Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Speaking Rights to Theory

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Speaking Rights to Theory

Article excerpt

The status of constructivism as an open and accommodating intellectual approach is at odds with its aim of becoming the most appropriate site for a theory-practice synthesis. As an exemplar of the social concern that forms the ontology of constructivism, human rights is well placed to provide the context of a critique. More often than not, human rights are taken to be an unreliable variable within differently conceived international political schema. It is now an appropriate time to look again at the opportunities that human rights offers in establishing the cohesion of constructivism. Challenging the limitations of preconceived notions of social knowledge, the focus of the article will be on the human-rights side of the equation; namely, its features as a universal and its manifestation as a power, and what they tell us about the requirements for "becoming theory." Keywords: international theory, constructivism, human rights, universalism, power, change


The holist principles of constructivism have not endeared it to all corners of the international relations (IR) academy. Some not unrealistically would have it on a confrontational footing with "establishment" or orthodox systems. Imagining how it might develop in order to gain credence in a theoretical sense (or for a wider base of scholars to talk with confidence about this prospect) is a useful exercise in probing the limits and functionality of what we call IR theory. Taking this idea as a place to begin, the next step is to assume that constructivism must surpass its current divisiveness, as the process of becoming theory is marked most notably by a coherent methodology required for a subsequently clearer and defensible position a historically consistent template throughout general paradigm shifts, (1) regardless of which a disciplinary strand or strands gain majority support in the future. (2)

Constructivism is an intellectual approach that finds its most purposive associative meaning embodied by a type of emancipatory norm. Human rights, understood as the apogee of that norm in both academic and popular consciousness, is "unquestionably the dominant and most broadly accepted language of morality in the international system" (3) and corresponds with the social and inclusive agenda of constructivism.

Human rights in international theory is an enigmatic concept. Attempts to account for its effects within international politics have been variously successful. In selecting the hemisphere of theory that is critical or constructivist, this task of proper and effective affiliation becomes less onerous and more focused, but it is still by no means an explanatory exercise. The aim of this article is to set out how human rights can be used to benefit constructivism, which is essentially divided regarding the relative importance of key ontological and epistemological features of our world, by providing the theory-practice linkage needed in order to focus this broadly conceived approach.

Giving constructivism primacy and allocating human rights the role of variable will sharpen the boundaries of the intellectual space(s) that characterize the problematic interconnectedness and disparities that still persist within this rapidly expanding area of thought. The intended outcome is to clarify exactly which aspects of the human-rights discourse impinge upon and affect constructivism so as to delineate the tensions and requirements for a "whole." With these signal features of the discourse to hand, the article uses them in conclusion to map out suggestions for further research within a broader synthesis remit.

The article proceeds along the following lines. Throughout, there is an overarching theme of why it is that constructivism and human rights occupy the same intellectual space from apparently the same or similar humanist origin. This is done in two broad stages; first, by analyzing the qualities and implications of universalism for "building" present and future constructivism. …

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