This symposium is the outcome of an initial workshop held at the University of Sydney in March 2009. Two decades into the reflectivist turn, its purpose was to open up a space for critically re-examining a concept whose widespread currency in the study of international politics today is a testimony to constructivism's success in providing alternatives to rationalist approaches. What was less clear was whether this success had been accompanied by sufficient self-reflective scrutiny to unsettle a persistent underlying assumption that, coarsely put, norms are “good things”; that they are what bring states together to co-operate with one another beyond their narrowly conceived national interests; or better still, that they spread co-operative, liberal values throughout the international system, thereby socializing its actors into “better” behavior.

A key question prompted by this success is whether constructivism has been as successful in moving the discipline of International Relations (IR) beyond the dominant epistemologies undergirding rationalist approaches. Norms encapsulates the tensions between the universal and the particular, which are necessarily brought into play in a theoretical enterprise located at the juncture between the international, the national, and the local, to name the space of IR theorizing. Hence, the importance, for the workshop participants, of critically re-appraising “norms” and the array of associated concepts it has yielded, such as “internalization”“socialization,” or “diffusion.”

The workshop's location in Australia mattered centrally to our critical efforts, insofar as postcolonial states have stood largely on the receiving end of norms shaped in and diffused from the international system's Westphalian centers. A key question explored by the participants was whether norms look the same when seen from the periphery. At issue was nothing less than IR's ability to develop as a truly global discipline and to genuinely integrate the local in its appraisal of political agency and subjectivity.

Because engagement is a necessary precondition to critique, the workshop itself brought together constructivist norms scholars on the one hand and scholars from a variety of critical (poststructuralist, feminist, postcolonial) on the other to provoke a dialogue that both sides had hitherto largely shied away from. This experimental laboratory was subsequently taken to one of the discipline's own centers, as it were, the 2011 International Studies Association (ISA) annual meeting, where it was re-convened as a working group under the auspices of an International Political Sociology section.

Reflecting this commitment to dialogue, the symposium opens with an article by Wesley Widmaier and Susan Park that maps the evolutions and nuances of two decades of norms research. The subsequent three contributions each shine a critical light on a key dimension of the constructivist norms research agenda. All three start not from the norms themselves but rather from the locations they have been applied to, thereby returning the epistemological gaze. They develop grounded critiques that bring localized, situated perspectives to bear upon not only on concept itself but on the broader theoretical apparatus that has underwritten its success. In order of appearance, my contribution targets the concept that has been centrally deployed to capture the dynamics of norms, socialization, and critically appraises it through the prism of norm resistance. Naeem Inayatullah and David Blaney's article draws upon colonial histories to call into question the automatic coupling of the ethical and the universal, which inheres in the constructivist focus on (and celebration of) norms, locating the ethical instead in the particular and the individual. They thereby offer a methodological reflection on the practice of critique through storytelling. The normalizing effects wrought by the focus on norms and the extent to which it smoothes over embedded power relations are aptly revealed by Megan McKenzie and Mohammed Sesay's analysis of the international norm of transitional justice in Sierra Leone.

The essays published here are the first upshoot of our endeavors to collectively take stock of and critically reflect on some ways in which ‘norms’ has impacted the study of international politics. They are intended, not as a final statement on the concept but as an invitation to an ongoing, open-ended critical reflection not merely on ‘norms’ but on our own epistemological lenses more broadly.