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In the field of international relations, constructivism stands for the belief that crucial features of international relations are collectively and historically conditional, rather than predictable effects of human nature and other vital elements of world politics. Nicholas Onuf came up with the term “constructivism” to represent theories that emphasize on the socially constructed nature of international relations.
Theorists like “Nicholas Onuf, Richard Ashley, John Ruggie, and Friedrich Kratochwil contributed greatly to the development of the modern constructivist theory”.1 However, Alexander Wendit is renowned for his work in promoting social constructivism in the area of international relations.
Constructivism mainly tries to show how vital elements of international relations are socially constructed as opposed to the suppositions of Neoliberalism and Neorealism. In other words, constructivism attempts to show how interactions and some enduring processes of societal practices shape the elements of international relations.
Alexander Wendit posits that the constitutions of human interactions are determined mainly by collective dreams and not by material forces. Moreover, he claims that nature does not give birth to the interests and identities of purposive actors. Wendit asserts that these interests and identities are hatched by mutual dreams.
Interests and identities
As constructivists oppose the findings made by Neorealists on how anarchy contributes to the actions that international actors portray, they try as much as possible to distance themselves from the neorealism’s primary materialism. Constructivists believe that the essentials of self-help system barely preside over the international actors.2
Hence, to analyze and understand how international actors behave, it is imperative to put into consideration their interests and identities. Just like the state of the international systems, “constructivists perceive such interests and identities as not dispassionately entrenched in material forces (like dictates of human temperament that fortify Classical Realism)”.3
Instead, they believe that such interests and identities hinge on dreams and collective constructions of such dreams. In other words, “the significances of objects, actors, and ideas all emanate from social interaction.”4
Martha Finnemore has played a critical role in determining how global organizations contribute to the courses of the collective construction of actor’s insights of their interests.
In her book, National Interests in International Society, Finnemore tries “to come up with a general approach to learning state behavior and state interests by scrutinizing a global structure, not of influence, but of social value and meaning.”5 Martha claims that interests are widely created through social relations and they are never out there waiting for the actors to discover them.
Levels of constructivism
Constructivism can be perceived under two levels. The first level is the individual inner state level. Mainly, constructivism focuses on the inner qualities of particular states and communities to their possible behavior as well as interests. All constructivists concur that national interests are tricky. Unlike in realism, constructivism does not take state interests for granted.
Constructivism does not rule out that state’s interests might be materialistic in nature. However, it posits that the interests do not necessary have to be materialistic and may emanate from cultural values. Constructivism and liberal theories relate to a certain degree. Nonetheless, constructivism is the source of all theories that focus on cultural and other perception-based variations between countries.
In a bid to understand constructivism, one ought to have a clear understanding of rationality. Rationality is a comparative occurrence in constructivism. What may appear irrational to one state may be rational to another country. Rationality depends on “how different communities or countries perceive their ends and approaches to employ in realizing those ends.”6
Where culture is the foundation of approaches and ends, then it is possible to witness very diverse thoughts of “rationality” across the globe. In addition, there are two types of rationality. In most cases, people submit to the instrumental rationality, which stresses on the sound harmonization of approaches and ends. This type of rationality overlooks the material interests, such as self-preservation.
According to Max Weber, another type of rationality focuses on values. Weber calls this type of rationality “the “value-rational” behavior and it delves on ideas, norms, and values.”7 The rationality may be individual, physical, and material well-being in the chase for a higher objective.
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For instance, one may end up dying in the hands of the riot police during a protest, and the outcome perceived as value-rational since it meets the individual’s objective of achieving liberty or fairness for his or her people. Looking at the same incidence from the instrumentally rational dimension, the incidence may appear irrational.
Value-rational practices of an individual may appear instrumentally rational to another individual or group of individuals, like if people use a demonstration as an avenue to oust a repressive regime. At times, it may be hard to come up with a clear distinction between the two forms of rationality.
The second level on which constructivism “operates on is the systemic or structural level.”8 At this level, scholars like Wendt claim that countries partake in social relations that develop meaning regardless of the prevailing material environment.
For instance, “the United States engages in a very diverse social relationship with France and the Great Britain relative to Iran and North Korea…these social relationships allow the United States to see the intentions by Britain and France to come up with nuclear weapons as less harmful relative to the intentions by Iran and North Korea.”9
Realists would claim that the United States ought to respond uniformly to the intentions by all these countries to come up with nuclear weapons. Wendt claims that the establishment of inter-subjective understanding and meaning determines if the countries in question are in a cooperative or contentious relationship.
Hence, at the systemic level of constructivism, the prevailing relationships amongst countries and communities generate interests and opinions.
Strands of constructivism
There are numerous strands of constructivism, which range from those that emphasize on interpretative character of social science and turndown scientific-model of theorizing to those that accommodate the use of experimental theoretical insights in coming up with explanations for international relations.
Largely speaking, as an extensively debated theory of international relations, constructivism has been split into two major strands, viz. the European and the North American strands.10 The two strands differ mainly because of the questions asked in the effort to understand international relations and the approach they use in answering these questions.
The North American strand stresses on the role of identities and social norms in molding international relations and shaping the results of foreign policy.11
Intellectuals that seek to understand contributory relationships and mechanisms between norms, actors, identity, and interests follow this strand of constructivism. Theorists like Alexander Wendt, Nicholas Onuf, Emanuel Adler, and John Ruggie fall under this strand. This strand underlines the conventional constructivism in the United States.
On the other hand, the European strand focuses significantly on the role of language, social discourse, and linguistic constructions in establishing social reality.
Scholars that are mainly interpretivists dominate this strand. These scholars are not concerned with understanding the effects and causes of changes in identity as the conventional constructivist.12 Instead, they focus on investigating the chances of prospects for such changes as well as the factors that lead to the changes using inductive research methods. Theorists like Ted Hopf and Freidrich Kratochwil fall under this strand.13
From a different dimension, constructivism, as developed during the 1990s, has been split into three distinct forms. These forms include holistic, systemic, and unit-level. Alexander Wendt’s writings exemplify systemic constructivism. The writings mainly focus on the relationship between single state players.
They focus on what happens between the players rather than what happens within the players. Systemic constructivism is believed to distance itself from countries’ home politicking and its function in molding or changing their interests and identities.14 On the other hand, unit-level constructivism is the antithesis of systemic constructivism.
Peter Katzenstein reinforces the ideas of unit-level constructivist theory. Unit-level constructivism delves on the countries’ home political kingdom. In other words, it focuses on the interactions between domestic lawful and common norms, and interests and identities of countries, and thus their state security policies.
Holistic constructivists “come at the meeting point of unit-level and systemic constructivism.”15 This form of constructivism attempts to bridge the rift between domestic and international norms by explaining how national interests and identities are established.
Friedrich and Ruggie’s writings epitomize holistic constructivism, which underscores the constructivism form that seeks to bring together the locally established communal identities of nations and their globally driven collective identities. In so doing, it tries to establish a cohesive analytical system that perceives local and global as two facades of a solitary political and social order.
Eventually, among the different strands of constructivism that focus on international relations from nuanced dimensions and thus upholding conflicting directions, the constructivist theories of Richard Lebow deserve due thought. Portraying a naturally cultural and psychological consideration on global politics, Lebow comes up with a culture-based theory of international relations.16
He develops his theory based on hypothetical formulations of key human intentions and identity establishments. He categorizes these intentions and identity establishments as appetite, reason, spirit, and fear. Moreover, he comes up with a political paradigm that attempts to describe the varied modes of political organization and governance.
The model attempts to explain the varied modes of governance and political order dating from the primordial Greece to the recent Iraq war.
Challenging realism and liberalism
During the constructivism seminal period, neorealism was the principal talk of international relations. Hence, most of the constructivism’s initial hypothetical works focused on taxing particular fundamental neorealist suppositions. Neorealists are causative structuralists.
This assertion implies that they believe in the notion that most of the critical content of global politics is elucidated by the construction of global systems, an assumption that was first coined by Kenneth Waltz. In particular, international politics aspects are mainly subject to the anarchy that is prevalent in the international system. International system is short of dominant authority.
Instead, it comprises of numerous autonomous states.17 According to neorealists, such a system compels countries to behave in definite ways. The countries in question can turn to no one, in particular, to guarantee them of their state security.
The manner in which anarchy compels them to adopt certain behaviors in an attempt to maintain their state security it elucidates most of the international relations, according to neorealists. Due to this aspect, neorealists are predisposed to taking no notice of elucidations of international relations at the state or unit level.
Constructivism as one of the social theories stresses on the collective construction of global affairs contrary to the claims by Neorealist that resolutions or behaviors of egoist actors influence and shape international politics. According to neorealists, egoistic actors use utilitarian calculations to follow their interests in an effort to cut down on their losses and maximize on their profits.18
Consequently, realists believe that international relations are materialistic in nature as parties attempt to benefit materially from these interactions.
Even though some intellectuals claim that constructivism is gradually establishing a novel convention in the international relations theory, it still stands out as one of the authentic major alternative to international relation theories that are conventionally entrenched like neoliberalism and neorealism.
Moreover, constructivism is one of the unique approaches to international relations that emphasize on the ideational, intersubjective, and social feature of global politics. The main hypothesis of constructivism is that the global system is collectively constructed, which implies that the international system entails the ways in which people relate with each other as well as how they think.
Constructivism challenges realism, which claims that international relations depend on national security and material things. Moreover, constructivism challenges liberal internationalism, which exposes the mutuality of global actors and their actions within institutional boundaries.
Wendt uses the concept of intersubjective meaning to elucidate the relationship amongst countries. Nevertheless, the concept’s application is not restricted to arcane debate of international relations theory. In spite of the intersubjective meaning coming out as a threatening intellectual term, its meaning is rather insightful and straightforward.
It refers to “mutual understanding and the credence about importance, meaning, and temperament of things”19. Intersubjective meaning may be shared among numerous parties. Individuals encounter intersubjective meaning in their day-to-day activities. An intimate relationship between lovers is one of the best examples of intersubjective meaning.
“Passionate meaning and ideas imbue the relationship between lovers, for identities to change, the actors ought to continually reconstruct and update the intersubjective meaning.”20 Based on Wendt’s hypothetical perspective, countries initiate their relationships with a plain slate.
At the beginning, nothing prompts them to collaboration or to variance.21 The starting relations are crucial, as they are responsible for establishing the intersubjective meaning between the involved states.22
For the interaction between the United States and Iran, one may assert that the intersubjective meaning was set on a negative path when Iran surfaced from the uproar of the massive uprising in 1978. The Image that Iranians had towards the Western imperialism led to the establishment of a country that was against everything attributed to the United States and the West in general.
Constructivism perceives international relations as a subject of relation that is molded by the participants’ actions and identities. Moreover, it sees international relations as controlled by persistently changing prescriptive institutional structures.
Unlike realism, constructivism holds that national goals like economic development and ontological security, which are materialistic in nature and immaterial goals like standing and international recognition are engendered by their collective corporate identities or by how they perceive themselves relative to other participants in the global community.23
In situations where liberalists and realists perceive international players as intrinsically pre-social “atomistic egotist” whose interests are established “before social relation” and who instigate such a relation exclusively for material benefit and “deliberate purpose,” for constructivists players are inherently “collective” beings whose interests and identities are the outcomes of inter-subjective social configurations.
In disputing the claim that the international relations configurations are collectively established, the constructivist theory challenges the rationalist and materialist support of the traditional mainstream international relations theory.
Constructivism theory (which has varied foci and forms and thus some people view it as an approach to the analysis of global politics) posits that these configurations influence players’ interests and identities instead of just their behavior.24
The disparagement between constructivists and neorealists’ points of view is principally resulting from their views of the temperament of configuration. In simple terms, while neorealists perceive universal configurations as made entirely of distribution of material capacities, the constructivists maintain that they also comprise collective relations that are themselves established by three features.
These features are actions, material resources, and mutual knowledge. This aspect underlines the reason why “constructivist theorists promote a sociological structuralism and vehemently oppose micro-economic structuralism.”25
What constructivists imply by social construction of the global politics is that it is established through a course of contact between states, individuals, and non-state players and the configuration of their wider environment. In other words, constructivists believe that international relations come because of a collective constitution between configurations and participants.
According to neorealists, anarchy is one of the determining factors of international relations. They posit that anarchy makes conflict and competition eternal strong promises, and hence the international relations a further conflictual than diplomatic environment.26
On the other hand, constructivists believe that anarchy alone is insignificant since it can hardly result in a prearranged condition of associations among the state players. Instead, what makes sense for constructivists is that anarchy may lead to the establishment of varied social configurations and arrangements and conflictual and cooperative environments based on the players collective identities.
Wendt posits that anarchy depends on what the public makes out of it. He posits, “The state of global anarchy seems to be conflictual if countries portray a conflictual attitude towards one another and it appears cooperative if countries cooperate with one another.”27 Consequently, based on Wendt’s postulation, one may claim that there is no pre-established nature of global anarchy.
Instead, the involved nations establish the prevailing nature of global anarchy based on how they relate with one another. Therefore, with such a perception in mind, one ought to focus on the actions of the involved states, which on the other hand depend on their interests and identities to have a clear picture of what constitutes cooperation and conflict in international relations.
Following the constructivist believe in variable character and the anarchy debate, constructivism maintains the perception that nations’ interests and identities in international relations are also prone to change. Just as “anarchy is short of a constant nature and is subject to players’ interests and identities, interests and identities are also short of such stability and fixity and are subject to states’ practices and actions.”28
Constructivists do not underrate the role anarchy that plays in international relations. Hence, they attribute the nature of a collection of states to the inevitable requirements of anarchy.
Nevertheless, what is of great significance to them is to learn how the roles that some states play in international relations help in addressing the challenges of national interests and identities. With palpable focus on, and proclivity towards the sociality of global politics, constructivism relative to neorealism rests appropriate weight on collective interactions in the global system.
More appreciably, the connotation of material capacities in language of influence hinges on the foundation of social relations and mutual understandings. This aspect implies that mutual understandings give meaning to social relations. Constructivists maintain that the reality of the global system is not distinctive from the “human ideas” of it and socio-cultural perspectives of international relations.
They castigate international relations theorists that are science-oriented since they overlook critical sociological aspects. According to the constructivists, “social configurations that are neither unchanging nor fixed mold the preferences and identities of global actors.”29
Critique of constructivism
Constructivism exhibits shows some strong aspects. It offers a hypothetical platform for cultural elucidation of global politics. It elucidates why a country may be in a good relationship with one state and be in a bad relationship with another in the absence of the loyal material veracity of the world.
Moreover, constructivism facilitates in the explanation of the noticeable distinctions in actions and attitudes across various countries and communities including actions that may appear irrational.30 Nevertheless, constructivism has some flaws. It hardly gives adequate authority to the material veracities of the world. Systemic constructivism is ill-fitted to tackle ambiguity.
Realism would propose that a country that assumes a constructivist point of view towards the world is inexperienced. A country may befriend the other with intentions to benefit from it when the right time comes. Today, the primary issue is to determine if nations can address uncertainty, anarchy, security challenges, and base interactions without turning to material considerations.
Constructivism’s significant and wide-ranging sway, which was mostly palpable in 1990s and early 2000s, possibly emanates from the fact that all that constructivism states appear as reasonable arguments. Constructivism’s insights apply to personal encounters in life. Individuals’ interests and identities keep on changing with time.
For this reason, “countries perceive the global environment as a cooperative or conflictual aspect”.31 Constructivism’s stress on the agential capability of countries in making global systems and influencing its path allows it to evade the snare of determinism into which most of the conservative international relations theories fall.
Moreover, “constructivism establishes a bridge between neoliberalist perceptions and neorealist ideas by analyzing the temperament of global anarchy based on practices and decisions made by different countries”.32 Repeating Weber’s sentiments, one may assert that constructivism offers something for everyone.
Nevertheless, this does not imply that the constructivist theories that focus on international relations do not have flaws.
Poststructuralists, for instance, focus on its “state-centrism” and claim that constructivism, especially the conventional strand, falls into a similar snare like the one it claims that neorealism falls into in its arguments,33 viz. while neorealists regard and adopt the organization of global anarchy; constructivists regard and adopt the state itself.
Adler, Emanuel. “Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics.” European Journal of International Relations 3, no. 3 (1997): 319-363.
Checkel, Jeffrey. “Social Constructivisms in Global and European Politics.” Review of International Studies 30, no.1 (2004): 128-136.
Finnemore, Martha. National Interests in International Society. New York: Cornell University Press, 1996.
Guzzini, Stefano. “A Reconstruction of Constructivism in International Relations.” European Journal of International Relations 6, no. 2 (2000): 147-182.
Jackson, Patrick. “Bridging the Gap: Towards a Realist-Constructivist Dialogue.” International Studies Review 6, (2004): 337-352.
Moravscik, Andrew. “Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics.” International Organization 51, no. 3 (1997): 134-158.
Pouliot, Vincent. “The Logic of Practicality: A Theory of Practice of Security Communities.” International Organization 62, no. 1 (2008): 76-92.
Ruggie, John. “What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge.” International Organization (CUP) 52, no. 4 (1998): 855.
Searle, John. Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World. New York: Basic Books, 1998.
Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy is What States Make of It: the Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organization 46, no. 2 (1992): 399–403.
1 Emanuel Adler, “Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics,” European Journal of International Relations 3, no. 3 (1997): 335.
2 Stefano, Guzzini, “A Reconstruction of Constructivism in International Relations,” European Journal of International Relations 6, no. 2 (2000): 176.
5 Martha Finnemore, National Interests in International Society (New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), 34.
6 Guzzini, p.149.
7 Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, “Bridging the Gap: Towards a Realist-Constructivist Dialogue,” International Studies Review 6, (2004): 337-348.
8 Adler, p.347.
9 Adler, p. 345.
10 Jeffrey Checkel, “Social Constructivisms in Global and European Politics,” Review of International Studies 30, no.1 (2004): 131.
11 Andrew Moravscik, “Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics,” International Organization 51, no. 3 (1997): 141.
12 Vincent Pouliot, “The Logic of Practicality: A Theory of Practice of Security Communities,” International Organization 62, no. 1 (2008): 78.
13 Guzzini, p.162.
14 Finnemore, p.37
15 Ibid, p.48.
16 Jackson, p. 342
17 John Ruggie, “What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge,” International Organization (CUP) 52, no. 4 (1998): 855.
18 John Searle, Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 123.
19 Jackson, p.349.
20 Ibdi, p.349
21 Adler, p.362.
22 Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is What States Make of It: the Social Construction of Power Politics,” International Organization 46, no. 2 (1992): 401.
23 Guzzini, p.176.
24 Pouliot, p. 83.
25 Ruggie, p. 859
26 Guzzini, p.177
27 Wendt, p.403
28 Searle, p.127
29 Adler, p. 360
30 Moravscik, p.158.
31 Checkel, p.136.
32 Ibdi, p.139.
33 Wendt, p. 400.