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terça-feira, 11 de novembro de 2008

Presenting Social Constructivism

1- Presenting the two theories: Social Constructivism (A. Wendt) and Historicist Marxism (R. Cox)
In this essay, we shall examine two alternative theories of international relations: social constructivism and historicist Marxism. They are alternative theories because they do not share many of the core assumptions of mainstream theories such as realism or liberalism. As it is, they have been almost entirely left out of the debate that has permeated IR discussion in recent years, the so-called neo-neo debate. These two alternative theories, nonetheless, have many important contributions to the study of International Relations and have to be taken into account seriously by scholars. Social constructivism and historicist Marxism are alternative theories, for they do not share neither realism, nor liberalism faith in positivism. In fact, both theories refuse the main positivist claim according to which there are in the social sciences universal laws that could be determined by means of an empiricist and scientific approach to reality.

For both realist and liberal theorists, in fact, reality is an objective data, waiting to be collected, analyzed, interpreted and transformed into general and universally valid laws, in the same manner as it happens with physics or mathematics. Social constructivism and historicist Marxism, on the contrary, deny this possibility of objectivity in social observation. Rather than being positivist paradigms, they draw their assumptions from Marxist claims (via Weber): dialectic is their seminal source of inspiration.

By departing from very different premises than those of traditional approaches, a fact that per se makes these two theories alternative, they obviously arrive at very different conclusions. We shall discuss the core assumptions of social constructivism and historicist materialism, evaluate them critically and try to assess to what extent they represent an improvement in the IR field.

2- Summarizing Social Constructivism
Ever since John Ruggie wrote his review essay of Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, the notion that ideas and norms may play an important role in world politics has been gaining ground. In fact, according to Michael Barnet, constructivism is a success story (Barnet: 252). Constructivism’s central assumption is the social construction of reality, the thesis that facts are socially created. Inspired by the works of the German Philosopher Max Weber, constructivists argue that although there has always been an objective reality, human beings are the ones capable of lending significance to it. This ‘socially constructed nature of actors and their identities and interests’ (Barnet: 259) is, therefore, one of the fundamental assumptions of constructivism. Alexander Wendt once famously remarked that ‘anarchy is what states make of it’. According to Wendt, thus, world politics is ‘socially constructed’, which means the ‘fundamental structures of international politics are social rather than strictly material’ (Kaufman: 729). Drawing upon Grotius, Kant and Hegel, Wendt assumes furthermore that the structures of human association are determined primarily by shared ideas.

For Wendt, the structure of the international system can be anarchical, as it often is, but the characteristics of this anarchy are not fixedly given. Instead, he identifies three different cultures of anarchy: Hobesian, Lockean and Kantian. He accepts, therefore, that there can be in world politics a movement from ‘the law of the jungle to the rule of the law’ (Wendt: 10). While asserting that ‘neo-realism cannot explain structural change’ (Wendt: 17), Wendt argues that there has been, in recent years, evident signs of transformation from a Hobesian culture of anarchy to a lockean culture of anarchy and that, in some areas at least, signs of a Kantian culture of anarchy are emerging. Because Wendt proposes to re-conceptualize so many core assumptions of realist and liberal traditions, his constructivist theory can certainly be identified as alternative.

3- Critically evaluating Social Constructivism
As discussed earlier, denial of the positivist approach to social sciences is the core epistemological assumption of constructivism. Following Karl Popper’s theories, constructivists refuse the idea that objective knowledge about the social world can be attainable. Critics of constructivism argue that by doing so, ‘critical theorists cast doubt on our ability to observe the social world objectively through carefully constructed lenses’ (Kaufman: 726). For those critics, the distribution of capabilities, for instance the fact that the USA has thousands of nuclear warheads and, say, Panama none, means that for Panamanian foreign policy there are not many options left vis-à-vis the US. For them, this reality is indeed objective and they criticize constructivism for not accounting for those ‘objective’ facts. Constructivists, for their turn, reply that what matters is not the possession of nuclear weapons by one country but how this fact is perceived by another country. They point out that the fact that Britain has 500 nuclear warheads means no significant threat to the US, but the fact that Iran may acquire a single one is considered as an unacceptable risk. For constructivists, therefore, there are given facts (the possession of nuclear capabilities by the US being one of them), but what matters for world politics is the significance that these facts acquire under the perceptions of different actors.

4- Does Constructivism represents an improvement?
Since anarchy is what states make of it, Wendt asserts that, in certain contexts, a security dilemma can be transformed into a security community. Due to agency and social structure, both of which influenced by ideas and norms, states can replace old patterns of rivalry by new ones of cooperation, for shared knowledge moulds how states (actors) construct and interpret their social reality. Wendt’s theory incorporates into the scope of IR’s analysis how strategic interaction, and the cultural context in which it occurs, help shape the structure of the international system.

Constructivism sheds, therefore, important light in recent events which took place in world politics, where such patterns of cooperation have become prevailing, although there has been no major change in the distribution of capabilities within the system. It certainly improve IR arsenal for dealing with complex issues, such as the formation of the European Union or the creation of MERCOSUR. In both cases, old rivalries (Franco-German, in the case of Europe, and Argentine-Brazilian in the case of MERCOSUR) have given place to emerging patterns of solid and strategic cooperation. Moreover, in both cases, cultural events of major significance brought about changes in the way nationals from one country perceived those of the other. A culture of enmity was replaced, albeit not completely, by a culture of amity, in a fashion that seems to reinforce constructivism’s claim to make accurate predictions about change in the international structure.

5- Summarizing Historicist Marxism
Historicist Marxism is the term used by Robert Cox to describe his Marxist approach to IR theory. Cox argues that there is a substantial difference between Structuralist Marxism, the Determinist Marxist tradition and his Historicist Marxism. According to his own words, it is in the last of these three traditions that he feels more comfortable (Kaufman: 784). Drawing upon Georg Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx, Cox utilizes the tools of historical and dialectic materialism for his research program. In fact, historical materialism and dialectics are the two fundamental assumptions of Cox’s work. Cox therefore departs from the positivist epistemological notion of objective truth and concludes that every theory ‘is always for someone and for some purpose’ (Kaufman: 752).

According to the materialist conception of history, there are no universally applicable laws of social behavior. For Cox, ‘as reality changes, old concepts have to be adapted’ (Ibid: 753). Knowledge, therefore, is always historical in the sense that ‘there is, (…), no such a thing as a theory in itself, divorced from a standpoint in time and in space’ (Ibid: 753). Hence, he labeled his theory critical theory, in opposition to other positivist, ‘problem-solving’ theories.

For him, the contradictions between the means of production and the relations of production are the sources of the dynamics of history. This production process and the social relations it creates inevitably shape social outcomes and must therefore be incorporated into social science’s theories. This historicist approach, which radically denies the positivist claims, makes Cox’s theory a radical alternative to traditional theories, such as realism and liberalism.

6- Critically evaluating Historicist Marxism
Historicist Marxism is an ideological approach to IR and it acknowledges being so. Inasmuch as it critically evaluates existing patterns of established order, it also proposes to create a new world order different from the prevailing one. It is, therefore, a revolutionary theory, for it proposes ‘strategic action for bringing about an alternative order’ (Kaufman: 755). For status quo agents, interested in maintaining the prevailing order, Historicist Marxism could be perceived as representing a threat. Since critical theory allows for the subversion of the established order, actors willing to preserve the status quo could reject it, on the ground that it is ideologically driven. For others, however, to whom the prevailing system is indeed unjust, unequal and oppressive, critical theory might be a potent tool for the establishment of a ‘counter-hegemony’ capable of bringing about more justice, equality and freedom in world politics.

7- Does Historicist Marxism represents an improvement?
What is distinctive in Cox’s view about world politics is that, for him, the structure of the system is historical. What characterizes the international system, therefore, is its historicity, not anarchy in itself. For Cox, the historical structures of the international system comprise the production process (and the social forces it engenders), forms of states and world orders. Cox accepts that structures constrain actor’s actions. He reminds us, however, that structures are not actors themselves in world politics.

In fact, structures can be, and indeed often are, changed. To understand such changes is, for Cox, the main task an IR scholar has to face. In this regard, Cox asserts that contradictions between the means of production and the relation of production are causes of structural change. This is particularly important for understanding today’s world politics, for it seems that the expansion of the international production and the integration of production processes on a transnational scale are bringing about new historical structures. In overt disagreement with traditionalists, Cox argues that the social forces created by these changes in the production processes may generate a new hegemony, despite the anarchic, unipolar constraints created by the existing international structure. In sum, there is in his view a direct connection ‘between changes in production, in forms of state and in world orders’ (Ibid: 782). It is possible to conclude, therefore, that this ability to incorporate the concept of change into IR field of analysis also represents an improvement in relation to traditionalist approaches.

8- Bibliography
1- Barnett, M. (2004), ‘Social Constructivism’, in Baylis, J. and Smith, S. The Globalization of World Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
2- Cox, R. (1998), in Kaufman, D. J., Parker, J.M., Howel, P.V., Doty, G.R. Understanding International Relations, The Value of Alternative Lenses (USA: Custom Publishing).
3- Hobden, S. and Jones, W. (2004), ‘Marxist Theories of International Relations’, in Baylis, J. and Smith, S. The Globalization of World Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
4- Wendt, A. (1998), ‘Constructing international politics’, in Kaufman, D. J., Parker, J.M., Howel, P.V., Doty, G.R. Understanding International Relations, The Value of Alternative Lenses (USA: Custom Publishing).
5- Wendt, A. (1998), Social Theory of International Politics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

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