The roles states play: A Meadian interactionist approach

David M. McCourt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Constructivist scholars have largely limited their view of how state action is socially constructed to the concepts of norms and identity. As for individuals, however, role-playing is also a core aspect of state activity. I demonstrate the potential of this concept for constructivists on the basis of a reconsideration of the roles states play in international politics drawing on symbolic interactionism and in particular the thought of G.H. Mead. From a Meadian perspective, roles are sets of appropriate behaviours, not bundles of fixed duties; they emerge in interaction and give the actor a sense of its structure and the scope of possible action. Roles are thus the necessary social vehicle for action in its meaning-creating, identity-affirming sense. Using the illustration of the Suez Crisis of 1956, I develop a Meadian interactionist conceptual approach that builds on previous attempts to harness the potential of the role concept in International Relations (IR) and sharpens constructivist understandings of the links between role, identity, norms, and action in IR.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)370-392
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of International Relations and Development
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2012


  • action
  • constructivism
  • G.H.Mead
  • identity
  • roles
  • symbolic interactionism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Political Science and International Relations


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