Systematizing Thin and Thick Conceptions of the Rule of Law

33 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 9 Aug 2010

Date Written: 2010


The literature teems with definitions of the rule of law, emphasizing attributes such as formal legality, democracy, checks and balances, individual rights, and order. In this paper, we order these definitions in a unified typology which distinguishes between ‘thinner’ and ‘thicker’ conceptions of the rule of law. We first do this conceptually, in turn advocating an analytical distinction between the shape (aka. core), sanctions (aka. control), source (aka. consent), and substance (aka. content) of the rules. Subsequently, we test whether these distinctions can be transformed into a one-dimensional hierarchy. The empirical analyses do not corroborate the existence of the conceptual hierarchy. However, in light of recent writings on political regime change, the empirical hierarchy which emerges makes theoretical sense. The consequent overview allows scholars to select more consciously between definitions of the rule of law. Moreover, if robust the empirical hierarchy can guide research into the correlates of the rule of law but also calls for further research into the causes and consequences of – and internal relationship between – distinct rule of law-attributes.

Keywords: rule of law, thin and thick definitions, theoretical hierarchy of attributes, empirical hierarchy of attributes

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Skaaning, Svend-Erik and Møller, Jørgen, Systematizing Thin and Thick Conceptions of the Rule of Law (2010). APSA 2010 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Svend-Erik Skaaning (Contact Author)

Aarhus University ( email )

Bartholins Allé 7
Aarhus, 8000

Jørgen Møller

Aarhus University ( email )

Nordre Ringgade 1
DK-8000 Aarhus C, 8000

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