International Relations Constructivism
Jonathan Cristol
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0061


Constructivist theory emerged in the mid-1990s as a serious challenge to the dominant realist and liberal theoretical paradigms. The theory was not popularized until Wendt 1992 (cited under Alexander Wendt) (a direct challenge to neorealism) and Katzenstein 1996 (cited under Identity) made it a staple of international relations (IR) syllabi around the world. The theory’s relatively recent arrival on the scene makes a constructivist canon somewhat harder to identify and makes the inclusion or exclusion of particular sources in this article a potentially much greater source of contention than in the articles on realism and liberalism. Constructivist theory emphasizes the meanings that are assigned to material objects, rather than the mere existence of the objects themselves. For example, a nuclear weapon in the United Kingdom and a nuclear weapon in North Korea may be materially identical (though, so far, they are not) but they possess radically different meanings for the United States. The belief that reality is socially constructed leads constructivists to place a greater role on norm development, identity, and ideational power than the other major theoretical paradigms. Indeed, norms, identity, and ideas are key factors in constructivist theory. The relationship between “Critical Theory of International Relations” or “Feminist Theories of International Relations”and constructivist IR theory is contested. However, for better or worse, the mainstream of the field situates both within a constructivist paradigm, as they share certain key features that are common to constructivism and are distinct from realism and liberalism. In addition, it could be argued that the “English School” belongs in this section. However, the placement of the English School in a solely realist, liberal, or constructivist framework could be considered quite controversial, as it has elements of all three paradigms. Therefore, the section on the English School is contained in the International Relations Theory article, and more extensively in the International Society article.

General Overviews

This section delineates a few different varieties of overviews of constructivist IR theory. The publisher M. E. Sharpe produced an outstanding and comprehensive series on constructivism titled International Relations in a Constructed World. In that series Kubálková, et al. 1998 provides a general overview of constructivist theory. Klotz and Lynch 2007 provides an extraordinarily useful volume about doing research using constructivist theory, which anyone using constructivism as the basis for their research should read. Fierke and Jørgensen 2001 focuses on the second wave of constructivist scholars and those scholars’ takes on earlier constructivist scholarship. Debrix 2003 has a more narrow focus on the role of discourse in international relations (IR). In addition to the M. E. Sharpe volumes, Adler 1997 and Guzzini 2000 provide article-length overviews of constructivism. Adler focuses on how it fits into the wider IR theoretical context, and Guzzini deconstructs constructivism for the reader and attempts to build it back up in an instructive way. McCourt 2016 explains and critiques the current state of “constructivism,” and presents a “new constructivism” as a means of returning the framework to an emphasis on processes and social and cultural context. For the simplest explanation of constructivism, see Snyder 2004, which provides brief summaries of realism, liberalism, and constructivism and compares and contrasts them for the reader. Snyder’s article is the easiest article to understand in this section.

  • Adler, Emanuel. “Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics.” European Journal of International Relations 3.3 (1997): 319–363.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354066197003003003

    Details how constructivism fits into wider IR theoretical framework. Positions constructivism between rationalist (i.e., realism) and interpretivist (i.e., critical theory) approaches. Long and difficult article, but important for an understanding of constructivism’s role in the discipline.

  • Debrix, François, ed. Language, Agency, and Politics in a Constructed World. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2003.

    Edited volume that examines the role of discourse in shaping our understanding of international relations. Contains both purely theoretical and applied chapters. For example, Nicholas Onuf writes about personal identity, and Anthony Lang Jr. writes about the United Nations and humanitarian intervention. Part of the International Relations in a Constructed World series, a comprehensive and well-organized collection of volumes on constructivist theory from the publisher M. E. Sharpe.

  • Fierke, Karin M., and Knud Erik Jørgensen, eds. Constructing International Relations: The Next Generation. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2001.

    This challenging edited volume focuses on defining constructivism and how constructivism can be used to study IR. It contains works from some major constructivist theorists, including Jennifer Miliken on discourse and critical theory, Friedrich Kratochwil, and Meja Zehfuss on Alexander Wendt, Nicolas Onuf, and Kratochwil (later expanded into Zehfuss 2002, cited under Conventional Constructivism). Part of the International Relations in a Constructed World series, a comprehensive and well-organized collection of volumes on constructivist theory from the publisher M. E. Sharpe.

  • Guzzini, Stefano. “A Reconstruction of Constructivism in International Relations.” European Journal of International Relations 6.2 (June 2000): 147–182.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354066100006002001

    Deconstructs and reconstructs constructivism in a way useful to the understanding of constructivism, but like many constructivist works, it can be difficult for the undergraduate to understand. Argues that the development of constructivism was inspired by the end of the Cold War. Claims that constructivism is about the social construction of knowledge and the construction of social reality and that the theory requires an intersubjective theory of action.

  • Hurd, Ian. “Constructivism.” In The Oxford Handbook of International Relations. Edited by Christian Reus-Smit and Duncan Snidal, 298–316. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199219322.001.0001

    A chapter-length overview of constructivist theory and how it differs from the other major theoretical paradigms. Clearly written and accessible, though the book itself is expensive and is thus best accessed in a university library.

  • Klotz, Audie, and Cecelia Lynch. Strategies for Research in Constructivist International Relations. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2007.

    Relatively short book that provides a general overview of constructivist theory, a guide on how to do research using constructivist theory, and a discussion of the many available sources. Useful for anyone writing a long paper, thesis, or dissertation on constructivism. Part of the International Relations in a Constructed World series, a comprehensive and well-organized collection of volumes on constructivist theory from the publisher M. E. Sharpe.

  • Kubálková, Vendulka, Nicholas Onuf, and Paul Kowert. eds. International Relations in a Constructed World. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998.

    Edited volume particularly useful for its section “Constructivism in Context.” Contains chapters by Onuf (a co-editor), Kubálková on E. H. Carr, and Harry D. Gould on the “agent-structure debate” (see Wendt 1987, cited under Alexander Wendt). Part of the International Relations in a Constructed World series, a comprehensive and well-organized collection of volumes on constructivist theory from the publisher M. E. Sharpe.

  • McCourt, David M, “Practice Theory and Relationalism as the New Constructivism.” International Studies Quarterly 60.3 (2016): 475–485.

    DOI: 10.1093/isq/sqw036

    McCourt argues that constructivism has become too closely tied to the roles of norms, identity, and culture. He proposes that the combination of practice theory and relationalism both belong in, and are vital to, a “new constructivist” framework that will reopen “constructivism’s theoretical lenses.” Provides a good, critical overview of the state of constructivism in the field.

  • Snyder, Jack. “One World, Rival Theories.” Foreign Policy 83.6 (2004): 52–62.

    DOI: 10.2307/4152944

    An update on a similarly named 1998 Foreign Policy article by Stephen Walt. Snyder provides his take on the basic principles of constructivism and compares them to the basic principles of the other major schools of thought in international relations theory—realism and liberalism. Perfect brief overview of both constructivism and international relations theory in general.

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