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Feminism and Constructivism: A Comparison

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The discipline of international relations (IR) is one that has witnessed a multitude of variations and shifts. It has produced a fair amount of debate between academics within the international relations scholarship. Due to a plethora of circumstances scholars have subjected the traditional rationalist theories of neorealism and neoliberalism to critical re-evaluations. As a result, constructivism is a concept that has emerged as an alternative approach to dominant IR theories. It focuses on the importance of state identities in defining and gaining knowledge of state interests, actions and goals.

There are theorists who purport that the rise of constructivism allows for a further understanding of another international theory, feminism. This is a branch of critical social theory that illlustrates how gender has been thought of or avoided in traditional international relations. While they are fundamentally different in many respects, it is the purpose of this essay to illustrate that similar ontological commitments allow both constructivists and feminists to share a focus centering on the concept of social construction. The paper will provide a brief explication of constructivism and feminism before engaging in a comparative analysis of both theories, including a discussion of strengths, weaknesses and contemporary examples.

In order to gain a fuller understanding of the components involved it is first necessary to provide a brief introduction to the concepts. Theories of international relations were developed through three major debates and as such, IR ideas were traditionally dominated by the perspectives of realism, idealism and behaviouralism . Criticisms leveled by critical theorists, combined with the end of the Cold War and a generational change, led to the displacement of established axes of debate by a new constructivist approach to IR literature . Rooted in sociology, constructivism is about human consciousness and the role of this feature in international life . Dominant rationalist theories make distinctions between the actions and interests of states on the basis of economic and security concerns. They believe states act in accordance with the material structural incentives of the international system.

Conversely, a primary assumption of the constructivist approach is that identities, norms and culture play fundamentally important roles. Alexander Wendt and John Ruggie, the forefathers of constructivism, contend that this theory is characterized by an emphasis on the significance of not only material but normative and ideational structures affecting the role of identity in forming political action. An argument is made on the mutual relationship between agents and structure. Constructivists argue that the identities and interests of states are not only structurally determined but socially constructed by interactions between states, institutions, norms and cultures.

Concurrently, not only are identities and interests of actors socially constructed, they must also ‘share the stage’ with a host of other ideational factors emanating from people as cultural beings. The constructivist focus of inquiry is social phenomena such as norms, rules, institutions, language or productions . In sum, it is the process of social construction, the mechanisms that constitute reality, and not structure, which determines the manner in which states interact in world politics.

The decade of the 1980s saw the beginnings of feminist IR scholarship . Carrying over to the latter stages of the 1990s, for feminist political scientists such as Ann Tickner and Birgit Locher the third debate provided a new basis for an engagement between feminist scholars and mainstream IR proponents . At its core, feminism is a branch of critical social theory that explores how gender is thought of or avoided entirely in international relation models such as rationalism or realism . The fundamental difference between this theory and the traditional realist model is that gender is established as a core tenet. It is not unitary in form and, akin to constructivism, there is a concentration on social relations. An individual’s social location – meaning their ascribed identities, roles and relationships – are of central significance to feminists as it influences the power one possesses, which in traditional IR theory is gendered and patriarchical.

According to Christine Sylvester, these scholars suggest that conventional IR has avoided thinking of men and women in the capacity of embodied and socially constituted subject categories by classifying them into ‘neutral’ categories . Most theorists too readily accept that women are located inside the typically separate sphere of domestic life and “…retreating to abstractions, i.e. the state, that mask a masculine identity.” Feminist analysts are suspicious of ungendered IR texts and champion for their subversion while many seek to implement replacement theories. These theorists contend that identity, gender, and indeed women, are social constructs. Key feminist conceptions include liberal ideas of women’s equality, socialist conceptions of a sexual division of labour and the Freudian suggestion that identities are produced, often within the evolution of patriarchy . Many academics share the assumption that the world would be less competitive and less violent if women gained dominance in positions of power .

The focus of this discussion is based on the premise that there are overlapping terrains in feminism and constructivism. They share ontological commitments leading to a common research focus centering on concepts such as norms, rules, identities and institutions. Feminists, like constructivists, formulate arguments under the theme of social construction. Yet despite these common ontological starting points, there are intrinsic differences to both theories relating to the concept of power that requires proper elucidation. Constructivism is not homogenous as some unified middle ground in the debate between post-modernism and rationalism . Scholars in this branch subscribe to a diverse set of incompatible propositions.

But, as political scientists Birgit Locher and Elisabeth Prugl maintain, constructivists share a common way of depicting the world – it is one that is in the process of ‘becoming’ . International life is social and thus international relations are constructed when people communicate, follow rules and norms, are guided by world views, perform rituals and engage in various social practices . Agency and structure are co-constituted, not incompatible. Social forms are thus not only regulative, but constitutive; they guide conduct and create objects and agents.

This ontology in terms of social construction allows constructivists to account for aspects of world politics that realists and neorealists ignore. As stated earlier, constructivists focus on the constitution of international agents and unlike realists and neo-realists, do not agree that states act in accordance solely with the material structural incentives of the international system. Realists are unable to properly explain how state identities and interests are formed or are co-constituted. Normative factors, such as humanitarian intervention, are completely disregarded . Conversely, one of the strengths of the constructivist theory is that states or other agents are no longer considered as givens and attention must be drawn to explaining national interests, state identities and even social movements . Furthermore, their approach to the social construction of interests and identities allow for constructivists to explain categorical shifts in strategies, such as war or negotiation, previously disregarded by realists. In combining agency and structure, constructivists can better understand social change occurrences, such as the Cold War, in comparison to other theorists .

Like constructivism, the field of feminism is similarly diverse in range and orientation. Furthermore, there is a comparable commitment to the notion of social construction, especially as it pertains to gender. Both theories subscribe to the belief that agents ‘make’ world politics. For V. Spike Peterson, gender is a “…systematic social construction that dichotomizes identities, behaviors, and expectations as masculine and feminine.” This is exemplified through the works of a feminist researcher, Cynthia Enloe, who looks at the relationship between governments as dependent on the social constructions and reconstructions of gender that create certain notions of femininity and masculinity . In this respect, feminists, like constructivists, differ from realist IR thinkers.

Social construction designates an opposition to the material structures and is characterized by ‘malleability’ and context dependency. For feminists, masculinity and femininity are not solely pre-existing traits of individuals, but a feature of social life and construction . Enloe explicitly illustrates this through her claim that relationships between governments depend on the construction and reconstruction of gender and that such relations produce certain notions of femininity and masculinity . Thus, feminists concur that while agents construct world politics, they also go one step further by understanding how masculinities and femininities are an effect of such politics.

While feminists share with constructivists an ontology of becoming and social construction, this similarity does not preclude underlying differences. As exemplified, feminists believe that gender is pervasive in the socially constructed international world. Theorists have written countless works detailing how gender has shaped and enabled processes of state formation, war and peace, revolutions, economics, international organizations and global governance . In analyzing several constructivist texts, it is evident that less emphasis is placed on gender. Thus in terms of social construction, there are divergences, especially in their conception of power. Contrary to constructivists, IR feminists consider power to be a social construct and thus gender serves as a code for power. If gender is socially constructed, then it will concomitantly express the social locations of people and subordinations of power.

For feminists gender constructions are part of a larger system of subordination, usually capitalism . States, firms and international organizations play a crucial role in the construction of gender. From this a certain ideology is created that facilitates the formation of the aforementioned systems of subordination. Certain feminists, including Ann Tickner, see power as located in the formation of identities. Gender constructions are necessary to the development of identities and, as a result, dichotomies occur that organize the many aspects of international relations . Feminists consider power to be consistently present in social construction. Since gender is a code for power, it is a primary characteristic in examining international relations and world politics.

Alternatively, the constructivist works analyzed have not revealed a similar theorization of power as a social construct. They assert that power is treated as a material quantity that actors have and use depending on the specific cultures, identities or institutions of the state . Essentially, it is treated as a material resource or quantity. Their arguments fail to explicitly define how power is constructed or reproduced in the way that feminism does. While some constructivist arguments do indeed resonate with feminist accounts, the idea of taking power as a quantity rather than as a process in the social construction of gender is a fundamental point of departure.

In a comparative analysis of feminism and constructivism it would be pertinent to examine the exemplary and deficient aspects of these IR theories. Concurrently, several contemporary examples of works for both concepts will be discussed. Personally, I am inclined to agree that
constructivism assists in providing innovative solutions to questions raised by traditional IR theories focusing exclusively on the material structure incentives of the international system. The inability of realism and neo-realism to explore the reasons why and how states define their identities and interests as they do significantly limits the ability of these approaches to explore international change. By contrast constructivism enhances by presenting a model of international interaction that investigates the normative influence of institutional structures and the connection between normative changes or constructions and state identity and interests.

Thus it is utile in the sense that it allows one to understand state behaviour, which in turn allows for an understanding of the international social context in which it evolves. Yet there are also characteristic deficiencies to the constructivist attention to social construction. As evidenced, constructivists fail to conceptualize power as social and pervasive, which leads them to ignore vital elements to the reality of power politics. They focus almost exclusively on the importance of understanding state identities in order to explain national interests and state practices. But their treatment of identities fails to properly exhibit why certain sovereign states adopt one identity over another or how identity construction proceeds. Furthermore, as Reus-Smit elucidates, there is an overlying bias in constructivist research towards only ‘good’ and ‘progressive’ norms in the social construction of identity . They focus on human rights, environmental protection and champion democracy while concomitantly overlooking the construction of xenophobic and violent nationalism.

The social construction component of constructivist theory is exemplified by Thomas Christiansen and Antje Wiener’s work on the integration of Europe. They argue that because constructivism, as a theory of IR, focuses on social ontologies such as norms, rules, institutions, identity formation and a whole range of social constructivist features, it is readily ’employable’ in research on European integration in the late 1990s . The interests, identity and behavior of Europeans are dependent on norms and thus they seek to explain and predict behavior of actors and institutions based on the construction of ‘identity options’ . Drawing on constructivism, the impact of rules and norms in the European Court of Justice are examined . By applying a constructive methodology, it explicitly raises questions about social ontology, directing research of Europe and the European Union at the origins and reconstructions of identities.

Feminists find an answer to the process of identity construction in a social understanding of power. They are particularly effective in illustrating the way in which gender, race, class and other status distinctions serve as codes of subordination indicating certain forms of identification. Thus, they enhance an overall understanding and are able to incorporate the central tenet of gender traditionally ignored in international relations academia. Through this, as discussed above, feminists can theorize power as a social construct, and illustrate how gender and sex contribute to anchoring and creating modern identities and interactions.

As such, I tend to agree with the claim that gender constructions are part of a larger system of subordination and that traditional IR theory is dominated by sexism and patriarchy. On the contrary the stringent focusing on ‘traditional’ women’s roles as being subservient or dominated by males means that feminist international relations theorists exclude the participation of women in non-submissive roles, such as politicians, soldiers and ambassadors. Furthermore, from my personal readings, feminist international theories seem to consistently treat women as the sole subjects of examination while men are generally excluded, except in discussions of patriarchy and the privileged male actors.

There have been a multitude of recent exemplifications of social construction and gender as it pertains to feminism. Christine Chin, concentrating on the identity construction of developmental states in Southeast Asia, illustrates how the states elites and middle classes come to rationalize the demand for-and treatment of-domestic workers while pursuing the country’s modernity project, designed to create a stable, developed, multiethnic society. She interprets practices surrounding foreign domestic labor in Malaysia as defining a middle-class identity that constitutes the Malaysian state as modern. Leslie Ann Jeffrey construes the recent punitive prostitution policy of Thailand as enabling an image of the Thai state as modern and efficient.

She claims that this policy was a product of debates over gender and national identity in the context, and more specifically how it is a product of state capitalism and patriarchy. Jeffrey’s thesis asserts that because of the importance of the female body to the production and maintenance of national identity, prostitution policy, as disciplining female sexual behavior, serves as a fundamental site of the creation and policing of national identity . In summation, both these cases emphasize that identity is constructed and made possible through the subjection of particular female subjects in traditionally patriarchal societies and systems.

Many contemporary scholars believe that a dialogue between constructivism and feminism in combination can yield better theoretical and empirical understandings of world politics. They have served to provide fillers, solutions and alternatives to dominant IR paradigms that focus on the material structural incentives of states. There exists the conviction that due to their shared ontological basis, feminist theories can proverbially ‘fill in the blanks’ for the holes in constructivism and vice versa. As this paper illustrates, there are inherent differences in both theories, each with its fair share of strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, their similar commitments to an ontology of ‘becoming’ and social construction have allowed international theory discussion to move beyond the traditional and dominant ideologies.

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