A Review of Shannon & Kowert (2012): Political Psychology as “Ideational Ally” of Constructivism in IR Theory

In Psychology and Constructivism in International Relations: An Ideational Alliance, Shannon and Kowert (2012) present a convincing case in defense of theoretical ‘cross-fertilization’ in international relations theory. The editors reject disciplinary isolation by advocating for an embrace of psychological considerations within the methodological context of constructivism, which they contend make mutually enriching contributions to the international relations literature. In making the argument that constructivism’s material basis for identity and interest formation is essentially an incomplete model for assessing choice behavior, it follows that we must then extend our consideration to the cognitive biases, errors, and processes of the agent to come to a fuller understanding. Where constructivism is seen as a potentially useful methodological framework, political psychology can be built on top to create a synthesized, interdisciplinary approach that carefully examines not only the macro-level social structure of norms, identities, and interests, but also the micro-foundations of behavior offered by psychology. This affords us a complete package for making inferences that go beyond the limits of a stand-alone theoretical explanation.

Making the case for a “psychological-constructivism” provides a degree of usefulness with respect to descriptive mid and lower-range explanations that create space for international relations theory to take on a larger heuristic role in political studies. Constructivist methodology as espoused by Wendt (1992), for instance, makes room for the development of mid-range theories of European integration such as neofunctionalism, which holds that transfers in some domestic allegiances to a supranational entity will trigger a “spillover” effect in which state actors realize that cooperation in one industrial sector contains economic inertia for material gains in other sectors. This level of abstraction is only made possible by rejecting a steadfast commitment to the self-help doctrines and formal modelling of rationalists and instead paying greater attention to process and the “inter-subjective” experiences of state interaction (e.g. trust building). This is the contribution of Wendt’s constructivist methodology. From there, political psychology requires us to turn our attention to cognitive elements at the agent-level that may interfere with standard accounts of rational choice decision-making. These include processes internal to the decision-maker, such as emotional motivations to regionally integrate in a post-war political climate, potential linguistic and cultural impediments to multinationalism, and simple normative beliefs that may interfere with collective identity formation. This presents an additional layer of complexity for the researcher to explore if standard systems-level accounts of decision-making are proven insufficient. Indeed, they are also worth investigating in their own right.

Although conventional wisdom would suggest that the constructivist may denounce the utility of political psychology as being too individualistic, a strong dialogue between the two schools has considerable potential for theoretical hole-patching. As “ideational allies”, these perspectives can work in tandem to offer deeper insights into political phenomena. However, it remains to be seen whether the editor’s narrow description of constructivism can extend beyond the positivism that Wendt’s constructivism is wedded to. Wendt’s typology assumes empirical observation can generate logical-causal links, but this largely ignores the post-positivist epistemology that underlies the critical schools of constructivism that are emerging in the literature. These include the Neo-Marxist, postcolonial, and feminist schools that posit an inextricable link between the processes of international relations and ideas of power, class, and gender. This postmodern variant of constructivism is not so concerned with extracting causal links and falsifiable explanations as much as they are with devising explanatory narratives and a grand social ontology to guide political behavior. How political psychology may overlap with this particular brand of constructivism is unexplored in Shannon and Kowert’s volume and thus we are left with an interesting frontier for further study: the intersection of individual agency and the identity politics of the critical school.

A Review of Shannon & Kowert (2012): Political Psychology as “Ideational Ally” of Constructivism in IR Theory

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