Two wrongs don’t make a right: on constructivism, practices and the linguistic turn

There is a general sentiment among constructivists that constructivism finds itself in a sorry state of affairs. The more constructivism became part of IR’s mainstream, the more its concepts like agent-structure, norms, and ideas formed and forged debates in International Relations (IR), the more constructivism was sold out up to the point that it became fashionable to evaluate constructivism by positivist criteria of science (see Jackson 2011). Much of these developments took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s where the overall liberal optimism often enough trumped serious conceptual work. David McCourt rightfully identifies these developments and does a wonderful job in pointing out that agent-structure, norms and ideas helplessly narrowed down constructivist curiosity.1 No wonder that like many other ‘third generation’ constructivists, McCourt searches for alternative avenues and concepts to revive constructivism (on third generation see Kessler and Steele 2017).  

This alternative, for McCourt, can be found in both practice theories and relationalism that together “constitute the New Constructivism in International Relations.” (McCourt 2016:475). According to McCourt, together they help to overcome stale dichotomies like agent-structure, ideas v. matter, and constitution v. causation that today are more part of the problem than part of the solution. There are two interpretations of his argument: on the one hand, it suggests that the ‘turn’ to practice theory and relationalism is ‘part of’ constructivism. This implies that constructivists cannot simply bypass these debates and should (!) take this development seriously. Agreed. On the other hand, it suggests that both practice theories and relationalism are the only future way ahead for constructivists. Now here I differ – because as a constructivist, I don’t want to turn into a practice theorist and I do want to be forced to work with practice theories. Even though I am sympathetic to the literature, and use it from time to time for some questions, I think a debate is needed to understand what practice theory has to offer vis-à-vis its alternatives. Here, I see several problems that all de-stabilise the assumed tight relationship between practice theories and constructivism:  

The first problem is in the very way ‘practice theory’ (in particular in the Bourdieusian fashion) is introduced. Let us not forget where these ‘problematic’ dichotomies come from: they form the core of the moderate version of constructivism, which came to dominate the U.S. academy. One looks in vain for them in – at least early – radical constructivist literature. Hence, this often heard argument that we need practice theory to overcome these dichotomies and position ‘practice theory and relationalism together’ as a solution to the problems of the moderate constructivist’s own making. To constantly repeat this critique doesn’t make it any better and always revives moderate constructivism ex negativo. Yet how much longer do we need to hear that constructivism is about (liberal) norms? How often do we have to read that ‘agent-structure’ is at the core of constructivism –as if radical constructivism does not exist? When do we ever leave this impoverished understanding of constructivism in both IR and social theory behind?

The second problem is that ‘practice theorists’ get the linguistic turn wrong, which I think is very important for constructivism2: practice theorists are convinced that they have ‘overcome’ the linguistic turn by moving from ‘text’ to ‘practice’, from ‘armchair theorising’ to ‘getting out there’. Yet, the linguistic turn was never only about the discovery of ‘text’ or ‘language’ (as if before there was none and suddenly there was). The linguistic turn is the consequence of the failure to establish logical necessity on the basis of an assumed identity between being and thought. The linguistic turn takes seriously that the creation of (logical) necessity requires two different observers, i.e. the (logical) necessity to treat ‘you’ not just like another ‘I’. As a consequence, the relations and processes that mediate between ego and alter are ‘prior to’ ‘substances’ or subjects). Without this problem of inter-subjectivity – the radical constructivist’s interest in, first, speech act theory and, later, discourses and communication doesn’t make sense: they provide specific ways for understanding the problem of contingency and necessity, of stability and change, in social terms.

At this point, several ruptures appear in the assumed link between constructivism and practice theories: for example, to argue that one could follow practices by looking at bodily movements or that practices are easily observable eclipses an important problem in understanding the social: every social order is stabilized by making many practices impossible, by silencing some alternative ‘interpretations’ or perspectives; and by making certain parts of the social world invisible. These silenced, invisible, excluded dimensions cannot be simply observed but need to be reconstructed. That said, to argue for the ‘tracing’ of practices by following ‘actors’ or ‘communities of practice’, then buys into a different politics than that of radical constructivism: instead of looking at power relations inscribed in ways of world making, practices take place in already existing institutions like diplomacy. Instead of understanding how communication and exchanges among perspectives first becomes possible and then becomes naturalized, practice theorists enter an already existing life-world.

From this perspective, I think practice theories are notoriously incapable of capturing the ‘inter’ (subjectivity) as it treats the subject’s body (as the bearer of practices) as conceptually superior.3 That the issue of how to reconstruct ‘tacit’ knowledge is not a new problem suddenly discovered by practice theorists is eventually a case in point. And as far as I can see, there is no particular necessity to study this from a constructivist perspective. In fact, this inscribed empiricism is not a far cry away from the argument that practices constitute ‘recursive patterns’, and we all know where this leads to.

Last but not least, I fear some of the performative consequences of the practice turn: at the moment, the practice turn is characterised by the same application mode as every other positivist social theory where given concepts are projected onto global phenomena. The application is legitimized solely by the ‘unique’ promise they hold because these concepts belong to one ‘thinker’ who is more or less just en vogue. Then in a couple of years, the next thinker comes around the corner and a new set of concepts is applied – flanked by the occasional ‘summary’ article of what that thinker is really about. While this game is seductive because one knows whom to cite and whom to talk to, it only leads to the same ‘constellation’ of peer-groups, power games and ‘gatekeepers’ and does not get us very far in understanding the very problem that McCourt rightfully identifies: what concept of the social is adequate for understanding global processes?

To this question practice theories may or may not provide a specific answer and a useful avenue to explore further. Yet let us not forget: practices are introduced as a theoretical concept and are discussed as such. The concept of practices itself only makes sense within pre-stabilized conceptual frameworks in which it operates. No practices without fields, actor-networks, discourses or systems. These different conceptual frameworks not only carry different concepts of the social, but they also do not come from nowhere. They emerged at a distinct point in time in specific contexts-and these contexts were within given nation states. To move from there to the sphere ‘beyond’ the nation state, we first need to translate concepts like actor-network, fields, habitus, capital into IR –and cannot simply apply them. To suggest we move closer to ‘reality’ by ‘going down’ to the everyday, the mundane where ‘practice’ becomes a shortcut for ethnographic methods – is simply self-betrayal.

That said, practice theories may or may not be an alternative to other approaches and concepts such as communication, speech act, discourses, translation, performativity, concepts etc. But from here, it is a far cry to argue that practice and relationalism together constitute the new constructivism.


Works cited

Jackson, Patrick T. (2011) Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and its implications for the study of world politics. London: Routledge

Kessler, Oliver and Steele Brent (2017). “Third Generation Constructivism: An introduction to the special issue,” European Review of International Studies, 3(3): 7–13.

1 Just consider for a moment how the early constructivist’s interest in norms was wedded to speech act theory and was proposed as a way to understand the problem of inter-subjectivity, the social production of contingency and thus the co-existence of continuation and change. Soon after, however, constructivists analysed the validity of individual norms, proposed criteria and tipping points and developed generalizable models about normative change.

2 In the following, I will not deal with the problem of ‘relationalism’. Yet to discuss relationalism without process-philosophy appears to me highly problematic. Otherwise, how do practices ‘continue’ and ‘go on’?

3 In deed, it should be noted that ‘praxiology‘ and practices were widely treated in conservative social theory. To treat the practice turn as something new – without taking seriously the linguistic turn – simply forgets its own history.

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