What Isn't a Norm? Redefining the Conceptual Boundaries of “Norms” in the Human Rights Literature

  • Citation: Jurkovich, Michelle. "What Isn't a Norm? Redefining the Conceptual Boundaries of “Norms” in the Human Rights Literature." International Studies Review (2019).
    • Topics:
    • IR Theories
    • Keywords:
    • norms
    • human rights
    • law
    • international relations
    • constructivism
    • discourse
    • economic and social rights

What makes the “norm” a distinct concept? How do norms differ from other aspects of the moral and social fabric of society? In this article I argue that imposing stricter boundaries on the norm concept could have significant analytical payoffs, especially in the human rights literature. Greater conceptual clarity on the boundaries of the norm concept highlights three important distinctions: the difference between norms and moral principles, norms and supererogatory standards, and norms and formal law. Clarifying what a norm is (and, importantly, what it is not) improves our analytic equipment and theories, but the inquiry is not purely a theoretical exercise. Clarifying the norm concept enables us to ask new questions about, and rethink old findings on issues like the role of shaming in human rights advocacy, the origins of norms and challenges to their construction, what constitutes evidence of the existence of a norm, and whether, in fact, all human rights have been translated into norms.

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