A Tale of Two Cognitions – The Evolution of Social Constructivism in International Relations

Social constructivism in International Relations (IR) is well established and popular, but many constructivists seem unhappy. Often constructivist dissatisfaction with constructivism stems from its success, which some claim to have come at a cost too high. The mainstreaming of constructivism resulted something important being lost in the process, some say.

Such concerns are misplaced. There never was some uniform IR “Constructivism,” which then lost something. IR constructivism has always been characterized by plurality from its very beginning. The IR constructivist family tree has had many roots and (intertwined) stems from the start. Early constructivists differed significantly in their approaches and expressions.

Moreover, a criticism that something was lost risks implying that there is some “true” form of constructivism. This is difficult to square with the central tenet of social constructivism, namely that things, such as approaches to international relations, are socially constructed. Social constructivism is itself socially constructed, thus implying that there is no “right” or “wrong” way for it to evolve.

Yet, IR constructivism has experienced evolutionary branching. By evolution I refer to change and adaptation to contemporary circumstances, not to development or progress. It was exactly this kind of adaptation that enabled constructivism to become as popular as it is today. By using the mainstream cognition, the so-called second generation constructivists were able to solidify constructivism as the third main approach to IR.

Currently, there are at least two distinguishable “genera” in the constructivist “family.” These two genera can be distinguished based on the kind of cognition they use. By cognition is meant here generally the mental processes of knowing including perception, reasoning, and judgment. Such a rough shorthand is heuristically useful, because it enables one to take epistemology and ontology together and at the same time. Other benefits of using this shorthand are that it allows to see that some criticisms of contemporary constructivism are misplaced and that constructivism experienced evolutionary branching.

One type of cognition can be called “joined” cognition. It is the kind of cognition used by such early constructivists as Nicholas Onuf and Friedrich Kratochwil. In their 1989 books, these two understood and reasoned in a way that took both science and interpretation together. Their very claim was that ultimately one cannot separate science and interpretation from each other. Important to it is an understanding of one’s own situatedness in and as part of a social world and the use of reasoning and judgment rather than inference or (logical) proof by necessity in making sense of the world and oneself in it.

The other kind of cognition can be called “separate but equal,” and it is the contemporary mainstream kind of reasoning process that was used to make sense of constructivism and to explain it to others, who were themselves using that kind of cognition. This kind of cognition was deemed legitimate particularly in the North American context, where science and interpretation were not seen as fundamentally different or as aiming at different goals. But science and interpretation were nevertheless kept separate.

With these two different kinds of cognitions one can re-read the history of IR constructivism as a tale of two cognitions. The early constructivists won some thinking space by being able to legitimize their cognition. But constructivism needed to solidify its legitimacy and to not appear too radical, if it was to leave the disciplinary margins. Thus, given that the dominant cognition at the time was different, at least with hindsight it seems that an evolutionary branching was likely, sooner or later.

In order to do this, constructivism was adapted to the mainstream cognition, to its processes of reasoning and knowing, if for no other reason than to be able to communicate with the mainstream and to explain social constructivism in a language that was familiar to it. In other words, the message was that one can “do” constructivism as a “normal science.”

By making the distinction between different cognitions one can avoid using the cognition of one genus to assess the other. Those disappointed with contemporary (mainstream) constructivism should self-reflect whether they are applying the characteristics of its own genus to the other one. And if so, it seems misplaced to be disappointed with some constructivisms using the prevalent mainstream cognition, since the constructivist family has split into two genera.

Mixing criteria of appraisal across them would be unfair. Constructivisms subscribing to the separate but equal cognition are consistent according to the criteria that characterizes this genus, and constructivisms subscribing to the joined cognition are consistent according to the criteria of that genus.

Finally, the language of genera (here, based on different cognitions) helps in assessing future evolutions of IR constructivisms. If constructivisms seem to use new ways of reasoning, new genera are easy to add to the constructivist family. One candidate for a further evolutionary branching is for example the practice turn or relationalism. It could be, though, that both end up being influenced by the “separate but equal” or the “joined” cognition rather than influencing for instance constructivism with a third kind of cognition.

Assessing constructivism as a tale of two cognitions in order to understand the evolution of constructivism in the IR field is the main purpose of the article A tale of two cognitions, which was published in the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional (RBPI – Volume 60 – N. 1).

About the author

Hannes Peltonen – University of Tampere, School of Management, Tampere, Finland (hannes.peltonen@staff.uta.fi)

Read this article

Peltonen, Hannes. (2017). A tale of two cognitions: The Evolution of Social Constructivism in International Relations. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 60(1), e014. Epub October 23, 2017.https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201700105.

How to cite this article

aclessa, "A Tale of Two Cognitions – The Evolution of Social Constructivism in International Relations," in Instituto Brasileiro de Relações Internacionais, 03/11/2017, http://www.ibri-rbpi.org/?p=16129.
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