My first post of the new year (hey, it is still January!) is a bit IR theory geek-ish, so apologies to readers who do not follow those arcane discussions. About two weeks ago I participated in a workshop on constructivism at USC. Not surprisingly given the caliber of the people around the table, the conversation was a rich and enlightening one. A number of things jumped out at me, but the one I want to write on here addresses a tension (of many?) I think lies at the heart of the constructivist research agenda. Specifically, I think the intellectual and professional agendas of constructivism are at cross-purposes.
In brief, the intellectual agenda of constructivism emphasizes the intersubjective nature of social reality, and is populated with things like identity, norms, roles, and the like. The intersubjective nature of social reality means that while there is no objective social reality existing apart from social interaction and observation, neither is reality only in our heads. There are shared understandings and conceptions of the world that span individuals that scholars can observe and theorize about. But because these structures are intersubjective, they can change (although Ted Hopf argues not very easily) and are recreated every day. The complexity of these theoretical foundations and social nature of the things constructivists study suggests a plurality of methods and theoretical agendas is in order. There is, or should be, an awareness that what constructivism is as a theoretical space within IR is also intersubjectively constructed, and that scholars should be careful when defining what/who is or is not counted as part of the club.
Yet the profession practice of IR pushes in a very different direction. Success is had through clearly defining the boundaries of constructivism (to invoke Foucault, disciplining constructivism) and determining those scholars who are ‘good’ constructivists, rewarding them, building networks around or with them, and propagating their students out into the IR system. These dynamics also serve social psychological purposes, as scholars who identify as constructivists have symbolic leaders to which they can rally, and in so doing generate intellectual clarity (through simplification) and emotional gratification. Obviously, this disciplining activity has the effect of marginalizing many voices—a point feminists and post-structural scholars have long made about IR more generally. But it also creates constructivism as an objective thing in the scholarly universe rather than a field defined by intersubjective construction. This move does terrible violence to the intellectual program of constructivism, and is at the heart of the tension between the intellectual and professional agendas.
What to do about this conflict? Maybe nothing can be done to resolve it. The networked professional keys to success are unlikely to change and in an ‘new normal’ of incredibly tight job markets and scarce resources, the professional imperatives exert powerful influence. And yet, constructivism is not constructivism if it loses sight of its intersubjective and socially constructed core. So perhaps the best constructivists can hope for is to remain aware of these conflicting imperatives and stake out a tenuous via media or middle ground, an unstable and ever shifting equilibrium between what it means to be a constructivist as a scholar and what it means to do constructivist scholarship.