What’s the Theory in International Practice Theory?

Is there a theory in practice theory? Responding to Bueger and Gadinger’s excellent article, I agree that practice theory is indeed a theory – or a rather a bundle of theories – that can help explain world politics. Bueger and Gadinger distinguish between critical theory and pragmatism as practice theory’s intellectual roots, but as I will argue below, this distinction has drawbacks. I therefore propose a different categorization – between what I call the ‘ordering’ (how practices stabilize the world) and the ‘disordering’ (how practices destabilize the world) perspectives on practices. This distinction is crucial to determining where we look for practices in international relations and how we study them. I will also argue that symbolic interactionism should be included in the practice theory landscape, as it can help us understand the making and unmaking of international orders.

Bueger and Gadinger’s distinction between pragmatism and critical theory may be meaningful in the abstract, but it creates the problem that many practice theorists combine insights from both traditions. Take for instance Pierre Bourdieu, Erving Goffman, Michel de Certeau or James C. Scott. Are they pragmatist or critical when they help us to find the political, hidden in the everyday? When they identify contradictions and tensions in how people experience education, cities, wars or asylums, which tradition do they build on? In practice, it is difficult to distinguish the pragmatist from the critical theorist.

I therefore propose an alternative distinction: between the ‘ordering’ and the ‘disordering’ perspectives on practices. The distinction is grossly simplifying, but it emphasizes that international relations appear differently to us depending on whether we are most interested in how they stabilize or how they destabilize the world (Adler-Nissen 2016).

The ‘ordering’ version of practices focuses on how practices become organizing of social life, it is interested in how people and groups of people become recognized as more or less competent or entitled than others through particular classifications, distinctions and categories of understanding. This happens for instance in social fields (Bourdieu 1977) and in ‘communities of practices’ (Wenger 1998)1  For Etienne Wenger the question is how communities of practice may foster learning processes and collaboration (Wenger 1998). Inspired by Wenger, that Emanuel Adler and Vincent Pouliot (2011) have developed their version of practice theory, seeing practices as ‘socially meaningful patterns of action which, in being performed more or less competently, simultaneously embody, act out and possibly reify background knowledge and discourse in and on the material world’ (Adler and Pouliot 2011: 6).  From this perspective, practices can be anything from UN Security Council negotiations (Adler-Nissen and Pouliot 2014) to playing hockey or smuggling drugs. Such activities involve skills and techniques and can be performed better or worse in the eyes of other practitioners.

One important aspect missing from Wenger’s practice concept is exclusion, stigmatization and discrimination. I have argued, drawing on Goffman, that stigmatization may be just as important for the construction of international order as socialization and learning processes (Adler-Nissen 2014). It is indeed unfortunate that symbolic interactionism and dramaturgy are written out of Bueger and Gadinger’s account of practice theory. For example, symbolic interactionist-inspired practice theory can contribute to current debates within IR theory about emotions, the self and the body. Mead’s fundamental insight (picked up by Goffman) was that the self is social not biological (Goffman 1967) and that the ‘looking glass self’ generates emotions, such as embarrassment, pride and anger. From this perspective, emotions in world politics are not just psychologically or discursively constituted as affect or trauma, they emerge and are performed through everyday interaction.

The problem of exclusion and discrimination is central to the ‘disordering’ practice perspective. It differs from the ‘ordering’ perspective in that it does not require recognition of competent behavior or social capital. This gives it a more explicit emancipatory potential. This perspective, which is close to the so-called everyday approach to practice, is not mentioned much by Bueger and Gadinger, but it focuses on subordinate and ordinary people and their experiences of broader power relationships (for a great overview of everyday approaches to IPE, see Hobson and Seabrooke 2009). One example is Henri Lefebvre’s ‘everyday life’ concern with disciplinary logics of capitalism and how everyday life manifests itself in bodies, urban landscapes, consumption and even boredom. Michel de Certeau and James C. Scott are more interested in subtle form of subaltern agency and defiance, at the local level. Here, tactics are creative and opportunistic, seized momentarily by subjugated ordinary people (Neumann 2002). Within IR theory, the ‘disordering’ approach focuses on seemingly ordinary or subordinate people, non-elite groups, including lower-middle and middle classes, migrant laborers and diasporas whose lives are shaped by and shape the world politics ‘from below’, exploring their capacity to change their political, economic and social environment.

At the most fundamental level, both ‘ordering’ and ‘disordering’ practices are concerned with the ontological question of social order. For practice theorists, social order is a collective achievement to which we all contribute; this means there is always the possibility of a collapse of the social/society (disordering) if its norms and values are not constantly reaffirmed (ordering) (Adler-Nissen 2014). The anomie lurking behind practice theory (yes, anomie differs radically from anarchy) holds a great promise for IR theory.


-- Rebecca Adler-Nissen

    Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen

    Twitter: @RebAdlerNissen

return 1. Bourdieu acknowledges the agent’s capacity for invention and improvisation (Adler-Nissen 2012: 5). Shifts are not as ‘rare’ and ‘revolutionary’ as Bueger and Gadinger (2015: 8) would have it. This is clear in Bourdieu’s elaboration of improvisations involved in everyday strategies of for instance gift-giving (Bourdieu 1977). Bourdieu shares the wish to liberate agency from structuralist models while avoiding the trap of methodological individualism.


Works cited

Adler E, Pouliot V. (ed.) (2011) International Practices, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Adler-Nissen, R. (2016) Towards a Practice Turn in EU Studies: The Everyday of European Integration, Journal of Common Market Studies, 54(1): forthcoming.

Adler-Nissen, R. (2014) Stigma management in international relations: Transgressive identities, norms and order in international society. International Organization, 68(1).

Adler-Nissen, R. (2012). Introduction: Bourdieu and International Relations theory. Adler-Nissen. R (red.), Bourdieu in International Relations: Rethinking Key Concepts in IR. London: Routledge. 1-23.

Adler-Nissen, R. & V. Pouliot. (2014) Power in practice: Negotiating the international intervention in Libya. European Journal of International Relations, 20(4): 889-911.

Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, E. (1967) Interaction Ritual.  New York: Anchor.

Hobson, J. M., & Seabrooke, L. (2009) 'Everyday international political economy' in M. Blyth (ed.) Routledge Handbook of International Political Economy: IPE as a Global Conversation, Milton Park: Routledge, 290-306.

Neumann, I. B. (2002). Returning practice to the linguistic turn: the case of diplomacy. Millennium-Journal of International Studies, 31(3): 627-651.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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