Seizing Constructivist Ground? Practice and Relational Theories

International Studies Quarterly (ISQ) has a tradition of being home to big debates about, and major contributions to, international-relations theory. There’s simply no way to do justice to the list of important articles, forums, and even special issues. In recent years, ISQ published a call for global international relations, a major piece on practice theory—the subject of a symposium, and an influential call to move beyond paradigms in international-relations theory and scholarship

I mention these last three pieces because they bear directly on the subject of this symposium, David McCourt’s “Practice Theory and Relationalism as the New Constructivism.” McCourt’s piece enjoys the distinction of being ISQ’s first “theory note.” We introduced theory notes to help forward ISQ’s tradition as a place for important debates about international-relations theory. But, beyond the vague notion that there should exist the equivalent—or, more accurately, the inverse—of a “research note,” we really had very little idea what the category entailed. Indeed, none of the available—or forthcoming—theory notes share much more than their status as spare, disciplined, and salient interventions on ongoing theoretical controversies. 

So I find it a bit embarrassing that our first theory note not only deals with my own work, but offers some sharp criticisms of it. Still, McCourt’s article generated much attention when it first appeared on “advance access,” and we thought it would make a good subject for a symposium. While many in the field have moved beyond the “isms,” McCourt argues for explicit attention to the continued existence, and evolution, of the constructivist research program. As his title suggests, he considers two related traditions—practice and relational theory—as carrying the torch on central constructivist wagers. 

The contributions to this symposium reflect the controversial nature of some of McCourt’s arguments. Ted Hopf is not impressed, and takes issue with a number of explicit and implicit arguments he finds in the theory note. Stacie Goddard offers “three, most friendly, quarrels” with McCourt. Alex Montgomery also offers a more favorable reading, and emphasizes the promise of social-network analysis in “tak[ing] the fight to individualists by challenging” their key assumptions. Oliver Kessler worries that McCourt’s argument narrows the range of constructivist theorizing, particularly at the expense of the linguistic turn. 

Christian Bueger considers, among other things, McCourt’s location of practice theory as third-generation constructivist too constraining. Cecelia Lynch notes that, rather than correcting old problems, relational and practice theories—and practice theories in particular—risk replicating them. Ty Solomon also expresses skepticism, and notes that both these approaches carry with them important blind spots. Swati Srivastava sees a missed opportunity to address the social dimensions of research programs. Finally, McCourt responds.

We hope you enjoy this symposium, and note that McCourt’s theory note is free for download for the next three weeks.  

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