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World Political Science

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From the Heart of Darkness: Critical Reading and Genuine Listening in Constructivist Norm Research

A Reply to Stephan Engelkamp, Katharina Glaab, and Judith Renner

Nicole Deitelhoff
  • Corresponding author
  • Goethe University Frankfurt/Main – Department of Social Sciences, Grüneburgplatz 1, 60323 Frankfurt, Germany
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/ Lisbeth Zimmermann
  • Goethe University Frankfurt/Main – Department of Social Sciences, Grüneburgplatz 1, 60323 Frankfurt, Germany
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
Published Online: 2014-05-07 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/wpsr-2014-0003


In their article on critical norm research, Stephan Engelkamp, Katharina Glaab, and Judith Renner propose a poststructuralist, hegemony-critical program. They contrast it with an affirmative mainstream in constructivist norm research, which they argue is oblivious to power, unreflective, and Eurocentric. Therefore, they make a case for a program that unmasks hegemonic values, reconstructs and strengthens non-Western, local values, and reflects more systematically on its own position in the process of truth production. We show based on three points that the proposed program is not fruitful for a truly “critical” form of norm research: (1) it distorts the weaknesses and achievements of constructivist norm research, (2) it rewards an unreflected use of the terms “Western” and “local,” and (3) it lacks the necessary instruments for subjecting political processes to normative reflection.

Keywords: constructivism; critical theory; norms; post-structuralism; power


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About the article

Corresponding author: Nicole Deitelhoff, Goethe University Frankfurt/Main – Department of Social Sciences, Grüneburgplatz 1, 60323 Frankfurt, Germany, e-mail:

Published Online: 2014-05-07

Published in Print: 2014-04-01

See Wiener (2004, 2008), Sandholtz and Stiles (2009), Reus-Smit (2001), Acharya (2004, 2011), Ulbert (2012: pp. 133–134).

See Schimmelfennig and Sedelmeier (2004), Schimmelfennig, et al. (2006), Kelley (2004), Vachudová (2005).

It has also given rise to a lively debate; see, for example, the Special Forum in International Theory (Price et al., 2012).

There is conceptual blurring not only in the case of the concepts of the West and the “local.” The concepts of norms, knowledge, and values are nowhere explicated either. Can these be used interchangeably or do they refer to different things?

For this criticism, see Acharya (2004), Deitelhoff (2006: p. 74), criticizing, for example, Checkel (1999).

Not unlike the accusation directed against the human rights movement of wanting to be “saviors” of non-Western “victims” against non-Western “savages” (Mutua 2001), here one could fabricate the analogous accusation that critical norm researchers have to rescue the “non-Western others” from the clutches of sinister constructivist norm research.

This account is also difficult to reconcile with the anti-essentialist ontology and antifoundationalist epistemology of the poststructuralist approach that the authors want to stand up for (Engelkamp et al. 2012: p. 111).

Bertolt Brecht, Threepenny Opera, “Mack the Knife.”

This term was used by Foucault to describe the suppression of knowledge in discourse and was subsequently popularized by Spivak in particular, who specifically wanted to demonstrate the involvement of the French poststructuralists in the epistemic violence of postcolonial relations (1988).

We are grateful to one of the referees for pointing this out.

Making decisions is in this sense the essence of agency as such.

On the controversy between critical social research and the sociology of critique, see Celikates 2009: p. 25.

Citation Information: World Political Science Review, Volume 10, Issue 1, Pages 17–31, ISSN (Online) 2363-4782, ISSN (Print) 2194-6248, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/wpsr-2014-0003.

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