Book chapter

Constructivism (2017)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Constructivism in the social sciences has known several ups and downs over the last decades. It was rather early successful in sociology but hotly contested in international relations. Oddly enough, just at the moments it made important inroads into the research agenda and also became accepted by the mainstream, the enthusiasm for it waned, and many constructivists—as did mainstream scholars—moved from the concerns of "grand theory" or even "meta-theory" toward "normal science," or experimented with other (eclectic) approaches, of which the "turn to practice" is perhaps the latest manifestation.In a way, constructivism was "successful" on the one hand by introducing norms, norm-dynamics, and diffusion; the role of new actors in world politics; and the changing role of institutions into the debates, while losing, on the other hand, much of its critical potential. The latter survived only on the fringes—and in Europe more than in the United States. The Copenhagen school, building on the speech act theory, engendered at least a principled discussion of security studies, even if its use of speech acts was too simplistic.In the United States constructivism soon became "mainstreamed" by having its analysis of norms reduced to "variable research." Similarly, while the "life cycle of norms" apparently inevitably led to norm cascades and "boomerangs," "norm death," strangely enough, never made the research agenda, despite the obvious empirical evidence (preventive strikes, unlawful combatants, drone strikes, extrajudicial killings etc.).The elective affinity of constructivism and humanitarianism seemed to have transformed the former into the enlightenment project of "progress," where a hidden (or not so hidden) teleology of history à la Kant tends to overwhelm the analysis and thus prevents a serious conceptual engagement with both law and (inter-) national politics. This bowdlerization of constructivism is further buttressed by the fact that none of the "leading" U.S. departments has a constructivist on board, ensuring thereby the narrowness of conceptual and methodological choices to which the future "professionals" are exposed. The engagement with concepts and language, which "first generation" constructivists introduced, is displaced again by "ideal theory" (both in terms of deductive reasoning based on "unrealistic" assumptions and in the "clarification" of abstract principles à la Rawls), or by the search for "algorithms" hidden in "big data."