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Ariel King

Dr Dibyesh Anand
IR I: Theoretical Perspectives 1ISP7A3
14 January 2010
Word Count: 2270

In what ways does recognition of social construction of reality challenge the mainstream IR
theories of Realism and Liberalism?

! Envision a group of young school-aged children playing the game of telephone. As

they form a circle, one student begins the game by whispering a message in their

neighbours ear. The recipient student then tries to pass the same information by a

whisper to their neighbour, and the pattern continues until the ʻmessageʼ has made it back

to the initiator of the game. More often than not, the message that comes back in the end

is far from the first whisper. It is also very likely that the manner in which the whisper was

passed, changed the further it went from its originator. Some students may have giggled

while giving the message, others may have had a confused tone in their voice, while

another may have mumbled due to not hearing the message at all!

! The various interpretations of the message that was sent in the telephone game

scenario defines the term ʻsocial constructionʼ. This is to say, that it is rational, and should

be expected of humans to interpret information not only as they understand it, but

dependent upon how it is presented to them. Similar situations arise in the political field

and in particular within the field of International Relations. Within a study focused on the

interconnectedness between various actors, interpretation of information is a key concern

to address when aiming to understand this discipline. How one views the world, and how

their neighbour views the world may not be mirror images, but they are, nonetheless

viewing a world that exists.

! With the vast amount of actors in international politics, and the wide scope of

interpretation that can be produced, it is necessary for IR scholars to recognise the various

constructions of reality that exist. This paper will aim to look at some of those realities and
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understand the context in which they exist. The challenges that these realities bring to the

major IR theories of Realism and Liberalism will then be assessed.

! One reality that is consistently being constructed is that of human rights. What

exactly do they entail and who is entitled to them? This is a dilemma that has sustained

throughout history. From Hebrew slaves to marriage equality rights, the perceived or

constructed reality of rights changes dependent upon the context of which they have been

delivered or received.. For this reason, it would be beneficial to understand how various

societies view human rights. While this is a purely social and cultural topic at its core, in

recent years it has become a political playing card with negotiations between actors. To

better grasp how the perception of human rights has changed modern politics, we will look

to the United States and Latin America for their responses to human rights.

! Although they are not the prime model for rights, namely ones of equality, the topic

of human rights has had great momentum within the United States since the latter end of

the of the twentieth century. Starting with civl rights and anti-Vietnam war sentiments, the

American interest in human rights has brought about a new political tactic for transnational

organisations and policy-makers alike. Organisations such as the Human Rights

Campaign (HRC) and Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) have demonstrated how

integral of a role they can have with decisions made in Washington.

! Consider the cases of the controversial civil rights matters at hand in South

America. In particular, the ongoing struggle between Argentina and her citizens. Studying

the views that arose during this crisis brings about an understanding of constructed

realities between the United States, Argentina and human rights organisations. In the

mid-1970ʼs nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) saw a rapid rise in participation of

advocates for human rights. This was specifically felt with the establishment and

enlargement of AIUSA. Their cause began as a grassroots movement focusing on

tortured prisoners and their surviving families, and transformed into a pressurising , ʻthird-
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party influenceʼ organisation. This is to say, that the NGO and government officials alike,

realised they could transfer information on human rights issues between one another to

achieve necessary political agendas.

! The constructed reality in this case has three realms. The primary reality, is that

there are mass killings and tortures being conducted in Argentina. The constructed reality

from AIUSA revolves around this military dictatorship as a violation of human rights. The

contexts through which this information is transmitted are first-hand accounts from the

impacted citizens. It is therefore the duty of AIUSA to protect the Argentinian residents

and their liberties. This can be achieved by sending this message to political leaders.

Whereas the AIUSA can raise awareness, they have no law that binds them to citizen


! The message sent to world leaders is one of concern asking for help. Their

constructed reality is one of negotiation, as they do not have legal ties to protecting

another countryʼs citizens either, a bargaining game must be played. This message, as

was in the case with Argentina, is then sent in the form of sanctions. In 1978, the United

states of America prohibited military aid to Argentina (Hovey, 1980). A message that

began as a question of civil liberties, ended with a message of sanctions. This shows how

one reality is socially constructed amongst actors.

! Conversely we can review this message with Argentina as the initiator and America

as the receiver. It should be noted that in this exchange, AIUSA would moved to the

second or middle realm as a tool for Argentina to use upon America. The primary reality,

still consists of mass killings in Argentina. This reality will exist regardless of the context in

which it is formed. This follows the suggestion of wood as the primary reality, yet it can be

constructed into a house, an instrument, or a weapon and furthermore have their own uses

within context (Fierke, 2007). But the end message sent from Argentina will show their

dismissal of US sanctions.
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! Social construction should not be a case that is viewed only as a theory. Our

means of interpreting information impacts several forms of life from the way we behave in

public to the beliefs and opinions we form. Consequently our construction of reality

impacts not only the individual but has a rippling effect upon those that surround us. As

this begins at an individual level it is only accurate to say that within groups, and

particularly international and political groupings, this construction becomes a snowball

effect with more actors. It is thus important to see the challenges of this reality within

major theoretical perspectives of IR as it is a force that cannot be denied. Perhaps the

theory that social construction tests the most, is that of Realism. Realism contains themes

of self-help, pursuit of state or self interests, the state being the only actor and most

importantly, state sovereignty.

! The question of sovereignty is a prominent concern when speaking of constructed

realities. Such was the case when the United States felt that action against the

Argentinian governmentʼs civil rights policies was a necessary objective. Where is the line

of intervention drawn between sovereign states? Is it not our duty to ensure the global

citizen has protection of basic ʻhuman rightsʼ, which in itself is an open-ended term? In an

a world with a view of how it ʻshouldʼ be, the case of human rights presupposes that

intervention is legitimised as state and non-state actors should be concerned with citizens

rights of other states (Sikkink, 1993). The constructed reality of the responsibility

undermines the concept of realism insofar that the global community may limit their

sovereignty with pressure to change their system.

! This also, consequently goes against the idea of the state being the sole actor. It

was quite apparent in the Argentina-US case that AIUSA played a vital role in their foreign

relations. A realist may argue that it did not bring the Argentina government away from

their agenda, but it should be understood that it was not made easier for the government

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! Does this mean that the state will no longer be able to word towards their own

interests and agendas? In some cases, with a very strong intervention this is possible.

On the other hand, this intervention and ultimately sanction to their military aid deterred

them from their original partnership with the US. Rather, there was a reconstruction of the

Argentinian political reality and they turned towards Russian allies.

! Lastly, the concept of a zero-sum game, or self-help is directly challenged and

criticised by social constructions of reality. One could view the Argentinean crisis as a loss

from the view of AIUSA, as this sanction did not curb the torture of innocent citizens. For

the Argentinean government this could be viewed as a win as their sovereignty was

observed regardless. Ultimately, the fact that these views stem from the same game show

that the interpretation of each scenario will determine the actions of all players involved.

! As realism faced many challenges with the idea of social construction, similar

issues are not as apparent with liberalism. As we are not viewing social construction as a

theory, but rather a process, the possibility of shared ideas between this view and another

theory should not be dismissed. Liberalism contains strong arguments that could be

explained through, not counter to social construction. For example, liberalism would not

dismiss AIUSA as an actor, but rather invite the organisation into the process. In the given

example between Argentina and the US, liberalists would focus on human rights and

reducing the conflict at hand. While several strong features of Liberalism do coincide with

social construction, challenges can be found when overlapping the social construction of

reality with the liberalist arguments on actors.

! The role that the state plays in a liberalist arena is very different to that of a realist.

For a realist, where the state has one agenda and one method of achievement, the

liberalist can have the same agenda, but use several methods. The liberalist accepts the

idea of other actors in he world. This is to say, they find structures such as NGOs and

intergovernmental institutions as players in the IR field, but the level of strength of each
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player is viewed differently. For the liberal camp, states are still very important actor,

working towards an end of of state interests. While they promote and recognise

cooperation between states and institutions they do not view the institutions as on the

same level of state actors. This could prove to be very detrimental to negotiations with

non-state actors.

! Social construction of realities do not off a hierarchy of realities, actor Xʼs reality is

not more important than actor Yʼs reality. Instead these are to work in tandem with one

another, constantly changing and being restructured. By viewing a fellow actorʼs reality as

subordinate in relation to oneʼs own reality, the continual process of construction stops.

For instance, if during the telephone game one student suspects that the message being

passed is not correct and yells out the perceived correct message they have valued their

reality as more important than their neighboursʼ. The end result of the game should be to

pass the correct message, this student was assumed they were cooperating by ensuring

everyone received the proper message. In doing this, the process of social construction of

realities has been broken and reshaped to only view one actors social construction of

reality. One could presume that a similar case occurred between the US the United

Kingdom and the United Nations in 2003. The primary message being sent was to stop

terrorism. Cooperation was present among actors as negotiations towards a war in Iraq

and further restrains on terrorism were being discussed. Rather than construct new

realities dependent upon the negotiations, one reality, to go to war in Iraq, was imposed on

the other actors, yet still viewed as cooperation amongst the US and the UK. When

situations occur that ignore the process of social construction, they limit the results and

possibilities of further cooperation.

! As understood from the above discussions, the social construction of reality spans

across many areas of International Relations. It should be established that the topics of

concern are not solely those discussed in the context of Constructivism as a theory, but
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also found in Post-Modernism, Feminism, and Post-Colonialism discourse. This is to say,

that there are many theories that acknowledge the importance of understanding how

others perceive given information. This information can be transferred through

organisations such as Amnesty International, through the media or through first hand

accounts. The important factor to keep in mind is that this is a constant changing and

learning process. The reality that is seen today may not be viewed the same tomorrow. In

the scenario of the children playing telephone, if they were to continue through the circle

for another three rounds, it is guaranteed that each whisper would be interpreted as a

different message, even though there was one, primary message originally sent.

! By recognising these constructions of reality, on a political level this could help

considerably with negotiations among actors. This is not to say that you will be able to

predict movements in the negotiation, but the actors will have a stronger identity of the

others context and can adapt accordingly. The phenomenon of constructing a reality

thrives on the possibility of reconstruction dependent upon context and interpretation.

Social construction gives way to change and flexibility amongst actors in the political

arena. In an interdependent and international community, understanding the social

construction of reality could be a great advantage to scholars seeking to define actions of

actors in the IR field.

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