The Politics of Aspiration

International Studies Quarterly (ISQ)

41 Pages Posted: 21 Jul 2020 Last revised: 18 Aug 2020

See all articles by Martha Finnemore

Martha Finnemore

George Washington University

Michelle Jurkovich

University of Massachusetts Boston

Date Written: June 28, 2020


Aspiration is an essential component of politics. It articulates goals, affirms identities and values, and structures action at all levels of social life. Yet political scientists have spent little time theorizing aspiration - what it is, how it relates to other concepts, and the kinds of effects it creates. In this paper, we develop the concept theoretically and argue that aspiration creates a distinct “aspirational politics” that differs from our international relations (IR) models of both norm-driven social activism and interest-driven rational choice. We identify three core features of aspiration that undergird its theoretical utility: lofty goals, change over time, and transformation through imagination. In the hands of skilled political actors, aspiration does essential work in both facilitating agreement and mobilizing social action that create change in the world. But aspiration also has a dark side and can be manipulated to dodge accountability, postpone action, and to serve private, rather than public, goals.

Keywords: norms; constructivism; rational choice; international relations theory; ethics

Suggested Citation

Finnemore, Martha and Jurkovich, Michelle, The Politics of Aspiration (June 28, 2020). International Studies Quarterly (ISQ), Available at SSRN:

Martha Finnemore

George Washington University ( email )

2115 G Street, NW Suite 440
Washington, DC 20052
United States

Michelle Jurkovich (Contact Author)

University of Massachusetts Boston ( email )

100 Morrissey Blvd
Department of Political Science
Boston, MA N/A 02125
United States


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