The end of the Cold War produced a major reconfiguration of debates within the dominant American discourse of international relations theory, prompted by the rise of a new ‘constructivist’ school of thought. While constructivism owes much to intellectual developments in sociology–particularly sociological institutionalism (see Finnemore 1996) – Richard Price and Chris Reus-Smit have argued that constructivism should be seen primarily as an outgrowth of critical international theory, as many of its pioneers explicitly sought to employ the insights of that theory to illuminate diverse aspects of world politics. Constructivism differs from first-wave critical theory, however, in its emphasis on empirical analysis. Some constructivists have continued to work at the meta-theoretical level (Onuf 1989; Wendt 1999), but most have sought conceptual and theoretical illumination through the systematic analysis of empirical puzzles in world politics.
The rise of constructivism was prompted by four factors. First, motivated by an attempt to reassert the pre-eminence of their own conceptions of theory and world politics, leading rationalists challenged critical theorists to move beyond theoretical critique to the substantive analysis of international relations (Walker 1989). Second, the end of the Cold War undermined the explanatory pretensions of neo-realists and neo-liberals, neither of which had predicted, nor could adequately comprehend, the systemic transformations reshaping the global order. Third, by the beginning of the 1990s a new generation of young scholars had emerged who embraced many of the propositions of critical international theory, but who saw potential for innovation in conceptual elaboration and empirically informed theoretical development (Klotz 1995: 20; Kier 1997; Price 1997; Hall 1999; Lynch 1999; Reus-Smit 1999; Tannenwald 1999; Rae 2002). Finally, the advance of the new constructivist perspective was aided by the enthusiasm that mainstream scholars, frustrated by the analytical failings of the dominant rationalist theories, showed in embracing the new perspective, moving it from the margins to the mainstream of theoretical debate.
Echoing the divisions within critical international theory, constructivists are divided between modernists and postmodernists. They have all, however, sought to articulate and explore three core ontological propositions about social life, propositions which they claim illuminate more about world politics than rival rationalist assumptions. First, to the extent that structures can be said to shape the behaviour of social and political actors, be they individuals or states, constructivists hold that normative or ideational structures are just as important as material structures. (Wendt 1995: 73). For example, Canada and Cuba both exist alongside the United States, yet the simple balance of military power cannot explain the fact that the former is a close American ally, the latter a sworn enemy. Ideas about identity, the logics of ideology and established structures of friendship and enmity lend the material balance of power between Canada and the United States and Cuba and the United States radically different meanings. Second, constructivists argue that understanding how non-material structures condition actors’ identities is important because identities inform interests and, in turn, actions. As we saw above, rationalists believe that actors’ interests are exogenously determined, meaning that actors, be they individuals or states, encounter one another with a pre-existing set of preferences. Neo-realists and neo-liberals are not interested in where such preferences come from, only in how actors pursue them strategically. Third, constructivists contend that agents and structures are mutually constituted. Normative and ideational structures may well condition the identities and interests of actors, but those structures would not exist if it were not for the knowledgeable practices of those actors. Wendt’s emphasis on the ‘supervening’ power of structures, and the predilection of many constructivists to study how norms shape behaviour, suggest that constructivists are structuralists, just like their neo-realist and Marxist counterparts. Normative and ideational structures are seen as shaping actors’ identities and interests through three mechanisms: imagination, communication and constraint.
A curious feature of these developments has been their relative autonomy from the events of 11 September 2001 and their aftermath. Theoretical developments in International Relations have generally – though not always – responded to catalytic historical events: liberalism got a boost after the First World War, realism emerged ascendant after the crises of the inter-war period and the Second World War and, as we have seen, constructivism’s rise had much to do with the end of the Cold War. Yet the terrorist attacks of September 11, which were just as momentous as the fall of the Berlin Wall, have not sparked a tectonic shift in the nature of constructivism, or in the general terrain of International Relations theorizing. There is a general sense that history has drawn the field back to questions of power, hegemony and the state, and some have concluded that this advantages realist forms of thinking. We are yet to see, however, significant theoretical innovations from realists, constructivists, or others. In many respects, the paucity of an innovative constructivist response to the post-9/11 world is surprising, as many of the big and important questions now facing the international community (and which pose ample scholarly challenges) play to constructivism’s strengths. Three of these deserve particular attention: the nature of power, the relationship between international and world society and the role of culture in world politics.
The rise of constructivism has heralded a return to a more sociological, historical and practice oriented form of International Relations scholarship. Where rationalists had reduced the social to strategic interaction, denied the historical by positing disembedded, universal forms of rationality and reduced the practical art of politics to utility maximizing calculation, constructivists have re-imagined the social as a constitutive domain, reintroduced history as realm of empirical inquiry and emphasized the variability of political practice. In many respects, constructivism embodies characteristics normally associated with the ‘English School’, discussed by Linklater in Chapter 4 in this volume. Constructivists have taken up the idea that states form more than a system, that they form a society and they have pushed this idea to new levels of theoretical and conceptual sophistication. Their interest in international history also represents an important point of convergence with the English School, as does their stress on the cultural distinctiveness of different societies of states. Finally, their initial emphasis on interpretive method of analysis echoes Hedley Bull’s call for a classical approach, ‘characterized above all by explicit reliance upon the exercise of judgement’ rather than neo-positivist standards of ‘verification and proof’ (1969, 1995: 20–38).
These similarities, as well as constructivism’s roots in critical international theory, appeared to pose a challenge to conventional understandings of the field. An ‘Atlantic divide’ has long structured understandings of the sociology of International Relations as a discipline, with the field seen as divided between North American ‘scientists’ and European (mainly British) ‘classicists’. Two of the defining ‘great debates’ of the discipline – between realists and idealists and positivists and traditionalists – have been mapped onto this divide, lending intellectual divisions a cultural overtone. At first glance, constructivism appears to confuse this way of ordering the discipline. Despite having taken up many of the intellectual commitments normally associated with the English School, constructivism has its origins in the United States. Its principal exponents were either educated in or currently teach in the leading American universities, and their pioneering work has been published in the premier journals and by the leading university presses. The United States also spawned much of the earlier wave of critical international theory, especially of a postmodern variety, but that work never achieved the same centrality within the American sector of the discipline. One of the reasons for constructivism’s success in the United States has been its emphasis on empirically informed theorizing over meta-theoretical critique, an orientation much less confronting to the mainstream. With success, however, has come normalization, and this has seen the neglectful forgetting, or active jettisoning, of theoretical commitments that were central to constructivism in the early years. Disappearing, in the American discipline, are the foundational ideas that constructivism rests on a social ontology radically different from rationalism’s, that studying norms, as social facts, demands an interpretive methodology, and that constructivism was linked, in important ways, to the emancipatory project of critical theory. The continued importance of these commitments to non American constructivism suggests that a new manifestation of the ‘Atlantic divide’ may now be emerging.
Reus-Smit, Christian. 2005. ‘Constructivism’ dalam Theories of International Relation. New York: Palgrave McMillan