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3 Regional Institutions as Emergent Entities of the International System: Relational Organization and Emergent Properties

3 Regional Institutions as Emergent Entities of the International System: Relational Organization and Emergent Properties

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a regional institution as a whole and its organization, I then introduce a

distinction between purposive and organizational emergent properties and

corresponding powers. Moreover, I show that interactions as social practices are a core feature of the mechanisms of emergence.


Identifying Regional Institutions as Emergent Entities

In general, the term “institutions” is either broadly used for specific customs

or patterns of behavior that are relevant to a society or it is used to refer to

particular formal types of organization within the realms of government or

public services. Both of these notions ally with an emergentist view, according to which institutions can be understood as an instance of emergence

insofar as they arise, develop, and are effective through a pattern of selforganization within social systems. The international system is a stratified

and open system constituted of various emergent entities. As one instance of

the latter, I argue that regional institutions matter in their own right. Based

on a critical realist ontology, this means that institutions are understood as

socially real (see Fleetwood 2004); however, like ideally real entities such as

meaning or ideas, they are not real in the material sense (we cannot touch

or hold them). In addition, they are dependent on some form of (human)

activity occurring for them to be reproduced and transformed.

A regional institution obviously consists either directly or indirectly

of individuals, most often in the form of the representatives of different

member states or nations, and they are contingently transformed or reproduced in terms of the interactions between these individual actors. As an

emergent entity of the international system, a regional institution is, however, not reducible to any of its constituent parts or practices—rather it has

its own emergent properties and powers. This means that it can do things

or act in certain ways that the institution’s members themselves cannot.

For example, a regional institution can facilitate cooperation, foster economic integration, provide information, or reduce transaction costs in a

way that each individual member state cannot (to the same extent). These

features are thus the emergent properties of a regional institution that its

member states individually do not possess. Neither would these properties

exist at all if the member states were to be “removed”; they are dependent

upon, but irreducible to, the member states. They arise when all members of the regional institution interact or work together to achieve common goals or objectives. Such emergent properties are what make regional

institutions analytically useful entities in themselves (see O’Mahoney and

Vincent 2014).



A regional institution and each of its individual member states have

their own emergent properties and powers, so that they are ontologically

distinct but not independent. Emergent properties can be conceived of as

the “essences” or causal powers of an entity that characterize it and make

it what it is and not something else (O’Mahoney and Vincent 2014, 8).

While some authors accordingly argue that properties and powers can be

treated as more or less identical (e.g. Elder-Vass 2010), others insist on

separating these terms (e.g. Archer 2003; Delbridge and Edwards 2013).

I argue here that although possessing a property usually amounts to possessing a certain causal power, it is still useful to make a distinction between

the two. Accordingly, it is because of its having the property that the entity

has a corresponding power. Regional institutions facilitate cooperation

and have the power to enact cooperative agreements. They foster integration and have the power to affect or change values. They provide information and have the power to enforce compliance. They reduce transaction

costs and have the power to institutionalize policies.

Powers may be possessed, exercised, or actualized (O’Mahoney and

Vincent 2014). In the case of a regional institution, this means that it may

possess a particular power merely due to its properties—such as its power

to adopt agreements or conventions. If this power is triggered, it may be

exercised, as is usually the case when the institution attempts to adopt an

agreement regarding a specific issue of concern. This power may or may

not then be actualized depending on countervailing forces, such as is the

case when some member states are not willing to adopt the proposed

agreement. For the potential exercise of a power, properties thus necessitate at least one causal mechanism that, in turn, depends on the interactions between the parts. The power to enact an agreement, for instance,

implies a certain mechanism being needed for this to occur. It suggests

not only a particular collective action problem that should be addressed

and the respective negotiations that are required, but also the existence of

both rules and the compliance with them.

Potential mechanisms at work, then, are, among others, problem solving, negotiation, rule creation, enforcement, and compliance. In social

systems such as regional institutions, mechanisms are mainly relational in

that they connect entities (the individual members) to one another—in

the process, constituting the whole (the institution) with the emergent

property (see Elder-Vass 2010, 66–67; O’Mahoney and Vincent 2014, 8).

Mechanisms often create tendencies when there are no other, or only weak,

countervailing mechanisms in place. Recurring negotiations concerning



problem solving create the tendency for regional institutions to enact corresponding agreements. Existing power relations can, in turn, potentially

act as a countervailing mechanism by preventing certain propositions.

As argued above, a regional institution as an emergent entity is constituted by a particular structure—which is itself determined by the relationships between its parts and by their organization. The relationships

between a regional institution and its members are internal and necessary,

albeit asymmetrical in that the particular member states of a regional institution can exist without the institution whereas the latter needs a number

of member states in order to exist. Members themselves can, however,

change without the institution ceasing to exist, such as in the case of membership expansion or the switching of member states’ representatives. As

complex systems, regional institutions are thus relatively stable so that “a

change to one of the parts will not result in the collapse of the system but

will change the behavior of the remaining components” (Root 2013, 20).

For example, while a regional institution such as the EAS will not break

down when one of its member states’ foreign minister resigns and another

person assumes his or her position, this personnel change might nevertheless influence the behavior or actions of other member states. The same

applies for the case of membership expansion (e.g. Russia and the USA

recently joining the EAS), which increases the interactions and communications between the members. Consequently, the system itself will be

subject to self-organization, so as to generate new forms of organization.

Relations between a regional institution and other intra- and interregional

or international institutions, as well as with other multilateral frameworks

or individual states, are in most cases rather external and contingent.

This structure needs to be distinguished from the institution itself (see

Fleetwood 2008). While structures are understood as “latticeworks” of

internal relations between the entities (e.g. member states), institutions are

meanwhile systems of rules and conventions. As a form of self-organization

of the involved states, a regional institution has emergent causal powers as

a result of how its members are organized into this particular form. States

agree to organize themselves according to a certain system of rules and

conventions that in turn governs their actions (e.g. in terms of modifying

states’ underlying intentions). Although such top-down causation does

not work directly between social entities, it is important insofar as it influences the interactions of their parts (Elder-Vass 2012b, 83). In contrast to

structures, as Fleetwood (2008, 250–254) argues, institutions thus contribute to processes of downward causation in that they can transform or



change the chosen intentions and actions of agents. Structures do not

possess these transformative powers, but rather only the ability to enable

or constrain actions.

This argument is similar to Lawson’s (2012) proposition to distinguish

between the emergent whole as a totality and the organizing relational

structure. As I have argued, the downward causation argument needs to

be applied more attentively with respect to the relational organization

of emergent entities. The downward causal effect that a regional institution has on its individual members is a consequence of the members

being organized into this particular institutional form. This means that

emergence describes a shift in organization, as the parts (states) of a system organize in such a way that they are integrated as a new system (the

regional institution) that itself shows a different form of organization.

Regional institutions should, therefore, be analyzed on their own terms,

and not by studying only their constituent member states. The rules and

conventions that organize institutions are commonly studied in terms of

institutional design, which I address in the following. In this connection,

the process of self-organization (as already argued in Sect. 3.1) has to be

understood in a differentiated way—one that accounts for the intentional

and purposeful nature of human action.


Reformulating Institutional Design

Regional institutions have been identified as emergent entities of the international system that represents an instance of collective action on the part

of the system’s actors. To define a regional institution as an emergent entity

in this way, we need to consider the mode of organization of the actors—

hence, how the institution itself is organized. In IR, the specific organization of an institution is commonly studied in terms of its institutional design

(e.g. Acharya and Johnston 2007; Koremenos et al. 2003). Design, along

these lines, is the product of a conscious and intended deliberative process

among the actors of the international system to achieve common purposes

and ensure cooperation regarding present challenges, and refers to the rules

and organizational features that constitute a particular institution.

While design shows the ways in which institutions are structured and

they work, a question that obviously comes up is how this rather intentional process of designing can be associated with emergence—something

that is characterized by unintentionality and unpredictability. According

to an emergentist reading, I understand design features as the properties



that the institution in question possesses in virtue of its relational organization. In the following, I briefly illustrate research on institutional design

so as to subsequently reformulate design as an emergent property of the

institution. This is done by drawing on insights from organization studies. Institutional Design as a Variable

Despite all the attention that IR has paid to international organizations

(IOs) and institutions to date, Barnett and Finnemore criticize the fact

that “we know very little about the internal workings of IOs or about the

effects they have in the world” (1999, 726). This statement marks a shift

in the study of institutions to the question of how they actually function.

In this context, one new research focus has been on institutional design

(see Acharya and Johnston 2007; Koremenos et al. 2001). Acharya and

Johnston refer to design as the “formal and informal rules and organizational features that constitute the institution and that function as either

the constraint on actor choice or the bare bones of the social environment

within which agents interact, or both” (2007, 15–16).

Within the rationalist tradition, Koremenos et  al. (2001, 770–773)

outlined the five major features of institutional design: membership, scope

of issues, centralization of tasks, rules for controlling the institution, and

flexibility of arrangements. One of the first questions regarding a particular

institution is, accordingly, who actually belongs to it. Membership might be

inclusive or exclusive, it might be regional or universal, and it might include

just states’ representatives or nongovernmental actors as well. Another relevant feature of an institution is the scope of issues that it covers. Does it focus

only on specific questions of trade or on a particular environmental issue, or

does it cover a broad range of diverse economic and political affairs?

In terms of institutional proceedings—such as meetings, summits, or

other negotiation forums—institutions further vary regarding the degree

of centralization of certain tasks. Negotiation procedures, decision-making

processes, and the enforcement of individual arrangements can be more

or less centralized, just as rules can be informal rather than formal (or

vice versa). The same applies for the control of institutional rules, which

can cover the voting procedures of key officials or how the institution is

financed. Do all members possess equal votes, or do a few hold veto power?

Next to these four features of how institutions are made up and how they

work, another crucial aspect that needs to be considered concerns how institutions deal with new circumstances. How flexibly can they react to unanticipated situations such as shocks or crises, or to the development of new



coalitions that are intent on changing certain rules or procedures? There

are two general kinds of flexibility: the more limited variety provides specific

clauses that regulate possible problems in order to react in an adaptive manner

to unanticipated circumstances while preserving central institutional rules; the

deeper version of flexibility, in contrast, allows for potential renegotiations, so

that arrangements can be transformed according to the particular case.

According to the rationalist perspective, institutions are the result of

rational and purposive interactions among self-interested states (and other

actors), undertaken so as to solve collective action problems (Koremenos

et al. 2001, 762). The designing of an institution is thus regarded as an

intentional process, initiated by actors who choose those design features

that seem likely to make the institution most efficient or useful. The design

choices are a function of distribution or enforcement problems, the number of actors involved, and different kinds of uncertainty. Thus, in contrast

to (IR) realist approaches, institutions are assumed to matter; unlike constructivist approaches, however, they are not regarded as exogenous actors.

Acharya and Johnston (2007, 13) specify some of the limitations to

the rational design approach as expounded by Koremenos et al. (2001).

They argue that, in treating design only as a dependent variable and thus

explaining what form a particular institution has by looking at different

independent variables, the focus is set on the impact of institutions rather

than on variations in the latter. Furthermore, it neglects both the impact

of norms and ideas as well as the study of institutions located in nonwestern regions. In combining the rational design features with sociological approaches to institutions, Acharya and Johnston (2007, 15) thus

treat design also as an independent variable—one that explains variations

in outcomes and the specific nature of cooperation. In addition, they also

consider ideational factors and focus on regional institutions.

What both approaches have in common is that institutional design reflects

the nature of the cooperation problem that actors face. Policymakers react

to emergent collective action problems by interacting with each other and

consciously deciding what they want to build, form, or produce in response.

The outcome of this intentional and creative process is then commonly

referred to as the design of the new structure. By limiting their analysis

to institutions as the product of such conscious design (or redesign) processes, I criticize rational and functional approaches for tending to emphasize the outcome and neglect the process. Design is regarded as complete,

“with problem structure perfectly embedded in institutional form and no

room for any independent institutional influence” (Mitchell  2009, 74).



Consequently, it is treated as epiphenomenal, in that it is caused by the

creation of the institution (as a kind of by-product thereof).

Though a functionalist perspective is helpful for making a preliminary

assessment of the nature of the cooperation problem that led states to

form an institutional arrangement in the first place (Acharya and Johnston

2007), it understates the increasing complexity related to collective action

problems in the international system. As a complex system, the latter is

characterized by a growing number of actors, interdependencies, interactions, and related decisions, while at the same time it intersects with other

systems—such as the economic or environmental ones. If actors were able

to anticipate future situations under these circumstances and design institutions in such a way that furthers the achieving of their interests and favored

outcomes, institutions would be epiphenomenal. However, in a complex

international system, it is unlikely that its actors are able to fully anticipate

future situations and design institutions accordingly (Mitchell 2009).

In this context, Pierson (2000, 2004) discusses a number of limits to

institutional design, arguing that functionalist approaches to it seem to

fall short of addressing the complexity and uncertainty that characterize

world politics. Institutions may thus have multiple effects, ones that can

be rather unexpected or unintended by their designers. Moreover, designers might not only act instrumentally in terms of what would be most

effective or useful, but also in terms of what seems to be most appropriate. Time horizons also play a role in that “long-term institutional consequences may be the by-products of actions taken for short-term political

reason” (Pierson 2000, 479).

Institutional design, as I argue, thus needs to be reformulated in a way

that accounts for this complexity, and for the unpredictable or unintended

consequences of the design process. Considering complexity, emergent

institutions are a result of recurring attempts at problem solving by the

actors of the international system. The rather intended or designed forms

of social structure can be understood as the answer to unintended or

spontaneous instances of emergence in intersecting systems (see Mayntz

2009b). Design is thus nothing completed, but rather an ongoing and

continuous process. As Mitchell in turn argues, “when institutional design

cannot be made flexible enough to address the expected range of contingencies, then institutions have the potential to exert influence, that is, to

generate outcomes that would not occur otherwise” (2009, 73). To this

effect, I propose taking a perspective on institutional design that understands design features as emergent properties rather than as variables.


M. WAGNER Institutional Design as Emergent Properties

As emergent properties, design features are the collective properties that

an institution possesses as a whole—appearing through the interactions

of the institution’s members. The design of a particular institution can

neither be deduced from how each individual member is organized nor

from the properties that the members have either in terms of their own

or another context, so that design features are irreducible. In this regard,

the formal and informal rules and organizational features that constitute

the institution have the potential to constrain or regulate the behavior or

actions of its members, which can be understood as a power that the institution possesses due to it having these properties in the first place.

Regional institutions are, in most cases, intentionally planned and created in order to achieve a particular purpose and to generate related powers. As Sayer argues, “social forms are sometimes created precisely in order

to achieve those emergent powers” (2012, 184). This idea of designing

for emergence is an issue more frequently dealt with in the field of organization studies. Although “design” as a top-down process and “emergence” as a bottom-up process appear to contradict each other, certain

scholars argue that organizations can indeed be understood as “emergent

by design” (Garud et al. 2006) or that “design must harness emergence”

(Van Alstyne and Logan 2007). According to this, designing for emergence requires combining mutually complementary design elements in

such way that, as soon as the elements interact with each other, “an overall

organizational platform of resources, capabilities, and options emerges”

(Garud et al. 2006, 277). Through reinforcing and balancing each other,

the design elements thereby enable new possibilities and transformations.

As such, the “platform” facilitates changes and adaptions in order to be

able to face the emerging new challenges and contexts.

Van Alstyne and Logan (2007) argue, similarly, that it is only through

an emergent process that new or improved products are successfully introduced into the marketplace. Innovative design, according to the authors,

“is the assemblage of a set of components that is able to achieve a function or

purpose that the components by themselves cannot achieve” (2007, 128).

This argument can be extended to the international system too, wherein

projects to found institutions intend to improve the coordination and

cooperation between actors and to then successfully introduce those collective bodies into the system.

While policymakers design an institution according to certain principles, the institution’s design can turn out in a different way from what



they originally envisioned—or can develop other or additional properties than first planned. This means that institutional design is to a certain

extent also unpredictable. In this connection, it is interesting to look at

historical institutionalists’ ideas on design, which, at a first glance, might

appear to be silent but that actually emphasize the formative choices of

policies and structures. These choices are not understood as products of

conscious design selections, but rather “they appear to reflect the particular confluence of political forces at play at the time of the formation of

the institution” (Peters 2005, 81). By conceptualizing policy choices and

decisions as the product of politics, the idea of rational design is avoided.

Policy choices are always embedded in a particular historical context that

might constrain the ability to make choices, so that institutional design

can turn out to be more difficult—and its concrete form, less certain. For

example, members’ behavior and processes within the institution might

not be in accordance with the founders’ initial design choice (see Peters

2005). This implies that there is a context or process dimension to design.

The idea that design is an ongoing process is also embraced by organization studies. Chiles, Meyer, and Hench (2004), for instance, define

the emergence of new organizational collectives as self-organizational by

drawing on insights from complexity theory to explain how organizations come about in the first place. Thereby, they emphasize an important

aspect of organizational or institutional emergence: that it comprises not

only the creation or origin, “but also the continuous re-creation over time

(i.e. transformation) of new organizational populations and forms” (2004,

500). Emergence and transformation are correspondingly understood as

interrelated processes. Such a complexity perspective takes the everlasting

nature of emergence into account and captures the idea that design itself

is a process, being the complex interplay and dynamics of generating solutions, which might generate new designs, which in turn generate other

solutions, and so forth.

Therefore, each intended instance of problem solving always brings

about unintended consequences that might in turn create new challenges—this is the very reason for social discontinuities or undesirable

structures (Mayntz 2009b, 131). Though different actors or groups of

actors have the power to design and redesign organizational structures,

institutional effects may very well be unanticipated—especially in social

processes that involve a large number of different actors. Such processes

occurring “in densely institutionalized societies will almost always generate elaborate feedback loops and significant interaction effects which



decision makers cannot hope to fully anticipate” (Pierson 2000, 483).

Wendt (2001) names three examples of such feedback effects: institutions

may expand their membership and thereby the number of actors making

choices in the future, institutions may further affect members’ identities

and interests, and, finally, institutions may also affect the members’ beliefs

about the surrounding environment. More often than not, those feedback

effects are not intended at the origin of institutional design, but they may

nevertheless still occur; “over time, designs cause designers as much as

designers cause designs” (Wendt 2001, 1034).

From this it follows that unanticipated consequences should, rather

than being ignored, in fact be considered in research as “a crucial organizing principle of institutional design [itself]” (Pierson 2000, 485). This

means that even if we understand regional institutions as mere products of

rational design, the way in which they are actually going to function over

time is not made manifest to initial observers or participants (Ackroyd

2004). If we want to analyze emergence in the international system, it is

thus neither about only looking at intentional design nor about merely

referring to unintended or spontaneous events. It is, rather, the concurrence of intended, designed, constructed and unintended, spontaneous,

natural processes that characterizes the complexity of the international



Emergent Properties, Powers, and Mechanisms

Regional institutions are characterized by their particular institutional

design, reformulated here as an emergent property. Connected to the

design features are new positions and practices that define the relationships

between the institution’s members (as well as its external ones). The rules

and organizational features that constitute an institution thus have a causal

effect on their members’ intentions and actions. It is due to this particular

mode of organization that design features (as emergent properties) possess the power to govern and regulate these intentions and actions.

Alongside design elements, the capacities that a regional institution

has to facilitate cooperation, foster economic integration, or reduce transaction costs are also emergent properties that its member states do not

possess. A question that arises then is how these properties relate to design

features as emergent properties. Here, it is useful to revert to Lawson’s

(2012) proposition that an institution as a whole has to be differentiated

from its relational organization as both are emergent properties. While



facilitating cooperation and the like are properties that relate to the functions of the institution as a whole with regard to particular desired goals

or aims, design features are properties that refer to the relational organization of the institution. In this context, I propose to differentiate between

emergent properties of institutions according to whether they are either

goal-oriented, and in this sense functional, or structural, specifically in

terms of the institution’s organization and operations. The former can

be called purposive emergent properties while the latter are described as

organizational emergent properties (see Table 3.1).

Purposive emergent properties arise when all the parts of a system (all

members of an institution) interact in order to achieve a common goal or

objective. Such purposive emergent properties comprise the capacity of an

institution to facilitate cooperation, foster integration, reduce transaction

costs, or provide information. Organizational emergent properties refer

to the relational organization of an institution with respect to its operations and to its behavior within its surrounding environment. They are

therefore closely connected to the performance of an institution and its

effectivity, respectively.

The institutional design of an institution can thus be reformulated as

being such organizational emergent properties, including membership,

scope, centralization, control, and flexibility. Purposive emergent properties relate to what goals and related functions the institution as a whole

should facilitate. Organizational emergent properties, the design features,

refer to the institution’s relational organization, which maintains these

possible functions.

Considering a regional institution as an emergent whole, this means

that all emergent properties as well as their corresponding powers

Table 3.1 Emergent properties of regional institutions

Purposive emergent properties

Organizational emergent properties

Arise when all members of a regional

institution interact to achieve a

common goal

• Facilitate cooperation

• Foster (economic) integration

• Provide information

• Reduce transaction costs

Formed by the relational organization of a regional

institution regarding its operations and behavior in

its environment

• Membership

• Scope

• Centralization

• Control

• Flexibility

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