In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Practice Turn in International Relations

  • Introduction
  • Programmatic Texts
  • Overviews and Edited Collections

International Relations Practice Turn in International Relations
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0231


In recent years, scholars in the academic discipline of International Relations (IR) have become increasingly interested in practices and the everyday. As part of this trend, which is often referred to as IR’s “practice turn,” a broad spectrum of practice-theoretical approaches from sociology and social theory have been introduced to IR and further developed and transformed in response to the particular questions that the study of the international poses. While the various approaches to the study of international practices are far from forming one singular theory, they nonetheless share a many core concerns. These concerns include an emphasis on process, sensitivity for different forms of knowledge and learning, and an understanding of the world as performative and anchored in materiality. Practice theory in IR has been associated with several promises. Its proponents argue that it allows for inter-paradigmatic dialogue, to better conceptualize social change, to get closer to the everyday activities of those involved in international politics, to re-appreciate materiality, and to develop forms of analysis resonating with practitioner communities. The goal of this article is to familiarize the reader with the major studies that draw on and develop practice-theoretical concepts in IR. The article introduces, first, the core programmatic texts, overviews, and collections that give shape to the practice turn in IR as a research program. Second, it presents a range of distinct approaches to international practice theory. Finally, it highlights a range of thematic areas that have featured prominently in discussions of the practice turn in IR.

Programmatic Texts

The practice turn as a self-conscious research program was shaped by a series of programmatic interventions that position practice theory vis-à-vis the rest of the academic discipline of IR. Neumann 2002 initially suggested that practice theory can serve as a counterweight to the linguistic focus of post-positivist IR. For Neumann, text-based accounts and, in particular, discourse analysis are useful to understand the preconditions for action but need to be complemented with the study of practices to account for how international politics unfolds. This agenda was carried into the mainstream of the discipline by Adler and Pouliot 2011, which argues that the study of practices can provide a focal point for trans-paradigmatic exchange. The concept of practice, the authors have argued, can provide the basis for a productive dialogue among realists, liberals, constructivists, and post-structuralists. Bueger and Gadinger 2015 suggests that international practice theory is a family of theories that share certain theoretical commitments, among them a focus on process rather than stasis, a specific understanding of knowledge, and an appreciation for the material underpinnings of the social. Adler-Nissen and Pouliot 2014 argues that practice theory can offer to IR a unique perspective on how power works in international politics. Additional proposals on how to situate the practice turn are found in McCourt 2016, for which practice theory is the latest iteration of constructivist theorizing, and in Solomon and Steele 2017, which observes that practice theory forms part of a larger turn of IR theory toward the micro. Some critics have called into question whether the practice turn represents a viable research program. Ringmar 2014 affirms that practice theory is, in effect, old wine in new bottles and that its promise of a productive dialogue or even synthesis between the various schools and paradigms of IR is an empty one. Along similar lines, Kustermans 2016 argues that IR scholars do not always speak of one and the same thing when they use the term practice and that, therefore, the practice turn cannot be seen as one coherent research program.

  • Adler, Emanuel, and Vincent Pouliot. “International Practices.” International Theory 3.1 (2011): 1–36.

    DOI: 10.1017/S175297191000031X

    One of the core texts of the practice turn in IR. The authors outline their vision of what practice theory has to offer to IR, and they argue, in particular, that it can serve as focal point for a dialogue between the different paradigms or schools of IR.

  • Adler-Nissen, Rebecca, and Vincent Pouliot. “Power in Practice: Negotiating the International Intervention in Libya.” European Journal of International Relations 20.4 (2014): 889–911.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354066113512702

    In this piece, Adler-Nissen and Pouliot theorize that competence in the practices of multilateral diplomacy can serve as an intrinsic source of power that other IR theories cannot grasp. The argument is illustrated through a detailed study of the negotiations before and during the Libya intervention of 2011.

  • Bueger, Christian, and Frank Gadinger. “The Play of International Practice.” International Studies Quarterly 59.3 (2015): 449–460.

    DOI: 10.1111/isqu.12202

    The article argues that theories of practice, even though they represent a heterogeneous family of approaches, share a distinctive view of the social and a range of theoretical commitments. It also argues that the practice turn in IR has so far predominantly focused on critical approaches and, to fully realize its potential, should give equal attention to the pragmatist variety of practice theory.

  • Kustermans, Jorg. “Parsing the Practice Turn: Practice, Practical Knowledge, Practices.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 44.2 (2016): 175–196.

    DOI: 10.1177/0305829815613045

    A critical intervention that argues that when speaking of “practice” or “practices,” IR scholars do not speak of one thing, but of three: the myriad ways of human behavior, the practical knowledge that guides this behavior, and the institutions in which it is embedded.

  • McCourt, David M. “Practice Theory and Relationalism as the New Constructivism.” International Studies Quarterly 60.3 (2016): 475–485.

    DOI: 10.1093/isq/sqw036

    This article attempts to frame practice theory as the latest iteration of constructivist theorizing in IR. It provides a refreshing outsider’s view on the practice turn and makes a bold proposal as to how to relate practice theory to the big debates of IR.

  • Neumann, Iver B. “Returning Practice to the Linguistic Turn: The Case of Diplomacy.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 31.3 (2002): 627–651.

    DOI: 10.1177/03058298020310031201

    The seminal text of the practice turn in IR. Neumann suggests complementing the linguistic focus of post-positivist IR with the study of how politics unfolds in practice. The theoretical point is illustrated with a study of change in Norwegian diplomatic practices in the high North region after the end of the Cold War.

  • Ringmar, Erik. “The Search for Dialogue as a Hindrance to Understanding: Practices as Inter-paradigmatic Research Program.” International Theory 6.1 (2014): 1–27.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1752971913000316

    Criticizing Adler and Pouliot’s agenda of theoretical synthesis, Ringmar argues that bridging such dichotomies as matter/meaning, rational/practical, agency/structure, or stability/change makes sense only against the background of a substantive theory. Adler and Pouliot, however, do not provide such a theory and even if they did, it would not meet with approval from the majority of IR scholars as required by their idea of inter-paradigmatic dialogue.

  • Solomon, Ty, and Brent J. Steele. “Micro-moves in International Relations Theory.” European Journal of International Relations 23.2 (2017): 267–291.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354066116634442

    The authors of this piece argue that the practice turn forms part of a larger trend in IR to study international politics at the micro level, and they sketch how this agenda can be advanced by focusing on affect, space, and time.

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