A Brief Introduction to Constructivism

Main Tenets of Constructivism

In constructivism, societies attempt to construct an ideal international order based on their goals, fears, identities, and culture. Material power and the structure of the interstate model both matter, but shared ideas and identities matter more.

Balance, progress, and peaceful harmony are achieved through interaction and normative processes between cultures.

Ontologies & Epistemologies of Constructivism

The separation between individual and society may be murky, however, the idea of social networks with overlapping interests leads toward an ontology of relations. People are independent actors embedded in a mesh-like system. Societies, are biased and not entirely independent, also embedded in the international system.

Constructivists see culture as a power that pierces through sheer might and capable of changing global norms, despite the structure of the order. While construcitivism arose perhaps in counter to realism and liberalism, critics of constructivism say that realism and liberalism can also accomplish much of the same.

Origins of Constructivism

For nearly a century of realist and liberal thought dominating political science in the United States and social sciences were forced into the background. Yet, economics, powerful as it has been in the academic realm, excluded countless scholars from the discussion. And when, in the last few decades of the 20th century a gap opened for culture in politics, academics rushed to join the conversation.

Today, social scientists are no longer pariahs in the international relations scholarship.

Alexander Wendt (1958 - ), an American political scientist, wrote that domestic situations evolve and also ripple out into foreign policy. It is the mixture of agents that are embedded in structures, determined by historical factors, that constitute the identities and goals of groups. From which process happens to create an order comprised of friend, competitors, and/or enemies.

Nicholas Onuf (1941 - ), an American sociologist, wrote of the rules of society as witnessed through performative acts and language. As with other constructivists, Onuf argues against the concept of anarchy in IR and instead says that actors are governed by socially constructed rules of hegemony, hierarchy, and heteronomy. These rules are in turn created by the acts we make, (instructive, hierarchichal, and commissive).

Martha Finnemore (1959 - ), a American professor of international relations, has written about how international rules are created and how they change over time. Her work looks at how domestic cultures can influence international institutions over time and the causes and types of norm change.

Kathryn Sikkink (1955 - ), an American political scientist, has written about human rights and the expansion of the call for justice throughout the social consciousness. Her works have examined social movements and the consequential changes of international organizations and norms to meet new social realities.

Peter Katzenstein (1945 - ), an American political scientist, is known for his work on regional cultures, civilizational processes, and the role of societal attitudes toward the international.

Jeffrey Checkel (1959 - ), an American political scientist, is known for his work on process tracing, a qualitative method of data collection that is used to find causal relationships throughout a public dialogue and relate these to political outcomes.

Core Canon of Constructivism

Conventional Constructivism

  • Nicholas Onuf. A World of Our Making. 1989.

  • Alexander Wendt. "Anarchy is what states make of it." 1992.

  • Martha Finnemore. National Interests in International Society. 1996.

  • Martha Finnemore & Kathryn Sikkink. "International Norm Dynamics and Political Change." 1998.

  • Jeffrey Checkel. "The constructive turn in international relations theory." 1998.

  • Alexander Wendt. Social theory of international politics. 1999.

  • Jeffrey Checkel. "International institutions and socialization in Europe." 2005.

  • Margaret Keck & Kathryn Sikkink. Activists Beyond Borders. 2014.

  • Nicholas Onuf. Constructivism. 2015.

  • Peter Katzenstein. A World of Regions. 2015.

  • Peter Katzenstein. Cultural Norms and National Security. 2018.

Notable Discussants of Constructivism

Abram Chayes, Andrew Walter, Antonia Handler Chayes, Antje Wiener, Audie Klotz, Edward Said, Emanuel Adler, Erik Ringmar, Francisco Ramirez, Friedrich Kratochwil, George M. Thomas, Ian Hacking, Iver B. Neumann, James Fearon, John Boli, John Meyer, Judith Kelley, Kathleen R. McNamara, Kurt Jacobsen, Leonard Seabrooke, Mark Blyth, Michael Barnett, Ole Wæver, Peter Berger, Peter M. Haas, Richard Ned Lebow, Rodney Bruce Hall, Rosemary Foot, Samuel Barkin, Stephen Ropp, Ted Hopf, Thomas G. Weiss, Thomas J. Biersteker, Thomas Luckmann, Thomas Risse, Vincent Pouliot, and many more...