W(h)ither Constructivism

At a roundtable titled “Whither Constructivism?” at the 2012 ISA-Northeast conference, nearly all the participants mistook the prompt as “Wither Constructivism?” What was supposed to be a conversation on the future directions of constructivist research ended up a post-mortem on the status of constructivism’s demise. Perhaps it was not by accident that the question of whither became one of wither, especially as Nick Onuf, the last participant, lamented that constructivism had died a long time ago. The future of constructivism is wrapped up in the myth of its passing. We are all constructivists now. None of us are constructivists now.

David McCourt’s engaging theory note addresses both questions of w(h)ither constructivism. Constructivism withered by narrowing to a “limited ontology composed largely of norms, culture, and identities” (475). Meanwhile, constructivism’s whither, or its location, shifted to practice theory and relationalism. McCourt seems persuasive in the answers to w(h)ither constructivism, if limited in his survey of relationalism (for instance, neglecting the new pragmatism). However, McCourt’s essay reads more as a set up than a payoff. I expected the main action would come from the politics of withering constructivism. However, beyond sketching a cyclical version of theory musical chairs, McCourt ultimately does not convey the political drama of demise.

To capture withering constructivism, McCourt (483) relies on Andrew Abbott’s notion of “fractal distinction,” where “first come novel theoretical treatises and quirky empirical work, then texts that consolidate the new approach’s position, then works that are solid but unspectacular, followed by a re-emergence in a different guise.” McCourt is right to describe some of constructivism’s fractionalization this way, especially concerning the positivist/post-positivist divide and the lure of a via media (476). McCourt is also right to say the new guises of practice-relationalism “aim to recover a more appropriate understanding of the social in social explanation by foregrounding process over fixity” (479; emphasis original). However, constructivism did not wither because it lacked the capacity to accommodate multiple understandings of “social” or to speak across divides. McCourt shows this convincingly in the work of early constructivists, which leads to his strongest claim that “[c]onstructivism in U.S. IR then narrowed for reasons to do with the dynamics of paradigmatic turnover in the social sciences, at least in America, and not because constructivist theorizing had run its course” (482). This claim highlights the essay’s contribution and missed opportunity. McCourt contributes to a fuller representation of the possibilities of constructivism, what he refers to as a strong constructivism. However, in overly relying on an apolitical “turnover” framework, McCourt misses the opportunity to connect why and how rumors of constructivism’s death were greatly exaggerated.  

Attaching constructivism’s demise to a model of routine turnovers makes constructivism’s narrowing seem inevitable. Such inevitability glosses over agency and responsibility. In other words, the demise becomes apolitical. McCourt briefly mentions some reasons behind constructivism’s narrowing. One of them is the reviews of constructivism, especially in the late 1990s. However, McCourt overlooks that these reviews were not simply surveys of what divides constructivists (e.g. positivism v. interpretivism) or labeling exercises (e.g. thin v. thick), but these reviews were privileging particular kinds of constructivism. Consider Adler (1997: 334): “A constructivist theory of progress in International Relations, which explains the emergence and consolidation of practices that enhance human interests within and across political communities [...] offers a better, more pragmatic and more even-handed alternative to critical theories that mark their favorite discourses for emancipation.” Hopf (1998: 197) makes a similar proclamation by deeming conventional constructivism “nonpareil” in the “richness of its elaboration of causal/constitutive mechanisms in any given social context and its openness (and not just in the last instance, as in critical theory) to the discovery of other substantive theoretical elements at work.” Constructivism was not simply going through the motions of paradigmatic turnover; it was deliberately cut down to privilege certain perspectives over others.

What McCourt misses, then, is the relationship between the questions of whither and wither constructivism. When IR scholars answer “whither constructivism,” or when they situate where constructivism is in larger IR theory or where scholars are in larger constructivism, they fold in proclamations about a withering constructivism. Which version of constructivism withers depends on cliques. What this represents is less symptomatic of theory recycling than political codes, as proclaimed by Ian Hacking (1999: vii):

Social construction has in many contexts been a truly liberating idea, but that which on first hearing has liberated some has made all too many others smug, comfortable, and trendy in ways that have become merely orthodox. The phrase has become code. If you use it favorably, you deem yourself rather radical. If you trash the phrase, you declare that you are rational, reasonable, and respectable.

In other words, undergirding constructivism’s exaggerated demise and displacement is the politics of membership and classic in-group/out-group dynamics. We invite this politics every time we inquire the status of constructivism. I doubt McCourt would disagree with Hacking’s assessment, and McCourt does sprinkle some allusions to power play in the discipline. However, the essay’s arc would have felt more complete had McCourt embraced the political drama of disciplining theory. As it stands, McCourt offers a compelling first act. 


Works Cited

Adler, Emanuel. 1997. Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics. European Journal of International Relations 3 (3): 319–363.

Hacking, Ian. 1999. The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hopf, Ted. 1998. The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations Theory. International Security 23 (1): 171–200.

McCourt, David. 2016. Practice Theory and Relationalism as the New Constructivism. International Studies Quarterly 60 (issue): 475-485. 

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