Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Inferring mechanisms for global constitutional progress


Constitutions help define domestic political orders, but are known to be influenced by international mechanisms that are normative, temporal and network based. Here we introduce the concept of the ‘provision space’—the set of all legal provisions existing across the world’s constitutions, which grows over time. We make use of techniques from network science and information retrieval to quantify and compare temporal and network effects on constitutional change, which have been the focus of previous work. Furthermore, we propose that hierarchical effects—a set of mechanisms by which the adoption of certain constitutional provisions leads to or facilitates the adoption of additional provisions—are also crucial. These hierarchical mechanisms appear to play an important role in the emergence of new political rights, and may therefore provide a useful roadmap for advocates of those rights.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Provision space.
Fig. 2: Representation of the hierarchical dependencies of provisions based on the sequential adoption by all countries over time.
Fig. 3: Constitutional document similarity.
Fig. 4: Constitutional amendment activity.
Fig. 5: Clustering of time series of provisional adoption.
Fig. 6: Network versus temporal adoption.


  1. Hedling, N. A Practical Guide to Constitution Building (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2011);

  2. Elster, J. Forces and mechanisms in the constitution making process. Duke Law J. 45, 364–396 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Law, D. & Versteeg, M. The evolution and ideology of global constitutionalism. Calif. Law Rev. 99, 1163 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  4. Goderis, B. & Versteeg, M. The diffusion of constitutional rights. Int. Rev. Law Econ. 39, 1–19 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Ginsburg, T., Melton, J., Elkins, Z. & Leetaru, K. On the interpretability of law: lessons from the decoding of national constitutions. Br. J. Pol. Sci. 43, 399–423 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Ginsburg, T., Foti, N. & Rockmore, D. We the peoples: the global origins of constitutional preambles. George Wash. Int. Law Rev. 46, 305 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Law, D. S. Constitutional archetypes. Texas Law Rev. 95, 153–243 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Rockmore, D., Fang, C., Foti, N., Ginsburg, T. & Krakauer, D. The cultural evolution of national constitutions. J. Assoc. Inform. Sci. Technol. 69, 483–494 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  9. Morris, H. Crowdsourcing Iceland’s constitution. The New York Times (24 October 2012);

  10. Barabasi, L. The network takeover. Nat. Phys. 8, 14–16 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Lazer, D. et al. Computational social science. Science 323, 721–723 (2009).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Bar-Yam, Y. Dynamics of Complex Systems (Studies in Nonlinearity) (Westview Press, Reading, MA, 1997).

  13. Fowler, J., Johnson, T., Spriggs, J., Jeon, S. & Wahlbeck, P. Network analysis and the law: measuring the legal importance of precedents at the US Supreme Court. Polit. Anal. 15, 324–346 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Bommarito, M. & Katz, D. Measuring and modeling the US Regulatory Ecosystem. J. Stat. Phys. 168, 1125–1135 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Boulet, R., Mazzega, P. & Bourcier, D. A network approach to the French system of legal codes—part I: analysis of a dense network. Artif. Intell. Law 19, 333–355 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Clark, T. & Lauderdale, B. The genealogy of law. Polit. Anal. 20, 329–350 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Ruhl, J., Katz, D. & Bommarito, M. Harnessing legal complexity. Science 355, 1377–1378 (2017).

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Hidalgo, C., Klinger, B., Barabasi, A. & Hausmann, R. The product space conditions the development of nations. Science 317, 482–487 (2007).

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Finnemore, M. & Sikkink, K. International norm dynamics and political change. Int. Organ. 52, 887–917 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Price, R. Reversing the gun sights: transnational civil society targets land mines. Int. Organ. 52, 613–644 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Clauset, A., Arbesman, S. & Larremore, D. Systematic inequality and hierarchy in faculty hiring networks. Sci. Adv. 1, e1400005 (2015).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  22. Go, J. Modeling the state: postcolonial constitutions in Asia and Africa. J. Southeast Asian Stud. 39, 558–583 (2002).

    Google Scholar 

  23. Parkinson, C. Bills of Rights and Decolonization: The Emergence of Domestic Human Rights Instruments in Britain’s Overseas Territories (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, NY, 2007).

  24. Arminjon, P. Trait de Droit Comparé (Librairie Génerale de Droit et de Jurisprudence, Paris, 1950).

  25. La Porta, R., Lopez-de-Silanes, F., Shleifer, A. & Vishny, R. Law and finance. J. Polit. Econ. 106, 111355 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Zweigert, K. & Kötz, H. An Introduction to Comparative Law (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, NY, 1998).

  27. Billias, G. American Constitutionalism Heard Round the World, 1776–1989 (New York Univ. Press, New York, NY, 2009).

  28. Chilton, A. & Versteeg, M. Do constitutional rights make a difference? Am. J. Polit. Sci. 60, 575–589 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Law, D. & Versteeg, M. The declining influence of the United States constitution. NYU Law Rev. 87, 762–858 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  30. Potthast, M., Barrón-Cedeño, A., Stein, B. & Rosso, P. Cross-language plagiarism detection. Lang. Resour. Eval. 45, 45–62 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Hensel, P. ICOW Colonial History Data Set Version 1.0. (ICOW, accessed 4 December 2017);

  32. Fox, M. Beate Gordon, long-unsung heroine of Japanese women’s rights, dies at 89. The New York Times (1 January 2013);

  33. Pargendler, M. The rise and decline of legal families. Am. J. Comp. Law 60, 1043–1074 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Elkins, Z., Ginsburg, T. & Melton, J. The Endurance of National Constitutions (Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, NY, 2009).

  35. Beck, C., Drori, G. & Meyer, J. World influences on human rights language in constitutions: a cross-national study. Int. Sociol. 27, 483–501 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Law, D. & Versteeg, M. in Constitutions in Authoritarian Regimes (eds Ginsburg, T. & Simpser, A) 165–198 (Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, NY, 2013).

  37. Robinson, J. & Acemoglu, D. Why Nations Fail (Crown Publishing Group, New York, NY, 2012).

Download references


The authors are grateful to N. Adler for helpful conversations and A. Clauset for the MATLAB code used to derive the minimal violation ranking.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



A.R. and Y.L. analysed the data. All authors contributed to writing the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Alex Rutherford or Manuel Garcia-Herranz.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

Two of the authors (A.R. and M.G.-H.) were employees of UNICEF when this work was completed.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–30, Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Tables 1–17, Supplementary References

Reporting Summary

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Rutherford, A., Lupu, Y., Cebrian, M. et al. Inferring mechanisms for global constitutional progress. Nat Hum Behav 2, 592–599 (2018).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing