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She is best known for her books National Interests in International Society,The Purpose of Intervention, and Rules for the World (with Michael Barnett) which helped to pioneer constructivism.
According to a review of her 1996 book National Interests in International Society, Finnemore became "the first scholar of international relations to offer a sustained, systematic empirical argument in support of the constructivist claim that international normative structures matter in world politics."
In The Purpose of Intervention (2003), she finds that the types of military interventions that states engage in have changed over time. For example, it was accepted practice for states to intervene militarily to collect debts during the 19th century, but it became widely rejected in the 20th century. Similarly, she shows that the type and frequency of humanitarian interventions have changed drastically since the 19th century, with a massive increase in humanitarian interventions since the end of the Cold War. According to Finnemore, existing realist and liberal theories of international relations cannot account for these changes. Using a constructivist approach, she finds that changing normative contexts led states to conceive of their interests differently. International norms altered common understandings of the appropriate ends and means of military intervention, as well as which humans were deserving of military protection by outsiders.
In Rules for the World (2004), Finnemore and Barnett argue that international organizations derive power and autonomy from their rational-legal authority and control of information. International organizations are therefore purposive social agents that can act inconsistently with the intentions of the founders of the organizations (which are often states). In contrast to some realist and liberal theories of international relations, Barnett and Finnemore show that international organizations are not just a reflection of state interests and that they do not necessarily act efficiently. International organizations can develop bureaucratic cultures that result in adverse outcomes (what they call "pathologies"). They list five mechanisms that breed organizational pathologies:
Irrationality of rationalization: when an organization sticks to existing rules and procedures regardless of circumstances rather than act in ways most appropriate for the circumstances
Universalism: the application of universal rules and categories may not reflect specific contexts
Normalization of deviance: deviations from existing rules can become normalized and lead to aberrational behaviors
Organizational insulation: when organizations do not get feedback from the environment about their performance and are unable to update their behavior
Cultural contestation: different cultures within an organization may lead to clashes that produce adverse outcomes
Norm emergence: Norm entrepreneurs seek to persuade others to adopt their ideas about what is desirable and appropriate
Norm cascade: When a norm has broad acceptance, with norm leaders pressuring others to adopt and adhere to the norm
Norm internalization: When the norm has acquired a "taken-for-granted" quality where compliance with the norm is nearly automatic
In 2009, a survey of over 2700 international relations faculty in ten countries named her one of the twenty five most influential scholars in the discipline, and one of the five scholars whose work in the last five years has been the most interesting; an earlier survey of over 1000 American international relations faculty also ranked her similarly in both categories. In 2011, she was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.