The Play of International Practice
University of Duisburg-Essen
The core claims of the practice turn in International Relations (IR) remain ambiguous. What promises does international
practice theory hold for the ﬁeld? How does the kind of theorizing it produces differ from existing perspectives? What
kind of research agenda does it produce? This article addresses these questions. Drawing on the work of Andreas Reck-
witz, we show that practice approaches entail a distinctive view on the drivers of social relations. Practice theories argue
against individualistic-interest and norm-based actor models. They situate knowledge in practice rather than “mental
frames” or “discourse.” Practice approaches focus on how groups perform their practical activities in world politics to
renew and reproduce social order. They therefore overcome familiar dualisms—agents and structures, subjects and
objects, and ideational and material—that plague IR theory. Practice theories are a heterogeneous family, but, as we
argue, share a range of core commitments. Realizing the promise of the practice turn requires considering the full spec-
trum of its approaches. However, the ﬁeld primarily draws on trajectories in international practice theory that emphasize
reproduction and hierarchies. It should pay greater attention to practice approaches rooted in pragmatism and that
emphasize contingency and change. We conclude with an outline of core challenges that the future agenda of interna-
tional practice theory must tackle.
The Practice Turn in International Relations
The practice turn has, after many ﬁts and starts, arrived
in International Relations (IR) theory. (Pouliot 2008;
Adler and Pouliot 2011b; Acuto and Curtis 2013; Adler-
Nissen 2013b; Bueger and Gadinger 2014). But current
work fails to adequately elaborate on the promise of the
practice turn. It supplies partial—and sometimes unclear
—answers to what distinguishes international practice the-
ories from alternative frameworks, such as rationalism
and mainstream constructivism. For example, Adler and
Pouliot (2011a:28) suggest not only that practice
approaches constitute a new paradigm for the study of
IR, but that practice theory provides a “big tent” capable
of accommodating all of the wide range of ontological
and epistemological stances found in the ﬁeld.
We argue, in contrast, that the practice turn entails a
distinctive way of studying the world. Since they take prac-
tices as the core unit of analysis, practice approaches pro-
vide a different understanding of the international.
Thereby, they move away from models of action that
focus on the calculation of interests or the evaluation of
norms. At the same time, practice theories adopt many of
the same assumptions and sensibilities that IR scholars
elsewhere describe as “cultural” (Lapid and Kratochwil
1996), “critical” (Ashley 1987), “cognitive” (Adler 1991),
or “constructivist” (Guzzini 2000). In seeing “practices” as
the stuff that drives the world and makes it “hang
together,” the everyday practices of diplomats, terrorists,
environmentalists, or ﬁnancial analysts become the object
of investigation. Focusing on them allows us to better
understand dynamics of order and change.
Confusion about the practice turn, as well as the very
idea of international practice theory, abounds. We seek
to reduce this confusion by laying out its assumptions,
promises, and challenges. To do so, we adopt a multilay-
ered strategy. We ﬁrst clarify how, in ideal-typical terms,
practice theory differs from other social-theoretical frame-
works. We show that practice theory not only opposes
rationalism and norm-oriented theories, but also distin-
guishes itself from common culturalist approaches. We
then introduce and discuss six core commitments of prac-
tice theory at the level of ontology, epistemology, and
methodology. Practice theory implies emphasizing pro-
cess, developing an account of knowledge as action,
appreciating the collectivity of knowledge, recognizing
the materiality of practice, embracing the multiplicity of
orders, and working with a performative understanding
Christian Bueger is Reader in International Relations at Cardiff University.
He holds a PhD from the European University Institute. His research interests
include international practice theory, international organizations, maritime
security, sociology of science, and interpretive methodology. He is currently
the principal investigator of an ESRC funded project on the global gover-
nance of maritime piracy which uses participant observation to study global
and regional cooperation processes. Further information is available at
Frank Gadinger is head of the research unit “Paradoxes and Perspectives
of Democratisation” at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, Univer-
sity of Duisburg-Essen. Prior he was a Research Associate at the NRW School
of Governance, leading a project on political narratives. He holds a Dr. phil
from the Goethe University Frankfurt/Main. He is currently publishing a
book on the practices of justiﬁcation and critique in the US War on Terror.
For comments and suggestions we are grateful to Emanuel Adler, Iver
Neumann, Friedrich Kratochwil, Dan Nexon, Andreas Reckwitz, Christopher
Smith, Jan Stockbruegger as well as the anonymous reviewers of ISQ. Research
for this article has beneﬁtted from support of the Economic and Social
Research Council [ES/K008358/1], the Centre for Advanced Security Theory,
Copenhagen University, and the Centre for Global Cooperation Research.
Bueger, Christian and Frank Gadinger. (2015) The Play of International Practice: Minimalism, Pragmatism and Critical Theory. International Studies Quarterly, doi: 10.1111/isqu.12202
©2015 The Authors. International Studies Quarterly published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. on behalf of International Studies Association.
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use,
distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
International Studies Quarterly (2015) 59, 449–460
of the world. We talk about commitments—rather than
principles or shared assumptions—in order to emphasize
the heterogeneous character of practice theory. In other
words, it is a diverse “family.” Speciﬁc theorists interpret
the commitments differently.
Hence, we next discuss the spectrum of practice
approaches. We argue, in particular, against the tendency
to equate international practice theory solely with Bour-
dieu’s praxeology. The ﬁeld requires a broader under-
standing of international practice theory in order to
make sense of the diverse phenomena found in world
politics. This includes, most notably, sustained engage-
ment with practice theoretical approaches rooted in the
tradition of pragmatism. Such a broader understanding
entails paying attention to core points of contention
within practice theory, and recognizing the challenges
that they raise for a practice theoretical research agenda.
We discuss four major concerns practice approaches will
have to deal with in one way or another: questions of
change, scale, methodology, and reﬂexivity. How scholars
address these concerns will, we contend, prove critical to
the fate of international practice theory.
(Mis)Understanding the Practice Turn
The idea of a practice turn in IR has already produced
signiﬁcant criticisms. In an article-length critique, Ring-
mar expresses extreme skepticism about international
practice theory. As he argues, “practices of one kind or
another are what scholars of IR always have studied”
(Ringmar 2014:2). Indeed, practice has gradually
emerged as a core category within constructivism. More
than two decades ago, for example, Wendt (1992:413)
invoked it as an intermediary between agents and struc-
ture. However, when Neumann (2002) suggested the
need to pay greater attention to practice theory, he
advanced a different argument: that we should promote
the concept of practice from a supporting to a leading
role. Neumann’s suggestion, as we demonstrate later,
entails major implications for ontology, epistemology,
and methodology in IR.
More recently, the work of Adler and Pouliot (2011a,b)
has become closely associated with the practice turn.
They do not claim that practice theory constitutes a “uni-
versal grand theory” or a “totalizing ontology of every-
thing social” (Adler and Pouliot 2011a:2). But their
approach stresses practices as a concept capable of inte-
grating a broad range of work in contemporary IR. This
move obscures key wagers of practice-turn theories while
minimizing its potential contributions to understanding
international affairs. Not every IR theory is, or should be,
a practice theory; many approach the world in ways
incompatible with practice-driven research. Although they
discuss practice, many IR scholars do not share the episte-
mological and ontological commitments that practice the-
ories imply. Thus, while we praise Adler and Pouliot for
beginning the discussion in IR and promoting the cause,
there is the danger of turning practice theory into an
overcrowded circus. The ontological and epistemological
commitments that give practice theory its distinct value
must be safeguarded. This is not an argument for isola-
tion. It does not imply that practice theorists cannot (or
should not) productively cooperate and converse with
other IR theories. On the contrary, such cooperation and
collaboration, notably in empirical work, holds a great
deal of promise. The precondition for such cooperation
is, however, a clear understanding of what practice theory
is and what it is not. Theoretical rigor provides the foun-
dation for dialogue. In contrast to the position of Adler
and Pouliot, we argue for, and work from, what we call a
cautious position of coherence. Such a position does not
claim to ﬁnd a deﬁnite core that represents the concept
of practice (Kratochwil 2011:37); however, it draws atten-
tion to a number of core commitments that, despite
being interpreted and implemented differently, are
shared within the family of practice theory.
The history of earlier “turns” in the discipline highlights
the need to demarcate clearer boundaries of international
practice theory. The rise of constructivism remains a well-
known example of the difﬁculty in developing a produc-
tive research program on weak conceptual grounds. After
the euphoria surrounding the emergence of the construc-
tivist approach began to wane, the ﬁeld witnessed a grow-
ing sense of disillusionment. Some of this stemmed from
the dominant position of Alexander Wendt’s articulation
of constructivism and, concurrently, the increasing dilu-
tion of constructivism’s basic premises (Fierke 2002).
Scholars spent vast intellectual energy resolving resulting
epistemological and ontological confusion and designing
consistent and coherent avenues for research (Kratochwil
2008). The same fate could befall the practice turn in IR.
If we lose sight of the ontological and epistemological
commitments that give practice theory its distinct value,
then we render the practice turn vulnerable to precisely
the kinds of criticisms leveled by Ringmar (2014:2) that
“there is nothing truly new about this research,” because
the ﬁeld has always studied the activities of people, states,
and other actors in world politics.
Sorting Things Out: The Foundations of International
Reckwitz (2002a, 2004a,b, 2008, 2010) maps social theo-
ries in a manner that helps specify the distinctiveness of
practice theories. He sorts approaches into different
streams and situates practice theory within them. Reck-
witz identiﬁes three major categories: rationalism, norm-
oriented theorizing, and cultural theory (Table 1).
Within the last, he locates three families: mentalism, tex-
tualism, and practice theory.
Classes of Social Theory: Interests, Norms, and Culture
One major class of contemporary social analysis builds
upon assumptions of instrumental rationality. Theories
within this class rely on methodological individualism and
concentrate on individual action; they treat individuals as
self-interested and equipped with subjective rationality. In
TABLE 1. Three Classes of Contemporary Social Theory
Behavior as an
Homo oeconomicus Interests and beliefs Individual actions
Homo sociologicus Normative order Intersubjective
Cultural theories Collective orders of
Repetitive patterns of
Reckwitz (2004a:318), own translation.
450 The Play of International Practice
consequence, they view the social sphere as essentially
the product of individual actions (Reckwitz 2002a:245).
In contrast, norm-oriented theories focus on the social in
rules that establish conditions of possibility for action.
These theories assume that actors consent to normative
rules. This enables them to distinguish between allowed,
prohibited, worthwhile, and worthless behavior. Norma-
tive consensus guarantees social order (Reckwitz
2002a:245). Normative expectations and roles prevent a
potential endless confrontation of disparate interests.
Despite their differences, both of these approaches
deviate from culturalist theories in an important way.
They “both dismiss the implicit, tacit or unconscious layer
of knowledge which enables a symbolic organization of
reality” (Reckwitz 2002a:246).
Instead of understanding social order as the coordina-
tion of actions through norms and rules, culturalist
approaches focus on understanding what makes actors
believe that the world is ordered in the ﬁrst place, and
therefore renders them capable of acting within it. This
capacity to grasp the world as ordered presupposes a
layer of symbolic and meaningful rules, that is, culture.
Culture regulates the ascription of meaning to objects
and provides procedures for understanding them (Reck-
witz 2002a:246). Culturalist approaches enable analysts to
address questions of social order that elude alternative
frameworks. Theorizing based on instrumental rationality
reduces the challenges of social order to the unequal
distribution of resources. It therefore omits collective pat-
terns of action. For their part, norm-based theories claim
to more fully explain collective actions and change.
However, they struggle to explain the emergence and
constitution of norms themselves.
Culturalist approaches provide an elaborate solution to
this problem. Rather than presuppose that norms guide
acting subjects, they instead scrutinize the “how” and
“why” of the prior ordering. In their view, it is precisely
collectively shared orders of knowledge, systems of sym-
bols, meanings, or cultural codes that generate rules for
action. Culturalist theories locate the social within collec-
tively meaningful orders and the symbolic organization of
reality (Reckwitz 2002a:246–47). They understand social
order as a product of collectively shared knowledge.
Three Families of Culturalist Theorizing: Ideas, Discourse, and
Culturalist approaches differ in how they conceptualize
collectively shared orders of knowledge. Reckwitz identi-
ﬁes three families of culturalist theorizing based on this
difference: mentalist, textualist, and practice theoretical.
Mentalist accounts see shared orders of knowledge
expressed in the human mind and its cognitions. They
understand culture as a mental and cognitive phenome-
non; they therefore locate it in the human mind, mental
structures, or the “head” of human beings (Reckwitz
2002a:247). Mentalist approaches treat shared cognitive-
mental schemes as the smallest unit of the social and as
their main object of analysis. Classical representatives of
this perspective are Max Weber’s world images (Weltbil-
der), the phenomenology of Alfred Sch€utz or Edmund
Husserl or French structuralism presented by thinkers
such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Claude L
Whereas mentalists focus on the minds of individuals
to study shared knowledge, textualists take the opposite
route. They do not identify shared knowledge in the
“inside,” but rather on the “outside” (Reckwitz
2002a:248), that is, in symbols, discourses, communica-
tion or in “text” that lie outside the individual’s mind.
Post-structuralism, radical hermeneutics, constructivist sys-
tems theory, or semiotics associated with scholars like
Clifford Geertz, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Niklas
Luhmann, Paul Ricœur, or Roland Barthes mostly repre-
sent this mode of theorizing. Despite their divergences,
these approaches unite in their focus on extra-subjective
structures of meaning. They tend to rely on discourse
analysis to decipher cultural codes and rules of forma-
tion. Foucault’s (1972) early work Archeology of Knowledge
and Geertz’s (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures are para-
digmatic in this regard.
The third family—practice theory—embraces the
importance of mentalist and textualist ideas, yet suggests
locating shared knowledge in practices. The focus is nei-
ther on the internal (inside the head of actors), nor on
the external (in some form of structure). Instead, schol-
ars see practice as ontologically in between the inside and
the outside. They identify the social in the mind (since
individuals are carriers of practices), but also in symbolic
structures (since practices form more or less extra-subjec-
tive structures and patterns of action). Practice theorists
foreground an understanding of shared knowledge as
practical knowledge. They are interested in concrete situ-
ations of life in which actors perform a common practice
and thus create and maintain social orderliness. For prac-
tice theorists, the intentions and motivations of actors are
less relevant. Their actual activities and practical enact-
ments in concrete situations matter. In other words, situa-
tions become more signiﬁcant than actors.
As Reckwitz (2002a:249) deﬁnes it, “a practice is a rou-
tinized type of behavior which consists of several ele-
ments, interconnected to one another: forms of bodily
activities, forms of mental activities, ‘things’ and their
use, a background knowledge in the form of understand-
ing, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowl-
edge.” Performing a practice always depends on the
interconnectivity of all these elements. We cannot reduce
practice to any one of them (Reckwitz 2002a:250). Schatz-
ki’s (2012:2) understanding of practice as an “open-
ended, spatially-temporally dispersed nexus of doings and
sayings” emphasizes, in a similar way, the site of the social
in practical activities. Sociologists provide examples such
as the everyday practices of consumption, work, and fam-
ily life (for example, Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012).
In IR, such everyday practices obtain in diplomacy, inter-
national business transactions, and military activity. Theo-
rists of practice criticize the tendency of mentalists and
textualists to overintellectualize the social. Although such
a criticism should not be overstated, action, including
political action, remains more banal than textualist and
mentalists assume. In distancing themselves from practi-
cal activities, mentalists and textualists tend to overem-
phasize intellectual constructs at the price of practical
human competencies and evaluations.
Reckwitz (2002a:249) initially included intersubjectivism as a fourth fam-
ily of culturalist theorizing. There the social is not located in mental qualities
or symbolic orders, but in interaction and the use of ordinary language. Hab-
ermas’s “theory of communication” is the paradigmatic case for an intersub-
jective understanding that is well established in IR (Deitelhoff 2009). As
Reckwitz (2010) showed in later articles, this differentiation can however be
neglected due to the strong convergence between intersubjectivism and the
concerns of practice theory.
Christian Bueger and Frank Gadinger 451
Reckwitz’s Mapping and International Theory
Reckwitz’s mapping provides a useful tool for situating
practice theories in IR. Since the 1990s, a controversy
between rationalist and norm-oriented approaches drives
IR theorizing (for example, Fearon and Wendt 2002),
often presented as a debate between a logic of consequences
and a logic of appropriateness. Yet, a number of “via me-
dias,” “middle ground” constructions and “hybrids” also
thrive in the ﬁeld and often blur the lines between the
two approaches or creatively combine elements (cf. the
diagnosis of Guzzini (2000) and Patrick T. Jackson
(2008)). In particular, this applies to the usage of terms
such as “culture.” Although some would claim that IR has
seen a cultural turn (Lapid and Kratochwil 1996), schol-
ars frequently reduce the cultural to an intervening vari-
able added to an otherwise rationalist explanation (for
example, Katzenstein 1996). Such an understanding has
little to nothing in common with the notion of culture in
social theory. What Reckwitz describes as “culturalist theo-
rizing” in IR, moreover, often has other labels. For
instance, an early description of “critical theory” by
Richard Ashley comes close to Reckwitz’s understanding
of cultural theorizing. He argued that:
approaches meriting the label ‘critical’ stress the com-
munity-shared background understandings, skills, and
practical predispositions without which it would be
impossible to interpret action, assign meaning, legiti-
mate practices, empower agents, and constitute a dif-
ferentiated, highly structured social reality (Ashley
Leaving problems of labeling aside, the Reckwitzian
map of mentalism, textualism, and practice theory can
usefully capture current international theory. We ﬁnd
expressions of the mentalist stream in IR, for instance,
in early cognitive-psychological works or constructivist
research on “ideas” (although much of this research is
hybridical in so far as it remains committed to a positiv-
ist epistemology, Laffey and Weldes 1997). Also, studies
operating with concepts such as “belief systems,” “world
views,” “operational codes,” or “frames” rely on mentalist
reasoning. They focus on mental “sense making” events
as the object of analysis and explore, for instance, the
impact of past experiences on future action. Although
based on individuals’ cognitive acts of interpretation,
such studies adopt a mentalism perspective. They focus
on the shared knowledge and meaning structures that
coexist in a groups mind. Yet, they distance themselves
from the rational actor models of methodological indi-
vidualism (Goldstein and Keohane 1993:7). Studies, for
example, analyze the shared effects that “experience”
has on political actors in collective decision making
(Hafner-Burton, Hughes, and Victor 2013) or draw on
cognitive psychology to explain the link between person-
ality proﬁle and leadership style of world leaders (Stein-
berg 2005) or the mental schemes of terrorists
Textualism had a very sustained effect on international
theory, notably in European and Canadian IR. Intro-
duced in the late 1980s by the “dissidents in international
thought” movement (Ashley and Walker 1990), expres-
sions of textualism have become well anchored in the dis-
cipline. We ﬁnd them under labels such as “post-
structuralism,” “discourse theory,” or “discourse analysis.”
In the aftermath of the third debate (Lapid 1989), the
study of textual structures became particularly inﬂuential
in critical security, European integration, and foreign pol-
icy studies. A range of classical contributions draws on
discourse analysis to study textual structures as precondi-
tions for the actions of diplomats, regional cooperation,
transnational identity, the identiﬁcation of threats, or the
development of security strategies.
If authors rely on dif-
ferent theorists—including Derrida or Foucault—their
studies share the same objective. They want to under-
stand world political phenomena by investigating extra-
subjective structures of meaning through which agents
achieve the capability to act. They show, for instance, that
shared knowledge establishes authority and that textual
genres render distinct forms of knowledge as acceptable
(Hansen 2006:7). Thus, language is “a site of inclusion
and exclusion” and creates a “space for producing and
denouncing speciﬁc subjectivities within the political
realm” (Herschinger 2011:13).
International relations theories develop their own disci-
plinary understandings of the Reckwitzian categories. Yet,
the framework allows us to capture the major lines in the
ﬁeld. This also becomes visible if we ask how practice the-
ory was introduced to IR theory. Neumann (2002) intro-
duced practice theory by contrasting it with textualism,
while Pouliot (2008) did so by demonstrating the differ-
ence between rationalist and norm-oriented approaches.
The Reckwitzian map gives a sense of orientation. It
allows for understanding practice theory by a strategy of
“othering.” Such a “negative” strategy however runs the
risk of underplaying the commonalities between cultural-
ist theorizing and neglecting the many links which exist
between de facto expressions of mentalism, textualism,
and practice theory. This is notably the case for different
variants of post-structuralism that emphasize practice
(Wodak 2011). Carving out intellectual space through
othering is a helpful, but also dangerous tool. Hence, we
require also a positive approximation of what practice
theory is. This can be done by identifying the commit-
ments that practice theories rely on.
Commitments of International Practice Theory
Understanding practice theory as composed by a num-
ber of core commitments provides a minimal deﬁnition
of it. In consequence, our understanding of what should
count as practice theory changes. The range is narrower
than suggested by Adler and Pouliot. Put another way,
not everyone who studies practices is a practice theorist.
However, it is broader than what is conventionally
understood in IR. Notably different variations of prag-
matist theorizing are included. In adopting the notion
of commitments, our claim is not to have found a deﬁ-
nite core that every variant of practice theory or every
practice theorist shares or “believes” in. Instead, we
argue that conducting practice theoretical analysis
involves engaging with a number of themes and con-
cerns. The commitments concern what one can achieve
with a practice theoretical approach and clarify the rea-
sons of centering analysis on the unit of practice. Ques-
tions such as what a practice is, however, remain open
to continual interpretation and reconstruction in the
conduct of actual practices of research (Kratochwil
See among many others the contributions by Doty (1996), Weldes
(1999), or Hansen (2006), which develop textualist accounts based on post-
452 The Play of International Practice
First, practice theories emphasize process over stasis.
They emphasize the procedural dimension of practice
and that any process requires activity. Practice theorists
hence prefer verbs such as “ordering,” “structuring,” and
“knowing” over the respective (static) nouns of “order,”
“structure,” or “knowledge.” With such a “prioritization of
process over substance, relation over separateness, and
activity over passivity” (Guillaume 2007:742), practice the-
ories interpret the international through relational ontol-
ogies (Jackson and Nexon 1999). As a consequence,
scholars bypass essentialist and static notions of the inter-
national and sideline distinctions that emphasize these,
such as the one between agency and structure.
Second, practice theories offer a distinct perspective on
knowledge. They situate knowledge in practice and
thereby develop a uniﬁed account of knowing and doing
(Friedrichs and Kratochwil 2009). Connecting “practice,”
“acting,” and “knowing” implies understanding knowl-
edge as “knowing from within” (Shotter 1993:7). Such a
conception of knowledge extends beyond conventional
understandings of “knowing that” and “knowing how.”
Yet, practices cannot be reduced to background knowl-
edge. While knowledge, its application, and creation can-
not be separated from action, “it would be wrong to see
the concept of practice as merely a synonym for action”
(Hajer and Wagenaar 2003:20). In practice, the actor, his
beliefs and values, resources, and external environment
are integrated “in one ‘activity system’, in which social,
individual and material aspects are interdependent” (Ha-
jer and Wagenaar 2003:20). As a result, knowledge can-
not be essentialized, but is instead a spatiotemporally
Third, practice theories grasp knowing and the acquisi-
tion of knowledge by learning as inherently collective pro-
cesses. Members of a distinct group (for example, medical
professionals, football players, or children in a kindergar-
ten) learn and internalize practices as “rules of the game”
mostly through interaction. Practices as “repeated interac-
tional patterns” achieve temporary stability because “the
need to engage one another forces people to return to
common structures” (Swidler 2001:85). In the medical
sphere, for instance, formal rules and algorithms provide
guidelines in medical operations to guarantee standard
practices. These prevent doctors from having to make
every decision anew in complicated situations. Yet, per-
forming a practice does not necessarily presuppose an
interactional dimension. Human collectiveness is not a
general criterion for the sociality of practices. Practices can
also involve an “interobjective structure,” for example,
when actors learn a practice through interaction with a
machine or computer without necessarily communicating
with other people (Reckwitz 2010:117).
Fourth, practice theorists submit that practices have
materiality. Bodies are the main carrier of practices. But
they are not the sole one. Material artifacts or technolo-
gies can also be carriers of practices. The materiality and
embodiment of the world is an aspect which tends to be
marginalized in other social and culturalist theorizing.
For practice theorists, the world is “continually doing
things, things that bear upon us not as observation state-
ments upon disembodied intellects but as forces upon
material beings” (Pickering 1995:6). To stress the impact
of objects, things, and artifacts on social life is not merely
adding the element of materiality; it is an attempt to give
non-humans a more precise role in the ontologies of the
Fifth, social order is appreciated as multiplicity. Instead
of assuming universal or global wholes, the assumption is
that there are always multiple and overlapping orders
(Schatzki 2002:87). There is never a single reality, but
always multiple ones. This does not imply chaos, limitless
plurality, or an atomized understanding of order. Orderli-
ness is, however, an achievement. It requires work and
emerges from routines and repetitiveness in “situated
accomplishments” of actors (Lynch 2001:131). As such,
order is always shifting and emergent. The assumption is
that actors are reﬂexive and establish social orders
through mutual accounts. Thus, the permanent (re-)pro-
duction of “accountability” is preserved through ongoing
practical accomplishments. Practices therefore have a
dual role, both creating order through accountability and
serving to alter the “structure” by the innovativeness of
Sixth, practice theories embrace a performative under-
standing of the world. The world depends on practice.
This “world of becoming” is the product of ongoing
establishment, reenactment, and maintenance of rela-
tions between actors, objects, and material artifacts. The
concept of enactment turns the focus away from the idea
that objects or structures have assumed a ﬁxed, stable
identity and that closure is achieved at some point. Enact-
ment stresses the genuine openness of any construction
process. Construction is never complete. Objects, struc-
tures, or norms, then, exist primarily in practice. They
are real because they are part of practices, and are
enacted in them. Such a performative understanding
avoids attempting “to tame” practice and to “control its
unruliness and instability,” as Doty (1997:376) noted early
on. In practice theory: “[...] practice must entail an
acceptance of its indeterminacy. It must entail a decenter-
ing of practice” (Doty 1997:376).
These six commitments stress that doing practice the-
oretical analysis implies engaging with a range of core
themes and concerns. Laying out these commitments
gives us a sense of how practice theory coheres and
deﬁnes its limits. Our intention is, however, not to
“police” what practice theory is and what not. Consider-
ing these commitments clariﬁes some of the boundaries.
Ringmar’s (2014) general attack on the promises of
practice theory, for instance, targets two studies. He crit-
icizes Abrahamsen and Williams (2011) as being noth-
ing more than rational choice theory (Ringmar
2014:10). Abrahmsen and Williams indeed combine dif-
ferent approaches and do not follow Bourdieu dogmati-
cally. But it is through this comprehensive practice-
oriented approach that they successfully explain the
growth of private security in globalization as a complex
relational phenomenon and thus overcome the dualism
of local and global. The study hence relies on the out-
lined commitments. We agree, however, with Ringmar
(2014:13) criticism of Patrick Morgan’s study on prac-
tices of deterrence (Morgan 2011) that offers a “recon-
struction of the intentions and aims of actors involved.”
Morgan’s argumentation is rooted in methodological
individualism and strategic action that has little in com-
mon with the concerns of practice theory.
The outlined commitments provide general criteria to
bring coherence to international practice theory. As dis-
cussed in the next section, one should not read the com-
mitments as “shared assumptions and beliefs.” Practice-
driven approaches draw on the commitments and
develop them in different ways.
Christian Bueger and Frank Gadinger 453
The Spectrum of International Practice Theories
As several commentators have noted, practice theories
are a heterogeneous set of approaches.
To speak about
practice theory in the singular is problematic. Reckwitz
adopts the metaphor of a “family” to emphasize this het-
erogeneity and indicate that the term “practice theory”
does not have a deﬁnite meaning. Practice theories have
family resemblance in the sense outlined by Ludwig Witt-
genstein (Wennerberg 1967). Their commonality lies in
the relation between them, the outlined commitments
and other varieties of theory. If this is a challenge to
conventional understandings of what a theory is, the het-
erogeneity of practice theory is their strength, not their
weakness. It allows one to capture “practice” from differ-
ent directions and put emphasis on a broad range of phe-
nomena. Doing practice-driven analysis implies to
appreciate multiplicity. Practice approaches not only dif-
fer in terms of the traditions they are rooted in—below,
we distinguish between a critical and a pragmatist one.
They also employ different conceptual vocabularies on
top of the concept of practice and thereby interpret the
aforementioned commitments differently.
Many IR scholars tend to equate the notion of practice
theory with the thinking of Pierre Bourdieu. A vast major-
ity of current practice theoretical work takes Bourdieu’s
approach as a starting point to a degree that “Bourdieu-
sianism” dominates the discussion on practice in IR.
attraction of Bourdieu’s praxeology in IR lies not least in
the fact that it is “at its core a theory of domination”
(Pouliot and M
erand 2013:36). This makes the approach
compatible to a discipline historically concerned about
power relations, conﬂicts, and hierarchical structures. In
addition, his conceptual vocabulary of habitus, ﬁeld, and
capital seemingly correspond to IR categories such as
strategy, conﬂicts, and culture (Adler-Nissen 2013b).
Equating practice theory with Bourdieu, however, is a
peculiar development in IR, which might require an
explanation in itself. In the wider practice turn debate in
the social sciences Bourdieu rather appears as a footnote
than as the guiding approach (Spiegel 2005). While
Bourdieu’s work should have a prominent place, this
rather odd development reduces the spectrum and hence
the potential of practice accounts for IR. It forgets that
practice theories have been developed from different tra-
ditions. It leads to another problem Approaches that
draw on a pragmatist tradition tend to be excluded from
the practice theory debate in the ﬁeld.
On top of Bourdieu’s praxeology, a meaningful spec-
trum consists of at least four approaches that have started
to thrive in IR: (i) studies of global governmentality fol-
lowing Foucault’s later work (Walters 2012), (ii) the com-
munity of practice approach as outlined by Etienne
Wenger and introduced to IR by Adler (2005), (iii) adop-
tions of actor-network theory following Bruno Latour and
other advocates (Best and Walters 2013), and (iv) assem-
blage approaches following Gilles Deleuze’s emphasis on
practice and relations (Acuto and Curtis 2013). Other,
less established, approaches draw, for instance, on the
practice theories of Luc Boltanski (Gadinger 2015),
Michel de Certeau (Neumann 2002), Karin Knorr Cetina
(Bueger 2015), Theodore Schatzki (Navari 2010), or Ann
Swidler (Sending and Neumann 2011).
Each of the approaches deserves to be discussed in
their own right and situated within the practice theoreti-
cal debate. Here, we are interested in the relations
between them and how they respond to a set of
challenges that the practice perspective poses. Below, we
discuss the spectrum of practice theories in the light of a
set of challenges or points of contentions. This set is cer-
tainly not conclusive,
but these are core issues in the
future agenda of international practice theory. We ﬁrst
relate the approaches to two different traditions: critical
theory and pragmatism. Then, we show how they offer
different responses to the problem of change and induce
different positions on the regularity of practice. We
address concerns over how to handle different scales of
practice and to “containerize” practice. The next chal-
lenge concerns methodology. How can practices be stud-
ied in empirical research? The ﬁnal challenge is how, in
a thoroughly practice-oriented theoretical ontology, the
relation between academic practice and the practices
under study can be conceptualized and what positions
and reﬂexive standards follow.
Two Traditions: Critical Theory and Pragmatism
The family of practice theory is rooted in at least two dif-
ferent traditions—a fact that has largely gone unnoticed
in IR, but is widely established in sociology and social the-
ıl 1999; Celikates 2006; Bogusz 2014). A con-
tinental critical theory line of reasoning develops the
understanding of practice from a Marxian tradition.
Beginning with Marx, who suggested that societal life
should be analyzed as human practice, theorists including
Michel Foucault, but also, for instance, Judith Butler,
started from textualist assumptions and subsequently inte-
grated a focus on practice: Foucault’s later work on gov-
ernmentality and Butler’s understanding of performativity
are prime examples of the practice wave in critical theoriz-
ing. In a nutshell, practice approaches in a critical tradi-
tion are primarily driven by concerns over power,
domination, and resistance. Foucault’s technologies of
governance as well as Bourdieu’s praxeology are the most
prominent frameworks in IR in this line. What this tradi-
tion shares is its genuine interest in questions of hierarchi-
cal reproduction and resistance and in elaborating larger
historical trends and forces. This is, for instance, reﬂected
in Bourdieu’s emphasis on understanding distinct social
spheres as ﬁelds of practices, being shaped by symbolic
power struggles between different actors each aiming to
improve their position. By drawing on Bourdieu’s key con-
cepts, “it is possible to map political units as spaces of
practical knowledge on which diverse and often ‘uncon-
ventional’ agencies position themselves and therefore
shape international politics” (Adler-Nissen 2013a:2).
As the bulk of Bourdieu-inspired studies in IR demon-
strate, his terms habitus, ﬁeld, capital, and doxa provide
a productive relational framework for studying interna-
An advantage in these studies, for
See Ortner (1984), Rouse (2007), and Miettinen, Samra-Fredericks, and
Yanow (2009) for overviews on the historical roots of practice thought.
See Guzzini (2000), Pouliot (2008), Berling (2012), and Adler-Nissen
(2013b) as evidence for this continuous development of Bourdieusian IR,
coming close to a research program.
Indeed, other points of contention exist which will require consider-
ations as well. This is, for instance, the controversy over the implications of
post-humanism, the importance of materiality, and the agency of non-humans
(Reckwitz 2002b) or the relations of power in practice theory (Adler-Nissen
and Pouliot 2014).
For a detailed examination of Bourdieu’s conceptual vocabulary, see the
contributions in Adler-Nissen (2013b).
454 The Play of International Practice
instance, on European security (Berling 2012; Adler-Nis-
sen 2014) or the emergence of private military companies
(Leander 2005), is that actors are not studied in isolation,
but through their practical relations to each other in
dynamic conﬁgurations of ﬁelds. The concept of a “ﬁeld”
incorporates the objective component of a distinct hierar-
chal sphere such as art, economics, or even European
security. The concept of habitus focuses on the experi-
ences and strategies of individuals seeking to establish or
achieve an advantageous position within it. The habitus is
the origin of the practices that reproduce or change the
existing structures of the ﬁeld. These practices again
shape the experiences of actors, form their habitus, and
stabilize power structures in the ﬁeld.
It is fair to say that the emphasis of Bourdieu’s praxeol-
ogy is on the stability, regularity, and reproduction of
practices and less on subversion and renewal. A major
strength of Bourdieu’s framework therefore lies in its
ability to dissect symbolic power struggles in politics.
Studying these struggles reveals much more complexity
and subtlety than the stories conventionally told in IR. As
a result, studying power relations by drawing on Bourdieu
moves IR research in new directions and contributes to
the debate on different faces of power (Barnett and
Duvall 2005). This analytical strength, however, can also
be turned into a criticism, which is articulated by scholar-
ship rooted in pragmatism. Due to the explicit focus on
domination, power, and hierarchies, one could gain the
impression that practice is always embedded in power
struggles. Indeed, the focus of Bourdieu’s vocabulary is
on structures of power and domination and less on the
vast amount of other sociocultural practices.
A pragmatist tradition, on the other hand, develops
the concept of practice from its Aristotelian roots and its
notion of practical reasoning (phronesis). Instead of struc-
tures and routines, concepts such as problems, uncer-
tainty, creativity, and situated agency are key issues in the
pragmatist tradition. Classical American pragmatist
authors like John Dewey are main points of reference. In
contrast to sociology, IR has not recognized recent prag-
matist theorizing as part of the practice theoretical family.
There has been some suspicion that the renaissance of
pragmatism has something in common with practice the-
ory, and one ﬁnds some cross-references. Kratochwil
(2011:38), for instance, suggests that recent works in
international practice theory share core elements of “a
generative grammar for approaching action and mean-
ing” that American pragmatism had initially articulated.
Pragmatist theorists, notably contemporary ones, are
rarely recognized for their role within practice theory and
the interest in pragmatism is often understood as a sepa-
The reasons for this lack of recognition are manifold.
Part of the explanation is certainly that IR scholars are
primarily interested in classical pragmatism, that is, the
work of Dewey, James, Mead, and Peirce, and understand
pragmatism mainly as a philosophical program rather
than a sociological or empirical one (Hellmann 2009).
Secondly, it is part of the pragmatist habit to shy away
from declarations of belonging to a certain turn, tradi-
tion, or perspective. Many contemporary pragmatists, like
Latour or Boltanski, are not transparent in this regard,
although the intellectual roots and resemblances are
quite obvious (for example, Latour 2005:261; Boltanski
2011:27–29, 54–60). As observers from sociology point
out, such authors are not only seen as pragmatists, but
also as practice theorists (Blokker 2011; Nicolini 2013).
In consequence, in the IR debate, many contemporary
theorists have rarely been identiﬁed as either pragmatists
or practice theorists. Recognizing the pragmatist tradition
is an important reminder that the commitments of prac-
tice theory can be interpreted quite differently.
The pragmatist tradition aligns the concept of practice
closer to action and, as a result, it loses its structural con-
notations. Practice is formed in a continuous stream of
acts and has “neither a deﬁnite beginning nor a deﬁnite
end” (Franke and Weber 2012:675). Thinking of practice
in terms of change is at the core of the pragmatist tradi-
tion and reﬂects the aim of reconsidering “agency” in a
more substantial manner. The originality of pragmatist
approaches developed by Latour or Boltanski, and, also,
albeit in a more communitarian fashion, in Wenger’s
community of practice approach, lies in their reinterpre-
tation of the concept of action. Following the commit-
ments of practice theory, action is seen as taking place in
multiplicity, in a combination of “common worlds,” and
in hybrid relations between subjects and objects, and
humans and non-humans. From this pragmatic point of
view, the world of IR becomes one overﬂowing with a
multitude of beings, things, objects, and artifacts. Stron-
ger than the critical tradition, pragmatist vocabulary turns
to fully relational, performative language and to describ-
ing the world as continuous process of ordering, translat-
ing, engaging, producing, assembling, enacting, working,
or constructing. Thus, studies in IR inspired by Latour,
Boltanski, or Deleuze focus on the practical work at the
“construction” sites in which the social, the material, the
factual, or the powerful is produced (for example, Walt-
ers 2002; Bueger and Bethke 2014).
From a pragmatist point of view, “practices cannot be
understood from an objective standpoint alone, because
they are internally related to the intepretations and self-
images of their participants that can only be grasped if
one takes their perspective as fundamental” (Celikates
2006:21). Thus, human action is deeply implicated in situ-
ations or controversies, which are always in need of inter-
pretation by the involved agents (Blokker 2011:252). To
do practice research in a pragmatist tradition means
describing and elaborating on these controversies as well
as identifying the underlying practices following ethno-
methodological premises. In sum, the pragmatist tradi-
tion stresses situations, contingency, creativity, and
change. Hence, it starts out from an almost opposite
direction than the critical theory tradition’s focus on rou-
tines and structures. These differences become clearer if
we now turn to the question of transformations and
One of the initial motives of developing practice theories
was to enable a better grasp on social change and contin-
gency (Neumann 2002; Spiegel 2005). The vocabulary of
practice theory stresses cultural contingency and historic-
ity much more than textualist or mentalist accounts.
Structure, in practice theory terms, is largely formed by
routinization, which refers to its temporality (Reckwitz
2002a:255). Yet, the conception of the transformative and
regularized patterns of practical reconﬁgurations remains
a major point of contention within practice theory. How
ﬂuid and ephemeral is the world? While for some
approaches, change is a variation stemming from unex-
pected irritation and events in the reproduction process,
for others change is constitutive of practice itself. For crit-
Christian Bueger and Frank Gadinger 455
ical theorists like Bourdieu, repetition and reproduction
is the norm. Shifts are therefore considered rare and
require a revolutionary event. Those interested in larger
formations of domination and historical processes tend
to focus on regularity and tend to underplay the poten-
tial for transformation. In consequence, such perspectives
have been criticized for not being capable of actually
studying change (Joas and Kn€
obl 2009:395). Pragmatist
perspectives, such as ANT, or the assemblage framework,
in their emphasis on process and relations, occupy a very
different position. They claim that stability, rather than
change, requires explanation. The world is seen as con-
stantly emerging and shifting; practices are taken as
inherently innovative, experimental, and erratic. Other
approaches, such as the community of practice approach,
attempt to take a middle ground position to deal with
the tension of order and change. Adler’s (2005:15) adop-
tion of the concept to study community building beyond
IR’s norm-oriented approaches is driven by the aim to
project the agency as well as the structural side of prac-
tice to get a more comprehensive understanding of social
change. The understanding of world politics through
communities of practice, which are produced and repro-
duced in collective processes of learning, reinterprets the
earlier promises of constructivism to provide adequate
interpretations of change (Wendt 1992).
Every practice approach struggles with the inherent
tension that practices can “range from ephemeral doings
to stable long-term patterns of activity” (Rouse 2007:639).
Practices are repetitive patterns. But they are also perma-
nently displacing and shifting. Practices are dispersed,
dynamic, and continuously rearranging in ceaseless move-
ment. But they are also reproducing, organized, and
structured clusters (Schatzki 2002:101). This constellation
forces practice theorists to be particularly aware of the
continuous tension between the dynamic, continuously
changing character of practice on the one side, and the
identiﬁcation of stable, regulated patterns, routines, and
reproduction on the other. The dual nature of practices
requires attention to the interaction between both the
emergent, innovative and the repetitive, reproducing
sides of practice. This leads to one of the most disputed
questions posed by practice theories scholars: Can prac-
tice theory serve both analytical purposes and explain
continuity as well as change? Yet, one should not expect
an inevitable conceptual “solution.” As Reckwitz
(2004b:51) correctly points out, there is no theoretical
reason why practice theorists should take either the
reproductive or the erratic character of practice to be the
norm. Indeed, as he suggests, this issue needs to be
turned into the analytical question of which practices,
under which conditions, take on an erratic or a reproduc-
tive nature. In this sense, the different approaches of
practice theory provide different analytical starting points.
However, it is only when seen together that they generate
a major empirical–analytical question.
Scale and Structural Metaphors
Scholars have proposed a confusing array of structural
metaphors and it appears that these are (intentionally or
unintentionally) undertheorized. Bourdieu’s “ﬁeld” is
certainly one of the most developed concepts that allows
IR scholars to understand IR beyond national boundaries
in transnational spaces (Peter Jackson 2008:178). Draw-
ing on the concept assumes a distinct structure that
relies on a unique doxa and distribution of resources.
Scholars hence argue that a fairly homogenous structure
with boundary and identity practices can be identiﬁed.
This offers particular promises, if the analyst wants to
understand the distribution of power among different
agents and their relative positionality (for example, Wil-
liams 2012). The logic of this structure then becomes an
object of study. When compared to other concepts in
practice theory, Bourdieu’s structural metaphor assumes
the most coherence. Signiﬁcant similarities, in this sense,
can be found in the community metaphor used by some,
in particular Wenger’s (1998) notion of communities of
practice. Understanding practice as organized in commu-
nity structures implies suggesting that a stable core (or
repertoire in Wenger’s words) and a signiﬁcant amount
of boundary work drive the collectives of practice. On
the other side of the spectrum, we can identify notions
of structure that draw on the pragmatist obsession with
contingency, ﬂuctuation, and situations. Schatzki’s
notions of “bundles” and “arrangements,” the Latourian
notion of “actor-networks,” the Deleuzian concept of
“rhizomatic assemblages” are almost chaotic notions of
structure and order. They center on notions of multiplic-
ity, overlap, complexity, incoherence, and contradictions
between structural elements. As Marcus and Saka
(2006:102) phrase it, such conceptualizations are
employed “with a certain tension, balancing, and tenta-
tiveness where the contradictions between the ephemeral
and the structural, and between the structural and the
unstably heterogeneous create almost a nervous condi-
tion for analytic reason.” The advantage of such meta-
phors is their genuine openness to the various
possibilities of orderliness. They should not be under-
stood as anti-structural notions, yet they foreground the
ephemeral and stress that weight has to be put on empir-
ical, situation-speciﬁc research in order to understand
how ordered (or disordered) the world is. The price that
has to be paid for such notions is that it becomes almost
impossible to lay out grand histories of panoramic scale
and the power dynamics they entail. Employing such
notions also creates inherent contradictions for the pre-
sentation of academic research, given that academic
research becomes only intelligible if phrased in relatively
The question of structure needs to be addressed in
light of the importance of scale. One of the beneﬁts of
practice theories is that they do not take constructions of
scale, such as micro (face to face interactions, and what
people do and say), meso (routines), macro (institu-
tions), or even local (situations), regional (contexts), glo-
bal (universals), as natural categories. Practice theories
intend to keep ontology ﬂat and conceptualize the ideas
behind such constructions. Indeed, there is no thing such
as micro, macro, local, or global. In reality, these are stra-
tegic constructs by social scientists. Practice theory hence
aims at allowing “the transcendence of the division
between such levels, such as that we are able to under-
stand practice as taking place simultaneously both locally
and globally, being both unique and culturally shared,
‘here and now’ as well as historically constituted and
path-dependent” (Miettinen et al. 2009:1310). The ques-
tion of scale has driven some substantial empirical
research on how scales are made. Authors including
Tsing (2005) or Latour (2005) have shown how actors
combine heterogeneous elements to make the global and
universal. They have foregrounded the work of bureau-
crats, scientists, and activists in creating scale by framing
things as universal and international. Other authors dem-
456 The Play of International Practice
onstrate the hybridity of scale, like Knorr Cetina (2005)
who argues for the prevalence of what she calls “complex
global micro-structures”. For Knorr Cetina, these struc-
tures are driven by micro-interactions but are global in
reach; transnational phenomena such as terrorism or
ﬁnancial markets can be studied and understood in such
The empiricist route of focusing on the making of
scale and the emergence of scale hybridity as the main
object of study promises interesting insights. Yet not every
practice-driven investigation will focus primarily on scale-
making. Even if analysis does not explicitly focus on scale,
one needs to recognize that practice theorists not only
challenge traditional understandings of scale. They also
introduce their own politics of scale by creating structural
concepts and situating practice in larger containers.
Although scholars often perceive practice theory as the
attempt to invent new vocabularies, it also implies a move
to more empirical and descriptive work. Miettinen et al.
(2009) provide a careful reminder that the practice turn
was always primarily motivated by empirical concerns.
Practice theorists across the spectrum stress that the theo-
retical vocabulary should be understood as offering “con-
tingent systems of interpretation which enable us to
make certain empirical statements” (Reckwitz 2002a:257).
Practice theory has the status of “a heuristic device, a sen-
sitizing ‘framework’ for empirical research in the social
sciences. It thus opens up a certain way of seeing and
analyzing social phenomena” (Reckwitz 2002a:257). It
does not only provide a particular vocabulary, but also a
search and ﬁnd strategy. Since such an approach falls in
the realm of interpretative methodology, practice theo-
rists draw on a mix of established methods (usually partic-
ipant observation, interviews as well as text analysis) and
reinterpret these in light of practice theoretical concerns
(see Nicolini 2009; Pouliot 2013; Bueger 2014). Under-
standing practice theory as a heuristic device that pro-
vides sensitizing concepts emphasizes the importance of
integrating methodology and theory. Indeed, practice
theory and methodology should be considered as a
coherent package (Nicolini 2013).
The question of how practices can be studied empiri-
cally, however, has so far received the least attention from
practice theorists. Methodological reﬂexivity is arguably
weak. Many practice theorists have primarily come up
with negative methodological guidelines that argue
against “objectivist” accounts and suggest how not to con-
duct research. Bourdieu, for instance, has argued vividly
against both objectivist and what he calls subjectivist
accounts (Nicolini 2013:62). A pragmatist scholar like La-
tour equally lays out largely negative guidelines, and pos-
its that his methodology tells you, in the ﬁrst place, what
not to do (for example, Latour 2005:142).
Participant observation as the tool that allows for the
recording of bodily movements, speech, and the handling
of artifacts in real time particularly relates to the con-
cerns of practice scholars. Participant observation allows
direct proximity to practice. The method ﬁnds its limita-
tions under conditions of limited ﬁeld access and
resources, or else the material concerns of historical prac-
tices, in which case bodily movements are no longer
observable. Understanding practices will often require
deciphering them from texts such as manuals, ego-docu-
ments, or visual representations, or from interviews cen-
tered on descriptions of activities (Nicolini 2009).
Interviews and texts, however, do not provide direct
access to practices; they provide representations of prac-
tices that have to be carefully interpreted. The differences
between critical and pragmatist versions of practice
theory also play out in methodological choices concern-
ing research strategies, data collection as well as writing
styles. Critical scholars tend to focus their strategy on
interpreting structures and ﬁelds. They therefore priori-
tize large-scale genealogies of practices reconstructed
through textual analysis or the mapping of ﬁelds through
survey methodology or positioning analysis. Given the
concern with larger formations, writing styles adopted are
more distant, objectifying, and offer less descriptive
detail. Pragmatists by contrast tend to initiate research by
zooming in on a distinct practice, a crisis situation, or an
object (Bueger 2014) and hence place more emphasis on
participant observation, acquiring descriptions of detailed
situations, and immersion in the action. Corresponding
to the erratic understanding of practice, writing follows a
style that provides complex, often nonlinear and incoher-
ent narratives that include multiple voices of practitioners
with a high level of empirical detail. While critical narra-
tives risk providing overly “clean” narratives of practice,
the pragmatist faces the trap of producing incomprehen-
sible cacophonies of voices. Given the status of empirical
work for developing international practice theory, the
question of which packages of theory and methodologies
and which writing styles best enable the capturing of
practice remains a vital concern.
Positionality and Reﬂexivity
What is the relationship between academic practices and
the practices under study? Methodology is one way to
contemplate this relationship, yet practice theories also
consider the broader set of relationships that academic
practices have to other practices. The symmetrical per-
spective of practice theory implies not only considering
the world studied as a practical conﬁguration, but also
conceiving of (academic) knowledge generation as prac-
tice. Practice theory, then, provides a tool for studying sci-
entiﬁc disciplines (such as IR), for understanding the
multiple relations between scientiﬁc and other social and
political practices, and for examining the practical activi-
ties involved in generating knowledge (Bueger and Ga-
dinger 2007). The study of scientiﬁc practices has been
crucial to developing practice theory. It is therefore no
coincidence that the majority of authors in the seminal
edited volume introducing the practice turn (Schatzki,
Knorr Cetina and von Savigny 2001) are science studies
scholars. The symmetrical perspective of practice theory
enables not only an understanding of what relations con-
tribute to the construction of academic knowledge, but
also the identiﬁcation of the practical (performative)
effects that academia has. The representations of practice
generated by scholars have various effects for the practi-
tioners and practices themselves. While practice theorists
are united in recognizing the importance of such a form
of practical reﬂexivity, its status in directing knowledge
generation remains contested. Those close to a critical
tradition use reﬂexivity as a device for ensuring the qual-
ity of knowledge, preserving the autonomy of the aca-
demic ﬁeld, and maintaining a notion of academic
superiority. For instance, Bourdieu stresses collective
reﬂexivity, that is, the constant investigation of the condi-
tions under which knowledge has been produced (Ber-
Christian Bueger and Frank Gadinger 457
ling 2013). Practical reﬂexivity provides, then, the basis
for intervening in societal concerns, debunking games of
domination, and contributing to the emancipation of the
subjects of domination. Thus, reﬂexivity and the study of
academic practice exert power as an essential form of
self-regulation and policing device. In contrast, pragma-
tist scholars interpret practical reﬂexivity as a constructive
mode geared toward ensuring that academic knowledge
production addresses societal concerns. Arguing against
autonomy, this position draws on the classical pragmatist
understanding of academia as part of a broader commu-
nity of inquiry which constructs matters of concern, devel-
ops problematizations, and cultivates methods for
mastering problems. To practice reﬂexivity on academic
practices strengthens the ways that analysis can contribute
to problematization and problem solving (Hellmann
2009). One of the expectations of turning to practice
vocabulary is that it places scholars in a better position to
contribute to real-world problems and to produce state-
ments of relevance beyond a community of peers (Latour
2005:261). What such contributions will look like, what
positions the academic will have to take, and what the sta-
tus of reﬂexivity will be in maintaining this position are
ongoing concerns for practice theory.
Conclusion: The Future of International Practice
Is it meaningful, or even necessary, to speak of a “practice
turn”? Regardless of how we answer that question, atten-
tion practice theories now drives important research on
international relations. Still, the development of interna-
tional practice theory remains in its early stages. In this
article, we sought to clarify the character and promise of
practice theory. We rejected overly vague conceptualiza-
tions of the “practice turn,” as well as claims that practice
theory offers nothing new to the ﬁeld. Of particular
importance, we argued against attempts to cast interna-
tional practice theory as the new grand theory of interna-
tional relations. It is not. Nor is it capable of integrating
the discipline’s diverse paradigms and methodologies.
Indeed, international practice theory adds additional
vocabulary and methodological perspectives. It increases,
rather than decreases, the pluralism of the ﬁeld. This
facilitates productive debate–as long as we remain clear
about what different theories and approaches bring to
Moreover, we offered three layers of approximation
concerning international practice theory. We started with
a discussion of what belongs outside of practice theory:
rational choice, norm-oriented constructivism, or the
study of belief systems or of discourse. In social-theoretic
terms, practice theory moves away from the study of inter-
subjective coordination. Its distinctiveness resides in tak-
ing patterns of activity as the smallest unit of analysis.
This entails focusing on the study of bodily movements,
the handling of artifacts, and practical knowledge. It con-
cerns itself with the structures and situations where actors
perform shared practices and produce social order. We
also laid out the core commitments of practice theory: its
minimal ontological and epistemological wagers. These
“thin” commitments provide the basis for mutual under-
standing both within and outside of international practice
theory. As Reckwitz (2004b:52) suggests, practice theory is
at its strongest when it remains as thin as possible with
respect to its general conceptual requirements. We then
surveyed the broader approaches that ﬁt within this ‘thin’
understanding of the practice turn. In particular, we
emphasized the need to avoid conﬂating Bourdieusian
approaches with international practice theory writ large.
Rather, such approaches constitute part of an ongoing
debate within practice theory.
The future of international practice theory depends on
the vibrancy of that ongoing debate. Its particular stakes
involve unresolved problems for the practice turn: how
to cope with tensions between the regulative and erratic
character of practice, how to handle the politics of scale,
what methodologies best allow for capturing and writing
about practice, and how to reﬂexively situate practice
researchers within the world they study. But these ques-
tions cannot be resolved simply through theoretical
debates; they must be worked out in the context of
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