Social Constructivism

Social Constructivism in International Relations posits that states’ behaviors and identities are socially constructed through interactions and shared understandings. It emphasizes the role of norms, beliefs, and discourse in shaping international cooperation, conflict, and institutions.

Social Constructivism in International Relations


The theory of constructivism in International Relations (IR) is not a recent phenomenon but has gained renewed attention post the Cold War era. Its roots extend back to the eighteenth century, notably in the works of Giambattista Vico, who posited that human beings shape and create social and world history. In contemporary terms, constructivism revolves around human consciousness and its pivotal role in international affairs.

Understanding Social Constructivism

According to constructivist principles, the international system is socially constructed, emerging from human ideas and identities rather than being solely influenced by material forces. It is a collective product of shared values, ideas, norms, and perceptions. In this paradigm, human consciousness becomes a critical player in shaping the global order, emphasizing social, political, and religious factors over material, military, and economic power.

Constructivists do not contend that reality is an illusion but argue that the reality we perceive is not solely a result of objective forces. Instead, it is fundamentally shaped by our shared perceptions, values, ideas, and understanding. This perspective challenges traditional notions and underscores the role of subjectivity in shaping our understanding of the world.

A central tenet of constructivism is the concept of ‘Structuration,’ as articulated by Anthony Giddens. This theory asserts a mutually constitutive or interactive relationship between structures and actors, highlighting the dynamic interplay between social structures and individual agency.

Constructivism draws inspiration from philosophical figures such as Hegel, who emphasized the role of ‘Geist’ in shaping human history by altering our perspectives. Additionally, Marx contributed the idea that our thoughts emerge from social conditions, while Nietzsche argued that truth itself is a product of social conventions.

Key Assumptions

  • Dynamic Nature of International Relations: Classical theories failed to predict the end of the Cold War or general changes as they are static, emphasizing the dynamic and ever-evolving nature of international relations.
  • Critique of Static Material Assumptions: Constructivism criticizes the static material assumptions of traditional IR theories, asserting that ideas hold significant power in shaping global dynamics.
  • Complexity and Flux of the World: The world is intricate and in constant flux, defying rational predictions and calling for a more nuanced understanding of international relations.
  • Diverse State Behavior: States, even when faced with similar situations in an anarchical system, exhibit diverse behavior, rooted in their distinct perceptions of reality.
  • Perception Determines Behavior: State behavior is determined by their unique historical, cultural, linguistic, and value-based perceptions of reality, leading to diverse responses to similar situations.

Features of Constructivism

  1. Alternative to Materialism:

Constructivism proposes that material forces must be comprehended through social concepts that give meaning to human life. It advocates for an understanding of material conditions through the lens of social constructs.

  1. Construction of State Interests:

Constructivists often explore the historical construction of ‘national interests.’ They are intrigued by how states develop and adopt interests that shape their decision-making processes, emphasizing the socially constructed nature of state interests.

  1. Mutual Constitution of Structure and Agents:

International norms are viewed as products of state actions and influences on state behavior. Constructivists assert that states and the international environment mutually constitute each other, highlighting the interconnectedness of structure and agency in the constructivist approach.

  1. Multiple Agents of Anarchy:

Constructivists argue that an anarchical system can take different forms, suggesting that an “Anarchy of friends” differs from one of enemies. This perspective challenges traditional views of anarchy as a uniform and hostile environment.

Key Scholars in Constructivism: 

Alexander Wendt

Alexander Wendt, an American Political Scientist and a prominent advocate of Constructivist theory in International Relations, has significantly contributed to the field. His influential works include the article “Anarchy is What States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics” (1992) and the book “Social Theory of International Politics” (1999).

Wendt’s Core Claims:

  • People act towards objects and individuals based on the meanings attributed to them.
  • He provides an alternative explanation for the evolution of the bipolar system, challenging structural IR theories.
  • Constructivism, according to Wendt, is a structural theory of the international system with the following core claims:
    • States are the primary units of analysis for international political theory.
    • Key structures in the state system are inter-subjective rather than material.
    • State identities and interests are, to a significant extent, constructed by social structures rather than inherent in human nature or domestic politics.

Wendt’s Perspective on Anarchy:

  • While Wendt agrees with realists about the importance of the structural level of analysis and the existence of an anarchical international system, he diverges on the nature of the structure:
    • Realists: Structure = Anarchy > self-help system > security dilemma.
    • Wendt’s Social Constructivism: Structure = Socialization and interaction create a particular culture of anarchy.

Distinct Cultures of Anarchy According to Wendt:

  • Hobbesian Culture of Enmity.
  • Lockean Culture of Rivalry.
  • Kantian Culture of Friendship.

Alexander Wendt’s concept of “cultures of anarchy” offers a nuanced lens through which to understand the dynamics of the international system. According to Wendt, states’ behaviors and interactions are influenced not only by material factors but also by shared understandings and perceptions shaped by historical experiences and cultural norms. Wendt identifies three distinct cultures within this framework: the Hobbesian culture of enmity, the Lockean culture of rivalry, and the Kantian culture of friendship.

The Hobbesian culture of enmity reflects a worldview characterized by a pervasive sense of insecurity and mistrust among states. Drawing on Thomas Hobbes’ depiction of the state of nature as a perpetual war, this culture portrays international relations as a constant struggle for survival. In a Hobbesian culture, states prioritize their own security above all else, leading to a competitive and conflict-prone environment where cooperation is limited, and distrust prevails.

Contrastingly, the Lockean culture of rivalry acknowledges the existence of competition among states but also recognizes the potential for cooperation and mutual benefit. Inspired by John Locke’s ideas of natural rights and social contracts, this culture views states as rational actors capable of negotiating and establishing common rules to mitigate conflicts and promote stability. While rivalry and competition persist, they are tempered by the acknowledgment of shared interests and the possibility of cooperation.

Finally, the Kantian culture of friendship represents the highest level of cooperation and trust among states. Drawing from Immanuel Kant’s vision of perpetual peace, this culture envisions a world where states are bound by shared norms, values, and institutions that foster peaceful coexistence. In a Kantian culture, diplomacy, negotiation, and collective security mechanisms take precedence over power politics, leading to a more stable and harmonious international order.

Overall, Wendt’s framework highlights the importance of ideational factors in shaping states’ behaviors and interactions within the anarchic international system. By recognizing the diversity of cultural perceptions and norms, policymakers and scholars can better understand the complexities of global politics and work towards fostering cooperation and peace among states.

Wendt’s framework provides a nuanced understanding of how socialization and interaction shape the diverse cultures within the anarchical international system, challenging traditional realist perspectives.

Nicholas Onuf: Pioneer of Constructivism

The term “Constructivism” was coined by Nicholas Onuf in his groundbreaking book, ‘The World of Our Making’ (1989). Onuf’s conceptualization of Constructivism laid the foundation for a new perspective in International Relations (IR), emphasizing the dynamic relationship between individuals and societies.

In his own words, Onuf defines Constructivism as the belief that “individuals and societies make, construct, or constitute each other.” According to him, individuals shape societies through their actions, and in turn, societies define individuals as they comprehend themselves and others through those same actions. While some actions are intentional efforts to shape or reshape society, many are not deliberate.

Onuf, credited with coining the term, asserted that significant aspects of International Relations are historically and socially constructed, challenging notions that stem from human nature or essential characteristics of world politics. His perspective aligns with the broader constructivist argument that the international system is not predetermined but is shaped by human interactions and shared perceptions.

Onuf criticized mainstream theories, particularly their inability to predict the end of the Cold War. In his view, these theories were ill-equipped to anticipate the post-Cold War international system’s characteristics. He emphasized that traditional power distribution models failed to predict whether the United States would emerge as a global hegemon or opt for multilateral cooperation with other states.


Social constructivism challenges traditional IR paradigms by placing emphasis on the role of human consciousness, shared perceptions, and the dynamic interaction between structures and actors. By delving into its philosophical origins and key assumptions, we gain a comprehensive understanding of how constructivism reshapes our outlook on international relations, steering away from static materialism toward a more nuanced and socially grounded perspective.

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