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Constructivism as International Relations Theory Essay

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Updated: Aug 7th, 2020


Constructivism emerged in 1989 as a possible replacement to the realist and liberal paradigms that had been dominant at the time. It had been introduced by Nicholas Greenwood Onuf. Soon, various theorists such as Wendt and Katzenstein popularized it within the realm of international relations (IR). Constructivism focuses on the meanings associated with material objects, as opposed to the objects themselves. Such a focus implies that the same object, say, a nuclear weapon, may carry diverse meanings in different countries. Constructivists maintain that reality is the product of social construction. As such, they [constructivists] attach greater importance on ‘norm’ development compared to their counterparts who ascribe to the realist and liberal paradigms. This paper elaborates on the various aspects that define constructivism as a major theory in international relations.

The Main Factors that Helped to Bring Constructivism to the Forefront in the Study of International Relations

Various scholars such as Wendt and Katzenstein played an important role in popularizing constructivism across the world. The scholars were determined to explore unvisited areas of theoretical and conceptual aspects of international relations. They believed that variables such as military power and international institutions were not important on their own, but rather because of the social meanings that they had been assigned.

The explanation offered by this new wave of scholars appeared more persuasive relative to what neorealists and neoliberals had provided earlier. For example, contemporary constructivists seek to elaborate that states act in their best interests at the international stage. In line with this argument, constructivists maintain that state sovereignty is a norm that stems directly from an attitude of self-preservation by states. By focusing on state identity, constructivism offers a persuasive explanation of why states behave the way they do. This perspective makes the theory more relatable relative to previous theories, a situation that promotes its adoption in international relations.

Neorealists and neoliberals failed to foresee the end of the Cold War, thus opening loopholes for constructivism to emerge as an alternative theory. Because of this failure, questions arose regarding the explanatory and analytical capabilities of these earlier theories. As a result, constructivism thrived, with its proponents raising fundamental questions about the nature of social science and hence international relations. By challenging the existing paradigms, constructivism attracted much criticism, which only helped to popularize the theory. Critics such as Barkin took the view that constructivism provided little knowledge and/or hypotheses regarding state behavior (166). At the same time, the end of the Cold War set the state for constructivism to spread as its major proponents called for a reevaluation of the debates surrounding international relations. In the end, the concept of constructivism grew as an opposition to the earlier theories.

Another reason was the existence of many disappointed choice-oriented scholars who showed immense enthusiasm at the emergence of the new constructivist perspectives. Many of these theorists felt that the existing theories did not offer adequate scholarship on the subject of international relations. Also, they felt that liberalism and realism did not capture the social nature of international relations. Up to date, realists and liberal theorists view IR as a discourse that is defined by pre-social conditions. Conversely, constructivists maintain that social interactions and choices, which are informed by a sense of identity, define international relations.

Therefore, this sociological approach appeals to scholars who oppose the view that the field of international relations is shaped solely by material capabilities. The ending of the Cold War further strengthened the feeling that the earlier paradigms had failed at explaining international relations. This situation increased the steadfastness of these theorists to explore alternative approaches. Therefore, when Nicholas Greenwood Onuf introduced constructivism in 1989, a huge section of choice-oriented theorists was already willing to adopt it.

The Main Differences between the Rationalists and Constructivists

Constructivism and rationalism dictate how international relations should be studied. This claim is contrary to the belief by many that the theories address international relations in general. Despite being viewed as theories that complement one another, stark differences are evident. For instance, the concept of rationalism projects that persons can be studied without linking them to their respective social structures. Hence, societal structures do not influence human beings’ endeavors. Instead, their actions are determined by strategic rationality.

Therefore, depending on the communicated ideas, human beings are capable of changing their preferences and interests. On the other hand, the concept of constructivism supposes that actions are dependent on the various ontological assumptions, which are sometimes premeditated. Therefore, if a person is in harmony with specific proceedings, the actions may be executed without reason. The same agreement is responsible for a person’s preferences and interests. Constructivism further stipulates that a person’s actions are only capable of being changed through argumentative speech that is typical in most interactions (Panke 232). Rationalists perceive interactions as products of bargaining. This distinction is an advantage to those who are perceived as weak since they stand a chance to freely project their interests and preferences.

Due to the bargaining aspect, rationalists can complement one another in case of divergent views. On the contrary, constructivists view conversations as a process of arguing. As a result, they rarely seek to disagree with hypotheses, provided they are not false. Rationalists have strategic preferences and substantial exogenous interests. On the other hand, constructivists pay less attention to strategic preferences and substantial endogenous interests (Panke 235). Constructivists prefer paying attention to research questions that have already been explored by rationalists. As a result, most of the constructivist theories of peace and war in the international arena are sources of their hypotheses. Rationalists believe in the power of self-interested agents while constructivists believe in the power of other-regarding agents.

Contrary to the rationalists, constructivists do not subscribe to materialism. On the other hand, rationalists believe that actions result from belief and desire. In the international realm, its ideal has shaped the Islamic belief that the availability and significance of ideas do not amount to material power. According to them, norms are more superior to ideas that are generated by religions. In this regard, Muslims have also joined the international war on terror, which in most cases is perpetrated by Islamic groups. Terror groups such as Al-Qaeda believe in the Islamic ideology of jihad. As a result, its members presume that they are supposed to fight anyone who does not subscribe to their religion. The war of ideas that is common in America supposes that everyone’s ideas should be taken seriously. Rationalists encourage the bargaining of norms while constructivists insist on the creation of new norms. Rationalists insist on the logic of consequence while constructivists insist on appropriateness. Also, rationalists are of the view that norms are followed only when they benefit the actors while constructivists claim that they (norms) are followed because they are right (Karacasulu and Uzgören 32). Hence, rationalists do not have preferences when it comes to the application of norms.

Constructivism’s Assumptions

In line with Muirhead’s arguments, it is crucial to appreciate the various assumptions that underlie the concept of constructivism (17). The school of thought is founded on four assumptions. Firstly, the theory assumes that learners’ prior information construction leads to fresh learning. This assumption implies that teachers are expected to present materials that can strengthen learners’ current understanding, a goal that is only feasible if the content bears new elements that are to be subjected to students. The assumption acknowledges the fact that learners’ prevailing psychological comprehension model not only assists them to be familiar with humanity but also to construe the fresh content that is presented via the particular structure (Muirhead 18). In other terms, the concept of constructivism supposes that knowledge is built and that any form of education comes about, thanks to the construction endeavor.

Secondly, the theory assumes that learners’ psychological structure is developed through adaptation and accommodation. This assumption is founded on the claim that if learners are not able to understand the fresh content, they stand another chance of being accustomed to such strange materials through the process of constructing advanced intellectual units that form fresh understanding (Muirhead 20). In line with this assumption, it is crucial to note that although students develop their comprehension together in class (as a group), every learner bears a unique imperceptible perspective, which he or she considers identical to the views of all of his or her colleagues. Such an exceptional perception continues to be indistinguishable unless another scholar questions its validity using a different counterargument or theory.

Thirdly, constructivism assumes that knowledge acquisition is a natural discovery-oriented procedure, as opposed to an involuntary course of action (Muirhead 20). In other words, this assumption acknowledges learners’ capacity to put forward, envisage, maneuver, and/or construct information as an evocative education course instead of instinctively acquiring details in class. According to Muirhead, information that learners construct relies on the materials that their instructors present to them (23). Consequently, it is imperative to position learning in a reliable, applicable, and practical perspective. As a result, through analyzing and incorporating the fresh knowledge into the already established education models, learners develop evocative scholarship where their intellectual developmental aptitude holds a central position in the process of learning and information absorption (Muirhead 22).

Lastly, the theory assumes that people’s knowledge acquisition process is developed in an environment that requires the application of intercessory strategies, paraphernalia, and/or symbols. For instance, individuals who embrace a particular way of life may establish an instrument or a plan that may help to address an issue that is unique to the community. However, the establishment of such a plan has the potential of altering the way the members interact or handle their problems. In other words, although the established mechanism is meant to help the community to attain a particular objective, the continued application of the strategy ends up transforming the culture. The recent upgrading of communication and transportation means such as computers, mobile phones, and vehicles offers an excellent example of how the introduction of various tools may alter people’s culture. Besides, verbal communication plays the role of a negotiation method, which makes knowledge development a collective process.

Tensions within Constructivism

A major controversy arises from the fact that constructivism introduces scientific methods into international relations. As a result, constructivism is divided into positivist and post-positivist sections, which are identified by their view of epistemological questions and approaches that people view as useful concerning these positions (Hurd 307). According to a positivist epistemology, the socially defined international system is composed of patterns that are prone to a generalizable hypothesis. Such patterns result from the underlying regulations that dictate social relations. As such, the laws can be identified through scientific research. Positivist epistemology maintains that global politics can be examined through the scope of a cause-and-effect approach similar to the experiments in physical sciences. Conversely, postpositivists take the view that data on social life is not exactly objectifiable. Hence, social relationships cannot be separated into discrete “causes” and “effects” (Hurd 307). For this reason, post-positivists argue that social laws are contingent, as opposed to them existing naturally and with impartiality.

Another tension in the constructivist camp arises from the scholars’ inability to agree on the nature of the international regime. This disagreement can be traced in the debate on whether the international system should be classified as “anarchy” (Griffiths and O’Callaghan 64). Most constructivists ascribe to the concept termed as “anarchy problematique” (Hurd 308). Anarchy problematique holds that lawlessness exists among states where it forms an important part of the international system (Ashley 227). Additionally, hierarchy is seen as an alternative to anarchy where states relate based on how much power each party commands. However, constructivists entertain the idea that the changing social relations at the international stage could result in a non-anarchic system. This view introduces the notion of authority where the subordinate state would be obliged to follow the directives of a more superior actor. Constructivists who argue in favor of authority refer to international bodies, both public and private.

Another controversy regarding constructivism is caused by the diversity within it as a movement. As such, numerous scholars with diverse views identify themselves as constructivists. As a result, different positions exist regarding the same aspect, for example, norm development. As Hurd points out, the inter-subjective nature of constructivism means that no objective social reality exists but only social interaction (306). Thus, since the conceptions that shape the constructivist agenda are inter-subjective, they are open to frequent change. As a further consequence, constructivist debates become difficult to follow, hence resulting in uncertainties. Perhaps a solution would be to identify the “good” constructivists who can be deployed as the point of reference for constructivism. This move may cause many constructionist voices to be blocked out. However, it would have the benefit of making constructivism a more objective field within the scholarly world.

Four Principal Contributions of Constructivism to the Study of International Relations

Constructivism has led to a shift from the materialistic point of view. Constructivists posit that it is through the social concepts that material forces that define the meaning of human life are understood. Therefore, constructivism does not entirely trash the notion of idealism. However, a materialistic approach does not conclusively explain why, for example, the United States, would view British missiles as less dangerous compared to those of North Korea (Hurd 300). On the contrary, constructivism helps in understanding the devastating effect that nuclear weapons would have on a country regardless of its origin. According to constructivists, international affairs go hand in hand with interpretations, beliefs, and expectations (Hurd 301). The contribution of constructivism to international relations has forced proponents of materialism in international relations to include both the non-material and socially constructed interests. Constructivism has also helped in shaping world politics. Many political leaders are embracing the socially constructed perspectives of issues.

Secondly, the topic of international relations cannot be complete without mentioning national interests and foreign policy. Constructivism has been instrumental in this area because of its perspectives on social content. Such perspectives are correlated with the development of international relations. History projects that North Korean missiles have particularly been hostile towards America. As a result, American leaders have often been at the forefront of the fight against missiles directed at innocent persons (Hurd 302). Due to the development of nuclear weapons, America has tried to maintain a good relationship with the militaries of other states by offering aid. Therefore, it has become challenging to correctly construe the interests of the Americans because these social relationships are not constant. In this regard, the United States is only interested in safeguarding its interests and not those of other countries. Military relationships are only meant to be a mutually beneficial relationship.

Thirdly, constructivism is more concerned with the social construction of identities and interests. These institutions and agents make up the international scene. In this perspective, the rivalry between North Korea and the United States results from the ongoing interactions that threaten the countries’ social context. The interactions determine the continuation or an end to the enmity. The constructivist approach to co-constitution is that the norms that contribute to international life arise from the actions of states. In the process, a high possibility of redefining the actors and institutions that make up the international scene is witnessed. According to constructivism, states change their norms only when it is necessary to tolerate their behavior. This claim is evidenced when they (states) invoke Article 2 (4) and 51 of the UN Charter whenever they use force under the disguise of self-defense (Hurd 304).

Fourthly, the constructivist theory embraces the idea that international anarchy has various interpretations. According to Hurd, anarchy refers to a situation where no legitimate institution or authority is available in a social system (304). Constructivists view anarchy as an outcome of rivalry between units over scarce resources. In the international scene, rivalry can best be understood by critically studying the social construction of various states. To understand social construction, learners should be made aware that relationships are not constant and that they vary according to economic times.


The constructivist theory is built on the argument that the subject of international relations is guided by social construction as opposed to material capabilities. This theory emerged on the verge of the collapse of the Cold War to challenge the pre-existing theories of international trade. The concept of constructivism is founded on the premise that momentous elements in the field of intercontinental affairs are developed conventionally and socially. The school of thought does not perceive such elements as foreseeable outcomes of people’s existence or other indispensable components of global politics. Instead, the constructivist subject that prevails in the contemporary study of education and knowledge uptake upholds active, as opposed to impulsive learning and participation in genuine affairs, which are witnessed within the societal culture and/or day-to-day happenings. Despite its apparent weaknesses, constructivism remains instrumental to date in explaining the nature of international relations and state behavior.

Works Cited

Ashley, Richard. “Untying the Sovereign State: A Double Reading of the Anarchy Problematique,” Millennium, vol. 17, no. 2, 2008, pp. 227-262.

Barkin, Samuel. Realist Constructivism: Rethinking International Relations Theory. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Griffiths, Martin, and Terry O’Callaghan. International Relations: The Key Concepts. Routledge, 2014.

Hurd, Ian. Constructivism: The Oxford Handbook of International Relations. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Karacasulu, Nilüfer, and Elif Uzgören. “Explaining Social Constructivist Contributions to Security Studies.” Perceptions, vol. 1, no.1, 2007, pp. 27-48.

Muirhead, Brent. “Creating Concept Maps: Integrating Constructivism Principles into Online Classes.” International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, vol. 3, no. 1, 2006, pp. 17-30.

Panke, Diana. “How to Combine Rationalist and Constructivist Accounts of International Politics. Building Bridges on Terra Firma.” International Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 2004, pp. 229-244.

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