Same Difference

Exploring the Divide between Critical and Conventional Constructivism

Scientific Essay, 2009

10 Pages, Grade: 77%




Definitional Parameters






This paper explores the similarities and differences between the conventional and critical strands of constructivism within International Relation. It concludes that there is a serious cleavage between the two, even though they might appear to be similar.

The first paragraph of this paper tries to define some of the concepts used in this paper, particularly the terms ‘conventional constructivism’, ‘critical constructivism’, ‘research paradigm’ and ‘methodology’. The first part of the paragraph explains the importance of setting definitional parameters, in addition to suggesting an analogy to gain more appreciation for the cleavage, and particular the type of cleavage between critical and conventional strands that this paper will reveal. Then, using taxonomies put forward by a number of academics, the classification for both strands are given, in addition to identifying their most prominent academics. Definitions regarding methodology and research paradigm are examined through Kuhn’s interpretation of paradigms.

The second paragraph starts by giving an overview of similarities different academics have observed within the constructivist tradition. It focuses on the critique of positivism, interpretative methodology and the importance of socially constructed ideas.

The third paragraph highlights the cleavage between critical and conventional constructivism. It argues that, although the position this paper classifies critical constructivists in a certain way which is rejected by some of those scholars, it is legitimised through Kuhn’s interpretation of paradigms. Both differences in methodology and research paradigm are then exposed, and the main argument made is that critical constructivism is so radical that it not only alienates itself from other theories in IR but also conventional constructivism, using the aforementioned analogy to exemplify this.

Definitional Parameters

In order to present the reader with a good analysis of the differences between conventional and critical constructivism by focussing on the research paradigm and methodology, a number of definitional parameters must be set. This paragraph will attempt to categorise the two aforementioned strands and give definitions for the terms ‘research paradigm’ and ‘methodology’. This proves to be a difficult enough task in itself, as critics of constructivism such as Østerud (1996) attest to. The different strands are hard to label, appearing under a multitude of names, in part because constructivists (especially critical ones) avoid labelling themselves (in both senses of the word). Obviously, no two academics are the same and no two pieces of scholarly work are the same. Within the discipline of International Relations each scholar and their publications will be more or less ontological or epistemological in nature, this goes for all traditions (Sørenson 1998). The analogy of the pregnant woman often used in democracy studies is quite useful on this subject. Depending where on the ontological/epistemological or positive/post-positive scale two academics are, their works might seem quite similar, yet on closer examination differences can be discovered and their position more accurately pinpointed. The same goes for pregnancies, it is hard to tell whether a woman is eight or nine months pregnant, yet on closer examination a doctor would be able to tell you the exact number of days. This paper will look at the differences and similarities between conventional and critical constructivism in the same way: first the superficial similarities, after which a closer look will reveal the differences between the two. This paper will conclude that, returning to the analogy, the differences between conventional and critical constructivism, are more comparable to a one month pregnant woman and a non-pregnant woman than them being at different stages of pregnancy.

An examination of discourse on and by social constructivis(m/ts) reveal the problem of ‘labelling’ mentioned earlier by Østerud. The most popular alternative label for conventional and critical constructivists is that of modern and post-modernist. This label is given in text books (Jackson & Sørensen 2007) as well as articles and papers (Smith 1997, Teti & Hynek 2007). The Jackson & Sørensen textbook mentions academics as Wendt, Katzenstein, Reus-Smit, Ruggie, Hopf and Finnemore as conventional constructivists and Campbell, George, Der Derian, Walker, Linklater and Tickner as critical Constructivists. Smith also mentions a number of these authors and adds Bartelson and Dillon to the post-modernist/critical camp. Finally Teti & Hynek’s paper builds on the authoritative classifications of Ruggie and Hopf who both classify critical constructivists as post-modernists and assign many of the names above to similar categories. This distinction stems from critical theory of the so called Third Debate in IR, in which constructivism has its roots (Price & Reus-Smit 1998, Teti & Hynek 2007). It must be mentioned though, that there are critics out there who feel that it is unfair to label critical constructivists as ‘post-modern’ (Jacobsen 2003), this paper will nonetheless use the categorisation proposed by the previously mentioned ‘authorities’ on the subject.

The meaning of ‘research paradigm’ in this paper is taken from Kuhn’s interpretation of paradigms. Guzzini (2000), with reference to Kuhn, explains why his interpretation is more suitable to constructivism than the definition of paradigms given by authors such as Vasques (1983), which are more suited to the rationalist traditions. Kuhn argues there are two central functions to paradigms: first, an “epistemological function of providing a coherent set of assumptions… that define legitimate research questions and significant research puzzles.” ([Kuhn] in Guzzini 2000: 158). Second, “they define the social subsystem of disciplines and what counts as legitimate research; they define the shared values and boundaries of a scientific community.” (Guzzini 2000: 158) The main difference here with Vasquez’s interpretation of paradigms is that for rationalists it means a set of assumptions or core values, whereas for post-positivists paradigms constitute the tools of researching and understanding science, in other words, paradigms do not provide answers, but the promise of answers (Vasquez 1997). This interpretation of paradigm shows great similarity to what Jackson and Sørensen (2007) refer to as the ‘research programme’. Especially Kuhn’s second point is evident in the ongoing debate about basic social theory within constructivism, which ties in closely to methodology. They continue by pointing out three areas which are further being developed by constructivists: to what extent do ideas matter? Should systemic or domestic aspects be emphasised? And how does constructivism relate to other theories of IR? The penultimate question posed here is of less importance to the critical/conventional debate and applies more to the differences within conventional constructivism namely along systemic (Wendt) versus holistic (Kratochwil, Ruggie) lines (Price & Reus-Smit 1998). Because the research paradigm and methodology are so closely linked, this paper will switch back and forth between the two whilst examining the similarities and differences within the constructivist tradition.


Excerpt out of 10 pages


Same Difference
Exploring the Divide between Critical and Conventional Constructivism
Dublin City University
International Relations
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
355 KB
First Class Honours
Constructivism, Social Constructivism, Conventional Constructivism, Critical Constructivism, Paradigm, Kuhn, Ontology, Epistemology, Third Debate, Research Paradigm, Østerud, Rationalism, Post-Modernism, Meta-Theory, International Relations
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Bachelor International Relations (Hons) Ralph Myers (Author), 2009, Same Difference, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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