The international state system, like all social systems, is permeated by hierarchical relationships sorting societal members into systems of institutionalized inequality. Recent scholarship has produced an impressive record of the varieties, mechanisms and outcomes of inequality production in international society. Less understood is how hierarchies inside intergovernmental organizations (IGO) become institutionalized, how and why they might change or even collapse. Drawing on recent stratification research in global governance, this article shows how institutionalized inequality through systems of tiered membership can be a highly instable mechanism of hierarchy production under constant pressure for adaptation and de-hierarchization from below. I use the example of a multi-layered system of membership stratification as it emerged over time in the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to demonstrate how agency restraint and system rigidity designed into institutional systems of IGO membership can emerge as central drivers for stratification to go awry.
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Among the many examples of IGOs that have over time changed their institutional design to allow states to access in capacities of ‘observer’ or ‘associate member’ are the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), the Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), the Organization of American States (OAS), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the former Western European Union (WEU).
CERN is one of two regional IGOs to have ever taken this decision. The Council of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) decided in June 2008 that states also from outside Europe shall be eligible for ESO membership in the future (Cogen 2012: 155).
By date of accession, the following states later joined CERN: Austria (1959), Spain (1961, re-admission in 1983 after withdrawal in 1968), Portugal (1985), Finland (1991), Poland (1991), Hungary (1992), the Czech Republic and Slovakia (both 1993 following dissolution of the Czechoslovak Republic which had joined in 1992), Bulgaria (1999), Israel (2014), Romania (2016) and Serbia (2019) (see https://home.cern/about/who-we-are/our-governance/member-states, last accessed 09 January 2023).
Observer status was granted to Israel (1991), Russia (1991), the US (1993), Japan (1994) and India (2002).
See https://home.cern/about/who-we-are/our-governance/member-states, last accessed 09 January 2023.
See https://home.cern/news/press-release/cern/brazil-become-associate-member-state-cern, last accessed 09 January 2023.
On 8 March 2022, CERN suspended the Russian Federation’s observer status.
See https://international-relations.web.cern.ch/stakeholder-relations/Associate-Non-Member-State-Relations, last accessed 09 January 2023.
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Knecht, S. Stratification gone awry: system rigidity, agency restraint and tiered membership in intergovernmental organizations. J Int Relat Dev 26, 481–504 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41268-023-00295-1