Let's count beyond three: Understanding the conceptual and methodological terrain of international practice theories

Did you hear the one about the IR theorist who couldn’t count to four?

It seems that three really is the magic number, in terms of IR theories, at least. No matter the theoretical context, there seems to be an urge to restrict our analytical framework to a maximum of three perspectives. Today’s trio of choice in the American theory repertoire consists of realism, liberalism and constructivism, and David M. McCourt's article stays true to the established (triangle-shaped) boundaries we seem to have imposed upon ourselves.

In this case, the discipline is being confronted with a new theoretical development, namely practice theory. A new wave of scholars has something intelligible to say on the subject, speaking to core disciplinary concerns. The logic appears to be that, since this new way of thinking has little in common with the rationalism of realism and liberalism, what else could it be but constructivism? That’s settled then – let’s just call it the ‘new constructivism’.

Let’s be clear: McCourt's aim of bringing practice theory to the mainstream, thereby helping it into textbooks and core curricula, deserves applause. That said, I do think it’s time that the discipline learns how to count past three. There’s no doubt that practice theory is historically anchored in constructivism, and there are many linkages, but it has its own conceptual terrain and challenges; recognising this is vital in bringing the promise of the perspective to fruition.

Moreover, practice theory presents us with particular empirical lenses that start out from activities and the wide variety of agents practicing global politics. That means that explicitly tailored methodological strategies are required. Let me address these points more substantially. Since it seems for IR all good things come in threes, I’ve numbered my thoughts accordingly.

1. Navigating the conceptual terrain of international practice theory

When Schatzki, von Savigny and Knorr Cetina coined the term ‘practice turn’ in 2002, their edited volume emphasised the substantial work on concepts of practice that had already been undertaken among sociologists of science, scholars of cultural studies, and Wittensteinian philosophers. They didn’t argue for a break with existing thinking, but pointed to a substantial shift that was taking place across social science disciplines. Several authors have since attempted to provide a history of the paradigm; the consensual position is that the current emergence of practice theory should be read as a ‘return to practice’ (Miettinen, Samra-Fredericks, and Yanow 2009) – a position highlighted by Iver Neumann when he introduced practice ideas to IR in 2002.

That practice theory is more than old sociological wine in new bottles was demonstrated most clearly by Andreas Reckwitz (2002). He clarified that practice theorists had carved out a unique conceptual space, and demonstrated how that space differs from rationalist and norm-oriented as well as cognitive or discursive perspectives. This Reckwitzian understanding has substantially informed the debate in IR; Adler and Pouliot (2011) described practice theory in such terms and argued that it is comprised of dedicated assumptions and viewpoints. In our ISQ article and subsequent book (Bueger and Gadinger 2014, 2015) we drew explicitly on Reckwitz's work and argued that practice theories are united by a set of dedicated commitments. In this study, we offered a reasonably wide definition of practice theories but also clarified that not every (constructivist) scholar is a practice theorist, nor should they be. This conceptual space comes with a range of specific aims, including transcending core theoretical binaries, such as those between agency and structure, and the ideational and material. It also entails particular conceptual challenges, such as how to reconcile the routine character of practices with their contingency and potential for change. Practice theorists also operate with a dedicated set of concepts, of which ‘practice’ is obviously the most important; some of these concepts are genuine to practice theory; others, such as power and change, are certainly not.

One of the drivers of the future debate will be to better define this conceptual terrain. The links between practice theory and other IR theories need to be better understood; this is the core aim of a new collective research project in which we explore and discuss the central concepts of practice theory and their linkages to other types of IR theorising (see http://practice-theory.net).

2. Understanding practice requires dedicated methodologies

Practice driven investigations start out from the study of activities. It is not abstract units (such as states, or organisations), nor a priori assumptions of how units behave, that form the starting point; practice theory vocabulary provides a ‘search and find’ strategy through which we can learn something about the concrete activities of those engaged in global politics.

There is little doubt that practice theory studies have already delivered. They have started to bring the discipline an awareness of processes that have gone unnoticed for a long time, granting a much richer understanding of what diplomats do, how speeches are written, how international organisations work, how international knowledge is generated or terrorist lists are compiled. Many insightful analyses have been published or are being written at present, and we have plenty to look forward to. It’s also refreshing that many of these studies make for entertaining reading, or are simply less yawn-inducing than many conventional IR texts.

Speaking of entertaining reading, empirical studies have underlined the importance of methodological considerations, and in recent years, practice methodologies have made encouraging progress. Examples include explorations of Bourdieu's methodology (Adler-Nissen 2013), Pouliot's outline of practice-tracing (Pouliot 2014), my own sketch of praxiography (Bueger 2014), or considerations of how the ethnographic spectrum of methods can be used for practice-oriented investigations. What these discussions agree on and demonstrate vividly is that practice theory requires dedicated and tailored methodologies that differ from the requirements of discourse theories or constructivism. This is a further example of why McCourt's argument simply falls short of the frontiers of today’s research.  

3. Let's agree to disagree and embrace a diverse discipline

One of the more convincing sociological explanations for IR’s need to hold on to a theoretical spectrum of three is that the field tends to see diversity as a problem rather than as a virtue. The fear of a diverse discipline comprised of different schools, -isms, paradigms, or theories, misreads how intellectual progress unfolds, however. Scientific progress is the outcome of controversies between perspectives that seek to study a similar phenomenon; in short, disagreement drives intellectual innovation. If we conflate practice theory with constructivism, an argument that we could easily extend to other theoretical innovations (discourse theories, new materialisms, you name it), what is there left to disagree on? What intellectual contests remain to allow us to drive our field forward?

Another issue is the question of how radical a shift the introduction of international practice theory represents. Whether it will be read as the continuation of the constructivist story or as a true intellectual innovation is up to future disciplinary historiographers and textbook writers to decide. For now, diluting the boundaries and whitewashing the core of practice theory doesn't push the theoretical and empirical frontier any further.


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

Adler-Nissen, Rebecca, ed. 2013. Bourdieu in International Relations. Rethinking Key Concepts in IR. Milton Park: Routledge.

Bueger, C., and F. Gadinger. 2014. International Practice Theory: New Perspectives International Practice Theory: New Perspectives.

Bueger, C., and F. Gadinger. 2015. “The Play of International Practice.” International Studies Quarterly 59(3).

Bueger, Christian. 2014. “Pathways to Practice: Praxiography and International Politics.” European Political Science Review 6(3): 383–406.

Miettinen, Reijo, Dalvir Samra-Fredericks, and Dvora Yanow. 2009. “Re-Turn to Practice: An Introductory Essay.” Organization Studies 30(12): 1309–27.

Neumann, Iver B. 2002. “Returning Practice to the Linguistic Turn: The Case of Diplomacy.” Millennium - Journal of International Studies 31(3): 627–51.

Pouliot, Vincent. 2014. “Practice Tracing,” in Andrew Bennett and Jeffrey T. Checkel, eds., Process Tracing: From Metaphor to Analytic Tool, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 237-259.

Reckwitz, Andreas. 2002. “Toward a Theory of Social Practices: A Development in Culturalist Theorizing.” European Journal of Social Theory 5(2): 243–63.

Schatzki, Theodore R., Karin Knorr Cetina, and Eike von Savigny, eds. 2001. The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. London/New York: Routledge.

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