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Constructivism in the social sciences has known several ups and downs over the last decades. It was rather early successful in sociology but hotly contested in international relations. Oddly enough, just at the moments it made important inroads into the research agenda and also became accepted by the mainstream, the enthusiasm for it waned, and many constructivists—as did mainstream scholars—moved from the concerns of “grand theory” or even “meta-theory” toward “normal science,” or experimented with other (eclectic) approaches, of which the “turn to practice” is perhaps the latest manifestation.

In a way, constructivism was “successful” on the one hand by introducing norms, norm-dynamics, and diffusion; the role of new actors in world politics; and the changing role of institutions into the debates, while losing, on the other hand, much of its critical potential. The latter survived only on the fringes—and in Europe more than in the United States. The Copenhagen school, building on the speech act theory, engendered at least a principled discussion of security studies, even if its use of speech acts was too simplistic.

In the United States constructivism soon became “mainstreamed” by having its analysis of norms reduced to “variable research.” Similarly, while the “life cycle of norms” apparently inevitably led to norm cascades and “boomerangs,” “norm death,” strangely enough, never made the research agenda, despite the obvious empirical evidence (preventive strikes, unlawful combatants, drone strikes, extrajudicial killings etc.).

The elective affinity of constructivism and humanitarianism seemed to have transformed the former into the enlightenment project of “progress,” where a hidden (or not so hidden) teleology of history à la Kant tends to overwhelm the analysis and thus prevents a serious conceptual engagement with both law and (inter-) national politics. This bowdlerization of constructivism is further buttressed by the fact that none of the “leading” U.S. departments has a constructivist on board, ensuring thereby the narrowness of conceptual and methodological choices to which the future “professionals” are exposed. The engagement with concepts and language, which “first generation” constructivists introduced, is displaced again by “ideal theory” (both in terms of deductive reasoning based on “unrealistic” assumptions and in the “clarification” of abstract principles à la Rawls), or by the search for “algorithms” hidden in “big data.”

Keywords: constructivism, social theory, International relations as a profession, the agent/structure controversy, logical positivism, science as a practice, speech acts and ordinary language philosophy, the turn to practice


By way of introduction consider the following quotes responding over the years to the constructivist challenge to international relations (IR) “theory.”

Traditionally counter-posed to rational theory is the sociological approach . . . its adherents have recently been in some disarray. Rather than try to discuss . . . this diffuse set of writers, I will focus on several scholars who emphasize the importance of the inter-subjective meaning of international action. . . .

I have . . . coined a phrase for these writers, calling them “reflective” . . . the greatest weakness of the reflective school is not its deficiencies in their critical arguments but in the lack of a clear reflective research program that could be employed by students of World Politics. Waltzian Neorealism has such a research program, so does neo-liberal institutionalism

(Robert Keohane, 1988, pp. 381, 382, 392).

Epistemologically I have sided with the positivists. Social science is an epistemologically privileged discourse . . . Poetry, literature and other humanistic disciplines tell us much about the human condition, but they are not designed to explain global war, or Third World poverty and as such if we want to solve these problems our best hope, slim as it may be, is social science . . .

The independent/dependent variable talk that informs causal theorizing therefore makes no sense in constitutive theorizing . . .

constitutive inquiry ultimately faces the same epistemological problem as causal inquiry: how to justify a claim about unobservables (whether constitutive rules or causal mechanisms) from what we can see? I agree with King, Keohane and Verba, therefore, that there is no fundamental epistemological difference between Explanation and Understanding.

(Alexander Wendt, 1999, pp. 90 and 85).

We argue . . . that rationalism (encompassing both liberal arguments grounded in economics that emphasize voluntary agreement and realist arguments that focus on power and coercion), and constructivism now provide the major points of contestation for IR scholarship.

(Katzenstein, Keohane, & Krasner, 1998, p. 646).

The usual way to begin is with a definition and the perhaps provide antaxonomy. But because one of the characteristics of constructivism is its critical approach to the objects of inquiry I shall resist this temptation in giving an overview. Considering the heterogeneity of the research, a rigid taxonomy separating essential and nonessential elements might be too demanding at a preliminary stage. One could therefore be tempted to err on the other side and take the “department store” metaphor as a guide. In that case there is a variety of products, rather than one product in different varieties, that is, what is assembled under one roof ranges from fragrances to clothing, to some electronics, kitchenware china, to draperies and fitness-machines, all of which do not seem share a common trait.

While this approach might be a more catholic taxonomic exercise, it, nevertheless, begs some questions as something has to be excluded and finding that key might give us—by analogy—some important clues for appraising the discipline and constructivism’s place in it. However, as in the case of the department store, the reasons for inclusion or exclusion remain murky as they cannot easily be read off from the products themselves, and, when found—that these are all things we “need”—it seems rather trivial, if this need is not specified further. After all, cars, plumbing supplies, or tools are also needed, but are not included. In the case of constructivism this puzzlement frequently gives rise to finer and finer distinctions that quickly get us further away from the central point of appraising constructivism’s role in understanding the social world in general and international relations in particular.

A second reason for not going the taxonomic route is that there exist already ample “inventory” lists of constructivist work—some exhibiting more interest in display, others more on the critical theory side—such as those by Adler (2012), Barnett (2005), Checkel (1998), Debrix (2003), Fearon and Wendt (2002), Guzzini (2013), Hopf (1998), Hurd (2008), Kratochwil (2008), Lebow (2001, 2003), Pettman (2000), Ruggie (1998), Price and Reus-Smit (1998), Reus-Smit (2005), and Zehfuss (2002)—not to speak of several anthologies devoted to constructivism: Katzenstein (1996), Albert, Jacobson, and Lapid (2001), Krause and Williams (1997), Weldes, Laffey, Gusterson, and Duvall (1999), Fierke and Joergensen (2001), Jupille, Caporaso, and Checkel (2003), Guzzini and Leander, (2006), or the “Forum” in the International Studies Review (2004). Similarly the recent special issue of the European Review of International Studies (2016), edited by Kessler and Steele, not only provides an overview of constructivist work but also identifies the critical tasks, which a “third generation” of constructivists face.

Rather, my reflections here are organized by unpacking the prior quotes, which encompass the trajectory of the “thing” called constructivism from its appearance in the late 1980s—when Nicholas Onuf applied in his World of Our Making (1989) this label to some works—to the present. If part of the identity of a discipline is constituted by the story we tell about ourselves, then proceeding in this fashion, cutting in at different points and reflecting on where and how the boundaries were drawn, seems promising. It focuses not only on the inside of the constructivist controversies, but also on the boundaries and bridge-building exercises within the discipline, as well as on the general wider context in which knowledge-creation is debated.

Thus, the disciplinary debate for which Keohane’s classification attempts of IR are emblematic is the starting point. Some core tenets of constructivism are delineated and attention is paid to the establishment phase of constructivism, in particular the attempts to build bridges or formulate a new synthesis. Here Wendt’s Social Theory as well as the “imprimatur” constructivism received later by Katzenstein, Keohane, and Krasner in 1998 are employed. The contribution of constructivism to the discipline’s agenda are analyzed and the theoretical gaps that remain are explored.

The Setting

A clarification is important as constructivism should not be interpreted as one of the canonized theories or approaches in the field of IR. Despite the tendency of taking constructivism, next to liberal institutionalism or realism as one of the “three approaches,” it is rather obvious that constructivist concerns and sensibilities address questions of knowledge production and of the establishment of fields, or changes in disciplinary understandings, rather than issues of “normal science.” To that extent Keohane’s charge that the “reflexivists” did not have a well-defined research program was, in a way, right, even though it was a bit like beating up on the cat because she does not bark—not to mention that, as new kids on the block, constructivists in the United States hardly could have matched the publication lists of the established orthodoxies. If one had looked for example to Great Britain and the English school, the Anarchical Society (Bull, 1977) and to the comparison of different state systems (Wight, 1978), as well as in the conventional nature of politics within the European State system (Wight, 1978), the record would have been quite different. If constructivism is critical—analyzing which concerns disciplinary theories foreground or background—then assessing its contribution simply in terms of “normal science” or of a “problem-solving” theory (Cox, 1981), is somewhat disingenuous.

Let me clarify now why I used the term “thing” for constructivism. Although we normally use the term thing to designate objects, such as rocks, plants, or arterfacts, the word thing (as its Latin equivalent res [as in reification]), however, does not necessarily have only that meaning. After all, the “thing” among the Germanic tribes was the meeting where common concerns were aired and decided, as was notably also the res publica, which engaged all members of a public. It is in this sense that constructivism “happened” when Onuf suddenly designated certain concerns, which had animated the debates in the 1970s and 1980s, as “constructivist,” even though the researchers did not refer to themselves as constructivist, and the name “constructivism” seems to have originated among artistic circles after the Russian revolution.

Nevertheless, the terms “construction” or “constitution” were rather common, taking issue with the notion that the “world out there” was given, waiting to be discovered, by shining a light on the existing objects, or “lifting a veil” from reality. The recognition that such metaphors are misleading was not limited to the younger scholars, or those who had caught the bug of deconstruction or Foucauldian analysis, as can be seen from the work of Ernst Haas. After abandoning neo-functionalism he investigated in a few seminal articles (Haas, 1975, 1980) how “issue areas” are constructed. Here the Law of the Sea Conference (1973–1982) provided one of the cases. Although the “oceans” are a “natural kind,” their use is not, and various regimes evolved over time, until expanding knowledge and (ab-) use of the resource suggested the need for a comprehensive regime (UN Conference on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS], 1982), which finally replaced four separate ocean regimes.

While the subsequent regime debate (Krasner, 1983) was less concerned with such cognitive issues and rather with the question why norms were followed in the absence of, or despite the decline of a hegemon, Haas had stressed the importance of shared knowledge and the role of epistemic communities for international collaboration. His student Emanuel Adler continued this line of inquiry, both in in terms of a meta-theory of cognitive evolution (Adler, 1991) and of applying the concept of epistemic communities to security issues (Adler & Barnett, 1998).

Other criticisms were more theoretically oriented, such as Ruggie’s (1983) intervention concerning Waltz’s “structural” theory of international relations, which could not address transformative changes, or Dessler’s (1989) criticism of “parsimony” as a problematic theoretical standard, or Kratochwil and Ruggie’s (1986) objections to the treatment of norms as “variables” by positivists. The latter issue revived the controversy of “explaining” (by efficient causes) vs. “understanding” (by inter-subjective shared meanings), which has a long philosophical pedigree ranging from Vico to Kant and Weber, which had surfaced again in the agent-structure debate (Doty, 1997).

For the latter Gidden’s Constitution of Society (1984) also provided much grist for the mill (see also Held & Thompson, 1989), but so had the earlier The Construction of Social Reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). In this context the new systems theory à la Luhmann should also be mentioned. It was, however, known only to a few cognoscenti in the United States at that time. Luhmann’s radical new formulation of the sociological problematique relied on the writings of Varela and Maturana (1970), who had used the term “constructivist” for describing their work in biology. Luhmann—borrowing also from von Foerster—transferred this approach to sociology but not without serious misgivings of some of the “lenders” (Kratochwil, 2013). Since for Luhmann society no longer consists of concrete people but of communications, its reproduction (autopoiesis) became the major issue. He no longer utilized the part-whole distinction (system and sub-systems) that had informed systems thinking since Aristotle, because this conceptualization limited systems to the arrangement of preexisting parts. Luhmann studied instead systems in terms of processes of differentiation and self-production, claiming that each system used a “code” for differentiating itself from other systems and that it relied for responding to irritations from the “outside” and for its reproduction on this code.

Oddly enough, Luhmann’s opponent in German social theory Juergen Habermas also based his theory on “communication” but followed rather the tradition of the Frankfurt school by criticizing social theories built on notions of technical (instrumental) rationality. Against functional “social technologies” he tried to recover a fuller concept of rationality that emerged from an interest that differed from that in production or technological mastery of nature. The Marxian notion of man creating himself through Arbeit was reformulated by Habermas as a constitutive interest in human emancipation, allowing for free and unencumbered exchanges with others. Communicative exchange is then modeled in terms of the “transcendental conditions” underlying an ideal speech situation among free and autonomous subjects. Instead of the abstract logic of differentiation and the evolution of autopoietic systems, Habermas’s emphasis on the give and take in exchanges (although under idealized rather than empirical conditions. Its closeness to the Rawlsian conception of justice (original position and the veil of ignorance) explain why his work resonated much more with the U.S. audience than Luhmann’s system theory (for IR see e.g., the collection of essays by Alker [1996]).

In the United States, the “post-modern” criticism of Ashley (1986, 1988) and others (DerDerian and Shapiro [1989]), stressed the performative dimension of power and politics, instead of reducing political praxis to the amassing or possession of resources, similar to the homo oeconomicus. In that respect their argument was helped by the conceptual analysis of, for example, Baldwin (1989) on power, which had appeared at the end of an extended debate in American and comparative politics, which was later picked up by constructivists (Barnett & Duvall, 2005) stressing power’s productive dimension.

The constructivists’ preoccupation with issues of identity was also foreshadowed in the feminist critique of the mainstream blindness to gender differences, insisting instead on the propriety of “gynocentrism” (Showalter, 1979). It refused to take the dominant masculine viewpoint as the normal way of how human beings are in the world. Much of this criticism came out of literary studies or debates about the moral development of children. Women’s concern for concrete care to others—rather than the elaboration of abstract concepts typically furnished by males—was not some developmental retardation but provided a different, but equally valid trajectory (Gilligan, 1993) of moral development. This engendered a wider point in feminism, that is, the reaction against conceptualizing identities and gender in essentialist terms, favoring instead a historically and linguistically constructed concept of identity (Moi, 1985). This perspective took its main cues from literary criticism and psychoanalysis (see Kristeva, 1986, who coined the term “inter-textuality”) and French post-structuralism.

In international relations the gender issue was raised first in terms of the lack of women in the profession and in policy-making. But it led quickly to the realization that the (perhaps unconscious) binary opposition of men and women gave rise to the problematic attribution of certain issues as appropriate for women (family, labor, education), while framing security in terms of masculine interest. Finally an alternative research agenda, based on a new understanding of gender, was developed, moving, for example, from geopolitics to eco-politics, and from security as a zero sum game, to the notion of a “common security” (see Tickner, 1992; Enloe, 1988).

The constructivist thing received also considerable, perhaps decisive, support from the history of science, which showed that the traditional conception of a steady cumulative progress following from the proper method was a “rational reconstruction,” propagated by positivism. It had, however, little to do with actual scientific practices. Here Kuhn’s (1970) challenge of “revolutionary science” and paradigm shifts have to be mentioned, as do the historical accounts of actual scientific communities and their way of practicing science (Latour & Woolgar, 1979; Knorr-Cetina, 1981). The organization of knowledge-creation does matter as was begrudgingly admitted even by Popper, who had charged the “community” with the task of keeping the researcher “honest.” Because his formal criteria of refutability and empirical tests were seldom unequivocal, the evidence had to be “weighed” by the scientific community. But, unfortunately, no clear criterion existed for indicating when to abandon a theory if it had been refuted, or worse, whether one should re-instate it, if after its refutation it later turned out to be corroborated (Diesing, 1991).

There were also a few followers of the linguistic turn who were influenced by the criticisms of the later Wittgenstein, who had squarely challenged the notion of language as a mirror of nature and of the possibility of reducing “meaning” to “truth.” Such a reduction was problematic for two reasons: first there are meaningful sentences that are not “true,” as, for example, the propositions of law or aesthetic judgements. Similarly, the counterfactual validity of norms shows that questions of validity are not reducible to truth conditions. Thus when one says: “Boticelli’s Birth of Venus is beautiful,” the sentence is not meaningless, but the criteria it has to satisfy are not those of “truth.” Second only meaningful sentences can be true, calling into question that “truth” can be reduced to issues of clear reference. If one says: “Green tomorrow 7 boiled car insurance,” each word has a clear reference, but the sentence is meaningless. Thus, the relationships between semantics, ontology, and methods are obviously more complicated than assumed by Cartesian thinking or by the bowdlerized Humean argument that only observable—“is”—sentences can be meaningful, while norms and values are at best only indications of idiosyncratic preferences (de gustibus non est disputandum). The realization that truth cannot be simply “read off” the objects in “the world out there” was also addressed by the “constructivist” Kant, who had shown that causality was not a property of “the world” but of reason, which sets the conditions for our knowing.

Later Wittgenstein suggested that the understandability of our assertions and utterances is not by reference, but by use of the terms according to inter-subjective criteria. This change in perspective highlighted the importance of “ordinary language” and “forms of life” (instead of deriving understandability from logic or artificial languages). Finally, the investigation of speech acts (Austin, 1962; Seale, 1969) by which language is used for doing something rather than describing an action or event was of high importance for analyzing the social world beyond the old explaining-understanding controversies.

It is, therefore, not accidental that such questions were vetted in IR in conjunction with the assessment of the role of norms in international relations. The regime debate offered the first principled criticism of positivism’s assessment of the role of norms in social life (Kratochwil & Ruggie, 1986; see also Kratochwil, 1988 and later elaborations in Kratochwil, Rules Norms and Decisions [1989]). Similarly Onuf’s (1998) seminal contribution consisted of using speech act theory to expound on the notion of “rule” (Herrschaft) through rules. His “speech act” of calling several independent projects “constructivist” served as a catalyst, which in turn reinforced Lapid’s celebration in his Third Debate (1989) of the new awareness and critical examination of the ontological, epistemological, and axiological foundation of the field (see also George, 1989) in a post-positivist era.

But this catalytic “naming” also explains why some scholars were rather surprised by suddenly finding themselves in the tent of the constructivists. Vazques and Jervis, although critical of some positivist work, hardly shared the perspectivism and meta-theoretical concerns characterizing constructivism; and Dessler (1999) and Biersteker (1989)—the latter much more sympathetic to the constructivist sensibilities—had little enthusiasm for the “unparalleled potentialities” that Lapid (1989, pp. 235, 237) expected from the “ferment” he had identified in other social sciences.

The Nature of the Beast

Constructivism emerged in the United States as a confluence of various research programs that took issue with the dominant mode of thinking about international politics. The link that realism, in particular structural realism, had established to “positivist science” was contested by scholars who were influenced more by sociological approaches to politics, such as those of the English school. Rather than taking the Hobbesian “war of all against all” as the foundation, a different research agenda was adopted, focusing on actual historical interactions and the transformative changes that occurred in the European and world systems ranging from the Balance of Power to Congresses (Westphalia, Utrecht, Vienna, The Hague, Versailles) and the new institutions they spawned These transformations again could be investigated through the changes in the meaning of “sovereignty” and new modes of organizing the international game through the institutionalization of collective security, the Hague system (arbitration), and the emergence of universal and a variety of “functional” international organizations. To that extent constructivists profited not only from the work of classical realists (Wight, 1977; Kissinger, 1973; Gilpin, 1983), who had examined the balance of power, hegemony, and diplomatic practice, but also from international law and organizations scholars (Claude, 1971; Henkin, 1979). However, because of its interest in norms and ideas, the constructivists’ agenda also linked up with works in political theory (Walker, 1993) given that the emergence of nationalism and of totalitarian ideologies (Arendt, 1966) had made it clear that many of the ways of conducting international politics through wars and more or less secret diplomacy had undergone fundamental changes. For example, nationalism and mass armies involving the entire population made territorial and other compromises difficult if not impossible. Consequently, many of the “lessons learned” by classical realists were now simply no longer applicable.

But having a different research agenda also had methodological implications. Understanding the social world could then not be modeled after the sciences that dealt with a “given” nature, or to put it differently, with the “world out there,” as the bedrock. Long ago Aristotle had remarked that the social world is not “natural” but one of artifice and that it is “speech” and common concepts that “make a city” (Aristotle, 1981, Bk. I, chap. 2). So if we want to know what is the case in the social world, we cannot take a spectator’s view and simply “observe,” but rather have to understand what people are doing, and that means we have to look at the world through the actor’s perspective. This does not mean that we have to get into the actors’ psychology, but we have to understand the meaning of their interactions, by the templates for action they use, which, in turn, allow us to understand what is going on. As in the case of football or soccer we need not know what goes through the mind of a quarterback or striker when he makes a pass. Rather we must understand the rules underlying the game. To call something an off-side or a foul, or request a time-out we have to appraise actions “as something,” and not simply describe what we see.

Weber (2011) called this approach, taking the “subjective,” or actor’s point of view, But how can one be for “subjectivity” instead of “objectivity”? Is it not the task of science to show how the world really is and that means describe it as objectively as possible? Are we not otherwise bound to sink into relativism? Furthermore, if the world is not given but constructed and thus “one of our making,” are we not saying that anything is possible?

It is here that errors abound and constructivists, as well as others, get often confused. To take the last point first: the conclusion simply does not follow, or it follows as little from the proposition that something, which is not black, has to be white, or grey. Anybody who has tried to change things in the social world will know that it is very difficult to do so precisely because the situations we face are not like those when we encounter nature’s resistance. Thus the problem is not one like blowing up the rock in front of us, but where we have to consider the strategic situation we are in. In those cases the outcome will not depend solely on what I (or we) do, or what the other or others are doing, but on how our choices interact and the reverberations they have. Thus the Greek financial crisis cannot be solved by just printing more money because money is not “real,” as iron or silver are. Rather, it is a convention, and it “exists” only because of people agreeing that something (gold, silver, paper, computer blips, whatever) “serves” as money. Mistaking some material, which has this function on the basis of an agreement, as the “real thing” is as mistaken as believing that because of the “unreal” nature of money, no convention is necessary for its creation In the latter case we just could crank up the printing machine, but if we reflect a bit we would know that we would not thereby create “money”—which is not only a means of exchange but also a measure and store of value on the basis of a shared belief—but are likely to debase the currency.

Second, it should be obvious that Weber’s subjective point of view is not subjective in the normal sense of being “personal” or idiosyncratic—but takes the inter-subjectively constituted social world as the “the reality” that makes “objectivity” in the social sciences possible (Weber, 2011). That this objectivity is different from that of nature is clear, but it neither bears out the claim of relativism (anything goes) nor establishes the reasonableness of its own position. The dichotomy of “objectivity” on the one hand, and error or subjectivity on the other, would presuppose that there is one and only one position from which “the world out there” can be viewed. But this is more or less like taking God’s position as we see and know then everything. Of course we are not God and thus on a more realistic interpretation of this “objectivity” would mean that everything is already “there” and if we do not know it, we will have to discover it by removing the veil in order to see it.

As plausible as this position seems, it runs afoul of the fact that that scientific discoveries are not just answers to the questions we ask but allow us to formulate questions that we had no way of posing before. Thus Darwin’s “evolution” suggested that the species are not just there and all that is necessary is to provide some classification, but that nature changes and while these changes are not predictable, we nevertheless can find some explanation for why they have occurred. But that means that even some well-established sciences realize that the world is not complete and “there,” but is in the making, and that the notion of “the world out there” is problematic. But there is a further reason why the notion of a given world is naive. If we look in order to see what is “out there” through the framework of physics then we see rocks and planets, oceans and storms but we do not see “money”; there is no contract, no melody, no beauty or trust, but also no fraud or trespass. There is death but at least no taxes!

Admittedly, it is rather disturbing for our naive belief in the “one world” since what we encounter in one world, need not exist in another. But it would be absurd to argue that, for example, a “trespass” does not exist, because in physics it is just a bodily movement and that’s it. Such an assessment would be inaccurate because it does not come to terms with the fact that a trespass entails the stepping over a border and doing so without authorization—which is important for the social world, although “authorization” is not a physical phenomenon To that extent the notion that the “world out there” can be perceived as it “is” from one encompassing and absolute point—which would have also to be outside all the different worlds—is just a rather pathetic fantasy. Thus “objectivity” is not a function of buying into the fantasy of the one world “out there,” but of spelling out the frameworks within which we make assertions and examine validity claims in various disciplines.

This brings to the fore the old controversy between explaining and understanding that preoccupied the epistemological discussion of the 19th and early 20th century and that was one of the markers that divided the cultural from the natural sciences. In more recent times this discussion was revived with a new twist in philosophy concerning “meaning” and “reference,” which suggested that meaning is not limited to the referential function of language, as previously discussed. This exploded the myth that language is simply a descriptive tool and that meaningful sentences are those that have clear reference (language as a mirror of nature). Only in this way it makes sense to believe that the “world out there” could be used as the “incontrovertible fundament” à la Descartes where “truth” consisted of the match between concept and object. Unfortunately, things are a bit more complicated. Even simple, descriptive statements such as: “This is a big deviation” are not self-evident despite their descriptive ring, because there is no “fact of the matter” as the philosopher would say. As Aristotle surmised, what is, for example, “exact” for a geometer and for a carpenter are two different things. Only someone familiar with the practices in the respective fields can assess the import of these terms. What is a small difference for a chip producer or a watchmaker is not the same for an architect building a 50-story office tower. For the latter a deviation in the elevator shaft of 2 cm is “small,” while for the chipmaker it is like being on another continent.

Furthermore, certain questions have meaning only because of the pragmatic context in which they are placed, but not by virtue of their reference. When I call and ask: “Is Jim there” and the person answering me says “yes” and hangs up, he is obviously pulling my leg, because that is not what the question meant. Rather it was a request to bring Jim to the phone. Similarly, if I say in a marriage ceremony “I do” I am not describing anything, but I am doing something. When a state “declares” war it is not describing an independently existing state of the world, but it brings it about by “doing” something, pursuant to its declaration: such as suspending the laws of peace, interning the aliens, seizing their property, and commencing hostilities.

In other words most of the crucial elements of the social world are not “mind-independent,” that is, would not exist if no people existed or if they had not developed the conceptual apparatus. This apparatus places a concept, such as “judge” or “contract,” or “state” within a semantic field and links it in turn to certain practices—so that only a state can send ambassadors and make treaties or decide what is legal tender. Without the concepts underlying certain practices, such terms could not refer to anything, as nothing would be “there.”

Given the radical implications of such a meta-theoretical stance it is not surprising that only a few hardened constructivists were ready to embrace this stance, because that is not what “political scientists” usually do. They are accustomed to collecting data and “testing” theories against the “world out there” as if they were confronting the physical world, even though they are guided, on top, by an understanding of a “physics that never was,” as the physicist and philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin (2001) has pointed out.

Even many positivists were aware of some of these problems because they knew that the theoretical terms we use are not “neutral” but theory-laden and that we therefore never test against “the world,” but, at best, only against other theories. This gives rise to the “Hempelian paradox,” because theories and data are not really independent, which is a problem for their “truth” claims. However, drawing such conclusions from these insights was often resisted. When the Third Debate opened up new ways of vetting these problems there were high hopes that the discipline could break out of its epistemological ghetto and find new ways of communicating across paradigms and their respective meta-theoretical presuppositions.

Disciplining the Discipline

When measured against these hopes, it would not be unfair to say that the constructivist “thing” contributed to a much broadened research agenda rather than to ushering in a theoretical revolution. The interest in norms (Klotz, 1995; Reus-Smit, 1999), in transnational movements (Khagram, Riker, & Sikkink, 2002; Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998; Keck & Sikkink, 1998), in issues of identity (Katzenstein, 1996; Lapid & Kratochwil, 1996; Hall, 1999; Wilmer, 2002; Telhami & Barnett, 2002; Checkel & Katzenstein, 2009), in more robust security arrangements and arms control (Adler, 1992; Risse-Kappen, 1995; Adler-Barnett, 1998), largely resulted from changes in international politics, rather than from a theoretical paradigm shift. The new agenda emerged due to increasing interdependencies, the human rights revolution, the resurgence of nationalism, for all of which traditional realism or liberal institutionalism provided only unsatisfactory answers. But since old theories seldom die—they rather fade away like old soldiers—one could be critical of realism’s inability to ground its research program in an adequate concept of power, or of the mistaken enthusiasm of empirically oriented “scientists” that running every variable against every other will finally result in an explanation of the “causes of war”—without sharing the meta-theoretical doubts or new tenets of constructivists or post-modernists.

Similarly, one could doubt the adequacy of the near exclusive focus on the state in neorealism, given the proliferation of international organizations, the emergence of regimes, and transnational networks (both on the governmental and the civil society side) but still hold on to realism as the default position (Keohane & Nye, 1977). Finally, if one was interested in how knowledge and the definition of problems delineated the “issue areas” for regimes, calling into question the fundamentals the “of scientific explanation” (Haas, 1980; Adler, 1991) was not likely to be the first priority, even if the research pushed beyond the confines of naive positivism.

On the other hand, among the dissenters, one could also suspect that the attempts of bringing everybody into the tent could deprive post-modern criticism precisely of its critical potential by transforming it into some garden variety of “normal science” while leaving the orthodoxy untouched. These fears, voiced by Ashley, Walker, and others in a special issue of International Studies Quarterly (Ashley & Walker, 1990a), were not imaginary, as they were confirmed by subsequent developments. However, the refusal of those authors to be “co-opted” gave grist to the mill of their critics, charging them that their work was “so lit crit, so French, it has the ring of so much alien and impenetrable jargon” (quoted in Ashley & Walker, 1990b, p. 370). The result was mutual exorcism and disdain rather than the “happy pluralism” one had hoped for.

Indeed, the participants in one of the first collaborative efforts among younger scholars addressing problems in world politics in a constructivist mode did not carry the brief for “any particular methodology or epistemology.” When they attempted an “explanation they engaged in ‘normal science’ with its usual desiderata in mind” (Jepperson, Wendt, & Katzentein, 1996, p. 65). That matters are not quite as easy becomes clear when they admit (on the same page!) that their “insistence on socially constructed and contested actor identities militate against the rationalist imagery informing most neorealist and neoliberal theories.”

In general, the emerging pluralism was characterized by borrowing bits and pieces from here and there, often without much concern for whether they could do actual work. Some researchers were happy to treat norms as “variables” and insisted on their causal powers; others pointed to their constitutive function that was addressing a different question as those norms do their work antecedent to action as in neorealist or liberal approaches to action. Of course, the latter argument exploded the myth that only causal accounts—perhaps by a conceptual stretch compatible with the working of regulative rules—can provide explanations. Nevertheless, as the leading “primer” in the field of IR indicates, denial is always is an option. King, Keohane, and Verba (1994, p. 75) found anything outside of efficient causality “confusing,” which “explains” their dismissal. But as Ruggie wryly remarks, their insistence on the orthodoxy explains practically “nothing that is constitutive of the very possibility of conducting international relations: not territorial states, not systems of states, not any concrete international order, nor the whole host of institutional forms states use , ranging from promises or treaties to multilateral ordering principles” (Ruggie, 1998, p. 23).

So while it may be true that there is a considerable “give” between a constructivist orientation and the choice of theories and methods—precisely because constructivism is not a theory of international politics, but a meta-theoretical stance—the sequestering of constructivist concerns to the realm of the psychology might have been a heavy price to pay. While such a stance was in accordance with logical positivism, it is probably Popper’s “logic of scientific discovery” (Popper, 1959), that is confusing. In his works he made it quite clear that what had been formerly called the stage of “invention,” that is, finding and situating the relevant questions for research, had been eliminated from his conception of science. The logic of science consists now only in corroboration, proof, or prediction, not in the “discovery” of researchable questions, which is for Popper a “psychological problem” of the researcher.

The questions which had to be faced were: whether this thing of constructivism was to be able to exist along with empiricist, rationalist, and realist approaches—the latter two having been joined in a questionable marriage of convenience by some “heavy hitters” in the field—as well as whether some bridge-building was actually possible. Here both Adler’s manifesto of 1995 and Wendt’s Social Theory of International Relations (1999) are programmatic statements that attempted this by providing a first “mapping” of the field. In this exercise the two oppositions of materialism–idealism, and individualism–wholism, served as the two axes of a matrix. The matrices they developed suggest however a different take on the role of a constructivist perspective. While Wendt places known IR theories in the different quadrants, Adler’s matrix just shows an empty eclipse as a core. To that extent the different messages of these maps are subtle but powerful.

Significantly, the map of Wendt is already inhabited by different theories, and the issue is that we have to find a place for the newcomers. Here the placement of his constructivist work in the top right quadrant (defined by wholism and idealism) seems rather odd, because Wendt also wants to be a “scientific realist” as well as an adherent of structuralism, but neither the English school, nor postmodernist nor feminist who inhabit that top-right space are likely to fit the latter criteria. Adler’s empty eclipse, on the other hand, changes the purpose of the mapping exercise. It suggests that the relevant question is not so much one of what is the core of different theories—so that we can place them somewhere in the matrix—rather, the core consists of puzzles and questions social scientists investigate. Although they are based on different “metaphysical assumptions,” they gravitate toward the center in which constructivism now draws a new boundary by dissolving the former lines, and creates a place for exploring common questions of interest.

It seems that Adler tried to show that constructivism is not just heir to a tradition of social science that is deeply rooted in the “big questions” rather than solving them by certain “assumptions,” which have axiomatic status and thus can no longer be subjected to criticism (save the logical incoherence of the model). The message is then clear: some of the eliminated big questions have again to be endogenized into our “theories,” and in this way constructivism might indeed seize the critical middle ground.

Wendt’s agenda is obviously more informed by professional concerns and by an attempt to show to the rest of the discipline that the new arrivals are no barbarians at the gates. Instead, they know—if allowed—how to play ball. This is why Wendt chooses Waltz as his sparring partner—admittedly a surprising, but seemingly also “hard case” choice with more clout because of it. But then again, letting the agenda be determined by someone else considerably simplifies Wendt’s argument, as many interesting questions, important for constructivism, need not be asked, as the opponent did not raise them. Thus, by accepting the existence of actors prior to the international system, the issue of co-constitution has lost its bite, and the question of identity (which again defines interests) is truncated. Only the issue of the “social identity” needs to be addressed because “the corporate identity” (internal characteristics of states, such as their institutions or notions of legitimacy) has been offered on the Waltzian altar of “theory.”

But such a bowdlerization also fails to build reliable bridges to liberal institutionalism that takes domestic institutions seriously, a failure that has been criticized (Checkel, 1997; Jupille, Caporaso, & Checkel, 2003; Reus-Smit, 2005). It also inhibits any analysis of transformative change such as the one from the medieval world to the modern territorial state (Ruggie, 1983) or the change from a statist notion of sovereignty to one of nationalism (Hall, 1999; Barkin & Cronin, 1994), or even the one that ended the Cold War (Koslowski & Kratochwil, 1994). The costs of omission becomes even more evident if we realize that thereby key areas of interest, such the emergence of “new actors” (Keck & Sikkink, 1998) and new roles and forms of organization (Ruggie, 1993; Barnett & Finnemore, 1999; Khagram, Riker, & Sikkink, 2002; Risse-Kappen, 1995), new sources of authority (Hall & Biersteker, 2002), and interactions between international and national political systems (Cortell & Davis, 2000) also fall by the wayside. Indeed, it becomes downright mysterious how certain cultural forms such as the state (Biersteker & Weber, 1996) and sovereignty emerged as the organizing principles of modernity by becoming part of the common knowledge of the actors. These problems result from both a misunderstanding of cultural forms, treating them as some form of “ideas” located in the private mind of the actors, and a woefully inadequate theory of communication.

Good “rationalists,” either choose simultaneously when interacting, or “communicate” by pre-ordained moves in a strategic well-defined game, do not “debate” or try to come to a common definition of a problem or situation. Given that this shortcoming has been a rather central concern among constructivists, it is all the more surprising that Wendt’s actors basically only “signal” each other (Zehfuss, 2002). Furthermore, as Schelling has pointed out that “explanations” using “prominence” or “focal points” are problematic,—the latter actually remain exogenous to the rational choice perspective,—one has to ask what is actually “constructivist” about Wendt’s approach, aside from the catchy slogan that “anarchy is what the states make of it.” But how is the re-grooving of communication into some form of pidgin language of rational action actually expanding the research agenda? Wendt would answer that at least “interests” are not treated as given, but more principled constructivists, influenced by Habermas (1984, 1987) might argue that such an endogenization might not go far enough. Here a clarification is in order as it shows the problems when heuristic devices such as ideal types are taken to stand for actual “states of the world” against which we can “test” our theories without further ado.

Even if we agree that that communicative action might originate in some distinct human interest and not some material or systemically induced interest it does not follow that this interest will displace strategic rationality, as Habermas sometimes comes close to suggesting, or that the “better argument” will win among actors with non-myopic conceptions of interests (Risse, 2001). Precisely because strategic and communicative elements are part of every social situation, we are unlikely to enter the Kantian “kingdom of ends” where politics dissolves itself into ethics. Thus something more has to be said on the constitution of identities and interests (instead of deriving the latter from the former), and on social reproduction. Here Searle’s contributions (1993, 1999) concerning institutional rules and the status assignment of meaning (x counts under conditions of y as z) have hardly systematically been explored for their heuristic power.

Finally, there remains a strange resolution of the old explaining-understanding controversy (Hollis & Smith, 1990) because Wendt is suddenly siding with King, Keohane, and Verba, (Wendt, 1999, p. 85), despite his own efforts to show that a causal account (arguing with efficient causality) cannot be the only form of explanation (Smith, 2000). Constitutive explanations, as Wendt argues, can be found even in the sciences, and there is no reason to limit explanations to only one form. Instead one would expect the researcher to realize that providing an explanation means rather different things depending on the circumstances when answering “why” and not “how” questions (Laffey & Weldes, 1997, p. 19), or when one offers an explanation in law (Kratochwil, 1989, chaps. 4 and 8)

This raises a wider problem of why and how constructivists and the mainstream differ. The crucial issue of the first point is not pace Wendt (1999, p. 51) whether (1) the world is independent of the mind and language of individual observers, or that (2) scientific theories typically refer to this world, even if (3) when it is not directly observable. The question is rather whether the notion of “the world” is coherent, and whether the analogies, which try to establish the truth of these propositions, are appropriate. First, hardly anyone will doubt that the physical world exists whether or not it is being observed. But this does not answer the question of what it “is” that we observe and whether we can have direct unmediated access to it. This is, of course, the old Kantian question of the thing in itself and of the theory dependence of our observations, as even positivists like Hempel (1965) emphasized. Without concepts we could not know and communicate about what we “see.” To that extent the concepts we use have to be shared, but this is not the same thing as asserting that there can be only one language for describing our observations, as even physicists would doubt such a reductionist simplification (Davis, 2005).

The second issue is whether all the things that interest us can be treated in the same fashion. As we have seen, in the physical world there are rocks and waves, planets and the animal kingdom, but there is no beauty, no melody, no stock option, no contract, no degrees, no judges or senators. Realizing this has nothing to do with un-observables à la Wendt (analogously to black holes) because when someone makes a payment or becomes ambassador we observe a lot. The action is clear because we, as observers, use the same inter-subjective conventions as the actor. The objectivity of the social world consists in its mind-dependent inter-subjectivity of the agents and observers, not in their existence as objects in a spatial grit. In other words, the things that interest us most, that is, the “social facts,” do not exist in the physical world, and the notion that they are part of “the world” and that “therefore” we are entitled to claim that the mode of apprehending the physical world is also appropriate for the social one, is simply incoherent.

Given these problems it is not surprising that establishing a new consensus (or orthodoxy) that could generate a “research program” in the sense of the Lakatosian extension of positivism did not succeed. The subsequent research of constructivists of various stripes was much more heterodox (Reus-Smit, 2005). This ensured a certain diversity—perhaps even the “requisite variety,” which is so crucial for “going on”—and led to the assessment of Katzenstein, Keohane, and Krasner that constructivism had become one of the main orientations for international relations research.

What Remains (to Be Done)?

On the one hand, the story of constructivism is one of a resounding success within the discipline. This interpretation rings all the more true because Marxism had dropped out as a serious contender and constructivism had become, at least for the mainstream, the placeholder for a “critical” theory, if it has not gone native, and engages now in normal science. So what could be better: we apparently have two for the price of one, a critical- and a mainstream approach all wrapped in one!

On the other hand, such a tale should create considerable unease. This uneasiness is noticeable in Mearsheimer and Walt’s (2013) clarion call that “normal science is a way to ruin.” Although their point does not concern solely constructivism, the implications of their argument might be even more troubling for constructivist scholars. After all, the situation is somewhat odd, given that many of the former exponents of constructivism have left the tent and are now focusing on practices (Sil & Katzenstein, 2010), or they hope to find the new “gluon” that explains how everything is held together in the social worlds (Adler & Pouliot, 2011), or they examine “habits” and “common sense” rather than action or identity (Hopf, 2010, 2013); they also might even have gone “quantum,” substituting pan-psychism for some form of rump-materialism (Wendt, 2010). Some others have had their fill of the increasingly esoteric debates and scholastic distinctions and advocate a return to basics, that is, a hands-on approach to knowledge creation (Friedrichs & Kratochwil, 2009), or flirt with pragmatism (Kratochwil, 2007).

Secondly, despite considerable scholarly output by constructivists, the number of constructivist articles in the U.S. top journals is rather meager and apparently declining—while in Europe the picture is somewhat different. This is not just because in the United States the number of “non paradigmatic articles ” has increased from about 30% in the 1980s to over 50% according to the latest surveys, supporting thereby Mearsheimer and Walt’s point. It has also to do with the fact that the predilection for quantitative tools (and hypothesis testing) in the United States results from the “strong and growing commitment to positivism” (Maliniak, Oakes, Peterson, & Tierney, 2011, p. 437).

But again, the situation might be brighter than this first look suggests. After all, the move to actual practice has shifted the emphasis from the former epistemological preoccupations to actual policy making (Neuman, 2002, 2012; Pouliot, 2010) and to the sites where knowledge is created. The identification of laboratories with their artefacts that link man and machines (Latour & Woolgar, 1979) had been a counter-move to the phantasmagorical rational reconstruction of the history of science, characteristic of positivism (Knorr-Cetina, 1981). The interest was then—and is even more so today—on the “material,” that is, the activities and the artefacts used in in generating knowledge (Bueger & Gadinger, 2014), instead of focusing only on doctrines propagated in the temples of science.

In coming to an assessment one could perhaps say,—as was the case with functionalism before—that constructivism as an identifiable force in the field might have lost its momentum despite the fact—or perhaps precisely because of the fact—that some of the themes added to the general research agenda of the field, such as questions of identity (Lapid & Kratochwil, 1996; Hall, 1999; Wilmer, 2002; Telhami & Barnett, 2002; Checkel & Katzenstein, 2009), of normative concerns (Klotz, 1995; Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998; Price, 1995), the propagation of human rights(Risse, Ropp, & Sikkink, 1999, 2013), and the reformulation of the sovereignty problematique (Biersteker & Weber, 1996), have grown unabatedly. Similarly, “governance” (Risse, 2011), the offshoot of the former regime debate, seems to have become a rallying point for both theorists and decision-makers.

So even if the constructivist momentum has dissipated, its mission seems to have been accomplished. Several constructivist ideas now inform various policies, ranging from best practices, to capacity building in order to govern beyond the state through governmental networks and public private partnerships (Hall & Biersteker, 2002), to multilevel governance structures, characteristic of the EU and the European project (Risse, 2014), to monitoring compliance in environmental and human rights areas, to humanitarian intervention and peace-making in war-torn societies (Barnett & Weiss, 2011; Barnett & Stein, 2012). This seems to give persuasiveness to the interpretation that we are moving toward a cosmopolitan order, even if it occurs with fits and starts, as Kant had predicted (Kant, 1991).

However, although the interest in norms, and in particular in human rights and their propagation through activist networks, was clearly the starting point of some constructivists (Keck & Sikkink, 1998), it would be mistaken to argue that all constructivists necessarily share the illusion of progress of the enlightenment project, or as Ruggie has called it, in the “Dorothy principle” (Ruggie, 1998, p. 33), that is, that reality can be changed “by closing one’s eyes and wishing hard.” Norms, as Onuf pointed out pace Weber, are instruments of rule (Weber’s Herrschaft). Kratochwil (1989) also suggested that the use of norms in a two-party context—especially when rights and ultimate values are at stake—enables contestation that can escalate conflicts rather than solve them, a point Wiener (2008, 2014) forcefully made again more recently.

Thus nothing in a constructivist perspective suggests that politics does not matter, that the Kantian teleology (List der Natur) is working itself out and that we will arrive at a cosmopolitan order, which is man’s destiny. Such proclivities are rather common among liberals who are more likely to believe in the “end of history,” which consists not simply in “shared interests and the rule of law” among different actors (Ikenberry, 2011, p. 61) but also in a particular conception of “providing security, upholding open markets and so forth” (Ikenberry, 2011, p. 82).

Two notions are troubling in this context: one, that everything is “basically” all right (save minor problems that need fine-tuning) with the present order and two, that the future of “freedom” and “rule of law” will dissolve politics because “rule” is morphing into (administrative) law or perhaps (even better) into ethics, uniting all reasonable human beings. The lack of a critical examination of these propositions is somewhat breathtaking in view of the attacks of 9/11, which have considerably dampened the enthusiasm for any meaningful conception of the rule of law among Western governments and many strands of their elites alike. Instead of the safeguarding rights, 9/11 fueled rather strongly the interest in anti-terror measures and in surveillance, in dismantling civil rights through conceptual stretching of torture prohibitions, even advocating torture (Dershowitz, 2002), or claiming new rights for the government such as initiating preventive strikes (Doyle, 2008).

Thus we’d better balance the assessment of “progress”—of tipping points and normative boomerangs, or phase-models of norm cascades (Keck & Sikkink, 1998; Risse, Ropp, & Sikkink, 1999)—with at least some awareness of the darker sides of governance. Ironically, it is the existence of functioning free-standing regimes, rather than the absence of law in an international anarchy, that has recently fueled fears of the fragmentation of the international order (for a discussion see Kratochwil, 2014, chap. 3). We also should take note that the excessive technocracy of European multilevel governance has seriously damaged the enthusiasm for the European project, and that the highly questionable adventures of engineering regime changes under the heading of “humanitarian interventions” are further evidence that all is not well in international life.

There remain some conceptual difficulties, which are more crucially related to the theoretical apparatus rather than to the narratives to which these criticisms apply. One is of course the use of analogies or metaphors that turn out to be false friends. Treating norms as self-contained and placing them in the subject position highlights their potency but risks making out of the actual agents normative dopes. Norms by themselves do nothing. They have to be used by actors or applied by third parties. Thus they are part of the strategic armor that agents bring to their interaction (Mueller, 2004) or they become part of legal and political projects that judges, politicians, and academics pursue. This realization then shifts the attention from the prevalent norm diffusion (conceptualized as a causal mechanism, or as amorphous infection in which the pathogens get into the “mind” of the actors) to a fuller account, which stresses, “that norm propagators, contesters adopters, or rejecters are always situated within power relations”(Bucher, 2014, p. 758). To that extent, the notion that one can construe a communicative action based on emancipatory interests by clarifying the constitutive norms of an ideal speech situation seems as problematic, as conceiving of norms as a self-contained system à la Kelsen. Here constructivism in IR could have profited from the discussions in law, from the debate between Kelsen, Hart, and Fuller and the later controversy on the (in)-determinacy of norms and the no-single-right-answer thesis that divided Dworkin et al. and the Critical Legal Studies scholars (Brunnée & Troope, 2010; Kratochwil, 2014)

Thus the actual question is not how an “ought becomes an is,” as suggested by much of the diffusion literature, but “how the ought is made an is” (Bucher, 2014). This is all the more important if we do not submit to simplistic mechanical metaphors (such as tipping points) because such a take hides the problem of partial or insufficient institutionalization (Cortell & Davis, 2000)—well known from the political development literature—or even the problem of norm decay occurring not only in failed states but, also in allegedly “functioning” ones as the previously mentioned example of terrorism shows,.

Indeed, it is rather strange that there has been rather little interest among most constructivists in studying norm decay although they have used the metaphor of a life cycle. A-Realist, of course, have largely dismissed norms as empty rhetoric and liberal institutionalist looked for formal defects—like the lack of “precision” (Abbott, Keohane, & Moravcsik, 2000). However, none of these proposals is convincing, because they are not firmly grounded in a plausible account of action and in an understanding of praxis as a field that has certain defining characteristics. Praxis, however, is ill served by attempting to subject it to theoretical standards (universality and necessity), instead of identifying contingency (context), conventionality (shared understandings rather than mind-independence), and historicity (change, rather than atemporal constancy) as the decisive parameters.

To that extent, even constructivists who take conceptual analysis seriously or are aware of the importance of “ordinary language” (Davis, 2005), will be challenged to place their approach within a wider framework of communication. The discussion about speech acts, exemplified by the Copenhagen school’s efforts (Buzan, Weaver, & de Wilde, 1998) of intervening in the security debate between a classical, narrow concept of security (Walt, 1991) and a wider one, accommodating new realities and new threats, shows that need. Here, “speech acts” were used to demonstrate that threats are not simply “out there” but are made by certain declarations (Krause & Williams, 1997; Weldes, Laffey, Gusterson, & Duvall, 1999). Such a view challenged the argument of objective threats—as had been the case before, when objective national interests (Weldes, 1999), derivable from the international system and from a country’s position therein, had been criticized. But the new take also suggested that a state’s security or even survival and that of a society need not coincide. The perceived threat from migration is above all one to a society’s identity, and not to the state as such. Most important, some security threats need no longer name a concrete enemy, as is the case when environmental threats are at issue, quite aside from the fact that we all have a hand in those. What remained is that in “speaking security” an issue is taken out of the “business as usual” and declared exceptional, whereby the normally applied rules are suspended.

While the focus on declaring a state of emergency, as well as on drawing a clear line between the “us” and the “them” (in the case of migration), suggested for some critical scholars that Carl Schmitt and his friend–foe thinking had hijacked the constructivist “thing,” most realists considered the expansion of the security problematique a dangerous move (Walt, 1991). Both concerns, however, were unfounded. The Copenhagen school’s adherents were not Schmittians in disguise (Williams, 2003), as their concern was not only with securitization, that is, moving an issue out of the “normal, ” but also with de-securitization (Weaver, 1995) or “a-security,” that is, a deep normalization of an issue, placing it back in the political process. Here perhaps the verbal expression of the “special character” that bestows upon an issue the worry (i.e., the cura), which securitization (sine cura = without worry) is supposed to counteract, contributed to the confusion. In this regard, Buzan’s third criterion (aside from “threat” and “emergency”), that is, to be “free of rules” (Buzan, Weaver, & de Wilde, 1998, p. 26) was problematic, as even a resort to force does not suspend all rules. Rather it brings other rules concerning self-help, retorsion, the use of force, and the laws on rules of war into operation.

Finally, the emphasis on the processes of escalation and abatement clearly suggests that not all speech acts are of the same cloth. A securitization move is not simply analogous to a simple declaration, such as “I hereby declare you husband and wife.” In other words, in some well-defined institutional circumstances the declaration is the action, and acting and doing becomes virtually indistinguishable. But that should not blind us to the fact that naming something as a threat is not just to create new facts but just to start controversies within a society about what to do and which measures are necessary, effective, and appropriate. That here the designated office holders have no monopoly can be clearly seen by the fact that such declarations have to be vetted by representative institutions or courts, as they might be ultra vires or fail to win support. But even more important, given the emergence of societal organizations and their international networks, governments as the authorized spokespersons for their societies have lost much of the interpretive monopoly.

This is all the more true because speech is no longer the single, or even the most prominent, means of communication. Time after time studies show how pictures overwhelm people more than words (Williams, 2003), and it is cold comfort that their long-term impact is often ephemeral. Of course, those who think that this nervous oscillation of moods and flashpoints just proves that these developments are not “real” and that we ought to have our eyes fixed on the perennial lodestars of power and interest dispense their advice freely, although increasingly with unease. For those of us who believe that politics takes place in time and under unpredictable and unknowable conditions and conjunctures, these new developments make the practice of politics, that is, finding binding solutions to common problems in the absence of an algorithm, even more difficult.


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