Categorization in international organizations

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This paper explores why certain IOs officially categorize their member-states while others do not. It also examines the specific problems that categorization mechanisms are intended to solve. Building on theories of rational design, I argue that categorization is intended to provide a solution to cooperation problems in IOs and assist in preventing possible defections of participating member-states. I hypothesize that categorization is more likely to be incorporated and employed in IOs with heterogeneous membership in terms of capabilities and/or preferences; in IOs that deal with issues characterized by high levels of uncertainty about the state of the world; and in IOs that require deep cooperation and therefore are highly institutionalized. To test these hypotheses, I created a new dataset on categorization, encompassing information on 156 IOs established between 1868 and 2015 and ranging across 12 issue-areas. A multivariate logistic regression with robust standard errors is used to estimate the empirical relationships between the variables. This study finds that IOs may consider categorization as a proper alternative to other solutions, such as exclusion, for problems that stem from divergent power distributions; it assists in lowering states’ uncertainties about the consequences of cooperation, as it clarifies current and future distribution of possible costs and benefits; and, it assists in minimizing the compliance costs of less powerful participant-states.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)987-1015
Number of pages29
JournalInternational Interactions
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.


  • International organizations
  • categorization
  • cooperation
  • institutional design
  • rational design

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Political Science and International Relations


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