Constructivism was propelled into the theoretical realm when Nicolas Onuf proffered that states, in the same way as individuals, are living in a ‘world of our own making’. This approach to international politics gained credence in the aftermath of the Cold War and situates itself in between the protagonists of the Third Debate: positivism and post-positivism. Within International Relations literature, constructivism is occasionally grouped into the bracket of ‘critical theory’ alongside postmodernism, reflectivism and poststructuralism. Yet, the approach has deviated from its interpretivist colleagues and gained its own authority within the field. As with any school of thought, there are internal rivalries within constructivism; some scholars make use of organization theory and some draw from discourse analysis. Though, within the circle of constructivism, its scholars are unified by a concern for the ideational and its impact on international politics via shared interests, identities and interactions. This begs the question: if constructivism is so fundamentally concerned with the intersubjective nature of knowledge then what account is given of the role of material forces within international politics? And is it sufficient?
This essay will argue that, due to the inherent nature of a social approach to international politics, constructivism is indeed predominantly focused on the shared understandings of actors but that, although the relationship between the social and the material could be further explored, this approach still supplies an adequate explanation of the role of material forces in the world. The first section will examine constructivism’s focus on reality as a ‘social construct’ via the mutual constitution of normative structures and agents, with a specific focus on Anthony Giddens’ ‘structuration’ theory and a comparison with Neorealism. The second section will analyse how constructivism accounts for the material within international politics and whether this is indeed an insufficient explanation. The third section will critically survey the argument that the relationship between the social and the material in the world could, and should, be further explored within constructivism, with special attention paid to the work of Georg Sørenson. The final section will summarise and conclude the key points that have been argued in this essay.
Too Focused on Norms?
First of all, it is important to note that constructivism underlines the significance of both material and discursive power in international politics. This, however, does not equate to a balanced research agenda; constructivists predominantly aim to increase the understanding and explanation of state behaviour and focus on the impact of identities and norms upon interests. A constructivist definition of a norm is identified as a collective understanding that makes behavioural claims on actors, and these ‘collective understandings’ take the form of a normative structure which, combined with the actions of situated agents, inform good or bad action within international politics. It is this dynamic relationship between agents and structure that is so fundamental to the constructivist account of international politics; agents and structures are not ontologically dualistic but mutually constituted. Agents are seen as knowledgeable and reflexive; their actions inform the structure which in turn informs the action of the agents. This is a by-product of the agent-structure debate and influenced significantly by Anthony Giddens’ theory of ‘structuration’ which refers to this mutual constitution as a ‘duality of structure’. Constructivism’s foremost scholar, Alexander Wendt, even refers to this aspect of Giddens’ work, stating that ‘the structural properties of social systems are both the medium and outcome of the practices which constitute those systems’. It is the premise that, as we act, we structurate. We are constantly creating normative structures and inventing new ones as we act; constructivism applies this logic to state action within international politics and this is imperative to understanding why constructivism places the majority of its focus upon norms.
This concept is the foundation for Wendt’s claim that ‘anarchy is what states make of it’. This essentially means that as interactions between actors change over time, the normative structures that are created can also change, thus allowing for the possibility that these structures will induce the actors to subconsciously behave towards one another in a different manner. Therefore, the constructivist focus upon norms is of greater use in accounting for change and cooperation in international politics in comparison with an inherently materialist theory such as Neorealism which cannot truly account for change or cooperation in international politics. The end of the Cold War and colonial imperialism have been used extensively as examples of the benefits that constructivism, in contrast with materialism, is able to bring to issues in international politics through its analysis of shared knowledge and intersubjective practice.
Waltz posits that a structural theory of the world must be exclusively ‘free of the attributes and the interactions of the units’ and this is in direct opposition to the importance of intersubjective structure in constructivism. Neorealists are of the belief that it is strictly the distribution of material capabilities at the system level that constrain states (i.e. nuclear capabilities), whereas, constructivists oppose this materialist claim and deem that actors are enabled or constrained by the structures that are created and reproduced over time by the actions of the agents (i.e. norms).  In short, Waltz places too much emphasis on structure whilst constructivists place emphasis upon the identity conferring nature of structure. For example, the norm of sovereignty indicates a shared agreement between actors that it is wrong to invade another state’s territorial – ‘sovereign’ – space. Even further, norms such as human rights, non-intervention, humanitarian intervention and the right to protect have evolved over a substantial period of time. States used to intervene in a nation to protect its own citizens, yet in today’s world certain states protect humans in general because of the weight now given to their rights. For instance in Libya, Britain, France and the US intervened after the Libyan people themselves requested assistance; not only this, but the fact that it was a multilateral effort demonstrates how states now work cooperatively instead of individually in order to gain legitimacy; the normative structures informed their action. The case of Libya is a perfect example of how evolving norms such as the right to protect and humanitarian intervention can change state action.
Thus, constructivism is predominantly focused on the duality of structure and agency through which norms, interests and ideas are both the medium and the outcome, but is it too focused on norms and ideas? A holistic approach to international politics which aims to better our understanding of change in the world, such as constructivism, will clearly have a strong focus on norms on the whole as shared ideas and rules inform the actions of states within international politics. As I analyse in the next section, constructivism does not lose sight of material forces in international politics and, this, combined with its dominant focus on norms is important if one wishes to understand and explain change and cooperation in the world. If constructivism focused equally, or more so, on the effect that material forces had upon the world, it would lose its recognition as a social theory of international politics; therefore, norms are essential to an approach such as constructivism because at the core is the concern with how world politics is ‘socially constructed’.
An Inadequate Account of Material Forces?
A materialist account of international politics is one which explains causation via reference to ‘brute material forces… [that] exist…independent of ideas’; material forces such as power, interest, geography, technology, the distribution of power and institutions. The disparity with constructivism is obvious, but how far does constructivism account for these ‘brute’ material forces in international politics? As the above section demonstrated, constructivism opposes materialism and places structures of sociality over structures of materiality. Yet, constructivists do not disregard material forces in international politics nor imply that these forces are exogenous of these social structures; they support the claim that ‘material reality is a prerequisite for social reality’. Moreover, not only does constructivism acknowledge the existence of material forces but it also gives meaning and value to them through the structure of shared knowledge in which they participate. Indeed, norms remain the key determinant of action here; nonetheless, this focus on idealism is an acknowledgement that, if material forces are to hold meaning in international politics, they must depend on shared ideas, norms and interpretations, but this is not a rejection of material reality itself. It is understandable then that in a constructivist account, the starting point of the material world is undefined and that this world becomes understood ‘within a larger context of meaning’.
It is this notion that the material world is not independent and does not exist ‘out there’; it is incorporated within the normative structures that are formed through shared knowledge. For instance, from a constructivist perspective the balance of power exists on the basis of actors’ varying ‘social corporate identities’ and perceptions that they have of each other; it is also their awareness of what constitutes the balance of power and how they should react to it. Another comparative example of the material obtaining its meaning through the structure of ideas, norms and interpretations is the case of nuclear weapons. The furore around Iran’s recent acceleration of its nuclear program means we can presuppose that, if Iran was to acquire one nuclear missile, it would be classed as a serious threat to the international community and, more specifically, Israel. Whereas, the fact that the United States holds a nuclear arsenal does not perturb the Israelis because the US has come to be perceived as a friend over time whilst Iran is classed as an enemy; as Wendt states: ‘amity or enmity is a function of shared understandings’.  Thus, from these examples one can see that constructivism does not disregard the effect of the material on the world but proposes that they can only have their desired effects through the structure of collective knowledge. Is this an inadequate account of material forces? What would constitute an adequate account?
An inadequate account of material forces would surely be one which expounded the notion that material forces are insignificant in the world or one that took the material for granted. Constructivism does neither. It acknowledges the existence of the material and accounts for material forces in terms of their incorporation within the normative structures which inform state behaviour. It is in this respect that constructivism accepts that material forces hold weight in international politics; yes, they are dependent on the ideational but constructivists do not propose that material forces are meaningless in international politics; they recognise that material forces are a part of the international system but only through the ideational do they gain a purpose. Even Wendt goes as far as to support a ‘rump materialism’ that could affect international politics despite his chief emphasis being about ideas. Whilst this constructivist account is adequate in assisting our understanding of issues in the world, this is clearly not a substantive account of material forces in international politics, however, constructivism attempts to explain how the world has been ‘socially constructed’ and it would therefore be pure fallacy to believe that constructivism should provide a rigorous account of material forces in international politics. Indeed, the relationship between the ideational and the material could be, and should be, further explored within the field of constructivism but, as it stands, the present constructivist account of material forces acquiring meaning via shared knowledge is sufficient in explaining their role in international politics.
The Case For A Better Account of Material Force
There is a growing determination within the constructivist literature to explore the relationship between the social and the material, which demonstrates that there is indeed more exploration to be conducted in order to create a better balance between the ideational and the material within constructivist analysis. The main proponent of finding a synthesis between the social and the material is Georg Sørenson, who, in his work, The Case for Combining Material Forces and Ideas in the Study of IR, argues for ‘a rich concept of international structure, which includes materialist as well as ideational factors’; a form of ‘analytical eclecticism’ that provides a better story of material forces in international politics than that proposed currently by constructivism. He is accurate in his assertions that the ‘change of material forces is seriously undertheorized’ within international relations and that only modest attempts have been made to scrutinize the connection between material and ideational forces in the real world. It is hard to disagree that more research needs to be conducted in order to provide a better analysis of material forces within constructivism and Kowert and Legro’s view that ‘students of norms cannot afford to ignore the material world’ and collective understandings do not ‘exist in a material vacuum’ rings true.
It has been argued in this essay that the constructivist account of material forces is indeed an adequate one and to put material forces on an even keel, or greater, with that of the social would be problematic as it would no longer render constructivism as a social approach to international politics but an ‘eclectic’ approach. Adler states that the future of the discipline may rest on the creation of a ‘socio-cognitive synthesis that draws on the material, subjective and intersubjective dimensions of the world’; this is outwardly overcomplicating matters, involves forces which are naturally incompatible and is, in short, too ambitious a project in much the same way as Sørenson’s. The principal aim of a social theory is not to determine the content of an academic theory nor does it take the form of a substantive theory of International Relations; instead, constructivism structures ‘the questions we ask about the world and our approaches to answering those questions’. For constructivism to remain a relevant social theory that aids our understanding of the world it must continue to adhere to this and maintain its position as a predominantly norm-focused structural approach to the world.
However, an approach that is able to provide a thorough analysis of how the material world impacts international politics, whilst adhering to the limitation or enablement of normative structures, would only benefit constructivism since this area has been seriously underrepresented in the literature. Constructivism helps us to understand how material forces gain meaning but there has been no great focus on the ‘after-effects’ of these empowered and changeable material forces. In all likelihood, this is the greatest advance within constructivism that we can hope for. Greater analysis and research in order to ultimately find a true equilibrium between the material and the ideational, such as Adler and Sørenson propose, would prove fruitless in its aim. It is therefore intelligible to concur with Martin and Hollis that such a synthesis between the two is impossible. Nonetheless, the hope for a greater account of material forces in international politics, and the efforts to find this, are certain to continue.
It is realistic to conclude that this essay fundamentally disagrees with the statement ‘constructivism is too focused on ‘norms’ and does not provide an adequate account of material forces in international politics’. Although constructivism does place its emphasis on the effect that ideas, norms and interpretations have on international politics, its account of material forces, albeit imperfect, is definitely adequate. It explains how these forces gain meaning within international politics and therefore helps us to better understand their role and why they are utilised in certain ways. Though a greater explanation of material forces within constructivism is much sought-after, this is a path for future International Relations scholars to explore. The current constructivist account of the material is sufficient in combination with the predominant focus on the ideational. The reasons put across to support this argument are numerous.
In contrast with a materialist approach, constructivism’s interest is with how the world is constructed via shared ideas, interpretations and interests. An approach which places the social world as its primary importance will inherently focus most of its attention on norms; we see this through the vehicle of the agency-structure dynamic and the evolution of norms as shown through the example of Libya. Constructivism’s account of the material is indeed adequate. It not only acknowledges the existence of material forces but it also grants them with meaning and value through the structure of shared knowledge in which they contribute; we see this through the examples of the balance of power and nuclear relations. Despite constructivism’s adequate account of material forces, there remains a prevalent academic appetite to explore and create a greater account of material forces in international politics, and this desire is demonstrated in the works of Sørenson and Adler. To summarise, constructivism rightly places social practices, and their ability to inform the behaviour of actors within international politics, at the core of its approach; the material account it presents is one which suitably explains how these forces acquire value in international politics through shared knowledge, even though there is certainly room for further exploration in the relationship between the ideational and the material.
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 See Finnemore (1996a); Gordon (1980); Habermas (1971, 1984); Adler (1997), p. 320.
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Jack is a postgraduate student of the War Studies department, King's College London. He is the founder of World Outline (worldoutline.co.uk) and his postgraduate thesis focuses on the implications of China's growing involvement in counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.