The Social Construction of Anarchy 

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In international relations theory, anarchy is defined as the perception that the world lacks somewhat central government or sovereign authority (Guzzini, 2000). Berger, Luckmann, and Zifonun (2002) observed that the major international relations theories recognize the perspective that the international system is anarchic. Despite such, distinctions can be drawn regarding how each of the major theories handles the anarchic nature to which the international system is linked. There are various approaches to anarchy chief of which include realist and constructive from which the social construction of anarchy can be traced. 

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According to Kratochwil (2007), realists embrace the belief that the only relevant actors within international politics are the states.  Such perceptions disclose the pessimistic standpoint of the realists towards the international system. By distinguishing between the structure and process of international politics, constructivists appear more optimistic as opposed to realists. The paper seeks to answer the contemporary question regarding how anarchy is constructed socially considering both constructive and realistic approaches to anarchy. In particular, the paper details the key elements of the methods mentioned above. Also, it addresses the features of how these approaches conceptualize anarchy while exploring how anarchy is constructed socially.

Constructivist Approach to Anarchy 

Anarchy is commonly summarized by the Wendt’s contention that “anarchy is what states make of it” (Wendt, 1995). From a broader perspective, Wendt asserts that individuals act towards objects based on the meaning they confer to such objects alongside the perceptions of other actors. Based on such, people’s approach to anarchy relies on the significance they attach to anarchy (Bull, 1976). Also, anarchy can potentially mean different things for various actors. At the core of the anarchy, from a constructivist approach, are the inter-subjective values or meanings people attach to social contexts. As such, social constructivism contends that international relations are constructed socially and with installed social norms, values, and assumptions. Dunne (1995) clarifies such assertion through his statement that things only come into existence based on the beliefs of the people regarding their existence. 

Additionally, if non-state actors alongside states associate with the belief that they are in an anarchical arena, they are bound to witness a given behaviour set. The implication of such is that the understanding of a state or a non-state actor about anarchy will make them believe in certain ways within the international social context. Anarchy, argues constructivists such as Hopf, can be considered as an ideal community in which a range of anarchies exist (Guzzini, 2000).  Based on such, some international politics issue areas can be either less or more anarchic. According to Kratochwil (2007), this is characterised by the difference between how various states approach commercial trade and arms control. In particular, such is with states distressing more about the implementation of arms agreements as the price of relinquishing control over aftermaths to other institutions or states are greater as opposed to their position in trade agreements. Moreover, such stresses the significance of the role of the inter-subjective values or meanings people attach to objects in predicting the particular behaviours within international politics (Neumann, 2004). 

Constructivists in this sense dispute the realist perception that power politics and self-help are crucial aspects of anarchy. Instead, the constructivists argue that institutions are instrumental in influencing the process as opposed to the structure of international relations. Constructivist argue that the security dilemma witnessed in global systems can be overcome through interaction and corporation among states. According to Weldes (1999), such is based on the intersubjective meanings and understandings people attach to objects. Also, the security dilemma is not embedded in the anarchy but rather created through interactions among actors operating in the anarchy structures.  

Realist Approach to Anarchy 

Lapid and Kratochwil (1996) observed that survival is an instrumental principle of the realist theory. Notably, the realist approach to anarchy makes a central assumption that international system rules are dictated and controlled by anarchy. As such, it could be argued that governments create and implement laws to protect citizens from the domestic politics. By so doing, the governments reduce the prospects of civil war or conflicts. However, such claims do not apply in the international politics. Anarchy in this sense is considered a lack of a central government to implement rules and protect states. According to Wendt (1992), realists led by Kenneth Waltz associate this lack of a central or world government with the continued occurrence of war and violence among various states across the world. 

Wendt (1994) argues that the failure to put in place a higher authority than nation-states results into a self-help system among various states. Describing this self-help anarchical nature of the international system claims Wendt (1994, p.392) that it typifies an arena where nations look for opportunities with the intention of taking advantage of each other. Also, this characterization can be related to the consideration that it is hard for the international relations to overcome a state of anarchy and as such will remain dangerous. Such perceptions disclose the pessimistic standpoint of the realists towards the international system. 

In general, realists embrace the belief that the only relevant actors within international politics are the states. As such, a state of anarchy occurs since there is no central government or authority to govern and regulate nation. In anarchy, war and conflict are the key constant threats given that each state strives to ensure its survival and prosperity at the expense of others resulting in a security dilemma. However, there are internal intentions or divisions within the international theory of realism (Wendt, 1995). While both structural (neo-realism) and classical realism predict that war is an inevitable outcome in an anarchical international system, there is a bond of tension on how anarchy is likely to cause war. 

Given the destructive nature of human being, contends classical realists, war will always erupt. On the hand, neo-realists prefer to emphasize on social causes of war. They focus on social cause based on the argument that social relations among different states are responsible for violence and conflict. From the classical realism perspective, war is anticipated anytime owing to the human nature. According to Dunne (1995), politics from this perspective is a struggle for power, a reality that cannot be tamed within the context of the international political system. Also, the implications of such are that the human nature fights for both survival and power. 

At the domestic level, man faces constraints imposed on him by the central government to reduce the chances of conflict during this struggle. On the other hand, the war continues to be inevitable at the international level given that it lacks such constraints (Bull, 1976). Moreover, this anarchical nature of the international system acts as a barrier to the efforts of overcoming the security dilemma, leading to the rise of conflict among states. Realist theorists argue that overcoming anarchy remains unrealistic as it is hard for countries to feel secure enough with their sovereignty ceded to a central or world government (Guzzini, 2000). 

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On the other side, neo-realists argue that within the international arena, states operate in an anarchy which dictates some kinds of behaviours and priorities. Such is done to ensure a relative advantage and order within the international arena. As such, neo-realism focuses on the societal structure of the international community to explain why nations often behave in a conflictual manner. Contrary to classical realism, neo-realism argues that, through the balance of power, some sense of order can be created in anarchy. According to neo-realists, both great power states alongside non-state actors are instrumental to the balance of authority and relevant actors within the international arena. Guzzini (2000), argues that the power ratios influence the prospects for peace among greater states or super powers. As such, the international system structure regarding multi-polarity, bipolarity or even unipolarity and any resulting power swings can reduce or increase the chances of international conflict. 


Based on the above discussion, while the realists hold a pessimist view anarchy in the international system, the constructivists presents an optimistic perspective. Common to both realists and constructivists approach to anarchy is recognition of its existence within the international political arena or system. However, the constructivists argue that the impacts of anarchy are based on the inter-subjective values or meanings attached to it by people. Such a perspective answers the question behind this study about how anarchy is constructed socially. By distinguishing between the structure and process of international politics, constructivists appear more optimistic. As noted above, realists perceive the international system as not only static but also coupled with inevitable war. On the other hand, constructivists argue that identities and interests shift over the course of history. As such, a cooperation opportunity exists between states that had previously been involved in war or conflict.

From the constructivist point of view, war can be avoided within the international political system. To achieve such, constructivists suggest that overcoming conflict requires careful observation and reconstruction of interests and identities. Also, both realist and constructivist agree that power politics and self-help can potentially be identified within international relations. However, contrary to the realists, the constructivists contend that such features are not perpetual as they can disappear or shift with modifications in the meaning of anarchy. In particular, when interests and identities are transformed, new behaviours are created all of which can be clarified and understood. From a constructivist perspective, the consequences of anarchy can be reduced through the establishment of institutions. Such is because systems internalize interests and identities to create a new understanding of both oneself and other. Of note, institutions are instrumental in reconstructing identities.

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  1. Berger, P.L., Luckmann, T. and Zifonun, D. (2002). The social construction of reality (pp. 42-65). na.
  2. Bull, H. (1976). Martin Wight and the theory of international relations: the second Martin Wight Memorial Lecture. British Journal of International Studies2(02), pp.101-116.
  3. Dunne, T. (1995). The social construction of international society. European Journal of International Relations1(3), pp.367-389.
  4. Guzzini, S. (2000). A reconstruction of constructivism in international relations. European Journal of International Relations6(2), pp.147-182.
  5. Kratochwil, F. (2007). Re-thinking the “inter” in International Politics. Millennium35(3), pp.495-511.
  6. Neumann, I. B. (2004). Beware of organicism: The narrative self of the state. Review of International Studies30(02), pp.259-267.
  7. Weldes, J. (1999). Cultures of insecurity: states, communities, and the production of danger (Vol. 14). U of Minnesota Press, pp.23-67.
  8. Wendt, A. Identity and Structural Change in International Politics‟ in Lapid, Y. and F. Kratochwil (eds.) (1996). The Return of Culture and Identity in IR Theory (Boulder/London: Lynne Rienner, (1996): 47-64
  9. Wendt, A. (1992). Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics. International organization46(02), pp.391-425.
  10. Wendt, A. (1994). Collective identity formation and the international state. American political science review, pp.384-396.
  11. Wendt, A. (1995). Constructing international politics. International security20(1), pp.71-81.
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