Theory of Constructivism in International Relations

The theory of Constructivism in International Relations is very important. Constructivism is the theory that says learners build knowledge rather than just passively take in information. As people experience the world and reflect upon those experiences, they build their representations and incorporate new information into their pre-existing knowledge.

So it is an important theory in International Relations (IR) that I am going to explain here in detail.

Theory of Constructivism

The basic insight behind the constructivist approach can be understood by unpacking a quick observation made by Alexander Wendt. He says that “500 British nuclear weapons are less threatening to the United States than 5 North Korean nuclear weapons”.

In this little observation are found traces of the features that distinguish constructivism from other approaches to international relations, including its critique of materialism. It emphasizes on the social construction of interests, its relationship between structures and agents, and its multiple logics of anarchy.

On its surface, the empirical puzzle of the threat embodied by North Korean missiles is easy to explain: as Wendt says, “the British are friends and the North Koreans are not.”

This of course begs an understanding of the categories of friend and enemy, and it is through this opening that Wendt and other constructivists have addressed both important substantive aspects of international relations. For instance, “how do states come to see others as friends and as enemies?” and the philosophical background it presupposes (for instance, “how can we study social and relational phenomena like ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ in international relations?”.

Constructivism, by contrast, emphasizes the social and relational construction of what states and what they want. All these approaches might be used to focus on power politics, cooperation, conflict, or any other substantive phenomena. It is, therefore, wrong to associate a substantive interest in power exclusively with real-ism, because all the “paradigms” of international relations are interested in power, as either motivation, cause, or effect.

I differentiate realism as a particular theory about material power in international relations, in contrast with constructivism’s emphasis on the social meaning attached to objects or practices.

In asking for an explanation of the importance in world politics of social concepts like friend and enemy, the constructivist challenge opened two paths. One was more empirical and used the tools provided by Friedrich Kratochwil (1989), Nicholas Onuf (1989), Wendt (1992), and other constructivists to explain anomalies of other approaches. The other was more conceptual and concerned with how these social concepts might work in the world and how they could be studied and used in the study.

From constructivism’s starting point as a reaction to materialism, individualism, and rationalism, the empirical branch of research was like a downstream flow; it applied the insights of constructivism to understanding interesting patterns, behaviors, and puzzles.

The philosophic branch went upstream — it sought to understand the reasons for, and implications of, the differences between constructivism and other approaches to social phenomena.

This section outlines four features of constructivism that distinguish it from other approaches and show how constructivism addresses both philosophical and empirical issues that were inaccessible through the prevailing models of international relations in the 1980s. An Alternative to Materialism.

The original insight behind constructivism is that meaning is “socially constructed.” This is also the source of the label “constructivism.” says “a fundamental principle of constructivist social theory is that people act toward objects, including other actors, based on the meanings that the objects have for them.’

In a socially constructed world, the existence of patterns, cause-and-effect relationships, and even states themselves depend on webs of meaning and practices that constitute them. These meanings and practices might sometimes be relatively stable, but they are never fixed and should not be mistaken for permanent objects.

As ideas and practices vary over time or space, patterns that once looked solid and predictable may change as well. For instance, sovereignty is a social institution in the sense that a state can be sovereign only when it is seen by people and other states as a corporate actor with rights and obligations over territory and citizens (and they act accordingly).

The practice of sovereignty has changed over time, and the powers and identities of actually existing states have changed as well. To take a more concrete example, since 1945 the idea has spread that massive human rights violations by states against their citizens may legally justify international intervention.

Sovereignty is thereby changing, and the autonomy of some rulers (that is, rights violators) is reduced while that of others (potential interveners) is increased. Sovereignty is an important organizing force in international relations that rests on the shared ideas of people and the practices people engage in.

A contrasting approach to “social construction” in world politics is the position known as “materialism,” which suggests that material objects (bombs, mountains, people, oil, and so on) have a direct effect on outcomes that is unmediated by the ideas people bring to them.

Neorealism and neoliberalism are explicitly materialist approaches to world politics. They seek to explain international patterns and behaviors as the result of purely material forces, particularly the military hardware, strategic resources, and money that they see as constituting “power.”

For example, argues that “the distribution of material capabilities among states is the key factor for understanding world politics.” Among neoliberals, Robert Keohane (1994) identifies states’ material interests as distinct from people’s ideas about the world, and their research on the causal effects of ideas uses as its baseline the materialist hypothesis.

Neorealists and neoliberals in the 1980s shared a commitment to materialism in which socially mediated beliefs were not important autonomous forces, and they argued among themselves over the likely implications of such a world for patterns such as cooperation, institution-making, arms races, and balancing.

The ideas that give shape to international politics are more than just the beliefs of individuals. They include intersubjective ideas (that is, shared among people) and institutionalized (that is, expressed as practices and identities). Intersubjective and institutionalized forms of ideas “are not reducible to individual minds”.

Jeffrey Legro summarizes the constructivist understanding of ideas: “ideas are not so much mental as symbolic and organizational; they are embedded not only in human brains but also in the ‘collective memories/ government procedures, educational systems, and the rhetoric of statecraft.”

This makes it clear that the constructivist insight is not that we replace “brute materialism” with “brute idealism”. Rather, constructivism suggests that material forces must be understood through the social concepts that define their meaning for human life.

A pure materialist approach has difficulty explaining why the USA should see British missiles as any less threatening than North Korean missiles. The “self-evident” friendliness of Britain toward the USA as compared to the apparent hostility of North Korea is not self-evident from a purely material perspective.

After all, the physical consequences of an attack by the nuclear weapons of either country would be devastating. The brute material threat to the USA posed by a British nuclear weapon is at least comparable to, and probably much greater than, that of a North Korean weapon.

The difference between the two is the conviction among many American leaders that the North Koreans are more likely to act aggressively toward the USA than the British. This conviction is based on interpretations of history, rhetoric, and behavior, and it generates the expectation that war with North Korea is more likely than war with the British, and in turn leads to different policy strategies in response to their weapons.

For constructivists, beliefs, expectations, and interpretations are inescapable when thinking about international affairs, and their importance shows that the materialist position is untenable. While the shift from a materialist to a socially constructed view of international relations was controversial in the early 1990s, it has now been broadly accepted.

Tire constructivist insight has been largely internalized by the discipline. Even materialist theories of international relations now generally openly include at least two kinds of ideas (though mostly individual rather than collective ideas): first, “non-material” factors such as “strategy, intelligence, [and] resolve,” and, secondly, socially constructed interests.

However, they usually also claim that the practical importance of the social context of international relations is minimal when compared to the influence of brute material factors, and so the research agendas of neorealism and neoliberalism have at once conceded the constructivist insight while maintaining their core claims.

As the socially constructed nature of world politics has been broadly accepted, it has become clear that what remains contestable between constructivists and others is how this insight affects the study of world politics, both in its methodology and its substance. The debate over the construction of state interests and their sources follows from this debate.

The Construction of State Interests

The scholarly interest in the “national interest” has always been central to international relations and foreign-policy analysis. The constructivist approach has been productive in this area because of its focus on the social content involved in the production of international relations, including state interests.

While most scholars now acknowledge that state interests are based on ideas about needs, many non-constructivists maintain that the content of those interests is for practical purposes unchanging and includes some combination of the desires for survival, power, wealth, and security.

They contend that the socially constructed nature of interests does not alter the fact that the primary interests that drive states are prefigured by the material resources and situation of the states, and so states are either constructed by material forces or can be treated as if their construction is irrelevant to their interests and behavior. States are “minimally constructed.”

By contrast, constructivists would argue that the apparent “hostility” of North Korean missiles shows that American leaders respond to the social relationship between the USA and the military resources of others, friends, or enemies, rather than to the hardware itself.

These social relations are not fixed, and the American national interest therefore cannot be ascertained, let alone pursued, without considering them. The USA has an interest in resisting North Korea, because American leaders perceive a hostile relationship with it, while it has no interest in containing the UK because it perceives a mutually beneficial relationship.

Constructivists often find it useful to examine the historical construction of “national interests.

It is sometimes said that the difference between constructivism and other approaches is that the former is concerned with the construction of interests while the latter takes interests as fixed and given.

This is not true. Nor is it true that only constructivists suggest that state interests might be influenced by forces at the level of the international system. Constructivists do not have a monopoly on the study of how interests are made or of systemic influences on interests.

Many non-constructivists are interested in how states come to hold the interests that structure their decision-making. Andrew Moravcsik (1999), for instance, provides a liberal theory of how state interests are constructed out of the economic interests of domestic industries and coalitions.

Stephen Krasner (1999) argues from a realist perspective that individual rulers present as the national interest the policies they believe will ensure their survival as rulers. (Both present these as “material” factors though they rest on ideas about needs.) Game theorists sometimes endogenize the formation of interests so that interests change as a result of interactions.

What distinguishes a specifically constructivist story on interests is that the influences on interest formation are social, “new foreign policy ideas are shaped by preexisting dominant ideas and their relationship to experienced events.”

This follows directly from the insight on social construction above. “Actors acquire identities— relatively stable, role-specific understandings and expectations about self— by participating in collective meanings.”

Interests are in part products of those identities. The social constitution of interests encompasses all the ways that actors’ interests and identities might be influenced by their interactions with others and with their social environment.

This includes the processes of socialization and internalization (Hurd 1999), the drive for social recognition and prestige, the effects of social norms on interests and on behavior (including the desire to create norms that legitimize one’s behavior) (Hurd 2007a), and the presence or absence of a sense of “community”.

Mutual Constitution of Structures and Agents

The constructivist attention to the social construction of interests and identities introduces the more general problem of the relationship between structures and agents.

By “structures” I mean the institutions and shared meanings that make up the context of international action, and by ” agents” I mean any entity that operates as an actor in that context.

Returning to Wendt’s illustration, the relationship of enmity that makes the USA fear North Korean nuclear weapons is not a fixed and stable fact. It is, instead, a result of ongoing interactions both between the two states and among the states and their social context.

These interactions may reinforce the relation of enmity, or they may change it. They may also reinforce or change the broader social structures in which the actors exist, including norms and other forms of shared meaning regarding sovereignty, threat, and interests.

The co-constitution of states and structures goes beyond recognizing that there are interaction effects between the unit and the system level. Kenneth Waltz emphasized interaction effects but in a way that maintained states as unchanging units.

In Theory of International Politics, he suggested that two states interacting in anarchy are “not just influencing the other” by their actions; “both are being influenced by the situation their interaction creates”. Consistent with his materialist premise, Waltz looked for how this changed the material incentives facing states as they weighed policy alternatives.

A constructivist approach to co-constitution, by contrast, suggests that the actions of states contribute to making the institutions and norms of international life, and these institutions and norms contribute to defining, socializing, and influencing states. Both the institutions and the actors can be redefined in the process.

The recognition of mutual constitution is an important contribution to the theory of international relations because many interesting empirical phenomena in international relations are understandable only by a methodology that avoids assuming a neat separation between agents and structures.

In studying international norms, it quickly becomes clear that states are concerned simultaneously with shifting their behavior to match the rules and reconstructing the rules to condone their behavior.

For instance, when states claim they are using force only in self-defense, they cannot avoid reinforcing Articles 2(4) and 51 of the UN Charter (which forbid aggressive war) and at the same time are redefining the rules by specifying how they wish the concepts of “sovereignty,” “self-defense,” and “aggression” to be understood.

International norms are simultaneously the products of state actions and influence state action. Thus, the idea that states and the international environment are mutually constituted is inherent in the constructivist approach.

Multiple Logics of Anarchy

The constructivist approach leads to a different interpretation of international anarchy from the one offered by neorealists or neoliberals, and, to the extent that the concept of anarchy organizes international life, it, therefore, leads to different patterns of world politics more generally.

“Anarchy” is the term used in international relations to describe a social system that lacks legitimated institutions of authority (Milner 1991).

It is a formal condition of a system in the sense, that it describes any system that is not organized through hierarchical structures of authority and command.

Waltz (1979), in defining the neorealist school, derived from the structural condition of anarchy a set of predictions about the behavior of units, including balancing behavior, self-help strategies, and a self-interested identity.

Wendt’s critique of Waltz showed that these patterns did not follow simply from the structural condition of anarchy; they came from the additional assumption that units see each other as rivals over scarce goods.

“Rivalry” is a social relationship that can best be understood, in international relations and elsewhere, by examining its social construction. This requires acknowledging that the relationship is not fixed, natural, or permanent. Wendt proposed a spectrum of international anarchies based on variation in the ideas that states have about themselves and others.

With enmity at one end and friendship at the other, and with indifference in the middle, the formal condition of anarchy is by itself not very informative about the behavior of the units. After all, he says, “an anarchy of friends differs from one of the enemies”.

This allows for the possibility of community, hierarchy, rivalry, and other social relations within a formally anarchic structure. Inter-state conflict is also conditioned by the social qualities of international anarchy, as illustrated by the efforts of states to appear to operate within the confines of the norms of war.

Such diverse behaviors, and others, are compatible with the anarchical structure of the international system and can be addressed through the constructivist approach.

These four elements are the distinguishing features of constructivism in international relations theory. They are related to each other in the sense that, if one adopts the first idea (that is, that world politics is partly socially constructed), then the other three logically follow as implications for studying international relations.

However, each of the other three is also consistent with non-constructivist premises. For instance, one need not be a constructivist to study the origins of national interests, nor does finding that anarchy may differ across time and place necessarily mean that one is using a constructivist approach.

This has helped to generate controversy over what is and is not constructivist research in international relations. The irreducible core of constructivism for international relations is the recognition that international reality is socially constructed.

This has implications for the concept of anarchy, the agent-structure relationship, and national interests, but all three of these areas of research are also approachable through non-constructivist means.

Controversies within Constructivism

In defining constructivism in this way, widely diverse research falls within its scope. This includes work with major differences on issues such as the unit of analysis, the possibility of positivist paths to knowledge, and the nature of the international system.

In this section, I highlight some of the controversies that arise over these issues and illustrate both the breadth of constructivist scholarship and the antagonisms it engenders among scholars.


The constructivist approach does not imply any particular unit of analysis as fundamental in the study of international relations. As a result, it is compatible with a kind of pluralism about the unit that has been both productive and contentious among international relations scholars.

The process of social construction cannot be understood by focusing exclusively on forces or actors at any of the three “levels of analysis” conventionally used in international relations theory.

For any given puzzle in international relations, there are undoubtedly important elements of the answer to be found at all levels of analysis. In addition, one can examine how actors and structures at all levels of analysis are socially constructed.

Constructivists have therefore provided interesting research on the constitution of individual state identity.

The emphasis on forces or actors at one level over others may be defensible on pragmatic grounds given the interests of the particular scholar, but the co-constitution of actors and structures means there is no impetus in constructivism for a zero-sum debate over “which” level provides the most leverage over puzzles.

There is no point in constructivist research to arguments over whether, for instance, domestic politics “matters” or not in international relations.

There is, however, room for debate over what can be taken as given by assumption at the start of a piece of empirical research. For instance, to take states as given to study how their interactions are structured by and contribute to a particular set of international norms implies setting aside the (prior) social construction of the state as an institution.

This is potentially problematic, since the historical construction of states as sovereigns may well be an important element of any story about how states interact with norms. The analytic separation of actors, practices, and structures as distinct entities can be problematic, though it may sometimes be useful.

The dilemma of what to problematize and what to take as given is inherent in all research, and by focusing on the complexities of the mutual constitution the constructivist approach encourages scholars to be open about what is lost by their particular choices and assumptions. This at least makes the possible debate over the tradeoffs implicit in these choices.

Science and Positivism

The recognition of social construction in world politics leads directly to a controversy of epistemology and the use of scientific methods in the field of international relations.

This divides constructivism into a positivist and a postpositivist camp, distinguished by their positions on epistemological questions and the methods they believe are useful, given those epistemological positions.

Positivist epistemology maintains that the socially constructed international system contains patterns that are amenable to generalization and falsifiable hypotheses.

These patterns are the product of underlying laws that govern social relations, where the Taws can be identified by careful scientific research.

While the methods that are appropriate to study world politics may not be those of laboratory science, the ultimate goal of the social science project is the same as for the physical sciences. Explaining cause-and-effect relationships that are believed to exist independently of the observer’s presence.

Positivist constructivists are careful to include constitutive explanations among the cause-effect relations they seek to understand, but they approach the study of social constitutions with the same tools of social science.

A competing view, represented by post positivists, is mat in social life data are not fully objectifiable, observers cannot be fully autonomous of the subject under study, and social relationships cannot be separated into discrete “causes” and “effects.”

What social “laws” a scholar might observe are, therefore, inherently contingent rather than existing naturally and objectively in the world. As a result, social inquiry “has to be concerned with the social constitution of meaning, the linguistic construction of reality, and the historicity of knowledge.

This reaffirms the indispensability of interpretation, and suggests that all knowledge involves a relationship with power in its mapping of the world.”

Claims of knowledge about world politics both reflect and act as structures of power, and there are no “Archimedean points from which to assess the validity of analytical and ethical knowledge claims”.

In this view, the purpose of theorizing is not to identify and test hypotheses about lawlike regularities. Instead, one objective of the research is to interpret how social meaning and power produce apparent stability in the social world.

The epistemological divide between positivists and post-positivists runs deep and may represent a decisive fissure among constructivists, and the matter is particularly sharp over the issue of ethics. For post-positivists, the ethical implications of international relations theory begin immediately once a scholar adopts or argues for an interpretative stance within which claims can be made.

Without the positivisms faith in an independently existing reality of world politics, the postpositivist is attentive from the start to the ethical consequences of the concepts and assumptions that frame the research.

The positivist, by contrast, works from the assumption that he or she is insulated behind the claim that describing objectively existing relations makes ethical issues a separate question. For the positivist, the question of what “is” can be separated from what “ought.”

The postpositivist position within constructivism is no less empirical (though not “empiricist” than the positivist tradition. It is, however, empirical in a way that reflects the methods appropriate to its epistemology. For instance, Campbell’s study (1998,13) of the Bosnian wars examines how:

the settled norms of international society — in particular, the idea that the national community requires the nexus of demarcated territory and fixed identity — were not only insufficient to enable a response to the Bosnian war, but they were also complicit in and necessary for the conduct of the war itself.

This is because inscribing the boundaries that make the installation of the nationalist imaginary possible requires the expulsion from the resultant “domestic” space of all that comes to be regarded as alien, foreign, and dangerous.

For Campbell, the Bosnian violence was exacerbated by outsiders’ insistence that there exists an underlying “law” of ethnic intolerance that counsels that the ethnic groups of Bosnia must be physically separated from each other.

A more ethical response is possible, he suggests, by critiquing the assumption that individuals have unitary ethnic identities that map cleanly onto unitary territorial nation-states.


To be a constructivist in international relations means looking at international relations with an eye open to the social construction of actors, institutions, and events.

It means beginning from the assumption that how people and states think and behave in world politics is premised on their understanding of the world around them, which includes their own beliefs about the world, the identities they hold about themselves and others, and the shared understandings and practices in which they participate.

It should be clear, therefore, what constructivism is not: it does not mean setting aside the ideas that material power is important or that actors make instrumental calculations of their interests; nor does it necessarily assume the a priori existence of sovereign states, epistemological positivism, or the anarchy problematic.

Rather, it means that what goes on in these categories and concepts is constructed by social processes and interactions and that their relevance for international relations is a function of the social construction of meaning.

One sign of constructivism’s success in the past twenty years is the degree to which other approaches have come to recognize the socially constructed content of some of the concepts they use.

The goods of realist competition, for instance, include status, prestige, reputation, and hegemony, all of which make sense only in terms of either legitimated power or shared understandings. They are, therefore, the stuff of constructivism as well.

This has the result of blurring the boundaries between the approaches, making them hard to define in exclusive terms, and raising the possibility that attempting to define them creates artificial distinctions.

The differences between realism, rationalism, and constructivism may be contested, but we move forward in arguing about them only by first being clear about what we mean by the terms.

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