Fulfilling The Promises of Practice Theory in IR

In 2008, we organized a workshop at the University of Toronto to which we convened a variety of researchers coming from different scholarly perspectives. One of our objectives was to have a rare cross-theoretical conversation, organized around the concept of practice. We were quite successful on that count, as poststructuralist, realist, constructivist, rationalist, and English School scholars managed to find ways to engage with one another. Subsequently, we proposed that the concept of practice provides a theoretical intersection—not a “big tent,” as per Bueger and Gadinger’s (2015) or Ringmar's (2014) rendition. For us “the objective is for a variety of perspectives to meet around a conceptual focal point while keeping their distinctiveness.” (Adler and Pouliot 2011:28).

As both Bueger and Gadinger and we insisted, practice theory is indeed a “diverse family” (Bueger and Gadinger 2015:2). It embraces, among others, Bourdieu-related approaches, pragmatist approaches, and doubtless a combination of these approaches, which are characterized by affinities and convergence. And yet, while we agree with the six “core commitments” of practice theory that Bueger and Gadinger outline (which happen to follow quite closely the framework we laid out in 2011), we do not feel entitled to impose one singular vision. Thus, we cannot subscribe to their (2015:2) remedy to the so-called “overcrowded circus,” which could easily turn into an objectionable politics of gate-keeping.

In any event, having an interparadigmatic conversation was never meant to be the only, or even the most important contribution of practice theory to IR. In this blog post, we would like to emphasize the key substantive promises that we think the framework holds, which have so far often flown under the radar of our critics. Building on four years of hindsight as well as the rich contributions by various colleagues in the meantime, we boil down the contributions of practice theory to three.

(1) A Distinctive Explanatory Logic: While it is certainly true that social scientists have been studying practices for decades, most of the time the stuff that people do is conceived as a dependent variable, that is to say, as an outcome in need of an explanation. A key added value of practice theory is that it flips the explanatory arrow on its head. Practices are not simply explanandum, but also explanan. Practices do things in and on the world; they produce social effects and generate macro phenomena of interest. International practices, in other words, are constitutive of world politics. Examples of such claims already abound in IR: to name but a few, peacebuilding practices constitute international intervention (Autesserre 2014); diplomacy constitutes North-South cleavages, international law, humanitarianism, and collective intentionality (Barkawi 2015; Hurd 2015; Sending 2015; Mitzen 2015); liberal practices constitute international orders (Dunne and Flockart 2013; Adler 2013); and opt-outs and cultural practices constitute European Union authority (Adler-Nissen 2014; McNamara 2015).

(2) A Broader Ontology: We must respectfully disagree with Bially Mattern, who contrary to us argues that practice theory actually provides a narrower ontology than its main alternatives (Bially Mattern 2011). In our original statement, we suggested that “as soon as one looks into practices, it becomes difficult, and even impossible, to ignore structures (or agency), ideas (or matter), rationality (or practicality), and stability (or change)” (Adler and Pouliot 2011:4). Perhaps back then we should have stressed more the processual nature of practice ontology. This might have helped to better explain why ontological dichotomies are not separate and separable. Take, for example, stability and change: according to Ringmar (2014:18), practices cannot simultaneously be associated with change and its opposite, namely stability. From a processual perspective, however, stability is not the opposite of change but an orderly pattern within a process of flux (Jackson and Nexon 1999).

(3) A Unit of Analysis and Methodology: For graduate students looking for the right framework to guide their research, the best selling point for practice theory is a simple one: it tells you exactly what to look for among messy empirical materials—practices! While there is no denial that identifying practices in the empirical world presents daunting challenges (Andersen and Neumann 2012Frost and Lechner 2015; Pouliot 2014), the fact remains that, at least at the level of action, it is generally possible to identify what counts as the competent performance of X-ing. Practices differ from mere behaviors and actions precisely because they are socially organized and recognizable by the communities that coalesce around them. As such, IR practice researchers start with a pretty clear notion of what they are looking for: patterned ways of doing things internationally. In his textbook on practice theory, Nicolini (2012:219) conceives of the approach as a “theory-methods package.” We think this is a very apt metaphor. Practice theory is not just meta- or social theory; it is a very hands-on framework whose value rests precisely on empirical operationalization. The contribution of practice theory to IR, in other words, may only be judged in terms of how it is put in practice in the course of empirical research.


Practice theory is still a relatively new phenomenon in IR. While some have already hailed it as a productive theoretical development in the field (Jackson and Nexon 2013), at this stage the jury is still out. For that reason, it seems to us that Ringmar (2014:1) displays considerable hubris when he asserts—only a couple of years into it—that “this project will fail.” We do not think this is a productive way of getting at the matter. Social science is a collective enterprise and as such, fulfilling the promises of practice theory will depend on the contribution of the many.

Still at this early stage of development, we can already observe a number of impressive works that extend, amend, apply and refine the research agenda. Practice theory has already shed new light on critical IR phenomena, including global governance (Best and Gheciu 2014; Neumann and Sending 2010), international law (Brunnée and Toope 2010), international organizations (Bueger, forthcoming; Eagleton-Pierce 2013), security politics (Abrahamsen and Williams 2011; Pouliot 2010; Villumsen 2015), political economy (Seabrooke 2014), human rights (Karp 2013; Ainley 2011), and transnational corporations (Hönke and Müller 2012). Meanwhile, each of us is also elaborating his own take on practice theory— related but still distinct—in two separate books (Adler 2015; Pouliot forthcoming). Seeing all of this exciting new research coming out, we take a much more optimistic view than Ringmar (2014). It seems like the promises of practice theory in IR are, indeed, in the process of being fulfilled.


Regardless of the practice approach one chooses to follow, however, fulfilling the promise will require both sustained theoretical development and empirical work, and scholarly cooperation. We need, for instance, knowing more about the relationship between practices and norms, as well as about the normativity of practices, which can be an entry point to political theory (Wiener 2008). Moreover, we need to learn more about the institutionalization of practices and how the latter help constitute the former; the constitutive processes linking practices to social orders; and the organizing processes that connect institutions and social orders. These are but a few of the many possible directions that practice theory’s future research may take in IR and beyond.


Works Cited

Rita Abrahamsen and Michael C. Williams, Security beyond the State: Private Security in International Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2011).


Emanuel Adler, A Social Theory of Cognitive Evolution: Change, Stability and International Social Orders, unpublished manuscript, 2015


Emanuel Adler, “Resilient Liberal International Practices,” in Tim Dunne and Trine Flockhart, eds., Liberal World Orders (Oxford University Press, 2013).


Emanuel Adler and Vincent Pouliot, “International Practices” International Theory 3/1 (February 2011): 1-36.


Rebecca Adler-Nissen, Opting Out of the European Union: Diplomacy, Sovereignty, and European Integration (Cambridge University Press, 2014).


Kirsten Ainley, “The Implications and Imperfections of Practice” Human Rights Review 12/2 (2011).


Morten Skumsrud Andersen and Iver B. Neumann, “Practices as Models: A Methodology with an Illustration Concerning Wampum Diplomacy” Millennium 40/3 (2012): 457-481.


Séverine Autesserre, Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention (Cambridge University Press, 2014).


Tarak Barkawi (2015), "Diplomacy, War, and World Politics,"  in Ole Jacob Sending, Vincent Pouliot and Iver B. Neumann, eds., Diplomacy and the Making of World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 55-79.


Jacqueline Best and Alexandra Gheciu, The Return of the Public in Global Governance (Cambridge University Press, 2014).


Jutta Brunée and Stephen Toope, Legitimacy and Legality in International Law (Cambridge University Press 2010).


Christian Bueger, International Organizations in Practice – The United Nations, Peacebuilding and Praxiography (Routledge, forthcoming).


Tim Dunne and Trine Flockhart, eds., Liberal World Orders (Oxford University Press, 2013).


M. Eagleton-Pierce, Symbolic Power in the World Trade Organization (Oxford University Press, 2013)


Mervyn Frost and Silviya Lechner, 2015, "Two Conceptions of International Practice: Aristotelian Praxis or Wittgensteinian Language-Games?" Review of International Studies (firstview)


Jana Hönke and Markus-Michael Müller, “Governing (In)Security in a Postcolonial World: Transnational Entanglements and the Worldliness of ‘Local’ Practice,' Security Dialogue 43/5 (2012):383-401.


Ian Hurd (2015), "International Law and the Politics of Diplomacy," in Ole Jacob Sending, Vincent Pouliot and Iver B. Neumann, eds., Diplomacy and the Making of World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 31-54


Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Daniel H. Nexon, “International Theory in a Post-Paradigmatic Era: From Substantive Wagers to Scientific Ontologies” European Journal of International Relations 19/3 (2013):543-565.


Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Daniel H. Nexon. "Relations before states: substance, process and the study of world politics." European Journal of International Relations 5.3 (1999): 291-332.


David J. Karp, “The Location of International Practices: What is Human Rights Practice” Review of International Studies 39/4 (2013): 969-992.


Janice Bially Mattern (2011), "A Practice Theory of Emotion for International Relations," in Emanuel Adler and Vincent Pouliot, eds., International Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 63-86.


Kathleen McNamara, The Politics of Everyday Europe: Constructing Authority in the European Union (Oxford University Press, 2015)


Jennifer Mitzen (2015), "From Representation to Governing: Diplomacy and the Constitution of International Public Power,"  in Ole Jacob Sending, Vincent Pouliot and Iver B. Neumann, eds., Diplomacy and the Making of World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 111-139.


Iver B. Neumann and Ole Jacob Sending, Governing the Global Polity: Practice, Mentality, Rationality (University of Michigan Press, 2010).


Davide Nicolini, Practice Theory, Work, and Organization: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2012).


Vincent Pouliot, International Pecking Orders: The Politics and Practice of Multilateral Diplomacy (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2016).


Vincent Pouliot, International Security in Practice: The Politics of NATO-Russia Diplomacy (Cambridge University Press, 2010).


Vincent Pouliot, 2014, "Practice Tracing," in Andrew Bennett and Jeffrey T. Checkel, eds. Process Tracing: From Metaphor to Analytic Tool (Cambridge University Press).


Erik Ringmar, “The Search for Dialogue as a Hindrance to Understanding: Practices as Inter-Paradigmatic Research Program” International Theory 6 /1 / (March 2014): 1-27.


Leonard Seabrooke  (2014) Epistemic arbitrage: transnational professional knowledge in action. Journal of Professions and Organization 1(1): 49-64.


Ole Jacob Sending (2015), "Diplomats and Humanitarians in Crisis Governance,"  in Ole Jacob Sending, Vincent Pouliot and Iver B. Neumann, eds., Diplomacy and the Making of World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 256-283.


Trine Villumsen, The International Political Sociology of Security. Rethinking Theory and Practice (Routledge, 2015).


Antje Wiener (2008), The Invisible Constitution of Politics: Contested Norms and International Encounters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




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