The Social Self in International Relations: Identity, Power and the Symbolic Interactionist Roots of Constructivism

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This article argues that symbolic interactionist sources of the first generation of constructivists in IR theory are worth recovering because of their ability to address what constructivists have always wanted to understand – the social construction of world politics. Symbolic interactionism is more or less implicit in key claims of canonical works of the first generation of constructivism in International Relations (IR) theory. However, constructivism lost some of its potential to address everyday experiences and performances of world politics when it turned to norm diffusion and socialisation. The second generation of constructivists generated rich insights on the construction of national identities and on patterns of foreign policy, but did not fully exploit constructivism’s analytical potentials. Contrary to what most IR scholars have come to believe, symbolic interactionists saw the self as a deeply social – not a psychological or biological – phenomenon. Symbolic interactionism is interested in how inherently incomplete and fragile selves are constructed and deconstructed through processes of inclusion, exclusion and shaming. Today, third generation constructivists are returning to the sociology of Erving Go man and Harold Gar nkel and other symbolic interactionists to address problems of identity, power and deviance in international politics.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Review of International Studies
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)27–39
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - 2016

    Research areas

  • Faculty of Social Sciences - Goffman, Constructivism, Internatioanl Relations Theory, Social Self, Identity, Power, Self, Garfinkel, Mead, Social constructivism, Practice Theory, Wendt, Symbolic Interactionism, international relations discipline

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