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CIAO DATE: 05/03

The Cunning of Imperialist Reason: Using a Bourdieu Inspired Constructivism in IPE

Anna Leander

Copenhagen Peace Research Institute
December 2002

In the 50th anniversary issue of International Organization, the editors wrote that International Political Economy (IPE) has been little touched by the constructivist turn in International Relations. 1 Five years on, this no longer seems to hold. The key IPE journals (viz. International Organization, Review of International Political Economy, Economy and Society, or New Political Economy) reveal a considerable interest in “constructivist” topics and methodologies. The “Washington Consensus”, the nature of conditionality, the role of epistemic communities of experts (such as central bankers, rating agencies or aid workers), the EMU, or economic sanctions as part of the “shaming” or “othering” of South Africa are only some of the many topics that have been subjected to constructivist analysis (broadly defined). We are witnessing a reversal of the situation of a decade ago when the import and contribution of constructivism to IPE was rarely explicitly discussed and on average grossly undervalued. 2 Today, it has carved out a central place for itself in IPE. I am not saying that everyone has suddenly turned constructivist, simply that most scholars in the discipline now recognise constructivism as a part of the meta-theoretical approaches people work with in IPE.

This change means that the contentious issue at present is no longer whether or not one can use constructivism in IPE. Obviously one can and it is being done. Rather, it seems to me that the issue which is up for grabs now, is what one can do to make the best possible use of constructivism in IPE. And it is this issue I want to deal with in this paper. I want to make an argument in favour of a sociological version of constructivism (drawing heavily on the work of Pierre Bourdieu) which I think is particularly well suited to develop questions and answers for empirical studies in IPE. Constructivism as used in this paper, refers to the approaches which have in common that they focus on the social construction of meaning (including knowledge) and of the construction of social reality with the emphasis on the inter-subjective aspect of this construction. That is, constructivism is not “a theory”. It is a collection of approaches united by their meta-theoretical assumptions. 3 And arguably, their focus on the social construction of reality and knowledge has both an epistemological (or linguistic) and a sociological aspect to them. And hence constructivism is always relatively close to sociology. One can even see it as reflecting the “sociological turn” in the social sciences more widely. And it seems to me that one should use this closeness as an advantage and look sideways at how some central problems have been dealt with in sociology to do a better job in IPE.

This is what I propose to do here. I will argue that looking to a Bourdieu-inspired sociology is particularly promising. The reason is that, although this approach cannot overcome and resolve the central dichotomies in social theory, it suggests ways which make it possible to argue in parallel and to keep both sides of the dichotomies in the analysis. 4 And this seems very important because many of the problems that are faced by constructivism are linked to the fact that one side is de facto marginalised in the analysis. Not that constructivists w ould deny their importance. Rather they find it hard to keep the focus on both. More specifically, I want to give illustrations of this, or three reasons for relying more heavily on a Bourdieu-inspired sociological constructivism in IPE. The first is that it ke eps explicit attention to the power entailed not only in the way the social construction of meaning at the level of the policy maker and/or observer constructs social reality, but also on the level of the material social reality. The second is that it suggests a way of keeping an explicit link within agency of the instrumental use of ideas and the taken for granted dimension of social reality. And the third is that it stresses the significance of reflexivity. Clearly, my focus on power, embedded agency and reflexivity is not fortuitous. It is around these issues that the critique of constructivists, from outsiders and insiders alike, tends to focus and therefore it seems to me that when discussing how to make the best possible use of constructivism, it is from these issues that one has to depart.


Note 1: Katzenstein, Keohane and Krasner (1998: 675). Back

Note 2: I have written on this at greater length in Leander (2000). Back

Note 3: This definition does exclude work based on methodological individualism and hence some work which goes under the heading constructivism. However, it is the only definition which does not make constructivism a catch all category covering anyone who mentions ideas and norms (e.g. Krasner’s work on regimes). For the argument behind this definition, see Guzzini (2000). Back

Note 4: For a more general argument about how Bourdieu tries to deal with (and overcome) central dichotomies in sociological theory, see Brubaker (1985). Back