Monday, December 1, 2008

A Definition of Constructivism for International Relations

Constructivism is not a theory. A theory is a set of statements or principles that is devised to explain a group of facts and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena[i]. That means, in order for constructivism to be a theory, it must be a set of principles that is devised to explain a group of facts and can be used to make predictions about behavior in the international relations arena. Constructivism does not make predictions. In fact, Wendt identifies constructivism as a tool for analysis, rather than a tool for predictions[ii]. Additionally, constructivism isn’t meant to explain anything - and it doesn’t. Rather than explain a group of facts, constructivism is a point of view about how one might go about changing the IR system. It outlines what issues constructivists would deal with in order to change things. However, it offers two variables (ideas and social norms) with no indication on what to do with those two variables. There is no causal explanation in constructivism. Because of these deficiencies, constructivism is not a theory.

Instead, Constructivism is a commonly shared set of initial conditions that must be present in a theory in order for it to fall into a “constructivist” perspective. Wendt’s basic works on constructivism (he’s considered the founder)[iii] is a reaction to realism, and is intended to counter the idea that self-help and power politics are essential features of anarchy[iv]. Instead, Wendt treats anarchy as a social construct (or practice) rather than an inseparable condition of international relations and the way that states see anarchy[v].

The main focus of this approach is to use theories borrowed from sociology about identity and interest formation[vi] to focus on how a change in identities and interests of states can make a change in their behavior[vii].There are two basic tenants to constructivism: (1) actors act towards objects – including other actors – on the basis of what value those objects have as interpreted by the society in which the actor operates[viii]; and (2) the meanings of the terms on which action (like cooperation) can be organized is based on shared interests[ix]. What these tenants mean is that it is collective meanings placed ob objects – such as anarchy – that constitute the structures that organize actions[x].

Wendt’s famous quote, “anarchy is what states make of it,” illustrates these examples perfectly. If anarchy was an essential feature of international relations, instead of a social construct, there could be no meaning given to it by states. Instead, it would function and other interactions would logically flow from it. Realists argue that self-help and power politics logically flow from anarchy. However, by treating anarchy as a social construct, Wendt is able to show that self-help and power politics don’t naturally flow, but can follow from anarchy[xi]. Wendt is also able to articulate ideas (sovereignty, dynastic relations, trade, goals, etc) that can cause power politics and self-help not to flow from anarchy[xii]. With this analysis, Wendt has changed the focus from anarchy as a must and defining feature of the system, to anarchy as a social construct that can change.

Constructivism offers no real guidance on what to study – except to put the focus on interests and identities of actors because those are socially formed and when changed, can make the system change. But there is no indication of which one changes, or how changes affect the system. Without being able to make some causal argument other than: change can cause change (tautological) then constructivism is not a theory, but a set of initial conditions.

[ii] Wendt, Anarchy is what states make of it p. 424
[iv] Wendt at 395
[v] Id
[vi] Wendt at 394
[vii] Id at 418
[viii] Id at 397
[ix] Id at 403
[x] Id at 397.
[xi] Id at 399-403
[xii] Id at 396

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