Family Issues: Plurality and Methodology in International Practice Theory

Practice theory is not a unified perspective. It is, as most now agree, a diverse family. But what kind of family are we talking about? In a recent practice-theoretical analysis, Wendy Bottero (2015) has argued that family identity should be seen as an effect of practices such as genealogy, or perhaps even practices like organizing a family feast or a wedding. With this in mind, we might think of much of the current discussion on international practice theory as really being about who gets invited to the table. And sometimes, as Rebecca Adler-Nissen argues, an uncle such as symbolic interactionism should have been invited to the gathering. Still, although this debate over family identity will continue, it should not be our primary goal. If we require a better sense of who the practice family and its ancestors are, we must look for the meaning of the concepts of practice theory in their usage.

Talk of practices has become widespread in IR and elsewhere. Practice theorists continue to be a diverse group; one that has already alerted the discipline to phenomena often out of reach of other forms of theorizing, such as the mundane practices of international cooperation and negotiations, or the role of things in world politics. Still, the fate of practice theory and the contours of its family tree remain in question. In our recent book (Bueger and Gadinger 2014: 101-104), we outlined three possible scenarios for the future of practice theory in IR. First, we might think of ‘practice talk’ as a fashion. This is perhaps what Eric Ringmar (2014) had in mind with his critique that there is nothing new about the practice turn and interest in it will soon fade away. We might interpret this positively to mean that the theory’s core insights have been mainstreamed into the discipline to a degree that there is no need to flag them in any particular way. Alternatively, it could mean that practice theory was just a fashion that we have happily overcome and have now replaced with a new one.

In a second scenario, practice theory is on its way to becoming a Kuhnian paradigm, much as we now think of realism or constructivism. At that point, we would have agreed upon definitions, the boundary of the paradigm, and what its core puzzles are. Handbooks and textbooks would socialize students into what the classics and the core premises of practice theory are. Moving towards homogeneity has advantages: less friction implies more attention to empirical research; having clear concepts makes it easier for newcomers to contribute to the agenda. There is, however, the genuine risk that practice theories lose their inherent strength, namely their adaptability and flexibility across research situations.

The third scenario, which we outlined in our ISQ article, is our favorite: Practice theory turns into an ever more heterogeneous and creative melting pot, characterized by cross-disciplinary dialogues with other communities puzzled about practice, such as those in organization studies, science and technology studies, or policy studies. Disagreements, controversies and tensions between different conceptual approaches and methodological devices will then ensure the creativity and innovativeness of the debate, but will also allow for eclectic combinations of ideas to address a range of challenges. If we want to live up to this scenario, then this symposium is a step in the right direction.

In our article, we argue for appreciating the plurality of concepts and approaches. In particular, this means recognizing that the play of international practices is best grasped by paying attention to both the erratic as well as the stabilizing routine sites of practice. Jorg Kustermans (2015) succinctly described this challenge for practice turn scholars: “theory is tidy, whereas practice is messy;” that is, “theory can never do justice to practice.” We need different theoretical accounts to grasp practices between their ‘ordering’ and ‘disordering’ nature. We agree with Adler-Nissen on this point. However, Bourdieusian approaches have come to dominate the international practice theory discussion to a degree, and this vocabulary is better at explaining reproduction and stability rather than change. As Sebastian Schindler and Tobias Wille (2015: 331) argue, “like every theory, Bourdieu’s theory of practice sheds lights on some aspects of reality at the price of casting shadows elsewhere.” In contrast, pragmatist approaches, such as actor-network theory or pragmatic sociology, foreground uncertainty and the perpetually unfolding character of practice. These vital contributions widen the scope of practice theory by incorporating non-structuralist aspects of politics such as agency, uncertainty and change in a more substantial manner (Leander 2011). Thus, the analytical richness of the concept of practice lies in its consideration of the creative and improvisational character of practical action as well (Jackson 2009).

One issue that requires more consideration, as Adler and Pouliot rightly suggest, is how we deal with the normativity of practice. Much research on norms in IR still suffers from methodological individualism and rather static assumptions about norms, values, and rules. From a practice theoretical perspective, obeying a rule is a social practice rooted in everyday activities, mutual practical understandings, and moral judgements under conditions of contestation (see Wiener 2014). Such an understanding of rule-following goes back to the work of Dewey, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, who argued that meaning and language have to be understood in use. But this move also implies considering the ‘dark side’ of international practices more actively, such as the practices of terrorists, financial speculators, soldiers, street workers, surveillance experts or political dissidents. How do terrorists make sense of their lives through everyday activities? What are similarities and differences between financial analysts and surveillance experts in operating with technology? On which normative principles do soldiers justify their actions in modern warfare?

Such questions are challenging for IR scholars, and, of course, there are legitimate concerns on how to capture such practices. The debate on adequate research strategies and techniques is still in its infancy. Adler and Pouliot as well as Sending rightfully point out that methodological questions will be one of the drivers of the practice theory debate; namely, how do we find practices and describe them? Centering research on practice therefore presents us with a significant opportunity to explore new avenues and broaden the spectrum of how we study and write about the international. It allows us to go beyond the conventional case study and interview designs used in qualitative IR research. We might want to ask other disciplines such as history and anthropology for their historiographic and ethnographic tools, but studying international practices will also require methodological innovation. Experimenting with new ways of learning about practice is important to foster the debate. Poking, probing, tinkering, participating, co-producing are some of the methodological practices we will want to try out.

Ultimately our methodological choices will be informed by the actual practices we are studying, some of which will undoubtedly be better understood through tools of proximity, real-time studies, ethnomethodology or even action research. Others, such as historical practices or broader configurations of practices, will require very different tools, such as genealogies, or the interpretation of artifacts ranging from documents to architecture and paintings. The increasing adoption of ethnographic research and writing modes (Vrasti 2008; Neumann 2012; Bueger 2015) as well as visual, film, and narrative research techniques (e.g. Heck and Schlag 2013; van Munster and Sylvest 2015) are good signs that the practice turn in IR goes the next step; that is, from reflecting and elaborating on concepts to careful and intense empirical work reflectively using practice-oriented research methods. This will also spur proposals on which ‘concept-methods packages’ are better suited to understand different kinds of practices.

We do not share Sending’s concern that an ethnomethodological necessarily implies a loss of scientific autonomy. There are different possibilities to guarantee reflexivity and independency. Bourdieu’s reflexive sociology provides one valuable tool of self-awareness when doing research (Hamati-Ataya 2013). Other forms of reflexivity, such as the subversive style induced by pragmatists or the experimental style of ethnomethodology, open up access to the enactment of other practices. Recent research into war as practice and everyday experience on the ground (Sylvester 2012; Dauphinee 2015) is a good example that ethnographic methods and narrative techniques generate legitimate knowledge in their own right. Such perspectives, as Adler-Nissen legitimately demands, also introduce emotions and affect to IR theory. Understanding the close relationship between memory and emotion on the one hand, and practice and experience on the other, is not only a future challenge for practice theory, it also opens up the dialogue with social psychology, potentially leading to new controversies and ‘family issues’.

The practice debate will not only thrive on how research is able to illuminate recognized world political phenomena, but also on how it brings new phenomena to the fore, including insight on the relationship between order and change. Yet challenges remain. These concern how to conceptualize the temporality, size and scale of practices, how to let materiality, technology and contingency into our narratives, and identifying what work distinct ‘concept-methods packages’ can do. Tackling these challenges through productive engagement will ensure that the family of practice theorists is not on the way to becoming normal science but continues to demonstrate to the broader discipline how innovative research can be carried out in uncharted waters.

--Christian Bueger (Cardiff University)

--Frank Gadinger (Centre for Global Cooperation Research)


Works Cited

Bottero, Wendy. 2015. Practising Family History: ‘Identity’ as a Category of Social Practice. The British Journal of Sociology 66 (3): 534–556.

Bueger, Christian. 2015. Experimenting in Global Governance: Learning Lessons with the Contact Group on Piracy, in Knowing Governance. The epistemic construction of political order, edited by Richard Freeman and Jan-Peter Voß, Palgrave MacMillan, 87-104.

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Dauphinee, Elizabeth. 2015. Narrative voice and the limits of peacebuilding: rethinking the politics of partiality. Peacebuilding, Online First.

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Neumann, Iver B. 2012. At Home with the Diplomats: Inside a European Foreign Ministry. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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

Schindler, Sebastian, and Tobias Wille. 2015. Change in and through practice: Pierre Bourdieu, Vincent Pouliot, and the end of the Cold War. International Theory 7 (2): 330-359.

Sylvester, Christine. 2012. War Experiences/War Practices/War Theory. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 40 (3): 483-503.

Van Munster, Rens, and Casper Sylvest 2015. Documenting International Relations. Documentary Film and the Creative Arrangement of Perceptibility. International Studies Perspectives 16(3): 229-245.

Vrasti, Wanda. 2008. The Strange Case of Ethnography and International Relations. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 37 (2): 279-301.

Wiener, Antje. 2014. A Theory of Contestation. Heidelberg: Springer.


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