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Constructivism Vs. Realism

What critical insights does constructivism bring to international relations and how does it differ from realism?

In order to effectively convey the critical insights that constructivism brings to international relations and how these insights differ from realism, the concepts of constructivism and realism must first be, albeit briefly, defined. Once terms are clearly defined, a few of the most critical insights that constructivism brings to the international table will be explored. The relevance and acceptance of these insights by the international community will be noted as well as a comparative study to the underlying principles of realist thought carried out. From this comparative process it will be concluded that despite the new global system of globalisation and subsequent schools of thought seemingly wanting to see the demise of realist thought, realism is still relevant when considering the interactions and construction of sociopolitical society and international relations.

Various different strands of Constructivism have been identified and outlined by international scholars, one noteworthy being John Ruggie, Professor of International Relations at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Ruggie, along with other scholars, frame constructivism to be founded upon the premise that the world’s sociopolitical structure is constructed by human practice and that this human practice consists of norms, rules, identity, and institutions. Therefore, the primary objective of Constructivism then, is to explain how this construction of societal structure takes place. Alexander Wendt in his work Social Theory of International Politics demonstrates that the previously mentioned aspects which comprise fundamental society then become the core aspects of international relations by means of them forming an ongoing process of social practice and interaction.

According to Nicholas Onuf, rules in particular and how they affect the sociopolitical construction is a critical aspect of Constructivism. Rules are what dictate what people should do. The ways in which these rules are executed are known as practices. Onuf further explains that by observing people’s practices, one can determine the rules. These rules and practices are vital to the sociopolitical makeup as when accepted by the people ad backed up by legal laws, they form institutions and regimes. These institutions and regimes, as March and Olsen present, define “appropriate behaviour” and help to redirect those who wander from the accepted norms and behavioural practices by such actions as sanctions.

According to Wendt, there are two basic views of constructivism. These are, first, ”that the structures of human association are determined primarily by shared ideas rather than material forces, and (2) that the identities and interests of purposive actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given by nature”. This is perhaps one of the biggest differences between Constructivism and Realism. With regards to the study of Realist thought, there exist many varied definitions. In all simplicity, realism takes root on the belief that, “human nature is fundamentally flawed.” This entails that as a result the international system is anarchic and hence all international relations are derived from the necessity to survive rather than progress. The foundation of sociopolitical makeup is one of doing what is in the best interest of the state. Hence, Realism claims that international relations and interactions are determined by basic inherent human nature, whilst Constructivism asserts that international relations and interactions are carefully constructed by people.

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