Theoretical Approaches III- Constructivism and Critical Theory

A relatively new and challenging theoretical contribution to conflict analysis and resolution theory is the application of constructivism and critical theory. Treating the two as the same belies the divisions within this area of theory, although in the literature they are inextricably interlinked. Understanding constructivism also aids in the understanding of critical theory, and both are inherently normative in their approach as they challenge state-centric approaches to international relations and conflict resolution, questioning the nature of the existing order. In the text below a short summary is given that aims to illustrate the approaches, not describe them extensively, and the further reading of the source material cited is recommended.

Constructivism, as explained by Richard Jackson, is not a substantive theory in itself but instead a theoretical lens and set of conceptual tools and many of the concerns of constructivism can be found in the early conflict and peace studies. Hence, it is not a rival approach to orthodox, or state-centric theories, but a complementary one. Constructivism can be understood to have five main themes, which define how it can be applied. Firstly, it questions the social construction of reality and looks at how it explains social change. Secondly, it treats agents and structures as being dependent on each other and co-constitutive. Thirdly, there is a commitment to discursive processes as constitutive of conceptions, identities, interests and beliefs. These discursive processes include ideas, language and symbols. Fourthly, constructivism seeks the understanding of normative structures. A fifth, and crucial theme, is that cause and effect explanations are rejected in favour of social causality.

While critical theory is new to conflict analysis and international relations, it is strongly influenced by the works of Habermas and Gadamer. The former is emancipator as he argues for agreement through communication that is based on a discourse of equality; within this disagreement should be approached through discourse and be present even after agreement has been reached. Gadamerian hermeneutics can be understood as the interpretation of texts using a productive dialogue in order to produce a new, shared reality. Critical theory does not take the world as it is and each problem as one to be solved according to the existing world order but instead calls into question the origins of institutions and social and power relations in the context of continuing historical change. It has been argued that Post-Cold War international relations theory should incorporate critical theory as a recovery of the idealist programme, modernised to take into account developments over the years. It has a normative purpose and seeks the extension of moral and political community in international affairs. Another aspect is the focus on discourse, and linguistic intractability in intractable conflicts.

A distinctive aspect of critical theory is that it is post-positivist, in contrast to the positivist theories of realism, liberalism and Marxism, which have dominated the twentieth century understanding of international relations. Positivist theories assume that a distinction can be drawn between facts and values as facts are neutral and value free and facts can be established by testing them against the natural world using theories. Post-positivists argue that there is truly no such thing as objectivity or neutral and value free facts, therefore all concepts are historically and socially constructed using selected values. At its core, along with constructivism, critical theory brings into question the assumptions that are made regarding a given state of affairs and questions it in terms of a culturally constructed domination based on selective social, historical and economic values, which result in inequality. By refusing to take the world as it is, the critical theorist seeks change through the application of theory to the human condition (praxis) aimed at emancipation from oppression. It can be argued that the aim for the practitioners of CAR is the understanding and elimination of violent conflict. According to Vivienne Jabri, violent conflict is a phenomenon that is specifically human and reproduced through interaction that is historically situated. Deeply embedded discursive and institutional practices ensure that social relations have a recursive character constitutive of patterns in social systems. From this, it can be argued that if the assumptions underlying positivist conceptions of war and other human interrelations are challenged then a new discourse, based on equitable solutions, can be begun.

It can be argued that the critical theory based approaches outlined above would allow for a CAR approach based on equal communication and discursive practices. Taking constructivism first, the themes of interdependence between agent and structure and the importance of discursive processes offer an explanation of the relationship of the individual with the structural aspects of society and the nature of the discourse between them. Critical theory, starting from the bases of questioning the basis of existing social and power relations, and placing them in the context of historical change and also focusing on discourse and linguistic intractability offers an alternative approach to state-centrism. Critical approaches to conflict will explain the discursive relationship between actors and will provide a critique of unequal relationships. However, the situation requires non-violent communication for progress to be made. For this to happen, the parties have to reach the point at which they will modify their goals and compromise as part of a joint project of discourse towards a new, shared, reality.


Cox, R (1981) ‘Social forces, states and world order: Beyond international relations theory’ Millennium Vol 10, No 2, pp 126-155.

Jackson, R (2009) “Constructivism and conflict resolution” in: Jacob Berkovitch, Victor Kremenyuk & I William Zartman The Sage Handbook of Conflict Resolution (Sage Publications: London) pp 172-189.

Jabri, V (1996) Discources on Violence: Conflict Analysis Reconsidered (Manchester University Press: Manchester).

Linklater, A (1992) ‘The question of the next stage in IR theory: A critical theoretical point of view.’ Millennium Vol 21, No 1,  pp 77-98.

Ramsbotham, O (2010) Transforming Violent Conflict: Radical Disagreement, Dialogue and Survival (Routledge: Abingdon).

Ramsbotham O, Woodhouse T & Miall H (2005) Contemporary Conflict Resolution: The Prevention, Management and Transformation of Deadly Conflicts 2nd Edn (Polity Press: Cambridge).