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International Relations TheoriesDiscipline and Diversity

International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity (4th edn)

Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith
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p. 1619. Constructivismlocked

p. 1619. Constructivismlocked

  • K. M. Fierke


This chapter examines the key debates that have shaped the development of constructivism in International Relations (IR). It first considers the idea that international relations is a social construction, as it emerged from the critique of more traditional theories of IR. It then explores the distinctions among various constructivisms, with particular emphasis on the contrast between those who seek a ‘better’ social science, and hence better theory, versus those who argue that constructivism is an approach that rests on assumptions at odds with those of positivist method. The chapter proceeds by discussing constructivists' critique of rationalism, along with constructivism as a ‘middle ground’ between rationalist and poststructuralist approaches to IR. It also analyses the role of language and causality in the debate between rationalists and constructivists. Finally, it links all these insights to the War on Terror.

Reader’s Guide

This chapter will examine the key debates that have shaped the development of constructivism in International Relations (IR). The Introduction and first section will explore the general notion that international relations is a social construction, as it emerged from the critique of more traditional theories of IR. The second and third sections will examine the demarcations that have come to distinguish various constructivisms, focusing, in particular, on the contrast between those who seek a ‘better’ social science, and therefore better theory, as opposed to those who argue that constructivism is an approach that rests on assumptions at odds with those of positivist method. The fourth section will analyse the significance of this difference for undertaking research, including questions about the role of language and causality. The final section will bring these insights to bear in relation to the War on Terror.


In the 1980s, when the Cold War was raging with renewed force, social movements concerned about the prospect of nuclear war emerged on both sides of the Atlantic. They shared roughly the same objective—that is, to bring an end to the nuclear arms race—but approached the challenge in different ways. One movement, the US Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, came to the conclusion, given lessons from the Vietnam War protests, that achieving its objectives required moderation in behaviour and message. Rather than dressing like hippies, they would dress in suits, appeal to Middle America, and mobilize citizens to pressure their congressmen [sic]. Their proposals were formulated in a measured way that would minimize alienating people and appeal to the wider spectrum. In another political context, across the water, the critique was somewhat more hard hitting and diverse. Rather than calling on the USA and Soviet Union to simply stop the development, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons, protesters demanded actual disarmament and in some cases unilateral disarmament. While loose cooperation existed at the European level, in the form of European Nuclear Disarmament, movements in the Netherlands, Germany, or Italy had a distinctive character.

p. 162These critical movements shared the aim of changing the nuclear status quo, and each was shaped by the politics of its respective location, as well as the larger context of the Cold War. I start with this example from the political world for two reasons. First, against this background, that is the mid-to-late 1980s, questions began to be raised about the theories and scientific methods of International Relations (IR) and the extent to which they were implicated in the production of international power (see Ashley 1981, 1984; Cox 1981; Walker 1987). Challenges to the assumptions underpinning the study of IR emerged against the backdrop of a historical context where political actors were challenging the assumptions of the Cold War. As the end of the Cold War was ushered in, further questions about these changes and the social construction of IR were formulated. The failure of IR scholars to predict or initially explain the end of the Cold War, on the basis of the dominant theories of IR, reinforced the importance of these questions.

Second, the two social movements are a useful metaphor for thinking about the construction of constructivism within IR. Constructivists, broadly defined, have shared a critique of the static material assumptions of traditional IR theory. They have emphasized the social dimensions of international relations and the possibility of change. They have, however, differed in their approach. Some have been more conscious of their broader audience and have shaped their critique in a language that would open a space for dialogue with mainstream scholars. Others have been more hard-hitting in stating the problem and more far-reaching in their critique. The two together have shaped the place of constructivism in IR. The main point—and, I might add, a very constructivist point—is that academic debate, no less than political, emerges in historically and culturally specific circumstances.

This is evident in other debates that have shaped IR theory. The debate between realism and idealism was a reflection on the weaknesses of idealism after the First World War against the background of Hitler’s expansion across Europe (see Carr 1946). Attempts to solidify the scientific status of realist IR were led by European émigrés to the USA, following the Second World War. The debate between behaviouralists and traditionalists pitted scholars in the USA, who wanted to make IR into a science, against the international society theorists of the English school (see Knorr and Rosenau 1969). The postpositivist debate in the late 1980s was a reaction against the dominant place of scientific method in the American context (see Lapid 1989). The ‘dialogue’ over constructivism was a reaction to the third debate, or, as some prefer to call it, the fourth debate (see Chapter 1), and an attempt to speak across the barricades it had constructed, while addressing problems raised by the end of the Cold War.

This chapter develops various dimensions of the ‘constructivist turn’ (Checkel 1998) in IR. It begins with a general discussion of what it means to say that reality is socially constructed and then proceeds to a more in-depth discussion of related debates.

The social construction of reality

The idea that international relations is a social construction can be thought about in quite simple terms. To construct something is an act that brings into being a subject or object that otherwise would not exist. For instance, a material substance, such as wood, exists in nature, but it can be formed into any number of objects, for instance the beam in a house, a rifle, a musical instrument, or a totem pole. Although these represent material objects in and of themselves, they do not exist in nature but have come about through acts of human creation. Once constructed, each p. 163of these objects has a particular meaning and use within a context. They are social constructs insofar as their shape and form is imbued with social values, norms, and assumptions rather than being the product of purely individual thought or meaning. Similarly, explicitly social phenomena, such as states or alliances or international institutions—that is, the collective subjects of international relations—may build on the basic material of human nature, but they take specific historical, cultural, and political forms that are a product of human interaction in a social world.

Constructivists have highlighted several themes. First, the idea of social construction suggests difference across context rather than a single objective reality. Constructivists have sought to explain or understand change at the international level. Traditional theories of IR, which have often assumed the sameness of states, for instance, across time and space, have prioritized the identification of regularities for the purpose of generalization and theory construction. The dramatic changes with the end of the Cold War and in its aftermath revealed the importance of historical context and raised questions about the transition from conflict to cooperation or from peace to war.

Second, constructivists have emphasized the social dimensions of international relations, and have demonstrated the importance of norms, rules, and language at this level. The importance of Gorbachev’s ‘New Thinking’ in bringing an end to the Cold War, the increasing importance of norms of humanitarian intervention, and the spread of liberal democratic values raised critical questions about the exclusive emphasis of realist theory on material interest and power. Constructivists emphasized that the latter were unable to account for some of the key issues of post-Cold War international politics and sought to provide a more complete or ‘better’ explanation, based on an analysis of how material and ideational factors combine in the construction of different possibilities and outcomes.

Third, constructivists have argued that, far from an objective reality, international politics is ‘a world of our making’ (Onuf 1989). In response to the over-determination of ‘structure’ in neorealist and neoliberal theory, constructivists introduced the possibility of agency and have emphasized processes of interaction. It is not that actors are totally free to choose their circumstances, but rather that they make choices in the process of interacting with others and, as a result, bring historically, culturally, and politically distinct ‘realities’ into being. In this respect, international relations is a social construction rather than existing independently of human meaning and action. States and other actors do not merely react as rational individuals but interact in a meaningful world.

The central themes of change, sociality, and processes of interaction point to the added value of constructivism within a field that has emphasized generalization across time, materiality, and rational choice. However, as already suggested, constructivists have not sung from a single hymn sheet and the meaning of constructivism in IR has been transformed over time. Here I will deepen discussion of the themes above by examining how the meaning of constructivism has been shaped by specific debates within IR.

Constructivism and rationalism

Most constructivists have presented some kind of critique of rationalism. However, unlike poststructuralism (see Chapter 11), this critique has not involved a wholesale rejection of scientific method. I will examine how the meaning of constructivism has been shaped out of p. 164the dialogue with rationalists. Four central points will be discussed, including the nature of being, the relationship between structures and agents, the constitution of the material world, and the role of cognition.

Social being

Ontology is a word originating with metaphysics, which refers to the nature of being and focuses on the types of objects the world is composed of. Rationalist theories of IR have an individualist ontology insofar as the basic unit of analysis is the individual (whether human or state). Neorealist theory, for instance, treats states as if they were individuals who try to maximize their ultimate aim of survival. Neorealists, such as Kenneth Waltz (1979), present individual states as the prior condition for a structure of anarchy, which then constrains their character and behaviour. In a competitive environment, generated by multiple states acting in their self-interest, to follow a different logic of action, it is argued, would be suicide. While emphasizing the individual state and the distribution of power, Waltz does bring in an element of ‘socialization’, insofar as the effects of structure are produced ‘through socialization of the actors and through competition among them’ (Keohane 1986: 63).

Arguments by neoliberals, such as Goldstein and Keohane (1993), who focus on the role of ideas, contain a similar tension between the individual and the social. Ideas are treated as causal factors that are exchanged by fully formed individuals. As Ruggie comments:

The individuals featured in [Goldstein and Keohane’s] story are not born into any system of social relationships that helps shape who they become. When we first encounter them, they are already fully constituted and poised in a problem-solving mode.

Constructivists have questioned the individualist ontology of rationalism and emphasize instead a social ontology. As fundamentally social beings, individuals or states cannot be separated from a context of normative meaning which shapes who they are and the possibilities available to them. Indeed, the concept of sovereignty is first and foremost a social and constitutive category insofar as the prior condition for recognizing the sovereignty of individual states is a shared understanding and acceptance of the concept.

The relationship between the individual and the social structure is important for both rationalism and constructivism, but is conceived in different ways by each. For rationalists, structure is a function of competition and the distribution of material capabilities. Structures first and foremost constrain the actions of states. The subjects of rationalism are guided by a logic of consequences, that is, a rational act is one that will produce an outcome that maximizes the interests of the individual unit.

Constructivists focus more on the norms and shared understandings of legitimate action, although material factors also play a role. In their view, structures not only constrain; they also constitute the identity of actors. The subjects of constructivism are guided by a logic of appropriateness (March and Olson 1989). What is rational is a function of legitimacy, defined by shared values and norms within institutions or other social structures rather than purely individual interests. As Ole Jacob Sending (2002: 449) states, the self, in this logic, becomes social through acquiring and fulfilling an institutional identity. In this p. 165respect, norms not only constrain behaviour, they also constitute the identities of actors. Human rights norms, for instance, constrain less because of power considerations than because human rights are a constitutive feature of liberal democratic states, in particular, and increasingly, at the international level, the identity of legitimate states. The emphasis on norms and rule following can be distinguished from instrumentally rational behaviour in that actors try to ‘do the right thing’ rather than maximizing or optimizing their given preferences (Risse 2000: 4)

Mutual constitution

A social structure leaves more space for agency, that is, for the individual or state to influence their environment, as well as to be influenced by it. The title of Alexander Wendt’s famous article (1992), ‘Anarchy Is What States Make of It’, captures this idea. It is not that states in anarchy can, on a whim, change their circumstances. Rather, relationships evolve over time. They are not characterized, across the board, by enmity and egoism. The USA and Great Britain have evolved as friends, while other states are enemies. Many states within the European Union are former enemies who have learned to cooperate. Relationships are a product of a historical process and interactions over time. Wendt (1992: 404–5) illustrates this in his example of Alter and Ego, two space aliens who meet for the first time, and who, through a series of gestures, determine whether the other is hostile or friendly. Each exercises an element of choice, and thus agency, in how this relationship develops. Choice is not, however, unlimited. Alter and Ego coexist in a social relationship, and their choices are partially dependent on the response of the other. The space for choice can thus be said to be mutually constituted.

Rather than emphasizing how structures constrain, as rationalists do, constructivists focus on the constitutive role of norms and shared understandings, as well as the relationship between agency and structure (Wendt 1987). The subjects of international politics are not uniformly and universally rational egoists but have distinct identities shaped by the cultural, social, and political—as well as material—circumstances in which they are embedded. They are not static but ever evolving as they interact with each other and their environment.

Social facts

Rationalists assume a static world of asocial egoists who are primarily concerned with material interests. While constructivists would not deny the importance of interests, they would tie them more directly to the identity of the subject. Neither identity nor interests can be detached from a world of social meaning. As suggested in the section on mutual constitution, identity as a liberal democracy cannot be detached from an interest in complying with human rights norms. Identity as a capitalist cannot be separated from an interest in generating profit. Likewise, identities may be formed in conflict, for example, as enemies who have an interest in self-protection. Far from being detached from the material world, identity, and subsequent interest, may constitute a world populated by particular kinds of object. Missiles, for instance, are not created in a vacuum. The mass production of nuclear weapons by the USA, after the Second World War and during the Cold War, was a response to the emerging conflict with the Soviet Union. These weapons were bound up in the constitution of the Soviet Union as p. 166an enemy, defined by a distinction between capitalist and communist, among others, and related to an interest in containing that enemy.

Most objects of international relations, unlike trees, rocks, or glaciers, exist only by virtue of human acts of creation which happen in a cultural, historical, and political context of meaning. They are social facts, rather than purely material ones, that exist because of the meaning and value attributed to them. John Searle (1995: 2) argues that social facts depend on human agreement and typically require human institutions for their existence. Without the attribution of value, and the existence of financial institutions, a dollar bill or euro note would be nothing more than a piece of paper. As already suggested, sovereignty or the borders dividing states exist only by virtue of human agreement. Likewise, a nuclear weapon does not exist in nature, although objects in nature, such as sticks, can be used as weapons. It is human design and intent that shapes the material object into one with a specific meaning and use within a context, where specific identities and interests are at stake.

Social cognition

The question of intent in designing material objects or institutions raises a further issue about the role of human reasoning. Many constructivists have built on a Weberian concept of Verstehen or understanding that refers to the hermeneutic theme that ‘action must always be understood from within’, and, thus, that social meaning is a function of ‘what is in people’s heads’ (Adler 1997: 326). The constructivist emphasis on Verstehen is interesting insofar as Weber was also one early source of the rational actor model. While rationalists highlight the rationality of decisions in terms of self-interest, thereby minimizing the role of context, constructivists have brought the social dimension back in. Intersubjective meanings are not merely the aggregation of individual beliefs but have some independent status as collective knowledge, based on the notion that although ‘each of us thinks his own thoughts, our concepts we share with our fellow men’ (Toulmin 1972: 35). Verstehen is the ‘collective interpretations, practices and institutions of the actors themselves’ (Adler 1997: 326).

The emphasis on Verstehen highlights a similarity and difference between rationalists and constructivists. The difference is that the former emphasize the individual while the latter emphasize the social. However, looking more closely at the role of individual cognition and rationality in constructivism, the difference appears to be less stark. The logic of appropriateness emphasizes the individual (Sending 2002). The rational thought processes of Wendt’s (1992) Alter and Ego are prior to social interaction. Verstehen emphasizes cognition and what is ‘in the head’ (Adler 1997: 326).

Constructivism, as outlined above, clearly adds a social dimension that is missing from rationalist approaches. However, it also contains some inconsistencies, which will be explored in the section ‘Constructivism as middle ground’. These inconsistencies arise from the combination of a social ontology with an epistemology that rests on a separation between an external world and the internal thought processes of individuals. Constructivism, in this depiction, is cast in the positivist language of causality and hypothesis testing, complemented by a focus on the rationality of individuals, although more deeply embedded in a social context. The emphasis on the individual unit, whether human or state, fails to problematize sufficiently how the individual unit is constituted. Given the emphasis on ontology, the autonomy of the social and the role of language is obscured, both in their relation to the material world and individual cognition.

p. 167Constructivism as middle ground

Constructivism, as already discussed, has occupied a ‘middle ground’ between rationalist and poststructuralist approaches to IR (a ground it shares with the English school, as argued in Chapter 6). Initially, when the word was introduced to IR by Nicholas Onuf (1989), it referred broadly to a range of postpositivist perspectives, which shared a critique of the static assumptions of mainstream IR theory. Constructivism later became a subject of contestation, with scholars making a distinction between ‘conventional’ constructivism, which was said to occupy the middle ground, and more critical variations (Adler 1997; Campbell 1998a; Hopf 1998), including poststructuralism. Conventional constructivists have not rejected the scientific assumptions of positivist science to the extent that more explicitly postpositivist approaches have. As Jeff Checkel (1998: 327) argues, the quarrel with rationalists is not epistemological but ontological (see also Katzenstein et al. 1998: 675).

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that deals with the origin and nature of knowledge and begins with a question about how we come to have knowledge of the world. Constructivists embrace an intersubjective ontology, emphasizing norms, social agents, and structures, and the mutual constitution of identity, but accept an epistemology indebted to positivism,1 which includes hypothesis testing, causality, and explanation. Ted Hopf (1998: 171) argues that emphasis on the ontological is part of an effort to overcome some of the scepticism about constructivism—arising from a conflation with postmodern approaches—and a scepticism because constructivists are assumed to be ambivalent towards mainstream social science methods. Hopf distinguishes ‘conventional’ constructivism by its distance from critical theory. He refers to conventional constructivism as a ‘collection of principles, distilled from social theory but without the latter’s more consistent theoretical and epistemological follow through’ (Hopf 1998: 181). Both rationalists and constructivists claim that no great epistemological or methodological differences divide them (Katzenstein et al. 1998: 675; Wendt 1998: 116).

By accepting a positivist epistemology, constructivists gained considerable legitimacy, such that the debate with rationalists has come to occupy an important place in the discipline (Katzenstein et al. 1998: 683). At issue in these debates is the nature of social science itself and therefore the discipline of IR, that is, the claim to a ‘naturalist’ conception of science (associated with the positivists) or a social one (Adler 1997: 320). The primary concern of the conventional constructivists is one of bringing the social back into a discipline that has been undersocialized (Wiener 2003: 256). The constructivist emphasis on causality, hypothesis testing, and objective (intersubjective) truths, is distinguished from poststructuralists who are ‘not especially interested in the meticulous examination of particular cases or sites for purposes of understanding them in their own distinctive terms’ (Ashley 1989: 278). As Adler (1997: 334) states, constructivists are interested in providing a better explanation, rather than emancipation per se.2

Shifting the middle ground

As Kurki and Wight argue in Chapter 1 the discipline of IR has failed to take philosophy of social science questions seriously and has far too often embraced an otherwise discredited ‘positivism’. The key issue here is whether combining an emphasis on social being (constructivist p. 168ontology) with an empiricist approach to the generation of objective knowledge (positivist epistemology) is consistent. This question is implicit in Hopf’s (1998) claim that critical constructivists have a ‘more consistent theoretical and epistemological follow through’. Several scholars (Onuf 1989; Kratochwil 2000; Fierke and Jorgensen 2001) have examined constructivism as part of a longer lineage outside IR and with a genealogy that intersects with, but is distinct from, poststructuralism. Constructivism is, from this perspective, also an epistemological position, heavily indebted to the so-called ‘linguistic turn’.3 If, following on the linguistic turn, constructivism raises fundamental questions about the natural connection between word and thing or between symbol and the symbolized (Palan 2000: 4), is it consistent to marry a social ontology to a positivist epistemology?

Positivist epistemology rests on a correspondence theory of language. Objects are assumed to exist independently of meaning and words act as labels for objects in this reality. Hypothesis testing represents one expression of this assumption about language. It is a method of comparing scientific statements about the world with the world to see whether they correspond. By contrast, a constructivist epistemology, as a product of the linguistic turn, builds on the notion that we cannot get behind our language to compare it with that which it describes (Wittgenstein 1958). Language is bound up in the world rather than a mirror of it. The language of a knight in chess cannot be separated from the material object; it is by this language that we distinguish the knight, and the rules applying to it, from a piece of wood. To refer to the knight as a piece of wood would be to detach it from the context in which it has meaning and a use.

The distinction between conventional and critical constructivists often rests on an assumption that the former accept the existence of an objective world, while the latter emphasize ‘merely’ language. However, as Kratochwil (2000: 91) notes, ‘hardly anyone doubts that the “world” exists “independent” from our minds. The question is rather whether we can recognize it in a pure and direct fashion or whether what we recognize is always already organized and formed by certain categorical and theoretical elements.’ The either/or designation of objective world versus interpretive relativism is too stark. A more nuanced position understands language as rule-based. This issue will be discussed in more detail in the section on approach or theory.

Approach or theory

The ontology/epistemology issue is related to a further concern regarding constructivism’s status as an approach or a theory. Onuf (1989: 1) argues that constructivism is not a theory but a way of studying social relations. Alexander Wendt’s book, Social Theory of International Politics (1999), builds a constructivist theory. Wendt accepts certain tenets of mainstream methodology, although his is a modified commitment to positivism within a scientific realist framework (see Chapter 1). The problem with his approach is twofold. On the one hand, if constructivism and positivism rely on differing assumptions about the nature of ‘reality’, then building a constructivist theory on a positivist epistemology is inconsistent. On the other hand, to treat constructivism as a theory in the same sense as realism is misleading; it is like comparing apples and oranges. Realism, as a substantive theory, makes assumptions about actors in the world and how they operate, that is, they are power seekers who exist in a competitive environment. This has often (in structural realist accounts specifically) been p. 169married in IR theory to positivist assumptions about the existence of an objective world and, more specific to IR, a timeless competitive anarchy where material power is supreme. The theoretical assumptions of realism could, arguably, be rethought from a constructivist angle, shifting to an analysis of how a competitive relationship is generated and reproduced out of processes of historical interaction. To this end, IR scholars have attempted to construct a dialogue between classical realism and constructivism (Sterling-Folker 2002; Barkin 2003; Jackson 2004).

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While constructivism was first introduced to international relations by Nicholas Onuf (1989), it is most frequently identified with Alexander Wendt’s 1992 article ‘Anarchy is What States Make of It’. Following closely on the end of the Cold War, the piece spoke to the processes of change that were under way at the time. Its core argument represented a departure from more structural accounts of international relations, which assume that states are constrained by a condition of anarchy. The article introduced the potential for agency in a condition of anarchy.

While starting with the neo–neo debates, Wendt’s critique most directly addressed the neorealist claim that in the absence of a global authority states were left with little choice but to compete with one another in order to maximize their interests and to survive. From this perspective, both the identity and interests of states are given, as they are defined by an environment of anarchy. Wendt provides a framework for thinking about identity and interests as constructed and thus subject potentially to processes of transformation. He sets out to build a bridge between two traditions, which at the time were referred to as rationalist and reflectivist (or positivist and postpositivist) by developing a constructivist argument, drawn from structurationist and symbolic interactionist sociology.

Wendt defines identities as the basis for interests, which means that actors ‘define their interests in the process of defining situations’. Institutions are relatively static sets or ‘structures’ of identities and interests, which are often codified as rules or norms, but only have motivational force by virtue of an actor’s socialization to and participation in collective knowledge. ‘Self-help’ in itself is an institution within anarchy but it is not the only possible institution, since we can point to examples of more cooperative security systems. Thus, power and institutions are not two opposing explanations, as is often assumed. In order to go from structure to action it is necessary to take account of the ‘intersubjectively constituted structure of identities and interests in the system’. These meanings, by which action is organized, arise out of a process of interaction.

Wendt illustrates the point through the example of two mythical space aliens, Alter and Ego, who meet for the first time and, through a process of signalling, interpreting, and responding to the other, begin a process of creating shared intersubjective meanings, which may develop as either cooperative or competitive (see main text for a more lengthy discussion). Given Alter and Ego begin their relationship with a blank slate, the analysis of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of ‘New Thinking’ raises a question about the extent to which an alteration of the ‘game’ is possible once two parties have become stuck in a negative spiral such as existed during the Cold War. He argues that actors have a capacity for critical self-reflection and choice ‘designed to bring about changes in their lives’. This may happen when there is a reason to think about oneself in novel terms, for instance, owing to the presence of new social circumstances, which cannot be mapped onto pre-existing self-conceptions. When these conditions are present actors can engage in ‘self-reflection and practice specifically designed to transform their identities and interests’ and thus ‘change the games’ in which they are embedded.

Alexander Wendt (1992), ‘Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics’, International Organization, 46/2: 391–425.

p. 170The constructivist label became attached to scholars, particularly in the USA, who identified with a middle ground between rationalist and poststructuralist approaches. This middle ground has emphasized a social ontology, a common epistemology with the mainstream, and a focus on the development of constructivist theory. Another constructivism shifts this middle ground, highlighting the inseparability of a social ontology and social epistemology. Both accept the ‘possibility of a reality to be constructed’, which distinguishes them from poststructuralists, who problematize this possibility (Zehfuss 2002).

In the section on consistent constructivism, I argue that the second constructivism is more consistent than ‘conventional’ constructivism. I use the label ‘consistent constructivism’ to highlight that its assumptions correct the inconsistency at the core of conventional constructivism. This contrasts with the more common distinction between conventional and critical constructivism. The latter term often includes poststructuralism, while the idea of consistent constructivism presented here does not.

Consistent constructivism

Constructivists and rationalists have engaged in dialogue but method has not been on the agenda. There is a tension between a school of constructivism that sees no fundamental differences with mainstream methods and another which understands constructivism as an approach with roots in the linguistic turn. The inconsistency is most evident in relation to the role of language and rules, on the one hand, and the question of causality, on the other.

Language and rules

The role of language has been largely ignored in the debate between rationalists and constructivists. The avoidance of language is, in part, a reflection of the effort to create distance from poststructuralists, who are associated with interpretive relativism. It is also a reflection of the middle ground’s focus on ontology. An approach to language that is consistent with the social ontology of constructivism should also occupy an epistemological middle ground. In between a view of language as either a mirror of the world or pure interpretation is an understanding of language and action as rule-based. It is a small step from a focus on the role of norms and rules in international relations, to an acknowledgement that these only find expression and are constituted only in a language and action that is rule-based and itself infused with norms.

This conception of language rests on a distinction between rules (the concern of constructivists) and interpretation (the emphasis of poststructuralists). Following a rule is different from an interpretation. As Wittgenstein states,

there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call ‘obeying a rule’ and ‘going against it’ in actual cases. Hence there is an inclination to say: every action according to the rule is an interpretation. But we ought to restrict the term interpretation to the substitution of one expression of the rule for another.

p. 171The unitary view of science rests on a dichotomy between the objective and the subjective. In this view language operates as a set of labels for the objective reality or for the mental processes of individuals. A consistent constructivist approach to language challenges this dichotomy. In this view, language use is fundamentally social. We are socialized into it and in the process we do not simply learn words but how to act in the world—what it means to promise, threaten, and lie, the types of context in which these speech acts are appropriate or meaningful, or even what it means to formulate a hypothesis, vote, or deploy a missile. Language use is part of acting in the world. Without language we could not begin to communicate with one another, attribute meaning to objects or acts in the world, think individual thoughts, or express feelings.

Hypothesis testing in positivist science rests on an assumption that labels will be either true or false. An approach to language as rule-based requires that we ‘look and see’ how language is put to use by social actors as they construct their world. In a situation of change, categories of identity or action are not likely to be static. For instance, the dominant categories defining identity in communist Yugoslavia were different from those that emerged along with the conflict between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. The category Yugoslavia subsumes all of the latter under a common identity as ‘southern slavs’. By contrast, the ethnic categories construct clear historical, religious, and political distinctions between the different groups. These categories may have begun as interpretations, in that they substituted one rule of identity for another, but they became rule-like in their designation of identity and the actions that followed from this. In the transition from Yugoslavia to violent conflict, neighbours, who had lived together in peace, became the objects of ethnic cleansing.

A consistent constructivist approach to language shifts emphasis to the generation of meaning, norms, and rules, as expressed in language, by the subjects of analysis. It is also concerned less with the intentions of individuals, as suggested by conventional constructivists (March and Olson 1989; Adler 1997; Sending 2002), than the intention expressed in social action. As Wittgenstein (1958: para. 337) said, ‘An intention is embedded in its situation, in human customs and institutions.’

In the example here, the ‘intention’ of individuals engaged in ethnic cleansing could not be separated from a social world in which neighbours had become ‘dangerous others’, defined as Chetnik, Ustasa, or Ottoman—terms with deep historical resonance—who had to be eliminated because of the threat they posed. Intention and action were defined in a public language by socially constituted actors. Questions of intention relate to a second category of inconsistency.

Reasons and causes

The other seeming inconsistency in the construction of constructivism vis-à-vis rationalism is the frequent emphasis on causality (Finnemore 1996: 28; Adler 1997: 329; Checkel 1997, 1998). On the surface, this appears to be merely a matter of word use. But the conflation of reason and cause raises a more serious issue, which is illustrated by the following example. Take a question about US President Bush’s reasons for invading Iraq or the cause of the US invasion. Multiple possible reasons/causes have been identified: from oil to the desire to complete unfinished business from the Gulf War to concerns about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction to human rights.

p. 172A hypothesis focusing on Bush’s individual reasons or the cause of the invasion seeks an explanation that corresponds with the world. But truth and falsity are ultimately slippery insofar as we cannot get inside individual minds, and the competition to identify the ‘true’ cause or intention usually devolves into a battle of interpretations. The question can be asked in a different way, however, focusing less on the ultimate truth of why Bush or the USA undertook the invasion, and more on the social fact that the invasion happened and how it became possible. We might pose this ‘how possible’ question, as Howard (2004) has, in terms of the puzzle that Iraq actually posed less of a threat to the USA than North Korea yet became the object of invasion, while the latter was the subject of negotiations. He traces how the historical pattern of interaction with the USA laid the groundwork for different policies towards these two ‘Axis of Evil’ states.

The ‘how possible’ question reveals the importance of public language and the intentionality embedded in it. It is now known that intelligence communities on both sides of the Atlantic got it wrong in (falsely) believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. An explanation that the invasion was caused by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction is more accurately stated in the following terms. The reason for the invasion of Iraq, given by foreign policy elites, was the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Whether these actors believed the intelligence or manufactured it, this ‘reason’ made the invasion possible. The reason was the means for persuading the US public, and US soldiers, that this was a legitimate act by their government. The reason was strengthened by the link made in political discourse between Saddam and the attackers on 9/11. The premise that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, although based on false data, established the context for justification of—that is, giving a reason for—the invasion. This reason was publicly accessible in political language. It constituted an action and a ‘reality’, that is, the invasion. The intention to invade was embedded in these language games and in the act of invasion itself. The recent ‘practice turn’ in international relations, which is a further development in these debates, would approach invasion as an international ‘practice’ or a socially meaningful pattern of action that is more or less competently performed (see, for instance, Adler and Pouliot 2011). The practice turn builds not only on the thought of Wittgenstein, but also Bourdieu, Goffman, Foucault, and others.

To refer to a reason as a cause is an interpretation; it takes the rule by which ‘giving a reason’ has meaning and gives it a different meaning. However, a reason has a different logic than a cause. X may give a reason for her action to Y. In doing so, X explains her action. This may have an influence on Y, but, if so, it is less as a cause, in the sense that the impact of one stone on another may propel the latter in forward motion. Rather, it is part of a conversation where X is trying to persuade Y, and thereby legitimate her own actions in terms that can be understood and accepted by the other.

To give a reason, or to engage in many other speech acts, from promising to threatening, opens a space for the other to be engaged and respond. As a two-way relationship, this interaction is not merely a question of who has the greater material power; it is dependent on some degree of common language (the other must be able to understand what is being said and what constitutes a reason, promise, or threat), which incorporates standards of legitimacy (i.e. what will suffice as a good reason, as well as conditions, relating to past words and actions, which make a promise or threat credible), the normative basis of these claims and the possibility of contestation (Wiener 2008, 2014). The latter suggests the importance of a logic of arguing and bargaining, as well as one of appropriateness (see, e.g., p. 173Risse 2000; Müller 2004). Power is a factor, since, particularly in the case of threats, material capability is one, although not the only, condition of credibility. Power may also be a factor insofar as the legitimacy of a reason may be tied to social role or position (see, e.g., Barnett and Duvall 2005; Guzzini 2005). For example, Western states may give reasons for maintaining a large nuclear arsenal, which are accepted as legitimate, while the desire for even one nuclear weapon by a Middle Eastern nation, such as Iran, may be widely viewed as illegitimate and dangerous.

To call a reason a cause is to transform the meaning of the former. Obviously, the meaning of words can change over time. However, in this case, the two words are in conflict. We can replace the rule by which ‘a reason’ is given meaning with an interpretation that it is a ‘cause’, but this is like changing the direction of a signpost, which has constituted a regular use or custom (Wittgenstein 1958: para. 158).

Case study:

The War on Terror

The introduction of this chapter began with the politicization of Cold War security practices in the late 1980s. The ‘timeless’ realist assumptions underpinning security studies were further called into question by the sudden end of the Cold War, which no one predicted; by largely nonviolent revolutions in Central Europe; by the failure of the Soviet Union to step in to save its crumbling empire; and by its eventual decision to disband. For some, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 11 September 2001, and the War on Terror that followed, signalled a return to a world of realist security relations, given the renewed emphasis on the use of force. Contemporary structural realists, such as John Mearsheimer, have acknowledged that realism, given its focus on states, has little to say about nonstate actors, such as ‘terrorists’ (Kriesler 2002). Realism can explain the actions of the main state protagonist—that is, the USA—and its response to the attacks, but is limited first and foremost by its assumption that states are the primary actors at the international level. ‘Terrorism studies’ more generally has articulated the problem as one of how states should respond to actors who use illegitimate force, and do not problematize either the identities of the actors or the objectivity of threats.

A constructivist approach to the War on Terror would move away from this emphasis on states or objective threats. It would instead explore how identities, actions, and human suffering are constructed through a process of interaction. The problem is thus one of how actors engage with one another, how they define themselves and others, and how this shapes the boundaries of the world within which they act. While realists would highlight the competitive nature of states in a condition of anarchy, a constructivist might shift the emphasis to how in a particular context actors came to define their relationship in antagonistic terms. They would also see more potential for transforming this relationship. Here I examine the War on Terror as a social interaction, in which conflict has been mutually constituted, which highlights the social ontology of the conflict. I also highlight the role of language and context, as well as the role of giving reasons—as distinct from identifying cause—all of which relate to a social epistemology.

9/11 and War on Terror

The attacks on 11 September 2001 seemed to come from nowhere. Images of the attacks, shown repeatedly in the public media, contributed to a widespread experience of shock and fear among the US population, as well as the consolidation of American identity and patriotism (Silberstein 2002). p. 174Questions of identity regard how the relationship between self and other is given meaning and how this shapes interactions between them. While identity is always relational (Wendt 1992: 397) and established in relation to a series of differences that are socially recognized (Connolly 1991: 64), the degree of difference can vary. In this case, identity was mutually constituted around a stark difference between good and evil. Following the attacks and the naming of the War Terror, George Bush (2001a) drew a clear line in the sand, stating ‘you are either with us or you are with the terrorists’. He further stated that:

We value life; the terrorists ruthlessly destroy it. We value education; the terrorists do not believe women should be educated, should have health care or should leave their homes. We value the right to speak our minds; for terrorists, free expression can be grounds for execution. We respect people of all faiths and the free practice of religion; our enemy wants to dictate how to think and how to worship even to Muslims.

Bin Laden, in declaring jihad on all Americans, also constructed identity in negative oppositional terms, articulating a distinction between ‘infidel Crusaders’ in the West and those who are a part of the Muslim Ummah (community).

Not only identities, but also the meaning of their actions grew out of this interaction. Constructivists have raised a question about how, given the existence of numerous possible threats and threatening others, some come to be elevated above others to become the focus of security efforts (Weldes et al. 1999). The Copenhagen School (Wæver 1995; Buzan et al. 1998a) have theorized a process of securitization by which naming a threat as a security threat elevates it above all others. In this elevation the identification of an existential threat—that is, a threat to the survival of a community—justifies a suspension of the normal rules of politics, allowing elites to take extraordinary measures.

War is not normal politics and sometimes requires extraordinary measures. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were a dreadful tragedy arising out of an abominable act. The question, from a constructivist perspective, is whether there were alternative frameworks for giving meaning to and responding to this attack. The framework of ‘war’ and securitization arguably increased the threat and contributed to the construction and deepening of conflict. In attacking the USA, Al-Qaeda communicated with violence. As George Soros argued, the Bush administration walked into a trap by responding in a way that accepted the terms of the relationship set down by Bin Laden (Cook 2004).

The coining of the ‘War on Terror’ in the aftermath of 9/11 confused two fields of practice that have traditionally been distinct. War has been a rule-bound practice of states, which usually begins with a declaration and has a clear end. Terrorism has most often, at least in recent times, been associated with nonstate actors and been treated as an area of crime. In naming a war of indefinite duration involving an obscure enemy who is outside the rules of war, Bush brought the War on Terror into being, and out of the tensions contained in this double-sided term, gave reasons for a range of acts that would not otherwise have been considered acceptable.

On the one hand, war presents an existential threat that justifies extraordinary measures and limitations on democratic freedoms. The War on Terror led to the speedy passage of the Patriot Act and other measures that changed the rules of detention and allowed unprecedented government surveillance. The US government also rewrote the rules on torture, allowing acts, such as waterboarding and hooding, which would otherwise be forbidden (Sands 2008). On the other hand, the nonstate protagonists were placed outside the normal rules of war, and not least the Geneva Conventions, because they were not viewed as conventional soldiers. They were placed in Guantanamo Bay which, it was argued, was outside US jurisdiction and therefore constituted a legal black hole. They were p. 175held without charge for years on end, and submitted to what has since been viewed as treatment that violated international law.

Articulating a threat or declaring a war are speech acts that bring a particular state of affairs into being. The speech act involves not only a speaker, but also an audience who must accept its legitimacy to be successful. Against the backdrop of 9/11 the moves of the Bush administration received unprecedented support. In the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, following the discovery that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, the threat became increasingly hollow. Over time the Bush administration was delegitimized which was followed by a gradual return to normal politics. This was most dramatically illustrated by the unprecedented turn out for the 2008 elections and the high level of support for Barack Obama, the candidate who was most consistently against the Iraq War. In his inaugural (2009a) and Cairo (2009b) speeches Obama presented a different American face to the world, and the Arab and Muslim world in particular, in a situation where its status had been severely damaged.

Conflict may be perpetuated by mutual negative othering. The naming of an existential threat can result in the suspension of normal politics and justify not only acts of war, but other extraordinary acts, which would not normally be tolerated, such as extraordinary rendition, where primarily Muslim captives were secretly packed off to countries that practice torture, or subjected to humiliating acts in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. In this respect, it is not only threats and violence that are constructed, but also human suffering or trauma. Human suffering is a social construction insofar as it grows out of a particular kind of human interaction, rather than existing purely in the mind of the traumatized (Fierke 2007). Trauma that arises from an act of human intention, as distinct from natural disaster, is more difficult to come to terms with (Zinner and Williams 1999). Torture is a form of human interaction entered into with the intention of causing pain in order to elicit a mock consent to the torturer’s demands (Scarry 1995). In this respect, it also represents a relation of power. If the torturer turns out to be someone who it was expected would provide protection, such as a family member or one’s own state authorities, the feelings of betrayal add to the humiliation of this powerless position (Edkins 2003).

Torture has played a role in the War on Terror, damaging the lives, in particular, of those innocent individuals who were wrongly imprisoned. But trauma has had a more public expression in the War on Terror as well. As already noted, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were experienced as a trauma by Americans, which was reinforced by repeated televised images of the planes crashing into the buildings. The shattered feelings of safety were quickly followed by a mobilization of military might first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Bin Laden (2001) justified the attacks in terms of the humiliation experienced by Arabs and Muslims at the hands of the West over the past eighty years. From this perspective, 9/11 was one act that formed part of a longer history of interaction, rather than the opening volley in a war. Images of violence or humiliation from Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Palestine, flashed across the Arab and Muslim world by Al Jazeera, added to the widespread sense of humiliation within these communities and provided a powerful tool for recruiting Islamic ‘martyrs’ or ‘suicide bombers’ (Fattah and Fierke 2009). For both sides an experience of human suffering was the background against which identity was consolidated and acts of violence were justified vis-à-vis their respective communities.

Case study questions


Critically analyse the difference between a realist and a constructivist approach to the War on Terror.


What is the added value of a constructivist analysis of the War on Terror?

p. 176Conclusion

The interactions of the War on Terror produced a reality, but this reality was constituted out of meanings that the two main actors brought to their interactions. The reality was therefore far more multidimensional and social than posited by epistemological approaches that assume an objective reality ‘out there’. The social meaning given to identity, threats, or human suffering is expressed in language. Actors also give reasons for their actions. While the language and practices constitute an interaction and a type of relationship, and thus a reality, they also contain contradictions which have contributed to a transformation of this context.

These contradictions were evident in relation to several aspects of Bush administration policy. First, the architects of the War on Terror articulated the end of remaking the countries of the Middle East into liberal democracies; the practice of the War involved the violation of human rights, disregard for international law, and a failure to listen to the voices, even of traditional allies, who challenged, in particular, the invasion of Iraq. Second, events that exposed the failure of intelligence, such as the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq, contributed to the legitimation of more far-reaching intelligence. These surveillance measures and the suspension of many established civil liberties, in the context of a war of infinite duration, were in conflict with the end for which the war was fought, that is, the preservation of a way of life defined by openness and freedom.

The contradictions became too glaring to ignore and contributed to the increasing politicization of what had been a largely militarized response to terrorism. While the USA initially received widespread support and sympathy from the international community, this support waned over time as the practices of the Bush administration appeared increasingly to violate the rules and norms of international law. While the invasion of Afghanistan was widely seen as a justified act of self-defence in response to 9/11, the questionable legality of the Iraq invasion in 2003, practices of extraordinary rendition, the suspension of due process and habeas corpus in Guantanamo Bay, and the exposure of the photos of Arab prisoners being humiliated at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, led to a serious loss of legitimacy and questions about whether the USA had deviated from its own basic principles in attempting to address this security threat. While these practices appeared to violate international norms and rules, this violation also revealed and reinforced the importance of these norms and rules for defining appropriate behaviour. The new US administration, elected in 2008, has emphasized the importance of respect for human rights and the law, which included rejecting the use of torture. Following his election, President Obama spoke of encouraging dialogue and diplomacy across the divisions of international society and a shift of emphasis to the politics of terrorism rather than an exclusively military response, although in practice he has not made as much progress in dismantling the War on Terror as was initially hoped. The other issue raised by the massive civilian and military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan is the humanitarian consequences of fighting terrorism with force. As this constructivist analysis has suggested, human suffering is often drawn on to consolidate identity and mobilize military power. In this respect, a constructivist analysis opens a space for greater reflexivity on both sides of a conflict, making it possible for actors to step back and ask questions about how their own actions may contribute to the construction of the very problems they seek to address. These are important lessons to bear in mind when tackling today’s challenges whether it be in Ukraine, the Middle East, or East Asia.

p. 177Questions


Why would a constructivist approach facilitate the analysis of change?


Discuss the idea that international relations is a social construction.


What are the central themes of constructivism and how have they contributed to the discipline of IR?


What is the difference between rationalism, conventional constructivism, and consistent constructivism?


What does it mean to say that identities and interests are mutually constituted?


What is the difference between thinking about constructivism as an approach or a theory and the significance of this distinction for understanding the role of language in analysis?

Further reading

Fierke, K. M. and Jorgensen, K. E. (2001), Constructing International Relations: The Next Generation (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

A transatlantic dialogue over the meaning of constructivism.

Finnemore, M. (1996), National Interests and International Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

An exploration of the role of norms in international relations.

Guzzini, S. and Leander, A. (eds) (2005), Constructivism and International Relations: Alexander Wendt and his Critics (London: Routledge).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

This book includes the most prominent critiques of Alexander Wendt’s constructivism, as well as a reply to his critics.

Katzenstein, P. (1996), The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics (New York: Columbia University Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

An edited collection of a range of empirical studies that apply a constructivist analysis.

Kratochwil, F. (1989), Rules, Norms and Decisions: On the Conditions of Practical and Legal Reasoning in International Relations and Domestic Affairs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

A seminal work on the role of rules in international relations.

Onuf, N. (1989), World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relations (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

The work that introduced constructivism to IR.

Wendt, A. (1999), Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

The most comprehensive effort to build a constructivist theory of international relations.

Zehfuss, M. (2002) Constructivism in International Relations: The Politics of Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Drawing on Derrida, the book provides a comprehensive critique of constructivism and its representation of reality.

Important websites

A Second Image: Introduction to Constructivism. Oxford Bibliographies.

War on Terror—Global Issues.

Visit the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book for lots of interesting additional material.


  • 1. A note is in order about my use of the term positivism, which is as ‘essentially contested’ as constructivism and is also associated with a range of philosophical traditions, many of which have been discredited in the larger scientific world. For a more detailed discussion of the meaning of positivism within IR, see Chapter 1.

  • 2. It should be noted that ‘emancipation’ is a concept associated with the Frankfurt school of critical theory (see Chapter 8), which is distinct from poststructuralism. Poststructuralists do not generally embrace this concept. The two schools of thought tend, however, to be conflated in the contrast with conventional constructivism.

  • 3. The linguistic turn in philosophy introduced language to the relationship between logic and world. The phrase ‘linguistic turn’ is often associated with Wittgenstein’s later work, and particularly his Philosophical Investigations (1958), but it actually originated with his earlier Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (1922). This work influenced the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle and its conception of verification. By contrast, Philosophical Investigations influenced a number of different philosophers, from the constructivism of Anthony Giddens and John Searle to the critical theory of Jurgen Habermas, as well as the poststructuralism of Richard Rorty and Jean François Lyotard.