Constructivism in international relations

Constructivism in international relations

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In the discipline of international relations
International relations
International relations is the study of relationships between countries, including the roles of states, inter-governmental organizations , international nongovernmental organizations , non-governmental organizations and multinational corporations...

, constructivism
Constructivist epistemology
Constructivist epistemology is an epistemological perspective in philosophy about the nature of scientific knowledge. Constructivists maintain that scientific knowledge is constructed by scientists and not discovered from the world. Constructivists claim that the concepts of science are mental...

is the claim that significant aspects of international relations are historically and socially contingent, rather than inevitable consequences of human nature or other essential characteristics of world politics.

Development


Nicholas Onuf
Nicholas Onuf
Nicholas Onuf is one of the primary figures among Constructivists in international relations. His best known contribution to Constructivism is set out in World of Our Making . His approach is based on a continuum of performative language, rules and rule...

 is usually credited with coining the term "constructivism" to describe theories that stress the socially constructed character of international relations. Contemporary constructivist theory traces its roots to pioneering work not only by Onuf, but also by Richard K. Ashley, Friedrich Kratochwil
Friedrich Kratochwil
Friedrich Kratochwil is a German university professor who studied at the University of Munich before migrating to the United States, then subsequently returning to Europe...

, and John Ruggie
John Ruggie
John Gerard Ruggie is the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Affiliated Professor in International Legal Studies at Harvard Law School...

. Nevertheless, Alexander Wendt
Alexander Wendt
Alexander Wendt is one of the core social constructivist scholars in the field of international relations. Wendt and scholars such as Nicholas Onuf, Peter J...

 is the best-known advocate of social constructionism
Social constructionism
Social constructionism and social constructivism are sociological theories of knowledge that consider how social phenomena or objects of consciousness develop in social contexts. A social construction is a concept or practice that is the construct of a particular group...

 in the field of international relations
International relations
International relations is the study of relationships between countries, including the roles of states, inter-governmental organizations , international nongovernmental organizations , non-governmental organizations and multinational corporations...

. Wendt’s article "Anarchy
Anarchy in international relations
Anarchy in International Relations is a concept in International Relations theory holding that the world system is leaderless: there is no universal sovereign or worldwide government. There is thus no hierarchically superior, coercive power that can resolve disputes, enforce law, or order the...

 is What States Make of It: the Social Construction of Power Politics" (1992) in International Organization laid the theoretical groundwork for challenging what he considered to be a flaw shared by both neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists, namely, a commitment to a (crude) form of materialism. By attempting to show that even such a core realist concept as "power politics" is socially constructed—-that is, not given by nature and hence, capable of being transformed by human practice--Wendt opened the way for a generation of international relations scholars to pursue work in a wide range of issues from a constructivist perspective. Wendt further developed these ideas in his central work, Social Theory of International Politics
Social Theory of International Politics
Social Theory of International Politics is a book by Alexander Wendt. It explores the author's ideas on constructivism in international relations. The book was the winner of International Studies Association Best Book of the Decade Award 1991-2000...

(1999).

Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, constructivism has become one of the major schools of thought within international relations. John Ruggie
John Ruggie
John Gerard Ruggie is the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Affiliated Professor in International Legal Studies at Harvard Law School...

 and others have identified several strands of constructivism. On the one hand, there are constructivist scholars such as Martha Finnemore
Martha Finnemore
Martha Gail Finnemore is a prominent constructivist scholar of international relations, and a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. She is best known for her books: National Interests in International Society and The Purpose of Intervention...

, Kathryn Sikkink, Peter Katzenstein, and Alexander Wendt whose work has been widely accepted within the mainstream IR community and has generated vibrant scholarly discussions among realists, liberals, institutionalists
Institutionalism in international relations
Institutionalism in international relations comprises a group of differing theories on international relations . Functionalist and neofunctionalist approaches, regime theory, and state cartel theory have in common their focus on the structures of the international system, but they substantially...

, and constructivists. On the other hand, there are radical constructivists who take discourse and linguistics more seriously.

Theory


Constructivism primarily seeks to demonstrate how many core aspects of international relations are, contrary to the assumptions of Neorealism and Neoliberalism
Neoliberalism in international relations
In the study of international relations, neoliberalism refers to a school of thought which believes that nation-states are, or at least should be, concerned first and foremost with absolute gains rather than relative gains to other nation-states...

, socially constructed, that is, they are given their form by ongoing processes of social practice and interaction. Alexander Wendt
Alexander Wendt
Alexander Wendt is one of the core social constructivist scholars in the field of international relations. Wendt and scholars such as Nicholas Onuf, Peter J...

 calls two increasingly accepted basic tenets of Constructivism "(1) that the structures of human association are determined primarily by shared ideas rather than material forces, and (2) that the identities and interests of purposive actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given by nature".

Challenging realism


Because Neorealism was — during Constructivism's formative period — the dominant discourse of International Relations, much of Constructivism's initial theoretical work is in challenging certain basic Neorealist assumptions. Neorealists are fundamentally causal Structuralists, in that they hold that the majority of important content to international politics is explained by the structure of the international system, a position first advanced in Kenneth Waltz's
Kenneth Waltz
Kenneth Neal Waltz is a member of the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University and one of the most prominent scholars of international relations alive today...

 Man, the State and War and fully elucidated in his core text of Neorealism, Theory of International Politics. Specifically, international politics is primarily determined by the fact that the international system is anarchic
Anarchy in international relations
Anarchy in International Relations is a concept in International Relations theory holding that the world system is leaderless: there is no universal sovereign or worldwide government. There is thus no hierarchically superior, coercive power that can resolve disputes, enforce law, or order the...

 - it lacks any overarching authority, instead it is composed of units (states
Sovereign state
A sovereign state, or simply, state, is a state with a defined territory on which it exercises internal and external sovereignty, a permanent population, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. It is also normally understood to be a state which is neither...

) which are formally equal - they are all sovereign over their own territory. Such anarchy, Neorealists argue, forces States to act in certain ways, specific, they can rely on no-one but themselves for security (they have to Self-help). The way in which anarchy forces them to act in such ways, to defend their own self-interest in terms of power, Neorealists argue, explains most of international politics. Because of this, Neorealists tend to disregard explanations of international politics at the 'unit' or 'state' level. Kenneth Waltz attacked such a focus as being reductionist
Reductionism
Reductionism can mean either an approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things or a philosophical position that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can...

.

Constructivism, particularly in the formative work of Wendt, challenges this assumption by showing that the causal powers attributed to 'Structure' by Neorealists are in fact not 'given', but rest on the way in which Structure is constructed by social practice. Removed from presumptions about the nature of the identities and interests of the actors in the system, and the meaning that social institutions (including Anarchy) have for such actors, Neorealism's 'structure' reveals, Wendt argues, very little, "it does not predict whether two states will be friends or foes, will recognize each other's sovereignty, will have dynastic ties, will be revisionist or status quo powers, and so on". Because such features of behavior are not explained by Anarchy, and require instead the incorporation of evidence about the interests and identities held by key actors, Neorealism's focus on the material structure of the system (Anarchy) is misplaced. But Wendt goes further than this - arguing that because the way in which Anarchy constrains states depends on the way in which States conceive of Anarchy, and conceive of their own identities and interests, Anarchy is not necessarily even a 'self-help' system. It only forces states to self-help if they conform to Neorealist assumptions about states as seeing security as a competitive, relative concept, where the gain of security for any one state means the loss of security for another. If States instead hold alternative conceptions of security, either 'co-operative', where states can maximise their security without negatively affecting the security of another, or 'collective' where states identify the security of other states as being valuable to themselves, Anarchy will not lead to self-help at all. Neorealist conclusions, as such, depend entirely on unspoken and unquestioned assumptions about the way in which the meaning of social institutions are constructed by actors. Crucially, because Neorealists fail to recognize this dependence, they falsely assume that such meanings are unchangeable, and exclude the study of the processes of social construction which actually do the key explanatory work behind Neorealist observations.

Identities and interests


As Constructivists reject Neorealism's conclusions about the determining effect of anarchy on the behavior of international actors, and move away from Neorealism's underlying materialism, they create the necessary room for the identities and interests of international actors to take a central place in theorizing international relations. Now that actors are not simply governed by the imperatives of a self-help system, their identities and interests become important in analyzing how they behave. Like the nature of the international system, Constructivists see such identities and interests as not objectively grounded in material forces (such as dictates of the human nature that underpins Classical Realism) but the result of ideas and the social construction of such ideas. In other words the meanings of ideas, objects, and actors are all given by social interaction. We give objects their meanings and can attach different meanings to different things.

Martha Finnemore
Martha Finnemore
Martha Gail Finnemore is a prominent constructivist scholar of international relations, and a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. She is best known for her books: National Interests in International Society and The Purpose of Intervention...

 has been influential in examining the way in which international organizations are involved in these processes of the social construction of actor's perceptions of their interests. In National Interests In International Society, Finnemore attempts to "develop a systemic approach to understanding state interests and state behavior by investigating an international structure, not of power, but of meaning and social value". "Interests", she explains, "are not just 'out there' waiting to be discovered; they are constructed through social interaction". Finnemore provides three case studies of such construction - the creation of Science Bureaucracies in states due to the influence of UNESCO
UNESCO
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations...

, the role of the Red Cross in the Geneva Conventions
Geneva Conventions
The Geneva Conventions comprise four treaties, and three additional protocols, that establish the standards of international law for the humanitarian treatment of the victims of war...

 and the World Bank
World Bank
The World Bank is an international financial institution that provides loans to developing countries for capital programmes.The World Bank's official goal is the reduction of poverty...

's influence of attitudes to poverty
Poverty
Poverty is the lack of a certain amount of material possessions or money. Absolute poverty or destitution is inability to afford basic human needs, which commonly includes clean and fresh water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing and shelter. About 1.7 billion people are estimated to live...

.

Studies of such processes are examples of the Constructivist attitude towards state interests and identities. Such interests and identities are central determinants of state behavior, as such studying their nature and their formation is integral in Constructivist methodology to explaining the international system. But it is important to note that despite this refocus onto identities and interests - properties of States - Constructivists are not necessarily wedded to focusing their analysis at the unit-level of international politics: the state. Constructivists such as Finnemore and Wendt both emphasize that while ideas and processes tend to explain the social construction of identities and interests, such ideas and processes form a structure of their own which impact upon international actors. Their central difference from Neorealists is to see the structure of international politics in primarily ideational, rather than material, terms.

Research areas


Many constructivists analyze international relations
International relations
International relations is the study of relationships between countries, including the roles of states, inter-governmental organizations , international nongovernmental organizations , non-governmental organizations and multinational corporations...

 by looking at goals, threats, fears, cultures, identities, and other elements of "social reality" as social facts. In an important edited volume, constructivist scholars--including challenged many realist assumptions about the dynamics of international politics, particularly in the context of military affairs. Thomas J. Biersteker
Thomas J. Biersteker
Thomas J. Biersteker is an American political scientist. He became the first Curt Gasteyger Professor of International Security at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland in 2007. He is an active member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the...

 and Cynthia Weber
Cynthia Weber
Cynthia Weber is a Professor of International Relations at Sussex University, UK, and co-Director of the media company Pato Productions.Cynthia Weber was born in New Jersey and raised in Pennsylvania. She received a BA in Political Science from West Virginia University , an MA from Sussex...

 applied constructivist approaches to understand the evolution of state sovereignty as a central theme in international relations, and works by Rodney Bruce Hall and Daniel Philpott (among others) developed constructivist theories of major transformations in the dynamics of international politics. In international political economy
International political economy
International political economy , also known as global political economy, is an academic discipline within the social sciences that analyzes international relations in combination with political economy. As an interdisciplinary field it draws on many distinct academic schools, most notably ...

, the application of constructivism has been less frequent. Notable examples of constructivist work in this area include Kathleen R. McNamara's study of European Monetary Union and Mark Blyth's analysis of the rise of Reaganomics
Reaganomics
Reaganomics refers to the economic policies promoted by the U.S. President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s, also known as supply-side economics and called trickle-down economics, particularly by critics...

 in the United States.

By focusing on how language and rhetoric are used to construct the social reality of the international system, constructivists are often seen as more optimistic about progress in international relations than versions of realism
Realism (international relations)
In the study of international relations, Realism or political realism prioritizes national interest and security over ideology, moral concerns and social reconstructions...

 loyal to a purely materialist ontology, but a growing number of constructivists question the "liberal" character of constructivist thought and express greater sympathy for realist pessimism concerning the possibility of emancipation from power politics.

Constructivism is often presented as an alternative to the two leading theories of international relations, realism
Realism (international relations)
In the study of international relations, Realism or political realism prioritizes national interest and security over ideology, moral concerns and social reconstructions...

 and liberalism
Liberalism
Liberalism is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally, liberals support ideas such as constitutionalism, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights,...

, but some maintain that it is not necessarily inconsistent with one or both. Wendt shares some key assumptions with leading realist and neorealist scholars, such as the existence of anarchy and the centrality of states in the international system. However, Wendt renders anarchy in cultural rather than materialist terms; he also offers a sophisticated theoretical defense of the state-as-actor assumption in international relations theory. This is a contentious issue within segments of the IR community as some constructivists challenge Wendt on some of these assumptions (see, for example, exchanges in Review of International Studies, vol. 30, 2004).

Recent developments


A significant group of scholars who study processes of social construction self-consciously eschew the label "Constructivist." They argue that "mainstream" constructivism has abandoned many of the most important insights from linguistic-turn and social-constructionist theory in the pursuit of respectability as a "scientific" approach to international relations. Even some putatively "mainstream" constructivists, such as Jeffrey Checkel
Jeffrey Checkel
Jeffrey T. Checkel is an American academic associated with the constructivist school of international relations theory.-References:...

, have expressed concern that constructivists have gone too far in their efforts to build bridges with non-constructivist schools of thought.

A growing number of constructivists contend that current theories pay inadequate attention to the role of habitual and unreflective behavior in world politics. These advocates of the "practice turn" take inspiration from work in neuroscience
Neuroscience
Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. Traditionally, neuroscience has been seen as a branch of biology. However, it is currently an interdisciplinary science that collaborates with other fields such as chemistry, computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics,...

, as well as that of social theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu
Pierre Bourdieu
Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist, anthropologist, and philosopher.Starting from the role of economic capital for social positioning, Bourdieu pioneered investigative frameworks and terminologies such as cultural, social, and symbolic capital, and the concepts of habitus, field or location,...

, that stresses the significance of habit in psychological and social life.

Notable constructivists in IR

  • Emanuel Adler
    Emanuel Adler
    Professor Emanuel Adler is an academic at the University of Toronto. He currently holds the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Chair in Israel Studies in the department of Political Science and is associated with constructivism in international relations theory....

  • Michael Barnett
    Michael Barnett
    Michael N. Barnett is a major constructivist scholar of international relations. His research has been in the areas of international organizations, international relations theory, and Middle Eastern politics. With Emanuel Adler, he reintroduced the concept of security community to international...

  • Thomas J. Biersteker
    Thomas J. Biersteker
    Thomas J. Biersteker is an American political scientist. He became the first Curt Gasteyger Professor of International Security at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland in 2007. He is an active member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the...

  • Didier Bigo
  • Mark Blyth
  • Barry Buzan
    Barry Buzan
    Barry Gordon Buzan is Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and honorary professor at the University of Copenhagen and Jilin University...

  • Jeffrey T. Checkel
  • Karin Fierke
  • Martha Finnemore
    Martha Finnemore
    Martha Gail Finnemore is a prominent constructivist scholar of international relations, and a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. She is best known for her books: National Interests in International Society and The Purpose of Intervention...

  • Patricia Goff
  • Stefano Guzzini
  • Ernst B. Haas
    Ernst B. Haas
    Ernst Bernard Haas was a German-American political scientist who made numerous contributions to theoretical discussions in the field of international relations....

  • Peter M. Haas
    Peter M. Haas
    Peter M. Haas is a professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the Karl Deutsch Visiting Professor at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin....

  • Rodney Bruce Hall
  • Ted Hopf
    Ted Hopf
    Ted Hopf is an American academic and a leading figure in the contructivist school of international relations theory.Perhaps his signature contribution to constructivism has been to bring the domestic into the theorization of how states acquire their identities...

  • Patrick Thaddeus Jackson
  • A. Iain Johnston
  • Peter J. Katzenstein
    Peter J. Katzenstein
    Peter Katzenstein is the Walter S. Carpenter, Jr. Professor of International Studies at Cornell University. He was educated in his native Germany. Katzenstein has received degrees from the London School of Economics, Swarthmore College, as well as a Ph.D. from Harvard University...

  • Elizabeth Kier
  • Audie Klotz
  • Friedrich Kratochwil
    Friedrich Kratochwil
    Friedrich Kratochwil is a German university professor who studied at the University of Munich before migrating to the United States, then subsequently returning to Europe...

  • Richard Ned Lebow
    Richard Ned Lebow
    Professor Richard Ned Lebow is an American political scientist best known for his work in international relations and U.S. foreign policy. He is a noted constructivist and expert on strategies of conflict management, the Cold War, the politics of memory and ancient Greek politics and...

  • Iver Neumann
    Iver B. Neumann
    Iver Brynild Neumann is a Norwegian political scientist and social anthropologist. He is a professor of Russian studies at the University of Oslo and has been research director at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs since 2008.Neumann obtained his first DPhil in Politics from Oxford...

  • Jeffrey Legro
  • Cecelia Lynch
  • Kathleen R. McNamara
  • Nicholas Onuf
    Nicholas Onuf
    Nicholas Onuf is one of the primary figures among Constructivists in international relations. His best known contribution to Constructivism is set out in World of Our Making . His approach is based on a continuum of performative language, rules and rule...

  • Vincent Pouliot
  • Richard Price
    Richard Price (disambiguation)
    Richard Price was a Welsh philosopher and an English Unitarian minister, credited with founding actuarial science and mentoring Mary Wollstonecraft.Richard Price may also refer to:...

  • Erik Ringmar
    Erik Ringmar
    Erik Ringmar , a Swedish academic, is Zhi Yuan Chair Professor professor of International Relations at Shanghai Jiaotong University, China. He graduated with a PhD from the Department of Political Science, Yale University, in 1993...

  • Thomas Risse
    Thomas Risse
    Thomas Risse is a Berlin based international relations scholar. He currently acts as chair for “transnational relations, foreign- and security policy” at the Otto-Suhr Institute for Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin...

  • John Ruggie
    John Ruggie
    John Gerard Ruggie is the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Affiliated Professor in International Legal Studies at Harvard Law School...

  • Chris Reus-Smit
    Christian Reus-Smit
    Chris Reus-Smit is Professor of International Relations at the European University Institute in Florence. He is a leading constructivist scholar in the field of international relations, and is arguably Australia's pre-eminent scholar in the field...

  • Leonard Seabrooke
    Leonard Seabrooke
    Leonard Seabrooke is a Copenhagen Business School Professor in International Political Economy and Economic Sociology in the Department of Business and Politics and also a University of Warwick Professor in International Political Economy in the Department of Political and International Studies,...

  • Kathryn Sikkink
  • Nina Tannenwald
  • J. Ann Tickner
    J. Ann Tickner
    J. Ann Tickner is a feminist international relations theorist. She is a professor at the School of International Relations, University of Southern California, Los Angeles...

  • Ole Wæver
    Ole Wæver
    Ole Wæver is a professor of International Relations at the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen. He has published and broadcast extensively in the field of international relations, and is one of the main architects of the so-called Copenhagen School in International...

  • Alexander Wendt
    Alexander Wendt
    Alexander Wendt is one of the core social constructivist scholars in the field of international relations. Wendt and scholars such as Nicholas Onuf, Peter J...


See also

  • Constructivism
    Constructivism (psychological school)
    In psychology, constructivism concerns the world of constructivist psychologies. Many schools of psychotherapy self-define themselves as “constructivist”. Although extraordinarily different in their therapeutic techniques, they are all connected by a common critique to previous standard approaches...

  • Constructivist epistemology
    Constructivist epistemology
    Constructivist epistemology is an epistemological perspective in philosophy about the nature of scientific knowledge. Constructivists maintain that scientific knowledge is constructed by scientists and not discovered from the world. Constructivists claim that the concepts of science are mental...

  • English school of international relations theory
  • International legal theory

External links