Unpacking Constructivism through Affect, Space, and Time

David McCourt offers a much-needed synthesis and affirmation of constructivism in IR.  He argues that practice and relational approaches offer re-focused attention on issues that have gradually been squeezed out of mainstream IR constructivism.  That is, sensitivities to particular social contexts and contingency – that things can always be different – have become somewhat lost in the turns towards “culture,” “identity,” and “norms” understood more narrowly.  In this way, practices and relational frameworks not only help to move past unhelpful dichotomies that continue to plague the field (“materials” v. “ideas”), but also widen the social space of constructivism within the field, helping to keep that space open.

I’m sympathetic to McCourt’s aims and agree with his argument.  What I wish to do in this brief intervention is not to contest McCourt’s thesis.  Rather, I offer a friendly push towards further development to help keep the disciplinary space of constructivism vibrant, against the homogenizing tendencies that McCourt well spotlights. 

If practices and relationalism open up constructivism, then other concepts help to similarly open up practices and relationalism.  In a recent article, Brent J. Steele and I propose steps towards a “micropolitical” approach to IR.  There we suggest that developing three linked concepts – affect, space, and time – not only builds upon recent developments in IR on practices, emotions, and the everyday.  We also contend that these concepts help to unpack issues surrounding power, identity, and change.  Specifically, notions of space and temporality offer novel ways of broadening our understanding of practices.  Meanwhile, relationalism can be usefully conceptualized as operating through collective affect. 

As McCourt outlines, practice approaches generally claim that “it is not only who we are that drives what we do; it is also what we do that determines who we are” (Pouliot 2010: 5).  Practices are usually thought of as background knowledge that actors habitually draw from in their behaviour.  Yet, the spatial aspects of practices have often been downplayed.  To be sure, particular spaces frequently appear in practice research, such as the space of a foreign ministry, or a sense of one’s “place” within the international hierarchy. 

We suggest that a more explicit focus on space helps to draw out the productive or generative power of practices.  Shared spaces become politically significant as they come to be meaningful through embodied experience.  As spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre argues, space is not merely a neutral category or site, but instead serves to produce shared, embodied, and political orientations.  Practices help to construct and attach certain meanings to particular places. 

The production of place is also tied to the politics of time.  Specifically, social constructions of time and space are largely inseparable, and the notion of rhythm – lived, embodied time – helps to unpack some temporal aspects of spatial practices.  Rhythm, for Lefebvre, enters into related issues of repetition and becoming.  Rhythm is not only the repetition of the same, but also the emergence of difference within that repetition, as each human performance differs in nuanced ways that gradually unfold new practices and understandings.  Similarly, for sociologist Randall Collins, events such as political rallies and public protests are spaces in which rhythms pulse through collectives of bodies.  Within these “interaction rituals” participants often have common foci of attention and become caught up in flows of interactions and bring their rhythms and dispositions into a loose synchronization with those around them.  Such lived temporal practices link up to more macro-levels of analysis of traditional concern. 

For example, an expanded view of practices (with space and time/rhythm in mind) would help to disclose some of the micro-relations that are key for macropolitical events.  Movements such as Occupy Wall Street vividly illustrated the power of how interwoven aspects of space and rhythms helped to generate collective power around terms such as “the 1%” and “occupy”.  The “normal” spatial practices of New York’s Zuccotti Park (associated with global finance) were (re)constructed as a dissenting “occupation” through symbolic contestations.  Moreover, the particular practices through which these contestations were manifested were often explicitly rhythmic.  The power of the “human microphone,” for example, helped draw together the participants into a loose synchronization which in turn facilitated the collective affective responses surrounding Occupy. 

The issue of affect, in fact, brings us to relationalism.  As Patrick Jackson and Daniel Nexon argue, and as McCourt reiterates, relationalism stands in contrast to substantialism, which takes fixed things or entities as an analytical starting point.  Instead, relationalism takes processes as the basic units of analysis.  It “treats figurations of ties – recurrent sociocultural interaction – between social aggregates of various sorts and their component parts as the building blocks of analysis” (Jackson and Nexon 1999: 291-2). 

Yet, while relational frameworks offer some clear advantages over substantialist approaches, they tend to downplay the potential emotional components of relations.  From a perspective of IR emotions research, much of social relations, transactions, and configurations are constituted through affect.  Emotions are not only properties of individuals, but are also intersubjective and collective, and thereby relational.  Indeed, as Emma Hutchison and Roland Bleiker argue, investigating the transactional processes through which individual emotions becomes collective and thereby political is one of the key tasks of emotions research.  Ben Anderson’s work is helpful in thinking about the relations that affects sustain.  Affects can be conceptualized as bodily capacities that emerges from encounters with other bodies, or collective conditions that mediate everyday practices.  Similarly, Andrew Ross articulates how collective “circulations of affect” express creative capacities that stretch beyond individual agents. 

Relational frameworks, then, may be usefully re-framed as processes that are often invested with emotion.  Events such as the 2011 Arab protests richly illustrate the power of emotions to constitute relational ties among crowds of protestors, to reshape the meaning of public spaces such as Tahrir square, and via social media to create visceral regional links among protestors in neighbouring countries.  Relations and processes themselves are often phenomena that can be understood as various types of emotional contagion.

In short, I welcome McCourt’s arguments that the innovations of practice theory and relationalism are best understood as the New Constructivism.  Taking another step, my modest aim here is to take up McCourt’s call that constructivists must continue to develop these and other new approaches to keep the space of “constructivism” open and vibrant, knowing full well the disciplinary dynamics that work to dampen claims to theoretical innovation.


Works Cited

Anderson, Ben (2014) Encountering Affect: Capacities, Apparatuses, Conditions. Ashgate.

Butler, Judith (2015) Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Collins, Randall (2004) Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hutchison, Emma and Roland Bleiker (2014) “Theorizing Emotions in World Politics” International Theory 6(3): 491-514.

Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus and Daniel H. Nexon (1999) “Relations Before States: Substance, Process and the Study of World Politics” European Journal of International Relations, 5(3): 291-332.

Lefebvre, Henri (1991) The Production of Space. Trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith.  Wily-Blackwell.

Lynch M (2012) The Arab Uprisings: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East. New York, NY: Public Affairs.

Neumann, Iver B. (2012) At Home with Diplomats: Inside a European Foreign Ministry.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Pouliot, Vincent (2016) International Pecking Orders: The Politics and Practice of Multilateral Diplomacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Protevi, John (2011) “Semantic, pragmatic, and affective enactment at OWS.” Theory and Event 14(4) Supplement. Available at: http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/ theory_and_event/v014/14.4S.protevi.html  

Ross AAG (2014) Mixed Emotions: Beyond Fear and Hatred in International Conflict. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Solomon, Ty and Brent J. Steele (2016) “Micro-Moves in International Relations Theory.” European Journal of International Relations, online early view.  

Discuss this Article
There are currently no comments, be the first to post one.
Start the Discussion...
Only registered users may post comments.
ISQ On Twitter