Taking it to the Next Level: The Internationalization of Domestic Norms and Intangible Cultural Heritage

Posted in 2010 Journal


Neoliberal and neorealist attitudes have dominated the study of Political Science
for decades. Increasingly, however, there is a need to explain the development of
international norms and how they bring upon political and social change. This essay
examines the evolution and adoption of norms in the global arena, focusing on the
national origins of international norms. Using the case of Intangible Cultural Heritage
in UNESCO, I argue that international norms about culture first emerge on the national level, and are globalized through the work and cooperation of strong national and regional norm entrepreneurs.

International cooperation as we know it today is a modern phenomenon; only seventy years ago the world was embroiled in one of the most violent war in history. And yet, in less than a century, the world’s nations have come together to create regimes that address a myriad of pressing issues of global concern. What forces have precipitated such extreme change that the world’s nations are engaging in conversation about issues that would have seemed imaginary not long ago? Changing norms lie at the root of such transformation, and have therefore been at the center of contemporary International Relations scholarship. Until recently, neoliberal and neorealist attitudes have dominated the study of the field. Increasingly, however, there is a need to explain the development of international norms and how they bring upon political and social change. This essay will examine the evolution and adoption of norms in the global arena, focusing on the national origins of international norms. Using the case of Intangible Cultural Heritage in UNESCO, I will argue that international norms about culture first emerge on the national level, and are globalized through the work and cooperation of strong national norm entrepreneurs.

Norms have long been ignored in the study of International Relations as the unexplained sources of the exogenously given preferences of actors,” 1 a mere feature of the change wrought by power structures. Realists have overlooked normative change, but increasingly constructivists and others have been exploring how norms come about and how norms change. In the past decade several theorists have attempted to tackle this elusive phenomenon known as norms, a task greatly complicated by definitional difficulties. Finnemore and Sikkink, in their pivotal article Norm Dynamics and Political Change argue that norms are generally defined as “standards of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity.” 2 Legro defines them as the “collective understandings of the proper behavior of actors.” 3 Synthesizing the work of these theorists and others, three features stand out in the definition of norms: the connection between norms and behavior, a sense of morality and obligation that is attached to norms, and that norms are shared or collective.

The first feature, the connection between norms and behavior, seems fairly straightforward, but it merits a brief discussion. Finnemore and Sikkink discriminate between regulative and constitutive norms, a distinction that helps us understand what it is in their nature that sets norms apart from other rules that affect state behavior. Florini, who employs an evolutionary model borrowed from biological science to describe the attributes of norms, talks about norms as “conditioning behavior,” much like genes. 4 Simple laws and regulations often limit states’ actions, but norms have the potential to do more than circumscribe state behavior. Norms that are regulative are the underlying rationale of many international laws and sanctions, which define how states should not act, and which legitimize the putative power of international institutions. Regulative norms then, “allow,” while constitutive norms “explain.” 5 The latter are therefore more complex; they explain not why states avoid specific action, but why they choose to behave in a certain way. Because they promote ideas in a way that generates new behavior, constitutive norms are more difficult to understand, but they are also more interesting to study.

The second unique feature that many norm scholars point to is the sense of “oughtness,” to borrow Finnermore and Sikkink’s language, which is so strongly associated with norms. Florini speaks of a sense of obligation embedded in norms, which distinguishes them from other rules. Notions of morality and obligation complicate the traditional view of International Relations as a field ruled by chaos; adding these philosophical and tenuous concepts into the traditional equation of chaos and power relations produces a more nuanced vision of how it is that states interact. This makes norms more complex instruments for understanding states’ behaviors, and the study of norms therefore forces us to look beyond states’ differences and search for commonalities. The argument for the study of norms is not an argument against the study of interests, but rather an expansion of our understanding of International Relations; we should consider norms as an underlying factor in nations’ decision-making process, not an extraneous result of such a process. Florini points out norm scholarship is mostly concerned with explaining how “it is that states determine their interest.” This fusion of the normative and positive has been a crucial step forward in the study of International Relations. Ultimately, norms are pervasive and we cannot ignore that a sense of morality and obligation, even when constantly changing and evolving, underlies many of the successes of international cooperation.

Finally, the third feature delineated by many writers is one that fuses the first and second point. In order to transform morality and obligation into action, and therefore allow norms to prevail, norms must be shared by a group of actors. In the process of their emergence, and in the effects they wring, norms must be shared to subsist. Whether they develop locally, regionally, or globally, norms are more than “individual idiosyncrasies.” 6 A sense of shared purpose or interest is that which makes norms legitimate, and ultimately what leads states to act accordingly. Both regulative and constitutive norms emerge from a sense of shared social purpose, and therefore reflect “not only what states do but also what they should do.” 7 Without an agreement of a critical mass, norms would not really be norms, which raises the question: how do norms emerge, transform, and gain enough support to become embedded in International Relations?

Although scholars have been looking at norms for years, a theoretical understanding of norm development has emerged only recently. Finnemore and Sikkink’s framework, which stands at the very core of norm development theory, delineates three main stages in what they have described as the “life cycle” of norms: origins or emergence of international norms, “norm cascade,” and internalization of norms. The authors argue that introduction of norms is the job of “norm entrepreneurs;” others have called them “moral entrepreneurs” ] 8 or “social meaning architects.” 9 In light of the definitional foundations laid out earlier, a fusion of these three ideas is perhaps most instructive; entrepreneurs of norms must fuse a moral foundation that can be expanded and shared by many, and such foundations should be appealing to states as serving their interests. Entrepreneurs can come in the form of religious organizations, lawmakers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and many others, but it is always their task to create norms by “using language that names, interprets and dramatizes” the issues at stake. 10 Ultimately, if those advocating for the norm successfully articulate its relevance, it may reach a tipping point, leading to the second stage. The norm cascade is characterized by viral spread of the norm—at this stage states that were not part of the conversation at the generative stage join in. Perhaps more importantly, this is the moment at which norm entrepreneurs target specific states with peer pressure. Other ways of socialization spread norms, as entrepreneurs and states use reflexive discourse, 11 language games, 12 and other linguistic and rhetorical tactics to compel others to join in.

The final stage in the norm’s life cycle is internalization. Unlike the two other stages, this phase is more difficult to explain because it can last indefinitely. Internalization is not characterized by any specific action on the part of entrepreneurs, or even states, and happens somewhat organically. Florini’s borrowing from biological language about the inheritance and transmittance of genes is once again instructive; she speaks of norms “as part of a set of beliefs, attitudes, and values that are culturally transmitted. This cultural transmission is a type of inheritance, an inheritance of items of information passed from one mind or social organism to another.” 13 The language of this description is particularly apt because it hints at the fact that the processes at the stage of internalization happen somewhat naturally, suggesting that norms might be intrinsically and implicitly a part of International Relations.

Within Finnemore and Sikkink’s bounded theory of evolution, each of the three stages raises a myriad of questions that can be explored in great length. Where do norms originate? Under what conditions can norms reach a tipping point? What exactly is meant by cascade? What are the instruments used for internalization? Tackling all of these questions is well beyond the scope of this essay, but the first stage in the life cycle of a norm is of particular interest here. In essence, the question is what is it that makes norms succeed? How come some prevail while others “die”? In the competitive world of norms, which norms will make it? I argue that to better understand the “triumph” of norms, we must turn to those who work to lobby for them. A great deal has been written about what it is in the nature of norms that determines their success, 14 but looking beyond the characteristics of specific norms may broaden our understanding of their evolution. We should look to the “producers” of norms, those working behind the scenes to elevate norms until they achieve global appeal. Examining the characteristics of norm entrepreneurs would allow us to better evaluate and predict which norms have a promising future, that is to say, what norms would evolve to cascade stage and ultimately be internalized.

Finnemore and Sikkink argue that advocating for a norm requires a disturbance of the status quo of ideas and norms, and Florini speaks of norms as always being contested. 15Norm entrepreneurs must therefore be driven and committed to the task of introducing their norm to the larger international community. Furthermore, successful advocacy requires an organizational platform from which to launch ideas, and one that is a hub for of action and legitimacy. 16 It is often the case that domestic norms are elevated to the international level through the work on entrepreneurs that are either working from a national base, or are inspired by other nations. 17 Furthermore, it is through international advocacy that many nationally based norm entrepreneurs are able to gain recognition domestically. 18 Although these, and many other scholars, focus on the domestic diffusion of international norms, 19 a look at the theoretical framework actually suggests that the inverse relationship would be a particularly strong one. Little has been written about this particular process of elevation of the domestic norms to the international level, but a framework can be composed from the writing that has been outlined so far. If norm advocacy requires passion, persuasion and an organizational platform, national agents, or bodies that are deeply rooted in a domestic framework are likely to be especially fit for the task. “The capacity of particular moral arguments to influence government policies, particularly foreign policies, stems from the political influence of domestic and transnational moral entrepreneurs as well as that of powerful individual advocates within the government.” 20 Domestic organizations enjoy the advantage of cultural and linguistic cohesion and are geographically bound. Furthermore, working on a micro, domestic level first, allows entrepreneurs to “frame” the norm they are interested in pursuing. Creating language to articulate the norm, harnessing local support, and letting the norm mature and grow domestically can all be beneficial steps for agents who are preparing to bring their norm to the next level. A domestic environment can be considered a laboratory or a greenhouse for emerging international norms. I now turn to a discussion of the case study, through which I will offer some thoughts about how nationally based entrepreneurs shape and then diffuse norms internationally.

A particularly interesting norm that has emerged on the international arena in recent years deals with the preservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage. As the qualifier “intangible” suggests, this concept is somewhat elusive, complicating not only definitional efforts, but also the entire discourse surrounding this norm. Nevertheless, this is exactly the kind of constitutive norm that is a fascinating case study for norm origination and advocacy. The evolution of Intangible Cultural Heritage, from its ideational beginnings through its institutionalization in the UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), is an exemplary instance of successful norm entrepreneurship. For the purposes of this analysis, the ICH convention is a measure of normative success, because as a part of the United Nations, UNESCO’s international appeal and legitimacy are perhaps of the highest order in our current system of global governance. The next part of my analysis will look at the history and development of ICH, focusing on those norm entrepreneurs that articulated and advanced preservation. Drawing on the theoretical frameworks laid out earlier, I will show how nationally based entrepreneurs worked to create a norm around preservation of ICH: a morally based, shared sentiment that would inspire states to take action both domestically and internationally.

Once again, definitions are in order before turning to a more analytical approach. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is currently the arbiter of the definition of Intangible Cultural Heritage in our system of global governance defines ICH as: “manifested, among others, in the following domains: oral traditions and expressions […]; performing arts […]; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; traditional craftsmanship.” 21 This definition, which stands at the root of the norm of preservation of ICH, is the product of a long evolutionary process; a chronological view of which reveals a great deal about the role of national entrepreneurs in advancing the cause. Scholars and policy makers offer a myriad of interpretations about the real beginnings of the idea, but many agree that UNESCO’s 1972 Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage was a crucial moment in introducing the idea. 22 Ten years later, the term Intangible Cultural Heritage was coined in 1982 at the Mondiacult World Conference on Cultural Policies. The conference took place under the auspices of UNESCO in Mexico city, and later that year UNESCO set up the Committee of Experts on the safeguarding of Folklore: “Section for the Non-Physical Heritage.” It was not until 1989 that UNESCO’s general conference adopted the recommendations made earlier in the decade. In 2001 UNESCO made its first proclamation of 19 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, a list which protects specific instances of ICH, but which skewed the understanding of preservation as a pervasive practice, and not just a designation for specific cases. Finally, 2003 marked the adoption of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which did not actually enter into force in 2006.

The brief history of ICH in UNESCO tells the story of a maturation of an idea: from the most basic notions about international cultural cooperation that lay at the basis of UNESCO to World Cultural and Natural Heritage, and onward to folklore, non-physical heritage, traditional culture, the masterpieces, and finally to the safeguarding of ICH. This appears to be the story of organic growth, but if we refer back to the theories outlined earlier, organic growth does not happen until well into the final phase of internalization. Instead, this is a story of the genesis of an international norm, during which there was continuous and furious reframing of what it meant and why it was important. Well before internalization, and even before the cascade, there was a process that led up to the tipping point of ICH, and that process happened behind the scenes. 1982 may have been the first time that ICH was articulated in that specific language, but discourse around ICH has been circulating around the world, and within UNESCO for years. Nationally based organizations have been instrumental in proliferating the norm of preservation; I now turn to a discussion of some of the ways in which domestic influence penetrated the international level to affect the outcomes of the ICH preservation norm.

The Japanese have been the pioneers of the preservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Japan has had an intricate history of legislation protecting its “national treasures” that extends back to the late nineteenth century. In 1950, still under occupation, the Japanese passed the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, which called for all “national resources and assets to be protected, appreciated, utilized and managed – not for commercial profit, but for the very survival of civilization.” 23 Expanded in 1954, the law focuses on the preservation of “living national treasures;” this designation includes not only artifacts, but above all of people and “their entire habitus and habitat, understood as their life space and social world.” 24 Earlier Japanese legislation that had focused on the preservation of religious and cultural artifacts had been drafted in response to internal upheaval in Japan, as new regimes displaced each other and the need arose to

protect historical monuments, most notably temples. The legislation of the 1950s was different; its focus on intangible heritage such as folkloric art forms and theatre developed mainly in “reaction to concerns that ancient, royal and local traditions would disappear in the wake of modernization and thus diminish national identity.” 25 The establishment of several institutions to uphold the law followed legalization, but most importantly, ICH preservation became an integral part of Japanese culture and national identity and a source of pride. So powerful and prestigious was the Japanese preservation program, that it led to the creation of similar programs elsewhere, most notably in Korea, Thailand and France. 26

Despite its strength, it took more than 40 years for the Japanese influence to become truly apparent on the international level. And yet, when UNESCO’s ICH program launched in earnest in the 1990s, the Japanese had a strong presence and voice both in the deliberative process and the practical support of the program. In 1993, UNESCO launched the Living Human Treasures project. Although it was launched under pressure from Korea, 27 the language of this project was directly borrowed from the Japanese, because Korea was one of the states that was most affected by Japanese legislation regarding ICH. The Director-General of UNESCO at the time was Japanese diplomat Koïchiro Matsuura, who oversaw during his term some of the most crucial moments in the institutionalization of ICH in UNESCO. It was under Matsuura’s leadership that the ICH program was “significantly consolidated by the UNESCO/Japan Funds-in-Trust for the Safeguarding and Promotion of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.” 28 The trust is a collaboration of the Japanese government and UNESCO, and provides substantial financial support toward the development of international programming to support ICH preservation. Furthermore, UNESCO recognizes in their publications that the fund “played an important role in the preparation of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.” 29 At the Okinawa International Forum, Toshiyuki Kono, who was a member of the Special Committee for the Convention, claimed that Japan “played the leading role throughout tough debated and negotiations during four intergovernmental sessions.” 30 He explicitly attributed Japan’s leadership role in those deliberations to the fact that Intangible Cultural Heritage had been an integral part of Japanese culture and national identity for over a century.

The evidence that I have cited so far is limited, and much more needs to be done in this area. Interviewing officials who have taken part in the negotiations would be helpful in establishing that a causal relationship indeed exists between the strength of domestic norms, and how well national actors are able to advocate for the internationalization of such norms. Nevertheless, this small sample of evidence suggests that such a relationship may exist, and that in this case Japan, and to an extent Korea, were particularly driven in their lobbying efforts because they have had substantial domestic histories of ICH preservation. It was through their advocacy that ICH was brought to the attention of global governance institutions, thus diffusing the norm internationally.

Japan’s is a unique case, because the island nation was the forerunner in preservation of ICH, and had a longtime domestic cultural norm surrounding the veneration for national arts and artifacts. And while the Japanese connection continues to be the best-established one, the history of ICH is filled with instances that further support the argument that nationally based entrepreneurs are crucial in the construction of international norms. One such instance, in which an already-established national cultural norm was advocated on an international level, was the United States’ involvement with National Parks. Kono, in writing about the connection between Japanese law and ICH, cites the example of the Yellowstone National Park and its connection to international natural conservation norms as a comparable, albeit a much less developed example of the domestic-international connection. Yellowstone was designated the first national park in the world in 1872. A century later, the Committee on Natural Resources of the White House Conference on International Co-operation discussed establishing a fund for World Heritage in celebration of the centennial of national parks in the Unite States. President Nixon then called for a convention on the topic, and later that year UNESCO adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, of which the United States was the first member. Kono implies that it was American pressure that led to the international convention, 31 suggesting that America’s venerable connection with national parks, and what they represent, was crucial in the advancement of the 1972 convention.

In the case of Japan and the United States, cultural norms that had long been ingrained and embedded domestically were the impetus for international advocacy. In both cases, the national bodies had the resources, the normative conviction, and the experience with the norm to desire and be able to lobby for better international conservation and preservation. Other cases reveal the importance of national advocacy, but from a different angle; in these instances, the lack of resources and experience with a norm motivated national actors to call international organization to action. One such case was the Moroccan appeal for the preservation of the Djemaa el Fna, the central square in Marrakesh. Historians and anthropologists have long debated the origins of the square, a unique meeting place for artists, storytellers, musicians, and peddlers. At night the square is transformed as hundreds of food carts gather to create an enormous outdoor restaurants. The Djemaa el Fna is exactly the kind of space that allows for the reproduction of cultural heritage, and is a vibrant and integral part of the old city, the medina of Marrakesh.

In the 1990s, municipal authorities were threatening the future of that cultural space with physical destruction of the square. In response, Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, who is a part-time resident of Marrakesh, took an initiative in 1996 that, Schmitt argues, ultimately led to the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. 32 Goytisolo started a civil organization for the protection of the Djemaa al Fna, and recruited local intellectuals as lobbyists and advocates. Goytisolo then went on to appeal to the General Director of UNESCO Federico Mayor, also a Spaniard, calling him to place the square under protection as a site of oral heritage of humanity. At the time, such designation was the best instrument developed by UNESCO for preservation of what was later known as ICH. The Spanish press proceeded to cover the story, appealing mostly because of the involvement of Goytisolo and Mayor in the case. Goytisolo’s influence was so great that his proposal was referenced in internal UNESCO memoranda as “the proposition of Juan Goytisolo.” 33 UNESCO states in its Brief History of the Convention that in 1997 “UNESCO and the Moroccan National Commission organize[d] an international consultation on the preservation of popular cultural space in Marrakesh.” 34 This is one of only seventeen important dates listed in the chronology leading up to the convention, as told from an institutional standpoint. The fact that the Moroccan deliberations appear on the list suggests that their impact was in fact as great as Schmitt claims. He argues that “what started as a vague idea of proclaiming objects as oral and intangible heritage was gradually transformed into a set of conceptual instruments, and suitable institutions, structures and procedures for this purpose [of preserving ICH] were designed.” 35 In essence, the discussion surrounding the protection of the Djemaa el Fna was the instigation for international cooperation on this issue. It was an emergency situation that necessitated rapid response, but the lessons of it ultimately led to the drafting of the convention. While Schmitt may be exaggerating the effects of this sole incidence, it was a moment at which strong, nationally based entrepreneurs “dramatized” the issue at stake, to use Finnemore and Sikkin’s language. As such, the rescuing of the Djemaa el Fna was a part of a confluence of events that ultimately contributed to the development of the international norm. It is also a prime example of how strong norm entrepreneurs couched in a national environment worked outwardly to spread the norm. The language surrounding the preservation of ICH had already been circulating internationally, particularly after 1989, and we have seen that the influence of domestic norms from Japan and elsewhere have already been influential prior to the 1990s. And yet, the case of the Djemaa el Fna is particularly instructional, because we can trace how it instigated action on an international level.

Together, the examples I have provided reveal the importance of national norm entrepreneurs in creating international norms. The case studies first show how the sense of morality and obligation about preservation of ICH was articulated by the Japanese, and later how the Moroccans, with Spanish support, made the appeal for a shared expression of this norm. Finally, the 2003 convention was created as an institutional platform from which the norm can manifest itself in action. Morality, a shared understanding, and action are the three constitutive features of norms, and those were carefully constructed both implicitly and explicitly in national settings, a preoperational stage that allowed norm advocates to then launch their efforts internationally. Ultimately, it only took the work of a few countries to draw the attention to the importance of this norm, making its arrival at the tipping point a fairly speedy process. We can now talk about the preservation of ICH as a successful norm that is well into its cascade stage.

The birth of Intangible Cultural Heritage as embodied in Japanese legislation of the 1950s was a response to the most modern of phenomenon: globalization. Economic and political transformations today cause increasingly rippling effects, and nations are responding in a myriad of ways. The need to protect cultural traditions that have survived centuries has emerged in response to the ever-shrinking world that we live in today. The evolution of the norm regarding the preservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage exemplifies how when states recognize similar trends in their neighbors, they begin to develop a shared understanding of what they can do to ameliorate their response to new challenges. This process ultimately leads to the creation of international norms, but as I have shown, both in theory and practice, norms do not emerge in a vacuum. Always contested, the survival or norms, not to mention internationalization, is not easily achieved. National and regional bodies are therefore unique in their ability to successfully advocate for norms that are of particular significance domestically. As we move towards better global governance, national agents will be instrumental in educating others about domestic norms and in creating spaces for the learning and evolution of international norms’ appeal and concern. Ultimately, better knowledge of the inner working of national norm entrepreneurs will give us a more nuanced understanding of how norms are brought to the next level.


1 Florini 1996, 363

2 Finnemore and Sikkink 1998, 891

3 Legro 1997, 33

4 Florini 1996, 367

5 Legro 1997, 33

6 Florini 1996, 364

7 Thompson 2001, 136

8 Nadelmann 1990, 485

9 Lessig 1995, 1015

10 Finnemore and Sikkink 1998, 897

11 Steele 2007, 903

12 Fierke 2002, 337

13 Florini 1996, 367

14 See Legro 1997

15 Florini 1996, 367

16 Finnemore and Sikkink 1998, 898

17 Ibid.

18 Larson et al. 2008, 55

19 Achraya 2004, 240

20 Nadelmann 1990, 482

21 “What is Intangible Cultural Heritage?” UNESCO Culture Sector, http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?pg=00002

22 See Kurin 2004; Toshiyuki 2004

23 Kurin 2004, 68.

24 Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2004, 54

25 Kurin 2004, 67

26 Ibid., 68, and Kono 2004, 38

27 Aikawa 2004, 139

28 Ibid.

29 “Japan Funds-in-Trust for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.” UNESCO Culture Sector. http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?pg=00115&categ=03

30 Kono 2004, 39

31 Kono 2004, 37

32 Schmitt 2008, 98

33 Ibid., 99

34 “Brief history of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003).” UNESCO Culture Sector. http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?pg=00007

35 Schmitt 2008, 99

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