Contemporary empirical research on the importance of international institutions in areas ranging from economic integration to multilateral governance has made many advances. It founders, however, on the key question of establishing defensible theoretical grounds for relative institutional autonomy, without which the empirical accounting of purported institutional effects cannot, on its own, be the arbiter of disputes about the causal influence of institutions.
This dissertation develops and defends a theory of international institutions on the basis of their emergence from, and irreducibility to, the conditions of their crafting, contracting, and functionality. It argues that the analytical implications of institutions are derived from the conceptions of their nature, i.e., their ontological underpinnings. If international institutions are to be accorded a proper, non-epiphenomenal place in analysis, their causal efficacy must somehow be reconciled with state power and interests in institutional design, with their contractual entanglements with delegating principals, and with their compositional origins. This dissertation argues that the problem of institutional ontology and its analytical consequences can be mapped onto the general problem of emergence, a converging area of research across a number of disciplines concerning the ways in which certain properties at the constituted level in natural and social systems are different from, and not explicable in terms of, the constituent levels in isolation.
As this study demonstrates, the turn to social emergence is well suited to making sense of the tension between institutional autonomy and factors inimical to it, thereby providing firmer grounds for institutional analysis. The complexity inherent in institutional arrangements through the configuration and re-configuration of constituent elements and social tempos at multiple levels over time is such that it becomes difficult to countenance any direct correspondence between the initial conditions of design, delegation, and composition on the one hand, and international institutions and their effects on the other hand. By articulating an alternative account of the nature of international institutions, this work both challenges existing institutional explanations and complements their quest to resolve a problem of longstanding in international relations.