Lloyd Axworthy might be considered such “connectors” in the case of the AP landmine campaign. If you buy into this theory, then looking for similar leaders will be crucial factor in trying to replicate the campaign’s success in other areas.

On the other hand, sociologist Duncan Watts argues here that the success of certain products or ideas cannot be predicted with any certainty because it is not the quality of the product or how well the idea fits public tastes or values that matters, but “what people think that other people like” that determines which ideas/products are successful. Change does not typically work in a linear fashion, but is a multidimensional process where a cumulative or networking effect is what determines success. As he argues, since the marketplace for products or ideas “not only reveals our preferences but also modifies them … the relation between what we want now and what we wanted before — or what we will want in the future — becomes deeply ambiguous.”

What is the lesson for human security advocates based on this theory of change? Some might simply argue that since this “cumulative effect” is impossible to predict, human security advocates would be foolish to try to design campaigns that seek to replicate previous successes. Yet the eternal optimists among us might argue that this theory indicates that human security activists would be well served by focusing on creating positive global “brand” recognition since “what other people think,” not simply the quality of the idea itself, has an enormous impact on its eventual success.

Regardless of which theory of change is accurate (it seems to me that both theories have a certain amount of truth and there are many others not discussed here), human security is premised on the idea that norm change can change global political outcomes. We already know that there are no simple formulas for successfully changing global security norms and practices.  The lesson here is that trying to better understand the process of change may be equally as important for the human security agenda as insuring the quality of the ideas themselves.


3 Responses to “How does global political “norm” change work?”

  1. I have called in on this location on many an instance now but this post is the 1st one that I have ever commented on.

    Congratulations on such a first-rate critique and site. I have found it to be very helpful and educational – I only wish that there were more blogs online like this one.

    I never disappear from this blog without learning anything, from time to time I may feel a tiny bit saddened that I may not agree with a blog article or comeback that has been made. But hey! that is existence and if every one decided to agree on the same thing what a boring old world we would exist in.

    Please maintain your admirable work.

    Having said all of this, and if I’m kindly allowed to continue with my entries I will come again to post on your blog site soon

    Cheers, have a great day and thank you.

  2. lmcinhk Says:

    Many thanks for your kind comments. Post away. I’m always interested in expanding the points of view represented here. Best, LMC

  3. Jeni Cheung Says:

    I have always believe that in many circumstances, an accumulation of previous attempts are needed for the tipping point to happen, as in the AP land mine case. I do not think the campaign success is entirely due to the Ottawa Process, it is the contributions of the efforts put into the issue from the start of recognizing the effects of land mines.

    However, I would say that activists can always apply lessons learnt from other successful campaign to the current one. It is like creating the tipping point, creating favorable conditions to increase the chance of success.

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