The Practice Turn in International Relations

The relationship between theory and practice has been a traditional concern, not to say obsession, of International Relations ever since it became a discrete field of study. In the traditional neopositivist framing, theory frames and disciplines practice, such that scholarly experts can provide valid advice for policymakers to follow -- as long as the "gap" between the academy and the world of practical politics is effectively "bridged." Alternative methodologies suggest a more complex relationship, either deriving theory from political practice, or otherwise advocating a mode of theorizing that is closer to the practical world.


Into this morass wades "practice theory," or perhaps better, a practice sensibility. This "practice turn" reformulates the meaning of "theory" such that the distinction between theory and practice is, so to speak, dis-solved: theorizing is a practical activity, and practice is shot through with theoretical import. Understood as a methodological move, the "practice turn" in International Relations thus goes far beyond a mere alteration of independent or dependent variable, and far beyond a change in the level of analysis. Because the epistemic status of theory is different for a scholar committed to a practice sensibility, explanations that such scholars generate are distinctive from explanations produced through a covering-law model of explanation or through qualitative-comparative case study techniques. Practice-sensibility explanations handle agent-structure issues differently, treat the relationship between stability and change as a more internal relation, and emphasize creativity and contingency in ways that go well beyond identifying a causal "role of ideas."


The challenge, then, is to develop an adequate conceptual vocabulary for practice-sensiblity scholarship. Christian Bueger and Frank Gadinger's ISQ article suggests that International Relations scholarship in a practice mode would be enhanced by a broader examination of the philosophical and social-theoretical roots of practice accounts, particularly by an expansion of our conceptual vocabulary beyond the admittedly useful language provided by Pierre Bourdieu. The participants in this Symposium take up the challenge of providing that more adequate conceptual vocabulary by exploring the relationship between the various strains and threads of the "practice turn," proposing alternatives that nonetheless remain within the "family" of practice approaches. We are pleased to present this conversation among family members, and to invite others to join in -- the table, as it were, is not an exclusive one, and other guests are welcome to drop by for dinner.


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