International Relations Theory has evolved over time and has raised several questions, debates and misunderstandings among the wide range of theoretical approaches. Constructivism, for instance, has been addressed through different analytical lenses that have led to dissatisfaction with mainstream approach. However, as argued by Hannes Peltonen, constructivism can be seen as a tale of two cognitions, distinguishing two genera within the diverse constructivist approaches. Hence, this article provides a support for the argument that dissatisfaction with mainstream constructivism is misplaced. This way, the author presents the variations, divisions and categorizations of International Relations (IR) constructivisms and argues that the translation of social constructivism to the wider IR audience led to several approaches due to the cognition factor.
According to the basic assumption that social constructivism is socially constructed, Peltonen stresses that there are multiple ways in which it can be constructed. Thus, these multiple ways has led to the IR constructivism evolution over the years and can be seen as different cognitions within the constructivist approach. Indeed, the author suggests that the constructivist family split into two genera of constructivism and concludes that the history of IR constructivism is an evolutionary tale of two cognitions.
Assessing constructivism as a tale of two cognitions in order to understand the evolution of constructivism in the IR field is the main purpose of the article “A tale of two cognitions”, which was published by professor Hannes Peltonen, from University of Tampere (Finland), in the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional (RBPI – Volume 60 – N. 1). Professor Peltonen was interviewed by Tiago Tasca, member of the editorial team of the RBPI, about the formulations developed in his article and about his own opinion about topics related to this research.
1. In your paper, you describe the evolution of constructivism by citing the most relevant authors and their contributions. Equally noteworthy is the importance of this evolutionary process to infer the crucial role played by cognitions. In your opinion, could this “cognition approach” be integrated to other International Relations Theories, like Realism and Liberalism? What would be the benefits and the downsides, if any, of this integration?
I use the cognition approach, as you put it, to re-read the history of social constructivism in IR (I use capital “Constructivism” below when talking about the approach as a whole). While I see no reason, why my general approach of re-reading the history of other IR approaches, say Realism or Liberalism, is not possible, these two do not find themselves in the same situation as Constructivism. With Constructivism, there have been clear indications that many constructivists (people) and constructivist contributions (publications) have quite diverging understandings of the social world and how to study it. In contrast, neither within Realism nor Liberalism nor within their structural (neo) versions does there seem to be such metatheoretical diversity. One indication of this is the neo-neo synthesis; another the criticism by particularly early constructivism that there was not much of a difference between Realism or Liberalism in terms of ontology and epistemology. So, I try to show that within Constructivism there are quite different, legitimate ways of reasoning. If that is the case with (neo-)Realism and (neo-)Liberalism, I see no reason why my approach would not also apply to them, but I am uncertain whether such differences in cognition exist within these approaches.
2. Your study mentioned the importance of considering the role of cognition in order to assess the changes faced both by consistent and inconsistent constructivism within IRT field. This way, regarding your argument about consistent and inconsistent constructivists, could you cite some features that enable us to differentiate them?
First of all, such labels as “consistent” or “inconsistent” constructivism are not my labels and I prefer not to apply them. My point of discussing this division was to illustrate in brief terms the disappointment many contemporary constructivists have regarding the state of Constructivism. Here, the claim is a variation on a theme of something having been lost, and for this reason popular or mainstream constructivism is not consistent. Rather than accepting this claim, I try to show that the so-called “inconsistent” constructivism may be so, but this is due to assessing it with the cognitive mode used by “consistent” constructivism. If one were to use the cognitive mode used by “inconsistent” constructivism, it would not be inconsistent. Moreover, I try to highlight that there is certain irony in some contemporary constructivists making this criticism, because it implies that many of today’s constructivisms do not fit what they think it should be. Here, the irony two-fold. First, such criticism seems to imply at least to me that those making it think there is some “true” form of constructivism, and this would be contrary to the general tenet of constructivism that social things are socially constructed and this must apply also to social constructivism. The second irony is that this criticism seems quite similar to the challenge early constructivism encountered, namely that it was supposed to prove itself on the criteria set by a very different epistemology and ontology. This was clearly an unfair challenge, because complying with such criteria would have transformed early constructivism into something that it was trying to criticize (but which eventually happened as a result of evolutionary branching, as I discuss in the article).
3. One of the theoretical assumptions adopted in the article is that constructivism is a meta-theoretical approach and offers an ontology that differs from rational choice. In addition, constructivist epistemology and methodology can be either compatible or not with other IR approaches. Thus, thinking about the cognition approach developed in the article, what are the main features that enable us to identify different cognitions within IR constructivism? Could we differentiate them by methodological and epistemological elements? How?
One reason why I use the concept “cognition” and decided on that instead of epistemology, ontology, and methodology is exactly my attempt to get away from these very loaded terms. My attempt is to try to see each approach as a whole and assess the cognitive processes behind it – how does it make sense of the world and itself in it? The reason for trying to be holistic comes, at least for me, from the realization in Gestalt psychology how the whole conditions the parts and vice versa. In other words, it is not just the parts that make the whole, but the whole makes the parts. And if we try to make sense of an IR approach (or anything, for that matter) by starting with the parts, we are already partially pre-determining what the whole “is” (what we will end up thinking that the whole is). Clearly, by starting with the whole, we are also partially pre-determining what the parts “are” (what we will end up thinking that the parts are), but at least when I start with cognition, rather than epistemology or ontology, I can try to take those two together and at the same time and by doing so, I am on the right path in attempting to understand how a particular approach “thinks,” namely what is its process of reasoning, how does it perceive the world and itself, and how does it make judgments; what does it think it perceives and why, what does it think is worth thinking about, and on what basis does it adjudicate. To answer your question, how to identify different cognitions in IR Constructivism, we try looking at how a particular approach makes sense of the world and itself in it, and here, sure, one will need to know a number or things about epistemology and ontology, but the point I try to make, and to use a common metaphor, is not that there are different spectacles or lenses that people can try on and see different things (even though this metaphor is true to some extent). Rather, I try to say that the head itself – and what goes on inside it – can be quite different.
4. The article sheds light on important theoretical questions about the non-uniformity of constructivism and the importance of the language of cognitions and genera to assess if something important was lost in translating social constructivism to the wider IR audience. In a nutshell, what exactly are these two genera and to what extent they are relevant to understand the current state of IR constructivism?
Some say that by having been mainstreamed, by having been translated, constructivism lost something important. I don’t say that. I say that there was never some uniform Constructivism, but from the start there were many different kinds of constructivisms. I also say that there was an evolutionary branching, and as a result, there became two genera of constructivism. I distinguish the genera on the basis of the kind of cognition they use. Early and some contemporary constructivism use what I call “joined” cognition. The so-called mainstream constructivism (sometimes called second generation constructivism) uses a cognition I call “separate but equal.” These labels refer to whether the cognitive mode keeps science and interpretation together or separate. With these two genera we can look at the current state of Constructivism and see that at stake is not that something was lost in translating constructivism (i.e. that the end result is somehow defective), but that the act of translation resulted in a new genera. Moreover, with this, we can then assess future constructivist contributions and see whether they follow one of the cognitions I highlight. If they do not, this may indicate a second evolutionary branching – and that would mean a third cognitive mode. Can we see that happening already? I am myself working on a third kind of cognition, something that I call “duality” cognition, and you can read my first article introducing it in a recent forum in the European Review of International Studies (3:3 2016).
Tiago Tasca is Tiago Tasca, editorial assistant of the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional – RBPI. Master candidate in International Relations at University of Brasília, Brasília, DF, Brazil.
Hannes Peltonen – University of Tampere, School of Management, Tampere, Finland (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Read this article
Peltonen, Hannes. (2017). A tale of two cognitions: The Evolution of Social Constructivism in International Relations. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 60(1), e014. Epub October 23, 2017.https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201700105.