Concerning Alexander Wendt's constructivism, identity and change

Essay, 2005

9 Pages, Grade: 71 (UK system)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Alexander Wendt’s Conception of Change

3. ‘Corporate Identity’ in Wendt’s Approach

4. Conclusions

5. Bibliography

6. Declaration on Plagiarism and Word Length

1. Introduction

The notion of change in international relations theory is closely linked with the importance that is attached to the structure of the international system.

Traditional realist writers emphasised the adaptation of state behaviour to the structure of the international system. Structure was determined by the states' relative positioning in relation to other states based on military capabilities, economic resources and geostrategic position. The “bureaucrat”,[1] by adapting its actions to the actual facts was perceived as being ideal to cope with the requirements of international affairs. Due to the importance that is attached to action-determining structure, the scope for change is narrow.

Forty years after Carr introduced the notion of the bureaucrat, Kenneth Waltz challenged the idea of structure being only determined by the unit (state) level and the arrangements of its elements.[2] For Waltz, structure is determined by the ordering principle of the international system, anarchy. The self-help system, with which states are confronted, is causally determined by anarchy. In this conception of structure, change is beyond reach. Waltz’ approach, based on the immutability of structure, provoked criticism that was particularly aimed at the “static” nature of structure.[3]

The constructivist approach that became popular in international relations in the 1980s pointed to the reciprocity of structure and states that are acting under it. According to Alexander Wendt[4], the system of self-help is only one of various possible structures under anarchy.[5] The reason for the existence of a self-help system is not causally determined by anarchy. Rather, it has developed out of interaction and is reinforced by interaction – identities and interests of states arise only in relation to others. Interaction is based on intersubjective meaning, thus constituting the structure (e.g. self-help).[6] Actors’ identities[7] play a key role in the process of achieving intersubjective meaning. Most important and unlike structural realism, Wendt considers identities and interests as acquired by the states through interaction, thus being socially constructed and not exogenously given.

By changing actors’ identities, change of socially constructed realties is possible. Or, as Wendt puts it, “identities may be hard to change, but they are not carved in stone”.[8]

Wendt distinguishes between two different concepts of agent identity:[9] Firstly, social identities, which are constructed through interaction at the international level. Secondly, he introduces the notion of ‘corporate identity’, which is comprised of a set of interests and can be found at the domestic level. This ‘corporate identity’ is regarded as being existent prior to the interaction with other actors.[10] It is given exogenously.

This paper argues that Wendt’s approach, by taking states’ domestic identities as given, is not able to explain changes in structure adequately. Particularly, Wendt’s assumption does not provide sufficient insights into processes of identity (trans-) formation. Wendt’s approach is lacking a theory of action.[11] He is e.g. not able to explain the reasons and processes that trigger the change of role-definitions (identities) at the state level.

In order to develop the above mentioned thesis, Wendt’s concept of change will be shortly outlined by exactly identifying when change in identity, and thus change in structure is possible. In the main part, it will be shown why exogenously given ‘corporate identity’ constitutes the wrong ontological approach to explain identity formation sufficiently. Finally, in the last part of the paper, a summary will cover the findings of the analysis.

2. Alexander Wendt’s Conception of Change

Generally, Wendt expressed his ambition to build a bridge between material rationalism and structural reflectivism.[12] He wants to present arguments against the neorealist school of thought concercning the possibility of change in the international system. In this aspect, his approach fundamentally differs neorealism.

Wendt points to possible transformations in states’ identities by introducing the notion of “altercasting”.[13] This concept refers to conscious efforts to change identity on the part of the states. By introducing a new practise, the action of state A will have an impact on state B at which the new practise is aimed. Thus, if state B decides to alter its practise accordingly, this will not only have consequences for its behaviour, but also for its identity. By getting engaged in new patterns of interactions, new identities can emerge. ‘Altercasting’ can therefore be understood as the attempt to induce state B to take on a new identity by “treating it as if it already had that identity.”[14] Due to the new practise and newly created intersubjective meanings, the identity of state A will also undergo modifications. In Wendt’s way of thinking, agents and structures are seen “mutually co-determined”.[15]


[1] Carr, E. H., The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939, (London, Macmillan, 1981 (1939)), p. 14.

[2] Waltz, K., Theory of International Politics, (New York, Addison Wesley, 1979).

[3] See for example: Ashley, R. K.,”The Poverty of Neorealism”, in Neorealism and Its Critics, ed. R. O. Keohane (New York: Colubmia University Press, 1986), p. 272.

[4] Being aware that there are various authors which have contributed to constructivist literature, Wendt’s approach will be in the centre of this paper.

[5] Wendt, A., “Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics”, International Organization, Vol. 46. No. 2 (Spring, 1992), p. 399.

[6] Ibid., p. 397.

[7] Identities are “relatively stable, role-specific understandings and expectations about self”, Wendt (1992), p. 397.

[8] Wendt, A., Social Theory of International Politics (New York : Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 21.

[9] Wendt later introduces another concept of identity: collective identity, a form of social identity, which induces actors to define the welfare of the other as part of that of the self; see: Wendt, A. “Collective Identity Formation and the International State”, American Political Science Review, Vol. 88, No. 2 (June., 1994), p. 385.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ringmar, E., “Alexander Wendt: a social scientist struggling with history”, in The Future of International Relations, ed. I. B. Neumann & O. Waever (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 276.

[12] Wendt (1992), p.

[13] Wendt (1992), p. 421; for the story of „alter“ and „ego“ and the creation of intersubjective meanings and identity see: Wendt (1992), pp. 404-5.

[14] Ibid., p. 421.

[15] Ringmar (1997), p. 276.

Excerpt out of 9 pages


Concerning Alexander Wendt's constructivism, identity and change
University of Kent
71 (UK system)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
380 KB
Concerning, Alexander, Wendt
Quote paper
Michael Hofmann (Author), 2005, Concerning Alexander Wendt's constructivism, identity and change, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Concerning Alexander Wendt's constructivism, identity and change

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free