Persuasion, Frames and Norm Construction

Payne, R. A. (2001). Persuasion, frames and norm construction. European Journal of International Relations, 7(1), 37-61.

Persuasion, Frames and Norm Construction
University of Louisville, USA
European Journal of International Relations Copyright © 2001
SAGE Publications and ECPR, Vol. 7(1): 37-61
(1354-0661 [200103] 7:1; 37-61; 016345)

Note only, please reference to source

Constructivist theorists view norms as shared understandings that reflect ‘legitimate social purpose’. Because the focus is on the ideational building blocks that undergird a community’s shared understandings, rather than material forces, persuasive communication is considered fundamentally important to norm-building. In practice, this means that frames are crafted by norm entrepreneurs so as to resonate with audiences. However, the constructivist empirical literature illustrates the central importance of material levers in achieving normative change. Those who promote specific norms also manipulate frames strategically to achieve their ends and do not necessarily convince others to alter their preferences. The global debate over ‘core labor standards’ is highlighted to illustrate the various means by which frames can be distorted by communicators acting strategically, perhaps even to secure their own instrumental interests or to maintain their powerful status. Norms that do not reflect a genuinely voluntary consensus can be seen as illegitimate.

KEY WORDS: communication, constructivist theory, frames (or framing), Habermas, international norms, persuasion

Social constructivists, in stark contrast to the ‘neo-utilitarian’ scholars who almost exclusively highlight the causal force of material interests and power, argue that shared ideas and knowledge are very important ‘building blocks of international reality’ (Ruggie, 1998: 33)1.

Substantial attention, both theoretical and empirical, has appropriately been focused by constructivists on the development of international norms, structures which by definition are ‘collective expectations about proper behavior for a given identity’ (Jepperson et al., 1996: 54). Norms, in other words, constitute a community’s shared understandings and intentions; they are ‘social facts’ and reflect ‘legitimate social purpose’ (see Ruggie, 1998)2.
Agents, of course, translate ideas into normative structures. Constructivists are therefore especially interested in how political actors produce the intersubjective understandings that undergird norms (for example, see Risse et al., 1999; Barnett, 1999). Great attention has been directed at communication, especially at persuasive messages, which attempt, by definition, to change actor preferences and to challenge current or create new collective meaning3.
Indeed, persuasion is considered the centrally important mechanism for constructing and reconstructing social facts.
According to Finnemore (1996: 141; Lynch, 1999), ‘normative claims become powerful and prevail by being persuasive’. More broadly, persuasion is ‘the process by which agent action becomes social structure, ideas become norms, and the subjective becomes the intersubjective’ (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998: 914; Klotz, 1995: 29-33).
Persuasive messages, however, are not transmitted in an ideational vacuum. All advocates of normative change confront ‘highly contested’ contexts where their ideas ‘must compete with other norms and perceptions of interest’ (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998: 897). In fact, a very wide variety and large number of normative claims are advanced in political debates worldwide. Scholars working in International Relations unfortunately lack a good theory to explain the persuasiveness of any particular normative claim over others (Legro, 1997). As Risse-Kappen (1994: 187) has argued, ‘decision makers are always exposed to several and often contradictory policy concepts’. Yet, research mostly fails ‘to specify the conditions under which specific ideas are selected and influence policies while others fall by the wayside’. Weber (1997: 240), who is skeptical of the constructivist approach, challenges it to explain ‘why one set of knowledge claims 'wins' and why others are left behind’.

Framing and Norm Resonance


Persuasion and Norms

Why do constructivists attribute an important role to persuasion in the development of international norms? The answer, according to a recent overview of the research, is that normative ideas are translated into practice and structures only after norm entrepreneurs persuade states to adopt them. Indeed, Finnemore and Sikkink (1998: 893; see also Nadelmann, 1990) identify a common three-stage ‘life cycle’ that purportedly explains the steps by which international norms ‘set standards for the appropriate behavior of states’4. The critically important first stage, which includes this particular persuasive endeavor, ends when a ‘tipping’ or ‘threshold’ point has been achieved5. At that juncture, either a ‘critical mass’ of states embrace the norm or one or more ‘critical states’ enlist and thereby help assure broad international support.
Without knowing more, researchers could conceivably conclude that persuasion has occurred once significant behavioral (or even rhetorical) change is identified. Theoretically, however, observing state practices alone is a poor way of evaluating the persuasiveness of normative ideas. Consider, for example, the realist notion that powerful states can threaten weaker states to get them to adhere to behavioral standards. The result of coercive compellence (Schelling, 1966) does not reflect authentic persuasion as constructivists should understand it. Put simply, target state preferences were not likely influenced. If the state could act freely, it would not comply with the standard. A similar shortcoming of this criterion is illuminated in the neoliberal argument (Keohane, 1984: 245) that an institution can remind states of their common interest so that they can bargain or cooperate to achieve it. This advertising-like exchange merely relies upon the provision of factual information to highlight otherwise hidden, but nonetheless already shared, material interests. Again, target state preferences do not change and are not endogenous to the interaction.
Interestingly, the constructivist case study literature reveals that this criticism is not merely hypothetical. Norm entrepreneurs overtly exploit material levers all the time. The normative developments constructivists observe often do not reflect persuasion, but instead result from a coercive mechanism. The impressive study of transnational advocacy networks by Keck and Sikkink (1998a: 201), for example, quite clearly shows how norm-builders interested in preserving the environment and securing human rights readily use material levers to gain support for favored normative ideas.
Advocates make ‘implied or explicit threat of sanctions or leverage if the gap between norms and practices remains large. Material leverage comes from linking the issue of concern to money, trade, or prestige, as more powerful institutions or governments are pushed to apply pressure’. A substantial portion of the constructivist case studies, in fact, demonstrate that norm advocates employ material levers to ‘mobilize and coerce decision makers to change state policy. Norms are not internalized by the elites’ (Checkel, 1999a: 88, 1997: 476-7).
Of course, it has long been known that international structures like regimes or institutions can develop from coercive or informative communication, and that they can compel or invite state adherence. However, these structures do not necessarily reflect truly shared normative understandings developed because some actors’ interests changed as a result of targeted persuasive appeals. As Kratochwil (1989: 228), borrowing theoretically from the work of Jorgen Habermas, argued in regard to how bribes taint conversation, mechanisms that threaten or pander to selfish interests are not ‘distortion free’. Scholars wanting to understand the way persuasion helps construct legitimate norms, with an emphasis on the resonant claims (or ‘better arguments’) of advocates, should view coercion and advertising as fairly uninteresting communicative acts (Barry, 1990: 2). As Crawford (1993: 52) observes, ‘norms established through coercion . . . lack legitimacy’.
In a more promising manner, constructivists correctly focus great theoretical attention on the potential for an agent’s ideas and arguments to alter the interests of other actors. Specifically, Finnemore and Sikkink (1998: 914) define persuasion as the effective attempt by advocates to ‘change the utility functions of other players to reflect some new normative commitment’. Actor A transmits an appeal to states B, C and D to elicit revised preferences, which then agree with actor A’s on a given subject. Constructivists emphasize the importance of mutual agreement around a normative idea. Indeed, because a new shared understanding results, norm development resulting from actors embracing persuasive messages can be viewed as a social interaction. Repetition and socialization then institutionalize the norm. In the ensuing diffusion process, which occurs in stages two and three of the norm life cycle, states B, C and D ultimately help convince others to embrace and act upon the normative idea.
It is worth noting, however, that despite the apparently social dimensions, this explanation of persuasion depicts a linear and reactive communicative process. The focus in stage one, for instance, is narrowly on sender A’s communicative acts and the consequences for receivers B, C and D 6. Are targeted actors B, C and D allowed to advance counter-claims and potentially recast the sought-after normative commitment? Are any or all actors’ preferences subject to modification in an unpredictable fashion depending upon the progression of a dialogue? Using a strictly linear definition of persuasion, these outcomes are apparently not possible.
Employing a non-linear, and more explicitly social, view of persuasive processes would help explain how actor preferences are formed and changed in discursive situations. The seminal ideas of social psychologist George Herbert Mead (1964: 269-70), for example, could be valuably applied because they reveal communication to be a recursive transaction between sender and receiver(s). When shaping messages, advocates must keep in mind the likely reception and response of any targeted audience(s). Message senders are also simultaneously receivers, and vice versa. In the next section, I demonstrate that the use of frames as rhetorical devices facilitates this social communicative function, albeit imperfectly.
In all, this section has addressed two important points regarding the role of persuasion in international norm construction. First, persuasion occurs when actor preferences change in response to communicative acts and cannot be revealed merely by examining behavior. For this reason, constructivists have sought to analyze the appeal of particular communicative acts, such as frames. Second, since persuasion occurs as part of a social process, then all participants in a discursive exchange, including both norm advocates and the targets of their appeals, must be prepared to have their understanding of a situation challenged (Risse, 2000). Outcomes reflect intersubjective interpretations, so attention should be directed at the communicative process by which mutual meanings are agreed. Unfortunately, neither of the points raised in this section explains the success or failure of any particular persuasive claim in a given process. The focus on frames will begin to address this oversight.


Finnemore and Sikkink (1998: 897) view framing as the central mission of norm entrepreneurs in the first stage of the norm life cycle. Norm entrepreneurs devote significant attention to constructing a suitable cognitive frame in order to persuade targeted states especially the domestic populations of important states to embrace the normative idea they support. Frames are therefore seen as a key means by which advocates impute social knowledge into their communicative acts. Because they rely upon shared understandings, frames are potentially central in resolving the question of which particular appeals advanced by advocates are persuasive (Keck and Sikkink, 1998b: 223-6). Constructivists look to frames to provide causal mechanisms for the influence of ideas on policy and politics (Barnett, 1999).
Frames help name, interpret and dramatize issues, allowing advocates to create or explain broader social meanings (Brysk, 1995). As noted in the introduction, many empirical accounts of successful international norm development reveal that frames are employed by willful agents to situate issues within a broader social and historical setting (see, for example, Price, 1998). Indeed, as cognitive consistency theory in psychology explains, an actor is more likely to accept new claims if they are shown to be similar to already accepted ideas. Put in general terms, norm advocates frame issues so that target audiences can see how well newly proposed ideas coincide with already accepted ideas and practices (Klotz, 1995: 31). Actor A communicates to actors B, C and D that new normative concern z should be embraced, partly because z is similar to already agreed norms x and y.
Advocates attempt to construct, in other words, frames that resonate with broader public understanding.
Thus, the idea of frame resonance potentially explains both the persuasive success of these instruments and their social function in the persuasive process. Norm-building, to reiterate, depends upon persuasive communicative acts. If particular frames resonate, they are properly viewed as key rhetorical tools used by advocates to create support for normative ideas.
Unfortunately, as the following two subsections highlight, frame analysis cannot fully explain the persuasiveness of normative claims. Consequently, the apparent causal power of frame resonance might more accurately be considered a ‘quasi-causal’ effect (Yee, 1996: 96-8) of communication.

Which Frames are Compelling?
Scholars across many of the social sciences have long employed frames for analytical purposes (see, for instance, Tversky and Kahneman, 1986), though constructivists studying the persuasiveness of international normative claims borrow most directly from social movement theorists (see McAdam et al., 1996; Tarrow, 1994: Ch. 7). While it is widely acknowledged across the literature that frames can help order normative content and provide boundaries for political discourse, much research also indicates that different frames often compete with one another. Frames, like broader normative claims, are disputed in highly competitive contexts. As will be illustrated below in the discussion of global labor standards, debates about the usefulness of a particular frame can be quite contentious even among the like-minded champions of new normative structures. In practice, greatly disputed, arbitrarily selected, and even contradictory frames might be employed by those trying to build a given norm. Framing agents compete with others using counter frames to provide singular interpretations of problems and appropriate solutions. Serious scholarly attention is devoted to resolving these ‘frame contests’ (Meyer, 1995) since those who embrace one frame over a counterframe ‘see different things, make different interpretations of the way things are, and support different courses of action concerning what is to be done, by whom and how to do it’ (Rein and Schon, 1993: 147).
Confronted with the problem of frame contests, the initial inclination might well be to look at the substantive content of particular frames.
Unfortunately, scholars are seriously challenged to explain the success of some frames over others (McCarthy, 1997). While certain frames utilized by advocates seem to resonate with broad understanding, many others, even potentially on quite similar issues or grounded in analogous normative ideas, may well fail or provoke controversy related to the selected frame’s appropriateness for a situation (McCarthy, 1996: 149). No frame is an omnipotent persuasive tool that can be decisively wielded by norm entrepreneurs without serious political wrangling. It would be virtually impossible to know in advance if an apparently compelling frame in one situation would also prove persuasive when applied to an analogous case. Norm entrepreneurs could flounder even when relying upon ‘master frames’ employed successfully by advocates facing similar circumstances (Tarrow, 1994: 131). Audiences might remain divided as to whether to embrace a recommended frame or its counterframes. Advocates might strategically abandon one frame and employ another to seek the same end result (Tversky and Kahneman, 1986). In all, since there is no shortage of political actors worldwide making new demands for normative change, and since norm-building is supposed to be a social and persuasive process, most advocates who seek to design frames are presumably unable to construct one that resonates with larger audiences.
Unsurprisingly, given these problems, researchers have found that a single desired outcome can potentially be explained by multiple frames and any given frame can conceivably justify more than one possible outcome (Rein and Schon, 1993: 151). How then can scholars explain or predict frame resonance? Ironically, there is some danger that frame resonance might be ascertained by a persuasive standard already rejected. Scholars might simply identify the use of a given frame and then look for changes in actor practices or in normative structures. However, even apparently persuasive frames that achieve desired normative outcomes can be distorted, meaning that interpreters must allow for the possibility that some form of coercion has occurred. As is revealed in the constructivist case studies, and addressed further in the following subsection, factors like the resources or relative power of advocates might well influence the results of a frame contest (Marullo et al., 1996: 3). Moreover, as was noted, constructivists should be relatively uninterested in outcomes determined by such distortions and instead should seek to explain norms grounded in bona fide persuasion and shared understandings.
Scholars interested in explaining the resonance of particular ideas that might undergird shared international norms are seriously hindered by the concerns raised in this section, which highlight a perplexing communicative reality. To evaluate normative structures featuring ‘competing and contradictory elements,’ Finnemore (1996: 23-4, 136) sensibly calls for a thorough examination of political process, as well as discourse and behavior. This is because the structure of a communicative situation is likely to have significant influence on the possibility of persuasion occurring.

Are Frames Vulnerable to Distortion?
The second weakness elaborated here is that deceptive, domineering, secretive or powerful advocates might manipulate frames. This criticism is particularly significant if frames are ostensibly employed to highlight the persuasive force of a resonant ‘good idea’ or ‘better argument’. Dryzek (1993: 227), working in a public policy field that took an ‘argumentative turn’ several years ago, specifically criticized the usefulness of frames by noting that ‘consensus can be reached under all kinds of conditions, through reference to many kinds of standards, and on the part of all kinds of groups, not all of which are equally defensible’. Of course, Dryzek (1990) has long worked to operationalize Habermasian notions of ‘communicative rationality’ in international and other contexts 7. Unsurprisingly then, he critiques political contexts that reward powerful actors without exposing and evaluating their interests and arguments. Critical theorists generally argue, in fact, that any actor’s uncontested pursuit of instrumental rationality potentially subverts communication. To achieve specific goals, an actor might forward misleading or otherwise distorted claims. In short, while all normative debates may well be ‘highly contested’, those that fail to meet basic standards for communicative rationality are vulnerable to numerous distortions.
Consider the possibility that any apparently resonant frame employed to build an international norm might be advocated or embraced for some hidden purpose, perhaps even for domestic political reasons (Cortell and Davis, 1996). Put differently, a subjectively persuasive frame might be used by agents acting insincerely in order to gain some ulterior aim, such as reaching elective office. Similarly, advocates might try to gain acceptance for a normative idea by lying about its implications or by linking it favorably and misleadingly in a frame to a dissimilar standard. In these instances, the deceptive abilities of advocates serve as a source of significant distortion. Any shared understanding built in this way, without exposing and evaluating these problems, would be of dubious legitimacy.
Furthermore, an apparently sound normative idea could be forwarded and framed in a plausible manner; yet, even broad compliance with the new standard may not mean that actors achieved general agreement about its underlying basis. As previously noted, employment of an apparently resonant frame could merely reflect the distorting material influence of an advocate. Obviously, this warping factor is most apt to be evident when powerful communicators advance arguments neither grounded in, nor creative of, genuinely shared social understandings. The influence of material power, however, would seem to be much more difficult to establish if the frame makes subjectively reasonable claims about the intersubjectivity of an idea and if the framer is unchallenged by real peers in some open discursive process. In any event, frames cannot be evaluated simply by looking at outcomes and practices.
A different kind of distortion transpires when frames resonate because they remind audiences of already agreed, but potentially harmful normative commitments. For example, advocates who employ frames for potentially xenophobic or even violent purposes (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998: 916) can recall shared norms of nationalism (or even racism, in some communities). Advocates of interstate cooperation on various global issues can be frustrated by opponents employing counterframes invoking the norm of sovereignty. In these instances, frames might resonate because the shared understandings exhibit dubious legitimacy. The undergirding ideas them-selves may not survive meaningful discursive challenges –– especially if discussed openly in an inclusive forum.
Again, these hypothetical shortcomings are quite evident in the constructivist empirical work. As already noted, framers frequently attempt to unleash material levers. Constructivists also point out that norm entrepreneurs commonly employ very sophisticated means-ends calculations and engage in ‘strategic social construction’8. This inherently manipulative practice, which might also be called ‘strategic framing’ (Barnett, 1999: 15), stands in stark contrast to something like communicative rationality which imagines actors’ reciprocally challenging one another’s validity claims in order to find shared truth. In any case, the constructivist empirical research highlights all sorts of ‘deliberately inappropriate’ (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998: 897-8) behavior by norm advocates that fairly clearly distorts communicative processes and is more accurately viewed as a form of coercion rather than persuasion.
By definition, persuasion occurs when target preferences change in response to a sender’s appeal. However, when powerful advocates construct frames, or if any supporter uses misleading or repugnant messages, then those assertions are arguably not compelling in the way that constructivists should understand persuasive processes. Scholars should be reluctant to attribute changes in preferences to the innate persuasiveness of a normative idea or cognitive frame that suffers these distortions. In contrast, genuine persuasion would transpire in social and discursive situations that minimize the influence of a warping factor like participant rank and reveal deceptive or deleterious messages. Normative structures should, in short, develop out of communicative processes that test the veracity of claims and claimants 9.
In the next section, I examine ongoing debates about the globalization of ‘core labor standards’ to illustrate the problems of constructing and interpreting cognitive frames and norms in a highly contested and politically distorted context.


Framing Labor Norms

This section focuses on the efforts by norm entrepreneurs to identify an appropriate frame to sell new global labor standards for the WTO and other international trade agreements. The discussion to follow uses the transnational debate about core labor standards (see SOLIDAR, 1999) as an example to illustrate the problems with frame analysis rather than as a scientifically selected empirical case suitable for testing the prevailing models of norm-building. Moreover, I have also intentionally selected an instance of nascent norm construction that has not been successfully resolved. Upon initial consideration, these might seem to be dubious methodological choices. Even the apparent failure of any given frame would not prove that frames are never compelling. Additionally, in this issue area, meaningful labor standards could conceivably be constructed quickly once entrepreneurs produce an appropriately resonant appeal. However, to date, the norm-building literature has primarily studied successful instances and this creates an important source of bias (Checkel, 1999a: 86). Though the authors of these studies typically note the contentious debate that preceded victory, their analysis tends to center upon the alleged resonance of the winning ideas. This approach too often minimizes the myriad of problems faced by real-world advocates seeking normative change. Which arguments shall they employ? Are proven master frames available that might secure victory? How might ideational appeals be coupled with material leverage? Put most simply, which strategies should norm entrepreneurs select?
My purpose in offering the following illustrative example is not to answer these questions, but rather it is to highlight the great vulnerability of frame analysis to the various distortions already outlined above. Constructivists should devote much more attention to communicative processes of persuasion and perhaps less to the potential resonance of particular ideas.


The growing literature on norm-building accurately identifies the importance of persuasion for actors attempting to fashion genuinely shared understandings in a social process. Yet, as has been demonstrated, constructivist observations about the resonance of particular ideas and frames are challenged by their own empirical research, which highlights how norm entrepreneurs commonly use material levers and act strategically to achieve desired ends. The notion of strategic framing, for instance, is flawed because it invites various distortions into the communicative process. As illuminated in the labor standards example, the actions of powerful or deceptive advocates can be particularly difficult to overcome, or even to reveal, since rhetoric can be manipulated to seem reasonable for audiences.
Interestingly, the social movement scholars (Tarrow, 1994: 123) who have already plowed much of this ground know very well that frames must be constructivists understood in terms of prevailing power structures. 12
The conducting case studies in International Relations have borrowed somewhat selectively from social movement theorists. They undoubtedly document norm-building, but the mechanisms of change seem more coercive than persuasive. The process, as described in this body of research, is not especially social. The resulting norms could even be said to lack legitimacy according to constructivist standards.
Indeed, frame analysis is perhaps most usefully employed simply to develop hypotheses and theories about the quasi-causal effects of normative ideas and persuasive discourse. Ideas may in fact resonate in some circumstances and the study of frames and framing could help explain this possibility. However, if offered confidently as a causal explanation of real change across contexts, the weaknesses of frames should be very carefully considered. As seems to be occurring, more scholarly attention should be directed at communicative processes.


This project was supported in part by an Arts and Sciences Research Initiative grant from the University of Louisville. Sterling Harris and Sophie Maier provided much appreciated research assistance. Mark Anner, Michael Barnett, Jeff Checkel, Ken Conca, Eric Crump, Geoff Dabelko, Martha Finnemore, Ann Florini, Dave Imbroscio, Barry Kornstein, Paul Nelson, Robin Rowland, Kathryn Sikkink and Thomas Risse answered numerous questions and provided valuable suggestions and insights. Part of this article was presented at the Annual Meetings of the International Studies Association, Washington, DC, February 1999.

1. In fact, constructivists emphasize that even material resources acquire meaning only within the social context in which they are embedded. North Korean and British nuclear weapons would have similar destructive capabilities, but the latter do not generate equivalent fears in other actors (Wendt, 1992: 397).
2. Both Hurd (1999) and Barnett (1997) argue that legitimate order is based on social consensus, a condition clearly distinct from coercive power (see Linklater, 1998).
3. Additionally, Chayes and Chayes (1995: 26) argue that persuasion is expressly recognized as a principal method of inducing compliance with international treaties and regimes.
4. Scholars in law and sociology are said to have independently found this common pattern of normative influence. Price and Tannenwald (1996: 145), however, argue that the path of normative development can be highly varied and Checkel (1999a: 85) points out that constructivists misguidedly direct most attention at norm-makers and not norm-takers.
5. In stages two and three, norms cascade through the population of states who are socialized into compliance. Norms can be formally reflected as well in international institutional designs. Ultimately, norms are fully internalized, habitually followed in practice, and rarely the subject of public debate.
6. Similarly, in later stages, these persuaded actors become advocates and elicit further agreement around the already agreed norm.
7. German International Relations scholars conducted an extensive debate about Habermasian notions of argumentative rationality and its compatibility with rational-choice theory. Some of this literature is cited in Risse (1999; see Haacke, 1996).
8.The empirical studies reveal . . . that instrumental rationality and strategic interaction play a significant role in highly politicized social construction of norms, preferences, identities, and common knowledge by norm entrepreneurs in world politics (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998: 910-11).
9. Some constructivists are looking at learning and other processes which view persuasion in a more socialized manner (see Checkel, 1999b; Johnston, 1999).
Other International Relations scholars are beginning to consider Habermasian notions, but this mostly abstract and theoretical literature cannot be examined here (see Crawford, 1998; Bohman, 1999; Samhat, 1997; Payne, 1996).
10. Anner (2000: 20) argues that movement activists have framed the sweatshop issue in terms of human and labor rights norms that have resonated with the US public. He finds norms against child labor particularly salient and effective.
11. Zald (1996: 261, 269) refers to these different kinds of disputes as external and internal frame competitions.
12.McAdam (1996: 341), in fact, goes so far as to criticize research on frames for focusing almost exclusively on ideational concerns while overlooking far more important matters, such as the degree of threat posed by social movements to the prevailing order. Empirically, sociologists also frequently lament the lack of comparative studies of frames, especially in cross-national contexts (McAdam et al., 1996: 6, 19).

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