Constructivism: International Relations Theory in Brief

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Constructivism is one of the basic theories of international relations. Its central tenet is that most or even all important elements of international politics are the product of specific social circumstances and historical processes, rather than being inevitable consequences of the nature of humans or the nature of politics. This willingness to see international relations as socially constructed sets constructivism apart from traditional approaches to realism and liberalism. Significant authors include Alexander Wendt, John Ruggie, and Martha Finnemore.

The more radical branches of constructivism, involving (for example) poststructuralist and postmodernist analysis of discourse and linguistics, are technically constructivist but must be described separately to appreciate their significance.

Basic Principles

The basic observation of constructivism is that human relations are guided more by ideas than by material things. It emerged as an explicit challenge to Kenneth Waltz’s neorealism, which argued that state behaviour was determined by the international system in which states existed and operated. Instead, constructivists note that someone (or rather, many people) must have constructed that system in the first place; in fact, that system is continually being built, modified, and rebuilt as we speak.

Where realist approaches thus assumed that states’ identities and interests were fixed and relatively unproblematic, constructivists assume this is not the case, and look for ways that how states perceive of themselves and their actions have changed. This is not to say that an international system does not exist or that smaller states, in particular, do not often feel pressured by it; instead, it merely points out that international society is, in effect, what human beings make it to be.

The constructivist challenge offers valuable insights into many of the concepts taken for granted by conventional realist, liberal, and to a lesser extent Marxist analysis. The concept of international anarchy, for example, is found to be considerably more flexible than realists imagine. Traditionally, anarchy (the lack of a single overarching power structure defining hierarchical relationships between states) is seen by neorealists as the cause of insecurity and conflict between states. However, this is only one conception of the consequences of anarchy, which most states happen to have adopted as true. Alternatively, international human society could be organized on a cooperative basis rather than a competitive basis.

At the same time, constructivists open themselves to a range of criticisms. Mainstream scholars frequently attack critical and social theories in general as leading to obfuscation and incoherence, ignoring the “reality on the ground” in favour of increasingly cluttered academic theorizing. Certain veins of critical theory, however, go much farther than constructivism in attempting to assert the ethical or moral validity of actual alternative conceptions of international systems. Constructivism as such merely asserts that present social structures are socially constructed; it does not suggest what social constructions are preferable to others, nor does it suggest, except in vague terms, how one might consciously alter the continuing evolution of state identity and interest in the international system.

Important Authors

Although Nicholas Onuf (World of Our Making) first employed the term constructivism in the study of international relations, Alexander Wendt (Social Theory of International Politics) is the best-known constructivist scholar, emerging during the 1990s as a direct challenger to the ascendancy of Kenneth Waltz’s neorealism during the 1980s. Wendt first applied constructivist theory to the problem of anarchy, as described above. Other major constructivist scholars include John Ruggie (Constructing the World Polity) and Martha Finnemore (National Interests in International Society).

More radical departures from constructivism are dealt with in a different fact sheet. However, poststructuralist and linguistic and discourse analyses also emerged from similar assumptions during the 1990s. These scholars include Richard Ashley, Friedrich Kratochwil (Rules, Norms and Decisions), R.B.J. Walker(Inside/Outside), and James Der Derian (Antidiplomacy).


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