Saving identity from postmodernism? The normalization of constructivism in International Relations

Abstract

International Relations's (IR's) intellectual history is almost always treated as a history of ideas in isolation from both those discursive and political economies which provide its disciplinary and wider (political) context. This paper contributes to this wider analysis by focusing on the impact of the field's discursive economy. Specifically, using Foucaultian archaeologico-genealogical strategy of problematization to analyse the emergence and disciplinary trajectories of Constructivism in IR, this paper argues that Constructivism has been brought gradually closer to its mainstream Neo-utilitarian counterpart through a process of normalization, and investigates how it was possible for Constructivism to be purged of its early critical potential, both theoretical and practical. The first part of the paper shows how the intellectual configuration of Constructivism and its disciplinary fortunes are inseparable from far-from-unproblematic readings of the Philosophy of Social Science: the choices made at this level are neither as intellectually neutral nor as disciplinarily inconsequential as they are presented. The second and third parts chart the genealogies of Constructivism, showing how its overall normalization occurred in two stages, each revolving around particular practices and events. The second part concentrates on older genealogies, analysing the politics of early classificatory practices regarding Constructivism, and showing how these permitted the distillation and immunization of Constructivism – and thus of the rest of the mainstream scholarship which it was depicted as compatible with – against more radical Postmodernist/Post-structuralist critiques. Finally, the third part focuses attention on recent genealogies, revealing new attempts to reconstruct and reformulate Constructivism: here, indirect neutralization practices such as the elaboration of ‘Pragmatist’ Constructivism, as well as the direct neutralization such as the formulation of ‘Realist’ Constructivism, are key events in Constructivism's normalization. These apparently ‘critical’ alternatives that aim to ‘provide the identity variable’ in fact remain close to Neo-utilitarianism, but their successful representation as ‘critical’ help neutralize calls for greater openness in mainstream IR. Rather than a simple intellectual history, it is this complex process of (re)reading and (re)producing that counts as ‘Constructivism’, which explains both the normalization of Constructivism and the continued marginalization of Postmodernist/Post-structuralist approaches in mainstream IR's infra-disciplinary balance of intellectual power.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Although the division is usually framed in positivist/post-positivist terms, we resort to this alternative labelling for reasons elucidated further below (see especially ‘Blind spots’ and Figure 3).

  2. 2.

    Capitalized terms refer to IR scholarship, whereas lower-case terms designate PoSS positions.

  3. 3.

    Partially shared key assumptions by empiricists and logical positivists sometimes lead to their incorrect conflation. We would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for emphasizing this point.

  4. 4.

    Bhaskar (1997) distinguishes between general scientific-realist theory of science (‘transcendental realism’) and a narrower version appertaining to social science (‘critical naturalism’).

  5. 5.

    Several earlier formulations echo Hopf's. Adler (1997) distinguishes between modern, legal, narrative and genealogical Constructivism, with the first three falling under Hopf's ‘conventional’ rubric. Adler (1997, 2003) speaks about a ‘weak programme’ designating Neo-Kantian Constructivism close to (3B) and a scientific ‘strong programme’, encapsulating most IR Constructivists. Price and Reus-Smit (1998) and Reus-Smit (2002) distinguish between minimal foundationalist/positivist/modern and anti-foundationalist/interpretive/postmodern currents.

  6. 6.

    Sterling-Folker (2000) consequently argues that functionalist/liberal logic is inherent to all Constructivism, subsuming under this rubric (neo)Functionalism and (neo)Liberal Institutionalism.

  7. 7.

    The taxonomies discussed are actually defined in methodological rather than ontological or epistemological terms, further ‘neutralizing’ ‘thick’ Constructivism, because Postmodern/Post-structural methods are considered ‘unscientific’.

  8. 8.

    Ironically, the representation of social scientific scholarship as bias-free justifies criticism of Postmodernists/Post-structuralists on the grounds of their normative commitments (for example Reus-Smit, 2002, p. 501; Checkel, 2004, p. 236).

  9. 9.

    Widmaier is probably aware of Millennium's special issue, as he cites Isacoff's contribution, although this is the sole piece he refers, ignoring Haas and Haas’ introductory paper.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Jozef Bátora, Theo Farrell, Yale Ferguson, Stefano Guzzini, Audie Klotz and Cecelia Lynch and three anonymous reviewers and the editors for comments on earlier drafts. Financial support from the Czech Academy of Science (grant number KJB708140803) is gratefully acknowledged.

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Hynek, N., Teti, A. Saving identity from postmodernism? The normalization of constructivism in International Relations. Contemp Polit Theory 9, 171–199 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1057/cpt.2008.49

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Keywords

  • Constructivism
  • international relations theory
  • Foucault
  • Philosophy of Social Science
  • Postmodernism/Post-structuralism