Constructivism (International Relations)

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Political science constructivism is one of several comprehensive metatheoretical approaches in the field of international relations . It has been worked out as a theory especially since the 1990s. The international state system and its development are described on the basis of certain social-theoretical assumptions (and thus links the departments of international relations and sociology ). According to Alexander Wendt , this includes that human coexistence is primarily determined by shared ideas, less by material influences and that the identities and interests of target-oriented actors are formed by these shared ideas, not by their essential nature .


The unforeseen end of the Cold War had raised well-founded doubts about the empirical efficiency of the views of the international state system represented by realists and institutionalists . For example, neorealism according to Waltz has not yet been able to provide a conclusive explanation for why the development of a monopolar international system does not lead to the emergence of an opposite pole in the sense of a "balance of power".


Political science constructivism aims to explain political patterns of action. It is typical that, based on the basic ideas of other constructivist theories in philosophy and related sciences, action is understood as the result of a social situation or of prevailing social structures. This distinguishes political science constructivism from competing approaches in the field of international relations, such as political science realism and neorealism , which assume that actions follow objectively rational patterns and thus practical constraints .

Despite the inconsistency of political-scientific constructivist approaches, it is possible to speak of an ontological minimal consensus: It is examined how structures , institutions and actors of international relations are socially constructed . A central core assumption of political science constructivist approaches is: Social structures, institutions and actors constitute each other by conveying social identity and / or opening up or restricting opportunities for action. The material world is not completely negated, but it is assumed that it can only be understood through social construction.

A current of political-scientific constructivism, which is more oriented towards action theory , assumes that social actions can also create, reproduce or change social structures and institutions. These actions are motivated by certain norms and values ​​that need to be distilled. One example are human rights organizations whose activities and campaigns influence other actors in international politics, e.g. states. For this reason, after the end of the East-West conflict, constructivism played an increasingly important role in international relations. In contrast to realism, he postulated that he could explain this change. Representatives of this approach in the German-speaking debate include Thomas Risse and Anja Jetschke .

Another action-oriented approach is based on the pragmatic theoretical approaches z. B. of Wittgenstein or Austin and Searle respect participating political science Constructivism, such as that described by Nicholas Onuf outlined (1989). Language is understood as a form of social action by means of which social structures (social rules, rule) are (re-) produced. The aim is less to explain how such structures emerge than to analyze them and the question of how advantages and options for action are distributed through communication.

Alexander Wendt suggests a moderate form of political-scientific constructivism that also tries to integrate elements of realistic or neo-realistic theoretical approaches. The main question is to what extent and in what form a scientific explanation of empirical phenomena should be sought. Represent more radical approaches to completely replace “positivist” explanations, as they are common in the natural sciences, with hermeneutic or “constitutive” interpretations in the field of social sciences. Wendt, on the other hand, advocates supplementing causal explanations by analyzing the relationships that establish them. In doing so, the formation of identity, interests and power relationships should be explored. This is done by considering the reshaping (caused by the socially shared ideas or culture) of their social meaning.

Emanuel Adler defined constructivism in political science as “the assumption that the way in which the material world shapes and is shaped by human and interpersonal behavior depends on dynamic normative and epistemological interpretations of this material world”.

Further representatives are z. B. Ted Hopf , Colin Kahl or Friedrich Kratochwil .


Political science constructivism is accused of only offering ex-post explanations, without being able to provide forecasts or explanations of current events. This criticism does not directly affect constructivism, since it does not claim any ability to make prognoses due to its basic assumptions. However, the ability to make predictions is an important feature of almost all theories of international relations, so that the increase in knowledge through constructivist approaches is viewed critically.


  • Emanuel Adler: Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics , in: European Journal of International Relations , 3 (1997), pp. 319–363 ( online at sagepub)
  • Karin M. Fierke: Constructivism , in Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, Steve Smith (eds.): International Relations Theory: Discipline and Diversity . Oxford University Press, New York 2007, pp. 166-184.
  • Karin M. Fierke, Knud Erik Jørgensen (eds.): Constructing International Relations : The Next Generation, Sharpe, Armonk, NY 2001, ISBN 978-0-7656-0739-3 .
  • Patrick Thaddeus Jackson: Bridging the Gap: Toward A Realist-Constructivist Dialogue , in: International Studies Review 6 (2004), pp. 337–352 ( Online ; PDF; 123 kB).
  • Nicholas G. Onuf: World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relations , University of South Carolina Press, Columbia 1989, ISBN 0872496260 .
  • Cornelia Ulbert: Social constructivism , in: Siegfried Schieder, Manuela Spindler (ed.): Theories of International Relations , 2nd A., Stuttgart 2006, pp. 409-440, ISBN 3-8252-2315-9 . ( available on Google Books )
  • Paul R. Viotti / Mark V. Kauppi: International Relations Theory , Longman Publishers 5th A. 2001, ISBN 978-0-205-08293-3 , pp. 277-301.
  • Alexander Wendt: Social Theory of International Relations , Cambridge 1999, ISBN 0-521-46960-0 ( available from Google Books)
  • Alexander Wendt: Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics , in: International Organization 46 (1992), pp. 391-425 ( Online ; PDF; 550 kB).

Individual evidence

  1. Alexander Wendt: Social Theory of International Politics . Cambridge University Press 1999. ISBN 0-521-46557-5 , p. 1.
  2. See Cornelia Ulbert. Constructivism in: Manuela Schieder / Siegfried Spindler (ed.): Theories of International Relations , Stuttgart 2. A. 2006, pp 409-440, here 412th
  3. ^ Risse, T .: Social constructivism meets globalization. Globalization Theory: Approaches and Controversies . In: Center for Transatlantic Foreign and Security Policy (Ed.): Understanding Globalization: Theories and Controversies . Berlin August 19, 2004.
  4. Adler, Emanuel: Seizing the Middle Ground: Contructivism in World Politics , in: European Journal of International Relations , 3 (1997), S. 322nd

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