Introducing Constructivism in International Relations Theory

by Edward G. Guest Blogger

The inception of constructivism in IR is typically linked with a historically critical event that many traditional theories such as liberalism and realism have failed to account for: the end of the Cold War. Many link this failure to particular core tenets of these theories, including the conviction that the states are self-interested actors competing for power. The unequal distribution of that power defines the balance of power among these states.

When the dominant focus is steered toward focusing on the state, theories tend to neglect the much-needed observation and evaluation of the agency of individuals. In reality, the end of the Cold War resulted from actions by ordinary individuals, not international organizations or states.

Constructivism argues that the social is constructed by us (Onuf,1988), and powerful actors, such as influential citizens or leaders, continually shape or reshape the very nature of IR through their interactions and actions over time.

Constructivism: The Basics

Constructivists see the world and everything we know about it as socially constructed.

Let's take a look at a brilliant real-world example to get a better idea about constructivism.

The 600 nuclear weapons possessed by Britain are far less threatening for the USA than the six nuclear weapons possessed by North Korea (Alexander Wendt, 1996). This isn't due to the material structure of the nuclear weapons but rather the meaning associated with it, i.e., the ideational structure.

This example showcases that nuclear weapons on their own don’t hold any real meaning until we understand them via a socially constructed context. The constructivists, hence, see beyond the material reality. They believe that reality is always under construction and affected by the political world's beliefs and ideas. Simply put, they argue that meanings can change over time as they are not fixed; they rather change with time depending on the actors' beliefs and ideas.

Furthermore, they also argue that structure and agency and constituted reciprocally, which means that the agency influences structures and structure influences agency. In the context of the nuclear weapon example discussed earlier, the social relation of animosity between North Korea and the USA represents a structure that's intersubjective. Both states have the agency to reinforce or change the social relationship that preexists. However, this reinforcement will ultimately be reliant on the ideas and beliefs held by both actors. Depending on them, the enmity can quickly change into friendship.

Nuclear bomb

Social norms or standards of behaviors deemed appropriate for actors with a particular identity (Katzenstein, 1995) are also central to constructivism. Typically, states that conform to a particular identity are expected to comply with the social norms associated with that particular identity. Also known as 'the logic of appropriateness,' this process involves the idea that some actions and behaviors may be more acceptable than others. For instance, when states come together to develop policies to mitigate climate change since it's critical for our survival, constructivists argue that this has, over years of continuous advocacy and diplomacy. It has become something that a majority of citizens deem appropriate behavior that they expect all leaders to adhere to.

While all constructivists share similar concepts and views, conventional constructivists focus on the relationship between social norms, actors, identities, and interests regarding what causes a state or actor to act. Critical constructivists, however, focus on reconstructing an identity by determining how the actors came to believe in a particular identity. For them, language plays a key role in reconstructing or constructing social reality.

The simple yet intriguing idea of constructivism states the quite obvious—that our actions, perceptions, interactions, and thoughts literally shape reality and construct international relations while also helping us understand the world around us.

As an award-winning book writer and professor of political science, Ted Hopf my stance on constructivism is well-aligned because the distribution of wealth, material, geographical conditions, and power is critical in elucidating a state's behavior. Still, norms, identities, ideas, and beliefs are also equally important. And that reality is not fixed but rather subject to an ever-evolving change.