A quite significant number of International Relations (IR) scholars have engaged in developing a practice-based research and theory after in particular the edited volume International Practices (Adler and Pouliot 2011) promoted practice theory to the discipline. Practice-driven research remains a very young, dynamic, and highly promising theoretical approach to the study of international relations. Over the last decade, International Practice Theory (IPT) has become a strong voice in the repertoire of International Relations theory.
Several promises are associated with practice as an analytical lens. It is seen as opening up avenues for cross-paradigmatic debates, because practices allow overcoming key dichotomies, such as those between structure and agency, the micro and the macro, or the ideational and the material. It promises research that is more perceptive to short-term change, and to engage in forms of knowledge production of practical value. An expanding community of scholars has seized the opportunity the practice turn provides for theory development and empirical analysis. Indeed, the practice turn appears to be one of the most productive theoretical and empirical endeavors of IR scholarship in the present decade.
Several scholars, each from a slightly different theoretical angle, have introduced practices as an ontological phenomenon and analytical framework into IR scholarship and spelled out the spectrum and consequences of the practice turn for the field (Neumann 2002, Hopf 2010, Pouliot 2010, Adler and Pouliot 2011, Bueger and Gadinger 2015). Other works have developed theories to analyze and interpret specific phenomena in international relations with the help of the work of Pierre Bourdieu (Pouliot 2010), Etienne Wenger (Adler 2005), Michel DeCerteau (Neumann 2002), Bruno Latour (Walters 2002, Bueger and Gadinger 2007), Erving Goffman (Adler-Nissen 2014), Michel Foucault (Neumann and Sending 2010; Walters 2012), Karin Knorr Cetina (Bueger 2015), Luc Boltanski (Gadinger 2016), Gilles Deleuze (Acuto and Curtis 2013) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (Frost and Lechner 2016) among others.
The theoretical approaches have informed the study of a wide range of empirical phenomena ranging from the workings of international organizations (Bueger 2015; Pouliot 2016), and global governance (Best and Gheciu 2014; Neumann and Sending 2010), over processes of European integration (Adler-Nissen 2015; McNamara 2015), international law (Brunée and Toope 2010), international political economy (Eagleton-Pierce 2013; Seabrooke 2012), ethnic conflict (Autesserre 2014), diplomacy (Neumann 2002; Sending et al. 2015), security (Abrahamsen and Williams 2011; Adler-Nissen and Pouliot 2014; Mérand 2008; Villumsen 2015) and war (Sylvester 2012).
With so much theoretical and empirical work already in place it seems to be the right time to pause for a moment and clarify in which sense this community of scholars essentially shares a common agenda, which is broad enough to allow for disagreements and controversies, but which is also recognizable as a distinct type of IR scholarship. To date, no explicit collective discussion has taken shape about the contours that define the practice turn in IR as a distinct theoretical approach. The purpose of this edited volume is to do precisely that.
In the discipline of IR theoretical approaches have usually tended to coalesce around a single monograph, such as Waltz’s (1979) Theory of International Politics, or Wendt’s (1999) Social Theory of International Politics, which have provided a definitive core to Neorealism and Constructivism respectively. In many ways, these texts established an authoritative, quite complete and closed statement around which other texts of the given theoretical approach have grouped. While a Practical Theory of International Politics might be in the making, scholars engaged in the practice turn do not consider the practice approach to lending itself to grand theory making. Practice theory differs. In the words of Nicolini (2013: 9) “while [PT approaches] can be compared to the tributaries of a lake (the ‘grand lake’ of practice-based approaches) they do not contribute to a ‘grand’ theory of practice and form; instead, they comprise a complicated network of similarities and dissimilarities.” Perhaps because of the ways in which practice scholarship has developed in the discipline of IR, with one of its most authoritative texts so far being an edited volume, followed by an emerging cacophony of practice voices, but perhaps also because of the worldview that emerges once we direct our attention to practices as the fundamental ontological entities, the practice approach does not appear to lend itself to a definitive canonical and internally complete text that provides a firm foundation on which others can build.
In its stead we propose a new way for setting out a rough sketch of a theoretical approach, which could find application for other theoretical approaches. Our focus is on developing a collective, dynamic, open-ended, tentative, and necessarily always incomplete process of defining a theoretical approach through opening up a conversation. Recognizing that concepts, rather than generalized systems of assertions (theory) provide the building blocks of international practice theory and allow for unity in diversity, the project organizes the discussion around concepts. The contributors to the project look at practices through the prism of a key concept in international relations and engage with their interlocutors through that prism. The outcome is an intellectual clarification of the promises, contours and challenges of practice theoretical reasoning and research. Taken together this mapping stands for an outline of the practice theoretical research agenda in the coming years. It will build a lasting foundation for the further advancement of such research.