walkConstructivism’s Past and (Possible) Future: A Response to Responses

Thank you to the editors and especially the contributors for this symposium on my ISQ theory note (McCourt 2016). I am deeply appreciative to not one but eight busy scholars for finding the time to comment on my work. I sincerely hope they consider it time well spent.

Allow me to offer some brief reflections: on what I believe still stands and what deserves reassessment after their engagements. Rather than comment individually, I will arrange my thoughts into two areas: constructivism’s past and its future. In each case, the respondents can be grouped in interesting ways between the more critical and pessimistic, and the more optimistic (and still critical) about the forces acting on constructivism, and what this means going forward.

Constructivism’s past

Stacie Goddard, Alexander Montgomery, and Swati Srivastava, each identify gaps in my account of IR constructivism’s trajectory and suggest alternatives. Goddard argues that my story is overly pessimistic. Because I downplay the intellectual debates that underpinned constructivism, I am unwarranted in fearing the space of constructivism might close. She correctly identifies the importance of systems thinking to early constructivism (1999; see Goddard and Nexon 2005). She also rightly notes that the relational turn was already emerging by the late 1990s and does not therefore fully fit the generational pattern I put down to fractal distinction. The upshot is that constructivism was more productive than I allow for, which is likely to continue.

Goddard’s remarks are well taken, but I am only in partial agreement. I agree that fractal distinction does not capture the whole story. While Goddard correctly highlights that different dynamics are in play when the practice and the relational turns are taken separately, I still think this helps my story as much as hers. It is interesting then that the relational scholars like Goddard, Daniel Nexon, and Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, who made their careers as what I would term constructivists largely came out of the milieu she identifies—a mix of constructivism and relational sociology à la Charles Tilly, Ann Mische and others, dating to the mid-to-late 1990s—and not out of first generation constructivism alone. The important thing to note is that that milieu was centered on New York University and Columbia, i.e. the type of top-ranked departments that traditionally fill tenure-track positions at other leading departments. Put simply, the rubber hits the road with paradigmatic health and turnover when it comes to hiring in research-focused departments (on which there is unfortunately a lack of data). This issue speaks directly to Ted Hopf’s concern that I state rather than prove that constructivism became less exciting over time. The hiring of constructivists into top departments seems, from my perspective, to have slowed by 2000. Contra Hopf, practice theory is not being advocated by such U.S.-based scholars (Adler and Pouliot work in Canada, and other proponents, like Bueger, are not employed in the U.S.)

Goddard is then for me both right and wrong. Intellectual debates were central to how constructivism came into IR, and the relational turn was different from the practice turn. But we should not be misled into thinking that intellectual debates are separate from power dynamics in the field. The form taken by “intellectual” debates often masks other debates that might have occurred, but were played down or prevented from happening altogether. Tellingly, systems theorists like Talcott Parsons, whom Goddard and Nexon see as important inspirations for Waltz, and, through him, were themselves part and parcel to the history of the social sciences in the U.S. after 1945. They were also part of the intellectual and institutional forces pushing towards greater rationalism and scientism, rendering a more pragmatic social-constructionist approach (like constructivism, the relational sociology Goddard et. al. imbibed in New York, and later practice theory) more contingent (see Jewett 2012; Isaac 2012).

The power and politics of constructivism’s trajectory in IR are exactly what Srivastava and Montgomery wanted to see more of. For full disclosure, it is important to note that in addition to ISQ an earlier version of the piece went through a round of review at another top ranked “generalist” (read top-ranked U.S.-based) IR journal, and still bares the hallmarks. In each case, the argument was honed to focus on intellectual matters. For that reason, like Adler and Pouliot and the early constructivists, epistemology was downplayed in favor of ontological (what I think Goddard means by “intellectual”) issues. The theory note is not then separate from the disciplining process they rightly highlight. For the “power play in the discipline” that Srivastava desires, much of it is provided by Montgomery, to whom I owe a special acknowledgment: his response explains as well as any I have seen what liberal hegemony did to IR and will likely do to similar movements in the future (although see Oren 2016; Barder and Levine 2012). He is entirely correct that paradigms are not merely social spaces but political ones too. The acknowledgments by Oliver Kessler and especially Christian Bueger that constructivism was significantly shaped by the field further proves this point, even as others might (and hopefully will) refine it. With Montgomery and contra Bueger, then, the takeaway highlighted by constructivism’s trajectory is not that IR cannot count above three, but that it has a lot of trouble counting past one: that is, a liberal worldview. Acknowledging that IR should count to at least two, therefore, is to accept that the space of constructivism is an important place in U.S.-based IR, and that the practice and relational turns are worth supporting (a point I share with Bueger).

Looking forwards

To the future of constructivism. As Hopf has probably guessed, I don’t see making constructivists the under-laborers of the hypothesis-testers the way to go. This is not to say the effort of constructing a large-N dataset of nation-state identities is wasted. It might be very useful, but it won’t push forward constructivism understood as a space-in-U.S.-IR-for-historically-and-contextually-rich-work-that-is-theoretically-informed. Again, we should recall Kratochwil and Ruggie’s founding statement of constructivism, which argued that because the regimes debate dealt with something fundamentally intersubjective in nature, it couldn’t be studied solely using neopositivist methods. It had to draw on the interpretive human sciences. The way Hopf interprets my argument as saying that the practice and relational turns “solve” what he rightly refers to as probably unsolvable problems of social theory, makes me concerned I made the point poorly. To be sure, ANT, field theory, and network analysis do not solve these problems, but they do give us new useful vocabularies for tackling them.

Bueger provides a strong restatement of the position of the practice theorists, based in part on the work of practice theorist Andreas Reckwitz (2002). For him, while “There’s no doubt that practice theory is historically anchored in constructivism…it has its own conceptual terrain and challenges.” Bueger is concerned, therefore, that conflating constructivism and practice theory might impede theoretical development in the latter. Such an outcome would indeed be a shame. But the question arises here as to what Bueger means by the “conceptual terrain” of practice theory. Yes, practice theory brings new theoretical concepts to bear, but are the things in the world they are meant to help us grasp (a different understanding of “conceptual terrain”) actually different to what early constructivists wanted us to account for? Here I would point the reader to Oliver Kessler’s piece, and argue that there is much to be gained by reading practice theory through early constructivism, rather than as separate from it, particularly in relation to how we maintain both an interest in language and the “everyday” (see Neumann 2002; Epstein 2013).

A further concern of Bueger’s is that “If we conflate practice theory with constructivism, an argument that we could easily extend to other theoretical innovations (discourse theories, new materialisms, you name it), what is there left to disagree on? What intellectual contests remain to allow us to drive our field forward?” This allows me to address the responses of Ty Solomon and Cecilia Lynch, who both look forward to what constructivism (conventional, and practice-theoretic) misses out—respectively space, time and affect, and ethics—each of which I believe should, as they persuasively argue, be on the table, whether inside or outside constructivism. Bueger rightly hints that if constructivism is expanded so far it might become meaningless. Can it accommodate ethics or a thoroughgoing materialism? If it does, what is left to agree on?

The issue of where constructivism ends preoccupied me more than any other during the writing of the theory note. Are Marxists constructivists? My inability to draw fine intellectual or philosophical distinctions to answer that question, however, eventually led me to reject the idea of defining constructivism and to address instead the practical issue of what different approaches do in the field, and against which other approaches. From that perspective, if constructivism is a philosophically incoherent yet still useful social space in U.S.-based IR, then, yes, U.S. Marxists are doing constructivism in an important sense. The degree to which this might be a dissatisfying response to some readers is evidence precisely of how difficult we find it to think practically and relationally, rather than in terms of essences (here essentialized notions of philosophically pure approaches or paradigms.) What does this mean for what drives the field forwards? Contra Bueger, the intellectual contests that drive our field forwards should be disagreements over the best way to identify and explain particular dynamics in international politics, not the attempt to coin new concepts and approaches, a point on which I appear to be in agreement with Kessler and Hopf.

My thanks again to the organizers, participants, and readers, of this symposium. Despite having spent countless hours on the theory note, I remain convinced that such navel gazing exercises should only be entered into circumspectly. But so long as it is not taken too far and does not get in the way of empirical work (broadly defined), the willingness of especially non-U.S. IR to reflect on its history and philosophical underpinnings is a strength of the field. I hope to have made a modest contribution to that never-ending process.



Barder, Alexander, and Daniel J. Levine. 2012. ‘The World is Too Much With Us’: Reification and the Depoliticising of Via Media Constructivism. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 40 (3): 585-604.

Epstein, Charlotte. 2013. Constructivism or the Eternal Return of Universals in International Relations: Why Returning to Language is Vital to Prolonging the Owl’s Flight. European Journal of International Relations 19 (3): 499-519.

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

Isaac, Joel. 2012. Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parson to Kuhn. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Jewett, Andrew. 2012. Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McCourt, David M. 2016. Practice Theory and Relationalism as the New Constructivism. International Studies Quarterly 60 (3): 475-85.

Neumann, Iver. 2002. Returning Practice to the Linguistic Turn. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 31 (3): 627-51.

Oren, Ido. 2016. A Sociological Analysis of the Decline of American IR Theory. International Studies Review doi: 10.1093/isr/viw028.

Reckwitz, Andreas. 2002. Toward a Theory of Social Practices: A Development in Culturalist Theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory 5 (2): 243-64.

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

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