“There is no such thing as constructivism”

Mar 20, 2011

I was fortunate enough to participate in an ISA panel yesterday morning entitled “The Third Generation of Constructivist Thought: Boundaries, Distinctions, Limits — Social Theory, Philosophy, and Constructivism,” organized by Benjamin Herborth and Oliver Kessler. I decided to take the opportunity to deliver a little sermon on the counterproductive enterprise of trying to sharply define “constructivism” as a single coherent theory of anything, let alone a single coherent theory of world politics. Podcast here; the basic summary of my claim, along with my replies to some audience questions and the ensuing discussion, is below the fold.

My basic point, which is not a new point either for me or for the field but is a point that seems to keep getting lost in the shuffle, is that to call a theory “constructivist” is to pick out a certain tendency or attitude that it expresses, and not to name a clear core proposition or set of propositions to which it adheres. This goes back to my favorite definition of a constructivist claim, from Ian Hacking: to say that X is socially constructed is to say that it is historically contingent, that it is not a result of natural necessity, that X might not have been save certain social actions that brought it about. Or, to put it a slightly different way, a social constructivist claim is a claim that emphasizes the contingency of the social world and raises questions about its ongoing stabilization. But there are lots of different ways to do this, lots of different theoretical and conceptual languages one might deploy, since this basic attitude towards the explanation of the social world can be and has been cashed out in a variety of different ways, none of which is any more fundamental to being a constructivist than any other.

As I said, this is not a new claim; Alex Wendt said this about constructivism in 1999, and it’s been echoed over time by lots of other people, most recently (I think) by Sammy Barkin in his great little book Realist Constructivism: there are lots of different ways of doing constructivist research and advancing constructivist explanations. I would even go one step further than Wendt and Barkin, though, and claim that any particular articulation of the core wager or commitment of constructivist theory is inadequate and artificially limiting; there is no reason why one has to use the language of agent-structure co-constitution or identity preceding interests or transactional relations before essences and actors or whatever else in order to be a constructivist. Instead, the various strains of constructivist theory and explanation share what Wittgenstein would call a family resemblance: “we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail” (Philosophical Investigations §66). And the problem is that any particular attempt to formalize what all of those articulations share is, necessarily, ideal-typical, so it exists in an abstract logical space and not (ever!) in the actual concrete world of scholarship and research. [If this claim in particular sounds familiar, well, that’s because it’s the argument Dan and I made in our 2009 ISQ article …]

There was an audience question about the take-away point, particularly for graduate students, from my claim that there was no such animal as “constructivism.” I replied that there were two such points: 1) because there is no constructivist orthodoxy to adhere to, students and other researchers need not worry about getting their catechism right in order to be a card-carrying “constructivist” scholar; and 2) studying the social world as in need of ongoing stabilization is a legitimate enterprise, people have been working on how relative stability is produced, and that might be helpful for your research in ways that starting out with putatively stable actors and environments might not be. Because after all — and this was actually the little rant I went on at the end of the q-and-a, but unfortunately did not record — what we do when we theorize and when we engage in theoretical debate and discussion with other scholars is that we articulate and refine conceptual tools that might be used by a variety of researchers (including ourselves) in answering a variety of questions about the world and things that happen in it. Theory doesn’t solve problems; it’s a resource one uses to solve problems. For social-scientific theories in particular, those problems are in the first instance problems of explanation, but here again, theory isn’t an explanation but a contribution to an explanation — especially if you’re not a neopositivist, but even then.

So the point of articulating constructivist theory is not to resolve controversy by proposing a single articulation that everyone working on the contingency of the social world finds compelling; that reduces the richness of our vocabulary, and makes it harder for individual researchers to find an articulation that helps them resolve what they need to (at least provisionally) resolve in order to carry out their projects. Our marvelous discussant Stefano Guzzini referred to my position as “the contingency of theorizing,” in contrast to efforts of others to “theorize contingency,” and I rather like this formulation, not in the least because in my view a definitively theorized contingency is rather like a determinately explained exercise of agency: internally contradictory. One might have theories that embrace contingency, but part of that embrace of contingency has to be an acceptance or even a celebration of the plurality of conceptual and analytical vocabularies that one might use to cash out that contingency. When we engage in these theological disputes — and let’s not kid ourselves, theoretical disputes are theological disputes, since they pit doctrine against doctrine inside of the relatively protected and rarefied space of The Academy — we can either go into them with the attitude that only one doctrine can win and the others must be shown to be heretical (and their adherents worthy of being cast into the outer darkness), or we can go into them with the critical pluralist attitude of trying to be as rigorous and systematic as possible so as to flesh out points of distinction and disagreement ever more precisely and increase the sheer number of combinatorial possibilities available to the community as a whole. (Yes, that was an echo of Andrew Abbott you heard there. I know you’re shocked.) Forging systematic theory is a means to an end, and it can either be a means to a unified and somewhat brittle vocabulary that the high priests then need to meticulously enforce adherence to, or it can be a means to a collective embrace of diverse resources for knowing. I think my preference is clear.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.