Hiding in Plain Sight? The not-so-secret constructivism of relationalism

Constructivism, David McCourt tells us, has been hiding in plain sight.  On the face of it, constructivism, like all of the “isms,” is a paradigm in decline, increasingly overshadowed by “non-paradigmatic” approaches to international politics (Malianik et. Al, 2014). McCourt, however, argues that constructivism is not only “not quite dead, yet”, it is flourishing, albeit under deep cover, disguised as “practice-relational” theory.  McCourt has had it with all of this subterfuge.  He wants those of us who work within the practice-relational turn to stand up and call ourselves constructivists.  Doing so, he argues, is critical both to substantive scholarship and the politics of the discipline.  I have three, mostly friendly, quarrels with McCourt’s argument: his treatment of the mechanisms of fractal distinction as largely disciplinary; his argument that constructivism’s rise and fall is cyclical; and with his argument that practice-relational scholars call themselves constructivists.

Fractal distinction versus dialogical engagement.  My first quarrel concerns the cause of what McCourt calls constructivism’s “fractal distinction.” At the broadest level, “constructivism” is defined as any approach that, following Ian Hacking, X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable” (Hacking 1999, 6).  As McCourt notes, constructivism entails no specific ontological, epistemological, or methodological commitment. At the beginning of the constructivist turn, a wide array of scholarship was classified as ‘constructivist’: the ‘Giddensian’ structurationist work of Alexander Wendt; the ‘discursive rules’ emphasis of Nicholas Onuf and Friedrich Kratochwil; the ‘sociological institutionalism’ inspired work of scholars like Martha Finnemore; the feminist theorizing of Cynthia Enloe and Ann Tickner; the “critical theory” of Richard Ashley and David Campbell.

Over time, however, McCourt argues that constructivism underwent an unfortunate fractal distinction, narrowing its focus to a specific ontology, namely the analysis of ideas and norms, and a positivist epistemology. McCourt argues that this “fractal distinction…cannot, however, be explained with reference to disagreements over epistemology or methodology alone” (477). He suggests, instead, that disciplinary politics drove much of the narrowing of constructivism. International relations, he argues, was interested in “rewarding ontological discovery and penalizing seemingly unnecessary philosophical speculation about the meaning of science and the nature of legitimate knowledge” (ibid).  The ‘mainstream’ constructivism that emerged was the version most palatable to a field committed to generalizable theorizing and “scientific” empirical research.

To my mind McCourt underplays the importance of intellectual debates in driving the rise of “mainstream” constructivism. As Nexon and I have argued elsewhere, Waltz’s Theory of International Politics—the focus of much of the paradigm debates of the 1990s—imported structural-functionalist systems theory into international relations, using a ‘Parsonsian’ approach to explain the persistence of anarchic systems.  Much of what McCourt calls “narrow constructivism” mirrors sociological theorists’ own attempts to rescue systems theory from structural-functionalist thought.  Like Giddens, Wendt attempted to build a systems theory that recognized structures as both material and ideational, and structures and agents as co-constitutive.  Wendt’s and others’ approaches dominated international relations debates not simply because the discipline preferred generalizable theory and punished other approaches.  Rather, this form of constructivism resonated strongly with a field still intellectually committed to a systemic approach to order and change in world politics.  Indeed, it seems no coincidence that the trajectory of constructivist theorizing mirrors similar fragmentation in sociological theory over the analysis of social order and change.     

Cyclical or dialogical? A second quarrel, related to the above, concerns McCourt’s argument that constructivism has cyclical tendencies.  Drawing from the sociologist Andrew Abbot, McCourt proposes that social constructivist theorizing has a predictable trajectory. In international relations as well as sociology, constructivism emerges with all sorts of new things to say.  Threats are “problematized,” objects “deconstructed,” but eventually constructivists get mired down in the business of “normal” science.  The theories become less interesting.  Their empirical work is less exciting.  Everyone gets bored and moves on until the next time.

Certainly McCourt’s theory seems persuasive, and consistent with an explosion of constructivist publications in the 1990s, a decline of these publications in the 2000s, and a reemergence of the approach in the guise of a practice-relational turn.  But this narrative obscures the fact that much of the practice-relational turn emerged simultaneously with so-called narrow constructivism (see e.g., Jackson and Nexon 1999). This timing is important because it suggests that constructivism is less cyclical and more dialogical: constructivism is not going through particular periods of rise and fall; it is a dialogical school of thought, which produces its own ‘newer forms’ through reflection, criticism, and debate. As McCourt argues, the practice-relational turn is not absent from ‘mainstream’ constructivist works: Wendt, Finnemore, Bukovansky, and Onuf all emphasize the importance of practice in their work, and these works that inspired many a ‘constructivist-leaning’ graduate student.  In sociology, the relational-network approaches of Abbot, Padgett and Ansell, Mische and White, and Tilly, were already proliferating; long before constructivism undertook a ‘narrowing’, international relations scholars were thinking of how to import these theories into their own work. 

If my analysis is correct, then McCourt is far too pessimistic about the trajectory of constructivism.  In the conclusion of the article, McCourt cautions that we must recognize the cyclical tendencies of constructivism (483). If, however, the narrative of the field here is correct, constructivism did not ‘narrow’ but rather pushed scholars to reflect on the limits of existing theoretical approaches, and to seek out new (if not entirely original) means of addressing order and change. 

Naming names. Finally, let me address McCourt’s demand that scholars working within practice-relational theory call ourselves what we are: constructivists. McCourt chides us for not taking up the mantle of constructivist theorizing. Constructivism may not have a uniform ontological, epistemological, methodological identity, but it is a social position within the field: constructivists are those scholars who engage “with the mainstream by striving for generalizable, cumulative, scientific knowledge, yet which also grapples with the problems of practice, of intersubjective meanings and interpretation” (482).

I think most practice-relaional theorists would happily admit they are constructivists, in this broad sense of the term.  But by calling for practice-relational theorists to embrace the label of constructivism, McCourt seems to ignore significant rhetorical politics.  That constructivism would become identified with the study of rules and norms may have been contingent, but this is the definition that stuck: it is a social fact.  Because of this, using the term ‘constructivist’, for many, invokes and redraws the same boundaries that marked the paradigm debates (I’d note that where were some attempts, indeed, to explain that ‘constructivism’ was an inclusive approach, but these attempts--realist-constructivism? constructivist-realism?—didn’t seem to spark a conversation between paradigms) (see e.g., Barkin 2010; Jackson and Nexon 2004).

Moreover many of us believe we have a substantive stake in redrawing the boundaries of the paradigm debates.  We want to argue that ‘strategic’ action need not be ‘rational’; that to theorize agency is not necessarily to focus on individuals; and to argue that ideational and ‘rhetorical’ politics are, in fact, power politics (see e.g., Goddard and Krebs 2014).  If avoiding or at least downplaying the label ‘constructivist’ helps these approaches resonate more broadly across the field, then many of us are comfortable with that position.

To end on a personal note, I count myself lucky to have gone to graduate school in a period as theoretically vibrant as the constructivist turn.  Whatever those of us who work in the practice-relational turn call ourselves, we were ultimately inspired and challenged by this paradigmatic movement, as well as by schools of thought outside of the scope of McCourt’s article.  If the practice-relational turn is seen as equally productive, it is due in large part to this constructivist work.


Works cited

Abbot, Andrew. 2001. Chaos of Disciplines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ashley, Richard (1984) The Poverty of Neorealism. International Organization vol 38(2): 225-286

Barkin, J. Samuel (2010) Realist-Constructivism: Rethinking International Relations Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bukovansky, Mlada (2002) Legitimacy and Power Politics (Princeton University Press)

Campbell, David. 1992. Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Enloe, Cynthia (1989) Bananas, Beaches and Bases. (Berkeley: University of California Press)

Finnemore, Martha (1996) National Interests in International Society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press)

Giddens, Anthony The Constitution of Society (University of California Press, 1984)

Goddard Stacie E. and Daniel H. Nexon, ““Paradigm Lost? Reassessing Theory of International Politics,” European Journal of International Relations, 11(1), Spring 2005, 9-61.

Goddard, Stacie E. and Ronald R. Krebs. 2015 “Rhetoric, Legitimation, and Grand Strategy,” Security Studies, 24(1): 5-37.

Hacking, Ian (1999) The Social Construction of What.

Jackson, Patrick T. and Daniel H. Nexon. "Constructivist Realism or Realist-Constructivism?." International Studies Review 2.6 (2004): 337-341.

Jackson, Patrick T. and Daniel H. Nexon. 1999. "Relations Before States: Substance, Process, and the Study of World Politics." European Journal of International Relations 5.3 (1999): 291-332.

Kratochwil, Friedrich, Rules, Norms, and Decisions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)

Maliniak, Daniel, Susan Peterson, Ryan Powers, and Michael J. Tierney. 2014. TRIP 2014 Faculty Survey. Williamsburg, VA: Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations. Available at https://trip.wm.edu/charts/.

McCourt, David (2016) “Practice Theory and Relationalism as the New Constructivism,” International Studies Quarterly  60, 475–485.

Onuf, Nicholas () World of Our Making: rules and rule in social theory (Routledge, 1989)

Padgett, John F., and Christopher K. Ansell. 1993. Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400-1434. The American Journal of Sociology 98(6): 1259-319.

Tickner, J. Ann (1992) Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security(New York: Columbia University Press).

Wendt, Alexander Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

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