Perception and Constructivism

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Constructivism, a comparably new approach in International Relations with its roots in Sociology, is one of the main schools which deals with perception in IR. In Constructivist approach of International Relations Theory, as the name Constructivism hints, since very beginning it was argued that the world is socially constructed. In Constructivist understanding there is real world and world in our minds. As Alexander Wendt emphasizes “A fundamental principle of constructivist social theory is that people act toward object, including other actors, on the basis of the meaning that the objects have for them.”[1]

Due to the differences in cultural and social environment the same reality can be perceived in different ways by different people. In International Relations, the understanding of one common world and different worlds were expressed by Francis Fukuyama’s work End of History and Samuel Huntington’s work Clash of Civilizations. While Fukuyama made emphasis on one world heading for liberal democracy,[2] Huntington underlined different worlds with different values based on their historical civilizations.[3] According to Constructivists it is culture, history, civilization which shapes the views of the actors in international relations. In the words of Wendt, identity is the basis of interests. From this perspective, positivist approaches as Realism and Liberalism conceive identities of actors in international relations as homogeneous, because they tend to act in similar way. In other words, their perception of outside world is framed by power and economic interest. While Constructivists argue that identities of actors are heterogeneous because the cultures and international environment which constitute their identities are different.

In Constructivist school, there are several approaches to the problem of construction of identity. Systemic Constructivists like Wendt argue that interaction between subjects shape the identity of self, while unit-level Constructivists argue that domestic politics are more important than the system. Some scholars underlin third Constructivist approach that is holistic which gives equal importance to both international system and domestic politics. Nevertheless, there is consensus among Constructivists that the view about other and perception of other is closely related to the identity of the self. Therefore, in order to understand other’s view on the self, the identity of the other should be analyzed.

The self can feel sympathy toward other and present itself as friend of the other. But this feeling of sympathy and friendship does not mean much if the same feelings are not shared by the other. The famous saying of Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi ‘No matter how much knowledgeable you are, you are only as much knowledgeable as your partner understands you’ indicates that your knowledge is measured by the level of perception of the partner. In the same way, status of a state in international relations is determined not in the way it presents itself to other, but by the view of other states about it.

The change in the identity of the self leads to the change in view about other. Therefore, it is important to analyze the identity of perceiving part. As it is expressed by Wendt, the Cold War was over because the United States and the Soviet Union decided that they are no longer enemies.[4] In terminology of image theory, which will be discussed in next article, it means that reciprocal image of enemy was changed into image of friend.

In the final analysis, we can conclude that identity is basis of perception. This is the main argument I am trying to prove in my writings. Nonetheless, it should be noted here that although Constructivism discusses identity, perception and image conceptually, it lacks the methodology to measure the self’s perception of other. To fill this gap, it is reasonable to apply Image Theory of International Relations Theory whose main subject is image and perception.

[1] Alexander Wendt, ‘Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics’, International Organization, Vol. 46, No. 2 (Spring, 1992), p. 397.

[2] Francis Fukuyama, The end of history and the last man, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1992.

[3] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon & Schuster, New York 1996.

[4] Ibid., p. 397.