Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: June 2018

7 - Constructivism

from Part I - Theories of international relations



This chapter presents the outlines of a constructivist understanding of world politics. We begin with a discussion of state identity, a fundamental concept of constructivism applied to international affairs, and explore the ways in which identity defines and bounds state actions. To illustrate this concept, we address a number of issues central to the study of world politics: change, governance and security. Overall, our goal is to present a thickly textured, layered understanding of the international realm based on a notion taken for granted in much of IR theory: meaning.

Constructivism is the newest but perhaps the most dynamic of the main theories of international relations. The important works heralding the constructivist approach to the study of global politics – articles by Alexander Wendt (1987, 1992) and books by Nicholas Onuf (1989) and Friedrich Kratochwil (1989) – are only about two and a half decades old, even though the intellectual traditions on which they draw have long histories in other academic fields. Unlike liberalism and realism (see Chapters 2 and 3), which have taken their bearings from developments in economic and political theory, constructivism – like critical theory (see Chapter 4) – is rooted in insights from social theory (e.g. Berger and Luckmann 1967; Giddens 1984) and the philosophy of knowledge (Golinski 2005; Hacking 1999; Searle 1995). Perhaps in consequence, constructivism does not predict outcomes, or offer definitive advice on how a state should act in the international arena. Instead, constructivism is best understood as a set of wagers about the way that social life is put together – wagers that centrally revolve around the fundamental importance of meaning to social action: ‘people act toward objects, including each other, on the basis of the meanings those objects have for them’ (Wendt 1999: 140). Constructivist IR theory is an application of that basic analytical commitment to the study of global politics, focusing in the first instance on state identity.

What does constructivism do? Identity and international institutions

So what exactly are the basic tenets of constructivist IR? This is a very hard question to answer because, as a relatively new theory, there has not been as much time for people to work out in detail what the most central propositions of the constructivist way of doing things are.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Barkin, J. Samuel 2010, Realist constructivism: Rethinking international relations theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. An attempt to synthesise realism's insights into power and constructivism's understanding of method.
Katzenstein, Peter (ed.) 1996, The culture of national security: Norms and identity in world politics, New York: Columbia University Press. An important early collection of essays by leading constructivists on a range of different security issues.
Reus-Smit, Christian 1999, The moral purpose of the state: Culture, social identity, and institutional rationality in international relations, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. An historical account of the social construction of the state and its purpose.
Ruggie, John Gerard 1998, Constructing the world polity: Essays on international institutionalization, London: Routledge. An insightful collection of essays on multilateralism and the historical transition to the modern states-system from a constructivist perspective.
Wendt, Alexander 1999, Social theory of international politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. A seminal account of a constructivist theory of international relations.