Realism, Constructivism, and International Relations Theory

22 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 22 Sep 2009

See all articles by Samuel Barkin

Samuel Barkin

University of Florida - Department of Political Science

Date Written: 2009


Constructivism and realism appear to have taken their places in the literature on international relations theory in direct opposition to each other. Constructivism is usually defined as being distinct from either materialism or rationalism, with a wall separating social construction on the one hand from a materialist or rationalist mindset on the other. A prominent state-of-the-field exercise, in fact, identified the rationalism-constructivism controversy as the central debate in contemporary IR theory.

Claims about methodological incompatibility between constructivism and realism often focus on binary oppositions between the two. Two particular oppositions are found most commonly. One contrasts realist materialism with constructivist idealism. The other draws on March and Olsen’s distinction between the logic of consequences, when actors behave strategically to achieve objectives, and the logic of appropriateness, when actors behave according to identity scripts, doing what they believe to be expected of them in a given circumstance. This opposition contrasts rationalism as a logic of consequences with norm-guided behavior based on a logic of appropriateness. Both of these oppositions are used by constructivists to distance themselves from neorealism, although the materialism opposition generally points to neorealism as an example of realism more generally, whereas the rationalism opposition is targeted more against “neo-utilitarianism,” the group of approaches to international relations including neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism, that build from microeconomic theory.

At first glance, both of these oppositions might provide useful heuristics in distinguishing constructivism from other approaches to the study of international relations. But both oppositions prove to be problematic, and quite possibly more misleading than illuminating. Each is problematic on its own, for reasons that are discussed below. Taken together, they are problematic as defining distinctions between realism and constructivism because they do not necessarily covary. One could, for example, rationally pursue an ideal, socially constructed goal. Or one could follow a logic of appropriateness socially constructed to reflect the material interests of another class. Furthermore, both of these oppositions can be misleading in the impression they give about the relationship among various approaches to the study of international relations, by suggesting a greater space than is the case between constructivism and realism, and smaller spaces than are the case between these two and other approaches. As such, they provide a useful starting point for delineating a space for a realist/constructivist nexus in the study of international relations.

Suggested Citation

Barkin, Samuel, Realism, Constructivism, and International Relations Theory (2009). APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Samuel Barkin (Contact Author)

University of Florida - Department of Political Science ( email )

PO Box 117325
Gainesville, FL 32611-7325
United States

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