How do films end? How does the 'practice turn' in IR end? A few impractical and impertinent considerations.

The “practice saga” in IR is leading me into a mood of creative perplexity. By “practice saga” I mean the debate around the notion of “practices” in the study of international relations and related fields. So far, that conversation is left without a finale, and the missing ending has prompted endless cogitations in my simple mind.

I classify movies with enigmatic endings in two groups: those that I really hate and those that I really love. In the first group I’d definitely put Vanilla Sky:[1] one of the main reasons why I dislike it is Tom Cruise’s acting, but what really meads me is its finale. This type of endings do not trigger any personal reflection in me: these films just end in an unexpected and illogical way. Love me if you dare,[2] by contrast, falls squarely in my second group: sure, its ending is melodramatic, bittersweet and somewhat disorienting, but the next day these impressions give way to a stream of ruminations which might last for weeks. I am almost sure that anybody who has watched that movie has ended up with his/her own, very subjective and creative interpretation of that ending.

The “practice saga” in IR is leading me into a very similar mood of creative perplexity. By “practice saga” I do not mean another French movie but the debate that has taken off around the significance and the usability of the notion of “practices” in the study of international relations and related fields. It is a debate that has taken an interesting turn since the virtual crossfire appeared on the pages of International Theory. [3] So far, that conversation is left without an accomplished finale, and this has prompted endless cogitations in my simple mind.

Practices came to the stage of social theory through the scattered works of different members of the praxeological archipelago.[4] Initially, they were intended as a tool for the study of social actions – actions that, by structuring and ordering interactions, would emancipate agents from the limitation of systemic or structural explanations. This interpretation seemed to be premised on the assumption that the social is embodied in the agent and enacted through a practice. Indications of a “practice turn in IR” have become manifest in relatively recent times, especially in the wake of Iver Neumann’s call for the study of social actions rather than narratives.[5] Emanuel Adler and Vincent Pouliot,[6] in particular, have reaffirmed that different theories draw on a practical ontology and epistemology of international phenomena and agreed on the fact that a single “theory of practices” does not exist. Nonetheless, the identification of practices as a medium of investigation, whose constitutive feature is their “in-betweenness,” has paved the way to an “inter-paradigmatic manifesto.” In other words, as practices “emerge out of the overlap that exists between dispositional and positional spaces,”[7] they are, at the same time, embedded in material constraints as well as discursively and socially constructed. Their location in such interstices and intersections would allow their study as capable of bridging existing gaps, or – in other words – to transcend those dichotomic cleavages that exist among different theoretical frameworks in IR. Such a conciliatory approach to practices apparently strikes a balance between, on the one hand, theoretical flexibility (and resilience) and the necessity that every theory has to set conceptual boundaries on the other. Is this really the case? And, apart from facilitating the dialogue among practice-oriented scholars, how does practice-driven research substantially contribute to our understanding of the international?

Erik Ringmar has critically discussed the presumed inter-paradigmatic capacity of the “practice turn:”[8] he argues – at least in my reading – that the aspiration to a “bridging-the-gap approach” amounts to a form of intellectual appeasement: as such, it is an inherently weak stance. While reading Ringmar, I have been dragged into the rejection of any hypothesis of academic/intellectual Große Koalition. In that respect, Ringmar’s reflection is extremely captivating. Apart the ever-present “Sartori 1970” Damocle’s sword and the bogeyman of conceptual overstretch, the explicit selection of a specific ontologic and epistemologic direction brings scholars out of their comfort zone.The processes of bordering necessarily entail (political) choices: academia can be no exception.

Ringmar wonders about the quintessential nature of practices and reviews the four gaps that they are supposed to bridge (rationality/practicality; agency/structure; stability/change; meaning/materiality). However, I was left with the impression that his provocative argument was still missing something important: in the first place, why should researchers engage in a practical research agenda? In other words, why practices?

As argued by Christian Bueger and Frank Gadinger, practices “promise to get closer to the actions and lifeworlds of the practitioners who do international relations”.[9] Departing from the definition of international practice theory as a “trading zone”,[10] Bueger goes straight to the substance of the criticism stemming from the conceptualisation of practices: “much of the discourse on practice theory […has been] driven by intellectual and often abstract (if not even scholastic) concerns. Rather than advancing problem-driven, empirical narratives, the practice discourse appears at times only loosely connected to empirical material and rather motivated by epistemological and ontological contemplation”.[11] The risk is that of “turning practice theory into an overcrowded circus”.[12]

This premise is very similar to those movies that have puzzling but self-referential endings: while displaying the movie director’s virtuosity, they barely add something significant to the story to be narrated. The ending of Love me if you dare does not seem to be driven by an aesthetic choice, and the practice saga either.

Practices pave the way to a research strategy of looking down, ultimately aimed at apprehending the local and the non-coherent. In doing so, the practical researcher should not be afraid of dealing with a scattered and dispersed collection of data, from which drawing generalisations and abstractions can be difficult. In other words, the practical researcher should be brave enough to juggle with nomothetic and idiographic approaches at different research stages, and fully aware that researching practices entails distinct epistemological and ontological commitments.

The second focal element of dissatisfaction vis-à-vis the predominant conceptualisation of practices revolves around their definition as “patterned, meaningful social interactions”: meaningful to whom? In other words, are practices to be meaningful to practitioners or researchers?

The act of investigating the meaningfulness of a given practice, as a prerequisite to identifying the practice itself, may trigger a chain reaction. A practice can have more or less mediated, more or less lateral, more or less close-to-the-epicentre effects. Therefore, a certain patterned social interaction can assume a meaning X for the practitioner originally enacting the practice, and a meaning Y for another actor located within its operating range. Moreover, while a patterned social interaction might have no meaning a priori (for the practitioner originally enacting the practice), it may still be meaningful a posteriori: it might give rise to a routine and then be transformed in a codified practice though processes of signification that are hetero-directed vis-à-vis the original practitioners.

Cook and Brown problematized the conceptual overlapping among practice, routine, action, and behaviour:

“In the simplest case, if Vance’s knee jerks, that is behavior. When Vance raps his knee with a physician’s hammer to check his reflexes, it is behavior that has meaning, and thus is what we call action. If his physician raps his knee as part of an exam, it is practice. This is because the meaning of her action comes from the organized contexts of her training and ongoing work in medicine.”[13]

Even this disentanglement, though, seems to be more linked to the “statics” of practice than their “dynamics” – i.e., how practices emerge and what happens during the processes of giving a meaning to an action.

The concern on whether practices bridge gaps cannot precede key definitional dimensions, and therefore the discussion about the intentionality of the practice and traceability of the practitioner. It would seem to me that theorists of practices should establish 1. whether one can identify a practice even in the absence on an inherent intelligence expressed by it (does the practice explicitly and deliberately aim at something?); 2. Whether and how the practitioner is aware of the processes and outcomes of practicing.

Along this line of reasoning one might open up a reflection not only on the position of practices between agency and structure, but also on practices’ functions vis-à-vis both agency and structure. Practices can be thought of in terms of their dynamics (i.e., how they emerge, how they relate to the institutions the practitioners are embedded in). In that perspective, practices’ in-betweenness means that they can emerge as a result of some decoupling between the rules of the game (structurally defined) and the norms emanating from the agents. Whereas the conceptual bordering of practices seems to be a gigantic enterprise to be pursued on one’s own, I would argue that practices can be saved from a sad destiny of conceptual overstretch by limiting their field of application and redefining a practical methodology. Especially in the realm of international politics, claiming that “anything that people do in a contextually typical way counts as a practice”[14] might be misleading. For example, should we consider deterrence or diplomacy as practices? Or should we rather argue that they are practiced differently depending on the meaning attributed to them? By a similar token, elections should not be considered as a practice. However, the deployment of international observers can be seen as a practice and acquire a specific meaning in its contestatory momentum.[15]

If scholars concur on the fact that there is no “theory of practices,” then practices are to be interpreted as analytical tools to study a set of phenomena occurring in the international system, that is where the abovementioned decoupling takes place. In other words, the significance of practices is due to the fact that they can improve our understanding of how actual interactions differ from the codified, the formalized, the verbalized, the expected: for example, practices are an interesting instruments to study the emergence and the behaviours of non-institutionalised groupings, and the dissonance between the “role” of agents and their performance as carriers of practices. Additionally, practices are extremely significant when they surface as a way of organizing the interface between agents and a set of structural constraints: in this perspective, practices have to be studied when they are recognizable as devices of contestation and emancipation practiced by an agent or a group of agents embedded by a set of institutions, norms and policy-making chains. In this sense the study of practices offers powerful lenses for the study of “Potemkin politics” and façade institutions, and any order that is highly hybrid. So, in my reading, the “where” and the “when” of the analysis of practices does constitute their real added value.

Next, one needs to disentangle “how” to do it. This is the subject of a future contribution to this blog: for now, suffice it to say that the definition of a practical methodology brings the researcher to face political choices about practical ontology – especially when dealing with “international practices.” In order to collect practical data, one needs to define the sources of practices – that is, who is the practitioner and therefore the agent in IR.

However, the “international facts” to be usefully read through practical lenses comprise only limited sets of phenomena; the latter should be investigated through a micro-methodology ideally centred on participant observation and its ethnographic proxies: Pouliot has suggested interviews of practitioners and, fascinatingly, prosopography.[16] Bueger elaborates a praxiography, that is a methodological repertoire encapsulating different practices of doing research about practices. The intriguing element in Bueger’s praxiography is not his list of methods of data collection (participant observation, interviews, expert interviews and document analysis);[17] rather, it is the unceasing dialogue between practical ontology and practical methodology. Such a dialogue constitutes and defines practices: on the one hand, ontologically, practices are combinations of bodily movements, artifacts and implicit knowledge; on the other hand, methodologically, practices require both observation and interpretation.

Practical approaches are certainly time-consuming and would not move the study of practices to the centre of IR theory stage in the short term. Yet, the best of debates such as the one emerged in the practice saga is that they will always lead to unpredictable endings and endless “duels” on the edge of the same scaring question: “cap ou pas cap?”, in other words, “are you able to play along?”[18]


Cover image: screenshot from Jeux d’enfants.

  1. Cameron Crowe, 2001. ↩︎

  2. Yann Samuell, 2003. ↩︎

  3. Erik Ringmar (2014). “The search for dialogue as a hindrance to understanding: practices as inter-paradigmatic research program”. International Theory, 6(1): 1-27. ↩︎

  4. Pierre Bourdieu (1972). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: CUP; Anthony Giddens (1984). The Constitution of Society. Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press; Charles Taylor (1993). “To Follow a rule...”. In Craig Calhoun et al. (eds.) Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives. Cambridge: Polity Press: 45–60; Theodore Schatzki (1996). Social Practices. A Wittgensteinian Approach to Human Activity and the Social. Cambridge: CUP. ↩︎

  5. Iver B. Neumann (2002). “Returning Practice to the Linguistic Turn: The Case of Diplomacy”. Millennium. Journal of International Studies 31(3): 627-651. ↩︎

  6. Emanuel Adler and Vincent Pouliot (2011). “International practices”. International Theory 3 (1): 1-36. ↩︎

  7. Vincent Pouliot (2010). Putting Practice Theory in Practice. Paper presented at the “Bourdieu in IR” conference. Copenhagen: Center for Advanced Security Theory (7-8 December). ↩︎

  8. Erik Ringmar (2014). ↩︎

  9. Christian Bueger and Frank Gadinger (2014). International Practice Theory: New Perspectives. London: Palgrave: 5. ↩︎

  10. “It is a space bound together […] by a shared understanding of the value of studying ‘practice.’ In this space, different (IR) practitioners meet and trade ideas of how to conduct intelligible IR research in relying on concepts of practice”. Christian Bueger and Frank Gadinger (2014): 12. ↩︎

  11. Christian Bueger (2014) “Pathways to practice: praxiography and international politics”. European Political Science Review 6(3): 384. ↩︎

  12. Christian Bueger and Frank Gadinger (2014): 13. ↩︎

  13. Scott D. N. Cook and John Seely Brown (1999) “Bridging Epistemologies: The Generative Dance Between Organizational Knowledge and Organizational Knowing”. Organization Science 10 (4): 387. ↩︎

  14. Vincent Pouliot (2012). “Regional Security Practices and Russian-Atlantic Relations”. In: T.V. Paul (ed.) International Relations Theory and Regional Transformation. Cambridge: CUP: 218. ↩︎

  15. See for example: ↩︎

  16. Vincent Pouliot (2010). ↩︎

  17. Nevertheless, he puts forward the ideas of identifying physical sites where practices of structuring and ordering take place, and tracing artefacts (“objects and technologies, documents but also in the format of language artefacts, such as concepts or metaphors”). Christian Bueger (2014): 397. ↩︎

  18. Quotation from Love me if you dare. ↩︎