Constructivism is best understood as an approach or philosophical position with regard to international relations. If there is a unifying theme to all constructivisms, it is (a) the ontological primacy of intersubjective ideas as the basis of political action and (b) the changeability of such ideas (as social constructions, not material facts) and thus the changeability of our collective realities. Politics for constructivism cannot be reduced to biology or material power, or to individuals’ choices or perceptions. Individuals both create and replicate the social facts that define their identity and their appropriate political actions. This entry first reviews several constructivist perspectives and then discusses constructivism with regard to surveillance, security, and privacy. The entry ends with a brief discussion of constructivism’s role in social science.


Beyond these basic points of agreement, there are a variety of constructivist perspectives differing on epistemology (how we know what we know), levels of analysis (systems vs. states vs. groups), and theoretical orientation.

Epistemologically, the debate between critical and conventional (or modernist) constructivism involves different degrees of skepticism in pursuing objective knowledge and the ethical position of seeking knowledge rather than the more emancipatory goals of wakening oppressed groups to their plight amid unjust hegemonic discourses. The notion of causation is common to mainstream political science, but constructivists also highlight the “constitution” of action, not just the cause. Methodologically, the latter involves understanding why political actors do what they do by reconstructing their perceptions and language in a given social context, rather than worrying about the “scientific” mission of generalizable laws and patterns of politics.

In terms of levels of analysis, that is, where the analysis is located (or the causal variables are located), this varies greatly in constructivism over time and across the literature. Constructivism’s “first wave” in the United States tended to be modernist and systemic, sociologically showing how shared ideas promoted changes and isomorphism in state identity and behavior. Critics pointed out great variation in norm violations or norm adoption across states and regions and focused on “domestic” constructions as barriers to global norms or as areas of study in their own right. Others focused on the social constructions of elites and decision makers within countries and the contingent definition of interests and options within domestic socio-cognitive constraints from Russia to the U.S. John F. Kennedy administration in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Theoretically, there are liberal, realist, and psychological variants, among others. Critics of early forms of constructivism noted its similarity to neoliberal institutionalism: that norms and institutions shape and constrain choices in the international arena. Charges of liberalism included the optimism with which some constructivists viewed the ability to change the world’s social norms and, thus, change the world. Others, intrigued by the notion of social forces and ideas applied to politics, represented realist constructivism or constructivist realism. More recently, Jacques Hymans heralded the arrival of psychological constructivism in Richard Ned Lebow’s Cultural Theory of International Politics, which combined internal psychological drives toward honor with global cultural dynamics to explain the outbreak of wars not clearly defined by self-interest. The potential of psychology’s focus on identity and beliefs to enrich constructivism has been explored in studies of threat perception and decision making.

Other forms of constructivism highlight the power of words, narratives, and linguistic turns; others focus on practices; and still others foreground the role of power in the process of social constructions that perpetuate or alter political relationships, behaviors, and structures. In any case, the constructivist tendency is to “denaturalize” and deconstruct: emphasizing that what we take for granted is a social construction that can, in theory, be changed.

Constructivism and Surveillance, Security, and Privacy

If constructivism questions the “naturalized” assumptions of politics, this implies that definitions and understandings of surveillance, security, privacy, and terrorism are bound to be contested.

At the broadest level, the notion of security tends to be problematized from the constructivist perspective. Jutta Weldes questions the objective nature of national interest, pointing instead to the culturally contingent politics behind defining threats and interests. Others have advanced a literature on securitization that suggests ulterior motives and politics behind things presented to the public as “threats.”

More broadly, national security and interests gave way in the 1990s to a notion of human security. Yu-Tai Tsai’s constructivist analysis of the emergence of human security credits the perspective for opening spaces for thinking and theorizing beyond the narrow practices of Cold War national interests. Edward Newman (2001 ) joins Yu-Tai Tsai in crediting constructivism with reframing the priorities of security and to whom security applies, “in contradistinction with the structural realist mainstream of international relations” (p. 240).

As terrorism is an important subject in the security and surveillance field, constructivism’s views on terrorism become relevant here as well. Ben Yehuda argues, as many others do, that “terrorism is not a ‘given’ in the real world; it is instead an interpretation of events and their presumed causes” (cited in Krishnaswamy, 2012 , n.p.). Metaphors and constructions for terrorism have been analyzed for their political value and social meaning in places like Germany, fundamentally questioning the assumption that terrorism is objective and not constructed.

In the realm of counterterrorism and national security, there is the matter of surveillance and privacy concerns. Monahan (2008 ) states that even technologies are not “inevitable developments” but “socially constructed . . . creations . . . thoroughly embedded in social practices” (p. 218) and institutions. Coming from a critical perspective, Monahan’s constructivism blames neoliberal ideology and associated political contexts for perpetuating notions of a privatized public space combined with increased social control mechanisms excluding and managing vulnerable populations in the name of confronting “terrorism.” These concerns about security/privacy trade-offs are not limited to radical theories of the left, and constructivism allows for various critics, conventional and critical, to challenge dominant ideas, practices, and institutions.

Role in Social Science

For all its promise and performance as a critic of mainstream theory, method, and practice, constructivism still disappoints in the realm of falsifiable, empirically testing social science. Some don’t mind, proudly denying the value or possibility of positivist-style knowledge acquisition and hypothesis testing.

Vaughn Shannon

See also National Security ; Politics ; Securitization ; Terrorism

Further Readings

Adler, E. “Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics.” European Journal of International Relations, v.3/3 (1997).

Barkin, J. Samuel. Realist Constructivism: Rethinking International Relations Theory. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Checkel, Jeff. “The Constructivist Turn in International Relations Theory.” World Politics, v.50 (1998).

Checkel, Jeff. “Norms, Institutions, and National Identity in Contemporary Europe.” International Studies Quarterly, v.43 (1999).

Eriksson, Johyan and Giampiero Giacomello. International Relations and Security in the Digital Age. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007.

Hopf, Ted. “The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations Theory.” International Security, v.23 (1998).

Hulsse, Rainer and Alexander Spencer. “The Metaphor of Terror: Terrorism Studies and the Constructivist Turn.” Security Dialogue v.39 (2008).

Hymans, Jacques. “The Arrival of Psychological Constructivism.” International Theory, v.2 (2010).

Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus and Daniel Nexon. “Constructivist Realism or Realist-Constructivism?” International Studies Review, v.6 (2004).

Krishnaswamy, Janani. “How Does Terrorism Lend Itself to Constructivist Understanding?” E-IR (2012). (Accessed September 2017).

Lebow, Richard Ned.A Cultural Theory of International Relations. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Monahan, Torin. “Surveillance and Inequality.” Surveillance and Society, v.5 (2008).

Newman, Edward. “Human Security and Constructivism.” International Studies Perspectives, v.2 (2001).

Ringmar, Erik. “How the World Stage Makes Its Subjects: An Embodied Critique of Constructivist IR Theory.” Journal of International Relations and Development, v.19 (2016).

Rousseau, David. Identifying Threats and Threatening Identities: The Social Construction of Realism and Liberalism. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Shannon, Vaughn and Paul Kowert, eds. Psychology and Constructivism in International Relations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.

Sterling-Folker, Jennifer. “Competing Paradigms or Birds of a Feather? Constructivism and Neoliberal Institutionalism Compared.” International Studies Quarterly, v.44 (2000).

Tsai, Yu-Tai. “The Emergence of Human Security: A Constructivist View.” International Journal of Peace Studies, v.14/2 (2009).

Weldes, Jutta. Constructing National Interests: The US and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Wendt, Alexander. “On Constitution and Causation in International Relations.” Review of International Studies, v.24/5 (1998).

Yehuda, Ben N. Political Assassinations by Jews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.