constructivism (international relations)


  • 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 on a wide range of issues from a constructivist perspective.

  • 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.

  • [citation needed] According to this view, the fundamental structures of international politics are social rather than strictly material.

  • [56] Constructivism is often presented as an alternative to the two leading theories of international relations, realism and liberalism, but some maintain that it is not necessarily
    inconsistent with one or both.

  • [55] 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 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.

  • Alexander Wendt calls two increasingly accepted basic tenets of constructivism “that the structures of human association are determined primarily by shared ideas rather than
    material forces, and that the identities and interests of purposive actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given by nature.

  • Evaluative and prescriptive norms: they have an “oughtness” quality to them Finnemore, Sikkink, Jeffrey W. Legro and others have argued that the robustness (or effectiveness)
    of norms can be measured by factors such as: • specificity: norms that are clear and specific are more likely to be effective[40][41] • longevity: norms with a history are more likely to be effective[40] • universality: norms that make general
    claims (rather than localized and particularistic claims) are more likely to be effective[40] • prominence: norms that are widely accepted among powerful actors are more likely to be effective[41] Jeffrey Checkel argues that there are two
    common types of explanations for the efficacy of norms:[42] • Rationalism: actors comply with norms due to coercion, cost-benefit calculations, and material incentives • Constructivism: actors comply with norms due to social learning and socialization
    In terms of specific norms, constructivist scholars have shown how the following norms emerged: • Humanitarian intervention: Over time, conceptions of who was “human” changed, which led states to increasingly engage in humanitarian interventions
    in the 20th century.

  • military and economic capabilities), constructivist analyses also see power as the ability to structure and constitute the nature of social relations among actors.

  • [66] Advocates of the “practice turn” take inspiration from work in neuroscience, as well as that of social theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu, that stresses the significance
    of habit and practices in psychological and social life – essentially calling for greater attention and sensitivity towards the ‘every day’ and ‘taken for granted’ activities of international politics[67][68] Some scholars have adopted the
    related sociological approach known as Actor-Network Theory (ANT), which extends the early focus of the Practice Turn on the work of Pierre Bourdieu towards that of Bruno Latour and others.

  • [1][2][4][5] Similar to rational choice, constructivism does not make broad and specific predictions about international relations; it is an approach to studying international
    politics, not a substantive theory of international politics.

  • 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.

  • [17] The notion that international relations are not only affected by power politics, but also by ideas, is shared by writers who describe themselves as constructivist theorists.

  • [28] 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”.

  • [63] A growing number of constructivists contend that current theories pay inadequate attention to the role of habitual and unreflective behavior in world politics,[64] the
    centrality of relations and processes in constructing world politics,[65] or both.

  • [10] Wendt’s 1992 article “Anarchy is What States Make of It: the Social Construction of Power Politics”[4] 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.

  • This leads to social constructivists to argue that changes in the nature of social interaction between states can bring a fundamental shift towards greater international security.

  • She has argued that this norm has become so deeply embedded in American political and social culture that nuclear weapons have not been employed, even in cases when their
    use would have made strategic or tactical sense.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • [1] The main theories competing with constructivism are variants of realism, liberalism, and rational choice[additional citation(s) needed] that emphasize materialism (the
    notion that the physical world determines political behavior on its own), and individualism (the notion that individual units can be studied apart from the broader systems that they are embedded in).

  • [26][27] Identities and interests[edit] 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 theorising international relations.

  • [49] Research areas[edit] Many constructivists analyse international relations by looking at goals, threats, fears, cultures, identities, and other elements of “social reality”
    as social facts.

  • “[3] This does not mean that constructivists believe international politics is “ideas all the way down”, but rather is characterized both by material factors and ideational

  • [citation needed] Following up on Wendt, Martha Finnemore offered the first “sustained, systematic empirical argument in support of the constructivist claim that international
    normative structures matter in world politics” in her 1996 book National Interests in International Society.

  • Wendt further developed these ideas in his central work, Social Theory of International Politics (1999).

  • 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.

  • [22] 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.

  • Their central difference from neorealists is to see the structure of international politics in primarily ideational, rather than material, terms.

  • 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, Wendt argues neorealism’s “structure” reveals 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”.

  • 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.

  • [21] 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.

  • For example, Peter Katzenstein and the contributors to his edited volume, The Culture of National Security, have argued that states act on security choices not only in the
    context of their physical capabilities but also on the basis of normative understandings.

  • The object of the constructivist discourse can be conceived as the arrival, a fundamental factor in the field of international relations, of the recent debate on epistemology,
    the sociology of knowledge, the agent/structure relationship, and the ontological status of social facts.

  • [29] Finnemore provides three case studies of such construction – the creation of Science Bureaucracies in states due to the influence of the UNESCO, the role of the Red Cross
    in the Geneva Conventions and the World Bank’s influence of attitudes to poverty.

  • 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.

  • Studies of such processes are examples of the constructivist attitude towards state interests and identities.

  • This means that they are given their form by ongoing processes of social practice and interaction.

  • [1] Swathes of constructivist research have focused on norm entrepreneurs: international organizations and law: epistemic communities; speech, argument, and persuasion; and
    structural configuration as mechanisms and processes for social construction.

  • Martha Finnemore 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 an important edited volume, The Culture of National Security,[50] constructivist scholars—including Elizabeth Kier, Jeffrey Legro, and Peter Katzenstein – challenged many
    realist assumptions about the dynamics of international politics, particularly in the context of military affairs.

  • [6] Central to constructivism are the notions that ideas matter, and that agents are socially constructed (rather than given).

  • Sterling-Folker argued that the U.S. shift towards unilateralism is partially accounted for by realism’s emphasis of an anarchic system, but constructivism helps to account
    for important factors from the domestic or second level of analysis.

  • [1][25] In a response to constructivism, John Mearsheimer has argued that ideas and norms only matter on the margins, and that appeals by leaders to norms and morals often
    reflect self-interest.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.


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