Tag: constructivism (page 1 of 2)

“There was something missing from scholars’ models of political and economic life: ideas”

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a longish write-up on Pinar Dogan and Dani Rodrik’s efforts to exonerate Dogan’s father after he had been caught up in then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to push Turkey’s generals out of the political arena. At the heart of this effort was the publication in 2010 of documents detailing an alleged plot—Operation Sledgehammer—by Turkish military leaders in 2003 to overthrow the government by undertaking a massive campaign of state terrorism. Dogan’s father was a general in 2003 and was, according to the documents, the leader of the coup that did not happen. Rodrik and Dogan undertook to demonstrate her father’s innocence and, in the process, pretty conclusively showed that the documents detailing Operation Sledgehammer were fake.

So far, just an interesting example of an economist venturing over into politics. Continue reading

Theory as thought

Recently a friend and colleague wrote me to say:


“The SS piece is actually really useful to me as a model for dealing with Political Science post paradigm wars.”


Which prompts me (as if academics ever need such a prompt) to revisit an issue I raised almost a year ago: the role of theory in policymaking. In that long ago post, I mentioned that Patrick James and I had an article under review that addressed the relationship between theory and policy from a fairly novel perspective, and I am happy to say that article—entitled “Theory as Thought: Britain and German Unification”—came out earlier this year in Security Studies.


In the piece, we derive inspiration from analytic eclecticism in an effort to develop a more nuanced and useful understanding of how theory interacts with the real world. In pursuit of that agenda, we make a simple but potentially controversial claim: rather than represent objective descriptions/explanations of the world, theories of international relations represent different modes of thinking about the world. These different modes are intersubjective structures and discourses that enable shared efforts to understand and explain the world. Thus, theories are actually shared logics embedded in society that enable policymakers to make sense of the world. As such, IR scholars are embedded within and develop their theories from broader currents of social meaning-making.


To make the argument work, we distil the core operative logics underlying realism, liberal institutionalism, and constructivism. Rather than derive explanatory building blocks from theories and apply them to empirical sources, we analyze policy-makers’ modes of thought to investigate whether they contain patterns of IR theory. We realize that doing so is part of the controversial nature of the article, as scholars operating within these traditions may reject the simplifications we undertake, or in the case of constructivism that it has enough coherence to have a unifying logic. We spend some time justifying these decisions in the article, so I leave it to readers to look there for our defense.


After establishing the logics, we apply them to our case study—British policymaking toward German unification. We find that, contrary to claims that these theories only explain the international system, they actually represent modes of thought that shape how actors see the world. Moreover, all three logics play a critical role in the British policymaking process, interweaving to produce a complex constructed social reality. The logic of realism clearly played an important role in shaping the perceptions of top British leadership, particularly Thatcher, of German unification as a problem. This foundational assessment played a crucial role in shaping how the British understood the events of 1989 and 1990. But it did not play an important role in how the British responded to the process of German unification. By turning to NATO, the CSCE, and the EU to integrate an expanded and quasi-hegemonic Germany within the existing network of institutions, the logic of neoliberal institutionalism played a critical role in how British policymakers constructed their policy response. Why did the logic of neoliberal institutionalism prevail over the logic of realism in directing British policy? Here the power of the logic of constructivism is evident, particularly the role of identity and rhetorical entrapment. These logics constrained British policymakers to cooperative policy options.


A range of implications arise from our argument, and we spend considerable time in the conclusion talking about them so I only present a couple highlights here. One of the implications that comes out of our argument is that no theory of international relations is consistently applicable across space and time. Rather, the applicability of theory to events depends on the particular mix of theoretical logics in a particular time and space. These logics, like other socially constructed systems of meaning and relation (e.g. identity) may come to be sedimented (in strategic culture for example) and thus relatively stable over the short to medium term. But scholars would be well served to problematize what theoretical logics constitute the dominant discourses and narrative in the times and places they are interested in studying.


Another implication addresses the divide between material and ideational approaches to IR. Material versus ideational analysis emerges as what Brecher calls a “flawed dichotomy.” Regardless of the approach under consideration, it is not possible to comprehend how policymakers understood German transformation without both. The most convincing account is one that recognizes the contributions of multiple paradigms to understanding complex international events with intertwining logics. For such reasons, frameworks ranging from the streamlined realism to the more intricate constructivism should be regarded as complementary rather than competitive in resolving the mysteries of IR.


A final implication regards the separation between theory and reality, and the gap between academics and policymakers. If we are right about the basis of theory, that means that theoretical development corresponds with changes in the world and how state leaders and societies come to terms with those changes. But the influence is not unidirectional. Theories also shape the world, providing systems of meaning that are taken up and integrated into shared logics. Thus, at a fundamental level there is no gap between academics and policymakers even if on a day-to-day basis such a gap seems yawning.


Theory is thought, both in the minds of scholars as well as actors in the ‘real’ world. Incorporating that simple observation into research on international relations holds the potential of greater illumination—from theory development to analytical veracity to bridging the gap between IR scholars and practitioners.

Why Does South Korea View Japan as a National Security Threat Worse than China? My Hypothesis: Competition with North Korea

This has been on my mind a lot because the Korea-Japan meltdown has been so bad recently. And I think it’s a good research question if you are into Asian IR. I have written about this before and just did again this month and yet again. I’ve argued repeatedly that the reason America’s allies in Asia cooperate so poorly is moral hazard. But this is different question. It is meant to explore why Koreans exaggerate Japan so much. Why do Koreans – the media specifically – routinely say things like Japan is run by right-wing fanatics who want to invade the Liancourt Rocks with samurai? These statements are not only obviously false, they are ridiculous.

I have said before (here, here) that Koreans have legitimate grievances regarding Japan, particularly on Yasukuni and the comfort women. But Koreans don’t stop there; they go over-the-top with things like the Sea of Japan re-naming campaign, claims that Japan wants to invade Korea again, that Japanese behavior in Korea equates with the Holocaust, or that Liancourt is worth going to war over – even though a Korean use of force against Japan would almost certainly eventuate a US departure from SK and therefore dramatically reduce Korean security. Other victims of earlier Japanese imperialism don’t talk like this, and I think a lot of well-meaning Japanese, who do recognize what Japan did in Korea, are genuinely baffled by all the hyperbole.

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Symposium — Une Invitation au Lecteur

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Charlotte EpsteinIt is the ninth installment in our “End of IR Theory” companion symposium for the special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. SAGE has temporarily ungated all of the articles in that issue. This post refers to Epstein’s article (PDF). A response, authored by Vivienne Jabri, will appear at 10am Eastern.

Other entries in the symposium–when available–may be reached via the “EJIR Special Issue Symposium” tag.

Being invited by the editors of EJIR to engage with the question of whether International Relations (IR) theory has reached is end(s) was, for me, the opportunity to try to take stock of some of the big picture questions that have long concerned our discipline. The first of these is: what exactly is IR’s world? Ours is one of the youngest disciplines in the history of what has classically been called ‘the human sciences’. Yet what we see today is also a discipline that is much surer of itself than it has ever been, because it is surer of what constitutes its intellectual space — something it owes undoubtedly to theory. IR’s owl has well and truly taken off.

This is signalled by the shift in the word ‘international’ from an adjective to a noun, the international, which is to say, a concept, albeit (and indeed, hopefully, forever) a contested one. Systemic theorising, exemplified by Kenneth Waltz, did much to staking out the space of the international and posit IR as a discrete theoretical endeavour. Recast within a broader history of the human science, Waltz’s efforts are comparable to those of Structuralists, such as Claude Levi-strauss (whom Waltz explicitely cites), who sought to uncover the universal laws of human nature that transcended particular cultures.

In this sense, then, it seemed to me fruitful to bring to bear upon the discipline’s trajectory Jacques Derrida’s founding engagement with Structuralist thought in his key 1966 Baltimore lecture ‘Structure, Sign and Play‘; the seminal moment that triggered the moving beyond, the ‘post’ of post-structuralism. Arguably the particular theoretical blossoming of the late 1980s-early 1990s in IR offered a similar opening; although whether it was borne out is precisely something I question in this piece. Continue reading

Podcast No. 13 – A Conversation with Nick Onuf (mp3)

The thirteenth Duck of Minerva podcast features Nicholas Onuf. Nick is one of the “founding parents” of contemporary constructivism. His book, World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relation  — which has been reissued by Routledge — introduced the term to describe an approach to the study of world politics. Continue reading

Podcast No. 13 – A Conversation with Nick Onuf (m4a)

The thirteenth Duck of Minerva podcast features Nicholas Onuf. Nick is one of the “founding parents” of contemporary constructivism. His book, World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relation  — which has been reissued by Routledge — introduced the term to describe an approach to the study of world politics.

The podcast is wide-ranging — part of oral history, part interview, part discussion — such that I’ve had difficulty figuring out how to insert chapters. If you’re listening via m4a, you’ll see that the podcast has only a few chapter titles. “Enter Constructivism,” for example, contains not only information about World of Our Making but also about the state of the field in the 1980s, the rise of liberal institutionalism, and so on.

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Whither constructivism?

The first posting of some of the audio from this weekend’s ISA-Northeast conference is up over on my syndication site. This one is from a panel called “Whither Constructivism?” featuring Nick Onuf, Mike Barnett, and me, chaired by Sammy Barkin. I’ll get the audio from the methodology workshop up in the next couple of days, and Dan has the audio from our “science fiction and IR pedagogy” panel because my recorder crapped out and didn’t record it properly.

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Podcast No. 10 – Interview with Vincent Pouliot

The tenth episode of the Duck of Minerva Podcast just went live. In it, I interview Vincent Pouliot of McGill University. His first monograph is International Security in Practice: The Politics of NATO-Russia Diplomacy (Cambridge University Press, 2010).


  • Front Matter
  • Introduction
  • The Practice Turn
  • International Security in Practice
  • Methodological Issues
  • The Practice Turn for Non-Constructivists
  • An Embarrassment of Practices?
  • Building Common Ground in IR
  • The Practice Turn in a Divided Discipline
  • What’s Next?
  • End Matter

Note: podcasts now seem to be appearing every Friday, give or take. We’ll see how long we can sustain it.

A reminder: I am running the podcast feed on a separate blog, but there’s no reason to click on that link. You can subscribe to our podcasts either via that blog’s Feedburner feed or its original atom feed (to do so within iTunes, go to “Advanced” and then choose “Subscribe to Podcast” and paste the feed URL). Individual episodes may be downloaded from the Podcasts tab.

Comments or thoughts on either this podcast or the series so far? Leave them here.

Podcast No. 9 – Interview with Kathryn Sikkink

The ninth episode of the Duck of Minerva Podcast just went live. In it, I interview Kathryn Sikkink about a variety of subjects, including her new book — The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions are Changing World Politics (W.W. Norton, 2011).


  • Introduction
  • Developmentalism in Latin America
  • Focusing on “Ideas” in the late 1980s and early 1990s
  • Activists Beyond Borders… and Beyond
  • The Justice Cascade
  • What Happaned to the Identity Agenda in Mainstream Constructivism?
  • The Persistent Power of Human Rights
  • Agency and Constructivism
  • Advice for Younger Scholars
  • End Matter

Note: podcasts now seem to be appearing every Friday, give or take. We’ll see how long we can sustain it.
A reminder: I am running the podcast feed on a separate blog. You can subscribe to our podcasts either via that blog’s Feedburner feed or its original atom feed (to do so within iTunes, go to “Advanced” and then choose “Subscribe to Podcast” and paste the feed URL). Individual episodes may be downloaded from the Podcasts tab.

Comments or thoughts on either this podcast or the series so far? Leave them here.

Podcast No. 5 – Interview with Ted Hopf

The fifth episode of the Duck of Minerva Podcast just went live. I interview Ted Hopf about his move to Singapore, his intellectual evolution, his work, the state of constructivism and the practice turn, and other stuff.


  • Front Matter
  • Introducing Ted Hopf
  • Academic Freedom in Singapore
  • Educational and Intellectual Trajectory
  • Social Construction of International Politics
  • On “Scholarly” Coherence and Pragmatism 
  • From Ethnography to Practice (Turn)
  • Liberalism and the Practice Turn
  • The End of IR Theory?
  • Reconstructing the Cold War
  • End Matter

Note: the publication date of the podcasts remains in flux, but I am aiming to have them appear Friday-Sunday each week.

A reminder: I am running the podcast feed on a separate blog. You can subscribe to our podcasts either via that blog’s Feedburner feed or its original atom feed (to do so within iTunes, go to “Advanced” and then choose “Subscribe to Podcast” and paste the feed URL). Individual episodes may be downloaded from the Podcasts tab.

Comments or thoughts on either this podcast or the series so far? Leave them here.

Constructivism, Social Psychology, and Interlocking Theory (III)

From http://www.zazzle.com/

This is the last in a series of guest posts by Stuart J. Kaufman of the University of DelawareStuart advances a long-running dispute with PTJ about whether “what goes on inside people’s heads” is relevant to social constructionism. PTJ doesn’t think so; Stuart disagrees. The first post can be found here, the second here. You may also download a complete PDF.

None of this is intended to deny the importance of structural insights offered by constructivist analysis. The argument, rather, is that “psychology provides the microfoundations for the motives behind normative behavior and identity change” examined by constructivist analysis (Shannon 2012, p. 14). Rhetorical coercion is an important mechanism, one I suspect underlay the inability of liberals and thoughtful moderates to articulate a resonant alternative to Bush’s “war on terror” narrative. But it is not the only mechanism of importance. As Kowert (2012) argues, norms are socially constructed, but they require that norm-holders both believe that something is right or wrong, and that they care about the outcome at stake. Understanding norms therefore requires understanding the “ideational triangle” of cognition, norms and social construction. I would be inclined to make it a “quadrangle” to include the pivotal influence of emotions.

Furthermore, for many of the issues in which discursive norm-production is important, there is yet another mechanism whose impact cannot be overlooked: the role of social networks. Neither constructivist discourse analysis nor individual or group psychology is very useful for explaining who becomes active in social movements and who does not. To explain who is likely to join a protest movement or a rebellion, we must look to social network theory as articulated most prominently by Tilly (2005, e.g.). The people who join social movements or rebellions are not consistently the people who feel most strongly about the issue at stake a priori; it is the people with the closest personal ties to those already involved. Explaining the rise of social movements, therefore, requires following Tilly’s insistence on looking to the “social appropriation” of existing institutions for social mobilization; to the brokers who create links between diverse social networks; and other similar mechanisms.

The result of taking seriously the importance of all of these different literatures would be a set of interlocking theories in which each piece of the puzzle fit into its neighboring pieces, each mutually supporting the other. Individual-level psychology would provide foundations for assumptions about human motivation and action tendencies—or, more precisely, which motivations are important when—but would then fade into the background as the focus of analysis shifted to social (including rhetorical, social psychological and sociological) mechanisms involved in political life. The role of the theorist is creatively to link the findings of these disparate fields into more or less coherent explanations of specific phenomena, instead of starting from ad-hoc assumptions considered risible in other disciplines. This approach is not too different from what constructivists typically do now, bracketing issues of agency to focus on discursive structure. I am only calling on constructivists to be more psychologically aware in the assumptions they make.

The centerpiece of this approach, then, is to identify when different modes of analysis are appropriate. For example, from a psychological perspective, the hypotheses of bureaucratic politics theory (“where you stand depends on where you sit”) is easily explicable in terms of the well-known mechanisms of socialization, commitment and role assignment. Bureaucrats advocate their organizations’ interests, that is, because it is their job to do so (role assignment), because once having done so, they feel committed to those values (commitment), and because they come over time to be socialized into those values by their senior colleagues.

Furthermore, attention to these psychological mechanisms helps to explain not only when bureaucratic effects are most important, but also when they are less so. For example, Rhodes’s (1994) finding of the insignificance of intra-service rivalry within the U.S. Navy (between airmen, submariners and surface warriors) should come as no surprise, because naval officers’ primary socialization (and training) is into the navy, not any particular “union” within it. Furthermore, Rhodes is analyzing the behavior of Chiefs of Naval Operations, whose role assignment is to advocate the interests of the entire Navy, not their “union”. On the other hand, these same mechanisms suggest that, especially before the 1986 reorganization, the Joint Chiefs of Staff should have fought like cats and dogs along bureaucratic lines, because the mechanisms of socialization, commitment and role assignment all pointed in that direction, yielding in turn cognitive biases and motivated biases all pushing the Chiefs each to defend his own service’s interests and values, as bureaucratic politics theory would suggest.

The same holds true of rational choice theory. While the assumption that people are rational utility-maximizers is almost always false and is often unproductive, there are circumstances in which social psychology would predict such behavior. Institutional behavior is again the clearest example. The mechanisms of socialization, commitment and role assignment yield the expectation not only that bureaucrats will pursue their institutional interests, but that lobbyists will lobby for their employers; and, indeed, individual self-interest is likely to point in the same direction. When individual self-interest does not align with institutional interest, rationalists rightly point out, greed or ambition may trump socialization, leading to shirking or corruption. Rationalists don’t talk about greed and ambition, but as long as those motives accord with assumptions of individual self-interest, the difference does not matter.  Assuming bureaucrats will behave like bureaucrats is not psychologically dubious.

Outside institutional bounds, in contrast, people usually do not act to maximize their material interests in politics because their judgment is at different times driven primarily by fear (explained terror management theory), group identity (explained by social identity theory), bias or prejudice (explained by cognitive bias or prejudice theory), motivated bias (explained by motivational theory), personal connections (social network theory), the desire for self-expression, or a host of other motives.

It seems plain, then, that interlocking theory provides the only way to move forward in international relations and political science, based on using the findings of allied disciplines. In international relations, the answer to the paradigm debate lies in determining under what conditions key actors behave like realists, or liberal institutionalists, or domestic politics liberals. What are the conditioning hypotheses for each theory? Again, a number of different factors play a role, each explaining a different piece of the puzzle. From this point of view, constructivism in international relations functions as a partial metatheory, pointing out that sometimes international actors behave like realists (“Hobbesean” systems), sometimes like international liberals (“Lockean” systems), and sometimes more like liberals in a domestic setting (Kantian systems). The trouble is that constructivist analysis is terribly thin in identifying when each sort of behavior should occur.

Again, social psychology provides a host of suggestions for how to sort these questions out. Realists note that for their theory, fear is the driving force, and indeed, terror management theory essentially explains why people behave like realists when they feel under threat. But when do they feel under threat? Personality has something to do with it, with trust playing a huge role: only relatively trusting people are inclined to behave the way liberal institutionalism would predict (Rathbun 2011). On the other hand, those who are less trusting tend to see the world as a competitive place—a syndrome identified as “social dominance orientation” (Sidanius)—and to respond aggressively to challenge. Ergo, the hypothesis: states led by people with social dominance orientation are likely to behave in realist fashion; those led by more trusting individuals are more likely to act as liberal institutionalists predict. Prejudice also has something to do with it: people are more likely to perceive threat when they hold negative stereotypes of the source of potential threat, and when they have negative emotional feelings about that outgroup. This approach also helps to explain why past behavior matters in some cases but not others: prejudiced leaders will tend to discount evidence of moderation on the part of the target of their prejudice (e.g., Cold War anti-Communists), and therefore act competitively.

To break down a more specific example, asking why the U.S. behaved like a neoconservative sort of realist toward Iraq in 2003 is actually asking a set of distinct questions, each of which has answers in a different area of theory. From an institutional perspective, there were at least three veto players regarding a war with Iraq: the President, his party, and Congress, with Congress’s position in turn partly dependent on public opinion. Therefore, to explain the war, we must explain the positions of all three veto players. First, George W. Bush decided he wanted to invade Iraq for a variety of reasons explained by personality theory (such as his ethnocentrism) and small-group dynamics (e.g., groupthink). Second, his party enthusiastically supported this course due to a combination of prejudice, institutional incentives in the party, and calculations of electoral advantage. The calculations of electoral advantage, in turn, depended largely on intuitive understanding of prejudice and terror management theory—how threat perceptions and anti-Saddam bias after 9/11 drove public opinion to the right on the issue of the war. Finally, as discussed earlier, a combination of constructivist and psychological factors explain why Democrats in Congress felt they had to go along with the Bush “War on Terror” narrative and vote in favor of the war—and why that course was popular with voters.

The final element of truly progressive theorizing, as suggested by these examples, is attention to the balance of counteracting forces. In the astrophysics of stellar stability, all of the interest is in the balance between the gravitational forces holding the star together and the countervailing forces pushing its mass outward. Similarly, almost any problem in contemporary international relations is likely to be driven by some factors emphasized by realism, some emphasized by liberal institutionalism, some by domestic politics liberalism, and some by constructivism. In the battle for public opinion over the Iraq war, for example, international institutional constraints—notably the position of the UN Security Council—were manifestly significant in constraining the march to war, yet were ultimately swamped by other factors pushing the other way. Meaningful theory means thinking about how to measure these counteracting effects, not simply assuming some of them away.

Parsimonious theories of politics are possible, of course, but not parsimonious theories that work. If we want to achieve anything like scientific progress, we need to put aside debates about which paradigm is best, and begin focusing on when each paradigm best applies, to what degree and in which circumstances.

Works Cited
Benford, R. D., and D.A. Snow. (2000).  Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.  Annual Review of Sociology 26, 611-639.
Cohen, Florette, Daniel M. Ogilvie, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski (2005), “American Roulette: The Effect of Reminders of Death on Support for George W. Bush in the 2004 Presidential Election,” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 5, no. 1, pp. 177-87.
Cuillier, David, Blythe Duell and Jeff Joireman (2010), “The Mortality Muzzle: The Effect of Death Thoughts on Attitudes toward National Security and a Watchdog Press,” Journalism 11(2): 185-202.
Greenberg, Jeff, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, Abram Rosenblatt, Mitchell Veeder, Shari Kirkland, and Deborah Lyon (1990).  “Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58, 308–318.
Haidt, Jonathan (2012)  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion (Pantheon).
Kaufman, Stuart J., Richard Little, and William C. Wohlforth, eds. (2007), The Balance of Power in World History (Palgrave Macmillan).
Kowert, Paul A. (2011) “Completing the Ideational Triangle: Identity, Choice and Obligation in Interntional Relations,” in Vaughn P. Shannon and Paul A. Kowert, eds.  Psychology and Constructivism in International Relations: An Ideational Alliance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), pp. 30-56.
Ronald R. Krebs and Patrick Thaddeus Jackson (2007), “Twisting Tongues and Twisting Arms: The Power of Political Rhetoric,” European Journal of International Relations 2007; 13; 35
Ronald R. Krebs & Jennifer K. Lobasz (2007): “Fixing the Meaning of 9/11: Hegemony, Coercion, and the Road to War in Iraq,” Security Studies, 16:3, 409-451.
Larson, Deborah Welch (1985)  Origins of Containment: A Psychological Explanation (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Rathbun, Brian C. (2011) Trust In International Cooperation: International Security Institutions, Domestic Politics, and American Multilateralism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Rhodes, Edward (1994) “Do Bureaucratic Politics Matter?  Some Disconfirming Findings from the United States Navy,” World Politics vol. 47, no. 1 (October), pp. 1-41.
Shannon, Vaughn P. (2011), “Introduction: Ideational Allies: Psychology, Constructivism and International Relations,” in Vaughn P. Shannon and Paul A. Kowert, eds.  Psychology and Constructivism in International Relations: An Ideational Alliance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), pp. 1-29.
Tilly, Charles (2005) Identities, Boundaries and Social Ties (Boulder : Paradigm).
Westen, Drew (2007) The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (New York: PublicAffairs).

Constructivism, Social Psychology, and Interlocking Theory (II)

This is the second in a series of guest posts by Stuart J. Kaufman of the University of DelawareStuart advances a long-running dispute with PTJ about whether “what goes on inside people’s heads” is relevant to social constructionism. PTJ doesn’t think so; Stuart disagrees. The first post can be found hereAfter the final post, we will make the entire piece available as a PDF — consider it our first true “working paper” publication.

Since each theory begins with a metatheoretical judgment about human nature, I think the place to start looking for insights is in psychology, which focuses on the empirical questions of how people actually think and feel under what circumstances, and what they tend to be inclined to do. For an example of how psychology can inform constructivism, let us return to Krebs and Jackson’s “Twisting Tongues and Twisting Arms,” which suggests a constructivism based on the notion that rhetoric operates as a sort of coercion. In this very creative piece, they lay out a model in which much of the action of politics comes in the form of rhetorical competitions in which competing forces try to frame issues in terms of societal values that favor their argument. One side wins if the other runs out of plausible responses to refute the implications of its opponent’s frame.

One gap in this argument is that the plausibility of arguments depends fundamentally on pre-existing “rhetorical commonplaces” familiar to the public audience, but in their empirical illustration Krebs and Jackson do nothing to show what the relevant rhetorical commonplaces were before the debate they analyze. In principle, constructivists can do this by sampling the discourse prior to any particular debate to get a sense of what those commonplaces are.

What constructivists cannot do, however, is measure how widely believed and strongly influential those commonplaces are with the relevance audience. This audience is always multiple—divided into subgroups by myriad cleavages. How is the constructivist to know which rhetorical commonplaces are the ones that most powerfully influence the relevant audiences, and therefore demonstrate the power of rhetorical jiujitsu? Krebs and Jackson do so by assumption, picking out one particular rhetorical commonplace in Israel—the notion that those who serve in the military have thereby earned equal rights—to explain why Druze Arabs, who do serve in the Israeli military, have been granted rights other Israeli Arabs have not.

The trouble with this argument is that, even if one retains a constructivist methodology, Krebs and Jackson fail to consider other discourses that may better explain the outcome. For example, perhaps the key point in Israeli discourse is not that the Druze have earned citizenship, but that they have proven their loyalty—their military service proves that they are not a security threat. Much Israeli discrimination against Arab citizens is justified on security grounds. How do we know that the more important reason for the outcome was not that the notion of earned citizenship was unanswerable, but that the notion of Druze as a threat was a non-starter?

The deeper problem is that even if Krebs and Jackson had considered both discursive effects, constructivism offers no way to assess which one was more important, if both were present and prominent. The only way to assess these competing hypotheses is to think more systematically about the interaction between discourse at the social level and attitudes and beliefs at the individual level. In other words, one must resort to the methods of sociological framing theory (e.g. Benford and Snow 2000) that Krebs and Jackson reject—examining the pre-existing beliefs, values, attitudes and perceptions of the audiences (including their perceptions of the credibility and other qualities of the leaders proposing alternative narratives) to explain why some rhetorical moves resonate with different audiences while others do not.

The study of pre-existing beliefs, values, norms, attitudes and perceptions, in turn, leads us back to the realm of political psychology. It is political psychologists who have studied these issues most carefully, and have come to some important conclusions about the power of different discourses with different audiences. One of the most important of these findings is the importance of emotional or symbolic predispositions in influencing attitudes. Some stark examples are in the work of Drew Westen (2007, pp. 107-8). For example, when a group of respondents were asked their views about whether President Clinton deserved to be impeached, 85% of the variance in their answers was predicted by their emotional feelings about the political parties, Clinton, infidelity and feminism as measured in those same respondents six to nine months earlier. When cognitive constraints were added to the model, they increased the explanatory power only to 88%. Obviously these respondents had been exposed to some combination of pro- and anti- impeachment discourses, but their responses varied with their symbolic predispositions.

The basis for my hypothesis about the role of security fears in Krebs and Jackson’s Israeli case comes from another strand of political psychology, the unfortunately named “terror management theory” (see., e.g., Greenberg et al. 1990; Cuillier et al. 2010). In a series of experiments, these scholars have shown that subconscious concerns about death systematically drive political opinions to the right, making respondents more respectful of their own national and religious values and symbols, more favorable to those who praise such values and symbols, more unfavorable toward those with different values of any sort, more punitive toward moral transgressors, more physically aggressive toward those who differ politically, and less concerned with incidental harm to innocents. In a particularly striking study, Cohen et al. (2005) found that respondents who were asked to think about death preferred George Bush over John Kerry by 45% to 20%, while respondents in the control condition preferred Kerry to Bush by 57% to 13%. If this pattern holds up in Israel, then it seems plausible that security arguments against Arab rights are more important than failure-to-serve arguments regarding Muslim and Christian Arabs. Therefore the lack of credibility of such arguments regarding Druze Arabs should similarly be more important than rights-for-service arguments.

The reason that systematic attention to audiences’ actual beliefs and values (as measured in survey research) is so important is that failure to do so makes it too easy for the analyst implicitly to impute his or her own values to the audience. For example, in a generally persuasive and well-executed study, Lobasz and Krebs (2007) show how Democrats were “rhetorically coerced” by the “war on terror” discourse into acquiescing in the Iraq invasion that many of them were uncomfortable with and later opposed. While this positive argument is persuasive as far as it goes, the counterfactual argument is not: the suggestion that the most promising alternative discourse would have been a “jeremiad” arguing that the 9/11 attacks were a reaction to American behavior, and that the U.S. should reform itself rather than launching a crusade in the Middle East.

Lobasz and Krebs, not inattentive to findings in political psychology, note that there are some psychological obstacles to acceptance of the “jeremiad” discursive mode, mentioning in particular the fundamental attribution error. However, they vastly underestimate those obstacles, in particular by overlooking the values widely embraced by conservatives and moderates but not liberals or leftists (Haidt 2012). Most important of these is the value of loyalty. The trouble with the jeremiad narrative is that it leaves the would-be Jeremiah vulnerable to the question: “Whose side are you on, ours or the terrorists’?”

The power of the “war on terror” narrative is further boosted by other psychological effects Lobasz and Krebs overlook. First, any “us against them” narrative draws its power from the ingroup-outgroup effect demonstrated by decades of experiments in the social identity theory tradition. Just making the ingroup-outgroup distinction salient leads to increased stereotyping of the outgroup and increased pressure for ingroup cohesion (adding to the power of the “whose side are you on” question). Second, the credibility of the “war on terror” justification for the Iraq war was enhanced by prejudice—both cognitive stereotypes of Arabs and emotional dislike for them—that was prominent among an important subset of the American population. Third, the terror management effect from the lingering fear of terrorism was simultaneously driving attitudes toward the right on issues of nationalism.

Finally, the jeremiad narrative lacked credibility on the issue of 9/11 itself: even if I believe that most Arabs dislike the U.S. for what it does, not what it is, that does not invalidate the logic of a war on terror. If I make that distinction, I must also make another: most Arabs were not involved in the 9/11 attacks, either. Those that were—the militants of al-Qaeda—were violent extremists who did need to be fought. The only plausible alternative to Bush’s War on Terror, then, was Obama’s later war on al-Qaeda. Many plausible discursive traditions were available to purse this argument against the Iraq war, most importantly the security discourse itself, perhaps stated frontier-style: “You’ve got the wrong man (Saddam) there, Sheriff. We can’t let the real culprit (bin Laden) get away with this”.

My argument, then, is that responsible theory-building requires that we build not only on the findings of those within our narrow academic niche, but much more widely beyond it. For the relationship between psychology and constructivism, there is a whole host of psychological mechanisms—in social identity theory, terror management theory, prejudice and ethnocentrism theory, cognitive dissonance theory, cognitive network theory, etc.—that provide important insights into which rhetorics are most likely to resonate with which audiences and in which conditions. Sociological framing theory additional insights regarding the importance of the credibility of the leader offering a particular frame or narrative, among other factors. All of these considerations widen the scope for agency in constructivist analysis, not only by identifying the psychological tools available for leaders to manipulate, but also by identifying the psychological resources available to audience members in deciding how to respond.

The Unbearable Liberalness of The Practice Turn

Ted Hopf has an extremely cool talk on how practice-turn theory is being assimilated by the liberal-constructivist borg. Give it a listen.

Background on liberalism and constructivism at the Duck, International Studies Review, and via Sammy Barkin.

Why don’t Korea and Japan Align, even though IR says they should?


For awhile I was collecting links and such to make an argument about Korea and Japan working together on big issues like China and NK, or finally clinching the much-discussed but little worked-on FTA. Both the realist and the liberal in me wanted to see two liberal democracies working together in a tough environment with similar structural threats. Initially I had written: “This may be the biggest news of the year if it actualizes: Japan is apparently considering real defense cooperation with SK. If you follow East Asian security, this is a revolution. Try here, here and here.” But this is sorta cheating on social science, right? Looking around for any scrap of data to support an outcome we like, even though it isn’t really happening?

Well, I give up. Instead of more normative, but ultimately speculative, essays on why East Asian states should align, found an Asian Union or Community, build a local alternate to the IMF, forge a common currency, take ASEM seriously, etc., I think we should start asking why Asian states cooperate so badly. (My short answer: they’re too nationalist.)

My students bring integration up all the time. Until the euro crisis got really bad, students used to tell me all the time that Asia needs an EU or coordination against the (much-loathed) IMF. And I’ve read lots of term-papers on this. But the more I look at the most important Asian IO, ASEAN, the more it just doesn’t impress me no matter how much hype it gets (which is a lot out here at the conferences and in business advertising in the media). ASEAN is around 60% of the age of the EU and has done maybe 20% of the integration/cooperation the EU has. I argued in ISR a few years ago that lots of IOs aren’t actually about integration at all, but rather the joint self-defense of weak and/or authoritarian elites (OAU, GCC, SCO). But that still doesn’t explain why Korea and Japan are so distant. And now for an r&r, I’m revisiting Walt’s Origins of Alliances. Balance of threat feels pretty persuasive too, but I think it would struggle with the Korea-Japan case, as would the democratic peace.

So if I had the time, I would write this up as a real journal submission. This case creates trouble for both standard realist and liberal arguments that have underlain my own personal (as well as USPACOM’s) enthusiasm for this alliance-that-refuses-to-be for awhile. I flagged this earlier as a good non-western puzzle for IR that doesn’t really get the attention it deserves, because we don’t know Asian cases very well (Kang is very important on this, IMO). Walt and Doyle tell me this alliance should happen, but Koreans stubbornly refuse to do what social science tells them to. (Cue your orwellian fantasy of intellectuals with their hands on the whip at last to force the world to fit theory.) When I mention idea this at conferences or to my students, I get lots of blasé disinterest.
In short, all three big paradigms of IR broadly seem to suggest that Korea and Japan should be much closer than they are. But Korea just won’t do it, and my sense is the Japanese don’t really want to either. Here’s the basic theoretical run down as I see it:

1. Realism: Korea and Japan face a very similar structural environment. They are geographically in basically the same place facing the same regional security complex. So if states balance power (Waltz), wouldn’t Japan and Korea be cooperating to hedge China, and mildly cooperating to more balance NK? If states balance threats, especially proximate ones with offensive power (Walt), shouldn’t Korea and Japan be pretty publicly aligning against freaky, unpredictable NK, and mildly cooperating to hedge China? But they really aren’t doing any of those things. Sure, they’re on the same side of the table in the NK talks, but there’s no real coordination. Diplomatically, Korea can barely talk to Japan, and Koreans can be downright japanophic if you get them going on Japan’s colonial history here. The Liancourt Rocks and the history issues constantly interrupt. As everyone knows, the US relationship with them is ‘hub-and-spoke’ bilateral rather than NATO-style multilateral. The US would love for them to cooperate, but they don’t. It’s more like Schweller’s ‘underbalancing’ than Walt’s balance of threat, even though Walt should fit here pretty well, no?

2. Liberalism: Shouldn’t two liberal democracies be friends, if not allies? The democratic peace, security community, and other liberal theory broadly tells me that Korea and Japan should be closer than they are. I guess one could say that the democratic peace explains why they don’t fight even though they don’t like each other much. That might actually be a pretty good finding: two otherwise hostile states are able to channel their disputes through conflict-dampening democratic transgovernmentalism. (But even that might be spurious, as one argue that it is the mutual US senior alliance partner that tamps down the conflict, as many would argue is the case between Greece and Turkey too.)

But the more norm-based, neocon, or ‘strong’ versions of the democratic peace anticipate a sense of ‘we-ness’ or community among democracies, like in NATO, or less so, the OAS. A few years ago, there was talk about formalizing a ‘community of democracies’ as sorta like a global NATO of liberal states. But I don’t see this here at all. When we think about the US-Canada relationship or EU relations, we see a reasonable amount of warmth that suggests that ‘we-ness,’ shared concern for the other’s well-being, and an unwillingness to exploit the other. I don’t see here. Korea and Japan are more like ‘frenemies’ than liberals in solidarity. Liberalism and democracy – and all the conflict-reducing things that are supposed to flow from that, like student exchanges, tourism, mutual language learning, lots of Track II interchange – don’t seem to be working. Germany and France managed to do this stuff and build a real alliance, as did the EU generally. But Korea and Japan are more like Greece and Turkey.

3. Constructivism/Culture: Shouldn’t culturally similar states find it easier to cooperate, like the US and Canada? In EJIR, I argued that Confucianism played a role in keeping an east Asian peace before the Opium War. The more time I spend in Asia, the more I think Korea, Japan, and China are more culturally similar than they want to admit. (My students bristle at that one a lot.) And if you look at Korea and Japan, they do in fact share a slew of cultural characteristics from the mundane – eating lots of fish with chopsticks – to the profound – long histories of Confucianism, Buddhism, shamanism, monarchy, social hierarchy, ancestor veneration, etc. (NB: This is one of the reasons why Huntington’s clash of civilizations didn’t go down too well in East Asia. Because he couldn’t very well lump China and Japan together for political reasons, Huntington was forced to parse out Japan as radically different based on Shintoism. This wasn’t really convincing.) Brian Myers argues that this cultural similarity is one the reasons why Japan was able to absorb Korea without too much difficulty.

But this doesn’t seem work either. (So maybe Huntington was right after all?) I find Korean students intensely dislike being compared to Japan and hammer away what Freud would almost certainly call the “narcissism of small differences.” If you didn’t know the differences between kiminos and hanboks, just about everyone here is excited to tell you in great detail.

In short, two states that share a lot of cultural characteristics, structural-geographic conditions, threat perceptions, and domestic institutions and values can’t ally and can barely talk to each other. To give a western example, imagine Canada saying the US was a greater threat to it than the USSR. As a rule, I find Koreans worry far more about Japan than China, or even NK (yes, that’s not an exaggeration outside of the foreign policy set), and there is a far amount of paranoia about Japan lurking beneath the surface. I know Japan less well, but Japanese colleagues I know from conferences tell me similar stories about how many Japanese look down on Koreans and secretly think Japanese empire was good for Korea, because it brought modernity.

So what would be a theoretically progressive way to explain this tough case? The actual empirical issues of territory and history that keep them divided are well-known, but it is important to not just tack them on as a transparent ad hocery, like ‘balance of threat only works when partners haven’t conquered each other in the last 50 years.’ I find this a tough one.

So if you’re a grad student, here’s a paper idea.

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.

Constructing the Democratic Peace

Democratic peace theory is featured prominently in the latest issues of two different major IR journals. First, in International Studies Perspectives, Jameson Lee Ungerer tells us that the democratic peace exemplifies in three respects the Lakatosian ideal of a progressive research program, and provides an overview of the research agenda from 1970s to the present. He describes many (though not all) of the key causal arguments claiming to explain the democratic peace, concluding that:

Of all the theories examines, two [are] the most progressive: the economic norms explanation, which proposed contract-intensive markets as a confounding variable that leads to both peace and democracy… and the reverse causality explanation based on the resolultion of territorial disputes… with limited resources available, scholars would be advised to address these areas.

He’s right that the new work by Mousseau on the “capitalist peace” and Gilber and Tir on settled borders and regime type is pretty interesting. But Ungerer’s implication that there’s not much left unexplored among earlier explanations rests on the fact that he declines to discuss constructivist work at all under his review of the “normative explanation.” In fact, it’s still unsettled precisely how this explanation (what Ungerer calls “T2”) works – whether through elite preference construction and international socialization or public restraint. And Ungerer discusses only the portion of the normative explanation that focuses on norm externalization. He omits constructivist scholarship that focuses on shared identity and perception. In fact, too few constructivist accounts exist that take seriously how precisely democratic “states” come to view others as part of a security community, and the jury is certainly out on precisely how this process works to constrain belligerency among democracies.

To examine this further, Jarrod Hayes‘ new article in International Organization explores a single “hard case” in depth. Hayes examines why Nixon and Kissinger were unable to persuasively cast India as a national security threat in the 1971 crisis despite the fact that they very much saw India as a threat. Nonetheless Hayes shows Nixon and Kissinger were limited in their ability to “securitize” the dispute. Hayes argues therefore that it is not elites’ own perceptions of democracies that lead to dyadic peace: it is the way in which they are constrained by the perceptions of their constituents and the cognitive dissonance that arises from appearing to pick fights with members of a putative “in-group.” Hayes’ article is based on a discourse analysis of the contrast between Nixon’s/Kissinger’s private meetings and their public statements about the crisis.

I think Hayes’ piece is a great example of where the DP literature needs to go. We know a lot about the quantitative correlation between regime type and dyadic peace, but to the extent that the “normative explanation provides a causal process for the empirical observation” as Ungerer claims, we need process-tracing of specific militarized disputes to build a qualitative understanding of how this works and why. In emphasizing that this “us-ness” is reproduced through the public imaginary rather than by elites, Hayes’ argument represents a helpful advance.

Yet I think Hayes analysis would also be stronger if he drew more directly on the constructivist emphasis on perceptions (Risse 1995, 30). Arguably, it’s not how democratic countries actually are, but rather how democratic they are perceived to be (apparently by the public in other democracies rather than elites themselves) that constraints elites in those democracies. Hayes’ mentions the constructivist literature on dyadic identities only briefly and almost as an aside on p. 71, but surely his work has a bearing on precisely the dynamic authors like Risse and Williams are describing: the maintenance of a shared sense of “in-group-ness” between democratic dyads. And constructivists would argue this is about perceptions not facts.

How are these perceptions created and sustained? Hayes’ case doesn’t answer this question. In fact Hayes himself skirts it: he writes about “democracies” rather than “perceptions of democracy” as if a certain package of attributes constitutes “shared democratic identity” – rule of law, human rights, a capitalist economy, etc. But if it’s not the attributes themselves but others’ perception of them that matters in social identity analysis, then we need more careful research on how such attributes are conceptualized, measured and communicated and how they take root in the public imaginary to really foreground the analysis he provides.

Indeed, Hayes’ data suggests an interesting way to reconcile the “normative” and “economic norms” explanations: political leaders (Nixon and Kissinger) saw India as a threat primarily because they saw India as possessing different economic norms (a tendency toward socialism and affinity for the USSR) and thus their preference construction, while inconsistent with the “democratic peace” is consistent with the “capitalist peace.” However the “capitalist peace” research agenda hasn’t (yet) been about perceptions or shared identities, but rather domestic-level social processes. Future work in Hayes’ tradition focusing on social identity analysis could clarify whose perceptions matter, and how different perceptions of different pieces of the “liberal identity” manifest and play out in different historical cases. In fact, Hayes is calling for just such a research agenda in his new review essay in EJIR.

I also think we need to give consideration to how much room elites have to maneuver in terms of reconstructing these perceptions in given crises. Clearly, Nixon and Kissinger were not effective at doing so, but based on the data Hayes’ presents, they also didn’t really try. The diplomatic record suggests they were constrained by the understanding of the public’s understanding of Pakistan and of India despite their own perceptions and preferences. But Hayes’ analysis doesn’t suggest that they gave much thought to how they might re-frame these understandings to pursue their own interess. This might mean that elites don’t really have the ability to do so; but it might also simply mean that these two particular actors simply weren’t as clever at wielding soft power as they were at blustering around angrily behind the scenes. To examine this further, we need a different kind of “hard case” – a case where public figures are actually good at this and made an effort at it, and failed anyway.

The constructivism that wasn’t

[Note: This post is almost entirely “inside baseball” for IR academics.]

For this year’s ISA conference I was supposed to write a paper called “The Constructivism That Wasn’t: On the Non-Inevitability of Sociological Liberalism.” The idea was that I would go back and carefully reconstruct those moments of historical contingency in which an alternative IR constructivism — one which did not so neatly track with sociological liberalism, roughly defined as the notion that individuals’ thoughts and beliefs shape their behavior an thus the social world that they inhabit — might have emerged. The alternative history is simple: accentuate Morgenthau’s debt to Nietzsche and Weber and play up his sense of the tragic, reclaim Waltz as an analytical systems theorist instead of the prophet of the inevitable consequences of systemic anarchy for state behavior, push Jervis’ work on the manipulation of images and symbols into a more semiotic direction by rooting things in social/discursive instead of cognitive psychology, and then place Nick Onuf’s 1989 book (about to be released in a new edition, so people can actually read and assign it!) at the center of an alternate way of worlding, and knowledge-producing, in the field as a whole. Presto, a constructivism that would be just as anti-utopian as the field’s founders would have liked: rules, Onuf reminds us, produce rule, and domination (whether legitimate in the Weberian sense, or just naked force) is an omnipresent factor in political life. And then you can fill in the blanks for yourself: insert a whole variety of social and political theorists at appropriate points in the lineage, produce a mashed-up remix of The Culture of National Security and Cultures of Insecurity, and so on.

But as we all know, this didn’t happen, and constructivism came to mean “ideational variables matter,” where matter = systematic cross-case co-variation, best captured in statistical studies whether large-n “quantitative” or small-n “qualitative” — and that’s not a methodological distinction, that’s a lifestyle choice. All of this to the point where I usually don’t feel comfortable self-identifying as a “constructivist” without a great deal of qualification. So the more I have thought about it, the more I have become less and convinced that this really could have happened differently in mainstream Anglophone IR, because mainstream Anglophone IR is dominated by US IR, which is constituted as a subfield of US Political Science — and both US Political Science and US IR bear the traces of the way in which they were legitimated and justified within the US social and political context. In global IR, there may be space for a plurality of voices and visions, and a robust debate about important theoretical and methodological issues like the nature of scientific explanation, the fundamental structure of the world system, and the legacies of imperialism and colonialism (particularly the issue of whether what we have nowadays is any significantly different than what we had during the period of formal colonial empires). But in US IR, as a subfield of US Political Science, the organization of intellectual life forces virtually every interesting question into the liberal cookie-cutter with its twin blades of neopositivism and actor-centric reductionism, and thus neuters anything like a radical critique or even the envisioning of a significantly different alternative future by assuming virtually all of the interesting things away at the outset. If there is actual contingency here, it is the contingency of IR as a separate field of study having been nurtured in the United States.

I should be clear that the kind of liberalism I have in mind  is neither left-leaning politics nor a simple translation of the classical liberal tradition of political philosophy and its confidence in free markets. What I mean instead is a specific triumvirate of value-commitments: individual liberty, equality, and reason, with the third usually being cashed out in intellectual/academic circles as “science.”  Grant for a moment that the US is a constitutively liberal society (and if you doubt this, may I refer you to the aforementioned Alexis de Tocqueville, and to Louis Hartz’s diagnosis of the “irrational Lockeianism” of US society and political culture?).* It therefore follows that social and political science, in such a society, would have to — if it wanted to be taken seriously — concern itself with individuals and their decisions, lest it be accused of ignoring individual liberty. It would have to be impersonally abstract, lest it be accused of ignoring equality. And “scientific” in such a society would have to mean something like “objective and nonpartisan, accessible to all who have the proper training” — disenchanted knowledge, to make a Weberian gesture. Putting this together we have two basic implications for political science in a liberal society: a kind of explanatory individualist reductionism (in technical language we now call this “microfoundations”), and the kind of advisory role that — as Jack Gunnell so brilliantly sketched in The Descent of Political Theory — comes from a withdrawal of science from politics so as to subsequently correct and improve political activity. (Call this “the Enlightenment legacy/hangover,” and insert all the E. H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau-inspired comments about the limitations of reason in politics you want at this point.)

The dominance of neopositivism is and has to be understood sociologically. Although I have argued elsewhere — I think pretty conclusively — that there is no generally compelling philosophical warrant for neopositivism as a philosophy of science, because there are alternative approaches to science that do as good if not a better job accounting for science and clarifying the foundations of scientific knowledge, it unfortunately does not follow that all philosophies of science are created sociologically equal. Indeed there is something of an elective affinity between the situation in which US IR finds itself, and neopositivism as a methodological stance. For two reasons: neopositivism appears to offer a firm demarcation criterion for the boundaries of science (“falsifiability”; leave aside for the moment that it doesn’t actually work philosophically, it works pretty well rhetorically because it figures prominently in the self-narratives of many self-identified “scientists” especially when they argue against religion in public settings); and neopositivism holds out the promise of a general notion of truth that can be used to discipline policy makers (leave aside for the moment that fact that this doesn’t work, that policymakers generally take from social scientists only those findings that support their already-existing goals).

As for the other implication of liberalism, actor-centric explanations seek to relate social outcomes of any sort to the motives and interests of individual actors, and regard any explanation as incomplete until it has specified the various internal commitments that compel individuals to act in certain ways rather than others. Sometimes we call these “microfoundations,” and it makes absolutely no difference whether we are talking about calculations of expected utility, ideas about appropriateness or moral rectitude, or emotional attachments to one or another option. In all of these cases, and more like them, the important causal factors inhabit the subjective space within actors, and more or less compel their choices and decisions. Whether those factors are interests or beliefs or desires or whatever does not effect the form of the explanation one bit, since in all cases it remains an explanation of external behavior by means of an internal state of mind.

One might object that states don’t have minds, so that state-centric mainstream US IR can’t be actor-reductionist in this sense. But the objection has no value, because regardless of the ontological issue of whether states do or do not have minds, the dominant theoretical frameworks with which US IR scholars seek to explain state behavior (and thus “international relations,” which in an actor-centric reductionist approach is nothing but a bunch of states and their behavior) treat states as if they were big people, and routinely refer to the state’s interests, beliefs, and desires. The form of explanation remains firmly actor-centric and reductionist, inasmuch as an explanation that does not specify the motives and interests of the relevant states is routinely taken to be incomplete.

Another way to say this is that mainstream US IR, like mainstream US Political Science, is largely if not quite exclusively about specifying actor interests and motives, by way of explaining the choices that individuals make — choices that result in particular social arrangements and outcomes. It is not that there are not structures and interactions and processes in US IR theory; it is rather than all such factors have to be related to individual states of mind in order to explain anything. Norms work by penetrating the heads of relevant decision-makers; the threat of force works by affecting the decision-calculus of the target of the influence attempt; and rhetoric works by altering the preferences or values of those at whom it is aimed. The relevant action takes place inside the individual, which is precisely what a liberal view of society and social action would suggest: autonomous individuals are the fundamental reality, and if other things are taken to exist (not all liberals are Thatcherites or libertarians; liberalism in the sense I am using it here is not a fundamental ontology, but a value-laden ordering of a class of ontologies, some of which contain things like social structures and some of which do not) then they have to be related to individuals in order to have any role to play in a valid explanation.

I’m not going to tell the old, old story of the change between Wendt 1987 and Wendt 1992 [these articles are behind paywalls at JSTOR so I am not going to link to them, and besides, if you have gotten to this point in the post then you have read these articles already] in terms of the pre-social ontology of the state, except to say that I do not believe that this transformation of constructivism is Wendt’s fault, but the fault of what we might call the structural selectivity (borrowing a term, but not necessarily the whole analytical package, from Bob Jessop’s state theory) of mainstream Anglophone IR: actor-centric theory literally makes more sense to irrational Lockeians and their intellectual progeny, so that’s the version that catches on. (There’s a parallel story here about realism, which declined from tragic realpolitik to “material factors matter.” but that’s material for another essay.) And subsequently we have Keohane and Goldstein 1993, “ideas matter,” various statistical studies of norms and ideas, etc. The only way for US IR to have been different would have been for it not to be a subfield of US Political Science. And even then I am skeptical, since I can more easily envision a free-standing US IR adopting neopositivism and actor-centrism (just as Political Science did) in order to justify itself to the wider public, then I can imagine an alternate US IR that went in a completely different direction.

But there is cause for cautious optimism, as long as IR graduate students can avoid the kind of hyperprofessionalization that Dan points to and remain focused on the breadth of IR beyond the “top” US academic institutions. For one thing, since we are talking about domination and not hegemony, there is both active resistance and strategic accommodation on the part of the subordinate. The position of mainstream US IR might be thoroughly actor-centric and neopositivist, but it is not (or at least not yet!) the case that every US IR scholar is similarly inclined. (It is possible that in the future the hiring market will be so thoroughly overrun by neopositivist actor-centrists that no one else will be able to get a job at all; that hasn’t happened yet, and despite the fact that many of the “top” US IR programs are pretty thoroughly dominated by this kind of IR, the overall market is still, I think, big enough for other entrants. And at some level I am still convinced that a good story goes further than the most sophisticated models and methods, so non-neopositivists interested in structures and processes still have a fighting chance, at least in some places.) The problem is, as it has always been, that the vast majority of academic IR scholars in the US work in Political Science departments, and those departments tend to be dominated not by the IR faculty, but by other subfields of Political Science which are much less methodologically and theoretically diverse (cough cough American Politics). But as long as departments need people to teach IR (in this respect, the invention of interdisciplinary undergraduate majors in things like Global Studies is a very welcome development), and as long as such people have publication outlets that are open to their kind of work, there is a fighting chance for an alternative to neopositivism and actor-centrism.

And this in turn points to what I would say is the most important change in the IR scholarly landscape in the past two decades or so: the consolidation of a vibrant English-language IR journal space that is not US-dominated. It is not that mainstream US-style IR doesn’t show up there, it that the overall space is not so heavily dominated by neopositivism and actor-centrism. This is an important point, so let me make it explicitly again: my problem is not with actor-centrism or neopositivism, but with the way that mainstream US IR equates those two commitments with social-scientific IR per se. I have argued that this is because US IR lives within and as a subfield of US Political Science, and both of these live within a liberal society where there is very little space to question the core values of individual autonomy, equality, and reason expressed through science; criticizing neopositivism and actor-centrism in such a context looks like an undermining of the basic rationale for the whole enterprise, which helps to explain why frontal assaults are met with such caustic and dismissive criticism (and the ever-popular misinterpretation-through-reinterpretation: “you can’t possibly have meant X, so I am going to treat you as having meant Y”). It is therefore nigh upon impossible for mainstream US IR to be as pluralist and ecumenical as global IR can potentially be, because the space for intellectual engagement is so narrow: we can argue about variables and hypotheses and specifications of actor motivations, but little else.

I think that the task of building and defending a pluralist space in IR would be immensely strengthened if we stopped having to deal with US Political Science, because that would help make US IR one voice among others in a much more global intellectual space. Global IR has already built some of the scholarly capacity in terms of journals and book publishers that it would need to be genuinely autonomous, and it seems to be the case that alternate centers of graduate training (i.e., not exclusively US institutions) are playing a more significant role in forming IR scholars worldwide. IR in many parts of the world does not have to deal with the legacy of US Political Science, which increases its capacity to foster a diverse scholarly dialogue. We don’t have a good and clear picture of what global IR looks like, exactly, but I hope to shortly launch a mapping project that will assemble a global directory of IR scholars and their career trajectories, and that will hopefully give us a better sense of things.

I am not at all optimistic about the discipline of US Political Science. Indeed, I think it is largely a lost cause, if one is interested in vibrant pluralism and an ecumenical approach to knowledge-production. That said, things emanating from US Political Science still have a disproportionate impact in US IR and hence in global IR, so it is incumbent on those of us interested in preserving pluralism to keep working to broaden those messages as much as possible — not to change US Political Science, which I think largely impossible, but to keep open the space for global IR, including those parts of global IR that live and work in the United States. Part of that is focusing on the right things; the culprit is not and never has been “statistics” or “quant” or “rationalism,” but neopositivism and actor-centrism. But an even larger part of it is building the practices and institutions that can sustain an IR beyond US Political Science: global studies programs, free-standing IR departments, interdisciplinary journals and book series, and conversations across theories and methodologies about world politics broadly understood.

* at the panel Nick Onuf wisely pointed out to me that “irrational Lockeanism,” although dominant in the US, was perpetually locked in combat with a much weaker strain of (neo)classical republicanism of the sort that manifests as communitarianism etc. — and a lot of the bitterness of dissident social science in the US might be attributed to the ressentiment of frustrated republicans. It’s a good and intriguing point, and a fuller genealogy of US IR probably should take that into account.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg: “We Decided That These Would Be the Social Norms Now”

I am so prepped already for social constructivism day in my World Politics 121 class. Check out Zuckerberg’s answer to the second question (about 3:00). Zuckerberg claims that the new changes to FB privacy settings – which make it impossible to protect your photos and extremely difficult to prevent “everyone” from knowing your current affiliations and other information previously shared only with those you choose – are simply FB’s efforts to reflect [Zuckerberg’s understanding] of “current social norms” on the Internet:

“We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are… We decided that these would be social norms now, and we just went for it.”

So instead of allowing the social norms to evolve naturally through user choice, Zuckerberg has decided what they will be and imposed them architecturally on millions of users. But is justifying them based on the idea that they were already there. Fascinating.

Zuckerberg has been widely misquoted as saying “the age of privacy is over,” which I don’t hear in this clip. However he does seem to imply that since people are choosing to share more information than ever, that they don’t care about the ability to make that choice themselves. On whether this is indeed a “social norm,” Zuckerberg needs to go read some basic social theory. Constructivists would say that the evidence as to whether a social norm exists is whether people react badly when you break it. I think the uproar over the FB privacy changes is enough to prove him wrong on this point.

Westphalian Illusions

Mark Safranski has a useful post up at Zenpundit critiquing LTC P. Michael Phillips’ Parameters article Deconstructing our Dark Age Future.”(I cannot remember the last time I saw an article written by a military officer, rather than a civilian post-modernist, whose title began with the word “Deconstructing.”)

Phillips argues (like many before him, not least Yahya Sadowski) that:

The Westphalian state system is not in fact in decline; this arrange-
ment, as we have imagined it, never really existed beyond a proposed
behavioral model exemplifying the American experience. Instead, territori-
ality, sovereignty, and equality, the guiding principles of that ideal system,
have always been transactional, if not entirely illusory, because effective
global enforcement mechanisms simply do not exist.

Safranski replies (in part):

While definitely fuzzy and spottily adhered to in practice international law is not entirely “illusory”, nor is it a byproduct of 20th century Wilsonian American exceptionalism as Phillips argued. Perhaps Hugo Grotius rings a bell? Or Alberico Gentili? Or the long history of admirality courts? Like common law or an unwritten tribal code, international law has evolved over a very long period of time and does exert some constraint upon the behavior of sovereigns. Statesmen and diplomats think about policy in terms of the impression it will make on other sovereigns, and international law is one of the yardsticks they contemplate. Admittedly, at times the constraint of international law is quite feeble but in other contexts it is strong. An American military officer, who can see firsthand the effect of creeping JAG lawyerism on command decisions on the battlefield ( in my view, greatly excessive and harmful ) and in the drafting of byzantine ROE, should know better than to make such a silly statement.

My skim of Phillips’ article makes me wonder at the point of his “deconstruction,” since how ever valid it may be the latter part of his article would seem to be arguing for a retrenching of those illusory practices of sovereign statecraft (like monopolizing the use of force rather than bleeding it out to PMCs). But if the monopoly on force was always a Westphalian illusion, what is at stake, exactly, with behaving as if the illusion doesn’t matter?

The fact is, illusions are powerful, for good or ill. Anyway, read and draw your own conclusions; the rest of my rainy Sunday will be spent playing Risk with my seven-year-old son. Is the geography of the board we’re using an illusion? Yes. Could I publish an article in a peer-reviewed journal proving this? Probably. How much does that fact matter in the conduct of either the game itself or the meta-experience between us that is constituted by the playing of the game? I’m not sure.

Krugman goes constructionist

Many years ago, I attended a talk by Michael Shapiro. He was doing something on memory and place, and showed a clip from some Steve Martin movie–Father of the Bride, maybe II–and a colleague of mine, ever the concerned young scholar, said Yes, but Professor Shapiro, over in Bosnia (which was going on at the time), people are dying, and here you are showing movies. What does this tell us that we should do to stop that?
And he replied: Who is this “we”?

In his current column, Paul Krugman channels his inner pomo and opens with a similar story:

A few months ago I found myself at a meeting of economists and finance officials, discussing — what else? — the crisis. There was a lot of soul-searching going on. One senior policy maker asked, “Why didn’t we see this coming?”

There was, of course, only one thing to say in reply, so I said it: “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”

His point–the “establishment” didn’t allow itself to see this coming, despite the fact that a number of critics and contrarians warned otherwise. Thus, this, “unprecedented” crisis “no one” saw coming.

Krugman makes a key point: that this economic event is constructed as a “crisis” rather than a natural correction that could have been (was) foreseen and for which we might have (should have) planned in advance (and a few did). An accepted wisdom of success is built around particular policy choices to make them seem “rational” and “logical” and when something doesn’t fit those, it portends a “crisis.”

This point is not all that new to the constructivist IR literature– Weldes pointed out, with respect to the Cuban Missile Crisis, that a series of events must be discursively constructed to be a crisis.

So to is an economic crisis. There are plenty who saw this coming, and some who saw this as a natural and needed corrective to an out-of-control market. They just don’t count as part of that “we.”

Introduction to constructivist IR theory: a video lecture

Having uploaded my quick-and-dirty video APSA presentation, I thought I might also upload some other movies I’ve made over the years relating to international-relations theory and topics. The four-part series showcased below is an extended video supplement I did for “Introduction to International Politics.” I’ve used the same lecture, more or less, ever since. If anyone cares, the content comes after one I posted a long time ago on typifications and social facts.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

FYI, the images are all credited at the end.

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