Giving life to the agreements
: everyday practices of stability and change in the World Trade Organization

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The dissertation studies the practices in and through which international institutions are dynamically maintained and gradually transformed. My practice-oriented research perspective brings to the forefront the daily struggle and human interaction that make international ordering feasible on an everyday basis. This approach adds dynamism to existing explanations of institutional persistence and transformation. It shows how processes of institutional stability and change are much more intertwined than conventionally assumed, and how this institutional “metastability” can be analytically captured in the continuous emergence and contestation of practices. The diplomatic and regulatory exchanges in the committees of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) serve as empirical examples. The seemingly mundane “regular work” within the many specialised committees remains under-explored in the academic literature even though it determines the GATT/WTO’s actual effect on international trade relations and overall significance for global governance. In particular, I investigate how state representatives define and contest the ways in which the GATT/WTO committees conduct their day-to-day operations. First, I show how semi-formal practices that emerged organically out of the mutual engagement between diplomats give structure to the committee work. By providing baselines for mutually intelligible interaction, these practices enable the delegates to elaborate on the existing multilateral trade agreements, to address institutional ambiguities, and to resolve disagreements before they escalate into formal disputes or trade wars. Second, I explain why and how many of these practices have been, and often remain, contested between the increasing number of active delegations. Precisely because established practices define feasible paths of action and legitimise certain behaviours in the eyes of the membership, individual GATT/WTO members have attempted to shape or change certain practices. These efforts led to the creative variation and selective retention of committee practices over time. By examining how practices guide everyday interactions but remain themselves contested, I develop a perspective on institutional stability and change that moves beyond static structural accounts and sheds new light on a set of dynamic social processes in and through which international institutions are given life.
Date of Award1 Nov 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorValbona Muzaka (Supervisor) & James Scott (Supervisor)

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