Rationalism v. constructivism: a skeptical view

TitleRationalism v. constructivism: a skeptical view
Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsFearon, JD, Wendt, A


Constructivist IR scholarship is currently divided on at least two epistemological questions: (1) whether knowledge claims about social life can be given any warrant other than the discursive power and putative knower (the relativism issue) and (2) whether causal explanations are appropriate in social inquiry (the nationalism issue). Three distinct epistemeological positions within constructivism emerge:

1.     Positivist: yes to both

2.     Interpretivist: Yes and No

3.     Postmodern: No to both

Can we really speak of a singular constructivism?

What is Constructivism:

Constructivists are interested in how the objects and practices of social life are “constructed”, and especially those that societies or researchers take for tranted as given or natural .

4 characteristic and interrelated features of constructivist thinking:

1.     Constructivism is centrally concerned with the role of ideas in constructing social life. These ideas will often be shared by many people and will be instantiated in practices, so they may have considerable ‘materiality’. (Social facts)

2.     Constructivism is concerned with showing the socially constructed nature of agents or subjects, rather than taking them as given. Making them the ‘dependent variable’.  2 focii:

a.     Causal process of socialization by which agents acquire identities and interests

b.     Constitutive conditions of possibility for certain modes of subjectivity in the first place.

c.      Constructivism is based on a research strategy of methodological holism rather than individualism. 

d.     A concern with a constitutive approach rather than just causal explanations. Co-constitution (Agency/structure, master/slave)

Bones of Contention:

There seems to be five ways of characterizing what the rationalism v constructivism is about.  Some involve genuine rival hypotheses about what is going on in social contexts; others involve differences in emphasis or research questions, and as such more complementarity than contradiction; still others don’t seem to involve any difference at all.

Material v Ideational:

·      Rationalist are about material factors (people act on the basis of material self-interest) and Constructivist are about ideas (people act on the basis of norms or values).

·      Constructivism does not imply a radical ‘ideas all the way down’ idealism that denies any role to material considerations (Searle) and neither does constructivism deny objective reality.

·      Goldstein and Keohane (1993) argue that explanations emphasizing ideas are ‘rivals’ to the ‘rationalist’ concern with emphasizing preferences. But this putative rivalry suggests that preferences or interest are not themselves ideas and thus, presumably material.

·      Ruggie characterizes rationalism as not encompassing ‘normative factors’ and treats ideas either not at all or only ‘secondary’ (Ruggie 1998).

·      Waltz (1979) combines a materialist definition of system structure with a microeconomic analogies for thinking about anarchy, even though Waltz himself does not depend on rationalist ontology of states.

·      There is little difference between rationalism and constructivism on whether ideas ‘matter’. The logic of both approaches depends crucially on actors making choices on the basis of their belief. And both trace roots to Weber.

·      When rat models do downplay ideas, this is a function of materialism rather than rationalism. Ferejohn’s distinction between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ rationalist models (Ferejohn 191). Thin makes no assumption about content of desires or beliefs.

·      Might add a point about absolute v relative gains preferences in liberalism v realism.

Logic of Consequences v Logic of Appropriateness

·      homo economicus v homo sociologicus, former acting on consequences based on preferences and the later appropriateness based on habit or role. March and Olson 1998.

·      Empirically, people do both, and there can be a comparative advantage to both approaches.

Norms as Useful v Norms as Right

·      Why do people follow norms? Rats argue that people follow norms only when useful to do so, whereas constructivist allow that people can be motivated by what they consider to be right or legitimate.

·      Thin rationalism allows interpreting norms as preferences. Thick rationalism could indeed lead to rival hypotheses.

·      3 reasons NOT to treat as rivalry between these two views of motivation nin zero-sum or paradigmatic terms:

o   Humans don’t always follow one motivation or another.

o   Empirically is may be impossible to discriminate between the views, especially when the two often predict the same outcome

o   The two motivations may interact with each other over time in either direction.

Problematizing Actors I: preference formation

·      what should the dependent variable be?: should we take actors as exogenously given and focus on explaining their actions or to problematize or endogenize actors themselves.

·      2 main ways to endogenize actors: causal and constitutive.  Causal asks where actors come from or came to have qualities they have (Where did the state come from?). Constitutive asks not where actors of their properties come from in a historical or process tracing sense but about their social conditions of possibility at a given moment (What enables Costa Rica to participate as an equal at the UN?)

·      3 things about actors that we can problematize: bodies, beliefs, and desires.

II: On the Constitution of Subjectivity

One of the leas superficially plausible ways of characterizing the debate in IR is by reference to the divide between methodological individualism and holism in the philosophy of science.  But they are more complementary


If the debate is defined as a matter of ontology, then it approaches zero-sum and great deal rides on who wins. But if the debate is viewed in more empirical terms, then the relationship between the two approaches is more complex. In some cases they offer rival hypotheses, in others they seem complementary, in others they are redundant. In short, we believe the most fruitful framing of ‘rationalism v constructivism’ is  a pragmatic one, treating them as analytic lenses for looking at social reality.