Constructivism, and reshaping European identities and preferences


Constructivist theory did not begin with the study of the EU-indeed, as Thomas Risse (2004) points out in an excellent survey, constructivism came to EU studies relatively late, with the publication of a special issue of the Journal of European Public Policy on the ‘Social Construction of Europe’ in 1999. Yet since then constructivist theorists have been quick to apply their theoretical tools to the EU, promising to shed light on its potentially profound effects on the peoples and governments of Europe. Constructivism is a notoriously difficult theory to describe succinctly. Indeed, like rational choice, constructivism is not a substantive theory of European integration at all, but a broader ‘meta-theoretical’ orientation with implications for the study of the EU. As Risse (2004: 161) explains:

[i] t is probably most useful to describe constructivism as based on a social ontology which insists that human agents do not exist independently from their social environment and its collectively shared systems of meanings (‘culture’ in a broad sense). This is in contrast to the methodological individualism of rational choice according to which ‘ [t] he elementary unit of social life is the individual human action’. The fundamental insight of the agency-structure debate, which lies at the heart of many social constructivist works, is not only that structures and agents are mutually co-determined. The crucial point is that constructivists insist on the constitutiveness of (social) structures and agents. The social environment in which we find ourselves, ‘constitutes’ who we are, our identities as social beings. (references removed) For constructivists, institutions are understood broadly to include not only formal rules but also informal norms, and these rules and norms are expected to ‘constitute’ actors, i. e. to shape their identities and their preferences. Actor preferences, therefore, are not exogenously given and fixed, as in rationalist models, but endogenous to institutions, and individuals’ identities shaped and re-shaped by their social environment. Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, constructivists generally reject the rationalist conception of actors as utility-maximizers operating according to a ‘logic of consequentiality’, in favour of March and Olsen’s (1989: 160-2) conception of a ‘logic of appropriateness’. In this view, actors confronting a given situation do not consult a fixed set of preferences and calculate their actions in order to maximize their expected utility, but look to socially constructed roles and institutional rules and ask what sort of behaviour is appropriate in that situation. Constructivism, therefore, offers a fundamentally different view of human agency from rational-choice approaches, and it suggests that institutions influence individual identities, preferences, and behaviour in more profound ways than those hypothesized by rational-choice theorists.

A growing number of scholars has argued that EU institutions shape not only the behaviour, but also the preferences and identities of individuals and member governments (Sandholtz 1993; Jшrgensen 1997; Lewis 1998). This argument has been put most forcefully by Thomas Christiansen, Knud Erik Jшrgensen, and Antje Wiener in their introduction to the special issue of the Journal of European Public Policy (1999: 529):

A significant amount of evidence suggests that, as a process, European integration has a transformative impact on the European state system and its constituent units. European integration itself has changed over the years, and it is reasonable to assume that in the process agents’ identity and subsequently their interests have equally changed. While this aspect of change can be theorized within constructivist perspectives, it will remain largely invisible in approaches that neglect processes of identity formation and/or assume interests to be given endogenously.

In other words, the authors begin with the claim that the EU is indeed reshaping national identities and preferences, and reject rationalist approaches for their inability to predict and explain these phenomena. Not surprisingly, constructivist accounts of the EU have been forcefully rebutted by rationalist theorists (Moravcsik 1999; Checkel and Moravcsik 2001).

According to Moravcsik (1999: 670) constructivist theorists raise an interesting and important set of questions about the effects of European integration on individuals and states. Yet, he argues, constructivists have failed to make a significant contribution to our empirical understanding of European integration, for two reasons. First, constructivists typically fail to construct ‘distinct falsifiable hypotheses’, opting instead for broad interpretive frameworks that can make sense of almost any possible outcome, and are therefore not subject to falsification through empirical analysis. Secondly, even if constructivists do posit hypotheses that are in principle falsifiable, they generally do not formulate and test those hypotheses so as to distinguish clearly between constructivist predictions and their rationalist counterparts. Until constructivists test their hypotheses, and do so against prevailing and distinct rationalist models, he argues, constructivism will not come down ‘from the clouds’ (Checkel and Moravcsik 2001).

Constructivists might respond that Moravcsik privileges rational-choice explanations and sets a higher standard for constructivist hypotheses (since rational-choice scholars typically do not attempt to test their own hypotheses against competing constructivist formulations). Many ‘post-positivist’ scholars, moreover, dispute Moravcsik’s image of EU studies as ‘science’, with its attendant claims of objectivity and of an objective, knowable world. For such scholars, Moravcsik’s call for falsifiable hypothesis-testing appears as a power-laden demand that ‘non-conformist’ theories play according to the rules of a rationalist, and primarily American, social science (Jшrgensen 1997: 6-7). To the extent that constructivists do indeed reject positivism and the systematic testing of competing hypotheses, the rationalist/constructivist debate would seem to have reached a ‘metatheoretical’ impasse-that is to say, constructivists and rationalists fail to agree on a common standard for judging what constitutes support for one or another approach.

In recent years, however, an increasing number of constructivist theorists have embraced positivism-the notion that constructivist hypotheses can, and should, be tested and validated or falsified empirically-and these scholars have produced a spate of constructivist work that attempts rigorously to test hypotheses about socialization, norm-diffusion, and collective preference formation in the EU (Wendt 1999; Checkel 2003; Risse 2004: 160). Some of these studies, including Liesbet Hooghe’s (2002, 2005) extensive analysis of the attitudes of Commission officials, and several studies of national officials participating in EU committees (Beyers and Dierickx 1998; Egeberg 1999), use quantitative methods to test hypotheses about the nature and determinants of officials’ attitudes, including socialization in national as well as European institutions. Such studies, undertaken with methodological rigour and with a frank reporting of findings, seem to demonstrate that that EU-level socialization, although not excluded, plays a relatively small role by comparison with national-level socialization, or that EU socialization interacts with other factors in complex ways.

Other studies, including Checkel’s (1999, 2003) study of citizenship norms in the EU and the Council of Europe, and Lewis’s (1998, 2003) analysis of decision-making in the EU’s Coreper, utilize qualitative rather than quantitative methods, but are similarly designed to test falsifiable hypotheses about whether, and under what conditions, EU officials are socialized into new norms, preferences, and identities.

As a result, the metatheoretical gulf separating rationalists and constructivists appears to have narrowed considerably, and EU scholars have arguably led the way in confronting and-possibly-reconciling the two theoretical approaches. Three scholars (Jupille, Caporaso, and Checkel 2003) have recently put forward a framework for promoting integration of-or at least a fruitful dialogue between-rationalist and constructivist approaches to international relations. Rationalism and constructivism, the authors argue, are not hopelessly incommensurate, but can engage each other through ‘four distinct modes of theoretical conversation’, namely:

competitive testing, in which competing theories are pitted against each other in explaining a single event or class of events;

a ‘domain of application’ approach, in which each theory is considered to explain some sub-set of empirical reality, so that, for example, utility-maximizing and strategic bargaining obtain in certain circumstances, while socialization and collective preference formation obtain in others;

a ‘sequencing’ approach, in which one theory may help explain a particular step in a sequence of actions (e. g. a constructivist explanation of national preferences) while another theory might best explain subsequent developments (e. g. a rationalist explanation of subsequent bargaining among the actors); and

‘incorporation’ or ‘subsumption’, in which one theory claims to subsume the other so that, for example, rational choice becomes a sub-set of human behaviour ultimately explicable in terms of the social construction of modern rationality.

Looking at the substantive empirical work in their special issue, Jupille, Caporaso and Checkel (2003) find that most contributions to the rationalist/constructivist debate utilize competitive testing, while only a few (see, for example, Schimmelfennig 2003a) have adopted domain of application, sequencing, or subsumption approaches.

Nevertheless, they see substantial progress in the debate, in which both sides generally accept a common standard of empirical testing as the criterion for useful theorizing about EU politics.



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