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Theories and Theorists of International Relations

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What are the core elements of constructivist approaches to international relations theory? Do they share similar referents (“objects of study”) and do they make up for a coherent research agenda?

Introduction

Constructivism as an approach to the study of International Relations (IR) occupies a broad middle ground, situated between positivist and rationalist approaches on the one hand and critical approaches such as post-structuralism on the other hand. The breadth of constructivism makes it more convenient to talk about the plural form of constructivist approaches rather than the singular form constructivism or constructivist theory. Within constructivism one can make a division between those who flirt with positivism on the one side and those who flirt with critical theory on the other side, and this division is not trivial; it makes a distinction between two very different research agendas. These two approaches have been labelled North American and European constructivism by some scholars, but as logic is not geographically contingent this paper will use the labels conventional and consistent constructivism.

Conventional constructivism adheres to scientific realism which implies that it combines a constructivist ontology with a positivist epistemology. As such, it uses an empiricist approach to the generation of objective knowledge about the social world. Consistent constructivism, however, uses a constructivist ontology and epistemology. The implication of that is that consistent constructivism is more capable of accounting for the role of social context and language than conventional constructivism which understands intersubjective meanings as objective, social facts that are detached from language and discourse. The main argument of this paper is that consistent constructivism makes up for a more coherent research agenda than conventional constructivism, but it will also be criticised for not adequately dealing with how power structures or social structural forces may constrain agents’ ability to change intersubjective meanings. This will particularly be discussed in relation to how one can understand the concept of sovereignty.

The paper consists of two sections. Section one will outline the core tenets of constructivism and the theoretical context in which it was developed, and it will illustrate what differentiates the two constructivist approaches being discussed in this paper. Section two will go on to explore the implications of the different ways of theorising in conventional and consistent constructivism in the context of how to understand the concept of sovereignty. It will then be concluded that consistent constructivism is the more coherent of the two approaches, but that it could benefit from engaging more with critical theory.

Conventional and Consistent Constructivism

Before discussing the differences of the two constructivist approaches a brief introduction to some core constructivist elements will be outlined as well as some theoretical/historical context. Constructivism as an IR approach emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Nicholas Onuf’s seminal work Worlds of our Making (1989) and later Alexander Wendt’s article Anarchy is What States Make of it (1992), although certain elements of constructivism can be found in earlier IR traditions such as the English School and even in the work of some of the post-war classical realists. But the emergence of constructivism can partly be seen as a response and challenge to the dominance of positivism and rational choice theory as represented most notably in the neorealist and neoliberal theories and their irrevocable adherence to naturalistic monism, or the idea that the traditional scientific methods of the natural sciences can be transferred to the study of the social sciences.[1] The constructivist critique of neorealism and neoliberalism was as such directed at the deep-rooted and underlying assumptions about science in IR, which can be said to be a part of the ‘third debate’, a debate between explanatory and interpretive approaches, and more generally what science is in the study of IR.[2]

Constructivism sought to move away from the structural determinism of neorealism and bring back agency to the study of IR. Wendt’s Anarchy is What States Make of it was influential in that sense and made a strong argument for the social construction of the consequences of the anarchic structure that all states operate in. He criticised the neorealist and neoliberalist assumptions about the exogenously given identities and interests of states that are assumed to be both universal and static, which leaves little room for the possibility that identities and interests of agents, or states, can change over time through social processes and interactions with other states. In this sense one can say that neorealism has a reproductive logic, whereas constructivism has transformative logic which emphasis historical changes, such as the role of Gorbachev’s Perestroika in ending the Cold War or the emergence of greater human rights concerns in the 1990s as a result of actors’ changing identities and interests.[3] For neorealism, the consequences of the system (anarchy) is a result of the a priori given identities and interests of states, which makes Wendt argue that if these identities and interests can change through social processes and cooperation then it follows that the consequences of anarchy will change a well.[4] Wendt argues, “self-help and power politics do not follow either logically or causally from anarchy and if we today find ourselves in a self-help world, this is due to process, not structure.”[5] Wendt also moved away from the false dichotomy established by Kennet Waltz (1979): that the choice of theory is that of either reductionism or structuralism. For constructivism agents and structures are not separable, they are mutually constituted or co-determined.[6]

In order to discuss the differences between conventional and consistent constructivism one has to turn to the underlying theoretical assumptions about ontology, methodology and epistemology. Conventional constructivism has a constructivist, or sociological, ontology in the sense that it sees the world to consist of not only material and tangible objects but also social facts and intersubjective meanings which are in fact real in the sense that they form a basis for state behaviour, and are therefore important to incorporate into a social theory of international politics. For instance, states’ intersubjective understanding of what constitutes appropriate behaviour (logic of appropriateness) may be an important stimulus for state behaviour and may also restrain states from acting according to the principles of strictly self-interested utility maximising (logic of consequences) with a slight regard for moral concerns.[7] Wendt illustrates this in his discussion on how identities may shape the logic of appropriateness. That logic implies that there is, for instance, a different logic of appropriateness operating in the relationship between two enemies than two close friends, which are social identities that are developed over time through interactions.[8] Although conventional constructivism has constructivist ontology, the epistemology is in fact positivist. Conventional constructivism accepts that there is an objective, yet social, world out there to be studied through conventional scientific inquiry such as empiricism, hypothesis testing and causality. Wendt admits this fact in his book Social Theory of International Politics in which he endorses a scientific approach to social inquiry.[9] And his very attempt to develop a constructivist theory is in itself an indication of his positivist epistemology. The combination of constructivist ontology and positivist epistemology is incoherent in the sense that constructivism and positivism make different ontological assumptions. That means that the positivist epistemology limits the study of the social world to that of an objective social world which is assumed to exist entirely independent from our theorising about it and that there is a separation between ideational and material forces.[10] As such, conventional constructivism is not concerned about the role of language and discourse in shaping our perception of the world. Friedrich Kratochwil problematizes such theorising, “Hardly anyone doubts that the ‘world’ exists ‘independent’ from our minds. The question is rather whether we can recognize it in a pure and direct fashion or whether what we recognize is always already organized and formed by certain categorical and theoretical elements.”[11]

This brings us to consistent constructivism, which focuses on the role of language and discourse in the social construction of the world. This approach employs constructivist ontology and epistemology, which it will be argued is more consistent. It rejects the existence of an objective social world and maintains that language is bound up in the world rather than a mirror of it, but although this approach relates more to poststructuralism it is also distinct from it in the sense that it maintains that the world can indeed be constructed, something which poststructuralism problematizes.[12] The importance of language and discourse in the subjective construction of the social world is illuminated by the distinction between reason and cause, which relates to a constructivist epistemology.[13] In this view, ignoring hermeneutics in the study of the social world is to conflate reason and cause. The distinction is not inconsequential; actors may provide a reason for their actions rooted in a social context which determines what is considered legitimate and appropriate, but this may be, and arguably often is, quite isolated from the cause of the action. For instance, President Bush’ publicly stated reasons for invading Iraq in 2003 were arguably shaped to some degree by the social context of what the American public and the international community would accept as a legitimate cause, but these reasons may not represent a genuine reflection of the cause of the invasion. Reasons are inherently about persuasion in a social context and must be separated from underlying causes. A positivist epistemology cannot discern that difference whereas a constructivist epistemology can.

Sovereignty is what states make of it?

The concept of sovereignty has been a popular ‘social construct’ to study for various constructivists. Thomas Biersteker uses conventional constructivist logic to argue that sovereignty is a social construct which exists by virtue of states’ intersubjective understanding of what sovereignty is, and that sovereignty and the state are mutually constitutive in the sense that states construct the meaning of sovereignty and sovereignty constructs states.[14] For neorealism, the principal unit of analysis, the state, is taken as an ahistorical, universal, and static concept. Those assumptions ignore the historical development of sovereignty, that is, how the meaning of sovereignty has changed throughout time and space. It is undeniable that sovereignty today has a different meaning than in 1648 and that that meaning forms a different basis for state behaviour, but one must also take into account that at the same time in history there can be different understandings of sovereignty, which is evident in the recent emergence of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which is far from universally accepted in state practice.[15] However, although conventional constructivism accounts for the possibility of sovereignty to have different meanings across time and space, it does not take into account how sovereignty may be understood or defined differently by a particular state at a particular point in history. For instance, Russia has used R2P discourse to legitimise its actions in South Ossetia in 2008 and in Crimea in 2014, while stressing the rule of non-intervention in other cases, such as over Syria and also in the aftermath of the NATO intervention in Libya.[16] Similarly, American and Western use of R2P discourse is arguably no less sporadic.

This may suggest that great powers can be more flexible in their interpretation of sovereignty than less powerful ones. This brings into question to what degree sovereignty is defined by the strong and whether sovereignty is more correctly said to be what powerful states make of it and whether sovereignty is in practice defined for someone for some purpose, rather than being the result of more collectively held meanings. Milja Kurki argues, “‘mutual constitution’ assumes conceptually an equality of actors constructing the social world, which can inadvertently gloss over the deep structural hierarchies between them.”[17] A hermeneutic, consistent constructivist approach can better account for how the discourse of sovereignty is defined differently by certain states to justify, or to give a reason, for their actions. This differs from the conventional constructivist understanding of sovereignty in which the meaning of sovereignty may differ across time and space but not within the same time and space.

However, Kurki argues that (consistent) constructivism does not adequately account for how “the wider and structural contexts of social norms and social construction constrain the ability of agents to change intersubjective meanings.”[18] In this sense, consistent constructivism could benefit from recognising to a greater extent whose understanding of social constructions matter more and how that constrains others’ ability to influence intersubjective meanings.  

Conclusion

This paper has argued that conventional and consistent constructivism share a common object of study, which is that of constructivist ontology, or a social world of intersubjective meanings. However, they are divided over epistemology, in which conventional constructivism’s positivist epistemology provide a less coherent research agenda than consistent constructivism which uses a constructivist epistemology. This allows consistent constructivism to focus on language and discourse which influence our perception of the world and thus allow for problematizing the production of objective knowledge claims about the world in which we exist.

It has also been argued that the intersubjective understanding of sovereignty has an extra dimension than the variation across time and space, which is the variation within the same time and space, in which certain states may refer to different, and perhaps contradictory, understandings of sovereignty within the same time period when seeking to justify, or to give reasons, for their actions in which the reasons given are intended to serve the purpose of the underlying cause of those actions. Focusing on language and discourse and the difference between reason and cause can illuminate how the concept of sovereignty is sometimes, to paraphrase Robert Cox, defined for someone for some purpose.

International Affairs Forum Writing Competition Semi-Finalist Torgeir Pande Braathen holds a M.A. in International Relations/Political Science from The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland and a B.A. in International Politics from Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK.  He has also worked at UNICEF Geneva HQ.  His research interests are International Relations Theory, International Security, Humanitarian Action, and Economic Sanctions. 

 

Bibliography

Adler, Emanuel, Constructivism in International Relations: Sources, Contributions, and Debates, 2012

Barry, Ellen, Russians Say Anti-U.S. Attack in Libya Vindicates Their Position New York Times, September 12, 2012, available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/13/world/europe/russians-say-anti-american-attack-in-libya-vindicates-their-position.html?_r=0 (accessed 15/12/14)

Bellamy, Alex J. and Williams, Paul D.  Understanding Peacekeeping 2nd ed. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2010

Biersteker, Thomas, State, Sovereignty, and Territory, 2012

Global R2P, The Georgia-Russia Crisis and the Responsibility to Protect, 2008, available from : http://www.globalr2p.org/publications/132 (accessed 15/12/14)

Justice in Conflict, Russia’s Responsibility to Protect in Ukraine ? March 5, 2014, available from : http://justiceinconflict.org/2014/03/05/russias-responsibility-to-protect-in-ukraine/ (accessed 15/12/14)

Kratochwil, F., Constructing a New Orthodoxy ? Wendt’s ‘Social Theory of

International Politics’ and the Constructivist Challenge, Journal of International Studies, 2000

Kurki, Milja and Sinclair, Adriana, Hidden in Plain Sight : Constructivist treatment of Social Context and its Limitations, International Politics, 2010, 47 :1

Ruggie, John Gerard, What Makes the World Hang Together ? Neo-Utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge, International Organisation, 1998, 52 :04

Tim Dunne et al. International Relations Theories, 3rd ed.(2013) Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK

Wendt, Alexander, Anarchy is What States Make of it : The Social Construction of Power Politics, International Organisation, 1992, 46 :02

Wendt, Alexander, Social Theory of International Politics, 1999, Cambridge University Press

Wendt, Alexander, The Agent-Structure Problem in International Relations Theory, International Organisation, 1987, 41 :03

 


[1] Ruggie, John Gerard, What Makes the World Hang Together ? Neo-Utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge, International Organisation, 1998, 52 :04,

 p. 861

[2] Tim Dunne et al. International Relations Theories, 3rd ed.(2013) Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, p 20

[3] Ibid. p. 189

Ruggie, What Makes the World Hang Together ? 1998, p. 874

[4] Wendt, Alexander, Anarchy is What States Make of it : The Social Construction of Power Politics, International Organisation, 1992, 46 :02, p. 397

[5] Ibid. p. 394

[6] Wendt, Alexander, The Agent-Structure Problem in International Relations Theory, International Organisation, 1987, 41 :03, p. 339

[7] Tim Dunne et al. International Relations Theories, 3rd ed. 2013, p. 190

[8] Wendt, Alexander, Anarchy is What States Make of it, 1992, pp. 397-398

[9] Wendt, Alexander, Social Theory of International Politics, 1999, Cambridge University Press, p. 1

[10] Adler, Emanuel, Constructivism in International Relations: Sources, Contributions, and Debates, 2012, p 130

Wendt, Alexander, Social Theory of International Politics, 1999, Cambridge University Press, p. 111

[11] Kratochwil, F., Constructing a New Orthodoxy ? Wendt’s ‘Social Theory of International Politics’ and the Constructivist Challenge, Journal of International Studies, 2000, 73, p. 91

[12] Tim Dunne et al. International Relations Theories, 3rd ed. 2013, p. 194

[13] Adler, Emanuel, Constructivism in International Relations: Sources, Contributions, and Debates, 2012, p. 129

[14] Biersteker, Thomas, State, Sovereignty, and Territory, 2012, p. 260

[15] Ibid. pp. 254-255

Bellamy, Alex J. and Williams, Paul D.  Understanding Peacekeeping 2nd ed (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2010), p. 5

[16] President Putin has stated that if he were president and not prime minister during the intervention in Libya he would have vetoed UNSC Resolution 1973, Barry, Ellen, Russians Say Anti-U.S. Attack in Libya Vindicates Their Position New York Times, September 12, 2012, available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/13/world/europe/russians-say-anti-american-attack-in-libya-vindicates-their-position.html?_r=0 (accessed 15/12/14)

Global R2P, The Georgia-Russia Crisis and the Responsibility to Protect, 2008, available from : http://www.globalr2p.org/publications/132 (accessed 15/12/14)

Justice in Conflict, Russia’s Responsibility to Protect in Ukraine ? March 5, 2014, available from : http://justiceinconflict.org/2014/03/05/russias-responsibility-to-protect-in-ukraine/ (accessed 15/12/14)

[17] Kurki, Milja and Sinclair, Adriana, Hidden in Plain Sight : Constructivist treatment of Social Context and its Limitations, International Politics, 2010, 47 :1, p. 9

[18] Ibid. p. 3

It should also be noted that Kurki does not use the term « consistent constructivism » but she refers to the more critical branches of constructivism, which she argues are not critical enough.

Comments in Chronological order (2 total comments)

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Wed, July 01, 2015 12:48 AM (about 23211 hours ago)
A good read. Very well written.
 
Fri, February 03, 2017 09:05 AM (about 9211 hours ago)
Thank you so much for taking the time to write this! Very useful, and helped me address a sticking point in a paper I was working on!
 
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