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

The missing half

With his early claim that the world is “of our making” (Onuf 1989), Onuf also connects the act of engaging in the process of “making sense” of the world (Onuf 2013). While in his most recent book the metaphor of “work” tells us “how pervasive social construction is, even in the absence of immediate or conscious design” (Onuf 2013, 33-34), the world making is but one half of the two ‘makings’ that turn the world into “our world”. In turn, sense making follows the assumption “that parts working together constitute working wholes” (Onuf 2013, xv). That is, the task of reconstituting the substance remains, as “we make the world make sense to us by making it work for us” (Onuf 2013). And by calling for the reconstruction of the enlightenment project from the ground up, Onuf places himself squarely in distance from post-modern constructionists, while working with the insights of Kant and Aristotle as ultimately constitutive for the rules of modernity he critically engages with today It is in that sense that Onuf comes to qualify himself as both a Kantian Constructivist and a post-Kantian. Enter, the obligation that we - as academic thinkers - have to the project of making worlds and making sense.

As the introductory quote indicates, the fact that we are responsible for the world of our making, that is, we do bear an ongoing obligation to make sense of it and keep making that so. In my reading this is a call for agency, but an agency that is not exclusively directing their view towards the future (of social construction). Yet, the second half has gone missing as Constructivist generations developed. How this happened and to what degree it was achieved, remains to be more fully explored and accounted for. Curiously, however, it appears as if, despite the enormous popularity his work has generated, especially among younger generations of international relations scholars, that invitation to act still remains to be fully embraced. Much work thrives on the social construction of this and that, but ultimately leaves the very practice of sense making to one side. How to embrace this double act of ‘making’ has been laid out in front of us by: (1) Onuf’s numerous texts; (2) the scholarship that has developed in close connection with these texts including Kratochwil as well as Fierke, Gould, Kornprobst, Lynch, Prugl and Zehfuss, in particular; and (3) numerous direct conversations with colleagues and students at international workshops and conferences as well as in classrooms around the world.

The following section begins with the observation that while social Constructivists have whole-heartedly embraced the part about the social construction of reality, many - dare we use the word - neo-Constructivists ofthe younger generations have left behind the deeper questions of how norms “work” that were raised by the founding fathers of the movement (Kratochwil 1984; Onuf 2013). Instead, they have become besotted - some would think obsessed - with methodological detail, thereby leaving the bigger questions of how the world might actually be enabled to achieve peaceful progress and to normatively advance, based on serious contestations, to the former. In my reading, Onuf always refers to both methodological detail and the larger normative questions in order to advance knowledge.3 It remains for us to pick up that ball running. The following section suggests one way of doing this by focusing on

Onuf’s instructions on ‘promise’ and ‘obligation’ as the pre-conditions for ‘nor- mativity’ and the special role Onuf’s core concept of ‘rules’ has for this project, noting, in particular that “obligation is the beginning of normativity, but only a beginning” (Onuf 2013, 121). The interrelation between these concepts demonstrates the importance of the speech act as a rule-making requirement, in the wider context of large historical change (compare e.g., Tilly, Skocpol and Hobsbawm). Together they transport a sense for constructive contingency not reduced to heuristics. Yet, the latter theories seem to have become the ‘missing other half’ in much of the neo-Constructivist literature that is more preoccupied with the techniques of social science than with its role as a thing and a process to advance knowledge.

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