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  • Topic: Constructivism in international relations, Sociology, International relations theory
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  • Published : March 12, 2013
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Constructivism: An Introduction
By Maysam Behravesh on February 3, 2011

As a form of “reflectivist” critique of the scientific approach to the study of social sciences, constructivism was initially developed as a mostly interpretive “metatheory,”[1]stemming from the works of such philosophers as Wilhelm Dilthey, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and R. G. Collingwood.[2] Hence, the central argument about constructivism, according to Adler, relates not to the theoretical clash between “science” and “literary interpretation or ‘stories’”, but to “the nature of social science itself and, therefore, the discipline of International Relations.” “In other words,” he elucidates, “the issue pits a naturalist conception of science, almost entirely based on contested philosophies of science and on physical concepts and theories that physics has long since abandoned, against a concept of social science that is social.”  As a methodological caveat, however, Adler notes significantly that categorizing “constructivism, post-structuralism and post-modernism” all as varieties of the same “reflectivist” approach is a “mistaken belief.”[3] Nicholas Greenwood Onuf was the first theorist who introduced the term “constructivism” in International Relations theory in 1989, contending that states much the same as individuals are living in a “world of our making,” as the title of his famous book bears,[4]where many entities such as “social facts” are made by human action, as opposed to “brute facts” that do not depend for their existence on human action but rather are phenomena of human condition.[5] The fact that constructivism emerged as a metatheory about how social sciences in general operate appears to have been the main reason the practice of constructivism in IR drew a good deal of criticism at the outset. Critics charged that “constructivism had provided little in the way of substantive knowledge, or even hypotheses, about the behavior of states or state systems.”[6] It was in the middle of 1990s that the alternative works of some IR theorists helped to develop and present constructivism as a substantive theory of international behaviour. In fact, the end of the Cold War set the stage for the rise to prominence of the constructivist school of thought in IR which caused a profound remoulding of debates within the dominant discourse of international relations theory. Central to constructivist arguments are such core concepts as “discourses,” “norms,” “identity,” and “socialization” that are frequently used in contemporary discussions over various issues of international concern including “globalization, international human rights, security policy, and more.”[7] Such a theoretical event was prompted by a few major developments: (1) the challenging persuasion of critical theorists by leading rationalists to move beyond meta-theoretical critique of rationalism and produce substantive theories of international relations; (2) the failure of neorealists and neoliberals to predict the end of the Cold War and the consequent challenge to explanatory and analytical capacities of their theories; (3) the emergence of a new generation of critical theory-inclined scholars who moved to explore the untapped potentials of theoretical and conceptual scholarship in international relations theory; and (4) the enthusiasm shown by disappointed rational choice-oriented theorists in IR to welcome alternative constructivist perspectives.[8] While owing dearly to sociological theorizations and debates,[9]constructivism has been regarded by some theorists as belonging to, or being an “outgrowth” of, the critical discourse of international relations theory, as “many of its pioneers explicitly sought to employ the insights of that theory to illuminate diverse aspects of world politics.”[10] However, constructivism differs from critical theory, modernist or post modernist, in its simultaneous engagement with meta-theoretical scholarship and emphasis upon employment of...
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