Frame Diffusion and Institutional Choice in Regional Economic Cooperation.

Lenz, Tobias. 2018. "Frame Diffusion and Institutional Choice in Regional Economic Cooperation." International Theory 10(1): 31-70. [open access]

Why have many regional organizations adopted common markets and customs unions? This article proposes a cognitive diffusion mechanism – termed frame diffusion – to explain convergent institutional choices across structurally diverse settings. Using Strang and Meyer’s (1993) notion of “theorization” to combine foundational work on framing with the literature on diffusion, I argue that processes of theorization transform the experience of successful institutional innovators into abstract cognitive schemas, which link a particular understanding of a cooperation problem to specific institutional solutions. As policymakers in other contexts encounter similar cooperation problems, they adopt framed institutional solutions, which results in institutional convergence at the macro level. I further suggest that this process of frame diffusion is conditional on ideational affinities in social purpose between the innovating organization and other regional organizations. Where other organizations pursue a distinct social purpose, policymakers rely on alternative frames and thereby cement institutional variation. After developing this argument theoretically, I illustrate it in an exploratory comparison of institutional choice in three most different regional organizations: ASEAN, Mercosur, and the SADC. The argument points to significant “blind spots” and conceptual complementarity between prominent mechanisms of diffusion.     

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An earlier version of this article was published as a working paper entitled "Frame Diffusion: How European Union-type Common Markets Have Spread Around the World" in the Max Weber Programme Working Paper Series of the European University Institute (No. 2016/06). Access here.