Rights, equity and justice: A diagnostic for social meta-norm diffusion in environmental governance

Social meta-norms, including human rights, gender equality, equity and environmental justice, are mainstream principles of good environmental governance. The permeation of social meta-norms through global environmental goals, policies and agreements (e.g., the Sustainable Development Goals) is now generally accepted to be critical to the integrity of the Earth's system and to social dignity and opportunities for humanity. Yet, little is known about how globally articulated social meta-norms lead to shifts in action at other scales of governance. Specifically, analysis of the discursive and dynamic nature of social meta-norm diffusion is lacking. To build a better understanding of what shapes the diffusion of social meta-norms across different scales of environmental governance, we provide a synthesis that bridges political and sociological theory and underscores the critical role of agency in the diffusion process. We identify eight drivers of diffusion along a spectrum that ranges from prescriptive drivers, which leave little space for norm negotiation, to discursive drivers, which provide an enabling space for norm interpretation. We hypothesize these drivers intersect with a parallel spectrum of actor responses, ranging from complete resistance to social meta-norms at one end, to complete internalization of social meta-norms at the other. Our diagnostic of integrated drivers and responses is aimed at advancing conventional norm diffusion theory by providing a better account of discursive forces in this process. Applying these diagnostic elements to future empirical research has the potential to improve the rationale, speed, mode and impact of social meta-norm diffusion in multiscale environmental governance.