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date: 01 October 2022

Constructivismlocked

Constructivismlocked

  • Friedrich KratochwilFriedrich KratochwilEmeritus Chair of International Relations, European University Institute
  •  and Hannes PeltonenHannes PeltonenFaculty of Management and Business Tampere University

Summary

Constructivism in the social sciences has known several ups and downs over the last decades. It was successful rather early in sociology but hotly contested in International Politics/Relations (IR). Oddly enough, just at the moment it made important inroads into the research agenda and became accepted by the mainstream, enthusiasm for it waned. Many constructivists—as did mainstream scholars—moved from “grand theory” or even “meta-theory” toward “normal science,” or experimented with other (eclectic) approaches, of which the turns to practices, to emotions, to new materialism, to the visual, and to the queer are some of the latest manifestations.

In a way, constructivism was “successful,” on the one hand, by introducing norms, norm-dynamics, and diffusion; the role of new actors in world politics; and the changing role of institutions into the debates, while losing, on the other hand, much of its critical potential. The latter survived only on the fringes—and in Europe more than in the United States. In IR, curiously, constructivism, which was rooted in various European traditions (philosophy, history, linguistics, social analysis), was originally introduced in Europe via the disciplinary discussions taking place in the United States. Yet, especially in its critical version, it has found a more conducive environment in Europe than in the United States.

In the United States, soon after its emergence, constructivism became “mainstreamed” by having its analysis of norms reduced to “variable research.” In such research, positive examples of, for instance, the spread of norms were included, but strangely empirical evidence of counterexamples of norm “deaths” (preventive strikes, unlawful combatants, drone strikes, extrajudicial killings) were not. The elective affinity of constructivism and humanitarianism seemed to have transformed the former into the Enlightenment project of “progress.” Even Kant was finally pressed into the service of “liberalism” in the US discussion, and his notion of the “practical interest of reason” morphed into the political project of an “end of history.” This “slant” has prevented a serious conceptual engagement with the “history” of law and (inter-)national politics and the epistemological problems that are raised thereby. This bowdlerization of constructivism is further buttressed by the fact that in the “knowledge industry” none of the “leading” US departments has a constructivist on board, ensuring thereby the narrowness of conceptual and methodological choices to which the future “professionals” are exposed.

The aim here, in exploring constructivism and its emergence within a changing world and within the evolution of the discipline, is not to provide a definition or a typology of constructivism, since such efforts go against the critical dimension of constructivism. An application of this critique on constructivism itself leads to a reflection on truth, knowledge, and the need for (re-)orientation.

Subjects

  • Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies
  • World Politics

Updated in this version

The article has been updated throughout, including updates to the abstract, the keywords, the body of the text, and the references.

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