What is social constructivism

Understanding one of the key strands in IR theory

January 13, 2022 10:43 am | Updated 10:43 am IST

Social constructivism is a school of thought in International Relations (IR) theory. It was first coined by Nicholas Onuf in 1989 in his book “ The World of our making ” where he put forward that nation states much like individuals lived in a reality primarily formed by themselves rather than outside material entities. We are not made but constructed by our social and cultural relations with others. Similarly states by interstate interactions and associations form their identities and interests which in turn informs the structures and institutions they make among themselves. This is not to say everything around us are beliefs or that ‘it is merely all in our heads’. Structures are real, material and relatively stable but it is only by assigning collective meanings on our structures that they will achieve their purpose. They are not objective outside entities but cognitive processes as well. Collective meanings constitute the structures which organise our actions.

Traditional IR theory was predominantly dominated by the realist and liberal school of thought. Realists argued that since the international order is in a state of constant anarchy (no over-arching sovereign power) states are naturally driven to self-help, that is to work for their own interests and develop competitive and aggressive policies with other nation states. Liberals while accepting the premise of anarchy argue that states engage in more co-operative behaviour rather than aggressive competitive foreign policy. Both schools argue primarily about behaviour as according to them, that is the only thing that can change because states as entities with their unique identities and interests remain the same. Constructivists disagree on this fundamental premise on which both realist and liberal theory stands. They contest that anarchy is not a set-in stone system where states are constantly engaged in politics of balance of power, but it is a system which has been made through interactions and social practises over a period of time. States are also not objective but subjective entities. States do not have clearly defined independent non-contextual interests. They only have interests in relation to each other. The interests one state has with its neighbour might not be the same it has with one further away.

As Alexander Wendt, a prominent constructivist scholar, puts it ‘Anarchy is what states make of it’. Wendt goes on to elaborate on three different kinds of security systems to refute the idea that anarchy is constant and static. One is the self-help security system which realists premise the world on. Here states identify negatively with each other which then informs most of their interactions as competitive and aggressive. Then we have the individualistic security system wherein states are indifferent to other states and their security interests. This is what liberals mostly identify with. They argue that states are concerned with themselves and would not want any activity be it competition or war to threaten their sovereign status. It prefers co-operation over competition. The third is co-operative security system where states identify positively with each other; they treat another state’s sovereign status as important as their own. This is seen in the likes of security agreements like the CSTO, NATO etc. Therefore, there are different systems within anarchy constantly re-configuring the very nature of the nation states in relation to one another.

In his seminal essay, ‘Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics’, Wendt explains the constructed nature of anarchy with his famous alien example. He posits; if tomorrow it were known that there are extraterrestrial beings in the universe and that they had contact with humankind, what would be the response? Surely, nation states would not declare all out war and deploy latest military arsenal to the forefront. One would wait it out, carefully assess their movements, try communicating with them and then take adequate steps as the situation demands. When there is no previous interaction with an entity, self-driven aggressive policy is not the inherent response as realists claim. This process of signalling, interpreting, analysing and responding is how meaning is generated and how institutions and identities are made.

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