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Feminism and Constructivism: A Comparison
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
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
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