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The inquisition of political philosophers and theorists to detail and explain the actions of states,
territories and empires as the primary actors on the international scene (depending on the era),
has existed before the formal development of an independent academic discipline of international
relations. It was only until 1919, at the conclusion of World War I; the independent academic
discipline of international relations was created in the University of Wales in Aberystwyth,
Wales. It was led by David Davies, a Welsh industrialist, who saw the Department of
International Relations as a means of developing theories and normative prescriptions on the
prevention of war. (Baylis et al 2011: 3).
A theory as defined by Baylis is a kind of simplifying device that allows you to decide which
facts matter and which do not(Baylis et al. 2011:3). One such theory that has its own
contribution and perspective on international relations is social constructivism. Constructivisms
contribution to international relations as a credible theory for explaining international
phenomena is disputed and faces criticisms from without and even within its own school of
This paper will study what event has led to the emergence of constructivism as a school of
thought granted that it did not have presence in the earlier years of the academic discipline. The
paper will argue that the emergence of constructivism was due to the inability of the mainstream
international relations theories to predict the outcome of the Cold War. Special emphasis in this
paper will be given to the theoretical disagreements between constructivism and the mainstream
theories namely neorealism along with the ascertainment of what are the main tenets of

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constructivism and the contributions Nicholas Onuf and Alexander Wendt as leading
international relations constructivist theorists.

Emergence and Assumptions of Constructivism

For most of the existence of the academic discipline of international relations two main schools
have dominated the theoretical arena. The theories of realism and liberalism, more specifically
their progeny, neo-realism and neo-liberalism respectively, since the mid-1980s, have been the
mainstream theories used to explain international phenomena with the neo theories adopting a
positivist approach to their theories (Lamy 2011: 116). The positivist position of the neos
theorised the relationship of the causal variables in the international system (third image of
analysis) and its effects on states behaviour as the primary actors in the international system.
The emergence of constructivism can be marked from the early 1980s till the end of the Cold
War (Firke 2010: 178). The Cold War in its concluding years brought pressing questions to the
table about the basic assumptions of the neo theories, specifically Waltzs neo-realism. The Cold
War was marked by a period of prolonged balancing of power (a key realist concept) between
two ideologically opposes blocs led by the United States of America and the Soviet Union with
the buildup of nuclear weaponry on either side. The explanation of the arms race that existed
between the two great powers was effectively located within the neorealist school and their
assumptions. However with the anticlimactic conclusion of the Cold War, questions were being
raised about the failure of the neorealist theories to predict such a peaceful outcome and studies
within international relations began to question the assumptions and the positivist methodology
of neorealist and its applicability to international power (Firke 2010: 178).

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The criticism of the neorealism because of its failure in Cold War theorising by rising
constructivist has since been developed into a robust research program (Viotti and Kauppi
2010: 276). The materialistic emphasis and lack of focus on the value of thoughts and ideas in
the dominant scientific theories was cited as its failures to effectively understand the Cold War. It
is believed by constructivist that the inclusion of thoughts and ideas would create better a theory
of the international system (Jackson and Srensen 2010:161).
The term constructivism was coined by Nicholas Onuf in 1989 in his work A World of Our
Making. Although Onuf was the first to come up with the concept of constructivism, the work of
Alexander Wendt has been very popularly known of constructivist theorist and has afforded
constructivism recognition.
The constructivist theory which has been developed in the latter part of the 20th century,
according to Michael Barnett has been created by two main factors, one being theoretical
(during the Cold War period) and the other being sociological. These sociological concepts are
that of structuration by developed Anthony Giddens (1984) which was adopted by Alexander
Wendt to introduce the agent-structure problem, along with the critical theoretical perspectives
that emphasise the roles of ideas, norms, rules and how they influence state identities and interest
in the international political arena. Other concepts such as the intersubjectivity of ideas, holism
as opposed to individualism and the role of science in social sciences has been influential in
shaping constructivism.
The constructivist theory is cited by Viotti and Kauppi as having an intellectual precursor from
the writings of the political, sociological and philosophical thinkers of Immanuel Kant, John
Locke, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber (Viotti and Kauppi 2010: 278-280). Kants influence on

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constructivist was by his the concept of phenomenology which explains how human
consciousness affects our understandings. Moreover Lockes view of anarchy which is defined as
one that is not necessarily the Hobbesian perpetual state of war which is adopted by realist, has
helped shape Wendts work, Anarchy is What States Make of It (1992). The central tenets of
constructivism which expresses the belief that material factors as well as ideational factors
influence social outcomes has been shaped by Durkheim and Webers interpretive approach to IR
theory are also intellectual precursors to constructivism. (Jackson and Sorensen 2010: 278-280)
Constructivism however has not been spared the problems of any other theory in IR. Within the
school there are conflicting views about the ontology of constructivism and more divisively the
role of science in it. Constructivism can be divided into conventional and critical constructivism
(Hopf 1998:181).
Notwithstanding their differences on the issue of positivism, conventional and critical
constructivists are on the same side and share theoretical fundamentals. Both the sides aim to
denaturalise the social world i.e. to empirically discover things that are considered as natural by
other theories (Hopf 1998:181-2).They accept the value of the intersubjectivity of shared norms,
rules, ideas, belief and values by people and its effect upon reality and meaning (Viotti and
Kauppi 2010:280). Additionally they both share the aspiration to restore agency to human
beings i.e. the ability of humans to be influenced by and in turn influence the structure (Hopf
Conventional constructivism incorporates positivist methodologies into its research program and
sets out to find conditions under which one identity or another would be reproduced. This is
referred to as minimal foundationalism by Mark Hoffman (Hopf 1998:183). Critical

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constructivism is opposed to positivism and they are interested in exploding the myths of
identity formation and how identity if formed. They do not share the positivist idea that objective
truth can be uncovered in social sciences because there is no neutral ground to decide about
what is true (Jackson and Srensen 2010: 165).

There have been various theorists who write in the context of a constructivist and develop the
theorys explanations. Notable constructivist theorists are Richard Ashley, Alexander Wendt,
Nicholas Onuf, Friedrich Kratochwil and John Ruggie. Drawing from Maja Zehfuss book
Constructivism in International Relations (2002), I intend to focus on the contributions of
Nicholas Onuf, who is credited for coining the term constructivism and Alexander Wendt who is
credited for his writings that has driven constructivism to some form of popularity within the
discipline. Both Onuf and Wendt are considered to be key constructivist scholars by Zehfuss
(Zehfuss 2002:9).
Nicholas Onuf
Nicholas Onuf was born in 1941 and had attained his undergraduate and PhD degrees from the
John Hopkins University. He is interested in international relations, particularly international law
as evident by his dissertations entitled The conscious development of international law.
(Griffiths et al. 2002:132). Onuf wrote other articles such as Lawmaking in the Global
Community (1983) and The Republican Legacy in International Thought (1987) but his major
contribution to the development of constructivism was in his World of Our Making which was
produced in 1989.

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Onuf, in his World of Our Making offered a criticism of the dominant assumption of the IR
academic field. He criticised the liberalistic view of anarchy which considers human to be presocial (already socialised) and are assumed to be rational which is only limited by material
conditions (Griffiths et al. 2002:131). He wanted the paradigm of liberal assumptions to give
way to the reconstruction of international relations which required the discipline to be
stripped of its current pretentions (Griffiths et al. 2002:131). This concept of reconstruction
was referred to as constructivism by Nicholas Onuf and it was the first time the term was used
in this context (Barnett 2011:153).
The constructivism Onuf proposes is one that has questioned the assumptions of the international
relations theories. In the mainstream theories of IR the structures of society are taken as granted
by which human behaviour is influenced but are not able to influence the structure. Onuf
drawing on Anthony Giddens structuration as well as the linguistic theory of Ludwig
Wittgenstein was used to explain the construction of the social order and rules (Griffiths et al.
2002:133). Onuf does not reject the importance of social structures but he points out that social
structures are created by people and are not given. Onufs World of Our Making further explains
that social practices or actions in the social structures are given meaning through rules which
Onuf classifies into three categories: assertives, directives and commissives depending on how
that rule is intend to affect the world (Zehfuss 2002:20).
Alexander Wendt
Alexander Wendt is proclaimed to be one of the most influential constructivists in the academia
of international relations. Wendt is a German born in 1958. He attained his PhD at the University

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of Minnesota and is interested in the philosophical aspects of social science with special
reference to international relations (Alexander Wendt)
Alexander Wendt has contributed to the agent-structure problem, i.e. how to think about the
relationship between the agent and the structure. The agent-structure problem employs Anthony
Giddens structuration and Wendt argues that an international normative structure shapes the
identities and interests of states and through interaction (Barnett 2011:152). The agent structure
problem is a concern about the extent to which state action is influenced by the structure
(anarchy and the distribution of power) versus process (interaction and learning) (Wendt
Anarchy is What States Make of It by Wendt has created popularity for constructivism within the
academia of international relations as well as promoted its acceptability. Wendt challenged the
realist explanation of the balance of power and self-help that seeks to explain why some states
are considered foes and others are not. Realists posit that this is due to anarchy whereas Wendt
argues that it is in fact due to norm structures and the beliefs of states in the international system.
Wendt in his Constructing International Politics explains that social structures contain three
elements: shared understandings, expectations or knowledge along with material resources
which presuppose structures of shared knowledge and thirdly social structure exists only in
process. For Alexander Wendt ideas always matter (Wendt 2010:300).

The constructivist theory is a new theory relative to the rival mainstream theories of realism and
liberalism and has since managed to push its way into the top echelons of the theories in the
academic discipline of international relations. In this paper it was observed that the failure of the
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realist school to effectively calculate the final outcome of the two superpowers competing in the
Cold War left a theoretical opening for the creation of a more comprehensive theory.
Constructivist took up the challenge to better explain the international system and behaviours
and thus filled the gap in the theoretical sphere with its genesis in the work of Nicholas Onuf.
Thus the emergence constructivism can be accredited to the theoretical poverty of the dominant
international theories in the 1980s and 1990s.
Constructivism as a theory has divisions within it, mainly over the role of natural science
methodologies in the social sciences and the course that the theory should take. Nonetheless
constructivism is regarded as a school of thought to be considered in the field of IR was most
scholars continue to contribute to its development.
The constructivist approach in international relations has contributed to the concept of the agentstructure problem (structuration) i.e. the structure influences the agents and the agents in turn
influences the structure, human agency in international relations, and the concept that norms,
beliefs, values and ideas influence the creation of the social structures and the meanings and
rules attached to them. Major contributors such as Nicholas Onuf and Alexander Wendt have
been considered key to the scholarly development of the constructivist thought.

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