Alexander Wendt | American Political Scientist & Educator (2024)

American political scientist and educator


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André Munro André Munro is a regular freelance contributor as well as a former editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science (Northwestern University) and has written numerous articles...

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Article History

Wendt, Alexander

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1958, Mainz, West Germany (age 66)
Notable Works:
“Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics”
Subjects Of Study:
international relations

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Alexander Wendt (born 1958, Mainz, West Germany) is a German-born American political scientist and educator, one of the most-influential theorists of the social-constructivist approach to the study of international relations.

Wendt was a graduate of Macalester College (B.A. 1982) and obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1989. He taught at Yale University (1989–97), Dartmouth College (1997–99), and the University of Chicago (1999–2005) before joining the political science faculty of the Ohio State University in 2004 as Mershon Professor of International Security.

The publication of Wendt’s essay “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics” (1992) established him as the leading thinker of constructivism in international relations. Broadly defined, constructivism is a theoretical framework in which the fundamental elements of international politics are conceived of as social constructs. For constructivists, elements such as power, norms, interests, and even identity are not immutable facts that determine unidirectionally the behaviour of international actors. Instead, they are partly shaped by that behaviour.

Wendt challenged the then dominant theory in the field, neorealism (or structural realism), by arguing that the system it takes for granted is in fact socially constructed. Neorealists argued that, in the context of “anarchy” (the absence of any authority above the state), international politics is directly determined by the distribution of power among states. Because there exists no arbiter of disputes between states, neorealists contend, competing states are forced to expect and prepare for conflict. The condition of anarchy necessarily creates a “self-help” system in which states are bent on maximizing their power as the only sure way to secure their survival.

Wendt, in contrast, argued that anarchy is not an immutable structure that determines states’ behaviour but a condition whose meaning is itself contingent upon state relations. Self-help, therefore, is not the inevitable reality of international relations but only one among many forms of state identity and interest. Because neorealists consider self-help to be the fixed structure of international relations, they turn to the distribution of power between states as the key variable that determines their actions. For Wendt, however, international relations cannot be studied on the basis of the distribution of power alone, since the meaning of the latter, like that of anarchy, is mediated by ideas, norms, and practices. As he put it, “It is collective meanings that constitute the structures which organize our actions.” For instance, the position of England or Germany vis-à-vis the United States cannot be assessed solely on the basis of their respective resources and military capabilites, since that power will be construed differently depending on whether the state in question is approached as a potential ally, a competitor, or an enemy. British missiles, Wendt noted, did not have the same significance for the United States as those of the Soviet Union, regardless of their number and destructive power. The Cold War, he thus argued, ended not so much because the balance of power between the U.S. and the Soviet Union changed but because the two countries simply ceased to regard each other as enemies.

Wendt thus emphasized how the interactions between actors in international politics shape their identities and interests as well as their assesments of each other’s power. That perspective led him to reject the pessimistic predictions of neorealists. Just as competition can fuel egotism and thus reproduce itself, Wendt argued, states can learn to cooperate and, in the process, develop a more cooperative (or “other-regarding”) and less militaristic conception of themselves.

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In 2005 Wendt received the International Studies Best Book of the Decade award from the International Studies Association for his work Social Theory of International Politics (1999), which systematically expounds his constructivist theory. In 2009 he cofounded (with Duncan Snidal) the journal International Theory.

André Munro

Alexander Wendt | American Political Scientist & Educator (2024)


What is Alexander Wendt known for? ›

He is most well-known for his work on constructivism in world politics, including Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge, 1999), which received the International Studies Association's “Best Book of the Decade” award in 2006.

What is the theory of Alexander Wendt? ›

Constructivism, as imagined by Wendt, builds upon the work of Nicholas Onuf and Anthony Giddens, and argues for the mutual constitution of agents and structures, the historical contingency of cultures of anarchy, the role of constitutive and regulative norms in state behavior, the role of intersubjective social ...

What did Wendt believe could have powerful effects on how states act and understand international politics? ›

Wendt writes that it is possible to construct new identities even within an anarchic context where there is no central authority that governs international politics. He includes individual, domestic, system, and transnational factors among those that can help transform state identities and interests.

What is constructivism according to Wendt? ›

The original insight behind constructivism is that meaning is “socially constructed.” This is also the source of the label “constructivism.” Wendt (1992, 396–7) says “a fundamental principle of constructivist social theory is that people act toward objects, including other actors, on the basis of the meanings that the ...

What did Alexander Wendt say about anarchy? ›

Wendt argues that anarchy is not inherent in the international system in the way in which other schools of international relations theory envision it, but rather it is a construct of the nation-states in the system.

What is a constructivism in politics? ›

Political constructivism is a metaphorical term implying some resemblance between political morality and artificial, “constructed”, objects. To elaborate the resemblance, constructivists might suggest that political morality is an actual artifact, akin to a purposely designed set of legal and social norms.

What are the 3 cultures of anarchy defined by Alexander Wendt? ›

In the further developed version of the game that this article reports on, students get to “play out” theory in practice, by choosing between three game strategies that approximate the three basic cultures of anarchy: the Hobbesian, Lockean and Kantian, as identified by Alexander Wendt (Wendt 1999 [2010]; cf.

What does anarchy is what states make of it meaning? ›

Alexander Wendt's statement “anarchy is what states make of it” gives a holistic view of the constructivist argument on anarchy wherein he basically outlines the fact that people act towards others and towards objects in relation to the meanings that they hold for them.It is hence possible for different actors to have ...

What is the theory of liberalism? ›

Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on the rights of the individual, liberty, consent of the governed, political equality, right to private property and equality before the law.

What is the Kantian culture of anarchy? ›

Within the Kantian culture of anarchy member states of the European Union begun to accept the external constraints that were formed by the community or other states individually and to control the use of violence. They began to form an embryonic collective identity, common norms, values and rules and so on.

What is the Lockean culture of anarchy? ›

In a Lockean culture of anarchy, although states respect each other's sovereignty, they see war as a possibility and take actions to restrain war by balancing and forming alliances.

What is the best theory for understanding international politics? ›

Realism or political realism has been the dominant theory of international relations since the conception of the discipline. The theory claims to rely upon an ancient tradition of thought which includes writers such as Thucydides, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes.

What is the main argument of constructivism? ›

Constructivism is the theory that says learners construct knowledge rather than just passively take in information. As people experience the world and reflect upon those experiences, they build their own representations and incorporate new information into their pre-existing knowledge (schemas).

Is constructivism a good theory? ›

While constructivism is one of several educational theories, it can help students take a more active role in their education by relating new concepts to their own background or life experiences to deepen their understanding of what they already know and increase their comprehension of new information.

What is the difference between realism and constructivism? ›

Realism focuses on objective reality, while constructivism emphasizes the role of subjective interpretation in shaping knowledge and understanding. Realism focuses on material interests and power politics, while constructivism emphasizes ideational differences and identity.


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