Constructivist Approaches to the International Relations of South Asia

Authored by: Aditi Malhotra

Routledge Handbook of the International Relations of South Asia

Print publication date:  October  2022
Online publication date:  October  2022

Print ISBN: 9781032159881
eBook ISBN: 9781003246626
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This chapter centers on examining constructivism and its application to explain the international relations (IR) of South Asia. The chapter is divided into three broad sections. The first section focuses on the theory of constructivism and provides an overview of its core tenets and theoretical claims. This is followed by the second section that reviews the application of constructivist approaches and framework to South Asian issues, focusing on the literature of the last decade. This section is structured around fundamental conceptual blocks of constructivism: identity, norms, and ideas. It centers on the analyses of contemporary studies that have used the concepts of identity, norms, and ideas to explain developments in South Asia. There is a primary focus on comparing the contributions of constructivist approaches with the mainstream IR theories. Subsequently, the conclusion section provides a brief analysis of the contributions of constructivism in explaining inter-state and intra-state issues and interactions in South Asia. Finally, some of the weaknesses of constructivism in South Asian IR are identified, followed by the recommendation that future research endeavors address them effectively.

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Constructivist Approaches to the International Relations of South Asia


This chapter aims to assess how scholars have utilized the lens of constructivism to enrich one's understanding of modern South Asian international relations (IR), particularly over the last decade. The theory of constructivism surfaced in the late 1980s and became a popular alternative to the previously dominant theories in the post-Cold War era. Before the emergence of constructivism as a theory of IR, the discipline was dominated by the lenses of (neo)realism and (neo)liberalism, particularly during the Cold War. The “neo-neo” approaches were relatively similar in their ontological and epistemological claims with different theoretical perspectives of inter-state behavior. According to Realism, states compete to secure their interests in an anarchic world. Liberalism contested this view by claiming that self-serving states are not always interested in conflict but also value international cooperation achieved through positive linkages between institutions and groups. The Constructivist approach emerged as a viable “middle ground between the two schools of thought centered on the ‘conflictual relations’ or the ‘cooperative tendencies in human nature.’” 1

Constructivism in its early days began as an “interpretive meta-theory,” which questioned the reliance of Neorealism on material forces to explain IR. 2 Nicholas G. Onuf—one of the founders of constructivism—underlined the importance of revisiting the fundamentals of IR in his book, World of Our Making. 3 He highlighted the need to understand global politics as a function of human actions and social interactions. Contrary to traditional assumptions, Constructivism propounds that the international system is not a result of material forces and their distribution alone. The ontological foundation of Constructivism is based on the claim that “social reality is constructed.” 4 The epistemological outlook is that “knowledge is constructed,” followed by the understanding that reality and knowledge are “mutually constitutive.” 5 The fundamental tenets of the Constructivist approach include the relevance and importance of “identity,” “norms” and “ideas” in international politics.

The theory claims that anarchy, cooperation, or even the international system do not exist in nature as a physical form and, therefore, should not be viewed as reality by default. Instead, these are “socially constructed” realities that have emerged from social interactions between actors and agents of the state. 6 For example, the term “South Asia” is a socially constructed concept or a “mental map” defined or conceptualized based on a specific geopolitical and historical emphasis. 7 There is a shared agreement among some scholars and practitioners that eight countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) can be clubbed together (metaphorically) as a legitimate sub-region. Constructivism's construction of reality enables one to separate South Asia as a conceptual sub-unit of the massive landmass of Asia. In short, the concept of South Asia is a constructed reality infused by regional geopolitics and historical associations.

As the subsequent sections demonstrate, the understanding of South Asian IR is enhanced considerably by utilizing constructivism because it offers an in-depth and holistic explanation of issues and concepts overlooked by traditional theories. The theory can identify and unravel the nuances of inter-state and intra-state relations in South Asia by peeking inside the “black box” model of a state. It values the influence of material factors and combines them with ideational and non-material determinants to portray a complete picture of real-world developments in South Asia without compromising on the finer details such as the state's experiential reality and sub-state identities. Because constructivism factors in the local factors, it does greater justice to explaining policy changes (including of smaller states) compared to mainstream theories that tend to apply a set of western concepts to non-western settings.

Constructivist Explanations of International Relations

One of the fundamental propositions is the role of identity in international politics. Constructivism understands identity as an actors' self-representation of who they are and how they relate to external actors. The fundamental questions pertaining to identity include, “Who am I in the socially interactive international system? What role do I play in relation to the Others?” Alexander Wendt argues that “actors acquire identities—relatively stable, role-specific understandings and expectations about self, by participating in collective meanings.” 8 They form “the basis of interests.” 9 The self-conception of a state determines what its interests would be and how would it pursue those interests. This also implies that the type of international system that exists (for example, anarchic or cooperative) is based on how the actors identify themselves, how they perceive others, and what they consider to be their self-interest and interest vis-à-vis others.

Based on a state's social interaction with outside actors, it can acquire multiple identities such as a sovereign country, peaceful state, ally, great power, or imperial power. 10 These identities then shape the interests, determining external behavior and policy choices. Hill and Wallace shed light on the link between national identity and foreign policy. According to them,

the foreign policy rests upon a shared sense of national identity, of a nation-state's ‘place in the world’, its friends and enemies, its interests and aspirations. These underlying assumptions are embedded in national history and myth, changing slowly over time as political leaders reinterpret them and external and internal developments reshape them. 11

Aspects such as historical, cultural, and political contexts also influence national identity and thereby the actor's interests. 12 Because states have distinct histories, cultures, social landscapes, or domestic political systems, their external behavior is bound to differ from one another. By grasping the unique experiential realities of the states or sub-systemic factors, Constructivism peeks into the “black box” model of the state and offers explanations of state behavior that other conventional IR theories tend to overlook. This explains why countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and the United States have different foreign policy attributes and do not always act like each other in the international system.

When states choose their identities, they tend to adhere to the associated norms. Norms can be described as “a standard of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity.” 13 Therefore, if a state assumes the identity of a sovereign state, it will comply with norms that are appropriate and associated with it. Norms are intersubjective and connected with actions. They serve as frameworks for expected or most appropriate behavior. Finnemore and Sikkink divide norms into three broad categories: Regulative, constitutive, and prescriptive norms. 14 While regulative norms tend to “order and constrain behavior,” constitutive norms “create new actors, interests, or categories of action.” 15 Prescriptive or evaluative norms “involve standards of ‘appropriate’ or ‘proper’ behavior” and provide a sense of “oughtness,” which differentiates norms from rules. 16 Given the varying functions of the norms, they have varied influences on the actor's actions. Having noted that, it is equally important to note that norms do not determine actions directly. Norms along with identities shape interests, which in turn shape actions and policy choices. 17

In addition to identity and norms, constructivism also places great emphasis on ideas. Ideas are mental frames or constructs widely shared among people or groups. From the gamut of ideas that exist, Tannenwald focuses on four types: “Ideologies, normative beliefs, cause-effect beliefs and policy prescriptions,” which she explains deftly: 18

  • Ideologies are related to doctrines, philosophies, or beliefs that a group of people share and stand by. Examples include political doctrines such as liberalism and Marxism.
  • Normative ideas deal with what is considered right and wrong or just and unjust—for instance, human rights violations or invasions.
  • Cause-effect ideas deal with understanding what means one should choose to achieve a specific end or objective.
  • Policy prescription ideas relate to shared beliefs on “causal ideas” or specific strategies and policy actions that effectively address policy issues or challenges. 19

Given this understanding, it is worth noting that while Constructivism regards the state as a crucial actor, it also acknowledges other actors and their agential value in international politics. Additional actors may include “states' agencies, social community, international organizations, think tanks” that shape ideas, norms, and the identity of a state. 20 Constructivism breaks the tradition of state-centric approaches by factoring in non-state actors of varying types. It also enables one to analyze the role played by sub-national actors in IR.

Constructivism claims that identities, ideas, norms, and interests are not static or fixed as assumed under other conventional IR approaches. Because these aspects are “constructed,” they are subject to changes primarily as a function of social interactions (including the processes of socialization and internalization). 21 This does not mean that identities, ideas, and norms are fluid and ever-changing. Broadly, they are stable but may evolve or change over long stretches of time. Constructivists posit that changes in identity, norms, or ideas can affect a state's interests, thereby spurring a change in actions and patterns of behavior.

Given this theoretical backdrop, it is crucial to understand that constructivism is not a monolithic school of thought (like any other IR theory) and has many variants. Despite the ontological and epistemological outlooks, there is a range of variants of Constructivism—such as Social Constructivism and Critical Constructivism 22 —that emphasize some concepts more than others and have nuanced understandings of pertinent concepts. Needless to state, the school of thought and its variants are continuously experiencing conceptual development through scholarly debates within the discipline of IR and infusion with other approaches. 23

One of the strengths of the Constructivist approach lies in its treatment of the agent-structure dilemma in IR, whether the agent influences the structure or vice-versa. Constructivism goes beyond the conventional assumptions in IR theories that the structure and agents are ontologically distinct. They also believe that the structure is dominant and can significantly shape the agent's behavior. One of the basic premises of the Constructivist approach is that the agency and structure are “mutually constituted” and ontologically equal. 24 This implies that both the structure and the agency hold equal precedence and are interconnected. They influence each other in the process of their social interactions.

For instance, one can refer to the shared understanding of an “international system” as the structure and associate the states as “agents,” i.e., entities that operate within the structure. According to Constructivists, the conduct of the state or states can shape the notion and concept of the international system. Similarly, the international system can socialize states or influence them to adjust their behavior to align with the constructed reality of the structure. The ongoing interaction between the two within the social context can lead to their reconstruction or redefinition. In short, both entities can influence and co-determine the other.

It is crucial to note that despite the ideational focus of constructivism, it does not disregard the relevance of power or interests as one of the explanatory variables. Instead, it propounds that ideational and non-material factors interact with structural and material determinants, and sub-national aspects to construct “reality” or multiple realities.

Constructivism and South Asian IR

In previous decades, the literature on South Asia IR gave the impression that regional issues were best explained through structural approaches. Despite the Eurocentric conceptions of global politics, these theories were used to describe regional interactions in non-western settings, including South Asia. Materialistic factors and the logic of balance of power (BoP) were projected as the primary determinants of South Asian affairs. 25 Notwithstanding their valuable contributions, recent works have highlighted some of the weaknesses in traditional theoretical approaches, leading to insufficient insights on regional affairs and inter-state interactions.

Over the last decade, many scholars have opted for constructivism and associated approaches to examine empirical puzzles of South Asia. This is a marked change from the previous works that generally relied on the concepts of BoP and the security dilemma to explain regional politics and inter-state relations. With new literature, there is greater cognizance of the complexities in South Asia's inter-state relations and intra-state affairs. At the same time, there is a greater acknowledgement that endogenous and ideational factors augment one's understanding of regional politics. The following section provides an overview of Constructivism-guided studies over the last decade and their contributions to explaining South Asian IR. The larger section is sub-divided into smaller sections, based on the fundamental tenets of constructivism: Identity, norms, and ideas. These sub-sections demonstrate how scholars and analysts have used each concept to explain contemporary South Asian IR comprehensively.


In the last ten years, the concept of identity has gained considerable attention from the community of IR scholars and foreign policy analysts. That noted, a great deal of the emerging literature concentrates on security issues. This is an expected trend considering most constructivism-centric studies on South Asian IR begin by challenging existing Realist accounts on regional security issues and offering better explanations. 26 Another aspect of constructivism-driven studies is the lopsided attention toward India and Pakistan with limited attention on other states in the region. This practice persists despite some recent works that break the tradition and analyze the policies of Bhutan, Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, by studying ideational determinants of state behavior, contemporary works have provided new insights on previously analyzed issues and explored new areas of inquiry.

As stated, the lens of constructivism is widely employed in the area of Indian foreign policy. Many scholars have used the concept of identity to explain the dichotomies in New Delhi's external policy and regional interactions. Chacko's work on India's national identity deserves mention as it heavily draws from Constructivism as a theory and methodology. 27 In her book on Indian foreign policy, Chacko argues that realist or liberal accounts tend to confine India to either a Realist power, an Idealist power, or a mix of the two. 28 Apart from broad-level analysis, there is little thought on the changes in Indian policy despite no substantial changes in official rhetoric. She argues that India's post-colonial identity, including “civilizational exceptionalism,” infuses an element of morality in Indian foreign policy. 29 At the same time, its experiential reality of invasions and conquest has shaped India's foreign relations. 30

In her more recent research, Chacko uses the framework of Constructivism to address a prominent empirical puzzle that has received inadequate theoretical attention. She identifies the reason for a change in India's strategic posture toward Pakistan from 2008 to 2016. India has practiced strategic restraint toward Pakistan after the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai but chose to conduct surgical strikes in disputed Kashmiri territory under Pakistan's control in the 2016 Uri attack. In the mid-2000s, as Chacko argues, India's choices were shaped by a “transformational” identity that adopted an economic growth-centric outlook. New Delhi's attention centered on economic growth, thus favoring a policy of restraint (focusing on back-channel talks and people-to-people ties). India's identity steadily turned more “aspirational” in the following years.

The identity shift culminated with the change in government in 2014 from a Congress-led alliance to a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led alliance. Under Prime Minister Modi, India's identity was influenced by the tenets of “aspirational Hindu nationalism” and the leadership's “desire to appease the neo-middle class.” 31 The new identity is also connected to “zero tolerance” toward Pakistan, as promised in BJP's manifesto. As posited by the logic of constructivism, the change in identity resulted in changed policy actions, hence the contrasting responses to Pakistan-supported attacks on India. If the traditional IR approaches analyzed this issue, there is a high likelihood of partial explanation given their inability to analyze endogenous factors.

Theoretical and conceptual nuances of constructivism have enabled researchers to understand the idiosyncrasies of regional interactions at the systemic and sub-systemic levels. Ali, Haider, and Ali study India-Pakistan relations through the lens of contested identities. 32 Their study makes an interesting observation that Islamabad is supportive of the Chinese military might but is threatened by Indian military capabilities, which are comparatively weaker. India and Pakistan have fought three wars, one conflict, and are involved in a protracted dispute over Jammu and Kashmir. Without disregarding the relevance of material factors, the authors argue that other variables also determine bilateral relations. They claim that the India-Pakistan rivalry is greatly determined by their hostile “socio-cognitive identities” shaped by social institutions in their countries. The study identifies four important institutions—education, media, religion, and politics—which create hostile and incompatible national, ideological, and religious identities through socialization and internalization. These identities create adversarial interests, which support and facilitate the creation of confrontational policies toward the Other.

The finding implies that even if material determinants became irrelevant, the ideational clashes between the countries would continue to shape an adversarial equation between the neighbors. This understanding opens avenues for possible conflict resolution because conflictual ideas of today can be replaced by more cooperative ideas through socialization and internalization. It would not be an exaggeration to state that constructivist approaches present the scope for conflict resolution instead of Neorealism, which is mainly concerned about the prospects of war/conflict in an anarchic environment and thereby paints a doomsday picture. In contrast to this practice, Mario Carranza analyzes the possibilities of nuclear arms control in South Asia with insights from Constructivism. He stresses three aspects, namely, international social environment, domestic opinion, and identity-based India-Pakistan conflict, to enhance the prospects of nuclear arms control and disarmament. 33 Although the study presents an idealistic scenario, Carranza makes valuable contributions by introducing innovative ways to address the traditional security problems of the region.

Apart from investigating inter-state security issues, the concept of identity has contributed considerably to the understanding of ethnic conflicts in South Asia. The region has diverse populations with different cultures, religions, and ethnicities. While there is relative regional stability, there is no denying that South Asia is home to many ethnic and religious conflicts. Chatterjee argues that ethno-linguist-religious nationalist movements have questioned the “constitutional legitimacy” of almost all states in South Asia. 34 Mainstream IR theories have largely failed to account for this phenomenon, particularly in South Asia. This is primarily due to their systemic outlook and inability to account for sub-state factors and actors. Although still limited, there has been an uptick of studies that delve into the issue of ethnocentric or religious conflict.

Interestingly, most of such studies are conducted by South Asian scholars. According to Mir and Ahmed, ethnic or religious nationalism movements emerge due to strong affiliation based on ethnicity, language, or religion. 35 These distinct community identities separate them from Others that are likely to belong to the majority community. Making a similar argument, Chatterjee claims that the combination of “dialectical interaction between homogenizing state nationalism(s)” and sub-nationalism obstructs the possibility of cultural assimilation. 36 According to Chatterjee, all South Asian states use “territorial nationalism” to undermine the perceived threat of such movements. They also carve a “monolith construction of nationhood” to counter the perceived threats from specific identity-based groups. 37 This tends to threaten the distinct identities of the minority community along with fears of majoritarianism.

Many studies have argued that the assertion of ethnic, religious, or linguistic identity and nationalism transform into conflicts. Some movements remain confined to the borders of a state. For instance, intra-state problems such as the Chakma community in Bangladesh, the Hindu-Muslim divide in India, the Mohajir community in Pakistan, and the Dravidian identity in India. Some forms of nationalism spill over to neighboring states, adding complications in inter-state relations. In this context, Mir and Ahmed argue that “states with hostile relations exploit internal fault-lines of other countries to further their own diplomatic and national interests.” 38 Instances include the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan, Pakistani assistance to the Khalistan movement in Indian Punjab, and Indian support to Mukti Bahini in East Pakistan.

Pathak adds to the debate by highlighting the relevance of “identity” as a crucial factor in the creation of Bangladesh. He claims that the identity associated with the Muslim League's understanding of a Pakistani Muslim (largely Urdu speaking) clashed with the distinct identity of Bengali-speaking people in East Pakistan. 39 The prolonged identity clash (based on ethnicity and linguistics) interacted with other pertinent (structural and material) factors to result in the partition of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. 40 A similar argument has emerged in studies that have analyzed the Dravidian movement in India, which emerged in opposition to the North Indian Hindi identity 41 and the Kachin ethno-religious-linguistic identity that stood in opposition to the Bamar ethnic majority in Myanmar. 42 Interestingly, in some instances, despite the non-dilution of identities, some identity-based conflicts have witnessed resolution. Utilizing Wendt's understanding of identity change, Chatterjee argues that ethnic-religious-linguistic conflicts can transform into cooperative accommodation with changes in the conception of self and the Other, as seen with the Khalistan nationalism movement and the Dravidian movement in India. 43

Identity-based explanations have contributed considerably to the subject of intra-state violence and conflicts in South Asia. Recent years have witnessed an emergence of valuable studies on intra-state ethnic alliances and how identities affect them. One such example is Hasangani's research on the de-facto ethnic alliance of the Sinhalese and Muslims against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. 44 Realist accounts would have explained the Sinhalese-Muslim alliance as a function of the “enemy of my friend is my enemy” thinking. However, they are likely to falter in explaining why Sri Lanka witnessed Sinhalese-Muslim riots despite their cordial associations during the Sri Lankan Civil War.

Offering answers to this phenomenon, Hasangani studies the behavior of Sinhalese and Muslims between 1983 and 2015. She finds irregular patterns of convergence and divergence between the two ethnicities during the Civil War. 45 There were periods of cooperation and phases of disengagement despite a common “enemy.” She argues that ethnic relations remain in “flux due to unfixed, multiple ethnic identities.” 46 She also shows that ethnic identities comprise multiple constitutive elements and plural identities within. 47 Changes in the constitutive elements of the identity are reflected in their interests, thereby actions. Hasangani concludes that the fluctuations in Sinhalese-Muslim de-facto alliance were connected to the “activation/deactivation of certain constitutive elements of ethnic identities.” 48

Norms and Ideas

Unlike the concept of identity, which has been heavily employed in Constructivism-guided studies, there is limited application of norms and ideas in the context of South Asian IR. Nevertheless, existing studies contribute considerably to the field by focusing on smaller states in the region. Current studies push the envelope in the research area and underscore the explanatory value of its application in explaining South Asian IR. While some studies employ “ideas” as an explicit explanatory factor, others rely on it implicitly. Regardless, their contribution to the field remains notable.

In a seminal study on Bhutan, Theys explains Bhutan's norm creation through the process of Bhutanisation since the 1980s. Through royal edicts, Bhutan introduced the concepts of tha damtshig (loyalty and respect for other community members, especially elders) and driglam namzha (official dress code of the traditional dress) and emphasized Dzongkha as the national language. 49 This norm creation and its internalization among the populace have steadily shaped Bhutan's national identity, which is also connected to the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). The GNH—a counter to the concept of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—prioritizes the pursuit of happiness and sustainable development over pure monetary measures. The norms created by Bhutan contribute to the identity of the citizenry and allow the leadership to introduce new ideas and shape international norms.

This is addressed in a study by Theys and Rietig. They argue that Bhutan has effectively utilized its national identity and associated ideas to create a unique international identity, accentuate its regional status, and impact global sustainability governance. 50 The authors argue that Bhutan challenged the “fundamental ideas about what constitutes development and placed happiness on the global agenda.” 51 Thimphu depended on a “policy entrepreneur” who implemented numerous strategies to spread the idea, gain mass appeal, and socialize the United Nations into factoring happiness as an indicator of development. The change in international norms was reflected in the adoption and implementation of UN Resolutions, which encourage member states to prioritize the pursuit of happiness. This study challenges the notion of traditional IR theories that small states have limited capacity to shape norms or influence regional/international policies. In their words, Bhutan has exemplified that “a small developing country with structural weaknesses” possesses the ability to “exert global influence.” 52 Notably, the study demonstrates the value of the blend of norms and ideas in reshaping international political norms.

In a similar vein, Jaschik employs the case of Maldives to argue that small states shape international agendas by effectively framing ideas rather than relying on economic or military power. 53 He examines Maldives' success in generating international influence on the issue of climate change. Malé resorted to many strategies to promote ideas on climate change, strategically frame the ideas, and lead to a greater internalization of those ideas. Some of the strategies and tactics included setting up informal dialogues, strategic framing in the media, consistent interaction with a range of state and non-state actors (especially like-minded actors), and reliance on symbolism such as participation in an underwater cabinet meeting. 54 Adding more context to the broader argument, Rasheed studies the Maldives' “island vulnerability identity,” which is associated with the idea of its vulnerability in the face of climate change. 55 Although limited in number, such studies underline the importance of “ideas” in shaping regional and international norms and constructing reality in an interactive setting.

David Scott contributes to this debate by connecting New Delhi's changing involvement in regional integration to changes in its idea of “region.” 56 Post-independence, India's understanding of the region was limited to the geographical region of South Asia, which determined its South Asia-centric foreign and security policy. This explains why Indian leaderships asserted dominance in South Asia while forgoing any substantial involvement in farther regions. However, in recent decades, India's conception and the idea of the region (from a policy point-of-view) has expanded beyond the confines of a “subcontinental mindset” and embraced the regions of the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and Pacific Asia. 57 The changing idea and understanding of the region have expectedly shaped India's outlook and external policy. 58

In contrast to the works mentioned above, scholars (albeit very few) have also used “norms” to explain the failure of regional cooperation. The influence of norms in inter-state relations has added to the ongoing debate on the failure of multilateralism in South Asia. Michael utilized the constructivist framework of “norm localization” to analyze regional multilateralism, focusing on the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Indian Ocean Rim (IORA). 59 Despite the presence of such institutions, he argues that there is an absence of cooperation, integration (economically and politically) and multilateralism in South Asia. According to Michael, when multilateralism is localized and implemented in South Asian settings, it is primarily shaped to align with the “ideational orthodoxy” of Indian foreign policy. 60

The study examines India's role in shaping the norms of multilateralism during discussions before establishing SAARC and IORA. The author claims that New Delhi successfully diffused the original concept of multilateralism and customized it to align with the core principles of its foreign policy approach: “Focus on bilateralism and independence,” wariness toward discussing contentious issues or strategic and security matters in multilateral settings, non-alignment, and reluctance to pool resources. 61 Such norm localization and grafting (connecting new ideas with existing ones) resulted in the “under-institutionalization” of SAARC and IORA. 62 By leading the norm-shaping process and diffusing the original norm of multilateralism, India was instrumental in creating weak institutions, thereby hampering the potential of multilateralism in South Asia. This is a novel finding, which challenges the assumption of Neorealism that multilateralism in South Asia suffers primarily due to India-Pakistan power politics and a security dilemma. 63

Furthermore, the Constructivist turn in South Asian IR has brought the utility of “norms” in explaining issues unique to South Asia. In this context, a study by Maley (although not recently published) examines the contestation between international and domestic norms and their consequences on the Taliban in Afghanistan. While Maley does not explicitly use Constructivism when analyzing the foreign policy of the Taliban (from 1996–2001), he examines the tensions that existed between the international norms and the Taliban's national norms. 64 Specifically, he posits that the clash between international norms on women's basic rights and the Taliban's contrarian norms and perspectives on the issue became a serious impediment to the Taliban's international isolation. In a more recent study, Kristensen makes a similar argument in her work that identifies obstacles to the peace process before the Taliban's recent takeover of Afghanistan. 65 She notes the “colliding ideational and relation norms” on the issues of democracy (considered a foreign concept), peace talks (contrasting procedures of negotiations), and gender rights (anti-women views) remained the most prominent challenge to negotiations and the peace process. 66 Despite the limited studies in this area, some of the stated findings confirm that some unique issues in South Asia boil down to the question of norms and ideas and not simply materialist variables that traditional neo-neo theories heavily depend on.


The chapter provided a broader overview of Constructivism and demonstrated its utility in advancing the understanding of South Asia's IR. First, Constructivism has provided theoretical diversity in South Asian IR and effectively showed that inter-state and intra-state relations in the region are greatly influenced by sub-systemic factors and ideational determinants such as identity, norms, and ideas. Second, constructivism (through the concept of identity change) has helped identify reasons for policy changes, especially in the absence of a significant change in material or structural factors. Third, it has challenged the conventional wisdom of traditional IR theories and presented nuanced alternate (ideational) explanations of South Asian issues. Fourth, it made valuable contributions by examining and analyzing the foreign policy of small South Asian states with structural weaknesses. Because Realism or Neoliberalism have remained concerned with bigger powers and their interactions, most of their accounts neglect states that are smaller in terms of geography, economy, or political influence. This gap is somewhat plugged by Constructivism in South Asian IR. Fourth, identity shed light on the inter-state security problem in South Asia and explained the complexities of intra-state conflicts that plague the region. Fifth, in stark contrast with structural explanations, constructivism remains an appropriate framework to explore possibilities of conflict resolution in South Asia.

Despite the stated contributions to South Asian IR, some weaknesses in current literature need to be plugged in by future research. Primarily, many Constructivist accounts have fallen into the neo-neo “trap” by concentrating on security issues. It would be theoretically and empirically rewarding to have more studies examining non-security issues of South Asia. Further, current studies utilize norms and ideas without distinct conceptualization and operationalization. There is an urgent need for more studies that apply norms and ideas to analyses. At the same time, it is crucial to offer clarity when utilizing constructivist concepts and methodologies. Regardless of the weaknesses, Constructivism-guided studies have proved their merit in analyzing South Asian issues. The ground is fertile for future research endeavors and analyses of issues that remain untouched by other conventional IR theories.


Emanuel Adler, “Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics,” European Journal of International Relations 3, no. 3 (September 1997): 319–363.

Maysam Behravesh, “Constructivism: An introduction,” E-International Relations, February 3, 2011,

Nicholas G. Onuf, World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relations (Columbia, NC: University of South Carolina Press, 1989).

Hoyoon Jung, “The Evolution of Social Constructivism in Political Science: Past to Present,” SAGE Open 9, no. 1 (January 2019): 1–10., 2.

Ibid .

Sarina Theys, “Constructivism,” in International Relations Theory, eds. Stephen Mcglinchey, Rosie Walters and Christian Scheinpflug (Bristol, UK: E-International relations, 2017), 36–41, 36.

See, Albert Tzeng, William L. Richter and Ekaterina Koldunova, Framing Asian Studies: Geopolitics and Institutions (Singapore: ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, 2018).

Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is What States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics,” International Organization 46, no. 2 (1992): 391–425., 397.

Ibid ., 398.

Ibid .

Christopher Hill and William Wallace, “Introduction: Actors and Actions,” in The Actors in Europe's Foreign Policy (London, UK: Routledge, 1996), 1–18, 8.

See, Jutta Weldes, “Constructing National Interests,” European Journal of International Relations 2, no. 3 (September 1996): 275–318.; Peter J. Katzenstein, The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change,” International Organization 52, no. 4 (1998): 887–917., 891.

Ibid .

Ibid .

Ibid .

Nilüfer Karacasulu and Elif Uzgören, “Explaining Social Constructivist Contributions to Security Studies,” Perceptions: Journal of International Affairs 12 (Summer-Autumn 2007): 27–48.

Nina Tannenwald, “Ideas and Explanation: Advancing the Theoretical Agenda,” Journal of Cold War Studies 7, no. 2 (2005): 13–42. 15–16.

Ibid .

Martin Weber, “Constructivism and Critical theory,” in An Introduction to International Relations: Australian perspectives, eds. Richard Devetak, Anthony Burke, and Jim George (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 96–108, 98.

Ian Hurd, “Legitimacy and Authority in International Politics,” International Organization 53, no. 2 (1999): 379–408.

This variant falls within the framework of “Critical Theory,” which is discussed in more detail in Chapter 4.

Priya Chacko, “Constructivism and Indian Foreign Policy,” in New Directions in Indian Foreign Policy: Theory and Praxis, ed. Harsh Pant (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 48–66.

Audie Klotz and Cecilia Lynch, Strategies for Research in Constructivist International Relations (Armonk, NY M.E. Sharpe, 2007), 3.

Bharat Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy (New Delhi, India: Macmillan India, 2002); Šumit Ganguly, “Indian Security Policy,” in Routledge Handbook of Security Studies, eds. Myriam Dunn Cavelty and Thierry Balzacq, 2nd. Edition (London, UK: Routledge, 2017); George J. Gilboy and Eric Heginbotham, “Double Trouble: A Realist View of Chinese and Indian Power,” The Washington Quarterly 36, no. 3 (2013): 125–142.; Rajesh Rajagopalan, “Neorealist Theory and the India-Pakistan Conflict-II,” Strategic Analysis 22, no. 10 (1999): 1525–1536.; Shakthi De Silva, “Balancing, Bandwagoning, or Hedging? Independent Ceylon's reaction to Regional Hegemony,” South Asian Survey 22, no. 2 (September 2015): 189–209.

See Muhammad Shoaib Pervez, Security Community in South Asia: India – Pakistan (Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2013); Chacko, “Constructivism and Indian Foreign Policy,” 48–66; Ahmad Ali, Syed Imran Haider, and Muhammad Ali, “Role of Identities in the Indo-Pak Relations: A Study in Constructivism,” Global Regional Review 2, no. 1 (2017): 305–319. (II-I).21

See Priya Chacko, Indian Foreign Policy: The Politics of Postcolonial Identity from 1947 to 2004 (Oxon, UK: Taylor & Francis, 2013); Chacko, “Constructivism and Indian Foreign Policy,” 48–66.

Chacko, Indian Foreign Policy.

Ibid .

Ibid .

Chacko, “Constructivism and Indian Foreign Policy,” 12.

Ali, Ali, and Haider, “Role of Identities,” 305–319.

Mario E. Carranza, India Pakistan Nuclear Diplomacy: Constructivism and the Prospects for Nuclear Arms Control and Disarmament in South Asia (London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

Shibashis Chatterjee, “Ethnic Conflicts in South Asia: A Constructivist Reading,” South Asian Survey 12, no. 1 (March 2005): 75–89. 81.

Mir and Ahmed, “Ethnic Conflicts in South Asia,” 10–19.

Chatterjee, “Ethnic Conflicts in South Asia,” 85.

Ibid .

Mir and Ahmed, “Ethnic Conflicts in South Asia,” 15.

Pathak, “Constructivist Analysis,” 245–250.

Ibid .

Kunal Debnath, “Populist Mobilization, Role of Political Elites and Anti-Centre Campaign in Recent Tamil Politics in India,” Advance (2019): 1–19.

Alexandre Pelletier, “Identity Formation, Christian Networks, and the Peripheries of Kachin Ethnonational Identity,” Asian Politics & Policy 13 (2021): 72–89.

Chatterjee, “Ethnic Conflicts in South Asia,” 75–89.

Sandunika Hasangani, “The Making and Breaking of (De-Facto) Ethnic Alliances: A Constructivist Reading of Sinhalese-Muslim Relations in Sri Lanka During 1983–2015,” Journal of Language, Area and Cultural Studies 25 (January 2019): 187–204.

Hasangani, “The Making and Breaking,” 187–204.

Ibid ., 196.

Ibid .

Ibid .

Heidi Karst, “Protected areas and ecotourism: Charting a path toward social-ecological wellbeing” (PhD diss., University of Waterloo, 2017).

Sarina Theys, and Katharina Rietig, “The Influence of Small States: How Bhutan Succeeds in Influencing Global Sustainability Governance,” International Affairs 96, no. 6 (November 2020): 1603–1622.

Ibid ., 1604.

Ibid ., 1603.

Kevin Jaschik, “Small States and International Politics: Climate Change, the Maldives and Tuvalu,” International Politics 51, no. 2 (2014): 272–293. doi:10.1057/ip.2014.5.

Ibid .

Athaulla A. Rasheed, “Small Island Climate Diplomacy in the Maldives and Beyond,” E-International Relations, June 16, 2019,

David Scott, “India and Regional Integration,” in Handbook of India's International Relations, ed. David Scott (London, UK: Routledge, 2011), 118–128.

Ibid .

Ibid .

Arndt Michael, “Cooperation is What India Makes of It – A Normative Inquiry into the Origins and Development of Regional Cooperation in South Asia and the Indian Ocean,” Asian Security 14, no. 2 (2018): 119–135., 121.

Ibid ., 121.

Ibid .

Ibid .

Saqib Ullah Khan, Sabira Iqbal, and Atta Ullah Jan, “Neo-Realist Paradigm and the Fragile State of Regional Cooperation in South Asia: Prospects and Challenges,” Sir Syed Journal of Education & Social Research 4, no. 2 (2021): 160–166.

William Maley, “The Foreign Policy of the Taliban,” Council on Foreign Relations, September, 2005,

Sofie Bøgelund Kristensen, “Afghanistan Peace and Reconcilation” (Master diss., Aalborg University, 2012)

Ibid ., 59.


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