Why “practice theory” should “get religion”

David McCourt’s argument that practice theory and relational theory should be considered part and parcel of the constructivist approach to international relations is welcome and well taken in many respects. But it emanates a strong sense of déjà vu regarding the tendency of IR to fall into labeling traps, which his own argument appears to anticipate, and an unfinished quality regarding the conceptual way out, which it does not. McCourt argues that constructivism took hold in U.S. IR to address important gaps and provide “a space in American IR for engaging in scholarship sensitive to the social, historical, and context-dependent nature of action in international politics” (476), that it became unhelpfully narrowed epistemologically as well as conceptually (as many have argued before: see Klotz and Lynch 2007; Epstein 2008; Kratochwil 2010; Hall, Kessler, Lynch and Onuf, 2010; Onuf 2013; and Gould, forthcoming 2017, for some examples), but that it also provided the condition of possibility for both practice theory and relationalism to emerge. Re-integrating practice theory and relational perspectives and labeling it “the new constructivism,” in this argument, would go a long way towards allowing constructivism to fulfill its original, more expansive, agenda. I am agnostic as to whether it is more worthwhile to lift out the concepts of practice and relationalism as explanatory silver bullets for IR, or to tame the ambition of their promoters and resituate them within a more comprehensive set of constructivist approaches with a “new” label attached. But I also assert that the practice turn has more work to do to avoid a major pitfall in IR: the tendency to revert to new forms of determinism when previous iterations of structuralism begin to show wear and tear. Practice (and relational) frameworks need to take intentionality and ethics more seriously to avoid this pitfall. Analyzing religion “as practice” is a good place to start (Lynch 2000, 2009).

It is interesting how little the “practice turn” has thought about the practice of religion, even though it was a topic of considerable interest to Bourdieu himself. As Craig Calhoun asserts, Bourdieu’s own “’Genesis and Structure of the Religious Field’ has not been widely enough recognized as Bourdieu’s key, seminal text on fields” (Calhoun 1995: 157, fn14). Bourdieu’s understanding of religion both as field and habitus (rather than a focus on religion as practice), however, is part of the problem. As Michele Dillon argues, Bourdieu’s framework is too “mechanistic,” dividing religious agents into categories of “producers and consumers,” and viewing doctrinal change as a product of socioeconomic processes that alter the interests of religious producers, or elites. Yet, as Dillon demonstrates with regard to U.S. Catholics, the very concept of “interpretive autonomy” is an integral component of its “tradition or habitus” (Dillon 2001:411), resulting in a much broader scope for changes in practice to occur.

Autonomy here is still, of course, a relative term, and should not be taken to mean unlimited or ahistorical choice. Nevertheless, Dillon is getting at something very important regarding intentionality and ethics. People “practice” their religions, although they do so with varying degrees of commitment and adherence to the rules and forms of power set up by religious “fields.” Bourdieu acknowledges as much, but then recollapses agency into reductionist categories of leader versus follower, and elite versus popular adherence (Bourdieu 1991). Practice turn theorists in IR mention intentionality, “truth” and “morality” (e.g. Adler and Pouliot 2011: 15, 18-19, 21), but need to do much more work to develop the empirical manifestations, meanings, and implications of these terms.

Bourdieu relies heavily on Max Weber’s use of ideal-typical categories to understand and explain religious development and change. But, in “Genesis and Structure of the Religious Field,” he omits any discussion of ethics as anything but a fairly direct product of objectively determined interests within a field. This omission includes the problem of theodicy, which for Weber drives ruptures in both religious meaning and practice. Weber moves closer to addressing intentionality, but there is still the need for a “neo-Weberian” approach to religious practice (Lynch 2009; 2014). Such an approach takes ethics and intentionality seriously by interrogating the interpretive moments that always occur in the instantiation of practices, while still situating them within the political, economic, and social contexts (fields of power) that shape their possibilities for thought and action. In what I agree should be a return to early constructivist use of “practice,” particularly in the work of Friedrich Kratochwil, we get away from the ahistorical choice theoretic assumptions of rationalist liberals by situating them within specific discursive moves as well as linguistic and normative conventions. But we still carve a space for understanding the interpretive gaps that exist between (in Bourdieuian terminology), field, habitus, and practice. In conceptualizing – and researching -- how those gaps are filled, we bring back the blood, and the soul (so to speak) of the ethical struggles and contestations of agents.

In emphasizing both background knowledge and skill, as well as who sets the rules for acquiring them and how, Bourdieu has certainly brought something quite important to our understanding of practices and relations of power (see also, however, Onuf’s critique, in Onuf 2013: 135). But, as social theorists have also shown, Bourdieu’s work too easily ignores critical aspects of agency and meaning, concerning both performativity and the ability to think ethically. Judith Butler criticizes “Bourdieu’s account of performative speech acts because he tends to assume that the subject who utters the performative is positioned on a map of social power in a fairly fixed way”; while James Bohman asserts that Bourdieu robs agents of “reflexivity in the critical sense” by confining it sociological analysts rather than understanding it as “a constitutive property of agency and thus of practical reason” (Butler 1999: 122; Bohman 1999: 136).

McCourt’s argument, in the end, leaves numerous questions unanswered: what constitutes constructivism, whether the practice and relational turns represent yet another overwrought and underdeveloped attempt to create a blanket concept for everything that goes on in international politics, and whether IR theory can ever be anything but derivative. My argument redirects McCourt’s call to create yet another new label in IR (the “new constructivism”) to what I believe is a more productive line of inquiry: to bring out concrete insights and concepts regarding meaning by merging substantive and theoretical inquiry (also a foundational concern of Bourdieu’s), but to do so in ways that emphasize contextualized ethical struggles that do not reduce ethics to interests. Interrogating religion as practice helps accomplish this goal, because tensions in religious ethics (and the religious/secular divide) represent a significant component of the lifeblood of struggles about what people think matters in the world. If we skip over or merely mention these struggles without more thorough interrogation, then we have reverted to yet another form – even if a more processual one – of determinism, draining the soul from international politics itself.


Works Cited

Adler, Emmanuel and Vincent Pouliot, eds. 2011. International Practices. Cambridge.

Bohman, James. 1999. “Practical Reason and Cultural Constraint: Agency in Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice.” Richard Schusterman, ed., Bourdieu: A Critical Reader. Blackwell: 129-152. 

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. “Genesis and Structure of the Religious Field.” Comparative Social Research. 13:1-44.

Butler, Judith. 1999. “Performativity’s Social Magic.” Richard Schusterman, ed., Bourdieu: A Critical Reader. Blackwell: 113-128.

Calhoun, Craig, 1995. Critical Social Theory. Blackwell.

Dillon, Michele, 2001. “Pierre Bourdieu, Religion, and Cultural Production.” Cultural Studies – Critical Methodologies. 1 (4): 411-429.

Epstein, Charlotte. 2008. The Power of Words in International Relations: The Birth of an Anti-Whaling Discourse. MIT Press.

Gould, Harry, ed. 2017. The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics. Routledge.

Hall, Rodney Bruce, Oliver Kessler, Cecelia Lynch, and Nicholas Onuf, eds. 2010. On Rules, Politics and Knowledge: Friedrich Kratochwil, International Relations, and Domestic Affairs. Palgrave-Macmillan.

Klotz, Audie, and Cecelia Lynch. 2007. Strategies for Research in Constructivist International Relations. M.E. Sharpe/Routledge.

Kratochwil, Friedrich. 2010. The Puzzles of Politics: Inquiries into the Genesis and Transformation of International Relations. Routledge.

Lynch, Cecelia. 2000. “Dogma, Praxis, and Religious Perspectives on Multiculturalism.” Millennium, 29 (3): 741-759.
----------. 2009. “A neo-Weberian Approach to religion in international politics.” International Theory, 1 (3): 381-408.
----------. 2014. “A Neo-Weberian Approach to Studying Religion and Violence,” Millennium, 43 (1): 273-290.

McCourt, David. 2016. (ISQ article)

Onuf, Nicholas. 2013. Making Sense, Making Worlds. Routledge.

Weber, Max. 1993. The Sociology of Religion. Beacon Press.


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