Are we really all constructivists now?

I’ve taught International Political Economy for 20 years and to be fair, I’ve tended to give Constructivism short shrift, choosing instead to devote my time to Realism, Liberalism and Marxism. This semester however, I decided to be a bit more thorough, and hopefully fair, about the possible contributions and shortcomings of Constructivism. In the process of acquainting myself with some of the original and more recent literature on Constructivism as well as looking for short readings that might be accessible to students, I came across this interesting post by Martijn Konigs on the University of Sydney’s Political Economy program blog. i’ve chosen to focus on Konigs post in this entry because for 1) I think it is a nice, short, clear summary of many of the important threads of Constructivist thought and 2) it exemplifies much of my own feelings of frustration whenever I read the Constructivist literature.

Konigs argues:

In an important sense we are all constructivists now. The vast majority of International Political Economy (IPE) scholars would readily agree that interests are not natural or pregiven but constructed and bound up with identities; that ideas have a certain degree of independent causal efficacy; that values are not elements in a transcendent normative order but contingent social principles; that instrumental rationality is a historically specific institution; that the ways in which humans reflect on their own practices has a constitutive effect on those very practices; and that a social science worth its name should not approach its object as a collection of brute data but require a minimal degree of hermeneutic sensibility. Disagreement with such propositions is increasingly considered reflective of an oddly doctrinaire mindset, be it of a structuralist, rationalist or positivist persuasion. The major contribution of constructivism is to have brought this philosophical theme of the constructed nature of institutional facts (their observer-dependent character) into the mainstream of IPE.

There are lot of other interesting ideas in Konig’s post, not the least of which is the seeming recognition that oddly, it’s not clear, what actual impact Constructivism has had, or will have on the nature of IPE theory. I fear however, that I might be part of that set of those who possess an “oddly doctrinaire mindset.” Not because I advocate the sort of simplistic positivism that is often offered as a caricature of those who advocate doing IPE as science, but because I reject the frame that is offered here. I sum, I remain unconvinced that Constructivism is actually taking us anywhere that just plain good old fashioned IPE theory does not already provide, without smuggling in the Constructivist epistemology and ontology which underlies Constructivist IR theory. The problem is further compounded by the division between weak Constructivists  who sometimes make some straightforward and important common sense points, and the strong Constructivists who are traversing down the path of post-modernism.

The issue, in my view, comes down to a tension between “social construction” and “humanly devised.” I would be hard pressed to name  a significant figure in IR or IPE who believes that we have “genes for ” living in nation states. Indeed, I would be hard pressed to even find a sociobiologist or evolutionary psychologist who would make that argument. That the current anarchic and conflictual world order is a product of historical circumstances in a history made by humans and that humans could therefore choose to create other arrangements is undeniable. But what also cannot be denied is that once established, humanly devised arrangements are persistent and structured and consequently shape our actions is also undeniable. There is a way in which nation states are complex, multi-faceted, subject to multiple influences internally and externally, and also a way in which nation states and their patterns of interaction are very much real and independent of our theories. It is one thing to argue that ideas matter and that they matter because they will sometimes guide action and it is altogether another to argue that ideas in and of themselves have some sort of mystical causal impact. It is certainly true, I think, that data is seldom brute and that data require interpretation and that our interpretation is filtered through interpretive schema (e.g. schools of thought in IR theory) and its altogether another to argue that objects of interpretation are actually created by our interpretive frameworks. While our current systemic over focus on instrumental rationality is no doubt a product of our Technological-Capitalist way of organizing social life, that does not alter the fact that instrumental rationality is in varying degrees present in all societies. In other words, the objects of our analysis, nation states, world systems, capitalism, etc. are at least potentially real and not just artefacts of our theorizing.

To sum up, I think that thoughtful theorists in all disciplines and schools of thought have always recognized that human institutions are humanly devised and that humans can, when they choose, choose different arrangements, but that they cannot choose the conditions of their choice. And if all that Constructivists are saying is we should be more attentive to the contingencies of history, then I suppose we all are, or we should be, Constructivists now. But my sense is that Constructivists are trying to say a good deal more than that, even if they haven’t quite decided what that something more is. And its my sense that Constructivists, even weak Constructivists are really trying to say something more that causes me to say ” not so fast”. I’d be more inclined to say that we should all be realists in the ontological sense and not necessarily in the IR theory sense now.



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