What countries' constitutions reveal about how societies evolve

Timing can be everything when it comes to successfully expanding constitutional rights. Now, a study looking at how constitutions around the world have evolved has revealed patterns that could help people predict the best moment to introduce such changes.

Amendments are generally introduced into a country’s constitution in a certain sequence, the authors report in a paper on the preprint server arXiv, and now under review at a journal. In addition, their computer analyses corroborate previously proposed ideas that the addition of some provisions is heavily influenced by the zeitgeist — the dominant social mores of the time — whereas the adoption of others reflects a country’s colonial history.

The study validates computational techniques that could be applied to pressing questions about how constitutions reflect and affect societies, says Mila Versteeg, a legal scholar at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “These methods might be able to move the ball if applied to the right questions,” she says.

Organizations and advocates could use the results to push for policies in a more strategic way, say the paper’s authors. “This can be seen as a road map to help get you to where you want to be,” says lead researcher Alex Rutherford, a data scientist who was working at the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF in New York City when the study was conducted.

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