Ir social constructivist theories
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IR Social Constructivist theories . Ideas and intersubjectivity. What are IR social constructivist theories?. Idealist Ideas shape reality Social reality is not objective or external to the observer Social world is recreated through intersubjectivity

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IR Social Constructivist theories

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IR Social Constructivist theories

Ideas and intersubjectivity

What are IR social constructivist theories?


Ideas shape reality

Social reality is not objective or external to the observer

Social world is recreated through intersubjectivity

See e.g. Jackson and Sorenson, Introduction to IR, OUP.

What is the international system for IR constructivists?

- a human invention

- constituted by ideas not by material forces

- a set of ideas, body of thought, system of norms

- created by particular people in particular place

- intersubjective creation

  • a system which can be changed by new ideas

  • Alexander Wendt: ‘anarchy is what states make of it’

Constructivist IR against materialist IR approaches

  • E.g. Neorealism

  • - behaviour of states

  • - national interests

  • - balance of power

  • - distribution of material power

    • - military forces, economic capabilities etc

Social constructivist theories outside IR

Social constructivist theories

developed in

sociology and history before IR


Invention of childhood studies

Aries: ‘In medieval society

the idea of childhood

did not exist.’

Social constructivist theories outside IR

  • 2 strands of social constructivist theories

    - materialist social constructivist approaches

    • - closer to classical sociology

    • - (Durheimian, Weberian or Marxist traditions)

    • - relationship between norms and material conditions

    • - e.g. industrialisation/modernity, de-industrialisation/postmodernity

      - idealist social constructivist approaches

      - society constructed through intersubjectivty

      Social constructivism in IR follows idealist social constructivist approaches

Influence of sociological constructivist theories

  • E.g. sociologist Anthony Giddens

  • Structuration

  • - structures (or rules and conditions) do not mechanically determine what actors do

  • - relationship between structures and actors involves intersubjective understanding and meaning

  • - structures constrain actors

  • - but actors can transform structures

  • - by thinking about them &

  • - acting on them in new ways

Social Constructivist links

Antecedents in IR

  • E.g. Kant - our knowledge of world is always subjective in sense filtered through human consciousness and human language

    Similarities with other IR theories

  • Liberalism’s concern with advance of liberal democratic ideals – though constructivism has interest in role of ideas in general

  • International Society approach (popular in European IR) included concern for ideas and social interaction between states

Rise of IR Constructivist theories

  • Failure of dominant IR theories

  • To explain end of Cold War

  • 1989 Revolutions

  • largely peaceful revolutions

  • Romania

    • only violent overthrow in Eastern bloc

    • execution of head of state

      [later conflict in parts of

      Eastern Europe

      notably former Yugoslavia]

Explaining end of Cold War

  • Explaining end of Cold War

  • Cold War did not end through conflict

  • Instead Soviet elite abandoning Communism and embracing market

  • Check Point Charlie

  • 10 November 1989

Key IR constructivists

  • Alexander Wendt

  • - ‘anarchy is what states make of it’

  • - rejects neorealist position

    • - anarchy must lead to self-help

    • - state identities and national interests given

  • - For Wendt

    • - self-help outcome of particular interactions between states

    • - identities and interests of states created through interactions

    • - ‘structure has no existence of causal power apart from processes’

      Key work: Wendt’s Social Theory of International Politics, 1999

Wendt: cultures of anarchy

  • 3 key types of international anarchy

    • Hobbesian

      • war of all against all

      • states = adversaries

      • war= endemic as violent conflict means to survive



        states= rivals

        states recognise each others right to exist

        since Peace of Westphalia in 1648


        states = friends

        disputes settled peacefully

        mutual support if third party threat

        among liberal democracies since WWII

Constructivist approaches to security

- states want security

- but concept of security not fixed

- security identities, interests and policies constructed through interactions between states (Wendt)

End of Cold War

‘if the United States and the Soviet Union decide that they are no longer enemies, “the cold war is over”. It is collective meanings that constitute the structures which organize our actions. Actors require identities – relatively stable, role specific understanding and expectations about self – by participating in such collective meaning’ (Wendt, 1992, p. 418).

Subsequent constructivist theories

  • state not only international actor

  • i.e. Wendt did not move far enough from Realist assumptions

  • global actors, identities, norms, interests and policies not fixed

  • norms of international society constructed through interactions

  • between states and other non-state actors including NGOs etc

  • concern with

    • normative change

    • role of international organisations and NGOs in promoting global norms

    • peacemaking

    • human rights

    • human security

      • e.g. Mary Kaldor, Martha Finnemore etc

Constructivist examples

ICRC in promoting laws of war/IHL

Neorealist critiques

  • See e.g. Stephen Krasner, John Mearsheimer

  • Neglect power

  • Norms upheld or disregarded if in interests of powerful states

  • Problem of trust/uncertainty about other states’ intentions

  • Problem of deception

  • Constructivist view of change

    • Discussed in Jackson and Sorenson, 2003

Constructivism on change?

  • Criticism that contructivists

    • ‘provide few insights on why discourses rise and fall…’

    • ‘little about why realism has been the dominant discourse’

    • ‘they usually end up arguing that change in the material world drive changes in discourse’

      • Mearsheimer, 1995

  • - see e.g. constructivist explanations of the Iraq War e.g. Mary Kaldor

  • Realist critique of constructivism

    William Wohlforth’s article, International Security, Vol. 19,1994-1995

    Structural realism may neglect domestic politics

    But classical realism does look at domestic politics

    • - e.g. Morgenthau, Niebuhr

    • - Waltz’s Man, the State and War

      • - first image - leaders make politics

    Alternative historical materialist or postmodern social constructivists


    • Mainstream IR constructivists neglect

      - questions of power & capabilities

      - global norms informed by more powerful actors

      - explaining why changing material social conditions fostered rise of idealist approaches in 1990s

      e.g. ICC & evolving international criminal law

      e.g. links between changing development models and changing security concerns

      2. Neorealist critiques of constructivism neglect

      • impact of changing national/domestic politics

      • states’ difficulties cohering sense of national interest

      • explaining why changing material social conditions fostered rise of idealist approaches in 1990s

    War crimes trials

    This week's BBC programme Moral Maze discusses war crimes trials – relevant to social constructivism and international ethics debates.

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