International Organization

Constructivist Approaches

What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge

John Gerard Ruggie


Social constructivism in international relations has come into its own during the past decade, not only as a metatheoretical critique of currently dominant neo-utilitarian approaches (neo-realism and neoliberal institutionalism) but increasingly in the form of detailed empirical findings and theoretical insights. Constructivism addresses many of the same issues addressed by neo-utilitarianism, though from a different vantage and, therefore, with different effect. It also concerns itself with issues that neo-utilitarianism treats by assumption, discounts, ignores, or simply cannot apprehend within its characteristic ontology and/or epistemology. The constructivist project has sought to open up the relatively narrow theoretical confines of conventional approaches—by pushing them back to problematize the interests and identities of actors; deeper to incorporate the intersubjective bases of social action and social order; and into the dimensions of space and time to establish international structure as contingent practice, constraining social action but also being (re)created and, therefore, potentially transformed by it.

John Gerard Ruggie currently serves as chief adviser for strategic planning to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, at the rank of Assistant Secretary-General. He is on leave as Burgess Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Columbia University, where he was Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs from 1991–96.