Within the reflectivist group of theories, constructivism constitutes one of the most salient perspectives, having a meaningful impact on the study of International Relations. Although being a solid group of theoretical configurations, there are multiple foci within the constructivist theory. To roughly delineate it, Maja Zehfuss (2004), scholar of Political Science and International Relations, addresses that “constructivist work stresses the significance of meaning but assumes, at the same time, the existence of an a priori reality” (p. 10). In other words, constructivism studies the way in which social dynamics construct and is constructed by existent material conditions. “Constructivism is the view that the manner in which the material world shapes and is shaped by human action and interaction depends on dynamic normative and epistemic interpretations of the material world” (Adler, 1997, p. 322). In comparison to the more mainstream rationalist perspective, the constructivist scholarship represents a strand that would address traditions that overlooked the socially constructed conditions in international phenomena. Because of it, this article delves into the work of Nicholas Onuf, Alexander Wendt, and Friedrich Kratochwil, authors that as Zehfuss suggested (2004) have a key role in the development of constructivism in the field of International Relations.
As the first scholar to formally introduce the term constructivism in International Relations, Nicholas Onuf’s work is highly influential as he specifically attempted to use this perspective in regard to International Law (Zehfuss, 2004). First, Onuf (2013) addresses that the constructivist perspective sustains that, “People make society, and society makes people. This is a continuous two-way perspective” (p.4). Furthermore, he explains that, “Social rules (the term rules includes, but is not restricted to, legal rules) make the process by which people and society constitute each other continuous and reciprocal. Rules are statements that tell people what we should do” (2013, p.4).
In short, these rules are what enable actors to have agency, that is, to act with a purpose. These actors, or agents, maneuver within a set collection of rules and common practices, called institutions, and act with the range of possibilities given by them, and in return, the rules adapt to such actions. Rules shape and get shaped by agents and their social dynamics (Onuf, 2013). Onuf’s constructivism sheds light on the importance of international agreements and organizations, and how they constitute what is considered the norm. International law regulates and establishes the conditions that determine agents’ relations. This is clearly seen in economic and commercial agreements, that shape what agents need to do to ‘benefit’ from them.
Perhaps the most renowned scholar in the development of the constructivist perspective in the field, Alexander Wendt’s constructivism focuses on the construction of identities and interests of international actors. His contributions strengthened the study of national identities and solidified the relevance of identity construction in international politics. According to Zehfuss (2004), Wendt’s aim is to show how the construction of the Self and its relations to the environment create the social reality. Wendt highlights the effect that identities have, and that actors have identities so that they can participate in social dynamics. These identities serve as a foundation to create their interests; in return, interests validate the identity of the actor. As he exemplifies, “When we say that professors have an 'interest' in teaching, research, or going on leave, we are saying that to function in the role identity of 'professor', they have to define certain situations as calling for certain actions” (Wendt, 1992, p.398).
Hence, the identity of actors, or in this case States, is key to understanding their actions. By famously naming his article “Anarchy is what states make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics,” Wendt (1992) explains that the behavior and power of States work dialectically with those who are under attack or threatened. Identities and interests are continuously processed, so interactions between States are dependent on their contexts. Anarchy is a neorealist concept used to understand how international politics are asymmetrical, but Wendt (1992) points out that it relates to the shared behavior and struggles between nations, and that it is ever-changing. In other words, if a nation behaves aggressively toward another, a defensive response from the victim is expected, shaping both nations’ interests accordingly. As an example, Ukraine aimed to foster closer cooperation with the EU in security policies after Russia's invasion, by appealing to Europeanness as a shared identity trait.
Lastly, Friedrich Kratochwil’s constructivist perspective is critical to the theoretical development in the field of International Relations, being one of the pioneering researchers to contribute to constructivist scholarship. In particular, he emphasized political actions in relation to norms and their impact in national identities. Actions are not only limited to material ones but also are found in language, which Kratochwil emphasizes throughout his work (Zehfuss, 2004, pp. 18-19). Zehfuss (2004) explains that when Kratochwil “claims that action is meaningful if it can be placed in an intersubjectively shared context,” he observes that said context is “based on and mediated by rules and norms,” for “they shape decisions but also give actions meaning and provide people with a medium through which they may communicate” (pp.16-17). What this means is that political actions are framed by socially accepted rules and norms, not because they determine actions, but because they give actions meaning.
Thus, actions are a driving force in international dynamics. From this constructivist perspective, systems are sustained or modified through the actors’ actions. This is a process that occurs in domestic politics that later translates into international politics. Actions modify identities and beliefs internally, which become changes in domestic norms and after it, the alterations become visible in the international landscape (Koslowski & Kratochwil, 1994, p. 216). To exemplify it, Koslowski & Kratochwill (1994, pp.215) argued that the fall of the Soviet Union and all its implied systemic modifications came from revolutions that occurred in Eastern Europe around 1989 and spread to the Soviet republics. In this context, revolutions are the actions that modified national identities in the region, and eventually rearticulated norms in the Soviet Union, snowballing into the re-structuring of global politics as a whole.
In this article, the works of three of the most relevant constructivist actors were concisely explained, in order to bring attention to the diversity of perspectives within constructivism in the field of International Relations. Whether stressing the importance of identities, norms, or actions, they all provide relevant insights for the analysis of international phenomena. In a field where mainstream rationalist theories tend to focus on positivist traditions when analyzing international events, the constructivist perspective sheds light on the complexity of international realities by pointing out how collective meanings shape political dynamics and vice-versa. Constructivism demonstrates the flexibility and critical stance that characterizes the reflectivist theories by stressing the socially constructed aspect of international realities and highlighting the ever-changing nature of the study of International Relations.
Adler, E. (1997). Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics. European Journal of International Relations, 319-363.
Koslowski, R., & Kratochwil, F. V. (1994). Understanding change in international politics: the Soviet empire's demise and the international system. International Organization, 215-247.
Onuf, N. (2013). Constructivism: a user's manual. In N. Onuf, Making sense, making worlds. Constructivism in social theory and international relations (pp. 3-20). New York: Routledge.
Wendt, A. (1992). Anarchy is what states make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics. International Organization, 46(2), 391-425. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0020818300027764
Zehfuss, M. (2004). Introduction. In M. Zehfuss, Constructivism in International Relations. The politics of reality, 83, 1-37. Cambridge University Press
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