Abbott & Snidal
Standards and Governance
Introduction: Standards, Externalities and Governance
Standards and standard setting are pervasive mechanisms of international governance.
States and private actors create standards across a wide range of circumstances to
promote their collective welfare by coordinating and limiting individual behavior.
However, international standards play very different roles in different circumstances.
this paper, we examine how the diversity of standard setting problems leads, through the
interaction of private and state interests, to different governance arrangements. Our
analysis is rooted in a positive examination of standard setting behavior, yet it leads to
normative conclusions: how international standard setting “should” be organized in
The concept of “standard” is sprawling; the dictionary is not overly helpful.
(1976) defines a “standard” as “something that is established by authority, custom, or
general consent as a model or example to be followed.”
This definition embraces more
specific meanings, like an authoritative “rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent,
value, or quality,” but clearly includes less technical guides for behavior as well.
library search for the keywords “international standards” produces technologically
oriented volumes on standards for mobile phones and for construction projects using
concrete, but also turns up books on accounting, environmental and labor standards.
Since our purpose is to understand the variety of ways in which international standards
are created and used, we adopt a broad working definition: a
behavior and for judging behavior
This definition incorporates no assumptions about
provenance or governance.
Indeed (as Webster’s “authority, custom or general consent”
suggests), very different institutional processes are involved in creating, administering
and enforcing standards for arenas as disparate as mobile phones, accounting, pollution
and employment practices.
We also adopt an expansive notion of
“International governance is
the formal and informal bundles of rules, roles and relationships that
define and regulate the social practices of state and nonstate actors in international
-- an idea whose resemblance to IR definitions of international regimes and
institutions is no coincidence.”
Both standards themselves and the institutions by which
they are created, administered and enforced are subcategories of governance.
As our definition makes clear, “governance” need not mean “government.”