Using Europe: Strategic action in multi-level politics

Abstract

This article examines the importance of action-theoretical considerations in European studies. By outlining the notion of ‘usage’ of the European Union, we argue for a more systematically sociological consideration of strategic action in the study of European transformations. The recent turns towards constructivism and comparative political sociology allow analyzing the rationality of political actors without falling in the trap of overly reductionist rational choice assumptions. Concentrating on intentional action helps to reveal the importance of three aspects of the multi-level polity: (1) informal and non-constraining procedures; (2) the effects of ways in which actors move in between the different levels of the European political system; and (3) the ambiguous and often surprising coalitions that come together despite often considerable disagreement over their final goals.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Bastien Irondelle (2006) has noted the ‘hegemonic’ influence of sociology over political science: even subfields such as French international relations theory are more accurately described as international political sociology.

  2. 2.

    According to March and Olsen (1989), rational choice approaches understand human behaviour in terms of expected effects (‘logic of consequentiality’), while sociological approaches concentrate on social reasons for action (‘logic of appropriateness’).

  3. 3.

    The sociological turn is arguably much larger than just action-theoretical considerations, but a complete discussion would go beyond the scope of this article. See Saurugger (introduction to this special issue) and Favell (2006).

  4. 4.

    A recent attempt to provide a new EU theory is Hooghe and Marks’ (2009) postfunctionalist theory. Their empirical work highlights the importance of identity and not just economic variables for the organization of political conflict in the European Union, but it remains to be seen how far this actually constitute a ‘theory’ of European integration.

  5. 5.

    Institutions are here understood as formal or legal constraints, in line with traditional EU studies. From a sociological perspective, informal institutions are, of course, equally important (see for example Fligstein and Stone Sweet, 2002).

  6. 6.

    The distinction between national traditions is necessarily simplified. ‘French author’ refers loosely to scholars that produce the majority of their scientific writing for a French-speaking audience. Reviewing parts of the ‘French tradition’ allows us to make theoretical distinctions that are relevant for the evolution of theorizing about the European Union, but we acknowledge that this is neither an exclusive category, nor does it accurately describe all scientific production on the European Union in France.

  7. 7.

    The work of Geoffrey Garret or George Tsebelis are typical illustrations of this current, as are most articles published in the journal European Union Politics, which one could consider as the flagship journal of rationalist approaches to European studies.

  8. 8.

    For Jon Elster (1986), ‘thin’ rationality only requires that an action be coherent with the objectives of the individual, whatever they may be. Only ‘thick’ rationality, which contains an assumption by the analyst about the goals of the actor studied, has been the target of the sociological or constructivist critics.

  9. 9.

    Our approach shares a number of assumptions with what Mayntz and Scharpf (1995) have called actor-centred institutionalism and draws from diverse currants of action theory in the more general sociological literature.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Nicolas Jabko, Frédéric Mérand, Bruno Palier, Olivier Rozenberg, Sabine Saurugger and Julien Weisbein for their careful reading and helpful critiques and all participants of the ECPR Joint Session Panel ‘Does European Integration Theory Need Sociology?’ in April 2008 in Rennes, France, for the vigorous debates and incisive comments. We are also grateful to two anonymous reviewers for their detailed and stimulating remarks.

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Woll, C., Jacquot, S. Using Europe: Strategic action in multi-level politics. Comp Eur Polit 8, 110–126 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1057/cep.2010.7

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