Research Projects

Disentangling norms, morality and principles: The September 2019 Brexit rebellion (with Jess Gliserman)

Despite the significance of morality in international relations, we still lack a compelling way to study it. Scholars often conflate norms and morality or rely on unsuitably narrow conceptualizations of morality. We address this problem by defining morality subjectively, allowing us to differentiate it from norms and study its impact on domestic lawmakers’ foreign policy decisions. To do so, we adapt the moral convictions concept developed by psychologists to qualitative, elite-focused political research. Actors with moral convictions rely upon their individually-held beliefs about fundamental right and wrong, whereas norm-followers look outward to community expectations. Morality requires sincere belief and weakens social influences.

The September 2019 Brexit rebellion is an ideal case because it endangered rebels’ careers, rendering material self-interest an unlikely motive. This allows us to investigate the role of norms and moral principles. Based on interviews with British members of Parliament (MPs) and text analysis, we find that community norms and personal moral principles interact: when existing norms give unclear guidance and identification with their in-group weakens, actors are likely to rely on their own principles to interpret norms. Morality can affect which norms matter but does not negate their influence altogether: pre-existing norms channel and constrain morality and its consequences. Many MPs moralized existing norms related to democratic decision-making, which mitigated some consequences of moralization, such as intolerance towards those with opposing views. This new conceptual and methodological approach thus helps to disentangle ideational factors and understand their influence on foreign policy decision-making.  

The interaction of law and politics in norm implementation

In international affairs, legal arguments and political actions shape each other. Unlike in domestic affairs, there is no enforcement authority in international affairs, and hence there is much debate over how international law affects politics. Some scholars focus on how seriously states take legal obligations in their justifications of contested actions. Other scholars apply a higher bar for the influence of international law on politics, namely whether law causes compliance. While the focus on justificatory discourse risks seeing legal influence everywhere, the latter emphasis of causation risks setting the bar too high and overlooking other ways in which law can affect politics.

This paper argues that for a richer understanding of the interaction of law and politics, we need to explore the grey zone between empty words and purposive action. To do so, it proceeds in two steps. First, I suggest that we can identify the degree of commitment to international law by looking at the publicity and consistency of actions and justifications and the degree of engagement with the international community. Secondly, I show that depending on whether the words and actions of states display a strong or weak sense of obligation, we can characterise norm implementation as exposing weakness or strength of law or attempts at discursive or behavioural norm avoidance.

Conference Papers


The interaction of law and politics in norm implementation. Virtual Workshop on Norms, organized by Antje Wiener and Phil Orchard, March 24, 2020 (originally to be held at the ISA Annual Conference in Honolulu).


“A reversal of arguments rather than of law: Protracted contestation over the status of Kosovo, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.” Presentation at the Workshop on “International law in times of transformation”, St Andrews, 8 November 2019.


“Breaking Deadlock? Efforts to Meet Half-Way in Norm Contestation.” Presentation at the IR Research Colloquium, organized by the Department of Politics and International Relations (DPIR), University of Oxford, 7 June 2018.

“All Things Come to an End: What Resolves Norm Contestation?”, ISA Annual Convention, San Francisco, April 2018.

“The Dynamics of Dissent: When Actions are Louder than Words,” co-authored with Lea Wisken, ISA Annual Convention, San Francisco, April 2018.


‘Norm life cycle’ or ‘norm square’? Changes in the norms of territorial integrity and sovereignty in the post-Cold War Era, ISA Annual Convention, Baltimore, February 2017.


Trust in international legal interpreters – a missing piece in the compliance puzzle?, ISA Annual Convention, Atlanta, March 2016.

The rise and fall of Star Wars in US security policy: Insights into the battle over norms, ISA Annual Convention, Atlanta, March 2016.

 Motivations for liberal peace building: A complex interplay of interests and ideas, ISA Annual Convention, Atlanta, March 2016 and BISA Annual Conference 2015.

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