Observing International Relations: Niklas Luhmann and World Politics

By Mathias Albert; Lena Hilkermeier | Go to book overview

14

Constructivism and International Relations

An analysis of Luhmann’s conceptualization of power 1
Stefano Guzzini
Prologue
Given the recent sociological turn in International Relations (IR) theory, usually labelled “constructivism, ” it is hardly surprising that more seemingly remote theories are also joining the stage, such as Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory. For there are good reasons for IR theoreticians to have a closer look. First, Luhmann’s theorizing of self-reference and “reflexivity” - crucial for constructivists (cf. Guzzini 2000a), and others too - cuts across all his theory in an extent perhaps unparalleled by another social theory. His theory is based on operationally closed, self-referring, and yet cognitively open social systems. Second, and related, Luhmann insists on a distinct yet parallel treatment of psychic and social systems, and of different social systems, such as politics, economics, law and science, to the effect that his theory necessarily includes a parallel treatment of “action, ” knowledge and of knowledge production. As a result, his theory allows us to observe in parallel, i.e. it runs an epistemology which is necessarily a sociology of knowledge, besides analyzing how science has become, and functions as, a social system.His theory therefore shares the main characteristics of constructivism, at least in my reconstruction (cf. Guzzini 2000a; see also Adler 2002), namely
1 being particularly sensitive to the distinction between the level of action (proper), the level of observation and the relationship between the two;
2 having an epistemological position which stresses the social construction of meaning (and hence knowledge);
3 having an ontological position which stresses the construction of social reality.

Power is crucial for constructivist theorizing, since it handles the relationship between the social construction of meaning and the construction of social reality. For constructivists, the categories we use, as they are shared, have an effect on the social world. To some extent, statistical categories “produce” what counts as significant facts, and function as the “authoritative” way of understanding the world. Moreover, human beings - but not natural phenomena - can become

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