Constructivism in international relations

Constructivism in international relations

In the discipline of international relations, constructivism is the application of constructivist epistemology to the study of world affairs.


This field is perhaps most closely associated with Alexander Wendt as he has applied the ideas of social constructionism to the field of international relations. Wendt’s article "Anarchy 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" (1999).

Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, constructivism has become one of the major theories in the field of international relations. John Ruggiecite journal|title=What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge |publisher=CUP |author=John Gerard Ruggie |journal=International Organization|volume=52|issue=4|date=1998|pages=855] and others have identified several strands of constructivism. On the one hand, there are constructivist scholars such as Martha Finnemore, 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, and constructivists. On the other hand, there are radical constructivists who take discourse and linguistics more seriously. Richard Ashley, Friedrich Kratochwil, Nicholas Onuf, and others still work in this area of constructivism.


Constructivism primarily seeks to demonstrate how many core aspects of international relations are, contrary to the assumptions of Neorealism and Neoliberalism, "socially constructed", that is, they are given their form by ongoing processes of social practice and interaction. Alexander Wendt 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" [Alexander Wendt, "Social Theory of International Politics" (Cabridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.1] .

Challenging Realism

As 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 "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 - it lacks any overarching authority, instead it is composed of units (states) 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 [Alexander Wendt, "Social Theory of International Politics" (Cabridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp.8-15] [Chris Brown, "Understanding International Relations" (Basingstoke: Palgrave Publishing, 2005), pp.40-43] . Such a focus Kenneth Waltz attacked as being reductionist [Kenneth Waltz, "Theory of International Politics" (McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 1979)] .

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" [Alexander Wendt, "Anarchy is What States Make of It: the Social Construction of Power Politics" in "International Organization" (46:2, Spring 1992), p.396] . Because such features of behaviour 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 [Alexander Wendt, "Anarchy is What States Make of It: the Social Construction of Power Politics" in "International Organization" (46:2, Spring 1992), pp.396-399] . 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 necessarilly 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 [Alexander Wendt, "Anarchy is What States Make of It: the Social Construction of Power Politics" in "International Organization" (46:2, Spring 1992), pp.399-403] . 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 recognise this dependence, they falsely assume that such meanings are uncheageable, 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 behaviour 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 theorising international relations. Now that actors are not simply governed by the imperatives of a self-help system, their identities and interests become important in analysing 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.

Martha Finnemore has been influential in examining the way in which international organisations are involved in these processes of the social construction of actor's perceptions of their interests [Stephen Walt writes on the back cover of Finnemore's book "Many writers have asserted that social structures assert a powerful impact on national preferences...but Finnemore is the first to present sophisticated evidence for this claim."] . In "National Interests In International Society", Finnemore attempts to "develop a systemic approach to understanding state interests and state behaviour by investigating an international structure, not of power, but of meaning and social value" [Martha Finnemore, "National Interests In International Society" (New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), p.2] . "Interests", she explains, "are not just 'out there' waiting to be discovered; they are constructed through social interaction" [Martha Finnemore, "National Interests In International Society" (New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), p.2] . Finnemore provides three case studies of such construction - the creation of Science Bureaucracies in states due to the influence of UNESCO, the role of the Red Cross in the Geneva Conventions and the World Bank's influence of attitudes to poverty.

Studies of such processes are examples of the Constructivist attitude towards state interests and identities. Such interests and identities are central determinants of state behaviour, 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 necessarilly wedded to focussing their analysis at the unit-level of international politics: the state. Constructivists such as Finnemore and Wendt both emphasise 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 this International Structure as being primarily ideational rather than material in nature [Martha Finnemore, "National Interests In International Society" (New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), pp.6-7] [Alexander Wendt, "Social Theory of International Politics" (Cabridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp.29-33] .

Research areas

Many constructivists analyze international relations by looking at the goals, threats, fears, cultures, identities, and other elements of "social reality" on the international stage as the social constructs of the actors. In a key edited volume, ["The Culture of National Security" (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996)] constructivist scholars [Elizabeth Kier, Jeffrey Legro, Peter Katzenstein, and many others] challenge many traditional realist assumptions about how the international system operates, especially with regard to military security issues. Another approach is offered by "Defending the West" [Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005] , in which James Gow studies contemporary issues of peace and security through empirical studies of the Western powers.

By focusing on how language and rhetoric are used to construct the social reality of the international system, constructivists are seen as more optimistic about progress in international relations than versions of realism loyal to a purely materialist ontology.

Constructivism is often presented as an alternative to the two leading theories of international relations, realism and liberalism, but is not necessarily inconsistent with either. 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).

Notable constructivists in IR

*Emanuel Adler
*Wasim Ahmed
*Anthony Clark Arend
*Michael Barnett
*Didier Bigo
*Barry Buzan
*Jeffrey T. Checkel
*David Evangelidis
*Karin Fierke
*Martha Finnemore
*Patricia Goff
*James Gow
*Ernst B. Haas
*Rodney Bruce Hall
*Ted Hopf
*Peter J. Katzenstein
*Elizabeth Kier
*Audie Klotz
*Friedrich Kratochwil
*Richard Ned Lebow
*Jeffrey Legro
*Nicholas Onuf
*Thomas Risse
*John Ruggie
*Chris Reus-Smit
*Frank Schimmelfennig
*Kathryn Sikkink
*J. Ann Tickner
*Ole Wæver
*Alexander Wendt
*P. Stephen Waring

ee also

*Constructivist epistemology

External links

* [ Global Power Barometer]
* [ Read an Interview with Social Constructivist Alexander Wendt]


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