Document Type


Publication Date

January 2012


This Article critiques the rational-institutional analysis of the World Trade Organization (WTO) that Gregory Shaffer and Joel Trachtman present, and proposes an alternative “sociological” framework. The Article notes that rationalism, although a powerful heuristic of the WTO’s operation, inevitably overlooks the WTO’s rich social dimensions and thus leaves behind several theoretical blind spots, such as the lack of any satisfying explanation on institutional evolution and development concerns. In an attempt to address these blind spots, the Article offers a sociological-communitarian paradigm that emphasizes cognitive elements, such as ideas, norms, and discourse, to explain the social dynamic within the WTO. Under this new framework, an institutional ontology of the WTO is defined not as a contract (Gesellschaft), but as a community (Gemeinschaft). Within the WTO’s community, its members convey their thoughts and arguments (ideas) through an iterative and ritualized process (discourse) and eventually institutionalize those ideas as norms. The Article also reinterprets rational choice narratives originally provided by Shaffer and Trachtman in a way so that the rationalist-institutional analysis converges with the sociological-communitarian paradigm. The Article concludes that the new paradigm can help WTO members adjust their ways of thinking and generate new ideas and proposals to address some of the chronic problems that the WTO confronts.