Where Turns the Practice Turn? New Voices and Old Challenges

Sebastian Schindler

The promise of the practice turn is to move the real world and real experience into the center of academic attention. Not armchair theorizing, not abstract hypothesis development, not pure categorical reflection, but instead the promise of accessing real world ‘practice’ is what motivates practice scholars in their academic knowledge production. Yet the promise is easier made than implemented. Accessing real world practice poses continuous challenges.

At the recent conference ‘New Voices in International Practice Research’, co-organized by the two eminent International Relations (IR) practice scholars Christian Bueger and Frank Gadinger, both established and more junior researchers renewed their attempts in confronting this challenge.[1] The difficulties they faced, the critical comments they received, did not strike me as entirely new. Rather, I had heard them before and it seemed to me that I recognized them from my own experience as a scholar of practice. And what is more, I recognized them not only from my own research experience. In fact, it seems to me that scholars interested in the study of ‘human affairs’ have faced similar challenges at all times.

Davide Nicolini, whose keynote address opened the conference, seemed to say as much when he linked the practice literature to certain types of theory that had been practiced for instance by the pragmatists and have sources back in Aristotle. Rather than searching for timeless and immutable principles, practice scholars acknowledge the eternally changing character of human affairs. All human political practice involves confrontation with new and unforeseen circumstances. Accounting for that confrontation is one key task and one key challenge of practice scholarship. It is what makes this scholarship, as a practice of its own, so interesting and so difficult.

The challenge is how to give unexpected and unforeseeable transformations a place in our study of practice. This involves no less than the problem of human freedom. Our freedom is premised on the idea that our responses to specific situations and developments are not automated and pre-determined. Instead, speaking with Hannah Arendt, we are capable of bringing something new into the world. The ‘old’ challenge is how to account for this capacity to bring about the ‘new’.

The practice literature is no less confronted with this challenge than earlier streams of scholarship – in the IR literature, for instance, constructivism as well as arguing research, which both aimed to reveal and uncover instances of meaningful human agency. In a way, the task is both easier and more complicated for current practice scholarship. It is easier because methodological tools like participant observation, which allow us to get close to practice, have become more accepted in political science. It is more complicated because there is such a tremendous conceptual overload that gets so easily in the way of accounting for how humans, in confronting challenges they face, make manifest their capacity for innovation and change. Let me give one example of the latter phenomenon.

Maren Hofius, one of the ‘new voices’ present at the conference, told the story of a real pearl she had discovered in her research on Western diplomats in Kiev during the Maidan protests of the winter of 2013-14. This pearl provided clear and shining evidence of the fact that practice is not purely and merely a pre-established and pre-stabilized routine. Diplomats were so shaken by the political events that unfolded in front of their eyes that they began to question their bureaucratic role script as mere order-receivers. ‘Damn it’, one of them complained to Hofius, ‘Why don’t they, back home, get that something’s going on here?’ Diplomats began to respond in their actions more to the needs of the situation than to structural necessities. They exercised their human capacity of free will and engaged in everyday acts of resistance: ‘We were not doing everything possible to fulfil the instructions from the capitals because we have our own sense of responsibility’.

The political power of the Maidan protests was such that it didn’t leave the diplomats untouched. Hofius herself was quite moved by the phenomenon, and tried to account for it with insights she found in the work of John Dewey, the eminent pragmatist scholar who so emphatically celebrated the human capacity for continuous re-orientation in response to new situations. Indeed, Hofius’ story provided us with one pretty clear instance in which human behavior was not predetermined.

However, no one seemed impressed by the shining force of Hofius’ pearl. Rather, skepticism, doubt and critical theoretical remarks were the main response to Hofius’ presentation. The difficulty with Hofius’ pearl, which several commentators pointed to, was that its discovery was premised on a stark, binary separation between normality (routine) and exception (crisis).

This theoretical criticism is not wrong as such. It is true that binaries can become overly simplifying. In establishing a binary distinction, Hofius ignored that routine continues to provide orientation in times of crisis, and that no normality is free from crises. Yet the question is what this criticism implies. Does it imply that the diplomats’ experience of freedom was just fake? Does it imply that Hofius should not, for theoretical reasons, tell the story of how some individuals began to question the orders they received and did something independent?

If that was the implication, it would prevent us from coming to an important realization. We live in times in which skeptical views of politics are omnipresent. No Russian official participated in the practice conference, but we could imagine him or her grinningly suspecting that what appears to be liberty and free will was in reality nothing but the result of a huge conspiracy by which Western governments sought to overturn the democratically elected President. From that perspective, which no one dared to make present at the conference, the diplomats’ sympathy for the protestors would appear not as an act of liberation but of hypocrisy and domination.

With her decision to believe in the stories and accounts that diplomats had told her, Hofius made an important act of judgement. It is easy to reject this judgement on theoretical grounds. It is more difficult to give another account of practice that overcomes the problem while still doing justice to the narrated experiences. There is a scholarly attitude that presumes that objectivity consists in the absence of taking a stance. Yet in the case of diplomats’ involvement at the Maidan, such objectivity would not be impartial. Where Hofius took a stance with the diplomats, the more skeptical objectivity would take a stance against them.

Hofius’ binary distinction between crisis and routine is an act of reflective judgement. We urgently need and require the courage to make such judgements in our practice scholarship. Otherwise we risk to lose out of sight, for theoretical reasons, the pearls that illuminate our human condition.

The point here is not that we need to renounce the criticism. The criticism is very important; yet it should be exercised not for its own sake, but with a purpose in mind, the purpose of gaining clarity about human affairs. Criticism and continuous interrogation constitute the fuel we need in our scholarly enterprises. Yet we also need to acknowledge that nothing is wrong with binary distinctions as such. We need binaries for any kind of judgement; the question is just how we establish them.

It is an ‘old’ challenge, a problem of any kind of clear theoretical argument, that it establishes distinctions that are neater than the reality examined. These distinctions are typically binary ones, for this is the type of distinction that we, as thinking humans, make all the time and that we need in order to get clarity about our stance in the world. What we require is the capacity to recognize that any such distinction reflects a contestable act of judgement, and Hofius clearly and fully possessed this capacity, as her responses at the conference demonstrated.

We need the binary, and we need to be aware of its limits and never-ending problematic character. At the ‘new voices’ workshop, Marion Laurence, with her distinction between innovation and improvisation, arguably faced a similar challenge, as did Max Lesch and Dylan M.H. Loh in their quest to account for the coercive or non-coercive character of China’s Belt and Road Initiative; Aurel Niederberger in the attempt to discern the workings of power in cycles of expert recognition; Louisa Giannini and Lou Pingeot in their quests to articulate critical views of international legal and policing practices. Yet the challenging, always contestable character of taking a stance and making a judgement must not pre-empt us from gaining access to what Pol Bargués-Pedreny, in his statement at the closing roundtable, described as the ‘fire in our bellies’. Bargués-Pedreny spoke about the life experiences of American pragmatist philosophers: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who served in the American Civil War and was profoundly influenced by this experience in his development of legal theory; William James, who was the undecisive person par excellence, changing his thoughts all the time, and claimed there was no truth a priori. Clearly these were not personalities that shied away from taking a stance and engaging in clear judgements. Yet they did so in a reflective, self-aware, critical manner.

The important thing is that our theoretical skepticism must not bury our study of concrete instances of change, in which humans make manifest their capacity of freedom. This is particularly important today, in a time when skeptical attitudes towards politics abound and many people seem to know with certainty that all that counts in politics is selfish interests.

How can we give an appropriate account of real world practice? It is crucial that we do not, in the quest for conceptual criticism of each other’s work, end up rejecting in entirety claims such as the ones made by Hofius that creativity and courage are features of practice. Hofius’ diplomats did in all truth face a binary choice between continuing with practice-as-usual and stepping out of their routines to try something new. Some of them opted for the latter option. A distinction between crisis and routine, between acting out and acting within, can be a useful theoretical tool that allows to make the right cut in this situation. Using that tool is a prerequisite for exercising a capacity that not only real world practitioners, but also we as scholars need to orient ourselves in an ever-changing world: the capacity of human freedom.

[1] Contemporary times, with counter-pandemic measures that lock many of us down at home, force us to make new attempts at practicing academic exchange in a fruitful manner. As Jojo says to his taxi driver Helmut in Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, something ‘fresh’ is required. The ‘New Voices in International Practice Research’ conference was an exemplary case of the richness of a classic academic format (panel discussions) applied in the new digital realm provided by video streaming technology.

About the author

Sebastian Schindler is Assistant Professor at the Geschwister Scholl Institute of Political Science at LMU Munich. He has published articles on the contestation of agency in theory and practice, on the problem of change in and through practice, on how to criticize international practices, and on the task of critique in times of post-truth politics. Having written an introductory study on Clausewitz (in German), he currently works on a book on the character of practical theory.


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