Desktop version

Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics


World making and sense making

Antje Wiener

The world as (we think) we know it must somehow be implicated [by the “turn to theory” in international relations and international law, AW]. This world is neither the natural world as such nor the sum of every single person’s experience. Instead it is the modern world, the world of our experience, the world we moderns have made for ourselves.1

(Onuf 1994, 3—4; emphases in original)

Introduction: people - rules - society

Nick Onuf’s work, which has long acquired a firm place on required reading lists in political science, international relations theories and international law at universities around the globe, is a must read for students of international relations.2 Like all major intellectual contributions, the main message of his oeuvre leads beyond the confines of the academic ivory tower. By putting rules at the centre of his encompassing efforts to explain the mutual constitution of people and society (Onuf 2013, 4), Onuf’s work harbours a forceful and convincing invitation to act. His text works as an encompassing speech act to the community of Constructivist hearers, to responsibly engage Constructivist theory. The call entails for us to make the most of the tools Onuf lays in front of us and to apply them in order to make sense of the world, by accepting that it is our world, and one that is of our making (if not, of our own choosing). While adopting the social Constructivist paradigm of world making, which becomes possible by bestowing agency on those who re-enact the rules and created institutional patterns in the process (2013, 5, 8), Onuf also engages in the normative project of sense making which is made possible by turning to sets of rules and institutional patterns constituted in earlier times. Both world making and sense making involve agency, which is to a certain extent the readers’ (as the hearers of Onuf’s speech act) choice. “Exercising choices, agents act on, and not just in, the context within which they operate, collectively changing its institutional features, and themselves, in the process” (2013, 5-6). Reading Onuf’s theoretical texts with the benefit of hindsight following a string of intellection interactions over the past decade, they have almost acquired the form of speech acts themselves. For, if a speech act is defined as the “act of speaking in a form that gets someone else to act” (Onuf 2013, 10), and if hearers are required in order to turn an assertive speech act into an accepted proposition (2013, 120), then surely, Onuf’s engagement with the rules of international society is an invitation for his readers to engage with his speech acts about them. The concept of ‘rules’ is not only the mid-point linking people and society, it is the central focus of Onuf’s manifold theoretical deliberations about the roots, the process and the progress of international relations as a social practice carrying Classical constitution over modern institutions into late-modernity. Constructivism’s objective is therefore studying and, thereby, reconstituting this social practice. For:

Constructivism holds that people make society, and society makes people. This is a continuous, two-way process. In order to study it, we must start in the middle, so to speak, because people and society, always having made each other, are already there and just about to change. To make a virtue of necessity, we will start in the middle, between people and society, by introducing a third element, rules, that always links the other two elements together. Social rules (the term rules, includes, but is not restricted to, legal rules) make the process by which people and society constitute each other continuous and reciprocal.

(Onuf 2013, 4)

The point of the following is to appreciate this research objective by critically engaging with it. Two aspects will be addressed in particular. The first aspect concerns the missing other half, by which the stress on world making rather than sense making of an emerging neo-Constructivist generation is highlighted. The second aspect concerns the question of agency in Onuf’s world. For, Onuf defines international relations as relations among countries (2013, 4). Is the project of sense making, however, possible at all, if world making is primarily understood as a process that involves the constitution of international society through interactions among countries? And does the principle of heteronomy (as partnership among ‘brothers’ [sic] (Onuf 2009, 1)) offer a viable alternative for twenty-first century stable and peaceful international relations, beyond contesting the principle of anarchy? The two aspects will be discussed in the remaining sections of this chapter. By elaborating on the ‘missing half’, the following first section addresses the origin and development of the two makings. The second section critically assesses the conception of agency in international relations, juxtaposing Onuf’s international relations (countries) with Wiener’s inter-national relations as inter-cultural relations (agency with distinct national roots). And finally the third section discusses the challenge of sense making as the missing other half.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics