Hidden in plain sight: constructivist treatment of social context and its limitations

Milja Kurki, Adriana Sinclair

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

13 Citations (Scopus)


This article argues that constructivism in International Relations (IR) suffers from certain important shortcomings in its analysis of the idea of social context. Specifically it is argued that constructivists fail to adequately engage with ‘social structural’ forces in world politics. While constructivists have pitched themselves as theorists who aim to account for the role of social context in world political inquiry, their conceptual focus on ideational factors – rules, norms and inter-subjective beliefs – has resulted in an inadequate, or incomplete, conceptualisation of social structure. Constructivists, it is argued here, tend to leave the role of materially embodied social structures theoretically and empirically unexplored. The limitations of constructivist treatments of social context have significant consequences for their analysis of world politics, for example, for recent constructivist attempts to deal with international law. Constructivist interventions into analysis of law remain deficient in important senses because of their failure to conceive of international law in social structural terms and because of their inability to explore in depth law's relationship with other social structures, such as patriarchy or capitalism. This entails that the structured systems of inequality and hierarchy embodied in law fail to be adequately recognised. Recognising the ‘incompleteness’ of the constructivist accounts of social context, we argue, is important in highlighting the often un-noted limitations of constructivist scholarship and in potentially redirecting constructivist scholarship towards closer engagement with ‘critical theory’ investigations into IR and law.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-25
Number of pages25
JournalInternational Politics
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2010

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