Theoretical Synthesis, Post-Paradigmatic Research, and the Common Ground between Realism and Constructivism

By Jared Angle

October 27, 2015

Theoretical synthesis, as it is proposed by J. Samuel Barkin, John Gerard Ruggie, and Marc Howard Ross, serves to benefit the theoretical study of international relations because it attempts to describe instances of state behavior that individual theories employed in a mutually exclusive manner are unable to explain. Whereas many scholars may view one particular theory of international relations as the best framework to analyze the behavior of a given set of states, other scholars may consider an alternative theory as the appropriate lens through which to describe the intents and actions of the same set of states. Mark Irving Lichbach notes that in the midst of paradigm conflict, competing theories fall into a vicious cycle of neglecting to analyze certain aspects of international relations in favor of pursuing other concepts more rigorously.[1] Scholarly research over the years has indicated that different theories have their respective strengths in explaining state behavior, but each individual theory fails to encompass every possible scenario for the behavior of a given state. Furthermore, the characteristics of an individual state or the relationship between multiple states may shift over time, marginalizing once-prevailing theories and bringing new theories to prominence. As such, a post-paradigmatic approach that incorporates the key elements of realism and constructivism may be the best tool for assessing instances of state behavior that defy the prescriptions of a given theory. Realist constructivism’s reconciliation of both theories positions it as an analytical framework with the ability to account for the interaction between socially-constructed normative influences on state behavior and the inherent egoism and power politics that are a hallmark of political realism’s description of relations between states.

Often conflated with the liberal idealism described by theorists such as Hans Morgenthau and Edward Carr, constructivism aims to describe the social and historical frameworks that inform decision-making in international relations, rather than to prescribe an intended doctrine or set of processes in international relations, as is suggested by the Wilsonian school of thought.[2] In Realist Constructivism, Barkin notes that Morgenthau’s argument in Politics among Nations highlights the distinction between attempts to “understand the world as a rational place” and to “rationally understand the world.”[3] Barkin argues that Morgenthau’s approach to describing political realism “suggests a compatibility between classical realism and neoclassical, or thin, constructivism,” going onto write that Morgenthau’s “insistence that historical context matters… fit quite well into a statement of constructivist epistemology.”[4] In emphasizing Morgenthau’s criticism of attempting to rationalize an irrational world, Barkin seems to suggest that the irrational actions that Morgenthau describes can be more easily understood and accounted for in political analysis if one considers a constructivist perspective that contextualizes irrationality and reconciles such exceptions with realism’s framework of rational choice and power politics.[5] Likewise, Etel Solingen notes that “many arguments on domestic-international linkages are irreducible to a single paradigm,”[6] supporting realism’s importance for explaining the structural framework of power relations between states while establishing constructivism’s role in contextualizing historical relations and identifying the social patterns that rationalize decision making.

Barkin notes that both Carr and Morgenthau were “referring to normative approaches” to international relations, putting “classical realist and constructivist logic on the same page with respect to normative approaches, rejecting them in favor of the study of the world as it is.”[7] Compounding his reference to Morgenthau’s pro-history argument, Barkin’s analysis of Carr’s similarities to Morgenthau seems to suggest that realism and constructivism are indeed compatible. Whereas constructivism aims to study the cultural and historical motivations that compel states to act in a given manner, realism examines the thought processes and strategy-driven pursuit of utility maximization and risk minimization that inform state behavior. Both theories are interested in the rational constraints placed upon states and their leadership, albeit from two perspectives: psychological and social. In the case of constructivist theory, such constraints are manifested by the manner in which policy makers incorporate historical and cultural norms and realities in their decision process; in other words, shared histories and relationships matter, and decisions based on these are rational even if they may not seem so to outsiders, specifically because the state must respond to the historical and cultural interests of its constituents and the states with whom it shares a relationship. For realists, the state’s political calculus pays closer attention to strategies that will counteract the actions of competing states. One can argue that constructivism and traditional realism are both realist theories, albeit concerning two distinct but certainly compatible approaches to reality.

Without explicitly discounting realism, one must be cognizant of realism’s reliance on the homogeneity of influences and incentives that guide the hand of diverse actors. Barkin notes that from the realist perspective, the “inability to theorize agency” implies that the range of options available to entrepreneurial actors is shielded from the view of other actors, forcing the latter to be concerned about the intentions of the former and having to act on fear and best guesses at the intentions of potential adversaries, rather than relying on educated analysis of the former’s social constraints.[8] Barkin reiterates that realism considers “the weighing of the consequences of alternative political actions… to be the supreme virtue in international politics,”[9] but the preceding statements emphasize that realist assumptions rely on state actions being too predictable, and don’t account for deviations from fear (driven by a lack of information about another actor’s intentions that leads the first actor in question to make an educated best guess in its own favor to hedge against the actions of opposing actors) that precede the idealist foundations of cooperation for the collective good.[10] Is it wise to gauge entrepreneurial actors through the assumptions of realism (that all actors will think and make decisions that fit a formulaic and rational model) while discounting the historical, social, and culture influences that prescribe behaviors that would otherwise seem irrational from the outsider’s perspective?

Realist theory assumes that actors possess an inclination toward rational behavior, but the constructivist perspective suggests that agency may be relatively limited for some actors, whose ability to take rational actions (or more specifically, actions bearing the outward appearance of rationality) is curtailed by social and historical realities. In essence, while a state may be expected to choose options that are the most logical and efficient in comparison to implied reactions from other actors, the aforementioned social and historical realities will prescribe an alternative course of action that attempts to maintain outward rationality and avoid self-detriment while addressing the internal and external demands imposed by those realities (be they expectations from figures within the state with prescriptive implications for state behavior, or external relationships that  prescribe a specific action despite potential conflicts with rationality).

Barkin goes on to note that from the beginning, constructivism has never explicitly sought to undermine classical realism.[11] In defining realist constructivism, a blended paradigm which he describes as examining “the way in which power structures affect patterns of normative change in international relations and, conversely, the way in which a particular set of norms affect power structures,[12] Barkin implies that the normative cultural and historical factors that constructivist theory analyzes are responsible for informing the processes of rational action that realist theory describes. He goes on to assert that “realist constructivism could also [inform realist theory] by including in any exploration of power, not only postmodern theory’s study of subjective text and positivist realism’s study of objective phenomena, but also constructivism’s study of intersubjectivity – of norms and social rules.”[13]

Other voices lend credence to constructivism’s potential to inform realist theory. Alexander Wendt argues that “Neither positivism, nor scientific realism, nor post-structuralism tells us about the structure and dynamics of international life.”[14] Ruggie, on the other hand, notes that constructivism is “a useful tool in the context of discovery, but… [does] not affect the logic of explanation,” for which other theories, in this case realism, bear responsibility.[15] In defense of the realist perspective, it is accurate to say that power will always matter, but constructivist theory is crucial to complementing and improving realism due to the argument that cultural and historical norms will inform the nature of power structures and diversify the scope of rational actions.

Barkin seems to suggest that constructivism contextualizes realism,[16] a notion that Ross echoes when he argues that “culture frames the context in which politics occurs.”[17] Ross acknowledges constructivism’s potential, by way of the study of culture, to “illuminate… political dynamics and provide explanatory mechanisms not revealed by either rationality or institutionalism,” but argues that his argument does not imply inferiority on the part of rational choice theory and realism, but rather that culture’s significant “is often a function of context and structure.”[18] In closing, Ross argues, albeit without naming either theory directly, that constructivism and realism are not mutually exclusive, but rather demonstrate many opportunities to complement one another; he argues that constructivism explains “how interests and incentives are defined and framed,” augmenting realism’s understanding of the state and discounting the assumption of homogeneity in the political calculations that drive international relations.[19]

Despite the tendency toward mutual exclusivity during early interactions between realism and constructivism, the aforementioned literature clearly indicates opportunity for constructivism to inform realist thinking in the formation of a two-pronged approach toward understanding the interplay between the cultural and strategic motives that underlie state behavior in the international arena. Are both theories compatible? Certainly, the possibility that a more refined and accurate paradigm may emerge in the future is impossible to discount. However, the adoption of a realist constructivist approach could be the key to promoting post-paradigmatical cooperation in other domains of international relations theory, and would serve as a valuable framework to facilitate the reexamination of historical instances of international relationship from a new perspective.

[1] Mark Lichbach, “Thinking and Working in the Midst of Things,” in Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture, and Structure, ed. Mark Lichbach and Alan Zuckerman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 60.

[2] Samuel Barkin, Realist Constructivism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 120.

[3] Barkin, 331-332.

[4] Barkin, 332.

[5] Barkin, 332.

[6] Etel Solingen, “The Global Context of Comparative Politics,” in Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture, and Structure, ed. Mark Lichbach and Alan Zuckerman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 230.

[7] Barkin, 134.

[8] Barkin, 126.

[9] Barkin, 126.

[10] Barkin, 120.

[11] Barkin, 336.

[12] Barkin, 337.

[13] Barkin, 338.

[14] Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics,” in International Organization 46, No. 2 (1992): 425.

[15] John Ruggie, “What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-Utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge,” in International Organization 52, No. 4 (1998): 884.

[16] Barkin, 338-339.

[17] Marc Ross, “Culture in Comparative Political Analysis,” in Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture, and Structure, ed. Mark Lichbach and Alan Zuckerman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 139.

[18] Ross, 135-136.

[19] Ross, 160-161.



About Jared Angle

I am an international relations professional based in the Washington, DC metropolitan region, specializing in European politics, international economics, and political risk analysis. I hold an MA in International Relations from the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC, and currently work in the field of international trade policy.

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