The rationalist–constructivist debate is an ontological debate within international relations theory between rationalism and constructivism. In a 1998 article, Christian Reus-Smit and Richard Price suggested that the rationalist–constructivist debate was, or was about to become, the most significant in the discipline of international relations theory. The debate can be seen as to be centered on preference formation, with rationalist theories (such as neorealism) characterising changes in terms of shifts in capabilities, whereas constructivists focus on preference formation.
Rationalists subscribe to positivism, the idea that scientific enquiry must rely upon empirical validation or falsification. Rationalist theories such as neorealism and neoliberalism also have exogeneously given preferences such as can be seen in Kenneth Waltz's Theory of International Politics, where anarchy is a structural constraint on state behaviour.
Constructivists have been seen to challenge the assumptions of rationalism in arguing that the social world is constructed. They emphasize the importance of norms and ideas in international relations.
Zehfuss argues that it is wrong to characterise the dialogue between the two theories as a debate due to the lack of debate between the two theories in key international relations journals. Leading rationalist James Fearon and leading constructivist Alexander Wendt argued in an article in 2002 that some form of synthesis between the two theories is possible, and that the two perspectives should been seen primarily as methodological tools rather than diametrically opposed ontologies.
- Peter J. Katzenstein, Robert O. Keohane and Stephen D. Krasner (1998) "International Organization and the Study of World Politics", International Organization, 52/4: 645–685.
- Lynch, Marc (July 25, 2007). "Abu Aardvark: IR: Constructivism v Rationalism". Abu Aardvark. Retrieved 10 November 2013.
- Price, Richard. Reus-Smit, Christian (1998) 'Dangerous Liaisons? Critical International Relations Theory and Constructivism', Journal of International Relations, 4: 263
- Glenn R. Chafetz, Michael Spirtas, Benjamin Frankel (1999) The Origins of National Interests, London: Frank Cass Publishers, p. 350
- Zehfuss, Maja (2002) Constructivism in International Relations: Politics of Reality, Cambridge, University of Cambridge Press, p. 3
- Zehfuss, Maja (2002) Constructivism in International Relations: Politics of Reality, Cambridge, University of Cambridge Press, p. 5
- Fearon, James; Wendt, Alexander (2002-03-13). Walter Carlsnaes, Thomas Risse-Kappen, Thomas Risse, and Beth A Simmons, ed. Handbook of International Relations. SAGE. pp. 52–72. ISBN 9780761963059. Retrieved 10 November 2013.