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The Constructive Turn in International Relations Theory

  • Jeffrey T. Checkel (a1)


In recent years, constructivist thinking about global politics has brought a breath of fresh auto international relations. By exploring questions of identity and interest, constructivist scholars have articulated an important corrective to the methodological individualism and materialism that have come to dominate much of IR. As the books under review indicate, constructivism has also succeeded in demonstrating its empirical value—documenting a new and important causal role for norms and social structure in global politics. Theoretically, however, the approach remains underspecified. In particular, constructivists typically fail to explain the origins of such structures, how they change over time, how their effects vary cross nationally, or the mechanisms through which they constitute states and individuals. Missing is the substantive theory and attention to agency that will provide answers to such puzzles, as well as ensure the development of a productive research program.



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1 See Keohane, Robert, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984); Baldwin, David, ed., Neorealism and Neoliberalism: The Contemporary Debate (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993); Powell, Robert, “Anarchy in International Relations Theory: The Neorealist-Neoliberal Debate (Review Article),” International Organization 48 (Spring 1994); and “Promises, Promises: Can Institutions Deliver?” International Security 20 (Summer 1995).

2 Wendt, Alexander, “Constructing International Politics,” InternationalSecurity 20 (Summer 1995), 73.

3 For an excellent discussion of this black box for neoliberals and neorealists written by a theorist sympathetic to their enterprise, see Powell (fn. 1), 317–24.

4 On neoliberalism's methodological individualism, see Rittberger, Volker, Hasendever, Andreas, and Mayer, Peter, “Interests, Power, Knowledge: The Study of International Regimes,” Menbon International Studies Review 40 (October 1996), 183-87. For that of neorealism, see Wendt, Alexander, “The Agent-Structure Problem in International Relations Theory,” International Organization 41 (Summer 1987), 340-44.

5 On logics of appropriateness, see March, James and Olsen, Johan, Rediscovering Institutions: The Organizational Basis of Politics (New York: Free Press, 1989).

6 On the last point, see Weingast, Barry, “A Rational Choice Perspective on the Role of Ideas: Shared Belief Systems and State Sovereignty in International Cooperation,” Politics and Society 23 (December 1995); and Chong, Dennis, “Rational Choice Theory's Mysterious Rivals,” in Friedman, Jeffrey, ed., The Rational Choice Controversy: Economic Models of Politics Reconsidered (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996). Useful introductions to rational choice are Elster, Jon, “The Market and the Forum,” in , Elster, ed., Foundations of Social Choice Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Morrow, James, Game Theory for Political Scientists (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), chap. 2; and Green, Donald and Shapiro, Ian, Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), chap. 2.

7 See, among others, Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming), chaps. 1–2. There is a good bit of confusion regarding these central tenets of constructivism; see, for example, Mearsheimer, John, “The False Promise of International Institutions,” International Security 19 (Winter 19941995), 3747.

8 For example, Krasner, Stephen, ed., International Regimes (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983). My comparisons here are limited to mainstream IR, since it has been vastly more influential than postmodern work in shaping the field.

9 Strictly speaking, my discussion of norms as intervening or independent variables is not correct, as constitutive effects (A enables or makes possible B) are not captured by standard causal terminology (A causes B). See Wendt (fn. 2), 72. In practice, however, empirical constructivists use the terms interchangeably, see, for example, Bukovansky, Mlada, “American Identity and Neutral Rights: From Independence to the War of 1812,” International Organization 51 (Spring 1997).

10 See, among others, Keohane (fn. 1); Martin, Lisa, Coercive Cooperation: Explaining Multilateral Economic Sanctions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992); and Simmons, Beth A., “Why Innovate? Founding the Bank for International Settlements,” World Politics 45 (April 1993).

11 See, among others, Walt, Stephen, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987); Snyder, Jack, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991); and Wohlforth, William, “Realism and the End of the Cold War,” International Security 19 (Winter 19941995).

12 Zacher, Mark, Governing Global Networks: International Regimes for Transportation and Communications (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), for example. An excellent, synthetic review of the regime literature is Rittberger, Hasenclever, and Mayer (fh. 4).

13 See Haas, Peter, Saving the Mediterranean: The Politics of International Environmental Cooperation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990); and Sikkink, Kathryn, “Human Rights, Principled Issue-Networks and Sovereignty in Latin America,” International Organization 47 (Summer 1993). For critiques, see Checkel, , Ideas and International Political Change: Soviet/Russian Behavior and the End of the Cold War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), chaps. 1, 7; and Milner, Helen, “International Theories of Cooperation: Strengths and Weaknesses,” WorldPolitics 44 (April 1992).

14 “The documentation and data come chiefly from archives at UNESCO's Paris headquarters.

15 For a similar argument, see Strang, David and Chang, Patricia Mei Yin, “The International Labor Organization and the Welfare State: Institutional Effects on National Welfare Spending, 1960–80,” International Organization 47 (Spring 1993).

16 On moral entrepreneurs and the development of norms, see also Florini, Ann, “The Evolution of International Norms,” International Studies Quarterly 40 (September 1996).

17 Indeed, Wendt himself stresses the importance of mechanisms and process in causal constructivist theorizing, Wendt (fn. 7), chap. 2,91–96.

18 In addition to the edited volume, Katzenstein has published a monograph that makes many similar sociological claims. See Katzenstein, Peter, Cultural Norms and National Security: Police and Military in Postwar Japan (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996).

19 See also ibid., chap. 2.

20 Definitional congruence in key concepts of a research program is often seen as a sign of its growing maturity. See Milner (fh. 13).

21 Students of the democratic peace literature will recognize this as a constructivist extension of their domestic norms argument. See Maoz, Zeev and Russett, Bruce, “Normative and Structural Causes of the Democratic Peace,” American Political Science Review 87 (September 1993).

22 Risse-Kappen has elaborated these arguments in a separate monograph; , Risse-Kappen, Cooperation among Democracies: The European Influence on U.S. Foreign Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

23 In his own book, Katzenstein pays much greater attention to mapping such processes, although a lack of explicit theorizing about them is still evident. Katzenstein (fh. 18), chaps. 3–6.

24 See Finnemore's bracketing strategy (p. 25); Wendt (fh. 4), 364–65; and fh. 9 above.

25 Kratochwil, Friedrich and Ruggie, John, “International Organization: A State of the Art on an Art of the State,” International Organization 40 (Autumn 1986); and Kratochwil, Friedrich, Rules, Norms and Decisions: On the Conditions of Practical and Legal Reasoning in International Relations and Domestic Affairs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

26 By “theory” I mean middle-range theory and its development, which should be the goal of problem-driven empirical research. See, for example, Risse-Kappen, Thomas, ed., Bringing Transnational Relations Back In: Non-State Actors, Domestic Structures and International Institutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

27 For the quote, see Wendt (fn. 7), chap. 1,15. A central message of one recent and influential critique of rational choice is precisely its neglect of theory development, particularly of the middle-range sort. See Green and Shapiro (fn. 6), 188; and idem, “Pathologies Revisited; Reflections on Our Critics,” in Friedman (fn. 6).

28 On the last point, Klotz's cross-national focus is an important step in this direction. For additional constructivist research utilizing single-country/issue designs, see Koslowski, Ray and Kratochwil, Friedrich, “Understanding Change in International Politics: The Soviet Empire's Demise and the International System,” International Organization 48 (Spring 1994); Price, Richard, “A Genealogy of the Chemical Weapons Taboo,” International Organization 49 (Winter 1995); Biersteker, Thomas and Weber, Cynthia, eds., State Sovereignty as Social Construct (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Bukovansky (fn. 9); Nina Tannenwald, “The Nuclear Taboo: The Normative Basis of Deterrence” (Manuscript, Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University, April 1996); and Weldes, Jutta, “Constructing National Interests,” European Journal of International Relations 2 (September 1996).

29 On the last point, see Lars-Erik Cederman, “From Primordialism to Constructivism: The Quest for Flexible Models of Ethnic Conflict” (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, September 1996). A particularly egregious example of the caricaturing is Mearsheimer (fh. 7).

30 See Longstreth, Frank et al. , Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992); and Goldstein, Judith, Ideas, Interests and American Trade Policy (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993). Not surprisingly, it is Katzenstein, the comparativist, who has offered the most careful constructivist account of domestic norm institutionalization. See Katzenstein (fn. 18), chaps. 1–3,5, 7.

31 Dessler's transformative model of international structure should be especially relevant to constructivists as they rethink the role of agency in their analyses. See Dessler, David, “What's at Stake in the Agent-Structure Debate?” International Organization 43 (Summer 1989).

32 Checkel, “Norms, Institutions and National Identity in Contemporary Europe” (Manuscript, October 1997).

33 See DiMaggio, Paul, “Interest and Agency in Institutional Theory,” in Zucker, Lynne, ed., Institutional Patterns and Organizations: Culture and Environment (Cambridge: Ballinger Publishing, 1988); DiMaggio, Paul and Powell, Walter, eds., Tge New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), chaps. 1,4; Dobbin, Frank, “Cultural Models of Organization: The Social Construction of Rational Organizing Principles,” in Crane, Diana, ed., The Sociology of Culture: Emerging Theoretical Perspectives (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1994).

34 See also the discussion of norm reproduction in Florini (fn. 16), 374–75,377–80.

35 Wendt, Alexander, “Collective Identity Formation and the International State,” American Political Science Review 88 (June 1994); and, for the quote, idem, “Identity and Structural Change in International Politics,” in Kratochwil, Friedrich and Lapid, Yosef, eds., The Return of Culture and Identity in IR Theory (London: Lynne Rienner, 1996), 5051. For critiques, see Sujuta Pasic, “Culturing International Relations Theory: A Call for Extension,” in Kratochwil and Lapid, 87–90; and Cederman (fh. 29), 13–19.

36 Rational choice institutionalism represents an effort to address this dilemma. See Norman Schofield, “Rational Choice and Political Economy,” in Friedman (fn. 6), 192–93,207–8; and Hall, Peter and Taylor, Rosemary, “Political Science and the Three New Institutionalisms,” Political Studies 44 (December 1996), 958-62.

37 On the micro versus the macrofoundations of behavior and identity and the tensions between the two, see “Symposium: The Role of Theory in Comparative Politics,” World Politics 48 (October 1995), 1315.

38 After earlier confusion, Wendt also now argues that constructivism is not a theory. Wendt (fn. 7), chap. 1.

39 All the books reviewed are strongest, theoretically, at the systems level, in large part because they draw upon an already well developed sociological literature that is systemic in orientation. See Finnemore, Martha, “Norms, Culture and World Politics: Insights from Sociology's Institutionalism,” International Organization 50 (Spring 1996).

40 Milner's (fn. 13) advice to mainstream IR theorists on how to conceptualize domestic politics is relevant here as well.

41 Evans, Peter, ed., Double-Edged Diplomacy: International Bargaining and Domestic Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Haas (fn. 13); Sikkink (fn. 13); and Risse-Kappen (fn. 26), among others.

42 Personal communication, Martha Finnemore, September 1996. See also Risse-Kappen, Thomas, “Democratic Peace—Warlike Democracies? A Social Constructivist Interpretation of the Liberal Argument,” European Journal of International Relations 1 (December 1995). On the learning literature more generally, see Levy, Jack, “Learning and Foreign Policy: Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield (Review Article),” International Organization 48 (Spring 1994).

43 On the learning theory—politics connection, see Anderson, Richard, “Why Competitive Politics Inhibits Learning in Soviet Foreign Policy,” in Breslauer, George and Tedock, Philip, eds., Learning in U.S. and Soviet Foreign Policy (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991).

44 See Wendt (fn. 7), chap. 7; and idem, “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics,” International Organization 46 (Spring 1992). Symbolic interactionist theory has been developed primarily at the individual level, which is why I discuss it here. Wendt, unconvincingly in my view, argues that it can be applied at the level of (unitary) states as well.

45 See Turner, John, Rediscovering the Social Group:A Self-Categorization Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), chap. 3; and Oakes, Penelope et al. , eds., Stereotyping and Social Reality (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), chaps. 1,4.

46 On the former, compare Mercer, Jonathan, “Anarchy and Identity,” International Organization 49 (Spring 1995); and Wendt (fn. 7), chap 7. For the sloppy empirical work, see Chafetz, Glenn, “The Political Psychology of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime,” Journal of Politics 57 (August 1995).

47 For example, Robert Lane, “What Rational Choice Explains,” in Friedman (fn. 6).

48 For details, see Checkel, , “International Norms and Domestic Politics: Bridging the Rationalist-Constructivist Divide,” European Journal of International Relations 3 (December 1997).

49 For other constructivist accounts portraying similar rationalist logics, see Price and Tannenwald, in Katzenstein, 138,148–50; and Bukovansky (fn. 9), 21–51. Very similar questions of scope and domain are now being asked by several rational choice analysts. See the discussion of “segmented universalism,” in Green and Shapiro (fn. 6), 192–93, 204; Michael Taylor, “When Rationality Fails,” in Friedman (fn. 6), 230–33; and Powell (fn. 1), 324.

50 Risse, Thomas, “The Cold War's Endgame and German Unification” (A Review Essay), International Security 21 (Spring 1997). This constructivist conception of communication thus extends well beyond the rationalists' “cheap talk.” For an excellent discussion, see Johnson, James, “Is Talk Really Cheap: Prompting Conversation between Critical Theory and Rational Choice,” American Political Science Review 87 (March 1993).

51 For a full theoretical elaboration, see Checkel, “Between Norms and Power: Identity Politics in the New Europe” (Book manuscript in progress), chap. 2. Recent work on the role of international norms in U.S. policy-making is consistent with the argument made here. See Cortell, Andrew and Davis, James, “How Do International Institutions Matter? The Domestic Impact of International Rules and Norms,” International Studies Quarterly 40 (December 1996).

* Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the 1996 annual convention of the American Political Science Association, and at the workship on “Structural Change in International Politics,” sponsored by the German Political Science Association, February 1997. For comments, I thank Andrew Cortell, Aaron Hoffman, Jeff Legro, Thomas Risse, and Alex Wendt. The financial support of the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung and German Marshall Fund is gratefully acknowledged.


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