From the CIAO Atlas Map of Europe 

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CIAO DATE: 07/03

Constructivism and the Role of Institutions in International Relations

Stefano Guzzini

March 2003

Copenhagen Peace Research Institute


Although Italy, in comparison to its Northern neighbours, is not a country of constructivists (Lucarelli and Menotti 2002), many of the themes crucial to constructivism are common currency in Italian academia. For constructivism stands for a series of debates in social theory which made a perhaps late yet virulent intrusion into the discipline of International Relations. Its content is probably best understood as the focus which bundles recent discussions on epistemology and the sociology of knowledge, on the agent-structure debate and the ontological status of social facts, and on the reciprocal relationship between these two.

A first section will introduce constructivism as a meta-theory, or as Kratochwil (2000: 100f.) called it, a 'meta-theoretical commitment'. It is on this level that it has become usual to compare it with positivism, and now also with rationalist action theories, as in the recent state-of-the-art book published by former editors of International Organization (Katzenstein, Keohane et al. 1999).

As a meta-theoretical commitment, constructivism does not refer primarily to a theory which could be compared to other established theoretical schools in International Relations, such as realism or liberalism/pluralism or whatever one wants to call them. Yet, as a second section will show, it still has implications for international theory. Indeed, a considerable part of the interest in meta-theory does not stem from the faddishly abstract curiosities of IR researchers, but from their diagnosis that some of the reasons underlying the theoretical blockages in IR is to be found at this level. Two blockages have spurred most reaction. On the one hand, constructivism is a reaction against the narrow (individualist) conception of international politics underlying game theory and rational choice approaches. On the other hand, it opposes the 'naturalist' leanings of diverse 'realist' theories of international relations, who claim to know the world 'as it really is'—ultimately unchangeable and historically circular1—leanings which ask for some version of scientific positivism (Brown 1992: 90).

Not being a 'theory' as the others finally implies that there is little sense in giving the constructivist reading of the role of institutions in today's international affairs. What can be offered is a presentation of how some constructivism-inspired theories think about the role of institutions, both within the constitutive rules of international society and as practical fora for socialisation into such a society. I will conclude on a way how some constructivists could understand today's world as the renewed 'social construction of power politics' (Wendt 1992) trying to put an end to the post-Cold War era: the 'post-Cold War is what we make of it'.

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