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Running Head: Constructivism and Post-Structuralism
Constructivism and Post-Structuralism
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Constructivism obscures the politics already involved in representing reality. This is at the heart not only of constructivism's success but also of the celebration and despair it triggers. Those wary of constructivism object to the exclusion of challenging and thought-provoking questions about politics and the political. (Walker, 2000) On the other hand, it is precisely a certain unproblematic acceptance of reality which has made the constructivist 'success story' possible. 'Taking reality into account' is one of the supposed virtues of constructivism. Both the material and the social worlds are construed to have a facility which constructivist analyses of international relations must, and do, take into account. Wendt's, Kratochwil's and Onuf's approaches take given realities as their starting points, but this also seems to be a key part of the constructivist project more broadly.
According to Stefano Guzzini, constructivism acknowledges 'the existence of a phenomenal world, external to thought'. (Guzzini, 2000, 147-82) It does not deny 'a reality to the material world', (Adler, 1998, 156-62) as Emanuel Adler and Michael Barnett put it. Adler also asserts that constructivism opens up 'the objective facts of world politics, which are facts only by human agreement', as new areas for empirical investigation. (Adler, 1997, 319-63)
Definitions of constructivism frequently stress the dual character of social and material world. Social constructions, in this conceptualisation, must refer back to and hook up with a pre-existing materiality. Adler argues that the material world shapes human interaction and vice versa. (Adler, 1997, 319-63) Jeffrey Checkel says that 'the environment in which agents/states take action is social as well as material'. (Checkel,, 1997, 473-95) These descriptions invoke a duality of the social and the material and thereby claim an existence independent of representations for the material realm. Peter Katzenstein, Robert Keohane and Stephen Krasner stress that constructivists insist 'on the primacy of intersubjective structures that give the material world meaning'. (Katzenstein, 1998, 645-85) This takes us on to a second key element of constructivism, namely intersubjectivity. (Guzzini, 2000, 147-82).
According to Adler, constructivism's 'importance and its added value for the study of International Relations lie mainly in its emphasis on the ontological reality of intersubjective knowledge and on the epistemological and methodological implications of this reality'. (Adler, 1997, 319-63) He devotes an entire section to elucidating intersubjectivity as collectively shared knowledge which both empowers and constrains actors and also defines social reality. (Adler, 1997, 319-63) The upshot of Adler's portrayal of constructivism is, as the title of his article suggests, that it has a justifiable claim to the 'middle ground', which he construes as situated between rationalism and poststructuralism. (Adler, 1997, 319-63)Adler identifies 'seizing the middle ground' as the key to the constructivist project. This assessment is echoed by other scholars. Hopf sees constructivism as situated in the middle ground between rational choice theory and postmodernism, whilst Ted Hopf locates it between the mainstream and critical theory. (Hopf, 1998, 171-200)
Thus in defining constructivism scholars make reference to recognising the material world as existing independently of, but interacting with, the social world, the central role of intersubjectivity and the significance of occupying a middle-ground position. Wendt's positioning in the middle ground, related to a particular notion of identity; Kratochwil's reliance on an unproblematic intersubjectivity, based on normative context; and Onuf's claim to an independently existing material world behind our constructions.(Onuf, 1989, 45-50)
The acknowledgement of materiality and an unproblematic intersubjectivity appear to be crucial to the constructivist enterprise. In fact, these are part of the aspiration to a middle-ground position which itself merits further consideration since it is not an accidental and largely insignificant aspect of constructivism. It is precisely what makes constructivism so seductive. According to Guzzini, constructivism's success is at least partly based on its supposed position in the middle ground. (Guzzini, 2000, 147-82)
This aim resonates with the particular function constructivism is attributed, at least by some, in statements about the state of IR theory. Constructivism is portrayed as a critical but at the same time scientifically sound alternative to the mainstream. (Katzenstein, 1998, 645-85) Adler highlights the ways in which constructivism challenges and indeed improves upon rationalist theories, but at the same time stresses the 'scientific basis' of constructivism which has, he argues, been obscured. (Adler, 1997, 319-63) In a jointly authored article Katzenstein, Keohane and Krasner, similarly, see constructivism as being within 'the social science enterprise'. (Katzenstein, 1998, 645-85)
Constructivism is acceptable, and even to some extent welcome, as a critical alternative to the 'mainstream' because it accepts the rules of the scientific game. Occupying the middle ground, in other words, is supposed to enable constructivists to have their cake and eat it, too. Whilst they critically distance themselves from the mainstream, they at the same time receive professional recognition from within it. Constructivism has come to be not only one of the main acceptable ways in which the international world may be studied. (Onuf, 1997, 7-17)
Constructivism promises to be critical as well as scientific. It promises to introduce the dimension of shared meaning and thus to promote a new understanding of the social world without abandoning consideration of the material or indeed cherished social science practices. This double orientation towards what are considered opposites is often construed as occupying the middle ground. (Wendt, 1987, 335-70) Some constructivists may be wary of this project but it seems part and parcel of what they are proposing. In the light of this argument, however, constructivism appears to be much less critical, indeed much less different from rationalism, than its marketing platform suggests. It accepts as given a 'reality' from which enquiry must start, a 'reality' which reasonable people would presumably be able to recognize. This is both bewildering in the face of the lack of agreement on what this reality is, either in constructivist scholarship or political debate, and problematic as positing such a 'reality' naturalizes what is made. This is not only about how we conceive of the international world, but also about how we conceptualize our relationship to it.
Quite apart from the argument over whose work is appropriately classified as constructivist, there is also discussion about whether constructivism is properly to be seen as a theory of IR or rather as a philosophical category, a meta-theory or a method for empirical research, or whether it is indeed an approach relevant at several levels. (Kratochwil, 2000, 89) Despite all this, one would assume there to be minimum requirements for being a member of the club. In this context, Kratochwil's assertion that the 'issue is not whether somebody says or believes that she or he is a constructivist, but whether or not such a (self-)identification makes sense in view of some of the tenets defining constructivism' (Kratochwil, 2000, 89) is relevant, but he fails to spell out the tenets he has in mind.
There is the problem of disentangling identity and behaviour, because Wendt claims that it is not just behaviour but identity that changes. Yet it is unclear, with respect to an actual case such as the one considered here, what exactly sets apart a transformation of identity from a mere change in behaviour. Although Wendt's claim that the way in which others treat an actor will affect its conception of self rather than just its behaviour seems plausible, it is hard to pin down the qualitative difference between the two.
After all, in his approach we are forced to infer actors' self-understandings from nothing but their behaviour. (Wendt, 1987, 335-70) Increasing military involvement and the restructuring of the armed forces suggest a tangible move away from a non-military identity, particularly because they have 'material' effects. Yet this is precisely where the distinction between the material world of moving tanks or transferring economic resources and the less tangible realm of talk, meaning and beliefs, which is at least implicit in Wendt's approach, creates problems.
What an action means to someone depends on how they contextualise it. If an identity matters only in its realization in certain types of behaviour, then it is difficult to see why we should call it 'identity' rather than 'behaviour'. Wendt claims identity to involve stable expectations about behaviour. Others have taken up the question of whether this is a good way to define identity. Clearly, the idea of stability does not, in any case, solve the problem of telling apart identity and behaviour, because the possibility of identity transformation, of moving from one kind of anarchy to another, is crucial. Yet it needs to be solved if the distinction between constructivism and rationalism is to be upheld; (Wendt, 1987, 335-70) for it relies on the claim that rationalists may be able to cope with changes in behaviour but not in identity.
The problem is that, to detect an identity change, it must be possible to identify the identity an actor 'has'. This possibility is implicit in the process Wendt describes. Ego presents alter with a new identity which alter either takes up or refuses. Contestation over the identity takes place only between alter and ego. Although there may be a gradual adjustment of the ideas about self and other on both sides, it is a contestation over two alternative but clearly identifiable notions of identity. How either the actors or the ideas about self and other get constituted in the first place is not part of the account. (Wendt, 1987, 335-70) This misconceptualises identity construction. What is more, it is a necessary misconceptualisation for Wendt's approach. Identity is not only significant for Wendt's constructivism; it is also a problem for it.
It is surely appropriate to affirm that to anybody who is even moderately well read in post-structural IR theory, let alone the vast swathe of relevant literature outside International Relations that might, in some sense, be seen as or called post-structural, this reaction is mystifying. 'Post-structuralism' is no more unified than any other broad intellectual trend; indeed it is a good deal less unified than many.
'Post-structuralism' as a term is, in any case, simply a convenient-and sometimes not that convenient-shorthand for a wide variety of methods, assumptions and theoretical approaches in philosophy and social theory. (Poster, 1989, 119-23) The roots of the structure—agency debate can be traced back to a feeling of discontent about how traditional approaches to international theory have dealt with issues of agency. If pushed to their logical end-point, the two positions amount, respectively, to a structural determinism and an equally farfetched belief in the autonomy of rational actors.
Applying Giddens to international theory entails investigating how social structures and state actions mutually influence each other. Such a position rests, in Wendt's words, on the recognition that '(1) human beings and their organisations are purposeful actors whose actions help to reproduce or transform the society in which they live; and (2) that society is made up of social relationships, which structure the interaction between these purposeful actors'. The state is thus perceived neither as a self-contained unit nor as an impotent object of structural necessity. A state's response to such aspects as wars, trade or technological change forms its sense of identity. And it is this sense of identity that then shapes a state's behaviour and its agency. (Iver, 1996, 163-66)
While appreciating these basic assumptions about contemporary global politics, my conceptualisation of transversal dissent embarks on a different path, and this not only because of the problematic statecentric nature around which the structure—agency debate has developed Corporate identity which is exogenous to international politics represents only one aspect of a state's identity. It is the 'site' or 'platform' for other identities. (Ulrich, 1994, p.2) In Social Theory Wendt distinguishes three other such identities: type, role and collective. What is important to this argument is the distinction between one pregiven corporate identity and other aspects of identity, made through the process of relating to other actors, which can take 'multiple forms simultaneously within the same actor'. Wendt's earlier conceptualisation in which he opposed 'corporate identity' to 'social identity', which develops only through social interaction, a distinction he supported by referring to the concepts of 'I' and 'me' in George Herbert Mead's work. (Palan, 2000, 575-98) Briefly, the process whereby a state defines its interests precisely and goes about satisfying them partially depends on its notion of self in relation to others, that is, social identities or roles.
Actors have several social identities but just one corporate identity. Social identities exist only in relation to others and thus provide a crucial connection for the mutually constitutive relationship between agents and structures. This type of identity is continuously (re)defined in processes of interaction. In some contexts social identities are relatively stable. This, however, is also a result of actors' practices, not a natural fact. Although interaction is usually aimed at satisfying interests, actors at the same time try to sustain their conception of themselves and others. (Callinicos, 1985, 85-101) Sometimes identities are, however, transformed. Identity change requires social learning.
Hence, the transformative potential is mediated through the interaction between ego and alter in which social learning occurs. (Giddens, 1987, 131-35) One of the concrete mechanisms of identity transformation which Wendt considers is based on conscious efforts to change identity. Actors, he argues, are able to engage in critical self-reflection and they can transform or transcend roles. Ego may decide to engage in new practices. As the new behaviour affects the partner in interaction, this involves getting alter to behave in a new way as well. This process is not just about changing behaviour but about changing identity. (Dessler, 1999, 123-37)
In Constructivism, sovereignty is a special mechanism for determining the limits of 'politics as usual', since it works as a mental and physical shield that keeps the violence 'outside' and permits peace and justice 'inside'; it wards off external threats by patrolling territorial borders, and it permits and fosters the development of both individual and state identity within them. It therefore constitutes the central plank of the Realist notion of a Great Divide between the 'international', representing the anarchic playground of nation-states, and the 'domestic', which offers ample opportunities for order and tranquillity. (Ian, 1998, 4-24) It should be clear that such a commitment to sovereignty and geopolitical space becomes an oddity in our post-modern era, which is marked by feelings of dislocation and centrifugal notions of power.
Identity and citizenship are increasingly circumscribed and patterned within a vortex of social, cultural and political relations that stretch beyond the geopolitical limits of the national space. In a sense, the master metaphor of territory, space and boundaries, which together constitute the 'language of the state', is not intrinsically innocent, but plays an active and central role in shaping and linguistically disciplining prosaical notions of identity and political community as well as theory and research. (Ilana, 1995, 62) But, given the ongoing trends of globalization and Europeanization, it is our challenge to represent political life and organization going beyond sovereignty. It is this feeling of homelessness, of a lack of tradition and history that has encouraged the identity politics. We must thus be better prepared to accept segmentarity and to come to a further appreciation of the complex and varied social forces, often unseen, which constrain and shape our world.
Onuf thus avoided choosing sides in the third debate; he dissociated himself from post-structuralism and its repudiation of foundations, while conceding that such foundations as we have may be nothing more than "the rubble of construction" (Onuf, 1989, 45-50). Constructivism is a constructive response to the challenge of the "post" movement. It rejects the "slash-and-burn" extremism of some post-modern thinkers who leave nothing behind them, nowhere to stand, nothing even for themselves to say. Constructivism tries to make sense of social relations in general in order to get beyond the pointless posturing that passes for debate in a discipline that cannot even defend its claim to a distinctive subject matter called "international relations." (Ashley, 1989, 78-82) While constructivists join the "post" movement in calling into question much of the orthodoxy of post-war IR scholarship, they reject neither empirical research nor social science as such. Instead, constructivism maintains that the socio-political world is constructed by human practice, and seeks to explain how this construction takes place.
Constructivism is the other main challenger of Realism and Neoliberalism. Its main slogan is that 'ideas and discourse matter', and that norms, values and identity are concepts that heavily influence political life. (Yosef, 1996, 210-14) Although many constructivists work within the conventional paradigm and use a positivist epistemology, the notion that the identities and interests of political actors are socially constructed and should not be considered as a 'given' is certainly relevant to our conversation. (Wendt, 1992, 46) Constructivism also implies that normative factors including identities shape the behaviour of nation-states and that they may serve as road-maps or focal points for themselves as well as others.(Ronald, 1996, 298-302) Since identity and norms are exogenous to Realist and Neoliberal theory, constructivism helps to establish a link between postmodernism and mainstream IR by problematising existing assumptions about how knowledge is created and anchored in politics. (Steve, 1996, 266-70) The problem with orthodox IR is that it explains neither the processes for change in global politics nor the reasons why global politics should be constructed along Realist lines. It takes the nation-state, anarchy and sovereignty for granted, and fails to understand how change in global politics may come about. Ruggie has argued that constructivism is no independent and full-fledged theory but a theoretically informed approach to the study of global politics; it does not prize deductive methods of theory-construction and does not seek to 'uncover' causalities. (John, 1998, 52) Constructivism tries to grasp how social collectivities give meaning to their roles and actions, adding a new spectrum of study to mainstream readings of global politics. So, for those who follow the lines of the notion of 'post-structuralism' may be better. Since these are all critical-reflective approaches to the problems of modernity and are different responses to the crisis of modernity in the sense that they all prize difference over identity, and fragmentation over the illusion and perils of unity.
Historical pessimism has much in common with various forms of conservatism in twentieth-century thought, including at least aspects of realism, and also with the general sense of cultural malaise that obsessed many thinkers at the end of the last century. In its more benign forms it has issued in an emphasis on the importance of limits for the human project-a particular theme in some of the most pertinent conservative writing of the twentieth century. Its emphasis on not overreaching ourselves-whoever the 'we' might be-on the necessary limits to human powers and aims and on the impossibility of securing 'order' at perhaps any level is less visible in explicit writing on international relations than might be expected; nonetheless its echoes abound. The alternative, of course, is the attempt to yoke realism-and balance-to something else, social constructivism, naturalism, and liberalism, even post-structuralism, with which in important and interesting ways traditional realisms, at least, turn out to have quite a bit in common. In either of these versions, however, 'balance' seems likely to be at best a part, and certainly not the whole, of any approach to order in and for the twenty-first century.
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