Constructivism (international relations)

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In the discipline of international relations, constructivism is the claim that significant aspects of international relations are historically and socially constructed, rather than inevitable consequences of human nature or other essential characteristics of world politics.[1]


Nicholas Onuf is usually credited with coining the term "constructivism" to describe theories that stress the socially constructed character of international relations.[2] Contemporary constructivist theory traces its roots to pioneering work not only by Onuf, but also by Richard K. Ashley, Friedrich Kratochwil, John Ruggie, and Christian Reus-Smit. Nevertheless, Alexander Wendt is the best-known advocate of social constructivism in the field of international relations. Wendt’s 1992 article "Anarchy is What States Make of It: the Social Construction of Power Politics" published 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 schools of thought within international relations. John Ruggie[3] and Christian Reus-Smit[4] 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.


Constructivism primarily seeks to demonstrate how 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 "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".[5]

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. According to this view, the fundamental structures of international politics are social rather than strictly material. 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. [6]

Challenging realism

During Constructivism's formative period Neorealism was the dominant discourse of international relations, much of Constructivism's initial theoretical work challenged 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, specifically, 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.[7][8] Kenneth Waltz attacked such a focus as being reductionist.[9]

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, 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".[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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 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.[13] 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".[14] "Interests", she explains, "are not just 'out there' waiting to be discovered; they are constructed through social interaction".[14] 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 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.[15][16]

Research areas

Many constructivists analyze international relations by looking at goals, threats, fears, cultures, identities, and other elements of "social reality" as social facts. In an important edited volume, The Culture of National Security,[17] 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. Thomas J. Biersteker and Cynthia Weber[18] applied constructivist approaches to understand the evolution of state sovereignty as a central theme in international relations, and works by Rodney Bruce Hall[19] and Daniel Philpott[20] (among others) developed constructivist theories of major transformations in the dynamics of international politics. In international political economy, 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[21] and Mark Blyth's analysis of the rise of Reaganomics in the United States.[22]

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.[23]

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.[24] 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). It has been argued that progress in IR theory will be achieved when Realism and Constructivism can be aligned or even synthesized.[25][26] An early example of such synthesis was Jennifer Sterling-Folker’s analysis of the United States’ international monetary policy following the Bretton Woods system. 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.[27]

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.[28] Even some putatively "mainstream" constructivists, such as Jeffrey Checkel, have expressed concern that constructivists have gone too far in their efforts to build bridges with non-constructivist schools of thought.[29]

A growing number of constructivists contend that current theories pay inadequate attention to the role of habitual and unreflective behavior in world politics.[30] These 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 in psychological and social life.[31][32] Increasingly, these scholars are also moving towards employing 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. Scholars have employed ANT in order to disrupt traditional world political binaries (civilised/barbarian, democratic/autocratic, etc.),[33] consider the implications of a posthuman understanding of IR,[34] explore the infrastructures of world politics,[35] and consider the effects of technological agency.[36]

Notable constructivists in international relations

See also


  1. Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Daniel H. Nexon, "Whence Causal Mechanisms? A Comment on Legro" in Dialogue IO Vol. 1, 2002
  2. Robert Howard Jackson and Georg Sørensen (2010). Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches, 4th Edition. Oxford University Press. p. 166. ISBN 0-19-954884-6. Constructivism was introduced to IR by Nicholas Onuf (1989) who coined the term
  3. John Gerard Ruggie (1998). "What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge". International Organization. CUP. 52 (4): 855. doi:10.1162/002081898550770.
  4. ""
  5. Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.1
  6. Baylis, John (2011). The Globalization of World Politics. Oxford University Press Inc. p. 237. ISBN 978-0-19-956909-0.
  7. Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp.8-15
  8. Chris Brown, Understanding International Relations (Basingstoke: Palgrave Publishing, 2005), pp.40-43
  9. Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 1979)
  10. Alexander Wendt, "Anarchy is What States Make of It: the Social Construction of Power Politics" in International Organization (46:2, Spring 1992), p.396
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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."
  14. 1 2 Martha Finnemore, National Interests In International Society (New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), p.2
  15. Martha Finnemore, National Interests In International Society (New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), pp.6-7
  16. Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp.29-33
  17. The Culture of National Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996)
  18. Thomas J. Biersteker and Cynthia Weber, eds., State Sovereignty As Social Construct (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)
  19. Rodney Bruce Hall, National Collective Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999)
  20. Daniel Philpott, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001)
  21. Kathleen R. McNamara, The Currency of Ideas: Monetary Politics in the European Union (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999)
  22. Mark Blyth Great Transformations: Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)
  23. Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, ed. "Bridging the Gap: Towards a Realist-Constructivist Dialogue" in International Studies Review vol. 6, 2004, pp. 337-352
  24. Andrew Moravscik, Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics" in International Organization vol. 51, 1997
  25. Cornelia Beyer, "Hegemony, Equilibrium and Counterpower: A Synthetic Approach", in International Relations vol 23:3, 2009
  26. Jennifer Sterling-Folker, Realism and the Constructivist Challenge: Rejecting, Reconstructing, or Rereading, International Studies Review, 4(1), pg. 73–97, 2002.
  27. Jennifer Sterling-Folker, Theories of International Cooperation and the Primacy of Anarchy: Explaining U.S. International Monetary Policy-Making after Bretton Wood, State University of New York Press, 2002.
  28. Maja Zehfuss, Constructivism in International Relations: The Politics of Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  29. Jeffrey Checkel, “Social Constructivisms in Global and European Politics” in Review of International Studies Vol.30, 2004
  30. Iver B. Neumann, "Returning Practice to the Linguistic Turn: The Case of Diplomacy" in Millennium: Journal of International Studies vol. 31, 2002
  31. Ted Hopf, Social Construction of International Politics: Identities & Foreign Policies, Moscow, 1955 and 1999 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002)
  32. Vincent Pouliot, "The Logic of Practicality: A Theory of Practice of Security Communities" in International Organization vol. 62, 2008
  33. Austin, Jonathan Luke., 2015. "We have never been civilized: Torture and the Materiality of World Political Binaries." European Journal of International Relations, doi:10.1177/1354066115616466
  34. Cudworth, E. and Hobden, S, 2013. “Of parts and wholes: International Relations beyond the human.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies', 41(3), pp.430-450.
  35. Barry, A., 2013. “Material Politics.” Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  36. Leander, A., 2013. “Technological agency in the co-constitution of legal expertise and the US drone program.” Leiden Journal of International Law', 26(4), pp.811-831.

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