International Relations Theory: Critical Theory, Post-Modernism, Social Constructivism and Post-Colonialism – A Nutshell

ir-truthIn An Introduction to International Relations Theory: Perspectives and Themes, Steans et al. use the second half of the text to illuminate trends in IR Theory that have followed the “classic” schools of liberalism, realism, structuralism and its more recent neo-variations. Their attention focused on the origins, assumptions and criticisms of Critical Theory, Postmodernism and Social Constructivism. Further reading of Siba Grovogui’s chapter on Postcolonialism in International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity helped to make clear the content and criticisms of Postcolonial theory, particularly in practice by using the case studies of the NATO intervention in Libya (2011) and the Suez Canal Crisis (1956). In this paper, I will briefly summarize these named theories before critically analyzing each and seeking to elaborate on criticisms of both the theories and their depictions in these texts. It should be noted that the depth of each of these theories and the possibility for criticism of them, coupled with the spatial constrictions of this paper, necessitates a survey of each that is, at best, elementary.

Critical Theory, while having its roots in early humanistic Marxism, differentiates itself from structuralism by emphasizing the importance of ideas, culture, communication and, in some cases, dialogue, to effect and shape social practices. This process is reciprocal. Particular emphasis was placed on their understanding of knowledge as an ideological method for pursuing interests and how Critical Theorists thus believe that ideology, along with cultural activities, is one of the first points of offering change for the better – for which they still retain hope. International relations then, for Critical Theorists, represents the struggle between social groups – some representing the status quo and others representing ideological change through political and cultural action. Critical Theorists, while maintaining the crucial impact of modernity and global capitalism on the individual’s self-identification and the increasingly complex division of labour, are highly wary of the dark side of modernity which gave rise to means-end rationality, the dispensability of the human subject and the unprecedented violence of the 20th century (perhaps previewing the fear of Postmodernists as well). Finally, Critical Theorists like Gramsci and Habermas of the Frankfurt School recognize hegemonic forces (ruling groups that legitimize their power through ideology and set the parameters of public discourse) and the centrality of communication in shaping consciousness. Followers of Habermas emphasize an idealized form of speech in which open dialogue between opposing factions or hegemonic powers and their oppressed subjects would result in a cooperative and empathetic understanding of one another.

Criticisms of Critical Theory revolve around those who are named as Gramscians and those who follow Habermas. The former group seems to privilege class at the expense of other inequalities that affect social relations in crucial and quantifiable ways. The latter are criticized for what is viewed as an inherently flawed dialogic model. Firstly, there is unequal access given to various social groups in terms of offering voice to their needs, resulting in underrepresentation, particularly for those who need it most. Secondly, the ideal speech model may be too optimistic that empathy and communication would result in the tangible effects of properly redistributing wealth from the rich. A more general criticism of Critical Theory is that it is Universalist because it claims that, by definition, all humans desire the CT form of emancipation. However, emancipation presupposes a particular form of moral correctness and just society which is neither culturally sensitive nor seems to represent much beyond the Western middle class desires. Perhaps one of the most provocative criticisms is that Critical Theorists assert that our understanding of reality is “always mediated through ideas and concepts” (Steans, 127) – both of which are impossible to quantify and trace empirically: an issue that positivists would find insurmountable as a basis for understanding “reality”.

Postmodernism is presented in admittedly simplistic terms as only one of the most disparate and esoteric theories could be. It is said to have arisen out the criticisms of the Enlightenment (in contrast to liberalism and some Critical Theory which uphold the era as an important age for the progress of man through rationalism and science) and disaffected minority groups that arose in the protesting age of the 1960s. Anti-Universalist to its core, Postmodernism is focused on opposing grand narratives and theories while upholding criticism as the penultimate human activity. Postmodernists admit that reality is always socially constructed and that, thus, rightness and wrongness are empty values that offer no Truth about the human condition. In fact, they go so far as to say that any such truths no only do not exist, but that by upholding them, you necessarily create an Other who will be, under this political construction, oppressed for their difference.

The authours of the text then go into a rather cursory analysis of some of the work of Foucault and Derrida as the main intellectual contributors to this theoretical movement – if it can even be called that. For the sake of space, I will focus only on their portrayal of Foucault’s work. While they touch on his attention to the discourses as powerful in themselves and the necessarily particular and contextual nature of any given discursive society in history, they obscure Foucault’s later work (particularly found in various interviews in the early 1980s and those conducted with Paul Rabinow) and other postmodernist meditations on his work (see: Deleuze) where particular attention was paid to resistance. Though early Foucault portrayed the human subject as a product of power relations and this was viewed as both anti-humanistic and pessimistic, it is not true that Foucault offered little by way of methods for escaping constructed reality when it is oppressive. In various publications, Foucault stated that freedom was a continuous practice, not a state to be achieved indefinitely- ie. it is not ontological. Resistance to the social order (biopower) is freedom, rather than the popular notion of resistance as being protective of it. For Foucault, freedom will never be the foundation of social order because of this due to the idea that any society founded on absolute notions of freedom will necessarily oppress someone who does not fit the norm. In this way, resistance can be understood to undermine the criticisms that Postmodernism is anti-emancipatory or disempowering. In fact, in Foucault’s later work, it is only human agency (albeit, working within a particular discursive power construct) that affords people autonomy, even if momentarily. The lack of attention to detail with this crucial point makes me wonder what subtle nuances were overlooked when portraying other theories in the text for which I have less of a background.

Social Constructivism (SC) is portrayed as the eager newcomer in IR Theory and the one that holds the most weight in contemporary circles. While it represents “the middle ground” in IR Theory, critics claim that its lack of radicalism or “picking sides” makes for structural contradictions and other theoretical issues. SC claims to bridge the desire for empirical research of the social realm with unquantifiable notions of ideas and culture as it relates to IR. For Social Constructivists, construction is a social process (hence the name) that is effected by individuals within specific contexts. The key difference between this approach and positivist approaches that also rely on empirical, scientific and testable data with which to create theories, is that SC is focused more on understanding society rather than explaining it. For SCs, societal structures exist (and we know they exist because of their measurable effects) and they are mutually dependent on human agency which is also influenced by norms, identity and ideas. For critics of SC, this is a serious point of contention because such crucial concepts to SC theory are rarely defined appropriately. Terms are essential to building the foundation of a theory and without proper definition (arguably, things like identity and norms are indefinable by consensus), the foundation of that theory is noticeably weakened. This is particularly true of an in-between theory like SC which also derives legitimacy from the scientific method and observation; however, it is observation of things that lack observability that makes this “bridging” problematic. Additionally, if an SC theorist adopts the Spiral Model of social change (ie. that ideas are first accepted rhetorically and then common-sensically as the norm in coming generations) are all things socially constructed then and thus lack meaning across space and time? Bear in mind, that this nihilism is also a critique of Postmodernism which alleges to thwart it by begging the question of why grand theories or meta-narratives might feel useful or meaningful to people.

Finally, Grovogui’s chapter on Postcolonialism (PC) offers us insight into a highly provocative and controversial theory that gained momentum in the West in the late 1970s through the work of Edward Said and anthropologist Talal Asad. A brief look at PC theory shows that international order and IR theories in themselves are part of a greater imperialistic and colonial trend by European and Western powers to establish order through soft and hard forms of violence and power. PC is critical of “authoritative” or institutionalized knowledge particularly that which pertains to “native” groups of colonial lands who not only become objects of study for Orientalists but are also limited in their access to this knowledge that weighs heavily on the course of their lives. Tearing down the edified thinkers of the West like Kant, PC theorists remain skeptical of all selective historical storytelling that is conducted by those in hegemonic power over others as it will always serve a legitimizing purpose in their “civilizing” actions of the world’s Others, the barbarians. Furthermore, it is not only economic or political trends that continue to be controlled by Orientalists through institutionalized groups aimed at “status quo” international order (e.g. the UN or NATO), but it also occurs at the level of culture, language and identity formation of those living in postcolonial lands. Using the examples of the Western invasion of Libya in 2011 and the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, Grovogui demonstrates PC theory in action – where local anxieties or desires are undermined and bulldozed not only in favour of Western interests, but also because, as the Other, they pose a threat to Western dominance and control of world social order.

A few of the points of criticism that might be lobbed at PC theorists include an over-emphasis on reason and justice in the decolonized arena – a different form of Universalism disguised by a negotiation with diverse political entities. Additionally, while PC embraces hybridity and fluidity, the fact that this might resemble development in a Western-based value paradigm could be unacceptable to PC theorists. Radical PC theorists reject even the Western emphasis on scientific discovery and technological developments through the Enlightenment period and colonial era and so recommend dismantling reliance on these advances as part of decolonization – a process that few in these countries would accept as it would put them at a considerable economic disadvantage in the future. Furthermore, in the process of decolonization, many groups of previously colonized people become paralyzed by defining their identities and this can lead to extreme nationalism and the upholding of the state as the ultimate actor in international affairs. The state may be crucial to this process to some, but other PC theorists prefer to emphasize more subtle but pervasive social deconstruction such as through linguistics and societal symbols.

In conclusion, the arena of IR theory can only be described as containing disparate, often opposing, groups who are unable to see eye-to-eye on fundamental philosophical concepts about mankind. Recent attempts to bridge these gaps between what Steans et al describe as positivist and post-positivist schools, especially Social Constructivism, might be the best attempts at intellectual compromise, but even this theory is met with harsh criticism. A consensus will likely never be reached, but rather may call for a hybrid system of multivocality in which multiple, particular truths (perceived as Universal by some individuals and particulars to others) are upheld depending on cultural and historical contexts in which they are found.


Grovogui, Siba. “Postcolonialism” in Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, Steve Smith, eds. International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity. Oxford University Press. 2013. Pp. 247-265.

Steans, Jill, Lloyd Pettiford, Thomas Diez, Imad El-Anis, eds. An Introduction to International Relations

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