Scholars of international relations have deemed the neorealist-neoliberal debate as the conventional paradigm of their discipline. Yet, the emergence of social constructivism in international relations has challenged that standard, and critics both acclaimed and disputed the approach in relation to the established ones in place (Zehfuss, 2002, p. 2). Whereas social constructivism proved influential within scholarly circles of international relations (Checkel, 1999, p. 545), its extent of influence has received indefinite assessments.
The extent to which social constructivism has transformed international relations serve as a gap that this study seeks to address. As social constructivism competes with the conventional neorealist and neoliberal paradigms, an assessment of its potency in terms of distinguishing both its assets and frailties as a theory for understanding international relations could further establish its much-disputed significance. An emphasis on the relevance and impact of ideas, identities and subjective structures in international relations provides the key feature for this study through a presentation of established literature in the discipline. This study also recognizes that social constructivism has yet to flourish fully in the realm of international relations, particularly in terms of the role of agency, its further development from being a method of inquiry and integration studies.
Social Constructivism in the Context of International Relations
A richer understanding of the relevance of social constructivism as a theory of international relations would prove useful for addressing the problem at hand. This section provides a definition of social constructivism within the provided context, its distinctive features as against the conventional neorealist-neoliberal paradigms and the outcomes, developments and concerns it has produced as a theory of international relations.
What Is Social Constructivism?
A four-tier orientation based on epistemological, methodological, ontological and normative approaches provides a clear definition of social constructivism in the context of international relations. Social constructivism, in an epistemological sense, questions neorealist and neoliberal positivist approaches involving empirical claims. In terms of methodology, a multiplicity of methods for knowledge determination with emphasis on interpretation holds higher favor against the positivist view of employing only one scientific method. In an ontological scale, much weight lies on the importance of social construction, which leads to the determination of interests based on identity. In the normative realm, it rejects the formation of structures of domination, encouraging the improvement of paradigms dedicated to the destruction of such (Price and Reus-Smit, 1998, p. 261).
Social constructivism focuses on the role of agents in facilitating change through identities, as opposed to the natural causes of actions. Essential to this paradigm is the formation of ideas and the eventual development of identities. In an international relations context, this refers to the way nations form their identities to induce particular impressions from co-nations and organizations, as the case may be. Under those terms, it is highly critical to know whether actors accept or reject identities they have formed for themselves, whether expressively or impliedly (Walt, 1998, p. 41). Ideas of social constructivists derive greatly from historical underpinnings, with their preferences largely conducive to those, alongside consequential institutional backing (Guzzini, 2000, p. 148).
Three prominent figures in the social constructivist school have rendered their distinctive notions of the theory – Alexander Wendt, Friedrich Kratochwil and Nicolas Onuf. The first, according to Wendt, states that conduct under international relations is constructed and not provided objectively, since it brings forth ideas and identities. The second one, from Kratochwil, proposes a normative view of social constructivism, pointing out the human factor of politics due to the emergence of ideas and identities. In his view, norms enable people to associate with one another and thus enable communication. The third one, conceptualized by Onuf, takes on the role of people in the construction of social realities, based on the premise that people and society shape one another constructively (Zehfuss, 2002, pp. 9-23).
Social Constructivism Vis-à-vis Neorealist-Neoliberal Paradigms
As an emergent theory in the study of international relations, social constructivism has clashed with the conventional neorealist-neoliberal paradigms. The conventional international relations school centers on objective and natural influences on actions. In other words, the determination of agency lies on impacts brought forth by nature, which is susceptible to scientific inquiry producing empirical results. Social constructivism does not regard that matter with high importance, as it consigns its focus on subjectivity based on the formation of ideas and identities. Three prominent theories under the neorealist-neoliberal umbrella – structuralism, rational choice and phenomenology, greatly differ from social constructivism in that those three regard the influence of empirical factors, as opposed to ideas and identities. Structuralism is both holistic and objective, as fact-based propositions greatly influence the structures it relies on. Rational choice is both individualistic and objective, as it analyzes the choice of an individual based on logical schemes. Phenomenology is both individualistic and subjective in that it regards the reactions of actors based on the influence of natural phenomena. Social constructivism deviates from the previous three theories for it is both holistic and subjective. Such is because its structures derive composition from the ideas and identities of actors (Dunne, 1995, p. 371).
Contributions of Social Constructivism to the Study of International Relations
The effects of social constructivism in the study of international relations have become far ranging across different themes. This section lays out four different themes in international relations that social constructivism has influenced – anarchy, interests consequent to identities, change and power (Hopf, 1998, pp. 174-181).
Anarchy. Social constructivism fits within the context of anarchy in that such phenomenon employs a structural approach organized by the ideas and identities of actors. Anarchy, under this case, is not limited under its traditional neorealist concept, wherein it discusses the possibility of disastrous outcomes due to failure of self-help. In fact, social constructivism employs the neorealist notion of anarchy only up to an imaginary scale. It rather focuses on anarchy espoused on actions involving the cessation of control in preference of influences by other nations or organizations, such as in trade agreements (Hopf, 1998, p. 174).
Identities and Interests. Under social constructivism, identities of actors derive characteristics from history, culture and the prevalent sociopolitical context affecting those actors. Presumably, identities influence interests, as apparent in social practices of actors that help form structures and ideas. It differs from neorealism due to its susceptibility to wider courses of action, although those choices have limitations in terms of the milieu provided by social structures formed from social practices (Hopf, 1998, pp. 174-177).
Change. Social constructivists believe that social change in international relations is possible, albeit difficult to undertake. The emphasis of social constructivism on instilling continuous discipline and the ability to reproduce has enabled structures under it to provide difficulties for any change efforts. Yet, change could happen as long as there are differences in the form of forces competing for control over meanings. Thus, despite the strength of existing constructed structures, it could still experience change because of the variances within those structures in the form of alternative practices and unorthodox identities (Hopf, 1998, p. 180).
Power. Social constructivism has analyzed power based on material and discursive terms. Whereas the neorealist-neoliberal paradigms have focused only on the material aspect of power – military and economic power, for example, social constructivism has included the power of discourse to emphasize that ideas are powerful. Yet, propagation of ideas, as it influences identities and structures, require the use of material endowments for it to find success (Hopf, 1998, pp. 177-180).
Examples. It is noteworthy to cite examples of situations pertaining to the aforementioned themes, to elaborate further the impact of social constructivism in the study of international relations. For anarchy, social constructivism is highly apparent in trade agreements. A particular actor in a trade agreement surrenders his entitlement to a single preference to align itself with preferences of other actors in trade. All actors therein are supposed to come up with a mutual agreement; thus, the losers stand as those who do not wish to compromise preferences in favor of mutually agreeable options. For identities and interests, the formation of a political ideology based on historical precedents such as wars and coalitions, among others, aptly describes the involvement of social constructivism. Such contrasts the neorealist paradigm, which holds the view that history, culture and the like does not influence political systems. In the case of change, ongoing practices and institutions may replicate and may be difficult to change unless the actors find a trigger motivating them to change those values, such as environmental or political causes. The view towards one political system, for instance, could change depending on the way officials within operate. For power, the emergence of the US as the beacon of democracy has become a strong case for social constructivism. The material power of the US and its power to engage in discourse to propagate its democratic virtues has led it to become an influential player in international relations, eventually becoming the ”superpower” nation of the world (Hopf, 1998, pp. 174-181).
Critical Analysis of Social Constructivism in International Relations
It is undeniable that social constructivism has heavily influenced the study of international relations and competed squarely with the neorealist-neoliberal paradigms. The significant weight provided by social constructivism to ideas, identities and subjective structures has provided a new paradigm away from the rigid view of empiricism and heavy reliance on objectivity in interpreting actions in international relations. Nevertheless, the foregoing does not mean to establish that social constructivism has fully developed as an international relations theory. The following are identified challenges to the application of social constructivism in international relations alongside the case of European integration, which saw pitfalls in the application of social constructivist views on the matter.
More Focus on the Role of Agency. As social constructivism flourished throughout international relations literature, scholars have become circumspect of the absence of agency from its unit of analysis, leaving only structures in focus. Disregarding the role of agency in social constructions of international relations issues has stemmed from failures in explaining the emergence of norms and subsequent variations over time. Reliance on sociological institutionalism and similar paradigms neglecting the role of agency, too much focus on collective beliefs and the lack of focus on domestic agency has led social constructivists to focus less, if not completely omit, on agency in their explanations. For mutual constitution in social constructivist approach to become more potent, there must be more focus on the role of agency (Checkel, 1998, pp. 340-342).
Conceptual Widening. Checkel (1998, p. 342) explicitly announced that social constructivism is similar to rational choice in that it is only a method of inquiry. To expand social constructivism, it is important to provide it with a stronger and more specific notion. Further introduction of middle-range theories is important for the cause of making social constructivism a more potent paradigm for studying international relations (Checkel, 1998, p. 342).
Expansion throughout Integration Studies. Integration is among those under the study of international relations in which discussions oriented on social constructivism is lacking. Widening the scope of integration studies using social constructivist approaches have become a priority, although there are not much efforts yet to facilitate such. Nevertheless, certain efforts under integration studies have constructive underpinnings, and thus it is important for a research program on constructivism in integration studies to emerge in order to consolidate those findings through recognized sets of processes (Christiansen, Jorgensen and Wiener, 1999, pp. 543-544). Efforts to advance social constructivism in integration studies, particularly in the case of European integration, have gained significant progress over the years, although the lack of stronger hypotheses for its assumptions on collectivity in identity and choices makes it weaker compared to the established neorealist-neoliberal paradigms (Pollack, 2001, pp. 237-238).
Social constructivism has greatly influenced the study of international relations to the extent that it has emphasized the importance of ideas, identities and subjective structures in analyzing actions of actors under the study. The emphasis on the rigidity of empiricism and objectivity provided by neorealist-neoliberal paradigms has duly welcomed the role of ideas in shaping identities, forming structures and inspiring change. Themes on international relations such as anarchy, interests and identities, change and power has gained fitting interpretations from social constructivism, yet such theory has yet to pervade the entirety of the study. For social constructivism to have a wider scope in international relations, it should focus on giving more importance to the role of agency and not just concentrate on structure, widen its scope from being only a method of inquiry and develop more concepts under integration studies. In that way, there would be a healthier theoretical progression in the field of international studies, more so with the emphasis on ideas alongside empirical knowledge.
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