Debating IR

Probing the philosophical underpinnings of the international system and anything else of interest.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

A theory that I loved in cross-cultural communications but absolutely hate in IR...

When I took Cross-Cultural Comm last spring, I was a fan of constructivism. It made sense that identity and perceptions of other individuals/cultures/etc. would govern interpersonal communications, and even moreso I was interested in the connection between an individual or culture's identity and what it felt compelled to do (as has come up in class several times). However, after reading the Sterling-Folker article on constructivism, I feel a little betrayed. What started out as an intriguing reading expanding a theory I already liked ended with me feeling a little indignant toward whoever introduced it to IR.

Don't get me wrong; I still consider constructivism to be a good explanation of many phenomena of intercultural communication. But it feels like psychobabble when applied to international relations. It really started to bother me when I got to this quote on page 118:

"Constructivists argue that interaction among nation-states can lead to the development of identities such as competitor and rival, or friend and ally, which can become entrenched over time and reinforced by continued interaction that appears to confirm the identity as true."

This strikes me as constructivism trying to explain state interactions in which neither state has outside information about the other or any semi-objective way to analyze the other's actions. While the latter would be likely in a state of conflict (let's say, the Cold War), it is not likely at the inception of a state relationship, which is when these identities would be developed. It seems as though in reality, states would rely on intelligence and diplomacy to gather information about potential allies or enemies rather than how they "felt" about their "identities." The kind of behavior described by constructivism is what I would expect from a small, undeveloped nation with no context for interpreting state actions and no intelligence to confirm its suspicions. I might be demonstrating naive faith in the "rational actor" model now, but on the other hand constructivism appears to give rational communication no credit at all.


Blogger Lucas Amaral said...

hey, I was looking for poststructuralist theories and I found your blog. unfortunately your perception about constructivism is superficial and misleading.

states don't need to have information in order to create an image of another actor. Each state has a perception about itself and about each state in the international system. This perception can change with interaction or it may remain the same.

National interests are important too. Constructivism doesn't deny rationalism, just says states consider much more than realism says in the decision taking process. Many states actions cannot be explained only by thinking states want to survive and then do whatever it takes to survive.

these questions are central to constructivism and are obviously much more complex than what i wrote.

8:42 PM  

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