Theory in Action: Constructivism
So in The Matrix, you know, what you’ve got is the whole world is a computer program. And what makes Neo special is that he can break the rules of the program. And so that’s what gives him his phenomenal sort of cosmic powers in the digital realm that descend into a really, really bad film by the third installment. What Neo can do is change the rules that the world is based on. And for a constructivist, that’s what people are doing all the time. Some people are better placed to do it than others. So, it’s much easier for Barack Obama to change some of the rules that the world is based on than for me or you, just because people will listen. And that itself is a product of some of the rules that the world is based on. So there’s this sort of endless cycle where we’re constantly changing these rules, we’re constantly changing the way social life works in little bitty ways that are themselves framed by the way social life already works. Well, constructivists want to see the world as something that we build out of the way we relate to each other. So think about this: if everybody woke up tomorrow morning and we decided that the United States just doesn’t exist, well, it really doesn’t exist anymore. Because, you know, what makes up the United States isn’t the buildings and the bombs and the votes, it’s everybody thinking that those things make up the United States, and that we agree that we act and we treat each other as if the United States is there. And it’s all of that agreement and all of those beliefs and ideas that give us the United States. And so for a constructivist, the same thing applies to the whole rest of social life, and that includes international relations. You just can’t have international politics unless you have a set of ideas. You know, you have to have a set of ideas about, there are states, states have foreign policies; when I want to talk to a state I go talk to the head of the state; you know, I don’t just talk to a random person from that state. You have an idea that there are authority structures, there are legitimate governments. And that’s how you carry out international
relations. And the interesting part for a lot of constructivists is the sort of question of, how much of that belief structure do you have to share before you can have international relations at all? So, you could imagine, you know, some alien comes down from Mars and doesn’t share any of our belief structures, has no idea what states are. You couldn’t establish diplomatic relations with Mars if the alien doesn’t even know what a state is. So a lot of questions that constructivists ask take place at much longer time scales than questions that realists or liberals might ask. So whereas a realist might ask, okay, what would have been the best way for a state to maximize its security in the 1600s, a constructivist would ask, what made people think there were states in the 1600s? You know, I had the example of, if everybody woke up tomorrow and decided the U.S. didn’t exist anymore, right? At the end of the Cold War, that was kind of what happened to the USSR, is people got up one day and they started thinking that maybe this shouldn’t exist anymore. Or actually what happens is people get up one day and they decide that maybe it’s not that important that that wall is there. And they start going through the wall. And then the soldiers that are guarding the wall decide, well, maybe it’s not that important that I shoot these people when they go through the wall. And then it goes from there, and the government starts deciding, well, all right, maybe it’s not that important that we keep these people out of the wall. And then it continues, and people start to say, well, maybe it’s not that important that we’re part of the USSR anymore. And very, very rapidly, this whole house of cards disintegrates. And there’s all sorts of reasons why: there were economic problems, there were political issues. And this should not at all be taken to think that there weren’t. But at the end of the day, the USSR would’ve kept going until everybody decided it was time to stop. And 1989 to 1991, they decided it was time to stop. And it stopped. You know, all of these things that you take as being natural and given just because they’re habitual, you have to be able to realize could be some other way, and are at some level the choices arbitrary. At some level, you know, what we do that red means stop is a random choice. It could have been green, could have been yellow, could have been purple. And there’s so much of the way we live everyday life that’s like that, because if we had to stop and think about those things all the time our brains would explode. You know, you have to kind of make your brain explode a little bit.