Theories on International Relations: Social Constructivism

The social constructivist approach is distinctive in that it emphasises human consciousness and knowledge in a way that ‘treats ideas as structural factors which influence how actors interpret the world.’ ( Baylis, p.162).

It is a social theory in the sense that it postulates that ‘people act towards objects , including other actors , on the basis of the meanings that the objects have for them.’ ( Wendt 1992, pp.396-397).

The idea that individuals within societies construct the ‘realities’ of their identity and interest through the dynamic processes of social interaction and social definition underpin the constructivist approach.

This phenomenological focus on the consciousness or lived experience of individuals who make up a state is depicted by Wendt when he speaks of the ‘intersubjective understandings and expectations…that constitute their conceptions of self and other.’ ( Wendt 1992, p.397).

In this respect, state institutions are not perceived as impersonal static entities. but as cognitive structures comprising of identities and interests ‘ that do not exist apart from actors’ ideas about how the world works.’ ( Wendt 1992, p.399).

Thus the cultural meaning given by individuals and state actors to issues such as humanitarian intervention, security and human rights is a significant feature of constructivism.

Max Weber observes that ‘we are cultural beings with the capacity and the will to take a deliberate attitude toward the world and to lend it significance.’ ( Baylis. p.161).

As such, constructivists recognize that knowledge derived from the historical and cultural context of a state provide the necessary framework for individuals to interpret , define and categorise the ‘reality’ of, for instance genocide or crimes against humanity, that is cognitively perceived by them.

Additionally, the distinctiveness of social constructivism includes ‘the idea that the building blocks of international reality are ideational as well as material’ and that ‘ideational factors have normative as well as instrumental dimensions’. ( Ruggie 1998, p. 879).

Thus constructivists analyse the relationship between ideas and material forces and the interpretation given by agents to material reality such as the distribution of power, technology and geography.

In doing so, constructivists consider the way norms and rules underpinning structures and institutions of the state evolve and change through the process of social construction.

As Sikkink asserts: ‘socialization is thus the dominant mechanism of a norm cascade-the mechanism through which norm leaders persuade others to adhere’ ( Finnemore and Sikkink1998, p.902) . Thus the motivation of states, their reflection and arguments in support of or against a particular interpretation, for instance, of human rights norms is the subject of analysis of the constructivists.

In this respect, constitutive norms not only ‘shape the identity and actors of states’ but also ‘what counts as legitimate behavior’ ( Baylis, p.162).

Thus legitimacy of state action involving, for instance, humanitarian intervention, as perceived by for instance the international community , is linked to the social construction by states of norms such as security and human rights.

As Sikkink notes: ‘scholars have long understood that legitimation is important for states and have recognized the role of international sources of legitimation in shaping state behavior.’ (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998, p.903).

Waltz’s form of structural or neo-realism conceives the ordering principle of the international system as ‘anarchy’, and ‘the distribution of capabilities across units’ (Waltz p. 29) or states on the assumption that ‘there is no differentiation of function between different units.’ (Baylis, p.128).

To Waltz, ‘great powers are marked off from others by the combined capabilities of power they command, ‘ with the outcomes of their interactions varying, contingent upon a change of their numbers. ( Waltz, pp.29-30).

The balance of power against the United States is exemplified, for instance, by the recent UN General Assembly’s passing of a resolution against the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, raising the argument that the balance of power in the world today is changing, from a world which is unipolar to one that is multi-polar. (Daily Times 2017).

In such a anarchic system, as perceived by the neo-realists, where there a lack of central authority for the enforcement of rules and collective security for the maintenance of order among states. a competitive  system exists with states possessing greater power exercising greater influence. 

A key argument posited by neo-realists is the way power is conceived, not only in the form of military resources, but in the ‘combined capability of a state’, which includes its economic capability, military strength and political stability that ‘help to define structures and changes’ in the distribution of power across a state. ( Waltz, p. 36).

In positing the social constructivist view, Wendt counters the neo-realists’ belief in anarchies as necessarily self- help systems by arguing that ‘since states failing to conform to the logic of self-help will be driven from the system , only simple learning or behavioral adaptation is possible; the complex learning involved in redefinitions of identity and interest is not.’ (Wendt , p. 392).

To exemplify this point, an analysis of the 1967 Six Day War suggests that Israel’s decision to go to war with Egypt, Jordan and Syria although ostensibly undertaken to enhance its security, (an analysis that would arguably be supported by Waltz’s approach), resulted in further security problems for the State of Israel.

It is arguable that a more nuanced appreciation of the reasons for Israel’s decision to go to war would require an understanding of the socially constructed threats that Israel perceived to exist in the context of its security culture in 1967.

Wendt clarifies that the ‘deep structure of anarchy is cultural or ideational rather than material…based on different kind of roles in terms of which states represent self and Other.’ ( Wendt 1999, p. 43 in Baylis p.160).

Thus the perception of the government of Myanmar in relation to the Rohingya crisis as revealed  by statements made by the de facto leader and State Counsellor of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, indicated that its army, the Tatmadaw, was not the aggressor implicated in genocide,  but the object of terrorist activities perpetrated by the Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi asserted that  “the outside world can choose the issues on which they wish to focus”.  ( Straits Times, 2018).

Wendt identifies three roles – enemy, rival and friend ‘that are constituted by , and constitute three distinct macro-level cultures of international politics, Hobbesian, Lockean and Kantian, respectively.’ ( Wendt 1999 p. 279 in Baylis p.160).

Unlike the neorealists who perceive the distribution of material capabilities as forming the structure of the international system, constructivists such as Wendt emphasise the distribution of ideas and their interpretation in making sense of material reality and how it is constructed.

To Wendt, constructivists ‘share a cognitive, intersubjective conception of process in which identities and interests are endogenous to interaction’ as contrasted with the neo-realist approach that ‘self-help is given by anarchic structure exogenously to process.’  ( Wendt, p. 394).

It is submitted that social constructivism unlocks the possibilities and permutations associated with the way individuals and states interact with each other. Rather than providing a static approach to understanding a legitimate world order, constructivism explores the nuances of human and state interaction through the medium  of ideas, interests and identities that make up the institutions and structures of global societies.

As observed by Wendt, ‘structure has no existence or causal powers apart from process. Self-help and power politics are institutions, not essential features of anarchy. Anarchy is what states make of it’. (Wendt, p.395)


Alexander Wendt, (1992)’Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics’ International Organization, Vol. 46, No. 2 , pp. 391-425

Baylis, J., Smith, S. and Owens, P. The Globalisation of World Politics, 6th ed. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Martha Finnemore; Kathryn Sikkink (1998) ‘International Norm Dynamics and Political Change’, International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 4,  pp. 887-917.

John Gerard Ruggie (1998) ‘What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-Utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge’ International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 4, pp. 855-885

Waltz, K. N. (1990) Realist thought and neorealist theory. Journal of International Affairs, 44:1, p. 21.

Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organization, vol. 46, no. 2, 1992, pp. 391–425.

‘The balance of power against the US’, The Daily Times, 27 December 2017. Online:

Baylis, J., Smith, S. and Owens, P. The Globalisation of World Politics, 6th ed. Oxford University Press, 2014.

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